Translating Instability: Adapting and Staging Madam X
and Mister Q
(based on Can Xue’s Five Spice Street)

By Megan Evans

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2015)


Fig. 1:  Poster for Madam X & Mister Q, designed by Kattral O’Sullivan.

Can Xue 残雪 is one of the most adventurous writers in China today. As the only woman among the cadre of “avant-garde” writers to emerge in 1980s post-Mao China, she offers work that intrigues and challenges, frustrates and delights in its resistance to conventional narrative expectations of cause and effect and coherent psychologies. Published in China in 1988, Five Spice Street (五香街) is Can Xue’s first full-length work to be translated into English (by Karen Gernant and Zeping Chen, Yale University Press, 2009). The book is slippery terrain for a reader. The comic, often bawdy and grotesque work viciously dissects the machinery of rumor and scandal on Five Spice Street as the identity, actions, and motivations of Madam X are debated from twenty-eight conflicting points of view.

While a writer can—and Can Xue does—readily destabilize narrative through manipulation of descriptive language, achieving a similar level of narrative disruption on stage presents unique challenges. In any dramatic adaptation, spectators are already charged with the duty of “suspending disbelief” and of engaging their imaginative faculties to fill in the blanks of the fictional world left by the physical limits of a stage. One actor taking several roles (role doubling) and tag-team portrayals of a single character by multiple actors are commonplace. At the same time, the spectator’s awareness that she or he shares the same physical space as the actors works to stabilize the spectator-actor relationship, which in turn frames the spectator’s reception of the fictional/dramatic elements. As a result, the narrative inconsistencies of Five Spice Street (Does Madam X exert supernatural powers? Is Madam X sexy or completely devoid of sex? Does Madam X even exist?) are difficult to achieve onstage. This essay considers some of the techniques we used to achieve a stage-worthy parallel of Can Xue’s innovative writing, including: use of puppetry; confusion of scale in design elements; role doubling; and, freely adapting the narrative to achieve a highly theatrical final scene.

The Yale University publication of Five Spice Street, part of its “Margellos World Republic of Letters” series, gives little historical or cultural context, not even the Chinese publication date is provided, let alone an introductory essay. The dust jacket, however, touts the book as:

an astonishing work of contemporary fiction. Exploring the collective consciousness of this little street of ordinary people, Can Xue penetrates the deepest existential anxieties of the present day—whether in China or in the West—where the impermanence of identity struggles with the narrative within which identity must compose itself.

The book centers around the mysterious Madam X who arrives on the utterly insular Five Spice Street where The Widow and The Writer lead the community to a ferocious level of obsession over Madam X’s arguable supernatural powers and alleged affair with heretofore-contented family man, Mister Q. Relying primarily on the English translation, the performers and I experimented with events from the book in several development workshops.[1] The resulting production was staged in February 2013 and tied for Best Theatre entry at the New Zealand Fringe Festival.

Socio-Political Resonance

Though Five Spice Street is set in an unidentified country and year, as one reviewer of the book noted,

The rampant gossip, the maligning of character, the elaborate explanations for mysterious behavior, all bring to mind pre-capitalist-reform China, when even the most innocuous behavior could be taken as subversion and lead to public denunciation by friends, neighbors, or colleagues, followed by a trip to a “reeducation” camp. (Hughes 2013)

The political undercurrent was lost on one reviewer of our production who admitted that his lack of familiarity with Chinese history forced him to take the petty gossip at face value (Smythe 2013). On the other hand, Can Xue’s book resists easy allegory. For example, there are many points where the neighborhood refuses to be swept away by the kind of suspicions that ran rampant during the Cultural Revolution. The neighbors of Five Spice Street frequently demand more evidence before they are willing to take direct action to censure Madam X for her unconventional behavior. The review cited above is historically incomplete in its assessment of the political resonance of Can Xue’s satire: echoes of threat and suspicion from the Cultural Revolution reverberate through the book, but that terrifying phase of Chinese history did end with Mao’s death in 1976. By the time Five Spice Street was published twelve years later, China’s moral infrastructure had shifted radically. In other words, to the residents of Five Spice Street from a 1988 vantage point, Madam X might look like a criminal, but if the neighbors act too quickly to condemn her, they might end up on the wrong side of the jail bars since tomorrow she might be declared a hero. In our staging, whenever a character became particularly riled up about Madam X’s activities, the others closed off the possibility of immediate punishment with a unison chant: “Insufficient evidence, we’ll have to wait and see” (46).[2]

