A small drama in one act

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A cup of tea, a window seat,
An afternoon dialogue.

The scene opens on a sparse set,
My gaze left behind in rapt posture.
Words like moving pictures pass me;
I play myself in tragedy.

Are you all alone where you are

Longing gently touches him.
If I’m not here
where am I?
If I’m not me
who am I?


Vancouver, 1991

Text and artwork ©Lena Tan 1991/2016


Woman with attitude

Seal script character Ying

Seal script for Ying, surname of the ruling house of Qin

Lady Ying of Qin

Lady Ying was a daughter of Duke Mu of Qin (reigned 659 – 620 BCE). She is one of the few women mentioned in the Zuo zhuan, or Zuo Commentary, written around the 4th century BCE, a chronological collection of narratives about the feudal states of China during the later Zhou dynasty (the Spring and Autumn Period 春秋 770 – 476 BCE). The Zuo zhuan paints her as a confident, assertive woman, even if she does not escape the restrictive role given to her by society and the deprecatory comments of the male actors in it. When I began reading the Zuo zhuan, this representation of women as complex characters in their own right was a pleasant surprise, given the strength of the patriarchal dominance of the history and literature of the age. Lady Ying’s story tells us a little bit about one woman from a period that tells us very little about women. In this excerpt, Lady Ying speaks her mind to two lords of the powerful state of Jin, the second of whom is soon to become the famous Duke Wen, hegemon of the feudal lords of the states.

In 645 BCE, Duke Mu, ruler of the state of Qin, attacked and defeated the army of the state of Jin. Duke Mu captured Duke Hui, the ruler of Jin, but allowed Duke Hui to return to Jin in exchange for his son and heir, the Taizi (“designated heir”) Yu.

In the summer (of 643 BCE), the Taizi Yu of Jin became a hostage in Qin. Duke Mu of Qin gave him as wife his daughter Lady Ying.

夏 . 晉 大 子 圉 為 質 於 秦 . 秦 歸 河 東 而 妻 之 .

Yu planned to escape and said to Lady Ying, “Will you return home with this gentleman?”

將 逃 歸 . 謂 嬴 氏 曰 . 與 子 歸 乎 .

She replied, “You, sir, are the Taizi of Jin and you are shamed in Qin. If you, sir, wish to return home, is that not appropriate? But my unworthy lord (her father, Duke Mu of Qin) appointed this handmaid to wait on you holding towel and comb, so as to be your firm support. If I follow you in returning home, I will abandon my lord’s command. I dare not follow you, but I also dare not speak to anyone of this.” So he escaped and went home.

對 曰 . 子 . 晉 大 子 . 而 辱 於 秦 . 子 之 欲 歸 . 不 亦 宜 乎 . 寡 君 之 使 婢 子 侍 執 巾 櫛 . 以 固 子 也 . 從 子 而 歸 . 棄 君 命 也 . 不 敢 從 . 亦 不 敢 言 . 遂 逃 歸 .

In 637 BCE, Duke Hui of Jin died and Yu took the throne. Chong-er, Duke Hui’s half-brother, had been exiled from Jin. He had been travelling from state to state seeking support from their rulers, and was now making his way to Jin to claim the throne.

In Qin, Duke Mu presented him with five women, among whom was Lady Ying. One day, she served him with a basin of water for washing. When he was done, he waved her away. She was angry and said, “Qin and Jin are equals. Why do you disparage me?” The Gongzi (“son of a duke”) was afraid and lowered his robes like a captive.

秦 伯 納 女 五 人 . 懷 嬴 與 焉 . 奉 匜 沃 盥 . 既 而 揮 之 . 怒 曰 . 秦 晉 匹 也 . 何 以 卑 我 . 公 子 懼 . 降 服 而 囚 .

In spring of 636 BCE, Chong-er entered Jin. He sent his people to kill Yu and, with the help of Duke Mu of Qin, took the throne of Jin. He is known posthumously as Duke Wen.

Duke Wen of Jin went to meet his wife Lady Ying and they returned home. Duke Mu of Qin gave to Jin three thousand functionaries who would serve in the institutions of the government.

晉 侯 逆 夫 人 嬴 氏 以 歸 . 秦 伯 送 衛 於 晉 三 千 人 . 實 紀 綱 之 僕 .

Read the rest of the story of Lady Ying.

© Lena Tan 2016. If you quote from this translation, please credit me and reference my website.

Climate Change Chronicles #1

fractal sunsetThis was written in 2007 when a prospect appeared for a collaborative art project on climate change. Nothing, however, happened, except for more weather.

There was a blinding flash. All I could see were streaks of coloured light and the Transsiberian click-clacking into the horizon. “W-a-a-a-i-t,” I shouted. “There’s something I have to tell y-o-u-u-u-u.”

