John Millington Synge’s classic drama, first performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1907, has always been controversial and always had strong universal appeal. A young Albert Camus directed and took on the part of Christy Mahon in an amateur production in Algeria in the 1930s. More recently, Roddy Doyle and the Nigerian writer Bisi Adigun collaborated on a new version at the Abbey. Here Antony Tatlow focuses on the genesis of Pan Pan Theatre Company’s Chinese production, which came to Dublin after a successful run at home in 2006.
If the many forms of traditional theatre have a long history in China, the “spoken” theatre began as a consequence of the encounter with Western culture at about the time that JM Synge was writing The Playboy of the Western World. We may wonder how a play so firmly located in Ireland could ever transfer successfully into Chinese. That transition, we will find, illuminates a Chinese “here and now” as well as another (Irish) “there and then”. But while taking these factors into account, it is necessary to look beyond textual differences, and also those which stem from different performance traditions and social structures, in order to appreciate the opportunities offered by such cultural translation.
The Chinese Playboy externalises endemic frustrations. A distinction between the astutely glamorised surface of the performance and the depths of those frustrations is analogous to, though of course also different from, that between a familiar, comfortable Irish sentimentalisation of the play and its deeper, bitter meaning. Sexual display reveals the strength of fantasies created by repression. The collapse of such fantasy engenders violence and calls for a social psychoanalysis. Reading performance through a textual anthropology uncovers a cultural unconscious shaped by political pathologies. More important than any superficial differences between Synge’s Mayo and the Beijing suburbs is how the “Western World” functions in the Chinese cultural imagination and why it is located in Xinjiang.
Synge’s “classic” is enshrined in Irish theatre history. The Chinese version ought to be seen on its own terms. So we need to know something of its cultural context. But to evaluate the transferral we must relate it to Synge’s play, first performed a hundred years ago. Since drama and literature do not self-generate, they should be positioned in the time of their devising. The widest context in 1907 for The Playboy of the Western World was not the creation, as the popular song had it, of “a nation once again” but of another Irish nation, and then a state, out of social and cultural components that had been shaped for hundreds of years under a political control that was ultimately remote and alien to most of the population.
Those years created clients, dependants or beneficiaries, and had marginalised an economically squeezed peasantry, easily dispossessed of its land and driven into starvation or emigration. The Gaelic “nation” was long gone and the nature and structure of the population changed. A Catholic and Protestant middle class had emerged, and the first concern of each was to preserve its own position. The project of national independence, supported by many of that middle class, had to deal with complexities not envisaged in the patriotic ballads.
This struggle could not simply focus on creating an independent state but had first to define (and try to shape the nature of) the potential nation seeking independence. Therein lay the source of unresolved problems. Synge’s was perhaps the best of the plays that sought a distinctively Irish voice whose cultural articulation might assist the wider politics, even if his was an extreme position, both in terms of language and in the implications of his narratives.
His contribution was twofold, and its effect contradictory. Avoiding both Ibsenian bourgeois realism and its countervoice in Ireland, Yeatsian mythologising, he created a unique form of speech in English – praised for its poetic musicality or derided as Synge-song – in imitation of the rhetorical forms and cadences of Gaelic. Defending this sweet new style against charges of artificiality, he tells of deliberately listening to the real speech of “ordinary” people on the geographical and social edges of Irish life.
Though this language now seems overdone, more hyperbolic construct than faithful transcription of everyday conversation, his contemporaries were impressed. In spite of political impotence, economic backwardness and, given the prevalent caricatures of “Oirishness”, an inadmissible suspicion of national inferiority, Synge showed that Irish drama, at least, could draw on a living, uniquely metaphorical imagination in the common people. Its assonant musicality can be heard when, for example, the Widow Quinn, seeking to entice Christy Mahon, tells him, in a boast that dances out its own melody that “there isn’t my match in Mayo for thatching, or mowing, or shearing a sheep”.
If the effect of this language needs questioning, since it balances ambivalently between flattery and covert satire, it certainly fed the longings of cultural nationalism and thus contributed to the desire for political empowerment. Though well received in England, Synge did not require the sounding board of a London audience, as did Wilde and Shaw, whose brilliant social parodies, or social critique, needed the attention of the sophisticated political capital. This new theatre showed how the imperial centre, in the form of Dublin Castle, could be culturally challenged on its political margins.
The poetic speech resonated with the audience’s desires. It stirred atavistic memories and hence was largely taken as culturally faithful. Though some words, like the shocking “shift” (for petticoat), famously offended a section of Synge’s audience, even provoking a riot in the theatre, the cause of that riot was overdetermined by the other side of Synge’s writing: the plots of his plays or, we could say, his representation of “Irish” character.
