By Brian Robin
Clarence Coo Speaks the Language of Language
On the inspiration-for-a-play front, this is the definition of a “deep dive.”
While studying in China during his college days, Clarence Coo found the inspiration for his play Chapters of a Floating Life in a second-hand book store in Beijing. Which is appropriate, considering the original manuscript for that inspiration—which had been lost for decades—was discovered in a second-hand books stall in China—in 1877.
That original manuscript would be Six Records of a Floating Life, which was written by a Chinese civil servant-turned-poet named Shen Fu sometime around 1809. Fu’s Ch’ing Dynasty opus was a remarkable mix of autobiography, social commentary and love story that was lost for decades until Yang Yin, the brother of prominent 19th century Chinese writer Wang Tao, found only four of the six records. The “records” chronicle chapters of Shen Fu’s life, from his marriage to his wife to her death and his travels throughout China.
Yin turned the manuscript over to his brother, who published it to instant acclaim. Nearly 150 years and numerous editions and translations later, Six Records of a Floating Life is an international best-seller and a staple on any Asian Literature syllabus.
And now, it’s the inspiration for Coo’s play, Chapters of a Floating Life, one of the five play readings at this year’s 25th Pacific Playwrights Festival, May 5-7. So much of an inspiration that Coo named two of the characters in his play Shen Fu and Yun, after the author and his beloved wife.
“Most of the book is about his relationship with his wife, how much he loved her and how he considered her his intellectual equal,” Coo said, not spoiling his play’s plot. “Tragedy strikes when they hired a maid and the maid and his wife fall in love with each other and he watches their relationship develop. Eventually, the maid has to move far away and his wife dies of a broken heart.
“I was struck by how personal and how romantic this story was. It gave me a kind of aspect of Chinese culture and heritage I wasn’t familiar with even though I was in China, studying Chinese literature. It always stuck with me.”
Exploring the beauty and significance of language and its intricacies has always stuck with Coo and his work. In Chapters of a Floating Life, he also borrows from the story of Li Yu Tang, a Chinese writer of the 1930s and 1940s who was the first man to translate Six Records of a Floating Life into English. Li tried to invent a Chinese language typewriter—the same as Coo’s Shen Fu does in Chapters of a Floating Life.
Coo takes this sidebar and makes it a key feature of Chapters of a Floating Life, which is set in post-World War II New York City. Two couples—Shen Fu and Yun and Tom and Eloise meet by chance and set into motion new beginnings for all four. Much of the characters’ paths are forged through language, which is a hallmark of many of Coo’s works.
“I’m really fascinated that the translator/author (Li) had this connection to the original story because he’s a 20th century bridge between traditional Chinese culture and modernity,” Coo said, “The story about trying to invent the Chinese typewriter really stuck with me and for some reason, I kept thinking about his story. When I began to write this play, I set it in 1940s New York because that was a time right after World War 2, when people were trying to reconcile themselves with new works of technology in their lives. Also, the Nationalists and Communists were fighting in China and nobody was sure what the future would hold.”
A native of the Philippines, Coo’s love of language and all its nuances took a while to flourish. He grew up in a suburban Washington, D.C. home where he and his siblings spoke only English, but his parents and extended family bounced back and forth between English, a Filipino dialect and Chinese. When Coo got to William and Mary for college, he had to choose a foreign language. It didn’t take him long to pick Mandarin—which his family didn’t speak.
“It was really hard, but it began my love of and my fascination with how Chinese came to be and how it’s spoken,” he said. “When I had the opportunity to study abroad in China, I took it. You make these small decisions and 20 years later, you write a play about it.
“When I studied Chinese in college, I loved learning it and I loved the process of learning a foreign language and trying to translate it over cultures. So many of my plays are about people who fall in love with a certain language and struggle to speak their own language in a foreign environment.”
Coo’s love of languages has taken on deep dives of its own. During the pandemic, he kept his brain engaged by learning German. Since the pandemic, he’s met with an Italian tutor once a week. And then, there were his recurring French lessons via Skype—while playing an international game of Dungeons & Dragons.
“I didn’t’ think I would enjoy it in English, but our dungeon master is a French teacher and he corrects our grammar as we play,” Coo said. “The last trip I took abroad before COVID was to Paris and I couldn’t go anywhere because of a rail strike. I had to think about what to do while I was stuck in Paris and the only teacher I could find was in Japan. So when I got back to the States, he asked me if I wanted to play D&D.”
International role-playing games still take a back seat to Coo’s award-winning works. Chapters of a Floating Life already enjoyed success, winning the 2023 L. Arnold Weissberger New Play Award at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. His works brought the 2017 Whiting Award and 2012 Yale Drama Series Prize, both for Beautiful Province, his tale about a 15-year-old high school boy taking a road trip across Canada with his French teacher.
“He brings an extraordinary tenderness and eccentricity to material that might easily be treated sensationally,” wrote the Whiting Selection Committee. “… His plays are ambitions in scope, yet minutely observed. What illusions, he asks, do we create to replace the one’s ripped away from us? … Coo’s work delves into troubling, even heartbreaking, material with playful aplomb and considers the way language, literature and myth both separate and unite us.”
Experience Coo’s love of language and enchanting storytelling skills, along with the other plays at this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival. Tickets are on sale and can be purchased online at SCR.org or by calling SCR Ticket Services at (714) 708-5555. Don’t miss the chance to see tomorrow’s big hit today.