It gives us in China great pleasure (not to mention amusement) to see the zest with which our American friends take satisfaction in being the first, the best, the highest -- such as "the first into China." We're not in the running at the moment so we can smile. We could, perhaps go on about paper-making and gunpowder but we're so busy "catching up" that we can only afford to look ahead, not backward.
However, we do have a few first "priorities." Most events here are dated "the first time since before the Cul tural Revolution" or, most infuriating to foreigners, the interpreters' tendency to preface everything by "the first time since the gang of four was smashed. . . ."
So when one of our first (ever) American couples in the college produced Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's DReam" on misdummer eve this year for the first time since the cultural revolution, it may also have been a first ever in China by Chinese teachers in English. The play was cut a little and some New Zealand teachers helped, but the cast was composed of Chinese teachers and postgraduate students.
The difficulties in the path to production were fantastic and typically Chinese. They ranged from lighting problems to the intrepretation of Shakespeare. At one level, the electricians would preen themselves on their heroic unselfishness in sacrificing part of their dinner hour to the noble cause of "the foreigners' play" and then sit down to eat cucumbers and ignore the lighting.
Language was also a problem. As several foreign teachers have remarked to me , if you have ever learned a foreign language you'll readily agree that your native-speaking teacher canm tell you what to say and you can humbly try again and again to say it that way. But this is not the way a Chinese learns English.He inevitably knows what it should be in English and the native-speaker is criticized for pronouncing it in such a stupid way.
This explains why when our American producer issued directions in English they were immediately counter-manded in Chinese by the most enterprising of the cast who then issued a new set of directions
The customes presented a further problem. The simple white sleeveless Athenian tunic idea was rejected outright. We couldn't possibly go on the stage sleeveless. The Duke Theseus and his bride Hippolyta must be clothed in Chinese silks and brocades, and so must everybody else, or it wouldn't look grand enough. That meant that Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals" couldn't possibly be "hempen homespuns" but silken satinspuns. Finally, however, after some bitter international warfare, American common sense prevailed and the Athenian workmen appeared in appropriate simple yellowish patched clothes.
Harking back to my childhood memories, I entertained a mental picture of Titania and her fairies as sulphlike wraiths slipping around airily in clinging diaphonous pale blue, pink, purplish and greenish garments, so translucent that when they were still they melted into the leafy background. Our fairies turned out to be tall straight ladies in strong-green, long-sleeved dresses, decorous even by good Queen Victoria's rigid standards, and, as they danced, Mendelssohn burst out laughing in my ear and said comfortingly, "Never mind, it's not bad considering it's the first time. They'll get the feel of my music soon."
True, nothing could prevent the familiar Shakespearean magic going to work for me on the receiving side of the footlights. As I gazed at Titania charmingly reclining on her "bank where the wild thyme grows/Where oxlips and the nodding violet blows" I received a very special bonus on my midsummer eve. My heart echoed involuntarily, "For this my son was dead, and is alive again," for his Titiana, hounded during the cultural revolution, had committed suicide in the apartment block next to ours and been dragged downstairs as dead by the rebels. Happily, the hospital had brought her back to life and through the years she had fully recovered. Will Shakespeare, sharing my bonus with me, said: "These things seem small and undistinguishable, like far-off mountains turned into clouds" as we watched Titania communicating grace and charm to her audience in a beautiful performance.
When my comrades wanted to know what I thought of all their hard work I answered "Congratulations. A most wonderful first production" and it was the truth.