As I stared into the fractal sunset, gigantic flakes of velvety snow began to fall. In the uncanny silence, a single thought punched like a can opener into my resisting mind. Al Gore — Al Gore is back!*

I tried fruitlessly to start her motorcycle. While I was pumping like a demon, a semitrailer pulled up beside me.

The driver’s eyes gleamed in his dark face under a black sombrero. “Where you wanna go?” he asked. I pointed wordlessly down the lone highway.

“Put the bike in the back and get in.”

I hoisted the bike into the insulated trailer full of strawberries and climbed into the cab beside the driver. Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto pounded from the speakers as the truck raced into the driving snow and gathering dusk.

I tried to gather my random thoughts and shape them into a recognizable form. Al Gore — on a television screen.*

Jazz notes began to fill the glasslike clarity of the night.

* This line is changed from the original. Al Gore was interviewed on CBC’s National news on July 09, 2015.

Review: Samuel Beckett, “All That Fall”

Samuel Beckett wrote All That Fall for radio broadcast and did not want it staged, saying, “Even the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings . . . will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing’s coming out of the dark” (quoted by Marjorie Perloff, with italic and ellipsis, in “The Silence That Is Not Silence” ). This Blackbird Theatre staging has the permission of the Beckett estate.

Throughout the production, Beckett’s portrait glows “out of the dark” down on the audience, needlessly distracting. Then, the presentation of the set as a sound studio with actors reading their parts produced an incongruity of costume and action with dialogue – should have listened to it with my eyes closed, as suggested by artistic director Duncan Fraser.

Still, a staged radio play is better than no radio play and this was a fine performance, especially Lee Van Paassen’s portrayal of Mrs. Rooney. But when Jerry gives Mrs. Rooney the thing that “looks like a kind of ball,” it makes a musical sound like a child’s toy. Mystery solved, yet, the sound was not in Beckett’s stage direction, and couldn’t have been his intention, since Mrs. Rooney says, “What is it, Dan?” (Wikipedia’s informative guide to this play provides more clues to what Beckett wished to remain “secret.”)

Perhaps the motion of actors and paraphernalia of sets can detract from the richly funny dialogue, such as this one between Mr. and Mrs. Rooney as they are walking home from the train station.

MR ROONEY: Do you know what it is, I think I shall retire.

MRS ROONEY: [Appalled.] Retire! And live at home? On your grant!

MR ROONEY: Never tread these cursed steps again. Trudge this hellish road for the last time. Sit at home on the remnants of my bottom counting the hours – till the next meal. [Pause.] The very thought puts life in me! Forward, before it dies!
[They move on. Dragging feet, panting, thudding stick.]

MRS ROONEY: Now mind, here is the path… Up! … Well done! Now we are in safety and a straight run home.

MR ROONEY: [Without halting, between gasps.] A straight… run! … She calls that … a straight… run! …

MRS ROONEY: Hush! Do not speak as you go along, you know it is not good for your coronary. [Dragging steps, etc.] Just concentrate on putting one foot before the next or whatever the expression is. [Dragging feet, etc.] That is the way, now we are doing nicely.

(Samuel Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays. Grove Press, 1984.)

All That Fall was broadcast by the BBC in 1957 (joy – it’s on Youtube! search for it). In 1957, BBC was in its seventh year of broadcasting The Goon Show (search for it). You could not stage this either:

[Taxi approaches at terrific speed. Jelly thud sound.]

BLUEBOTTLE: Oooh. You’ve taxied me. Look, the Christmas strings coming off my legs.

SEAGOON: Swallow this first-aid book and custard. I’ll have your legs relacquered free and exported to Poland.

BLUEBOTTLE: You’re a fair man, sir … Merry Krudmas.

ECCLES: Oooh, Bottle. What are you doing under that taxi.

BLUEBOTTLE: It ran over me, Eccles.

ECCLES: You must be rich … I can only afford to be run over by buses.

BLUEBOTTLE: Well, my man when you’re in the big money you know, you can do things like this.

ECCLES: You see, one day I’ll have enough money to be run over by a Rolls-Royce with a chauffer.

BLUEBOTTLE: Well, pull me out then.

ECCLES: Right. Hold this.

BLUEBOTTLE: What is it?

ECCLES: I don’t know, but I got it cheap.

SEAGOON: Let me see what you got cheap.

[Tiger growl]

SEAGOON: Good heavens it’s a genuine hand-operated 1914 tiger.

(The Goon Show, No. 250, December 31, 1958, “Battle of Spion Kop.” Eccles played by Spike Milligan, Bluebottle by Peter Sellers, and Seagoon by Harry Secombe. Spike Milligan, More Goon Show Scripts. The Woburn Press, 1973. )

And a bonus for visiting: this Theater Talk interview, in which Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins talk about their New York performances in All That Fall.

