LAI SHENGCHUAN, A.K.A. STAN LAI (1954— ) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

LAI SHENGCHUAN, A.K.A. STAN LAI (1954— ). Born in Washington, D.C., Lai Shengchuan moved to Taiwan in 1966 with his family when his diplomat father received a new assignment in the foreign ministry of the Republic of China. He moved back to the United States in 1978 to study dramatic art at the University of California at Berkeley. After he received his Ph.D. in 1983, Lai accepted a teaching post at the newly established National Art Institute in Taipei. It did not take long for Lai to make a name for himself. The pivotal moment came in 1985 when his Performance Workshop Theater staged his Na yi ye women shuo xiangsheng (That Night We Performed Crosstalk), which was an overnight hit. A few years later, he created more “crosstalk” plays: Zhe yi ye shui you lai shuo xiangsheng (Tonight Who Will Perform Crosstalk, 1989); You yi ye tamen shuo xiangsheng (One More Night They Performed Crosstalk, 1997); and Qian xi ye women shuo xiangsheng (On the Eve of the Millennium We Perform Crosstalk, 2000). By using a traditional art form, crosstalk, Lai created modern plays that look at the collective memory of the Chinese people and their views of history, tradition, and life in general. In Na yi ye women shuo xiangsheng, two crosstalk performers masquerade as the great crosstalk masters who have been invited to give a performance but fail to show up, alluding to the disappearance of tradition in modern Taiwan society. Qian xi ye women shuo xiangsheng covers two historical periods. The first episode takes place at the end of the 19th century with two crosstalk artists engaging in a conversation with a Manchu noble; in the second episode, the same theater is moved to Taipei and on the eve of the millennium the performance of a pair of crosstalkers is interrupted by a politician campaigning for a seat in the Taiwan parliament. The crosstalk series breathed life into an old form that had virtually disappeared in Taiwan.

In total, Lai has created almost 30 plays, including his most famous An lian taohua yuan (Pining … In Peach Blossom Land; 1986), a comedy that involves two theater groups mistakenly booked into the same theater for dress rehearsal, one performing An lian (Secret Love), a serious drama set in present-day Taiwan about a dying elderly man longing to see his first love from whom he was separated in 1949, and the other Taohua yuan (Peach Blossom Land), a farce that parodies a lyrical prose work written by a fourth-century Chinese poet about a man stumbling into a utopian world of peace and tranquility. The scheduling conflict reflects the more serious philosophical differences between the two groups forced by circumstances to share the same stage. As a result, chaos and madness ensue, creating some hilarious theatrical moments that underscore the contending views in the Chinese world with regard to visions of longing, memory, diaspora, identity, and life. In his eight-hour epic drama Ru meng zhi meng (A Dream Like a Dream; 2000), Lai sets up a narrative structure in which past and present, dream and reality intersect to create a fantastic world in which the characters engage in thoughtful reflections on national and cultural identity, which is shaped by history and shifting changes in politics, the experience of home, exile, and immigration. This poetic play about self-transcendence is clearly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, which Lai has been studying for years. Lai’s other plays include Yuanhuan wuyu (Circle Story; 1987), Xi you ji (Journey to the West; 1987), Huitou shi bi an (The Island and the Other Shore; 1989), Taiwan guai tan (Strange Tales from Taiwan; 1991), Hongse de tian kong (Red Sky; 1994), Xiansheng kai ge men (Please Open the Door, Sir; 1998), and Wo he ta he ta he ta (Me and Him and Him and Him; 1998).

Arguably, the most influential playwright/director alive today in the Chinese-speaking world, Lai has not only revived Taiwan’s theater but also brought enthusiasm and excitement to theaters in China and in the Chinese diaspora. Lai’s dramatic aesthetics—the multilayered structure, highly theatrical language, symbolic stage design, humor, romantic mood, free-flowing mise-en-scène, cultural implications, deep sense of tragedy, and persistent attempt at wrestling with some profound and abstract ideas—have far-reaching impacts in the Chinese theater. His plays, which are often compared to works by Tony Kushner, Robert Lepage, and Peter Brook, have toured internationally and have been well received. For his achievement as an artist and his leadership in the Taiwanese theater, Lai has twice (1988, 2001) received Taiwan’s highest award for the arts, the National Arts Award. See also SPOKEN DRAMA.