Bus Stop

Bus Stop
[Chezhan, 1981]
Spoken drama (Huaju)
Bus Stop is the first play of the Chinese writer and Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian Written in 1981, the play was considered unacceptable by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre due to its non-realistic tendencies, and shelved for two years. In July 1983, Gao Xingjian and Lin Zhaohua, Deputy Director of the People’s Art Theatre, after a successful run of Gao’s second play Absolute Signal (Juedui xinhao), worked to mount a production of Bus Stop. As a prelude to the performance, Lu Xun’s short text The Passerby was performed. Staged in the Loft Space at the People’s Art Theatre, Bus Stop had a brief run of thirteen performances. The government, under the banner of the ‘Anti-Spiritual Pollution’ campaign, ordered the production closed and heavily criticized the text for deviating from the government-sanctioned cultural model of ‘socialist realism’.
The play was viewed as politically ambiguous with no clear heroes, no affirmation of political policy and a questionable symbolic representation of the socialist system.
Bus Stop tells the story of eight characters, each archetypes representing different elements of Chinese society: Old Man, Mother, Young Woman, Carpenter, Manager Ma, Man Wearing Glasses, Brash Young Man and Silent Man. Each character has hopes for the future, which can only be realized by moving forward into the city. However, their means of transport, a public bus, repeatedly passes by without stopping.
One character, the Silent Man, finally decides to stop waiting and walks into town. The other seven characters remain at the bus stop, passing the time by complaining about the ills of society and their own lack of accomplishment. Failing to take initiative, they wait in line for ten years. At the end of the play the characters resolve their individual differences and, following in the footsteps of the Silent Man, walk together into the city.
Gao’s introductory note to the text indicates that the plot must be driven by musical rhythms. He indicates that this influence in his work is derived from the traditional Chinese opera, which utilizes strong rhythmic patterns to move a plot forward. This technique was a total rejection of the most common form of spoken drama (Huaju) practised in China in 1981, which, influenced by the work of Henrik Ibsen, dictated that the external action be more or less static and that characters perceive everything through internal crisis. In Gao’s text we see exactly the opposite: a character is moved forward primarily by external elements.
Gao encourages the actors to play the characters as abstractions of real life—‘to be alike in spirit’, not realistic in detail. Gao once again makes reference to traditional Chinese opera, where characterization, while based upon the reality of life, does not recreate that reality on stage but instead elevates it to a higher plane through exaggeration. Critics often compare the play to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and identify it as the first play in China to incorporate techniques from the Theatre of the Absurd. However, seeing Bus Stop as merely a Chinese Waiting for Godot limits a Western audience’s ability to understand the dynamic synthesis of Western and Chinese theatrical traditions present in the play and perpetuates the practice of defining non-Western artistic work through a strictly Western ‘lens’.
Bus Stop has been staged in Yugoslavia, Hong Kong, Austria, Romania, Sweden and the United States. The first English-language production was performed in 1986 at the Workshop Theatre at the University of Leeds and was translated and directed by Carla Kirkwood.
Gao, Xingjian (1996). ‘The Bus Stop’. In Yu Shiao-ling (ed.), Chinese Drama after the Cultural Revolution, 1979–1989. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 233–90.
——(1998). Trans. Kimberley Besio. ‘Bus Stop: A Lyrical Comedy on Life in One Act’. In Yan Haiping (ed.), Theater and Society: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama. Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 3–59.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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