As in the book, the socio-political resonance of the stage action in our production was ambiguous; is it China-specific political satire or a universal exploration of an individual’s struggle against the restraints of conventional thinking? Does one interpretation exclude the other? The scene foregrounding historical links most clearly came near the end of the show. Following an intense debate among the neighbors about whether Madam X or Mister Q made the first move in their alleged extra-marital affair, a young girl undercuts the ravenous attention given to the scandal by her elders: “This X incident is BORING; I’m wasting my precious youth listening to this!” (280). In both the book and our staging, characters had frequently questioned whether Madam X actually possessed the powerful qualities others claimed, but no one had suggested she was just plain boring, and thus perhaps not worthy of a reader’s or audience member’s time.

In both the book and our staging, the young person’s comment sparks The Widow to give a highly charged speech that echoes sentiments from the generation of Red Guards, who in the late 1980s when the book was published were heading into middle age, about the young people growing up after the Cultural Revolution. Edited down for our production from a much longer tirade in the book, The Widow says to the girl:

WIDOW: (comes over, strokes her hair) Have you ever believed in anything? Have you ever pursued anything luminous? What makes you qualified to talk of the shockingly big question of life’s significance? Do you want to deny the spiritual achievement of your father’s generation? Crawling through a dark tunnel, clinging to hope, risking our lives in the struggle. We had no time to think about whether something is interesting or uninteresting. You take it for granted that the world has always been like this and that your job is just to enjoy it. The X incident was like a little light at the end of our tunnel. Our hopes were kindled and we dedicated ourselves to this struggle. (280-282)

Leaving this ardently political note to so late in the production was probably a failing. Many in our audience were unfamiliar with modern Chinese history and thus unable to access the layers of social commentary present in the work.

Other reviewers sidestepped issues of political resonance in the production. While noting admirable qualities in the design and performance, one found “the obscurity of the underlying themes never transcend into a satisfying whole” (Coleman 2013) and another that “parts of the play are hard to fathom, making it drag” (Freeman 2013). These reactions echo reviews of the book (both the Chinese language publication and its English translation) and suggest we successfully frustrated expectations of conventional dramaturgy just as Can Xue’s writing challenges conventional narrative structures. Of the English translation, Hughes (2009) warns: “The reader, on this arduous journey with an author who isn’t explaining or taking questions, is bewildered.” Chinese critic Wang Meng 王蒙  admits that he often lacks the patience to read Can Xue’s work to the end. Yet like Kafka, one of Can Xue’s literary models, Wang believes the attraction of her works: “lies in the fact that they represent a fairly deep layer of human spiritual life. Like a dagger, like a needle, all of a sudden, they cut through to a place that really hurts” (in Bachner 2005: 174). Our goal was to find staging elements that captured Can Xue’s innovative narrative instability without losing access to that satisfying deeper spiritual layer, as well as offering our New Zealand audience clues to allow a reading of the trivial neighborhood events against a larger socio-political context. That the show sold well during the run, was judged “Best of Fringe” at the conclusion of the festival, and was described as “beautiful and daring” in an overview of 2013 Wellington theatre highlights (O’Carroll 2013: 33), suggests we achieved one or more of these goals for many in the audience.

One of the ways we attempted to signal these issues was through design elements. The confusion of scale evidenced in The Widow’s speech, where trivial gossip about Madam X’s affair with Mister Q takes on the language of revolutionary struggle, inspired aspects of the scenic design. Tiny houses of the “locals” lined the street and were used as seats and beds and soapboxes from which to harangue the crowd, while Madam X’s house was considerably larger. Actors passed through Madam X’s house to play interior scenes on the other side. Thus rather than containing action, Madam X’s house served a function similar to the Chinese opera convention in which a mimed step over an imaginary doorsill signals the action has moved to another location (fig. 2).


Fig. 2: Five Spice Street neighbors listen suspiciously at Madam X’s door. Their own houses are represented in much smaller “sittable” scale. All the production photographs published here are by Lori Leigh.

