The Sound of a Voice

by David Henry Hwang

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2031

Scene 1
In scene 1 of Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice, the man character is sitting inside the female character’s house. She is serving him tea. She then offers the man food, because she can tell that he has been walking for many days and because she wants to make him feel welcome.

The woman asks the man if he is tired, and he tells her that he slept in the woods the night before, next to a rushing waterfall, which broke the silence. Neither th man nor the woman like silence. She states that she will sleep well if the man stays, because she will hear the sound of his breathing. When asked his name, the man refuses to give her one. The woman, in turn, tells the man that he can call her Yokiko, although she suggests that this is not really her name. The man tells her that she is very kind. The woman tells him that he is very smart.

Scene 2
The man is getting dressed when the woman enters the room. She senses that he is leaving. He has a great distance to travel, he tells her. When she asks where he is going, the man offers vague images without detail, and the woman does not believe him. The woman talks about the care that she gives the flowers. When the man asks what it is that she does, she tells him that it is difficult to put it into words. ‘‘It takes hundreds of words to describe a single act of caring,’’ she tells him. Then she asks him to stay ‘‘as long as you’d like.’’ She longs for the man’s company, and he is attracted to her caring touch, but at the same time, he is also wary of needing her.

Scene 3
The man chops wood, a chore that he particularly enjoys. When the man notices that the woman is staring at his belly, he becomes self-conscious about his lack of body tone and makes fun of his body. The woman reprimands him. She demonstrates how he should care for his body, whether or not it is in good shape. The scene ends with the woman placing her hand on his belly, and the two of them staring into one another’s eyes, suggesting the first intimacy between them.

Scene 4
There is no dialogue in this scene. The man is lying on his sleeping mat, in a separate room from the woman. He suddenly lifts his head as if he is straining to hear something. In the background, finally, he hears the soft sound of a musical instrument (a shakuhachi, a Japanese flute), which quickly fades away. He takes out a flower that he has hidden under his pillow, a flower that he stole from the vase that the woman has since removed from the room. He stares at it. He is drawn to the music, but the flower represents something that scares him. He has heard rumors about other men who have come to this woman’s house and have never returned. Although his feelings for her are being aroused, he does not want to be entrapped by this woman.

Scene 5
Scene 5 opens with the man watching the woman scrub the floor. He tells her that he heard her playing music the night before and asks that she play for him. She is shy about her abilities, believing that he will laugh at her because of her unsophisticated tastes in music. Then, she comes across a stain in the floor, one that she has tried for as long as she has lived there to remove. The man goes over and helps her. When he is successful in removing the stain, he states: ‘‘We are a team! You and me!’’ This scene is symbolic of the couple’s growing relationship.

The woman suggests that she is ready to play the shakuhachi for him, but she tells him that she usually plays only to please herself, to makes sounds like the human voice to keep herself from being so lonely. In her willingness to play for him, the woman is exposing herself, making herself vulnerable to the man.

Scene 6
There is no dialogue in scene 6. It is nighttime again. The man is sleeping when all of the sudden he hears the woman’s music. This time, he hears it more clearly. The woman is playing louder than usual. He stands up and puts his ear to the door of her room and slowly slides the screen open so he can see her. He watches her as she takes care of her flowers, which are spread around her room. She is dressed in a vibrantly colored robe, and the man is amazed at her beauty. He then closes the door and returns to bed.

Scene 7
In the morning, the man is practicing sword maneuvers. It is obvious that he has lost some of his skills. When the woman appears, he tells her that he heard her playing music the night before. She asks if he enjoyed it and then tells him that she wants to play for him every night. He turns her offer against himself, believing that she plays for him so he will fall asleep. This makes him feel like a baby who must be soothed. She tells him to stop making fun of himself. Then she says that she likes to play for him in order to shape his dreams.

The man insists that she become involved in his swordplay and is totally caught off guard when she outmaneuvers him. Her having beaten him makes the woman feel uncomfortable, ‘‘undignified.’’ The man encourages her to try again. He is impressed with her skills. The woman, however, is afraid that her skills make her look too manly. She is concerned that she will not appear attractive because of her strength.

