People who are treasures

By Amy Reiswig, March 2014

Grant Hayter-Menzies’ biographies of women give readers a glimpse into fascinating lives.

Authentic cultural creation—to paraphrase Albert Camus—is a gift to the future. And so is cultural preservation. In Shadow Woman: The Extraordinary Career of Pauline Benton (McGill Queens, October 2013) Victoria biographer and historian Grant Hayter-Menzies pulls back the curtain on an exceptional artist practising, preserving and promoting an exceptional and threatened art. As a result, we are reminded that individual commitment remains the key to our cultural wealth.

The woman of the title is Pauline Benton, a university professor’s unmarried daughter who first encountered the art of Chinese shadow theatre in 1920s’ Beijing when she was 25 years old. She was smitten. “I cannot imagine any explorer having more thrilling adventures,” she wrote, “than I experienced on my journey of discovery into China’s rich and glorious past through the medium of the shadow play.” 

Benton then took the unlikely step of devoting herself to an ancient art that was only for men and never for foreigners, ultimately founding her own company in 1932 in New York: the Red Gate Shadow Players.

Shadow plays are a very old tradition which Hayter-Menzies traces through dynasties and legends. With exquisitely-carved articulated figures of painted donkey parchment manipulated behind a small screen lit from behind, masters brought to life stories of deities, battle dramas, comic tales and tragic romances—the repository of hundreds of years of storytelling. “To know their theatre is to know, in no small degree, the Chinese people,” read a quote Benton often included in her performance programs. With similar sentiment, recently-deceased contemporary shadow performer Cui Yongping told Hayter-Menzies (to whom he bequeathed 20 spectacular figures): “Shadow theatre is about China—it is China. It is our art, our history, our manners and mores.” Victorians lucky enough to get in were treated to such a performance, sadly Cui’s last, at Merlin’s Sun Home Theatre in Fairfield in 2012.

Despite the art’s durability, which Hayter-Menzies describes as “tied to rituals that had survived so many vicissitudes as to appear as indestructible as the immortals whose romances it enacted,” shadow theatre’s “little actors” (Benton never called them puppets) haven’t had it easy. Hayter-Menzies therefore chronicles not just Benton’s journey but the art form’s battle with changing cultural and political climates in both China and America. And while the UN and the Chinese government have finally called for shadow theatre’s preservation as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage, some early 20th-century shadow masters feared for the art’s survival even then. For example, Li Tuochen, with whom Benton later studied, expressed concern that his figures would end up “scattered in curio shops and picture stalls, sold for a few coppers as toys for children, or to foreigners who do not know Kuan Yin from the Dragon Princess.” 

Several years of meticulous research in both China and the US allows Hayter-Menzies to truly animate Benton and many of the other human players in this drama, letting us hear their voices raised from articles, archives and special collections. “You have to look through a million pieces of paper to get the essence of a person,” Hayter-Menzies laughs over green tea in his Sidney sitting room. It’s what he does. His biographies (he has written four others) introduce us in detail to people, specifically women, who have done extraordinary things—including, perhaps most importantly, opening their hearts to other people, other cultures. “These are the personalities I love,” he says, noting that he grew up influenced by strong female figures in his own life (his mother and grandmothers). “Women especially have to face so many obstructions. Everything’s been set up for men, and women have to try and jump on the train. If you can make it despite all that, you deserve to be celebrated, to be a role model to men as well as women.”

Benton perfectly fits this bill. For what’s extraordinary is not just that she became the only female shadow master in the world—upon her death in 1974 musical collaborator Lou Harrison called Benton “one of the most important theatre artists of the century”—but that she, an American, became conservator and protector of a valuable element of Chinese culture. With Red Gate, Benton brought an old art to a new, North American audience, performing all across the United States (as well as Toronto and Ottawa), eventually even at Roosevelt’s White House. She devoted over 50 years to researching and sharing the endangered art out of love for its emotional and artistic beauty and its unifying power. As Red Gate’s performance programs often said: “We ask you all to laugh as we laugh, weep as we weep, love as we love, and live with us our simple truths and homilies as we recreate them for you in our Shadow World.”

Hayter-Menzies is now doing his part to keep Benton’s contribution to this mysterious, playful, powerful artistic tradition alive, and though the book came out in fall of last year, Hayter-Menzies is still a busy man. This month alone finds him travelling to a festival in Montreal, to New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, and to the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut. He’ll also be participating in the Pacific Northwest Regional Puppetry Festival being held here in Victoria this September. 

But being busy is nothing new for the impassioned writer. A Victoria resident since 2005, Hayter-Menzies spent two decades as an arts journalist for publications in the US, UK and Canada; has worked for several non-profits in areas like adult literacy and helping underemployed youth; and has published four other books on notable women since 2007, the most recent being The Empress and Mrs Conger: The Uncommon Friendship of Two Women and Two Worlds (Hong Kong University Press, 2011). His manuscript on Lillian Carter, mother of former US president Jimmy Carter, is currently with a publisher, and he is already at work on several other projects. He has given talks all across the continent, from the Seattle Asian Art Museum to the Smithsonian and even (for his biography of Billie Burke) a Wizard of Oz convention in, of course, Kansas.

With a job in communications at Victoria Hospice Society, Hayter-Menzies’ working life continues to be rooted in that involvement and opening outward of the heart which he so admires in others. “I like to take for my motto in all this as well as my writing the credo of a medieval saint, Elisabeth of Hungary, who is also my direct ancestor through my German grandmother,” he explains. “Elisabeth often said, as she worked in the hospices she founded by selling her jewels and treasure, ‘Wir muessen die Menschen froehlich machen’ [we must make people happy]. That has always resonated with and inspired me. I only write because I want to celebrate something that deserves it—people who carry treasures, who are treasures.” That individual commitment to recognizing and honouring others’ cultural contributions is part of what makes Hayter-Menzies’ books so engaging and is, to my mind, his gift to the future.

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig now feels even more disappointed to be one of the unlucky locals who tried to see the 2012 shadow play performance but was turned away because of the large crowd.