The Sound of a Voice

by David Henry Hwang

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Historical Context

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Asian American Literature
Until the 1950s, most literature published in the United States that pertained to the Asian experience was written by non-Asian authors. One of the most prominent writers of this genre was Pearl S. Buck, the daughter of Presbyterian missionary workers who were stationed in China. Buck’s most famous work was called The Good Earth (1931), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a simple Chinese family and their poverty. Buck called on her experiences of living in rural settings in China, pointing out both the need for landownership for economic stability, as well as other social issues such as the low status of Chinese women.

In the 1960s, with old quotas on immigration from Asian countries abandoned, the Asian American population quickly expanded. Then in the 1970s, with the popularity of Maxine Hong Kingston’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir, Woman Warrior (1976), interest in the lives and literature of Asian Americans began to blossom. Ten years later, Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club (1989) and subsequent movie broadened the scope.

Today there is a national writers’ organization devoted to Asian American authors; most colleges offer courses in Asian American studies; and burgeoning sales in literature and memoirs by Asian Americans are encouraging Asian American authors to widen their scopes and offer works not just on the topics of immigration and assimilation but also on themes of love or on everyday occurrences such as those in David Wong Louie’s novel The Barbarians Are Coming (2000) about a Connecticut ladies’ club.

Movies with Asian American Themes
Hwang has stated that many of his childhood images of Asian American models came to him through the movies. Such productions as the Charlie Chan movies, which were made during the 1930s and starred non-Chinese actors in the main role, portrayed a somewhat witty detective who often resorted to the quoting of pithy Chinese proverbs. Although Chan was a likeable character, Dr. Fu Manchu, an evil Asian crime lord created in the 1960s, was not. Hwang has said that he was often embarrassed by these mid-century movie characters.

Movies with Chinese themes took another turn in the 1970s, with the production of martial arts driven movies, especially those starring Bruce Lee, such as his Enter the Dragon (1973). Amy Tan’s movie, The Joy Luck Club (1993), based on her novel, which enjoyed seventy-five weeks on the New York Times’s best-selling list, marked a new interest in Asian American people not as stereotypes of themselves but as real people dealing with genuine problems as they adjust to life in the States. Although movies with Chinese themes are still not prolific, the quality of such movies are changing, as witnessed with the production of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which went on to win four Academy Awards.

Politics in China during the Mid- Twentieth Century Hwang’s father, Henry Yuan Hwang, left his native Shanghai, China, in the late 1940s, because of the communist takeover of his country. Prior to the communist takeover, parts of China had been controlled by Britain, Portugal, and Japan. After their support of the Allies during World War I, China had been promised that their land would be returned to them; however, it was not. In reaction to the broken promise, about three thousand students held a protest in Tiananmen Square on May 4, 1919, and this event became known as the beginning of the nationalist movement. In 1925, Chiang Kaishek took over the leadership of the fledgling Nationalist Party and began to unify the southern portion of China, massacring communists along the way. One young communist who was able to...

(This entire section contains 749 words.)

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avoid being murdered was Mao Zadong, who would later become a powerful communist leader. The nationalists were making very successful strides in ridding the country of communists until Japan decided to invade Manchuria in 1937. With this invasion, the nationalist armies had to turn their attention to the Japanese, who were massacring large portions of the Chinese population.

In 1941, after the assault on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese could not long pursue their visions of conquering China, as the U.S. military sought revenge on the Japanese homeland. With the Japanese out of the picture, the Chinese Communist Party regrouped and found that their military strategies were far superior to the nationalists, who had grown undisciplined due to rampant and intractable corruption, which had left the party all but bankrupt. By October 1949, Chiang Kaishek had fled to Taiwan and Mao Zadong had proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.

Literary Style

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One-Act PlayThe Sound of a Voice is a one-act play, consisting of nine short scenes played by only two actors, a man and a woman. The first two scenes introduce the characters. The audience learns that the man is a traveling Samurai swordsman and that the woman lives alone in the woods. Other needed information is passed back and forth, and by the end of the second scene, the woman has invited the man to stay at her home. It is obvious that neither the man nor the woman know one another very well, but through their dialog, the audience senses that they both have needs that they each are hoping the other might satisfy. It is not clear, yet, what those needs are, but dramatic tension begins to build, and the audience’s curiosity is aroused simultaneously with the curiosity of the characters as they too explore the possibilities. What do the characters want from one another? How are they imagining they might get what they need? Is it a physical attraction or do their needs go much deeper? This scene is used to draw the audience into the characters lives.

