Themes and Meanings
In a blend of social criticism, comedy, pathos, fantasy, satire, and symbolism, The Dance and the Railroad touches on sympathy toward and understanding of “the other,” self-realization, innocence versus experience, and art and language. Just as Lone’s ordering Ma to play the duck and locust facilitate Ma’s sympathy or identification with those creatures, so too do elements of society in China as well as in the western United States need lessons in compassion. Great unfairness exists not only in American society, witnessed in the treatment of the railroad bosses of Chinese workers, but also within Chinese society—including the Chinese subculture in the United States. Chinese parents sell their own children to the professions, families abuse their younger sons, polygamous marriages are arranged, greedy clan leaders act as brokers for indentured workers, and the railroad workers themselves take advantage of newcomers.
Self-realization requires overcoming many obstacles in life. This is true not only within society but also in the natural world, as suggested by the song of the mountain, repeated three times in the play. The natural world is represented by the stony antagonist against which Chinese workers battle to build the railroad.
The dedication, discipline, and talent required to create art are also conveyed by the play’s focus on the Chinese opera. Sadly, however, the artistic dancing of the opera is subjugated to the massive, mechanical building of railroad tracks and running of the trains, as suggested by the play’s title. However, the playwright himself, Hwang, triumphs. Not only does he overcome the problems depicted in the play to create this work of art but also he subdues the problems of language inherent in the clash between Chinese and American cultures. His persistent use of American slang in the dialogue helps suggest the fluid colloquialism of the Chinese in their own language, as well as the universal bond among human beings. Further, out of the disparate materials of colloquial American English, the nonstandard English of the Chinese workers (“Eight hour a day good for white man, all same good for Chinaman”), imagery, figurative language, comic repartee, and passages of verse (including rhymed stichomythia in which verses are recited alternately by speakers), Hwang creates an artwork whose unity is itself a model of the harmony that should exist within society, among societies, and between humanity and nature.