The woman is afraid that the man will now want to leave, because she has embarrassed him with her abilities. She insinuates that she can outmaneuver men in many different ways, and that is what makes them want to leave. She is now afraid that the man will do the same.

The man tells the woman that he has heard rumors that she is a witch and that she imposes curses on men who come to visit her. He tells her that she is beautiful. He is trying to tell her that he came to her house with some preconceived idea, but after living with her, he is beginning to lose his fear of women.

The woman confesses that there have been men who have come to her house with the idea of ‘‘killing the witch in the woods.’’ She then realizes that he may have come for the same reason. He confesses that he is still somewhat afraid of her. He claims he hears voices when he looks into the flowers that she tends, insinuating that she has the power to imprison the spirits of the men. He listens to their hum, which he describes in positive terms: ‘‘It hums with the peacefulness of one who is completely imprisoned.’’ Here he suggests his fear of the power of love and is afraid of surrendering to his emotions. She, too, is afraid. She tells him that it is not only the man who suffers in love, women also must surrender to it. In the past, when she has done so, the man has left, taking a part of her heart with him. She then declares that if the man has come to kill her, he should do it now, because she cannot stand to have her heart broken again. The man tells her that he would never leave her. The woman says that she believes him.

Scene 8
The woman opens this scene by confessing that she has never cried in her life. She is incapable of releasing the pain that she has endured. She is dressed in a special kimono, one that the man has only seen by peeking into her room at night. She suggests that they might go out that day, maybe just for a walk. She then wants to get something for him, but all he wants to do is practice his sword maneuvers. When she leaves the room, he sits down and places the sword on the floor, with its tip pointing upward, and he rests his chin on it. When the woman returns, she grabs his head and jerks it upward away from the sword, fearing that he will hurt himself. The man claims that what he was doing was a form of meditation. She tells him it is dangerous. He tells her that she is treating him like a child. He explains the practice, telling her that the friend who taught him this meditation had said that he could ‘‘feel the line between this world and the others’’ when he rested on his sword in this way. His friend told him that if he saw something in one of the other worlds that he liked better, all he had to do was to apply pressure on the sword with his neck, and he would be there. One day, he found his friend dead, with the sword having pierced his throat. He must have found something better, the man tells the woman, or else he had merely made the mistake of having fallen asleep on it.

The woman claims that the man is tormenting her, and yet she tells him if that is how he wants to leave her, she could help him by pushing down on the back of his head. She would then commit suicide so that she could be with him; but then, she tells him to stop this type of meditation. He refuses. She insists; he tells her if she comes any closer, he will drop his head on the sword. She moves slowly toward him, stares into his eyes, then removes the sword, and takes it away.

Scene 9
The woman enters the room and sees that the man is getting ready to leave. She asks if he was just going to sneak out on her like a frightened child. He tells her that he cares about her, but he must leave because she has shamed him. He ‘‘came seeking glory,’’ he tells her. She asks if his glory was to be gained by his killing her. He does not directly answer her but does state that he was too weak to kill her and too weak to kill himself. He tells her that she has defeated him. He confesses, obliquely, that he has fallen in love with her, and it is the love that has weakened him, or so he believes.

The woman tells him to kill her, but he cannot. She tells him that she wants him to stay. They could offer one another solace. ‘‘The sound of a human voice,’’ the woman claims, is so simple and yet so hard to hold on to. She would rather that the man kill her than be left alone in her house. He responds that she should force him to stay; but she will not do that. She does warn him, however, that he walks on fragile ground. If he were to leave her, it would be as if he had fallen into a deep bottomless crevice. He would spend the rest of his life falling, always fearing when he would hit the bottom. Having been touched by love, she posits, he cannot go back to living as he had in the past.

The woman then leaves the room. The man starts to follow her, then turns around and rushes outside, then turns again, and walks back into the house and slowly toward her room. He opens the door and peers in. Then he returns to the main room and unrolls his sleeping mat. He notices the shakuhachi, picks it up, and blows into it, trying to make a sound. The woman’s room then lights up, and the audience sees that she has hung herself. The flowers around her have all been ‘‘blown’’ off, their petals are strewn around the room.

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