The lowering from above of an enormous envelope (fig. 3), addressed “From Q to X,” gave visual credence to the disproportionate impact the scandal of the affair between Madam X and Mister Q was having on the community. The Widow investigated the envelope through an elaborate movement sequence that included physically stepping inside it. She used tongs to remove a small letter that she then perused under a microscope (fig. 4).


Fig. 3:  Giant envelope arrives from above.


Fig. 4: The envelope contains a small letter that The Widow (Raicheal Doohan) examines under a microscope.

In addition to visually manifesting the thematic confusions of scale, The Widow’s actions echoed Madam X’s mysterious “diversion to dispel boredom” activities that also involved microscopes (21, 29). The Widow’s elaborate investigative dances recurred several times, and I hoped these would link cumulatively to the “luminous” revolutionary pursuits she describes in her final, more clearly politicized speech discussed above. I had assumed a familiarity with the frequent intrusions of Cultural Revolution-era suspicion into the interpersonal dealings of ordinary people’s daily life that many in our audience did not possess. We could have offered stronger and earlier clues to the political undercurrents potentially legible in Can Xue’s satire. On the other hand, as discussed below, Can Xue herself describes her work in personal rather than political terms.

Un-creditable Witnessing

The inconsistencies of scale in design elements also paralleled the numerous evidentiary contradictions characters offered up to the audience. One way I prepared for narrative slippages in adapting the book for the stage was by conflating characters and then emphasizing a narrowed range of interests for each, in order to highlight their hypocrisy and self-delusion. For example, as X’s leading opponent and sexual rival, The Widow and her “scientific” methods were contrasted to Madam X’s mystical interests. Through professed eyewitness investigation combined with other “absolutely secret” methods, The Widow gathers “conclusive proof” that the Madam X lacked sexual attractiveness, whereas her own extraordinary sex appeal, which in production she sang about in a husky cabaret number, she claims actively to repress through qi gong 气功 (48-59).

Following Can Xue’s book, not only did characters in our staging frequently disagree among each other about what had occurred and how the events should be interpreted, they often undercut their own credibility by blatantly revealing their prejudices and jealousies. In one particularly wrenching example, our staging conflated characters and events from the book to produce the following sequence: the Young Coal Worker (a different young man in the book) gets drunk after being rejected by Madam X and physically abuses his mother, the Female Colleague, breaking her arm. Madam X arrives to protect the Female Colleague, closing the door on the Young Coal Worker and suggesting to the Colleague: “You should move on with your life, you should act as though you never had this son.” The Colleague sinks sobbing into Madam X’s embrace, briefly accepting the offered comfort, only to leap up in the public square, still holding her injured arm, to accuse Madam X of corrupting the local youth and growing rich from prostitution. This neighborhood meeting motif, used in several other scenes, gave the opportunity to stage the community’s responses. Having not caught Madam X in the act of the misdeeds alleged by the Female Colleague, the neighbors conclude: “Insufficient evidence, we’ll have to wait and see” (43-46).

In the next scene of our staging, The Colleague reveals to someone that while “X is my good friend, and I would never stab her in the back [though of course we have just seen her do precisely that], I just want to help her become less arrogant” (62). The Colleague confides that one of X’s male admirers shifted his attention to the Colleague once he noticed she, rather than X, was the “real shimmering pearl” (63). The Colleague’s envy and longing and self-delusion are pitiable, but clearly taint her as a witness to the unfolding events. Throughout both the book and our staging, the characters claim to offer reliable evidence only to reveal bias and jealousies that undercut any level of objective reliability.

