By Meng Jinghui
Edited by Claire Conceison
Reviewed by John B. Weinstein
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February, 2019)
I nearly encountered Meng Jinghui’s 孟京辉 play Longing for Worldly Pleasures (思凡) in 1998, when I arrived in Beijing for a few weeks of research for my dissertation on the development of modern comic drama in China. When I met with a theater official in Beijing, I asked what I should see while there; although I cannot recall what he did ultimately suggest I see, I do recall him showing me a program or poster or some such artifact for a production called Longing for Worldly Pleasures. That, he noted, was what I should have seen, but its run was already over. Had I only planned the trip better.
What I did not yet know, and maybe no one truly knew, though perhaps this official surmised it, was that Meng Jinghui would become THE big thing in Chinese drama in the coming years, and his work, though by no means strictly comedy—and by no means strictly any one thing—might have formed the ending of my research project. To this date, while I have been fortunate enough to see the English-language adaptation of Head without Tail referenced in the volume’s introduction, and even more fortunate to spend an evening hanging out with Meng himself in his hotel room in Boston, I have never seen a production of Meng’s work within China itself. Can a volume of English translations of Meng Jinghui’s work compensate?
Claire Conceison’s I Love XXX and Other Plays achieves just that. The task is a tall order, given that Meng’s plays are, in so many ways, not about the text, and certainly not about the text alone. The totality of the performance is so key, not to mention the experience of viewing the play together with audiences so devoted to the world of Meng Jinghui. If that were not enough, Meng’s plays operate with an intertextuality that is both trendy and erudite. To truly understand every moment of Meng’s plays, one needs to be equally up to date on Chinese commercial advertisements and well-read in the classic literatures of both China and the West. Complicating matters further is Meng’s tendency to blend historical references with references to events that never actually happened. And yet, although Meng has developed a brand of theater difficult to render in textual translation, Conceison truly succeeds in providing her English-reading audience with an experience that brings Meng Jinghui’s oeuvre to life.
This anthology needs to appeal to a wide range of audiences. It is part of the “In Performance” series edited by Carol Martin, a series “aimed at people who want to put new works onstage, read diverse and dramatic performance literature, and study diverse theater practices, context and histories in light of globalization” (i). Those people might know a great deal about China, or they might know very little. Potential audiences could include practitioners seeking new material to present, drama scholars outside the China field looking to educate themselves about a Chinese playwright/director whose work all should know, scholars within the Chinese drama or literature fields deepening their knowledge of Meng, and teachers aiming to introduce Meng’s work to their students. Conceison offers a multi-pronged approach to appeal to this diverse group, with an introduction providing historical and cultural context, translations with informative but not interruptive footnotes, copious production photos dispersed throughout the text, a chronology of Meng’s works, and a DVD of clips from Meng’s productions with English subtitles. A writer like Meng, whose work in some ways arises so specifically from Chinese contexts and yet is international in references and appeal, is perfect for the “In Performance” series.
The volume begins with a juxtaposition of images and words. First, the title page offers a two-page-wide image from Two Dogs’ Opinion on Life (两只狗的生活意见), with one of the “dogs” appearing to weep and the other looking pensively upward. Next, after turning the page, a photograph of Meng from March 2017 gazes out toward the reader, his hand reaching out like a film director framing an image. His words come next, in a brief preface hinting at his vision of drama and of the world. “For me, theater means freedom,” he begins, before naming many kinds of freedom—to imagine and to write, among others. (vii) That he names using both language and physical movement is notable, because the plays that follow will utilize both with equal weight, even though the medium of printed translation is more suited to the former (later on, I show how Conceison incorporates physical movement into this translation project). Meng offers brief but key views on the purpose of theater, before ending by recounting a dream he had and with the sentence: “In theater, dreams are the only reality” (viii).
Next, it is Conceison’s turn to theorize, in her introduction entitled “Meng Jinghui: Icon and Iconoclast.” The forty-one densely written pages that follow are a masterpiece of detail and concision, in which she contextualizes Meng and the selected plays from many different angles. Conceison has chosen just five out of the more than fifty plays Meng had staged by the time the volume was completed. Meng’s collaborative, adaptive approach to theater creation makes it difficult to categorize him as “playwright” or “director,” and one range Conceison sought to show through her selections was the diversity of ways Meng has participated in the creation of the plays, including as sole writer, collaborative writer, or adaptor, always also serving as director. The selections also represent different styles—some with plots, some without—and also reflect sociocultural changes in China from the 1990s onward.
