- The Kindness of Strangers:Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire on the Chinese Stage
Toward the end of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, when the Doctor and the Matron come to take Blanche DuBois to the mental institution, she struggles for a while, surrenders, and (as she is being led through the portieres by the Doctor, holding tight to his arm) says this famous line:
Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.1
To a large extent the line encapsulates the reception of Tennessee Williams in China. He remained a "stranger" to the Chinese for decades after his string of successes in the US (The Glass Menagerie,1944; A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947; and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1955) just as the Chinese remained little more than strangers to him. Compared to Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams is a latecomer to the Chinese drama scene, an acquired taste, and a very belated bloomer on the Chinese stage, so to speak. Unlike O'Neill and Miller,2 Williams never visited China, and other than the title of his first play ever to receive a production (Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! 1935) and a few passing references (e.g., Blanche's incredulous reaction to Stella's content with Stanley: "I don't understand your indifference. Is this a Chinese philosophy you've cultivated?"; China as "exotic other" in The Night of the Iguana: "swim out to China," a "Chinaman cook" "imported from Shanghai," etc.), China does not figure much in meaningful ways in the dramatic world created by Williams. His international travels would mostly take him to the other side of the Atlantic: Williams and Europe were "tempestuous [End Page 97] lovers" after all.3
Williams's fortunes in China began to change in the 1980s as China opened its door to the outside world and embarked on reforms. Since then interest in Williams has gained momentum as evidenced by the hundreds of papers published in journals and numerous graduate theses and dissertations on Williams from a myriad of critical perspectives. Although originality may be rare and repetition is inevitable, the sheer volume testifies to how far China has come in the last few decades toward embracing this "wounded genius"4 from America. Williams's plays, especially A Streetcar Named Desire, have seen quite a few notable productions on the Chinese stage too.5 This article is a study of Chinese (re)interpretations of A Streetcar Named Desire on the stage, more particularly, the 1988 production by Tianjin People's Art Theatre, the 2002 production by the Shanghai Theatre Academy, and the 2016 production (reproduced 2017–2019) by the Shanghai Dramatic Art Center. These three productions, set against the backdrop of three decades of dramatic changes in every facet of China's socioeconomic and cultural life and mores, show a trajectory of deepening kindness in the form of understanding and overcoming sociocultural and moral barriers to empathize and identify with strangers as ourselves.
Although he achieved huge success on Broadway around the same time as Arthur Miller, Williams didn't catch any comparable attention from the Chinese before the 1980s. Ying Ruocheng, who read Miller's Death of a Salesman in college when it was first published in 1949 and dreamed of one day mounting it on the Chinese stage,6 did put out a translation of Williams's 1953 play Something Unspoken in the third issue of World Literature in 1963. This compact one-act play portrays a Southern grand dame, Cornelia, who craves for, or rather demands, an absolute, unanimous vote of confidence—despite an acute inner sense of insecurity—and will not accept any office except the highest until Grace, her secretary, gathers up the courage to tell her the inconvenient truth.7
It is not clear why, of so many of Williams's plays, Ying Ruocheng chose Something Unspoken to translate at a time when China had just suffered a horrendous "Three-Year Famine" (1958–1961), largely resulting from the feverish policies of Mao Zedong who, despite the disaster, continued to strike back and crack down on anyone who...