Those responses have now reversed. Today nobody emulates such speaking except to parody its artifice. We are at best struck by its “innocence”, perhaps also by a sense that cultural riches have been lost forever. But plot, and the depiction of “character”, are another matter. Synge takes us behind the facade of convention. He shows how the violence of repressed desire will take control if constraints are loosened. He uncovers the unconscious of the constrained urban world of his audience through a defamiliarising projection onto a still tangible but partly imagined peasant culture. In this gap between the tangible and the imagined, dreams and frustrations accumulate and here, if we will admit it, we may still discern ourselves.
This play seems so inseparable from a particularly Irish experience that one wonders what a Chinese production can make of it? It was first staged in Beijing in 2006 and directed by the Irish theatre company Pan Pan’s adventurous Gavin Quinn. Accounts of the production, together with evidence from the director, the cast, and from observers of the rehearsals in China, suggest that they felt comfortable with its transferral into Chinese. The actors enjoyed performing it. The response to a performance in Dublin of this Chinese language version was, understandably, less certain. Given how visibly and stylistically different it was from Irish expectations of a Synge play the problem was how to place it. Whom was it speaking for? Whom did it speak to? How could one evaluate the strikingly different cultural setting?
In the Beijing production, Ma Shang (Christy) and his father hail from that part of China called Dongbei (the Northeast). They arrive in the big city as peasants from another part of Han Chinese cultural territory.(1) Synge’s shebeen is replaced by a smart hairdressing saloon, with the suggestion of further personal services, on the outskirts of Beijing. Seeking help, an exhausted Ma Shang enters and collapses to his knees by the door. In the Dublin performance he wore the round cap that instantaneously marks him out as a Muslim. The surname itself, Ma, is also often associated with a Muslim origin. He is not one of the locals. We hear that he has come, not now from Dongbei but from China’s own Western World, from ethnically different and culturally remote Xinjiang, where rebellion lives like a mostly invisible but inextinguishable underground coal fire that can burn for years or for decades.
Though long part of its sphere of influence, the vast territory of Xinjiang, one-sixth of all China, only became a (semi-integrated) province in 1884. Its very name means “new frontier”, and it remained loosely connected until after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Outside China, it was once called Chinese, as distinct from Russian, Turkistan. The Uighur population are culturally Turkish. If you speak enough Turkish, you can communicate with them in their own language. Most Han Chinese political administrators will not be able or inclined to do this. They govern through China’s lingua franca, Putonghua (common speech), once called Mandarin. China’s own imperial past has a longer history than the British Empire and it reaches into the present. Even if the circumstances differ, we can sense unexpected resonances with the situation in which Synge wrote his play.
The implications of the plot are changed through this switch to a Xinjiang origin (no matter how improbable) for father and son, not through direct political allusions but by a more subtle, implicit subversion. The Beijing production, I am told, originally intended Christy and his father to hail from Xinjiang, but this was altered to Dongbei in order to avoid potentially awkward extrapolations. In Beijing the play did create a minor scandal, but this was caused by the degree of sexual titillation, by micro-miniskirts, knickers showing and the revealingly provocative behaviour of the young women. More serious political objections were avoided.
A universe onto itself, if China was and still is inward-looking that is partly because there is so much to see inside. A huge contemporary problem is the increasing gap between urban affluence and peasant poverty. The number of permanent migrants is greater than the population of most European states. China almost seems to be coming apart along the divide between city and countryside, with their different standards and ways of living. This Dublin performance compounded the distinction through the implied cultural difference that exists within the vast Chinese state, for Xinjiang is not Dongbei.
The point is that this difference is not, as one might expect, itself treated with indifference by the plot, since the comparatively privileged urban sophisticate will normally disdain the poor simple peasant. Rather, this peasant exhibits behaviour that furnishes these urban dwellers, in spite of their relative sophistication, with a fantasy which their own closely regulated world, with its strictly limited political freedoms, cannot offer. This production found a way both of suggesting and distancing China’s urban-rural clash of differences. The doubleness of what thereby happens at the very least energises and, to a degree, resituates this culturally transferred plot.
The urban-rural divide is important for Synge’s play too, but in a different way. It is not directly addressed within his text, nor by any behavioural subtext, but rather constituted by the context of a changing and disappearing older Ireland, by the difference between the poetry of the “rural” text and the “prose” of its urban audience. We also need to bear in mind what effect this accelerated disappearance of older ways of life might have on Synge’s play in today’s Ireland.