In a productive comparative analysis of the work of Can Xue and Helen Cixous, Andrea Bachner notes that when discussing the process of writing both writers split the “writerly subject” into multiple characters, “oscillat[ing] between different personal pronouns” in a way that (per Derrida) “multiplies the loci of enunciation” (Bachner 2005: 161). Thus Can Xue refers to her writer persona variously as “I,” “he,” “the narrator,” or “Can Xue” (161). Though told through the device of The Writer speaking directly to his readers, Five Spice Street achieves a similar splitting of the writerly subject. The witnesses on which The Writer relies offer irreconcilable accounts from the outset: “When it comes to Madam X’s age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street, one person’s guess is as good as another” (3). The opinions range from age twenty-two to fifty and are told in The Writer’s voice, but with quotes of key descriptive phrases from his sources interwoven into the recounting. In the adaptation, I divided lines among the cast to stage the debate directly, rather than rely on The Writer’s report. We learn that he is enthrall to the “classy” Widow who has “influenced the writer his whole life, and he, in turn, has always paid her special respect” (3). To emphasize The Writer’s delusion of objectivity, I borrowed the label “Stenographer” which Can Xue has him using with increasing frequency later in the book even as the narrative spirals more wildly out of his control. Stenographers “take” dictation, they are meant to be passive conduits of verbatim transcription and have less agency to frame that content than a “writer.” Interestingly, in her theoretical essays, Can Xue sees herself as one who passively “writes down” or “records” what surges up in her interior. Bachner notes that where Cixous perceives this creative flow as something welcome or joyous, Can Xue views it as something threatening, even overwhelming. It imposes itself unbidden into her life, and she claims to exert no control over what arises (Bachner 2006 163-164).

Splitting the subject: puppet and puppeteer

This suggestion that the split identity of the artist can exhibit itself through a range of characters was the initial spark for the idea to present Madam X through puppetry. Serving as constant but incomplete referent to Can Xue as the non-conforming outsider and clear allegory for the avant-garde artist, the puppet could be kidnapped to depict events from different points of view. The designer, Kattral Lee O’Sullivan, also operated the puppet, developing an intriguing hybrid portrayal of human and object (fig. 5).


Fig. 5: Designed and operated by Kattral O’Sullivan, the Madam X puppet was a human-object hybrid constructed from discarded plastic and bubble wrap.

Margaret Williams summarizes discourse around spectatorship of puppetry on a continuum that ranges from quasi-mystical belief in the illusion of the performing object’s “life,” at one end, to a function of distancing that foregrounds the “objectness” of the puppet, at the other (123). O’Sulllivan’s design of the Madam X puppet clearly demands attention to its “objectness.” It is adamantly artificial, a found-object concoction of discarded plastic, bubble-wrap, wire, latex gloves, with a cut-off soda bottle for a head. Three-dimensional eyebrows also made of white plastic were the sole elements defining the puppet’s face, leaving the puppet’s emotional expression, like Can Xue’s narrative, open to interpretation. Since we were hoping to establish a strong relationship between the puppet and the puppeteer, O’Sullivan initially held the puppet below her chin so that the audience could consistently observe both hers and the puppet’s face. In rehearsal, however, we discovered O’Sullivan’s “living” facial expressions so overpowered the puppet’s blank facial quality that the puppet became a lifeless prop. When O’Sullivan held the puppet head in front of her face, however, the puppet’s life balance was restored, perhaps because this placed stronger demands on viewer imagination. Instead of being drawn to read O’Sullivan’s human face, we were forced to supply our own versions of the missing emotional detail in the puppet’s suggestive features. Incorporating her own right arm as the puppet’s, O’Sullivan could give Madam X intricate human hand gestures while still allowing other performers to “kidnap” the puppet effectively. In doing so, however, they had to pull the puppet off of O’Sullivan’s arm, enacting both a bodily violation of the puppeteer, as well as a kind of amputation on the puppet and thereby supporting the violence of the abduction metaphor we hoped to convey.

Williams identifies a range of issues raised in performing objects discourse: Is the puppeteer in omnipotent control of the puppet’s destiny, or does the creative authority flow in the opposite direction, as many puppeteers assert, so that the puppet actually dictates its own manipulation (Williams 2007: 121-122), similar to the way Can Xue describes her writing process. Does the puppet perhaps become a single target for the puppeteer’s and the spectator’s projections of their respective subject positions, their “I”? (Williams 2007: 124, citing Bensky). The repeated kidnapping and inconsistent styles of manipulation of the puppet disrupted clear lines of subject projection. Through lighting and stage composition choices, I usually attempted to give equal focus to the kidnapped puppet and to O’Sullivan, inviting the audience to choose where to direct their empathy. At other points, one or the other received clear focus—for example, when The Sister, describing Madam X’s ability to fly, hung the puppet from a hook inside its head and set it swinging (fig. 6).


Fig. 6: Madam X’s Sister (Helen McKenzie) tells how X was able to fly as a child.

