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  • City of the Dead and Song of the Night by Gao Xingjian
  • Whit Emerson
CITY OF THE DEAD AND SONG OF THE NIGHT. By Gao Xingjian. Translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong and Mabel Lee. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2015. 112 pp. Hardcover, $24.00.

The new two-play collection by Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, City of the Dead and Song of the Night, features an introduction by professor and translator Mabel Lee. Next, Gilbert F. C. Fong’s translation of City of the Dead is presented, followed by the playwright’s suggestions for performance. The last section of the book is Mabel Lee’s translation of Song of the Night. The layout of the short book is simple and equally accessible to literary readers and theatre practitioners.

Mabel Lee opens the seventeen-page introduction with a brief historical and biographical overview of Gao and his oeuvre, ending with the hope that the translations will lead to more productions of Gao’s plays. Lee next [End Page 223] takes the reader on a more detailed look at Gao’s literary work, starting with the autobiographical novel she translated, Soul Mountain.

Lee follows this section with an in-depth survey of Gao’s major literary works, interspersed with biographical facts. Transitioning from Gao’s novels to his criticism to his dramatic works, she frames his “impulse for autobiography” (p. xi) as a way to give voice to female characters that a male author normally could not. Through detailed examination of three plays as well as Snow in August, Gao’s jingju, Lee provides both plot summary and analysis, showing Gao’s innovative use of pronouns in order to distance the playwright’s voice from the characters’ and his exploration of the female psyche through male-female sexual relations in the dramas. It is through these two ideas that Lee analyzes the two plays in this book.

Gao finished writing City of the Dead in 1991. This new translation from the Chinese original was done by scholar Gilbert C. F. Fong. City of the Dead is the first of Gao’s plays to focus on the male-female relationship. The plot of the play is taken from the well-known Chinese tale of the philosopher Zhuang Zhou testing his wife by returning home in a coffin, then secretly dressing as a prince and trying to seduce her. After the deceit is revealed, the wife is so distraught that she kills herself. Gao takes this tale further by showing the wife’s journey through the afterlife, where, as Lee puts it, her “tormentors in hell are presented as tyrannical, cruel, bullying, mendacious, foolish, ridiculous, and knavish males, and they can also be seen as theatrical exaggerations of male behavior toward females in real life” (p. xv).

The one-act Song of the Night is the more recent play of the two, written in French in 1999 and rewritten in Chinese ten years later (p. xxi). The play is an illustrative example of Gao’s use of pronouns as a distancing tool for female characters. More of a character exploration than a traditionally structured play, the plot of Song of Night follows a young professional woman’s thoughts on sex, men, freedom, and relationship power dynamics. Gao employs an innovative deconstructive character technique by splitting the protagonist across three bodies; the character of She is performed by a female actress and two dancers. Lee notes that “Song of the Night has not yet been fully actualized in a theatre space” (p. ix).

While the introduction places the two plays in a strong historical and literary framework, and the pairing lends itself to male-female sexual relations and autobiographical interpretation explained in the introduction, only a limited amount of space is spent with City of the Dead and Song of the Night. The introduction reads more like a standalone essay than a critical introduction, providing only brief analysis of the featured works. It concludes with a comprehensive list of further reading including, English-language translations of Gao’s plays, books, and critical essays.

Gao Xingjian’s plays do not have the realism to which Western practitioners seem to cling, but both novices...


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pp. 223-225
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