Historical and theatrical influences come next, beginning with a history of twentieth century China that Conceison succinctly presents in just over a single page. Within those events, the two most influential on Meng’s generation were the Cultural Revolution and June Fourth/Tiananmen Square, events of which Meng’s younger audiences remain largely ignorant, due to government restrictions on information. The government also restricts plays through censorship, but Meng has fortunately been able to create under the protective freedom provided to him by Central Experimental Theater president Zhao Youliang 赵有亮. Meng in turn has nurtured younger dramatists through creating the Beijing Youth Theater Festival. As for dramatic influences, Meng eschewed the work of Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky in favor of that of a different Russian, Vsevolod Meyerhold. Other key influences on Meng include Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, Richard Foreman, and Dadaism. Meng’s style, called “Mengshi xiju” (孟式戏剧) in Chinese, is far too unique and original to be considered merely the amalgam of any combination of influences, however.
Conceison then addresses a pivotal issue: “Much of the heated critical debate in China on Meng’s theater hinges on the apparent contradiction between experimentation and commercial appeal” (11). Meng insists that the two are not in opposition to one another; he draws his large audiences not by trying to please the broader public, but instead by creating theater true to his avant-garde ideals. As Conceison notes, Meng “bucks the trend, sets the trend, then becomes the trend” (16). Conceison also offers a window into the creative process that leads to these immensely popular avant-garde theatrical events. Taking place in smoky rooms with long tables strewn with books for inspiration, snacks of various kinds, and perhaps a deck of cards, rehearsals are a series of exercises and games in a relaxed and playful environment, utilizing Meng’s approach of “noise, play, games” (闹, 玩儿, 游戏) (13). The openly inventive phase continues until the final week of rehearsal, when the atmosphere becomes more businesslike and authoritative. Conceison posits that the non-hierarchical nature of the process gets conveyed to the audiences, who themselves feel integral to the plays’ creation.
As Conceison transitions into the second half of the introduction, which includes a multi-page overview of each of the five plays, she also explicates the three paths into which Meng divides his plays. The first path is that of the more obscure plays, which are not easily comprehensible to the audience; within this volume, I Love XXX and Head without Tail are examples, though interestingly the former is plotless, while the latter has quite a lot of plot. The plays in the second path are more mainstream in taste, often incorporating technology and multimedia into the design elements; because Meng serves primarily as director for such plays, usually written or adapted by his wife, Liao Yimei, none are included in this anthology. Plays in the third path address social issues directly related to real lives; Two Dogs’ Opinion on Life is an example. That said, all of the plays intersect at least two paths. Two Dogs’ Opinion on Life has also been a huge commercial hit, running continuously since 2007. The Bedbug is likewise both popular comedy and social satire. I Love XXX is socially relevant even amidst its potential incomprehensibility. Meng’s goal, not yet realized, is to someday combine all three paths into a single play.
The first translation is of Meng’s 1993 professional directorial debut, Longing for Worldly Pleasures, written collaboratively with Meng at the helm, and here translated by Jonathan Noble. The play brings together source material from two different cultures: the Ming Dynasty kunqu entitled Longing for Worldly Pleasures, Two Descend the Mountain, and short stories from the collection The Decameron, written by fourteenth-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. In both cultures’ stories, sensual desire overpowers social conventions. The same actors play the romantic leads in both cultures’ stories, though the acting style in the play is more often parodic than romantic. Humorous moments can often denote serious issues, however, such as the moment when the Italian lovers consummate their affair and the Narrator blocks the view with a banner saying “166 WORDS DELETED” (59), a playful yet not-so-playful comment on government censorship.
Next comes the title work, the I Love XXX (我爱XXX), collectively written by Meng, Huang Jingang, Wang Xiaoli, and Shi Hang, and translated by Conceison herself based on the 1994 production script. The play’s convention, carried out in the majority of the lines, is to begin each line with “I love . . .”; what is loved varies widely, from the geopolitical to the sensual. References to historical events and famous individuals span the globe. Most of the references are to actual people and events, but Meng now and then makes highly specific references to events that never occurred, one of many examples of how he plays with and challenges his audiences. I can readily see why Conceison put this play in her volume’s title. Even within a collection of strong plays, it is a special one that embodies the essence of Meng Jinghui. The script itself does not indicate who within the ensemble is speaking when, but Conceison supplements with footnotes explaining how certain sections were actually performed.
