In a 1904 review of a piece by Maurice Ravel, one critic used the phrase Chinese theater

Two years later, a critic in the New York Tribune wrote, "In his String Quartet M. Ravel is content with one theme which has the emotional potency of one of those tunes which the curious may hear in a Chinese theater, shrieked out by an ear-splitting clarinet. This theme serves him for four movements during which there is about as much emotional nuance as warms a problem in algebra. It is a drastic dose of wormwood and assafoetida." (Wormwood is a very bitter tasting herb used in making absinthe; assafoetida, a foul smelling and tasting gum resin used as an antispasmodic, as well as a repellent against dogs, cats and rabbits).

Does "Chinese theater" just mean Chinese theater or Chinese opera being operated in the United States even back then, or did "Chinese theater" have a non-literal and possibly euphemistic meaning?

  • Sounds as though someone didn't like Ravel much. – Mogginson May 9 '14 at 4:34
  • That isn't much about the English language per se. Have you tried asking on the arts Q&As? – Kris May 9 '14 at 4:37
  • @Kris my main concern is whether it has some sort of non-literal, possibly euphemistic meaning. – Andrew Grimm May 9 '14 at 4:40
  • That, if any, should come from the broader context, not from the language -- think if the question would be any different if asked in any other language. HTH. – Kris May 9 '14 at 4:42
  • Chinese theatre is used in the literal sense, and general concept of Chinese musical and operatic expressions. The normal musical scales of various Chinese musical styles would sound accidental when used in European arrangements. At times the deliberate jarring may sound as delightfully bitter or mysterious, just as an Arabic ululation would sound exotic when employed in Oriental arrangements. Like the nuance of of bacon bits and bitter cheese scattered sparsely across your salad. Like the occasional shrieks on the frets when a virtuoso changes chords in quick succession. – Blessed Geek May 9 '14 at 7:12

Note that the unnamed reviewer actually says "a Chinese theater" (emphasis mine). Rather than intending this as a reference to dramatic theater as a performance art, the reviewer was probably referring to any of a number of musical arts that are performed in theaters in China--for example, Peking opera, which is traditionally performed and sung in a style that Westerners may find distinctly strident. (I like it, personally, but it's not for everyone.)

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