In the summer of 1933, before his graduation from the Department of Western Languages and Literatures, Cao Yu stayed in the library at Tsinghua University to complete his maiden play Thunderstorm, which he had been planning and thinking about over the previous five years.
Thunderstorm, a four-act play, looks to the three unities to provide the foundation for expounding a complex story involving family hierarchies, adultery, incest, threatened murder and labour unrest. The relationships between masters and servants, as well as between stepmother and stepson, not only reveal love and hatred but also embed an exploration of fate within a plot that exposes the oppressive realities of contemporary society. The themes reflect the spirit of iconoclasm in the 1920s and 1930s which advocated the liberation of the individual from the patriarchal family and the emancipation of workers from capitalist exploitation. The drama's tragic ending, inspired in part by Greek tragedy, is also a meditation upon fate.
Since its premiere on the Chinese professional stage in 1935, Thunderstorm has been revived constantly (except during the Cultural Revolution). Many celebrated actors have claimed they learned how to portray characters from acting in this play. Thunderstorm has also been adapted into regional musical theatres, Western opera, ballet and film.
Quote from Cao Yu:
I was not clearly aware that I wanted to rectify, satirize, or attack anything. Near the end of the writing, however, there seemed to be an emotional surge pushing me forward, and I was releasing and transforming my suppressed anger into bitter denunciation of the Chinese family and society. In the beginning when I began to form a vague image of Thunderstorm, what interested me were a couple of episodes, a few characters, as well as a complex and aboriginal sentiment.
To me, Thunderstorm was the lure. The sentiment that came along with Thunderstorm formed my imagination, which I found difficult to describe, about the mysteries in the universe. Thunderstorm can be regarded as the remains of the primitiveness in me.
- Preface to Thunderstorm, 1936
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