Some twenty years ago Ireland (the Republic) had accumulated a social debt greater than Poland’s. After implementing policies to attract foreign investment, the country has been transformed beyond recognition, though unevenly, since social policies remain underdeveloped and politics often seems to be conducted to protect special interest groups. But the state has become Europe’s fastest developing economy with its highest per capita gross national product: an agricultural backwater has been transformed into a knowledge-based supplier of (foreign-owned) information-age technology.(2) It trades with the world and also offers globally popular entertainment out of proportion to its size.
A dramatic text may, of course, hibernate for years, even centuries, and come to life again, if it has sufficient substance. But when a text is translated into another language and performed under different cultural conditions a production inevitably rereads what passes for an “original” meaning, assuming that one is still ascertainable. The theatre lives out of the opportunities and difficulties of such transactions. No text ever speaks for “itself”. Nothing speaks in a vacuum and assumptions about one text (an original) may not transfer to another (its adaptation). How does this transplanted and translated Irish-Chinese joint venture reread Synge’s text? What does Synge-song sound like in Chinese? To answer these questions we need bifocal eyes and stereoscopic ears.
The associations of Synge’s title have shifted with time, but its Chinese version has a noticeably different resonance. In an Irish context, “Western World” will only mean the West of Ireland, especially the wild and beautiful or desolate Connacht seaboard, where the play is set. Its inhabitants lived in another time, as much as a different place, removed, even remote, no matter how small the geographical distance between them might actually be, from the world of the play’s Dublin audience.
Some translations/adaptations of the play have taken this “Western World” as a critical metaphor for the political West, as it developed in opposition to a variously located political East that itself, from the relatively prosperous West’s perspective, connoted undemocratic politics and social backwardness. A 1956 East German production in the Berliner Ensemble, after Brecht’s death, interpreted the play, which was entitled The Hero of the Western World, as a satire of bourgeois society’s perversion of a heroic ideal.(3) In such performances, the values of this “Western World”, its moral degeneracy, its corruption by money, were both taken for granted and taken to task by a socially superior, if economically relatively undeveloped, East. The ideological and psychological intentions are transparent. My point here is that until relatively recently only such a reading of the “Western World” would have been permissible in China. This makes their version of Synge’s play bolder and more surprising.
What does its title tell us: Xifang shijie de huahua gongzi? “Xifang” means the West, the Occident; “shijie” translates world. The first four characters signify, literally, “Western World”, and they do sound like, because they normally allude to, the geographical and “ideological” West to which I have referred, though the attitude to its values and, above all, its economic practices has undergone a sea change in China. The fifth character, “de”, signifies “of” or “belonging to”.
The rest is not so straightforward. The word “playboy”, in Synge’s title, conventionally stood, though here of course ironically, for a man, necessarily rich, who devotes himself to pleasure. First recorded in 1829, it now carries a nuance it did not in 1907. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, which primarily indulges male adolescent fantasies, has turned the word into a global vernacular brand name. The magazine purports to democratise predominantly sexual pleasure through simulacra and astute marketing. You buy the image or the syndicated product and participate in the desirable lifestyle.
Since the Chinese production includes so much sexual display, we have to wonder whether it might not be deliberately, or even unconsciously, a Chinese Playboy version of Synge’s “Western World”. At the very least, we must wonder to what extent the accumulation of sexually charged allusions affects an interpretation of the performance? To answer this, we need to consider changes of expectation within contemporary Chinese culture, the earlier norms of representation within the People’s Republic and the nature of the imaginative world in Chinese society today.
The second half of the Chinese title, “huahua gongzi”, is the standard translation of “playboy”. It furnishes the name of the Chinese version of that magazine, which is banned in the People’s Republic, where it is classified as pornographic, but which was published in Taiwan and Hong Kong from 1986-93. However, the term itself has a longer history. “Huahua”, a typical Chinese intensification by means of a repetition, denotes colour and pleasure by doubling the word for “flower”.(4) The phrase “huahua shijie”, whose second compound, as we have seen, is used in the Chinese title to translate Western World, invokes the world of enticing pleasures, with Buddhist associations of its illusory nature. “Gongzi”, by itself, refers to the son of a high official in imperial China, whose family status offers him the opportunity and wherewithal to live self-indulgently at his father’s expense. The term huahua gongzi is associated with wealth, decadence and corruption, which is why the standard Pinyin Chinese-English dictionary, published in 1978, translates it by “dandy, coxcomb, fop”, using terms from Elizabethan and Restoration English. In present day China “gongzi” could be used ironically for the spoilt and untouchable son of a highly placed cadre.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution brought the population economically to its knees. Anyone accused of bourgeois proclivities, and owning Western music records would suffice, could be severely punished. Traditional Chinese opera was banned as feudal entertainment and replaced by the Eight Model Revolutionary Operas. Eventually they bored the country rigid. Visiting Shenzhen in 1979, Deng Xiaopeng proclaimed in a characteristically pithy phrase: “To get rich is glorious.”
