Originated in the northern part of Vietnam, Chèo is a form of traditional musical theatre in Vietnam. This kind of performing art prospered significantly, presenting a high ethnic spirit. If Peking Opera is the typical representative of traditional theater in China; Noh plays the same role in Japan, Chèo is the most prominent representative in Vietnam.
The Red River Delta has always been considered as the cradle of Vietnamese rice civilization. Whenever the harvest time came, people celebrated themselves with festivals as well as expressed their gratitude to their God, who brought them a productive yield. From the first millennium BC, they developed how to perform their early Chèo plays stereotypically in a village square or the courtyard of a public building.
Chèo was derived from traditional music and dance, especially the mimicking games in the 10th century. Then, Vietnamese transformed Chèo’s short folk plots based on these mimicking games into longer plays.
In the 18th century, Chèo was developed greatly in Vietnamese countryside and continued to grow, reaching its highest zenith in the late 19th century. Those well-known plays such as Quan Âm Thị Kính, Lưu Bình Dương Lễ, Kim Nham, Trương Viên appeared in this period. Also, in the 19th century, Chèo was influenced by Chinese Opera through some folk stories like Tống Trân, Phạm Tải, or Chinese history like The Chu–Han Contention (206–202 BC). In the early 20th century, Chèo was taken to the urban stage. It became “Civilized Chèo”. New plays based on folk tales such as Tô Thị, Nhị Độ Mai were created.
Unlike Chinese Opera which only praises heroic actions of the noble, Chèo indicates daily life of the ordinary people in the countryside. The desire to live a peaceful life in an unfair feudal society is the most noticeable in the content of Chèo. Some Chèo plays even describe the arduous life of the women who are always willing to sacrifice themselves for others. The plots are taken from folk tales but are advanced to a higher level with profound realistic and idealistic values.
Chèo often comes with the lyrical characteristic, expressing personal emotions as well as reflecting mutual concern of human beings including love, friendship, and compassion.
Characters in Chèo are normally conditioning, standardized, and stereotypical. The personal traits of the characters are usually not changed during their roles. Supporting characters can be exchanged in any plays; therefore, they have no definite name. They can be called the teacher, the rich man, the mandarin, the student, the clown,… However, some characters such as Thiệt Thê, Thị Kính, Thị Mầu, Súy Vân escaped from the stereotypical characteristics and have their own personalities.
Chèo utilizes at least two kinds of instruments, the moon guitar and the two-string instrument. Moreover, flute, cymbal, drum are also used. Besides, the complete percussion instruments comprise the Vietnamese bass drum, the “rice drum” (similar to bongo drum), wooden fish (Chinese temple block),…
Normally, the drum is used to keep the beat and tune for performers to dance and sing. In Chèo, however, drums are important. There goes a saying that “without the drum, there is no Chèo”. Chèo in modern society also uses more contemporary instruments to enrich the background music.
Over the period of modernization and globalization, the interest in Chèo may have deteriorated among Vietnamese young generations but more events related to Cultural Traditional Folk Arts are being carried out to attract the attention from the public. One of the most influential events is Chèo 48H in which young Vietnamese cruise along their journey of exploring about Chèo and learn to perform it with professional artists.
Work of art
1. Trần Tử Lệ
2. Tuần Ty Đào Huế
3. Quan Âm Thị Kính
4. Lưu Bình-Dương Lễ
5. Từ Thức gặp tiên
6. Kim Nham
7. Chu Mãi Thần
8. Nghêu sò ốc hến
9. Bài ca giữ nước
10. Đồng tiền Vạn Lịch
11. Hoàng Trìu kén vợ…
Typical pieces: Thị Mầu lên chùa, Súy Vân giả dại, Đánh ghen (vở Tuần Ty Đào Huế), Xã trưởng – Mẹ Đốp, Hồ Nguyệt Cô hóa cáo,…
Chèo in the village square
Chèo in the village square is the ancient type of Chèo. It used to be performed only in a village square or the courtyard of the elite. The stage often had only one bamboo mat with a small curtain hung behind. Performers and instrumentalists sit along the two rows of the mat.
Chèo in Cải Lương (the reformed theater)
Chèo in Cải Lương is a type of Chèo which was modernized by Nguyễn Đình Nghi who started and pursued the modernization from the early 1920s until before The August Revolution in 1945.
It criticized the conditioning characteristics of ancient Chèo. Specifically, it was divided into smaller parts. They also eliminated the stylized dancing actions. From the ancient Chèo, they changed it and brought available folk songs into the plays.
Chèo chái hê
Chèo chái hê is a kind of traditional music sung in the mid of July annually or in the funeral of very old men.
By Nguyen Thu Thao, ASEAN Correspondent from Vietnam