Consistent with the numerous contradictions offered up in Can Xue’s writing, but especially in relation to staging the moments when the puppet was separated from puppeteer, we looked to find opposition between action and words. In the first instance of kidnapping, the Female Colleague (Rosie Alldridge) spoke the line “Madam X loved unburdening herself to me,” then physically wrested the puppet from O’Sullivan after a vigorous tussle that hopefully conveyed the idea that the “unburdening” occurred against O’Sullivan’s will (fig. 7). The moment of separation was further emphasized by the sound of a loud explosion and a bright flash of light.[3] After successfully grabbing the puppet, the Female Colleague recounted how Madam X maintained her exceptional eyeballs through constant viewing in a mirror; an interesting visual tension was thus created since the puppet was designed to have no visible eyes, only the suggestion of same provided by the eyebrows. During the segment, Alldridge inverted O’Sullivan’s subtle manipulation methods that had given the puppet breath and life: she shook the puppet like a rag doll and tossed it haphazardly over her shoulder at the end of the speech. Separated from the puppet, O’Sullivan grew increasingly distraught and scrambled frantically to catch the puppet before it hit the ground.


Fig. 7: The Female Colleague (Rosie Alldridge) kidnaps the Madam X puppet, causing distress for the puppeteer.

In her theoretical writing, Can Xue suggests that art and the artist exist at, or even because of, the boundary between every day life and spiritual freedom. According to Bachner, for Can Xue these worlds

are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the journey from one to the other is necessary for the creation of art. Yet, they stand in a relationship of confrontation, and the dividing line runs directly through the writer…. This kind of split involves the whole writerly being, body and mind, and, at the same time, seems to disclaim just such a division: art is delegated wholly neither to the spiritual world nor to the material world, but emerges exactly in their in-between, and so does the artist. (Bachner 2005: 162)

The repeated separation of the Madam X puppet from her puppeteer staged a similar split between and confrontation of material and spiritual aspects of Madam X. In rehearsal, we sought to amplify audience perception of the puppeteer as an essence who, unlike any other character on stage, deserved some level of their trust. We developed the convention that only Madam X’s sister, the one character truly sympathetic to her, could see and address the puppeteer (fig. 8). All other characters interacted solely with the puppet, ignoring the puppeteer as a separate entity. To introduce the convention, the sister used an exaggerated gesture to push the puppet down and kissed the puppeteer’s cheek as she reported: “My sister, X, used to be charming and gentle” (30). She then took the puppet gently rather than forcibly to recount the story from their shared childhood discussed above, in which Madam X starved herself so that she could become light enough to fly (30).


Fig. 8: Madam X’s Sister (Helen McKenzie) is the only character to directly address the puppeteer.

Struggling to find a playable motivation for the relationship between puppet and puppeteer, through experimentation O’Sullivan and I settled on the metaphor of addiction. Contrary to Can Xue’s intentional disruption of character cohesion, we eventually arrived at the idea of the human puppeteer representing Madam X’s soul or essence, while the puppet came to represent the bizarre concoction of fear, repressed desire, and envy with which the community endowed Madam X, and to which both the “essential” Madam X-puppeteer and the community of Five Spice Street were destructively addicted. These choices helped the actors motivate their portrayals and also fuelled the final scene of the production discussed below. While specific enough for the actors to play, I hoped the metaphor remained open enough for audiences to bring their own interpretation to the puppet-puppeteer relationship.

Role Doubling and existential crisis

In another, more theatrically conventional attempt to convey some of the narrative instability in Can Xue’s book, actors played multiple roles. One actor played X’s sister, X’s husband, and Mister Q’s wife. The actor playing the Young Coal Worker also played Mr. Q. Transition from one role to another was signaled by stylized movement sequences accompanied by percussion that ended with the actor taking a clearly contrasting physical postures to that used for the previous character: the actor playing the Young Coal Worker bent forward into an exaggerated slouch as others ceremoniously placed a large letter Q on his head (figs. 9 and 10); two performers briskly removed The Husband’s coat allowing the actor to step forward into a more feminine posture to portray The Sister (figs. 11 and 12).



Figs 9-10: Josh MacDonald as Mr. Q and as The Young Coal Worker (about to “fool around” with Old Woman Jin).