Shenzhen was declared an Economic Special Zone and encouraged to study the free-wheeling practices by which Hong Kong had prospered. I first visited Shenzhen in 1965. Beside the railway station just across the bridge over the little river that formed the border with Hong Kong was a large duck pond with sleepy buffalos grazing and little else beyond a few houses. Today it looks rather different. The official estimate of the city’s population is now around nine million. Unofficially, it is taken to seventeen million, if you include the “rural” surrounding territory that is part of the zone. There are buildings higher than New York’s Empire State. The Chinese version of Synge’s play contains an allusion to Shenzhen, the gate to the Western World, which anyone in China will immediately understand.
The new shopping arcades in central Beijing are as smart and more concentrated than anything in, for example, London(5). Licensed Playboy products with their rabbit logo are popular. An instruction booklet for a Playboy pen declares: “Playboy represents a most valuable living philosophy of dignity, being talented, noble-hearted, and the leader of fashion”.(6) The clothes bearing this logo are widely admired. China has no grunge culture, no chic poverty, no middle class kids with tears in their jeans. To display wealth is again considered normal, a sign of pride and rectitude, even patriotic. If it conveys unambiguous status, the only danger comes from the suspicion that it might have been fraudulently acquired. Fraudulence underlies Synge’s play and shapes its ending.
The recent changes in China have created such momentum as to seem irreversible. The once staid official news agency, Xinhua (literally “new talk”), now produces an internet newspaper in English that not only offers some of the best coverage available of international news but has been labelled “Skinhua” on account of its revealing photographs. I mention all these developments because they help to situate this version of Synge’s play in terms that make sense for contemporary China. But we also need to ask about the “analogies” between the Chinese and the Irish play, which partly explain why it transfers so well. The behaviour of Synge’s characters was a synecdoche for daily life experiences in contemporary Ireland. The “wild coast of Mayo” has a metaphorical as much as a geographical justification. There is talk of the “khaki cutthroats” in the countryside, and fighting for the Boers, not against them, is taken for granted.(7) The Phoenix Park murders are mentioned.(8) Christy is asked whether the cause of his distress is that his land has been “grabbed” from him by bailiffs or agents. There are stories of attacking the police, as there are of “maiming” ewes, the assumption being that they belong to a landlord. Such acts on a defenceless animal add to the evidence of a disturbed culture driven to them by the social violence it has experienced and against which there was little hope of redress.
A cycle of violence is thereby sustained that derives from a political pathology. The characters display such eagerness in talking about violent acts, in savouring the details and anticipating possible new variations of further causes of pain and disorder that the play seems to move in and out of a cultural psychiatric ward. Nor do they just talk with such delight about torture, they also practise it with relish. The plot turns on believing, and wanting to believe, a young man when he says that he has murdered his father. The women long to internalise the feeling of the power it gives him, because such internalisation excites them. The social pathology that shapes such emotional lives is eminently transferable and other circumstances need not coincide exactly with those that helped Synge write his play. Stolen land and attacks on police resonate in China.
Synge obviously debunks elevated mythmaking, as well as the begobs, begorrahs and rogueish tomfoolery of stage Irish depictions of the peasantry and similar forms of sentimentalising comedy. Lady Gregory and Yeats were not entirely happy with what he had bequeathed them, although their public support was unwavering. The former commented on the closeness of Synge’s plot to potential Irish behaviour: “We did nothing … to soften or hide the central idea … This idea may be taken very seriously if taken as yet to be fulfilled prophecy … Some day it may not be a prophecy that a man coming with a name for strength and daring even in crime may take the mastery of a feeble countryside. Can anyone say that such a tragedy is impossible?”(9) She discerned a susceptibility to violence that later exceeded what she may have feared. The text itself contains the evidence. There is no question of constructing an interpretation extraneous to the substance of the play. From the beginning, the director, WG Fay, tried in vain to persuade Synge to excise the torture scene, which he found unsuited to comedy and too disturbing, calling it a demonstration of “anger in excelsis”.(10) The performance history tells us that the Abbey Theatre and its audiences agreed, preferring a sentimentalising “correction” to the reality of the plot, which is more or less how it was performed for decades. Admiration that turns so quickly into anger is the expression of a frustrated way of life or culture. Synge has coated his bitter truth with the sweetness of singing voices.
