During rehearsals, Associate Artistic Director and Chimerica director Nick Bowling (NB) caught up with British playwright Lucy Kirkwood (LK) to ask about the inspirations for the play, America’s blind spots, and the meaning of Tank Man.
(NB) What was the impetus to write a play about “Tank Man”?
(LK) I have always been fascinated by the photograph—the mystery of it, I suppose. The fact that we cannot see the man’s face, that he seems to have acted spontaneously, the David and Goliath structure of the image.
When I left university and got the original commission in 2006, I started to understand the ways in which the West and China had become economically bound, despite maintaining vast cultural differences, and found this fascinating. I also became aware of the depths of my own ignorance about China, so tracing the lines between that photograph and the present became a compelling game for me.
Also, I am deeply interested in protest and protest movements, and feel the power of these have been eroded in the West, and the Tank Man photo shows a remarkable act of protest.
Finally, I think national borders are increasingly useless tools with which to think about ourselves in the world. I am more interested in the international, and Tank Man was a way into global questions.
(NB) What were the most surprising things you learned about him, or about the 1989 protests?
(LK) Going right back to the beginning of my research when I knew very little about Tiananmen, the sheer number of protesters was a great surprise, as well as the fact that they weren’t just students, but people from every walk of life.
On a more trivial note, I also discovered that all of the artwork for Disney’s The Little Mermaid was being stored at a warehouse a couple of blocks from Tiananmen Square during the protest—this tickled me, as Disney is such an archetypal American company.
(NB) Your play is an examination of the U.S. and China—our differences and similarities told from the perspective of someone who is a citizen of neither. How important is that outside perspective? Did you have to do as much research on what it means to be American as you did with the Chinese?
(LK) This is a great question. Not as much, but certainly a considerable amount! And I am still discovering linguistic errors long after the play closed in the West End of London. However, in the UK we have absorbed so much American culture as our own that the gulf is far smaller. The brilliant thing about the internet now means I can find out with great specificity where someone of Joe’s class and income might live in New York—is it Brooklyn or Queens or could he just about afford Manhattan? If so which bit? And so on.
The outside perspective is very important to me, I would hate to pretend otherwise. This is an alien’s view of both China and America.
(NB) There is a single female British character in the play. Is she maybe there to represent you?
(LK) For me the importance of Tess is that she comes, like me, from a country on whose empire the sun has long since set, and she is standing pretty impotently on the sidelines, watching two countries battle for power in the way the U.S. and England battled during the War of Independence. I hope her presence brings the smell of that history, the epic timescale over which global power shifts.
The play is to some extent about the superpower of the 20th century looking at the potential superpower of the 21st century, and the fear and sense of insecurity that brings. Tess represents the superpower of the 19th century!
As a feminist writer it was strange to find myself writing such a superficially macho play, so I suppose Tess represents my desire to puncture those paradigms too, to break them down and lay them bare, see what their bones really look like. In retrospect, I feel like I am too easy on her as a character. Although she is clear-eyed and compassionate, in lots of ways I think she is also the banal face of evil! So not a representation of me, I hope.
(NB) You reference Susan Sontag’s book On Photography in your introduction. What ideas in her book influenced you?
(LK) Her thinking on how the proliferation of images we have experienced since the democratization of photography is very apparent in the play—the suggestion that this creates in us a pathological voyeurism. Her argument that photography and political engagement are at odds with one another: If you record, you cannot intervene; if you intervene, you cannot record. This underpins Joe’s entire character. That is the fire raging in his head, the disconnection between the way he sees himself, and his growing awareness that this might be empty posturing.
(NB) The word “Chimerica” is an economics term. Why did you choose it as a title?
(LK) The word was coined by Niall Ferguson and is in many ways a terrible title for a play, but it stuck and expressed most clearly for me the concept of the interdependency of China and the West. There is obviously also the echo of the word “chimera;” you don’t need me to explain why that felt appropriate.
(NB) Louisa Lim wrote a great book that you recommended to us called The People’s Republic of Amnesia, in which she suggests the Chinese are suffering from a sort of amnesia regarding Tiananmen. Do you agree?
(LK) It is difficult for me to say definitively as an outsider, but of course the play ventures that this is the case. Lim’s book certainly makes the case very strongly. For example, she details the flag-raising ceremony that now takes place daily in Tiananmen Square. It looks like an ancient tradition but was in fact invented in 1990, one year after the massacre. To me that is a classic piece of Don Draper—if you don’t like what people are saying about you, change the conversation—and distills something many people have observed about the way the fall-out of Tiananmen was channelled into a new, vehement nationalism.
(NB) Many Chinese Americans we interviewed have felt that Americans make too big a deal of Tiananmen and Tank Man. They don’t necessarily see him as the hero we do. What are your thoughts about that?
(LK) Part of the gesture behind the play is to agree with them on the Tank Man certainly—to reject the figurehead/hero model of history. To me the Tank Man is a fantastic image, but just as important are the vast numbers of people—nameless, legion—who sat in that square for months before the crackdown. The play’s ending is an attempt to break down the heroism of that image. The nobility of that man lies more in the protest he has made over months, not the photogenic gesture he makes in minutes. I find it troubling how much history loves personalities.
I am too much of an optimist to agree with them on Tiananmen itself, I’m afraid. An act of peaceful protest of that magnitude is an extraordinary thing, whatever country it takes place in. And for a government to turn violently on its people is a horror that should not be forgotten.
The nobility of that man lies more in the protest he has made over months, not the photogenic gesture he makes in minutes.
(NB) Do you think that Americans suffer from a similar unconsciousness regarding our country’s darkest moments?
(LK) I think that all ascendant countries suffer from this! England, for example, has an absolutely appalling relationship with its own colonial past and the consequences and responsibilities of this. We created a global inequality of wealth and are now baffled by the refugees flooding to our door. And protest has certainly been met with state violence both in the UK and the U.S.—the suffragettes, Kent State, to name but two.
Those of us in the arts can pat ourselves on the backs that movies are now being made about slavery, but the idea that those dark moments have been put to bed is laughable when you look at how many Black Americans are being shot on the streets by the state. But as I say, the judgements I make about America I would apply to the UK too, absolutely.
(NB) When you wrote this play it was very much in the present (2012), but now that feels strangely historical. What particularly has changed regarding the U.S. and China since you wrote the play? Do you ever wish you could update this or other plays?
(LK) This is a beautifully timed question as I have just, in the last two hours, decided to update the time frame to 2016 for the TV adaptation of Chimerica that I am currently writing. Trump has proved impossible to resist. His mania around China exceeds Romney’s, and he is being held up in China as an example of why democracy doesn’t work as a system! I think they have a point …
This is the only play I have written that has had such a forensically worked out timeline, so it is the only one I have a craving to rewrite in this way. The very first drafts were set over the 2008 election, by the way. That date also came to feel, as you say, strangely historical.
(NB) The original London production was an incredible success, winning the Olivier and garnering rave reviews. How has that changed your life?
(LK) The entire process of making the play changed my life in some wonderful ways, such as getting the chance to work with Lyndsey Turner, a director I had admired for many years. The process of writing also made me think in very different ways about how narrative works in the theatre. Finally, we changed more than I have ever changed before during the preview period. This was difficult and only possible because of a really heroic cast, but has encouraged me to do that more in the future.
(NB) What are your next projects?
(LK) I’m redrafting a play for the National Theatre that goes into rehearsal in November, and also writing two screenplays and the Chimerica adaptation for TV.