Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Peking Man

The best writing sends you down random rabbit holes toward other great writing. Such was the case with a 1940 play by Cao Yu entitled Peking Man, which I first read about almost a year ago in Sergio Pitol's The Magician of Vienna, translated by George Henson. In all, Pitol writes less than a page about Cao:
I also saw the dramas of Cao Yu, celebrated since the 30s, with the reputation of a mischievous child, a perennial nonconformist, and I saw one of his plays, Thunderstorm ...  set totally in China, not in the nineteenth but the twentieth century, and not in a hamlet but rather in an urban setting. On one occasion, I don't recall who invited me, perhaps a devotee of the theater, or an Italian translator who was spending periods of time in Peking, to see another work by Cao Yu, Peking Man, which was produced in a modest hall of the conservatory of dramatic art (65). 
Pitol calls it "the best of all the plays I was able to see" during his stay in China. His final assessment of Peking Man: "the most intense, the most modest, and the most poignant" (66).

Well, that was enough for me to want to read it.

I studied theater/drama as an undergraduate and continued to act while in graduate school for the MA. Something else I studied as an undergrad was Russian literature, which, of course, consisted of a unit on the plays of Anton Chekhov. I've been a fan of Chekhov since then, and I try to catch as many productions of his work as I can still to this day. For the past several months I've also been a Contributing Theater Writer for a local online performing arts journal, so not only is theater something I was already interested in, but Pitol's recommendation meant that my education would've been in vain if I wouldn't have taken the opportunity to find a copy. Thankfully, my library owns Leslie Nai-Kwai Lo's 1986 translation.

Cao reminds me of Chekhov: the intimacy of the unsaid, the family, and its fortune, collapsing in on itself as the world becomes smaller, more narrow, until even the illusions of love are abandoned. More remarkable is that Cao wrote this play during the Japanese occupation with not the slightest mention of those events. Instead, there are piercing details about the sky, the weather, the passing of the seasons and the clouds overhead, the posture of a caged pigeon, and the sound of a noodle vendor pushing his one-wheeled cart down the nearby alleys.

The patriarch's coffin, lacquered layer by layer over the past fifteen years, had the same force, the same impact, the same cogency, as the whale in Moby-Dick. And like that whale, it shatters everything in its path.

I know reading scripts isn't for everyone, but I highly recommend trying to catch a performance of this play, in whatever language you can understand, if an opportunity presents itself, particularly if you're a fan of Chekhov or Ibsen. And as always, everyone should read Pitol.

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