GAO XINGJIAN became the first writer of Chinese ancestry to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. Initially making his mark in China in the early 1980s with his avant-garde plays and literary essays, he gained renown internationally when his novels Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible began circulating in translation in the 1990s, and his theatrical works continue to be staged around the world. We have found in Claire Conceison (Professor of Theatre Studies and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University) an ideal person to answer questions for us about Gao’s life and diverse writings. As a scholar, theatre director, and the translator of Gao’s most recent plays, she has a multifaceted and ongoing engagement with the author’s translingual oeuvre.
JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: You’ve told me you think of Gao Xingjian, who was the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, as a globally important author. What exactly makes him significant in your mind?
CLAIRE CONCEISON: Gao typifies the current tension between old categories and new lived realities. For a decade before he won the Nobel Prize, Gao was living in an adopted country of his choice, writing separate works in two languages (French and Chinese) and addressing global, rather than local, themes in his work, but scholars, readers, and organizations persistently framed him and his work as “Chinese,” in spite of his disavowal of that label. As a transnational, translingual writer, he represents a lived experience that is increasingly common, so we need to shape new perspectives and categories to accommodate the actual conditions of contemporary global literature. Gao’s global importance as an author, in my view, has to do with this approach to literature that is not bound by nation-state or language, and also has to do with the fact that his creative works are broad in range and genre (plays, novels, essays, films, paintings), his literary pieces and plays are translated into numerous languages and read and seen by readers and audiences all over the world.
How did you first become familiar with his writings?
I encountered his work in 1985 while studying Chinese at Peking University during a semester abroad as a sophomore at Wesleyan University. The waiban (foreign affairs office) offered a field trip for foreign students to attend a play at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, and that play was Gao’s Wild Man (Yeren). My Chinese was at a very early stage and I did not understand much of what was said by the actors, but the visual images (especially the Wild Man taking the child’s hand at the end of the play) have stayed with me ever since — an important point when one thinks about the oft-overlooked difference between drama as text and theatre in performance: visuality, corporeal movement, music, energy between actors and spectators etc. That visceral experience of traveling to the city by bus, sitting in the Capital Theatre for the first time, communing with other audience members, and experiencing the performance of the play clearly had a lasting impact on me, since I went on to make contemporary Chinese theatre the focus of my studies and career. After seeing Wild Man I learned about Gao and his artistic collaborations with director Lin Zhaohua, read Gao’s plays (at that point his other plays that had been produced were Alarm Signal (Juedui Xinhao) and Bus Stop (Chezhan), and heard about the campaign launched against him in 1983 when Bus Stop was staged. Gao was extremely influential and inspirational as an avant-garde playwright in Beijing during the early 1980s, followed by several other important artists and experimental plays in the mid-late 1980s (such as W.M., Rubik’s Cube, Old B Hanging on the Wall, Owl in the Room). I first became aware of him because of his pioneering stage plays and critical essays, and only later came to know him as a novelist, filmmaker, and painter.
Now, many people associate him with novels, but he’s always written plays and your own focus is the theater, so let’s focus on his contributions to drama. How important is he as a playwright? And what makes him unusual as a playwright?
In addition to the impact his early plays had, it is important to note that Gao’s dramatic work is always changing, and one major shift came when he started writing plays in French in the early 1990s in Paris. His characters become more abstract, less specific, more universal, and the themes of sexual relationships, violence and power, death and redemption become more fully developed and more experimental. From a director’s point of view, Gao is both a challenging playwright and a generous one. His plays are difficult but rewarding to stage. They demand versatility from actors to be staged well, and creativity from directors and designers. But the focus is the actor’s body and voice, so they can be staged in quite a minimalist style. Gao began writing plays in collaboration with a director (the aforementioned Lin) and has directed some of his own works — he knows how directors think and builds that into how he writes his plays. The plays are open to diverse interpretations and creative approaches, and Gao welcomes that: he has told me that whatever actors and directors want to do with his plays is fine and appropriate — that in his opinion when a playwright writes a play, he/she is giving it away to those who will collaborate on its production to do with it as he/she pleases (including cuts, changes, and interpretations), whereas when he writes a novel, he writes it directly between himself and the reader and does not want it adapted or changed at will. This is an important insight into his unique qualities as a polymorphic artist and a distinction between his creativity as a playwright and as a novelist.
If you were going to point people to one of his works that is particularly powerful, influential or generally important, which would it be and why?
This is a difficult question, because his works vary tremendously, and also because I have self-reflexive bias as someone who both translates and directs his plays. Among his plays, I have three “favorites” — as a director, I love Bus Stop and thoroughly enjoyed working with an ensemble of actors and an original composer (Lu Pei) on a production at University of Michigan in 2001 just after Gao won the Nobel Prize. It is also an important play thematically for that particular moment in the 1980s in China, and of course because of the government’s reaction to the play, and the debates over its influences from the French absurdists (whom Gao had studied, translated, and loved) is fascinating from a scholarly angle. But I love his plays in French, too, and am particularly attached to Ballade Nocturne which is a “libretto for dance” written in poetic free verse — it is such a unique form and a gorgeous dance of words. Another favorite is Weekend Quartet because of the musicality of the language and its humor (the humor in Gao’s work is sometimes overlooked, unfortunately). All of that said, the Gao play that is staged the most all over the world (including in American universities because it has been anthologized in an anthology edited by William Worthen) is his 1986 Chinese play The Other Shore (Bi’an), which was conceived as an exercise for actors and has powerful (and widely applicable) themes of the destructive force of the collective and the plight of the individual.
I began by referring to Gao as a “Chinese writer,” which he can still be called of course, but by this point, much of what he’s written has been in French and he’s lived a big part of his life in France. You’ve translated some of his work from French into English and also written about his status as a bilingual figure. Any final take-away thoughts on this, perhaps about whether you feel you are reading or hearing a different voice in his works that were originally written in Chinese and those that he writes now in French?
I am fortunate to be the translator of Gao’s five French plays from their original versions into English (he later writes Chinese versions of his French plays and those have been translated into English by Gilbert Fong), and am also writing about Gao as a translingual writer — at some point in the near future my translations of his five French plays and accompanying analysis will be published together as a volume. My translation of Ballade Nocturne (along with the French original) is already published by the American University of Paris as a monograph with Sylph Editions (2010). In Chinese and in French, Gao experiments with language in ways that other writers in both of those languages do not. When one reads or sees a Gao Xingjian play in French, one immediately notices that he is playing with language, experimenting with language, and might infer that this is because he is not a native speaker of the language — that is why it is important to look at his separate works in both languages, because he also experiments linguistically in his native language, Chinese. Regardless of the language in which he writes, Gao is trying to invent new language, transcend restrictions of language, and achieve and explore freedom as an individual (his most cherished ideal). Yes, he does this somewhat differently in French — he feels less restricted in French, and feels that French has more musicality, for instance — but there are also strong similarities in how he experiments in each language.