Intimacy begins to brew in scenes 3 through 5, with a continuing rise in dramatic tension. The man takes part in some of the domestic chores, demonstrating the first hints that he is willing to share in the woman’s life, that he wants more than just a few hours of physical pleasure. However, the sexual attraction is present, and the couple draws closer to one another physically, as the man bares his chest and then self-consciously makes fun of his girth.

The woman touches his bare skin for the first time, as she gently reprimands him for putting down his physical appearance. With this gesture, the the woman suggests a variety of emotions. She is stating that the aging process need not be something that one fears. Rather, one should learn to love the various stages of life, not just youth. She is also saying that the physical is only one aspect of their attraction, and that the need to share goes much deeper. She signals her willingness to take the relationship beyond the physical by sharing her music with the man. Music is sensual, but it also signals a language that goes beyond words to a more spiritual realm. For his part, the man helps the woman remove a stain from her floor, one that she has been trying to get rid of for a long time. This signifies the man’s desire to help the woman on a deeper, psychological basis, helping the woman to wipe out a pain she has suffered in the past. By scene 6, which is without dialogue, it is evident that the man and the woman are pursuing something that goes much deeper than lust.

In scene 7, trouble enters the picture, as the woman outmaneuvers the man in sword play. This causes the man shame and makes the woman regret that she may have stepped outside of the boundaries of what a woman is supposed to do. The man is further humiliated in scene eight when the woman takes away his sword while he is in the midst of performing a dangerous meditation. These scenes represent the major challenge the lovers must face. The woman has always been afraid of her powers in terms of her relationships with men. Once she fully exposes her strengths, men walk away from her. She does not try to squeeze herself into the typical, socially described definition of what a woman should be. She exhibits her strength and intelligence. The man, on the other hand, has been warned of women like her, women who will sap his strength, imprison him. The actions of this scene play into the stereotypical definitions of man and woman. The challenge to the characters is to see if they can lift themselves beyond the social definitions of how a man and a woman should act. They also must redefine love in terms of strength rather than weakness. If they do not succeed, the potential for love will turn to tragedy. This is the height of dramatic tension. Many questions have been answered. The relationship has reached a plateau. The decisions that the woman and the man make will determine whether this is a play of romance or tragedy.

In the final scene, the characters act demonstrate their conclusions. The woman has lost hope. She has opened herself to the man but has become too vulnerable. She has suffered too much loneliness and isolation in the past and cannot bear to suffer any more. She has also misjudged the man, believing that he cannot bear her strengths and is leaving. The man, tragically, has overcome his fear of the woman and his fear of intimacy, but he hesitates, which becomes his fatal flaw. This is a love story, but it ends tragically.

Symbolism abounds in Hwang’s play. Of all of the symbols, sound is the most abundant. One of the first is the sound of tea being poured into a cup, which the man refers to as soothing. Later on, he tells the woman that he spent the night at the foot of a waterfall in the woods, which he also found soothing. The sound of water falling is soothing as a substitute for human voices, and the pouring of tea is part of an etiquette ritual that symbolizes companionship. Thus, Hwang is suggesting that the man also finds the woman soothing. These sounds temporarily answer a need for human contact, serving as symbols that incorporate the main theme of the play—the need for love and intimacy. The other obvious sound symbol is that of the shakuhachi, the Japanese flute that the woman plays. She relates it to the sound of the human voice just as the man interprets the sound of the waterfall; when she first plays the flute, she does so very softly. This is symbolic of the woman’s fear of truly expressing herself. She is afraid that if she tells the man exactly what she is feeling, she might scare him away. She states that she plays for her own satisfaction and does not know if what she is ‘‘saying’’ with the flute is appropriate.

Another dominant symbol is that of the flowers that the woman tends. They have been put in her care, she tells the man. They have come to her from all over, brought by visitors. When the man investigates the flowers, he believes that he can hear the sound of men’s voices inside the flowers, moaning, peacefully so, as if they have been entrapped. The woman keeps the majority of the flowers in her private room, bringing out only a few at a time to place in a vase each day. At night, she takes them back into the room with her. Whether or not the flowers represent actual men is not important. Rather, it is the care that she gives the flowers and the vibrant colors of the flowers that are significant. These attributes of caring and vibrancy might also be observed in her emotions, in her willingness to love, and the depth and nourishment of that love. At one point, the man secretly takes one of the flowers from the vase and keeps it under his pillow, signifying that he wants a part of her love, despite the fact that he is concerned that he, too, might become entrapped.

