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Archive for July, 2015

Sound of a Voice Play

Photo used from “TheaterMania.com”

In The Sound of a Voice, David Henry Hwang utilizes characters, setting and dialogue in a unique way as he explores the themes of fear, silence, love and loneliness. The play opens to a sparse, drab setting and the two main characters, a middle-aged man and woman, interacting with a rather awkward dialogue. The woman has welcomed the man, a travelling stranger, into her home and pours tea for him. He comments on how well she pours the tea and how soothing the sound of the tea is as it fills the cup.

One wonders how rarely he converses with people, to start the conversation in such an odd fashion. He is not the only one seeming awkward, however, as the woman goes to great length to welcome him into her home, saying, “You would do a great honor to dine with me” (p. 1739). One reason that she is so welcoming is then put forth as the woman states, “Guests are rare” (p. 1739). Already she is making clear the fact that she is hungry for human interaction and companionship.

As their conversation continues, Hwang makes clever use of the character’s spare style of conversation, full of empty spaces, to express a fear that both the man and the woman have in common: a fear of silence. The woman is the first to bring up her deep need to hear the voice of another as she tells the man, “Anything you say, I will enjoy hearing. It’s not even the words. It’s the sound of a voice …” (p. 1740). She expresses her loneliness by then stating that she measures time only by the presence of another: “Time begins with the entrance of a visitor, and ends with his exit” (p. 1740).

The man responds to her expression of loneliness by speaking of his own. He says that he slept by a waterfall the night before because “I can’t sleep in too much silence. It scares me. It makes me feel that I have no control over what is about to happen” (p. 1740). Thus brought together by that common fear of silence – and the underlying, deeper fear of being alone – she invites him to stay longer … and he does.

Hwang weaves an element of mystery into the play, starting when the woman leaves the room to bring the man dinner and he notices a vase of colorful flowers which sharply contrast the drab setting of the room. The man steals one of the flowers, hiding it in his garments before the woman returns. Another piece to the overall mystery of the story is brought up in the statement that the woman makes, implying that all the visitors she has had are male. At the end of their first conversation, both characters ask the other for their name, yet neither gives their real name. Both know that the other is hiding information, yet both accept that fact and choose not to dwell on it. Perhaps, compared to their deep need for companionship, other issues do not matter as much.

As the man stays on, it grows evident that he is frustrated with the fact that he is growing older. He is not as agile with the sword as he used to be and his stomach now has an ample layer of “protection,” which he feels self-conscious about. At the same time, his perspective of the woman who is caring for him begins to change. It is obvious that she holds him in high esteem. More than that, she cares for him and does not want him to leave. She has a vase of flowers that remain perpetually fresh and new. She tells the man that it is because of the care she bestows on the flowers that they stay that way. This is, perhaps, a comparison to the care that she wishes to bestow on the man also, if he were to allow himself to receive her love. It is clear that there is an inner conflict between his growing feelings for the woman and his desire to stay in full control.

Every night, the man wakes to the sound of a shakuhachi playing, but so softly that he can hardly hear it. One morning, he asks her about it and she responds shyly that she taught herself to play, saying, “I tried to make these sounds resemble the human voice. The shakuhachi became my weapon. To ward of the air. It kept me from choking on many a silent evening” (p. 1745). Once more, the strong element of her loneliness comes into play.

That night, he wakes to her playing the flute once more, this time loudly and clearly. He peeks into her room and sees her, young and beautiful, in a room full of colorful flowers, caring for them. The next morning he thanks her for playing and she offers to play the music for him every night. He grows offended, angry at his own desire and need for her, answering “I don’t want you to treat me like a baby” (p. 1746). The author employs a strong tension between the man’s unwanted emotional need and his desire to remain strong and independent. On the other hand, the woman is not afraid to express her desire for his continuing presence in her life.

The underlying mystery comes to the fore when the aging warrior is practicing his swordplay and invites the woman to join him. She declines the offer, but then begins to practice, showing unexpected dexterity. When he shows his surprise at her skill, the woman begins to predict that he will leave because she crossed some invisible line and offended him. She speaks of her deepest fear: “The next day, you learn that you had stepped outside his heart” (p. 1748). She had been so careful not to go too far in expressing who she really was – her skill or her heart – afraid that she would again lose someone that she loves. He then admits that he heard “visitors never leave this house” and that “no man could spend time in this house without falling in love” (p. 1748). He also admits that he has succumbed, that he now thinks of her as beautiful, and that he doesn’t want to leave her.

Finally, in the last scene, the man is about to leave in secret, but the woman is standing in the doorway. Here he admits his weakness and failure to fulfill his original intention in coming: seeking glory by killing the famous witch of the woods. He feels so overwhelmed by the fact that, in his mind, he was defeated by the woman that he can do nothing but “sneak away in shame” (p. 1751). The woman, however, sees it differently. She says, “I only wanted to take care of you. To make you happy. Because that made me happy and I was no longer alone” (p. 1751).

The man confesses that she changed everything for him, from the “shape” of her face to the shape of his heart – transformed by love, yet he considers it “a world where I could do nothing” (p. 1751). She argues that she only wanted to care for him. The aging warrior is finally overwhelmed by the one thing he never thought would overcome him – love. As he says, “That was all it took” (p. 1751).

