The Contemporary, a modern intellectual who is both the narrator of the play and a central character. He moves back and forth in the play’s time structure, introducing the many historical and literary personages, debating with them, and commenting on their role in history and relation to the modern world. the figures represent recurring archetypal characters that populate the modern imagination. the narrator hopes to convince them (and the audience) of the need to break the cycle of their behavior. the return of such tyrants as the Chinese emperor Hwang Ti and France’s Napoleon Bonaparte could mean the end of humanity in the atomic age. For his eloquent warnings of a nuclear holocaust, the Contemporary receives an award from Hwang Ti, but he proves to be ineffectual. Neither the tyrants nor the people are deterred by his intellectual arguments, and the cycle of destruction begins anew.
Hwang Ti (hwahng tee), the emperor of China from 247 to 210 b.c., the gentle-looking but ruthless founder of China’s first central government. To secure his regime from threats outside China, he orders the building of the Great Wall. To maintain totalitarian rule domestically, Hwang Ti demands the absolute praise and allegiance of his people. While seeking to silence the dissent ascribed to an unseen citizen called Min Ko, “The Voice of the People,” the fanatical emperor accuses a mute of being “The Voice of the People” and tortures him, trying to extract a confession. Hwang Ti is deposed by a tyrannical prince who perpetuates the oppression.
Olan, a Chinese farmer’s wife. She and her son have made a pilgrimage to Nanking to see the emperor, and she wonders if the complaints about the emperor are true. When her son is tortured as Min Ko, she refuses to admit the truth, namely that he is mute and unable to register dissent. Her motherly pride prompts her to hail him as “The Voice of the People.”
The Mute, Olan’s son Wang. Because he is the only silent member of a throng cheering the emperor, he is arrested as the traitorous Min Ko, the final enemy in the land.
Mee Lan, the daughter of the emperor. She is dissatisfied with the powerful young princes who court her and seeks instead a defender of truth and intelligence such as the Contemporary. Mee Lan’s humanistic inquiry of him (“What do you know about man?”) is answered brutally by the revolutionary forces who ravish her.
Wu Tsiang, a Chinese prince who is betrothed to Mee Lan. He is bitter because she, who despises his love of power, refuses to marry him. the prince promises revenge and leads the revolt that topples the emperor.
The Maskers, historical and literary figures promenading in a polonaise, “like figures on a musical clock,” symbolizing the recurrent forms of human thought and behavior.