Figs. 11-12: Helen McKenzie as The Sister and The Husband

Though role doubling is a common theatrical convention, we hoped to emphasize the transformations by giving them full performative attention not only to maintain clarity in the midst of a slippery narrative progression but also to reiterate the split between material and spiritual, art and artist that Can Xue theorizes and the puppeteer eventually embodied in the final scene of our production, discussed below.

The highlighted character transitions added a meta-theatrical spin to the problem, posed late in the production, about Madam X’s existence. When the actor steps into a new character, what happens to the one she has left? And how would we know? With only about 10 minutes remaining in the 70 minute long piece, Old Woman Jin asks the writer: “Does Madam X even really exist? And even if she does, why does she exist here on Five Spice Street?” (fig. 13). The Writer is at first nonplussed, stammering:

It…uh…I’m…It’s too late to raise this question! How could we describe such a complex historical episode, duping all these people [indicating audience], if it was trumped up nonsense? Would we do it just for fun? (244)


Fig. 13:  Old Woman Jin asks The Writer: “Does Madam X even really exist?”

Pulling himself together, he then muses: “What on earth is she? Perhaps she doesn’t exist at all. Is it possible that she is merely a figment of our imagination, an expression of our collective consciousness?” (245) The ambiguous human/object hybrid of the puppet, its repeated kidnapping, and the role doubling transitions previously discussed combined to amplify this sudden narrative destabilization—sufficiently fluid theatrical conventions had been established to leave the way open for multiple resolutions to this crisis. At several points in the second section of the novel, Can Xue briefly alights on the question of Madam X’s existence (e.g. 169). But not until the 13th of 17 chapters, titled “How to wrap up all the issues left hanging,” does The Writer discuss the issue at length, posing rhetorical questions and offering up competing explanations that he then resolves through observation and logic. In our staging, I conflated the grotesque Old Woman Jin with another character (a widow who wears a Black Felt Hat, not to be confused with “The Widow”) to give her half of the argument. Interpolating text from an earlier scene, she instructs The Writer to ignore counterfeit heroes like X and pay attention to the “astonishing abilities” of “humble, cautious” people, implying she herself might be one of them (144-147).

In our production, The Writer ultimately convinces himself that X does exist based on his own observation of earthy, mundane details. He says: “But I just saw her this morning, selling beans on Five Spice Street! She was tying an apron around herself. Her hands were rough!” (245). This verbal detail of rough hands as the confirming proof that Madam X exists was undercut with particular force by the design and manipulation of the Madam X puppet: its right hand was the slender human hand of performer O’Sullivan, often held in elegant shapes inspired by Beijing opera (Figure 5), whereas the left hand consisted of a dozen latex gloves bound together to produce a cascading flow of multiple hands suggesting stop motion animation (fig. 14).


Fig. 14: Puppet designer and performer Kattral O’Sullivan manipulates the puppet.

Having convinced himself through observation and logic that Madam X does exist, The Writer then addressed the audience directly:

Friends! Having watched to this point, you’ve certainly guessed the truth, haven’t you? Madam X chose our Five Spice Street where the people are nice, warm, and honest. She knew no matter what she did here, she could get away with it—so she brought those evil props: mirrors and a microscope. Her activities were all a smoke screen. (244-46)

Resolving the existential crisis, he retreats into the now familiar device of vilifying Madam X.

The Ending

Given the vicious gossip and innuendo so frequently directed toward Madam X through the book, the penultimate chapter is particularly surprising. The community inexplicably realizes that Madam X is actually “ahead of her time” and decide to elect her as their local government representative—a job she doesn’t want and agrees to fulfill only by turning somersaults (305-318). Can Xue’s Madam X is thus rehabilitated. But in the final chapter, she is eventually ground into submission by the banality of petty local bureaucracy. Theories of adaptation generally recognize the efficacy of honoring the unique qualities of the medium to which a “source” text is being adapted (Zaitlin 2005: 198; Hutcheon 2006: 33-40). The previously discussed theatrical techniques of role doubling and splitting the identity of Madam X through the use of puppetry were motivated by my understanding of Can Xue’s literary intent. In contrast, I chose to end the production on a strongly theatrical note that carried forward the metaphor of addiction and departed significantly from the narrative structure of the book.