What theatre forms exist in China that might accommodate such a plot? The popular traditional theatre combined music, singing, gymnastic feats, poetry and story into a Chinese Gesamtkunstwerk. But its practice is demanding and the plots remote from contemporary life. It is now in decline. Whether it revives or disappears, this reservoir of the Chinese imagination will affect representation for years to come. We can literally see its influence in the Chinese Playboy. Though considered self-enclosed and preoccupied with aesthetic display, it could also be very political. After all, one performance triggered the Cultural Revolution. With its huge audience, administrators kept an eye on it. But its unique style and traditional narratives could not represent contemporary life. About a hundred years ago a new “spoken theatre” (huaju) developed to address problems in the coastal cities. Broadly naturalist in style, its representational techniques often culminate in heightened, emotionally charged poses, whose origin lay in the traditional opera.(11) But without opera’s sophisticated symbolic language, such moments lacked subtlety. Chinese acting retains a presentational factor: actors tend to play directly to the audience.
The Cultural Revolution’s eight model revolutionary operas employed an overtly didactic presentational acting style with music and dance and politically focused content. The plots saw everything in moral extremes. Heroes confronted monsters, until the whole business became entirely divorced from the social confusion and chaos that enveloped the country.
Afterwards, traditional opera performance again became possible, though the long break resulted in a serious loss of skills. The spoken theatre was revived in order to confront the accumulated problems. A third possibility was to perform translated plays. One such was Brecht’s Life of Galileo: when a priest waved a little black book, everyone understood the allusion to the Cultural Revolution.(12) The Chinese Playboy poses the question about its resonance in today’s China. We must see it in the context of homegrown spoken theatre. Two admired examples from post-Cultural Revolution performance of twenty years ago show how the Playboy departs from their style but also echoes something of their content. Two kinds of plot emerged: the first looked at present social disruption, the second at emotional turmoil over cultural loss.
Warning Signal repudiates the apodictic idealism of the previous political theatre as exemplified by the model revolutionary operas.(13) It dealt with a previously taboo subject: unemployed youth on the verge of turning to crime. If Playboy depends on the effect of an alleged murder, which Ma Shang/Christy might have committed, Warning Signal shows how frustration drives young men to crime, but pulls them back from the brink. The play takes place in the goods van of a train that symbolises economic distribution in China during initial “modernisation”. The old guard in charge of the train has a young assistant, who offers his girlfriend a free ride. But another boyfriend turns up with an older acquaintance and they also ride along. The old guard endures this with suspicious tolerance. The two latecomers plan to rob the train. The characters are allegorical. On one side of the girl stand the handsome young assistant guard, who is lucky to have the good job, and the elderly honest worker. On the other side we find the second young man as potential thief and the hardened criminal responsible for tempting him. As the journey continues, and the tension mounts to a climax, we learn through flashbacks and dream projections about the hopes of the three young people in their triangular relationship. At the moment of decision, the potential thief comes down on the right side, won over by his love for the girl. He kills the professional crook with a knife, suffering a flesh wound for his pains. Apart from the naturalist banter, the play is carried by the flashbacks and dream sequences, when the stage is blacked out and the characters spotlit.
Similar techniques are used in Return on a Snowy Night,(14) a sad and romantic story from the world of traditional opera in which a handsome young actor of female roles, as attractive to his patron as to his patron’s fourth wife, falls in love with her and she with him. It evokes that social world with an intensity that borders on nostalgia, though the opera as such only functions as quotation. When the patron hears of their affair, he banishes them into the social wilderness from which his money had rescued and protected them. In a prelude, the actor returns to the garden where they declared their love on a night of snow. He collapses and dies. In a postlude, the silk scarf he has exchanged with her waves in a cold, ghostly, nocturnal dance. The emotional climax of the play is the love scene, acted in that style of symbolic naturalism. During a discussion the director said he wanted the audience above all to feel the emotions, referring to Stanislavsky’s “experience it yourself”. The author said that his play, written forty years before, had lost none of its appositeness. There were many unhappy things in life, and when accompanied by such suffering, it was good to give pleasure to the audience, such as the actors of traditional opera were able to do.
Warning Signal took on contemporary social problems and the fear that China might lose control of its moral economy. In Return on a Snowy Night social forces destroy fragile psychologies in a risqué plot involving homosexuality and the temporary release from psychological and social pain through immersion in an aesthetic world as compensation for contemporary reality.