Of dreams and the remains of memories

Brain research tells us that when people start losing their memories, emotional memory is the most persistent. I didn’t know that when I wrote the following. Or perhaps I did know it and have forgotten.

Aug. 16, 1998

She remembers the twelve-year-old sleeping on the cot beside hers – warm, brown, and breathing loudly. But he’s gone, long gone. This stranger coming in now, carnations in one hand, a mason jar in the other, this tall stranger with the strong brown arms – who is he?

She remembers to smile: her mouth smiles, anyway. She asks what he’s been up to. Somewhere in that conversation, there is a spark, a remembrance of laughter, from mouth to eyes to brain to heart – the heart is another muscle and needs to be exercised.

It’s eight o’clock and the visitors are leaving. He leans over the bed and reaches his arms around her. He pats her on the back and she holds herself up straight. “I’ll try to come again. I’ll come again,” he says. “See you, mom.”

This stranger is gone, but the boy, where did he go?

Dark Queen

There was a time when I was still using Windows95 and hooked on Freecell.

April 7, 1998

Kid: Mom?

Mom: Hey hon.

K: Were you talking to yourself?

M: Why do you say that?

K: Let me put it this way. Stop talking to yourself. It’s scaring me.

M: I’m not talking to myself.

K: Well, you’re talking to somebody and I don’t see anyone.

M: All right. I’m talking to the computer.

K: And it’s talking to you?

M: Well, yeah. See, the Queen of Spades is….

K: Now you’re really scary.

M: Go back to bed.

K: How come I don’t get to play so late?

M: ‘Cause you have to go to school.

K: Mom, tomorrow’s a P.D. day.

M: ‘Cause you’re a kid.

K: Yeah? Well, you’re crazy.

M: Go to bed. We’ll talk in the morning.

K: It is morning.

M: Go to bed.

K: Only if you stop talking to yourself.

M: OK – go…. Now where was I?

K: I can hear you!

Must work to free the Queen. The Queen speaks when freed, gives advice on critical issues. “Invalid parameters. Try again.” Losing streak: the Queen can’t be freed; life falls apart. “Fatal error. This program is closing because of invalid input.” Students are macho, racist. Boyfriend becoming verbally abusive. “Enter user-defined string.”

Driving home after dinner with parents.

K: Mom, are you watching the road?

M: Aaaa… yeah, I’m watching the road.

K: The Queen of Spades isn’t here you know.

M: Yeah, I know.

Living Wages

Reuters headline yesterday: “Minimum wage fight hits the streets of nearly 200 U.S. cities”

Aug. 17, 1998

I went to work for a day and they paid me $70 an hour for six hours. At $7 an hour that’s 60 hours, or 42 hours at $10 an hour, more than a week’s work, standing on your feet all day, lifting heavy bolts of fabric, opening drawers of dress patterns, bending and heaving, cutting and turning, until you hurt your back, your wrists, your legs. Arthritis, rheumatism, varicose veins, carpal tunnel, you’ve got it all. $10 an hour – that’s a lot of money. That’s a good job. They made you manager of the store.

“What about you? What do you do?”

“Oh, I – I teach. I work on my own. Not all the time. Just when they call me.” I mumble and avoid their eyes.

They look at me, not sure whether to feel sorry or envious. “It’s good to work for yourself. Set your own hours. No one to be your boss.”

“Ahh… well, I have to work when they call. It’s hard not to know when I have to work. A steady job is good.”

They feel sorry for me now. “Yes, a steady job is good. Bring in some money. Pay the bills. It’s not easy, getting a good job.”

Recent forays beyond the walls: Saint Joan

Saint Joan, the Arts Club production of George Bernard Shaw’s play, featured an amazing portrayal of Joan of Arc by Meg Roe. Shaw wrote the play after the canonization of Joan in 1920. In Shaw’s epilogue, the spectre of Joan asks: “[S]hall I rise from the dead, and come back to you a living woman?” As the men who were just revering the saint on their knees begin to make their excuses and leave, Joan says, “What? Must I burn again?” In this shortened version of the play, only the last lines of the epilogue, which in the original were voiced by Joan, were recited by Meg Roe:

“O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”

Recent forays beyond the walls: The Four Horsemen Project

The Four Horsemen Project by Volcano Theatre of Toronto is a madcap romp based on the sound poetry of Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery and bpNichol. Words degraded into sounds and sounds imbued with meaning, mitigated by the physicality of dance and facial expressiveness of the actors, made for a satisfying and educational experience. At last I understand bpNichol.