The first two plays represent collective creation, with Meng directing. In the third, The Bedbug (臭虫), Meng is adaptor and director—the play is adapted from The Bedbug by Russian Vladimir Mayakovsky, a playwright who exerted an important influence on Meng. The translation, by Wang Chong, is based on a transcription of a videotaped performance. As with Mayakovsky’s original play, the first scenes are set in the socialist Soviet era, which for Mayakovsky was the present, but for Meng, the period parodies China’s socialist past. Proletarian Ivan Prisypkin, who abandons his proletarian girlfriend, Zoya, to marry a wealthy woman, becomes trapped in ice on his wedding night. The play then jumps ahead 50 years, which for Mayakovsky represented the future, but for Meng reflects the Chinese present. Though successfully revived from his frozen state, Prisypkin is unable to adapt to postsocialist life. He ends up in a zoo, together with a bedbug that had been frozen with him and that fares far better in the new society than Prisypkin. Though more plot-focused than the first two plays, Meng’s The Bedbug is also peppered with songs in Mandarin and Taiwanese, xiangsheng-style comedy, and a parody of a Singapore TV show.
Fourth comes Head without Tail (Meng’s own English title for his 2002 play 关于爱情归宿的最新观念), which more literally translates (per Conceison’s footnote) as “On the Newest Ideas about the Destination of Love.” Zhang Fang translated this play, which was authored by Meng alone, the only such play in this anthology for which he is the sole author. The plot of Head without Tail, told in part in flashback, centers on an aspiring, but unsuccessful, soccer goalie burned beyond recognition in a grisly car crash. He is pulled from the car by a toilet inventor named Chen Xiaolong, who happens on the scene of the accident, together with his largely platonic mistress Li Hudie, a woman from the toilet factory’s gymnastics team. In a tale of mistaken identity, the goalie is thought to be Chen Xiaolong, and a miraculous operation performed to restore “his” face results in him looking exactly like Chen. The goalie begins to consider himself Chen Xiaolong, bringing distress to his own former love, Penguin Girl. Although the play has its moments of humor, the overall tone is dark.
The volume concludes with Conceison and Ren Xihua’s translation of Two Dogs’ Opinion on Life, a two-person comic piece created in 2007, with Meng as playwright and director and Chen Minghao and Liu Xiaoye as the original actors. The actors play the two dogs Wang Cai and Lai Fu, names popular in Chinese cities for dogs, but still common in the countryside as children’s names. Wang Cai and Lai Fu leave their home in the Manchurian countryside to make it big in Beijing. Wang Cai seems to strike it rich quickly, but Lai Fu soon discovers his friend did so merely by getting adopted by a human. Wang Cai’s luxurious situation proves fleeting, though, and as the play proceeds, life in Beijing proves more challenging than successful. Just as their names are both human and dog, the story, too, is as much human as dog, bringing to life the intense struggles faced by the millions of rural-to-urban migrants in China. As befitting a Mengshi xiju, the play also includes a two-person parody of Cao Yu’s 1930s play Thunderstorm and songs by the Beatles and Iggy Pop.
The DVD of performance excerpts that comes with the volume enables the reader to more directly access visual and auditory aspects of Meng’s plays in performance. Video clips from Longing for Worldly Pleasures demonstrate the auditory qualities of Buddhist chanting and overlapping speech, and the movement-based moment when actors use their hands to illustrate their beating hearts in a Decameron scene. Three video clips from I Love XXX capture different ways of performing the play’s abstract material. In the first clip, there is one speaker onstage, accompanied by a large silent cast. The second clip, an extended movement piece not readily presentable in text translation, has no speaking at all. The third clip builds from individual speaking into loud unison. For The Bedbug, a photo montage of images is provided, offering an opportunity to view sets, costumes, and staging, in a play with more elaborate production values than Meng’s earlier plays. Production values rise further in Head without Tail; video clips illustrate a number of multimedia elements, including text projections onto sets and actors’ bodies, and the use of dripping water for visual and auditory effects. For Two Dogs’ Opinions on Life, so famous for its specific actors, it is a pleasure to see how the actors embody dog-human hybridity in their performances, and great fun to watch the entertaining moment when they go into the audience to steal purses, with the audience reactions captured on video as well.
The approximately 45 minutes of videos and images are well worth viewing for a variety of potential audiences. A reader unfamiliar with modern Chinese theater, who has not seen plays in China, can get a sense of the development of experimental theater in Chinese, including its growth into more elaborate productions. A researcher of modern Chinese theater can use the video clips to go beyond textual research, something that is especially appropriate for Meng’s productions, given his ample use of various physical and auditory approaches. For teaching purposes, the videos are invaluable for showing students the many ways these plays come alive on stage. A challenge of teaching with an anthology of Chinese plays is that video clips are often difficult, if not impossible, to locate, not to mention the even greater challenge of finding clips with English subtitles. These videos, subtitled using the same translated text as in the volume, turn that impossible task into an easy one. Conceison has done the rigorous work to bring together text, introduction, and video, a combination I wish all volumes of drama translation could have.
John B. Weinstein
Dean of the Early Colleges, Bard College