The Chinese Wall begins with a prologue in which the Contemporary Man appears in front of a middle curtain and addresses the audience. On that curtain is a depiction of the famous Great Wall of China. The Contemporary Man describes the wall from the perspective of the twentieth century—he explains that it is as long as the distance between New York and Berlin—and he asserts that it is merely one of the many unsuccessful efforts in history to make time come to a standstill, to stop the march of history. Then he announces who will soon appear onstage: Emperor Hwang Ti, under whose reign the Great Wall was completed, the historical personalities listed above under principal characters, as well as Pontius Pilate, Emile Zola, Ivan the Terrible, Lohengrin, Abraham Lincoln, and others.
A Chinese mother and her mute son enter the stage. The Contemporary Man alternately talks with the mother as though they were both in the same place and time and comments on the two of them from his distance of more than two thousand years. The mother explains who she is, at least allegorically, when she tells him: “I am the mother who never plays a role in the history of the world.” Mother and son have journeyed for more than a year in order to reach Nanking and see their emperor, Hwang Ti. The mother tells the Contemporary Man that there is an unknown “voice of the people” whose sayings, critical of the emperor, are known by all.
At that moment, the imperial crier appears, announcing in militaristic fashion that “the world belongs to us!” and that the emperor’s men will search the entire land until they find the “voice of the people,” the “only opponent in the land,” and put his head on a lance. The mother, obviously intimidated, can only call out: “Heil! Heil! Heil!” The Contemporary Man asserts both to the mother and to the audience that what was just witnessed clearly signifies a crisis for a political and military power that has conquered everything, “but not yet the truth.” Finally, he declares to the audience: “The play is about to begin! . . . Location: this stage. Time: this evening.”
The first of twenty-three ensuing scenes begins with a very familiar theater couple, Romeo and Juliet, engaged in the famous Shakespearean dialogue that takes place as dawn approaches after the two lovers have spent the night together. Suddenly a waiter appears in the bedroom in a tuxedo and announces that the dance is beginning on the terrace. Thrown out of his role, Romeo expresses his confusion about where they are and when; he even wonders what atoms are.
The lovers’ room is transformed into a terrace, and there appear in costumes and masks such notables from history as Napoleon, Cleopatra, Don Juan, Joan of Arc, Frederick the Great, Helen of Troy, Wallenstein, Mary Stuart, and numerous others. The Contemporary Man pulls Napoleon aside in order to speak with him. He does so from his vantage point some 125 years after Napoleon’s death; after telling Napoleon of his fame, which is still very much alive, he tries to make it clear to Napoleon that he must never return to life. The world cannot afford tyrants any longer, he says, because “the atom can be split” and a nuclear holocaust could be the result.
In the company of Napoleon, the Contemporary Man introduces and speaks to several other costumed and masked figures, including Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, Ivan the Terrible, and finally Pontius Pilate and Don Juan. Each shows...
(The entire section is 1432 words.)