In the Chinese Playboy, Chinese opera style is “performed” as parody when the young women seek to entice the newcomer. But the willowy courtesan as the epitome of desirability gives place to something much tougher and more explicitly sexualised, hence the parody. They have in common the erotic as a cypher for frustration, but this frustration drives desire more violently. And that is the point of contact with Synge’s Irish play, which has been transferred into Chinese terms. So we need to ask: what do these two versions share and where do they differ?
I would distinguish between superficial differences, the mark of a translated play within a different culture, and another plane of signification read in terms of a social unconscious from the perspective of a textual anthropology which looks at the whole cultural event. This is a distinction between surface and depths and analogous to that between sentimentalised Irish performances, which irritated the playwright Lennox Robinson, and the play’s deeper meaning.
“Allah save all here,” exclaims Ma Shang (Christy), switching the “All Merciful” for Synge’s Christian God. The Widow Quinn declares that there “isn’t my match in China for cooking and fishing and enticing a man”. Trying to tempt him away to the USA, Shawn offers Christy the inducement of “the half of a ticket to the Western States”; this becomes a ticket to Shenzhen, where millions of Chinese hope to escape poverty more quickly and realise the glorious dream of getting rich. Teased by the Widow Quinn that the old shouldn’t torment the young, Old Mahon protests: “Tormenting him is it? And I after holding out with the patience of a martyred saint till there’s nothing but destruction on, and I’m driven out in my old age with none to aid me.” Lao (Old) Ma exclaims that to put up with his wayward son, he would need “the patience of Lei Feng”.
During the Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong encouraged the young to emulate Lei Feng, a paragon of public-spiritedness, a Chinese social saint.(15) As the cruelties and destructiveness behind the facade of perpetual political momentum became apparent, many took satisfaction from the manner of Lei Feng’s death: he was hit on the head by a telegraph pole knocked over by a lorry he was helping to reverse. Lao Ma is unlikely to be serious in invoking this young secular saint. The accompanying subtext is double-edged: both comical in the immediate dramatic context as well as satirical in respect of official public discourse, implying a political critique as it can be expressed in China.
The Chinese text replaced Synge-song with a vigorous modern demotic (“cow’s cunt”) or street slang. Its Dublin performance introduced another semiotic level through an English surtext. This tended towards euphemistic displacement of the actual speech, when phrases like “he’s a right divil surely” flickered past.(16) But we should rather ask what goes on behind this conversation, shaping its ethos and marking its difference. Otherwise the performance, which the words only partly constitute, will not speak coherently to us.
This difference does not depend just on the distinction between Synge’s village shebeen on the wild Mayo coast at the edge of Europe under conditions close to peasant subsistence living, where a woman might just suckle a ram on her own breast,(17) and a smart hairdressing salon on the edge of Beijing, the proud capital of an ancient culture rapidly transforming itself into a world power. Nor is it marked by the women’s startling costumes, as ankle-long dresses with, at most, a flash of red petticoat, are replaced by glitzy micro-miniskirts and lissome erotic display.
It is determined by what energises their fantasies. These are, of course, shaped by the nature of their frustrations. Because the play is shrewdly transposed into contemporary Chinese culture instead of being merely a Chinese translation of a hundred-year-old Irish classic the causes of these frustrations differ. A reason for the production’s success with a different audience stems from “modernising” the play, something which is easier to accomplish when transferred to another culture. The women compete over access to a young man with the strength to rebel against the rules which their society requires they live by. He lets them believe he has killed his tyrannical father. In both cultures this imagined patricide is the shocking catalyst that transforms him from a weakling into a sexually appealing hero. His stature is enhanced by the display of physical prowess.
The play moves between fantasies and frustrations. The fantasies, a mark of those frustrations, offer a social psychoanalysis of the culture. The Chinese version is more sexually explicit. When such display can be attributed to a Western dramatic and literary classic, homegrown frustrations and their accompanying fantasies are simultaneously externalised and disguised.
In Synge’s culture, the sexual fantasies may be understated compared with the Chinese production, but this cannot be said of the frustrations. When those fantasies collapse the language erupts in violence. A sadistic preoccupation with pain is only assuaged by inflicting physical torture. Synge shows puritanical public morality, inalienable to the national ethos, its repressed and problematic underside, with a forcefulness that resonates as far as China.
