The Drunken Beauty, also known as The Hundred-Flower Pavilion, is adapted from a local play The Drunken Yang Guifei (a highest-ranking imperial concubine of Emperor Li Longji of the Tang Dynasty), which belongs to Huabu Opera (a general name for all the regional opera types except the kunshan tune) during the period of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. As a representative play of the Mei School and one of the most outstanding works of Beijing Opera master Mei Lanfang, this play is the result of Mei’s life-time effort.
The Drunken Beauty tells a story as follows: Yang Guifei, concubine of the Emperor Li Longji of the Tang Dynasty, made an appointment with the emperor one day to attend a banquet at the Hundred-Flower Pavilion, but he didn’t show up because he had gone to another’s concubine’s place – the West Palace. Humiliated and irritated, Yang Guifei felt choked by sadness. She drank heavily, ordering Gao Lishi and Pei Lishi to replenish the cup time and time again until she got drunk. Disappointed, she finally returned to her palace. Touched up by Mei Lanfang, the play became one of the classics of the Mei School.
The original libretto, mainly focusing on the sensuality aroused inside Yang Guifei after she got drunk, was quite vulgar. In the 1950s, Mei Lanfang made an effort to discard the dross and retain its essence. Starting with the emotions of the character, he redressed its non-art inclination from the aesthetic perspective. In the play, Yang Yuhuan at first drank with a refined manner with her fan covering her drinking lips and then gradually loosed herself to drink more carelessly. Mei Lanfang, through his physical movements, interpreted the change of her psychological states from the inward depression to the forced self-restraint and then to the loss of control. Skillfully handling the sophisticated dance which involved the highly difficult representation of xianbei (holding the cup with teeth), woyu (movement of elegant laying, one of the basic skills of Beijing Opera performance), zuibu (the staggering steps of a drunk) and wushan (artistically waving a fan), he displayed elegance and beauty.
The combination of singing and dancing is the prominent feature of the play. Through graceful movements, the mixed emotions of Yang Guifei, composed of anticipation, disappointment, loneliness and grudge, were thoroughly revealed. For example, Yang Guifei’s three times of drinking differed from each other: the first cup, she sipped slowly with a fan hiding the cup; then for the second cup she drank quickly without a fan; finally she emptied the third cup at one gulp. Yang Guifei did so because at the beginning, she pretended to be reserved and just kept the sadness to herself in case other people might snicker at her. But instead of chasing away her gloom, the alcohol intensified her sadness. Eventually, her anger, jealousy and emptiness…all poured out. Besides, the three movements of her “holding the cup with teeth” not only portrayed the change of her state from tipsiness to dead drunk, but also showed her overbearing, capricious and wild nature.