Another symbolic act occurs when the woman is scrubbing the floor in scene 5. She comes upon a stain on the floor and tells the man that is has been there ever since she moved in. She has not been able to remove the stain, but the man wants to give it a try. He rubs to a rhythm as he recounts that he is slowly getting rid of it. First, the edges of the stain fade, then he moves ‘‘towards the center—to the heart.’’ This stain might represent the sorrow that the woman has felt throughout the years as other men have come and gone, taking a piece of her heart with them. The removal of the stain might be a process of healing for the woman. When the stain is gone, the woman thanks him, and he states: ‘‘We are a team!’’

Compare and Contrast

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1980s: Up from 1.5 million in the 1970s, the Asian American population starts out at nearly 3.7 million in 1980, a figure that almost doubled through the remainder of the decade.

Today: The Asian American population is over 10 million people.

1980s: Amy Tan’s success with her novel The Joy Luck Club (1989) and subsequent movie of the same name popularizes literary works by Asian American authors.

Today: Many prominent Chinese Americans are leaders in the fields of politics, computer technology, medicine, and the arts. Dr. David Ho, Time magazine’s Man of the Year, is honored for his research into the AIDs epidemic. While in the arts, Yo-Yo Ma enthralls audiences with his tentime Grammy-winning performances on the cello.

1980s: Mao Zadong’s Cultural Revolution is officially proclaimed a catastrophe as China undergoes substantial political reform with Hua Guofeng, a protege of Mao, being replaced as premier by reformist Sichuan party chief Zhao Ziyang.

Today: As unemployment figures soar in China, their officials search for ways to keep tabs on social unrest.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES Reiner, Jay, Review of Flower Drum Song, in the Hollywood Reporter, Vol. 370, No. 23, October 15, 2001, pp. 6–7.

Review of The Sound of a Voice, in People Weekly, Vol. 21, January 9, 1984, p. 88.

Rich, Frank, ‘‘Theatre: Sound and Beauty, Two One-Act Plays,’’ in the New York Times, November 7, 1983.

Sarver, Linda, ‘‘Between Worlds: The Sound of a Voice and Pay the Chinaman,’’ in Theatre Journal, Vol. 47, No. 1, March 1995, pp. 145–47.

Daidoji, Yuzan, Code of the Samurai, Charles E. Tuttle, 1999. The role of the Samurai warrior in Japanese culture began in ancient times but continues to influence contemporary Japanese culture, politics, family life, and individual personality. This new explanation of the basic Code of the Samurai way of life helps Westerners better appreciate Japanese warrior history.

Hanke, Ken, Charlie Chan at the Movies: History, Filmography, and Criticism, McFarland, 1989. Hanke provides an in-depth study of the Charlie Chan movie series, covering the various actors who played the main characters, a synopsis of each film, and other details.

Kawaii, Hayao, and Gerald Donat, eds., Dreams, Myths, and Fairy Tales in Japan, Daimon Verlag, 1995. As The Sound of a Voice is based on the form of a Japanese fairy tale, reading this book, which explains the form as well as its meaning in Japanese culture, offers a deeper understanding of the psychological underpinnings of Hwang’s play.

Lee, Josephine, ed., Performing Asian American: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage, Temple University Press, 1997. Josephine Lee explains the complex social and political issues depicted by Asian American playwrights. Discussed are such plays as David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, Frank Chin’s The Chickencoop Chinaman, Velina Hasu Houston’s Tea, Jeannie Barroga’s Walls, and Wakako Yamauchi’s 12–1-a.

Wong, Sau-Ling Cynthia, Reading Asian American Literature, Princeton University Press, 1993. As the field of Asian American literary studies grows, questions inevitably arise about how the works are to be interpreted. Authors whose work is explored include Frank Chin, David Henry Hwang, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa, David Wong Louie, Bharati Mukherjee, Amy Tan, Shawn Wong, and Wakako Yamauchi.


Critical Essays


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