Checked by the excitement of identifying with the fantasy, silent envy turns immediately into a scornful desire for revenge, when the women learn he has lied to them. A vocabulary for inflicting pain pours out of their mouths. They turn obsessively to fantasies of execution, violence, and torture, some of which they realise. Specifically Irish synonyms reveal an easy familiarity with the use of force. They had delighted that he struck his father with a loy,(18) but learning that he did not “split” him “with a single clout” and may even have run away out of fear of his revenge, they want only to strike, pandy, skelp, or slate him for it. They want him licked in any contest. They repeatedly fantasise his “stretching” or hanging. Abuse inflames their imaginations. The talk is of maniacs, of raving, of madmen and the madhouse, of the hangman’s double-hitch knot. Tying down his arms, they slip it over his head. It comes close to a lynching. They want to destroy him. Christy finds “torment” on all sides. The symbolic hanging fails to calm them so that when he is tied down they torture him by burning his leg with a log from the fire.
In the Chinese production this is differently nuanced. Ma Shang’s arms are restrained and the noose slipped round his head, but this is performed adroitly rather than violently, especially the handling of the rope, in a quick display of skillful movement that makes one think of the physical side of Chinese opera. They don’t just set upon him but rather perform the clever lazzi (stage trick) of the act of capture. Violence is certainly part of the fantasy. Lala (Pegeen Mike) has a hard edge to her voice, but the frustration that engenders these fantasies is more strongly expressed by attention to the sexual. The erotic becomes the primary vehicle for externalising social frustration, and that suggests different implications in the Chinese version of the play.
Given the opportunity of choosing between the weak, obedient local suitor and the handsome outsider from Xinjiang who tells them he has murdered his father, Lala scarcely hesitates. Symbolically, the choice is clearcut. He gets a job in the hairdressing saloon. He is given a suit and tie. His work is to please the customers. He is a status symbol. This is a Chinese playboy. His function displays the success of his employer through suggested prosperity and physical attraction. When he is floored, the young women fall upon him, but not in order to beat him up, for their design is sexual. Their skirts have slipped up to their waists. The moment is short but explicit. China’s current frustrations are externalised. How may this be read?
The fantasies triggered by Ma Shang’s story rest on an ultimate taboo, patricide, which is unmasked as a fake. It is, naturally, the symbolic shorthand for the rejection of a patriarchal and authoritarian culture that has long shaped a characteristically Chinese way of life. Interest in Confucian history and a certain revival of its rituals have recently been encouraged by the government – in direct proportion to the decline in respect for Communist Party rule and the abandonment, in practice if not in theory, of the ideology that sustains it. If the declared aim is now to create a “socialist market economy”, party political control is, nevertheless, still overriding and absolute.
Ma Shang came from Xinjiang, and returns there with his father. He brings difference into the small Beijing hairdressing saloon. This both encourages hopes of escape from normality as personal fulfilment or political freedom and implies that neither will be realised. Outwardly monolithic, China is in fact full of diversity, a universe of its own. Xinjiang stands for a desire for independence, for a loosening of central control, something often encountered in that vast country but which is more credible in the “Western World” due to its geography and historical experience. The Uighur people from Xinjiang that I have encountered in Beijing universities or academies are livelier and more outgoing, less conformist than the more self-controlled Han Chinese, given to singing. Following Synge’s plot, Lala is the most angry since she has most to lose. She is left unsatisfied, and will stay in the small hairdressers all her life.
In its original context, The Playboy of the Western World uncovers the violence that lies just beneath the surface of Irish life. A particularly Irish way of talking was part of the stock-in-trade of comedy at least from Boucicault onwards. It is radicalised by recreating the stronger poetry of Gaelic speech in English, challenging the audience to reflect on the consequences of cultural loss in addition to psychological repression.
The playboy from the Chinese Western World also awakens fantasies. The expression is more overtly erotic. Such display offers the only space in which frustrations can be ambiguously expressed. Because they are ultimately frustrated, these fantasies can be publicly displayed. Synge “plays” so well in China because of an unconscious structure through which the fantasy of fulfilment, the dream of self-control, the desire for freedom, is first vigorously eroticised and then finally denied. For many Chinese, the richer their country becomes, the poorer their life seems to be. The loss of that dream is a bitter, difficult truth. Whether or not this was intended by the Irish director of this production or explicitly envisaged by the cast, these are nevertheless the terms in which the play makes sense. Dreaming is one thing, reality is something else.
1. Every day tens of thousands of peasants come to the cities as migrant workers. Some now estimate the number without resident permits at around 200 million. Sometimes paid less than a living wage, they are effectively illegal immigrants and work under conditions that are often close to slavery. The section of the population that is constantly on the move is said to be fifty million. An official estimate of unpaid wages for these workers is put at US$12.38 billion (China Daily, 10.11.05).