Bachner notes that Can Xue emphasizes the writer’s task in terms of vulnerability: “One has to write naked, to assume an attitude of exposing oneself and being exposed” (162). Can Xue’s Madam X enacts this idea, dancing naked by a river on a lazy summer afternoon thinking she is alone. Someone sees, gossip spreads, husbands start loitering by the river hoping she will repeat the performance. Their jealous wives decide to teach the neighborhood a lesson, offering a “living theater” re-enactment of Madam X’s salacious “strip tease.” The event degenerates quickly so that the whole street is involved,

hugging and kissing everyone they saw, touching others all over their bodies. One or two even “got on with it” on the spot. It was a noisy, rollicking scene. Everyone sweating profusely and breathing hot and heavy like oxen. (94)

In the book, the fling lasts an entire day, but everyone awakens the next morning to embarrassment, even self-loathing. No one mentions the event and all become newly concerned with “moral cultivation” (94). I had previously explored this scene successfully in a composition workshop led by Australia’s Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre Company and confirmed for myself its dramatic potential as the climactic event of a full-length stage production. The event appears only about a third of the way into the book, but it is the culminating event of the first section, labeled “Preliminaries,” and is one of the books most physically active passages.

The transition into the final scene involved a poignant, gentle encounter between Madam X and The Sister:

MADAM X: When I’m here, I feel alone. There are a lot of people outside, but I don’t know them. I pretend that they’re old friends, but in fact, I’ve never been able to tell them apart. I just call out any old name… Sometimes, it’s really quiet here. I don’t know whether this is good or not. Do you remember that we used to sing? That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?….I’m going to leave your brother-in-law. I’ve had a premonition

SISTER (choking sobs): Let’s sing then (she is completely confused, realizing only that catastrophe is about to befall them)

MADAM X: Don’t sing! Just listen—Q is walking back and forth on the hill over there. I can hear him. I hear everything. You know, he doubts his own existence. It’s agonizing… You didn’t understand. Everything happened as I wished, even much better than I wished. You can’t imagine how good it is. I have everything…(182)

The last words were contradicted by the action: the puppeteer heaved off the weighty emotional burden of the puppet, the physical effort of the action infusing the final line, “I have everything” (182). Receiving the puppet, The Sister cradled it tenderly as though it were a dangerously ill, small child. The Puppeteer then exited her house, for the first time free of the weight of her connection to the puppet. Dancing flowingly, she lightly stripped off her top in a manner we hoped would convey a sense of freedom and self-acceptance (the spirit of the scene in Can Xue’s book in which Madam X dances naked alone by a river) rather than, as the gossip and “live theatre re-enactment” later transform the event, a degrading performance of sexual enticement aimed at known spectators.

After slowly drawing to the side the upstage drape to reveal a large opening covered by sheer plastic sheeting, the puppeteer exited the space by mysteriously slipping behind a curtain to continue her dance, visible to the audience through the back-lit plastic, presenting competing layers of shadow and image and exploiting projected shadows to repeat the visual confusion of scale evident in the set design. As the actor moved away from the audience and the screen, she moved toward the light sources, radically increasing the size of the projected shadows. The other characters crept upstage to spy on her, then tore holes in the plastic sheet and crawled out to chase her down, creating a violently chaotic amplification of the layered shadows and images. Dragging the puppeteer back into the theatre space, they burst through the plastic sheet that they then gathered up and used to bind the puppeteer and strap the puppet violently to her back. She turned slowly, displaying a silent scream of agony, as the others engaged in raunchy strip tease choreography (fig. 15).


Fig. 15: Madam X puppet strapped to the back of puppeteer Kattral O’Sullivan as the reenactment of her naked dance by a river degenerates into an orgy.

One reviewer was bewildered by the “orgy” (Smythe 2013), which suggests that the choreography failed to communicate clearly the neighbors’ impetus to parody Madam X’s free expression. Other spectators reported no such confusion and found the scene extremely compelling. In the final moments, the music faded, the movement stilled, and The Sister spoke the closing ironic line while choking back sobs: “Madam X’s steps are buoyant, on broad Five Spice Street, she walks toward tomorrow” (fig. 16).


Fig. 16: The final stage image of an agonized Madam X (Kattral O’Sullivan) is contradicted by the final spoken line: “Madam X’s steps are buoyant, on broad Five Spice Street she walks toward tomorrow.”