The play ends with the woman killing herself and the petals of the flowers she so carefully tended blowing away, scattering, swirling, leaving nothing but bare stems behind. She could not handle one more rejection. More than that, she could not deal with the silence that his leaving would create. Days and nights, interminably blending together, without the sound of a voice – alone – was to her worse than any other pain or fear. The man, on the other hand, though he feared silence and loneliness, was torn between that and the fear that accepting the care and love of the woman would make him somehow less of a man. His self-identity was so closely blended with his skills as a warrior and his ability to defeat anything that stood in his way, that without his prowess he was lost.

In “The Sound of a Voice” Hwang expertly merges spoken and unspoken fears, societal expectations of gender roles, and the intense dynamics of love and longing and loneliness to create a memorable play that cannot easily be taken apart and dissected. Rather, like the flowers that play an integral part of the story – representing both the woman and the men whom she loved – the story itself must be discovered layer by layer. One petal at a time. Until, like the man says in the story, “in the silent midst of it—you can hear a voice” (p. 1749). The sound of a voice. The voice of a story, and of an author weaving a tale alive with emotion and color even amidst its spare, drab setting. Reminiscent in its own way of a Voice that resounds through silence, speaking of hope and life. Brimming with belonging and acceptance. Whispering of the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of perfect love.

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I’ve been teaching weekly classes at Clovis Adult School for over a year. This month, it’s a class on Navigating Social Media. Every Thursday evening, the attendees are learning a new form of social media: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. A little bit of background, a lot of how-to and hands-on education as they sign up and start using each social network.

As they’re learning something, I’m learning as well. A lot, in fact.

It’s been an interesting journey since the first class I taught, which I had dreaded for months, and this current class I’m teaching, which I also dreaded.

I love helping people learn. Perhaps it is because I love to learn new things and acquire new skills that I so enjoy the feeling of helping someone else likewise learn that new thing or acquire that new skill.

So why do I dread it?

If the classes were one-on-one, I probably wouldn’t have that same element of … dare I say, fear. It’s standing up in front of people. The nameless, can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it dread that comes with it. I know I’m no stranger to that feeling. It even has a name: glossophobia.  In searching online, it’s clear that many people have similar fears, as evidenced by articles such as “27 USEFUL TIPS TO OVERCOME YOUR FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING” and “How Warren Buffett And Joel Osteen Conquered Their Terrifying Fear Of Public Speaking.” Seems a common malady.

But I did think I would get over it. After all, it has been a year since I’ve started teaching classes. I’ve taught as few as six people at one time and as many as 25. I’ve prepared courses on topics from Working from Home to Novel Writing. Somewhere between last summer and this summer, my personal focus has shifted to where I’m hoping to eventually become an English professor. A teacher. In it for the long haul.

And I still face that constant tension, especially before the start of a new course. Perhaps it’s the fear of the unknown: Who will I be teaching? Or the fear of failure: Will I not have the answers for them? Or the fear of problems: What if the projector doesn’t work? Or the fear of looking stupid: What if I make a fool of myself, trip over my words, or misunderstand a question?

No wonder so many people are afraid of public speaking; it runs the gamut of fears. And few of them are answered once and for all.

Except one: What if I can’t do this?

The truth is, I can. I’ve done it time and again. Even when the projector didn’t work, or when I didn’t understand a question, or when I tripped over my words. I’ve still done it. I’ve taught. And I plan to continue to do so.

As long as I continue to teach — which I hope will be a good, long while — I will likely continue to be tentative and nail-biting nervous beforehand. I will likely continue to be inspired afterward by the joy of sharing helpful knowledge, skills, and information with others.

And I will definitely continue to pray, asking God for wisdom, the words to speak, the ability to communicate the points I need to convey, and the discernment to know how I am coming across.

I first spoke in public at the age of 14, in a mandatory high school speech class. I spent the morning before that five-minute speech praying and asking God to help me not to faint or throw up (both common responses in my family to the fear of public speaking). My voice shook and my hands trembled, but I didn’t pass out, and I didn’t lose my breakfast in front of the class.

I’m still not an extrovert, and likely never will be. But we can all face our fears and ask God to help us through them. Prayer can do mighty things, it is said. It can also do little things. Like calm trembling nerves, ease a racing heart, and help an introvert to teach a class and speak in public.

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Taught to lean

taught to cling

like jasmine vine

on him

and only him

 

what a hard-earned

victory

what a hard-learned truth

in the midst of storm

raging wind

 

that only in clinging

and humbly leaning

am I freed to see

 

Him

 

whose grasp holds tightly

and in grace receives

every trembling vine

every shaking leaf

 

whose strength

defines my need

to lean and cling

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birds flying over oceanBound in chains

Alone, alone

Within an ocean

Comprised of stone

Whispered tears

Alight in death

Departing strange

Beneath earth’s breath

Would that they

Carry like stars

The wooden night

To where you are

Would that they

Lost, stark, in space

Constellate

And stamp their trace

Midst raven void

A spacious sound

The tone of death

In life resound

And echoes park

Among the night

Request your gaze

Upon the sight

Of planets, tops

Tattoos, a bloom

Of breathless lungs

And empty tomb

Hold me sway

And hold us still

In empty void

Your presence fill

Alone, alone

Yet swinging doors

Pull me in

Upon your shores

Sweetest pull

Dawn’s gravity

Divining grace

In freedom’s sea

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