2. Two Chinese vice-premiers and even two prime ministers have recently visited Ireland to observe this transformation. Given a population ratio between China and Ireland of approximately 300 to one, this is surprising enough, but that there have been four such visits is truly astonishing.
3. Theaterlexikon. Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1977, 531.
4. The Chinese version of Pan Pan Theatre’s name means hoping/longing for. Proclaimed on its website, in the tradition of Irish boastfulness, as “the world’s greatest theatre company”, Pan Pan is perhaps an intensification of San Francisco’s Pan Theatre, which defines itself around improvisational theatre.
5. China is now Rolls Royce’s largest market for cars. We should remember that in the eighteenth century the richest class of people in the world were the merchants in Yangzhou at the southern end of the Grand Canal that ran from Peking to the Yangzi river.
6. Hong Kong Standard, May 21st, 2005.
7. This refers to English soldiers, who were called “khakis” by their enemies in South Africa.
8. The second and third highest administration officials were murdered in 1882 in Phoenix Park, then situated at the edge of Dublin and where the Lord Lieutenant (or Viceroy) and the second highest English official in Ireland, the Chief Secretary, one of the victims, lived in houses that are now occupied by the President and the American ambassador respectively. Though carried out for private reasons, these assassinations had symbolic significance.
9. Written in 1907. Quoted in John Millington Synge: The Playboy of the Western World. Edited by Malcolm Kensall. London: A. & C. Black, 1997, xxxv.
10. Synge, xxxvi.
11.This is particularly evident in performances of the main huaju playwright, Cao Yu.
12. Life of Galileo, directed by Chen Rong & Huang Zuolin, was performed in the China Youth Arts Theatre in 1979 for ten weeks, a record for a Western play. The theatre has since been demolished and replaced by a huge shopping mall.
13. Gao Xingjian & Liu Huiyuan: Warning Signal (Juedui xinhao). Performed by Beijing People’s Art Theatre in the Capital Theatre, Beijing in 1982, directed by Lin Zhaohua. Gao Xingjian was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000.
14. Wu Zuguang: Return on a Snowy Night (Fengxue yehguiren) China Youth Arts Theatre, Beijing. A respected dramatist, Wu (1917-2003) fled to Hong Kong in the late 1940s after criticizing the Kuomintang, where he made a film of his play, released in 1949, whose English title is Latecomer in the Snow. Written in the 1940s, the revival of this play was a significant gesture. He returned to Beijing and later criticised the 1989 suppression of the student movement.
15. The accompanying slogan, ‘Learn from Comrade Lei Feng’ (xiang Lei Feng tongzhi xuexi), was propagated throughout the land. The script on this illustration is written by Mao Zedong. His signature fills the left column. In his “diary”, Lei Feng (1940-62) wished to be “a revolutionary screw that never rusts”. So prevalent was his image that some wondered whether he ever existed. But he still “exists” today. In an internet video game released in 2006 you score points by emulating his good deeds until you meet Chairman Mao and secure his autograph. You can now buy, for RMB12, a box of Learn from Lei Feng condoms. Francesca Gavin’s comment in a book on urban art, Street Mavericks (London, Laurence King, 2007), is perhaps apposite: “We live in a heavily legislated, restricted society and that makes people want to do the complete opposite.”
16. Surtexts, especially where language moves quickly or is in any way idiosyncratic, hinder as much as they can help. The distraction of moving between flickering text and stage performance is bad enough, quite apart from trying to register shorthand distortions and the semantic and stylistic complications that inevitably arise. Interpreting such a performance, especially if one seeks to comprehend how a particular audience may experience it, must try to achieve the inherentlly impossible feat of following three texts, the spoken text, the shorthand surtext, silently measured against Synge’s first version, as well as the acting in relation both to expectations within its own culture, including their parody, and to a traditional or modern Western performance of Synge’s play, and compute all of this simultaneously. On the basis of one performance, any analysis will fall short of what could be usefully observed.
17. Pegeen Mike says this of the Widow Quinn.
18. This is a sharp spade used for cutting turf.
Antony Tatlow is currently Honorary Professor in the TCD Drama Department, was Professor of Comparative Literature and Coordinator of the Graduate Centre for Arts Research there from 1996 to 2006 and before that Professor and Head of Comparative Literature in the University of Hong Kong. He has written about the relationship between East Asian and Western cultures mostly in respect of drama and poetry