The line is the title of the last chapter in the book in which Madam X files an application to have her state-allocated house repaired, thereby signaling to the community that she has become one of them. She is thus no longer of any interest and her repeated applications are ignored until eventually her house falls down. Near the end of the book, The Writer asserts:

Now, at last, we’ve thought it through and won’t expend any more effort to drag [Madam X] into the ranks of our elite citizens. We want her to be a peanut vendor forever. This is best for her and for us…. We want her to go on writing applications. If she wants to be recognized posthumously, could she do any better than by writing applications? Her position will be secured only by the number of her applications. In this lies the value of her existence. (328)

Ending our production with a violent and sexual movement sequence is clearly counter to Can Xue’s ending in which Madam X is ground slowly into submission by banal local bureaucracy, but I believe we approached the terrifying undercurrent of Can Xue’s potent satire. She says of her work:

I never base my writing on concepts; I base my writing on feelings…. [W]hat I portray are the contradictions and struggles in the depths of the soul and the landscape of life of an artistically refined human. My starting point is the impulse of life; the impulse for freedom in the depths of the mind. (Suher 2013)

The final scene aimed to capture the feeling if not the fact of this struggle, linking sexuality to creativity and using the “regular people” of Five Spice Street to stage Madam X’s agonized submission to the internalized oppression that Can Xue battles in her writing.

Megan Evans (Victoria University of Wellington)

Works Cited

Bachner, Andrea. 2005. “New Spaces for Literature: Can Xue and Helene Cixous on Writing.” Comparative Literature Studies, 42, 3: 155-182.

Bensky, R.-D. 1971. Recherches sur les Structures et la Symbolique de la Marionnette. Paris: Editions A.-G. Nizet.

Can, Xue. 2009. Five Spice Street Trs. Karen Gernant and Zeping Chen. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Coleman, Ewan. 2013. “Review of Madam X and Mister Q.” Dominion Post (Feb. 25).

Freeman, Lynn and Michael Wray. 2013. “From Tears to Fears.” Capital Times (Feb 26).

Hughes, Brendan. 2009. “Can Xue’s Five Spice Street.” (June).

Hutcheon, Linda. 2006. A Theory of Adaptation. NY: Routledge.

O’Carroll, Heather. 2013. “Wellington. Rev. of Theatre Season Highlights.” Playmarket Annual no. 48: 33.

Smythe, John. 2013. “‘Make What You Like of It’ Mode Makes for Dispassionate Observation.” (Feb 22).

Suher, Dylan and Joan Hua. 2013. “Interview with Can Xue.” Asymptote (July 2013).

Williams, Margaret. 2007. “Including the Audience: The Idea of ‘the Puppet’ and the Real Spectator.” Australasian Drama Studies 51 (Oct.): 119-132.

Zatlin, Phyllis. 2005. Theatrical Translation and Film Adaptation: A Practitioner’s View. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.


[1] I conducted two workshops with second year undergraduate directing students at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts (中国戏曲学院) in Beijing where students improvised on excerpted passages from the original Chinese text. The final scene—in which gossip about Madam X dancing naked by a river provokes a “living theatre” re-enactment that degenerates into an orgy (93)—was first explored in a week long devising master class run by Australian physical theatre company, Zen Zen Zo. Other workshops and rehearsals were conducted in New Zealand with alumni of the Victoria University of Wellington Theatre Program who had taken a course I teach in Asian Performance Practices in which they had been introduced to xiqu 戏曲 (Chinese opera) in both traditional and modernized forms. All work in New Zealand and Australia was based on Gernant and Chen’s translation and developed with permission by Yale University Press.

[2] Page numbers, without author date designation, refer to the section of the English translation of Five Spice Street  (Can Xue 2009) that served as the main inspiration for a given stage moment.

[3] The explosion sound effect, bright flashes of light, as well as the glow of the theatrical lighting through the translucent plastic of the puppet were all inspired by an event from the book that occurred during the neighborhood debate on Madam X’s age: “After dinner, everyone was sitting out on the street to enjoy the cool breeze when suddenly ‘two balls of white light,’ like meteors, streamed in the air and Madam X’s white silk skirt that ‘shone all . . . through with light’ flashed in front of them.” This evidence of her “graceful, slender” figure supported the contingent of young men believing her to be about 28 while the middle-aged women followed The Widow’s assessment that she was over forty-five (4).