How can I make an uneducated young, female, Chinese peasant a tragic hero?

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig on writing ‘The World of Extreme Happiness’

‘The tragic right is a condition of life, a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself. The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct. Tragedy enlightens-and it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of man’s freedom. The thrust for freedom is the quality in tragedy which exalts. The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or such actions.’
—Arthur Miller, Tragedy and the Common Man.

The last time I was in London I wandered into the National Theatre’s Bookshop and purchased Arthur Miller’s Theatre Essays. I found myself drawn to his essay Tragedy and the Common Man, in which he articulates why tragedy should no longer only be relegated to the realm of the royal or high born, but that ‘the commonest of men may take on [the tragic] stature to the extent of his willingness to throw all he has into the contest, the battle to secure his rightful place in the world.’

I’d just received a commission from South Coast Repertory, a theatre in California, to write a play on a subject of my choosing. I wanted to write about the world’s largest internal migration which was happening in China, from rural to urban areas, but hadn’t found my way into the story. I’d lived in Beijing for five years as a teenager, and left for college right before the city won its bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics. During that time I witnessed massive change, some of it surreal – clouds seeded to produce blue-sky creating rain, dead trees outside my diplomatic compound spray-painted green and illuminated with neon lights to impress the Olympic Committee, countless migrants displaced to improve the city’s international image.

Some facts about modern China and the status of women have haunted me since I was a teenager – the high suicide rate of women and farmers, the practice of killing girl babies in the hopes that a male would come next. My grandmother, who’d had an arranged marriage and spent her whole life in rural Taiwan working as a farmer, was illiterate – but not because of her father – who wanted to send her to school – but her mother, who thought it wasn’t proper for girls to be educated.

FrancesIt usually takes me three years to write a play, so I find it useful to give myself a challenge that keeps me focused and motivated as I slog through what can feel like endless drafts. For this play, my question was: How can I make an uneducated young, female, Chinese peasant a tragic hero, as defined by the Arthur Miller essay? What journey would the young migrant pass through, what forces would she have to combat?

The World of Extreme Happiness is playing in The Shed at the National Theatre from 25 September to 26 October. Tickets £12 and £20.

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