Kansas-born Pauline Benton (1898-1974) was encouraged by her father, one of America's earliest feminist male educators, to reach for the stars. Instead, she reached for shadows. In 1920s Beijing, she discovered shadow theatre (piyingxi), a performance art where translucent painted puppets are manipulated by highly trained masters to cast coloured shadows against an illuminated screen. Finding that this thousand-year-old forerunner of motion pictures was declining in China, Benton believed she could save the tradition by taking it to America. Mastering the male-dominated art form in China, Benton enchanted audiences eager for the exotic in Depression-era America. Her touring company, Red Gate Shadow Theatre, was lauded by theatre and art critics and even performed at Franklin Roosevelt's White House. Grant Hayter-Menzies traces Benton's performance history and her efforts to preserve shadow theatre as a global cultural treasure by drawing on her unpublished writings, the recollections of her colleagues, the testimonies of shadow masters who survived China's Cultural Revolution, as well as young innovators who have carried on Benton's pioneering work.
Grant Hayter-Menzies is the author of several biographies including Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling and The Empress and Mrs. Conger: The Uncommon Friendship of Two Women and Two Worlds. He lives in Sidney, British Columbia.
"The story of this amazing woman — an icon in the field of shadow theatre in the US, but about whom one knows so little — would have gone into oblivion if it were not for this eloquent book. Of particular significance is the author's conclusion regarding the unexpected positive roles played by the Great Depression and WWII in the success of Benton's career as a performer of Chinese Shadows." Fan Pan Li Chen, State University of New York at Albany
?While Benton's extraordinary story might be known to some extent within the intimate circle of practitioners and scholars of Chinese shadow theatre in the United States, this book gives the first extended portrait of her and does so in a way that sheds i
“Hayter-Menzies provides an appealing chronicle of Chinese-trained shadow puppet master Pauline Benton (1898-1974).” Choice