“Farewell, My Concubine” Proposal
The story begins with a street crowd watching a troupe of boys performing Peking opera. An onlooking mother (who is a prostitute) later brings her son to the troupe to be trained. Using a cleaver to amputate her child’s objectionable superfluous finger, she marks the contract for his training with her thumbprint stained in the boy’s blood. Shitou (little stone), a boy in the existing troupe welcomes the newcomer “Douzi” (little bean), and the two boys become friends.
Douzi practices the monologue “Dreaming of the World Outside the Nunnery” but messes up the line “I am by nature a girl, not a boy” and instead says “I am by nature a boy…”. He repeats this mistake and “Shitou” viciously jams their master’s brass tobacco pipe in Douzi’s mouth as punishment so hard he bleeds. Douzi looks dazed, but whispers, “I am by nature a girl… not a boy.”
After years of being mercilessly beaten during his training, “Douzi” runs away, but witnesses a performance by an opera master that inspires him to return to the troupe. Despite being aware of the dangerous condition that he is coming back to, he finally understands what he has to sacrifice in order to become a skilled opera singer.
Douzi and Shitou become Peking opera stars under the stage names Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou. As adults, Dieyi is in love with Xiaolou, but the sexual aspects of his affections are not returned and Xiaolou instead marries a prostitute, Juxian.
The complex relationship between Dieyi, Xiaolou, and Juxian is then tested in the succession of political upheavals that encompass China from the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The story alternates between the play within a play of the Peking Opera ‘Farewell, My Concubine’ and the real lives of the characters. Douzi commits suicide on stage as a final act in the play by stabbing himself with his Peking Opera character’s sword.
Short Video: https://youtu.be/2Dkx0pl_-s8
The Inexorability of Cultural and Social Force, Generation Gap / Cultural gap, Depression, Homosexuality, China Great Cultural Revolution, (Second Sino-Japanese) War, Unreciprocated Love, Work Ethic, Meta-Theatricality, Translation, Adaptation
Personal interpretation on the themes of the story:
A). Unreciprocated Love:
Douzi loves Shitou, but he can’t have him in real life. The stage is the only place where he has the chance to express his love and affection to his dream lover. He becomes obsessed with the stage where they perform together. For years, people mocked him for his love, sexuality, and for being effeminate. Douzi eventually blurs the lines between theatre and his regular life, and his constant immersion leads to him becoming the greatest Peking Opera singer in China. But what’s the point of having the world to yourself if you can’t share it with someone you love? Ultimately, he commits suicide.
I think we can all cross racial and cultural boundaries and relate to this: loving and craving something or someone that you can’t have and the strength that comes from the pursuit of a seemingly impossible goal that you then surpass.
B). The Inexorable Cultural and Social Force:
“No matter how resourceful you are; you can’t fight fate”
Farewell My Concubine explores the effects of China’s political turmoil during the mid-20th century on the lives of individuals, families, and groups. In this case, the affected are two male stars in a Peking opera troupe and the woman who comes between them. The story also subtly indicates the cultural conflicts and the shift of social values within the Chinese society between pre and post Cultural Revolution.
Conceptual ideas for the reframing of the story:
The story ends with Douzi and Shitou’s reunion in 1977. They are practicing Farewell My Concubine, and their relationship seems to have mended since the tribunal and suicide of Shitou’s wife. They exchange a smile and Shitou begins with the line that gave Douzi trouble forty years ago. Douzi makes the same error of finishing the line with “I am not a girl”. Shitou corrects him and they continue practicing. Then Douzi commits suicide by stabbing himself with a sword on stage.
Given the limits on time, I would start the show during their singing but before Douzi commits suicide. Having the moment right before the suicide at the beginning, then flashbacks (the goal is to pick 5-6 moments that reflect the themes), and returning to the moment of the suicide.
Where: All over the venue, covering as many surfaces as possible for an immersive experience, bringing the audience to the world of “Farewell My Concubine”
- Subtitles + indication of time period. I would use English subtitles for scenes I stage in Mandarin, which I would include as a reminder of the play’s roots.
- Showing authentic footage of specific historical events depicted in the play: I will sing the theme song of the movie in Mandarin, while in Peking opera costume. While I sing, I would play clips from China’s Cultural Revolution to remind my audience of the realties of the time period in which the play is set, and as a tribute to those who fought and died to make this story possible. I would also play clips from the movie as a further tribute to Guorong Zhang, who played Douzi and committed suicide due to depression in real life after the filming.
Music and projection inspiration: https://youtu.be/ZK95sj6OhUo
Set and casting:
Approximately 6 actors. The actors who play Douzi and Shitou would wear different makeup to show them in youth and adulthood. Additionally, I don’t want a separation between the audience and actors; I want to integrate them together and allow for close views of the actors’ facial expressions.
Costume and Makeup: Evolving from period costumes to the distant future.
The future costumes would engage with ideas of utopia and dystopia in relation to time periods. Makeup: Peking opera style.
Why I chose this play to stage in Toronto despite I’d need to translate it by myself:
The primary reason that I think this needs to be staged in Toronto is because it addresses real problems of privilege in contrast to what I believe are the overdramatized problems often found in the west. While I acknowledge that there are significant issues to address in the West, too often people fail to comprehend the vast amounts of privilege in even having their ‘first world problems’. In the third-world countries, and even in current-day China, it is so rare for people to have dreams, passions, and integrity. It is all about survival when life and society leaves you no choice. All the social and cultural forces trap humanity. This story portrays perfection as needing hard work; work so hard it borders on the inhumane. To me, it is an unfortunate but harsh truth that Douzi could not have achieved his mastery without the abusive conditions of his training. I believe that both Eastern and Western Culture needs to appreciate the dedication perfection demands instead of lowering its standards to spare people’s feelings. We have made so much progress; and while there are still lots of things to fight for, let’s not forget the history or take the freedom we earned today for granted. Additionally, I want to bring Asian stories to both Toronto stages and Toronto audiences. China has stories to tell the world and they need to be heard.
I especially want to tell this story to all the students; i would like to encourage my fellow collogues in the art program to have a greater standards for work ethic amongst ourselves, and this project is a way that I would highlight what true dedication means. Being a performer took literal tears and blood back in the day in China. There is a moment when “Douzi” first saw the opera “Farewell My Concubine”, and he immediately burst into tears and said to himself: “How did they make it to the stage? How many time they must been beaten to death and then get up again?” Those artists lived in fear day and night, yet they didn’t complain, they knew what it took in order to create a masterpiece. There was no such thing as luck or talent for making art at the time; it was pure training and dedication to the practice; practice to keep exceeding your physical and mental endurance, practice of your technique day in and day out.
All in all, I hope my audience can also come to the realization that I did, that shit is unavoidable in life, but we can always keep making progress, and when you finally accept that there’s no such thing as an easy life. Your life is a consequence of what you choose to sacrifice and your dedication. That’s when you can find yourself living in peace with both suffering and happiness.
1). The demand from the lead actor; Peking Opera requires highly skilled and trained vocal and movement technique. I have to figure out a way (maybe from projection) in order to give a real taste of its essence of Peking Opera.
2). Faithful translation and adaptation of a Chinese novel to a mostly English play.
3). Cultural and language barriers; this would require educating my actors.