|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Duong Dinh Loc
Anyone who has ever experienced an artist's life knows that it is not easy. As a rule, the career of an honest and talented artist is usually a path full of hardships. Passion for tuong theatre can produce a few immortal works, but not money or social position. The hero in our short story is such a performer and researcher, erudite and enthusiastic, greatly admired by his colleagues. As one of the few leading figures in the national performing arts world, he lived on meagre wages from the State budget in a shabby house provided by the government with his wife and three sons. While he was only engrossed in his profession, his wife did everything at home, from earning money to bringing up her children. Although she was little educated and knew nothing about her husband's job, she honoured his burning passion. "Nowadays, human beings only respect and like one another thanks to their magnificent buildings and luxury cars, not their artistic talents," her neighbours often remarked. "How crazy your husband is!"
Thanks to her care, all his sons graduated from university and found good jobs by virtue of their qualifications rather than their father's support. "Still, I'm awfully sorry that none of them follow my career," he complained to his wife one day. "No matter how luxurious a car may look, it will soon be outdated; no matter how magnificent a building may appear, it will eventually become ruins. But an interesting literary work will exist for ever." He went on to express his heartbreak about his children, alienated from his own cause. Furthermore, he also dealt with his last performing night, which would feature banners bearing his name and excerpts from famous pieces by his company in celebration of his totally-dedicated-to-art life at the age of seventy prior to his retirement in order to yield his well-known parts to the younger generations.
"Surely, there will be just a small audience, for spectators today are very keen on 3D-films, nightclubs and cabaret shows. Few people are fond of Vietnamese tuong, cai luong or cheo," the artist told his close friend. He dreamt of a soiree in which after each item he would be highly applauded with a lot of flower bouquets and endearing smiles.
In this world, there were many strange things. One of them was the friendship between the artist and his closest friend, a businessman. The former regarded art as his own blood and flesh while the latter thought about money as his own life. The entire lifetime of this businessman was spent on trading trips from North to South and vice versa to support his capricious wife and three romantic sons. Thanks to his success in real estate deals he had become very wealthy, with scores of houses for rent in this costliest city of the world. In the meantime he led a royal life in a magnificent building in a suburban area beside a wife who was very keen on tuong, cheo and cai luong and was deeply moved by the appearance of their heroes on the stage and three sons who were infatuated with different genres of art. One longed to become an operatic singer of worldwide fame and was now studying vocal music at a well-known municipal conservatory. Another one wanted to be a circus performer and was so passionate about this career that he had had his arms and legs in plaster casts many times. The last, the secretary to the Editor-in-Chief of a major metropolitan magazine, hoped that he would be a distinguished writer with a few masterpieces. Although the businessman was rich, he always practised thrift. When he was young, he never dared to eat even a bowl of pho in a restaurant. As an old man, he only let his clan eat two chickens a month. Therefore, buying a ticket for an artistic performance was completely unheard of. For him, coming from peasant stock with little education and no knowledge of art, watching an artistic programme was a waste of money. In his opinion, money was a yardstick to measure a person's social position. When he had managed to reap a great fortune, he found himself important in the eyes of the other customers - in a restaurant, say, or someplace like that. He used his old friend working in the art field as an example to prove the scant value of art: earning a paltry income, living in a shabby flat and being despised by his spouse and children. Therefore, when he received an invitation to a performance by his crazy friend he felt divided whether to attend his closest friend's show, to play a few games of tennis or to go get a new golf club.
Actually, the artist did not want to invite his businessman friend to his last performance because he knew what kind of person the latter was. Yet, the businessman was his chum from childhood. One late afternoon, the artist had a chat with his friend.
"My dear friend, I'm now very old and have spent fifty years in the art circle," he told the businessman. "In my career as a tuong performer, I've been unable to earn plenty, and you have laughed at me. Now, it's high time I yielded my place to younger people so that our precious treasure can be brought into full play further."
Although his friend frowned a bit, he continued to blurt out in a prideful voice, "In order to reward my lifelong contribution to tuong, the president of our company will set aside a whole night for me to play on Sunday. So, I invite you to come to encourage me," he said to him in a soft voice. Then he put several invitation cards in his friend's hand, on which many gold rings were embedded with red ruby pieces.
"Really? What about your better half and children? Will they attend too?" he asked his friend with a flattering smile.
"Regretfully, they won't come, for different reasons: my spouse is having a splitting headache with high blood pressure, my eldest son is abroad on business, my second one will be busy entering into a contract with a foreign partner and the youngest is entirely engulfed in setting up a company of his own."
"I'm afraid that I'm unable to come to enjoy such a wonderful night with you. What about the tickets? Are they all sold out?"
"I'm told that just a few have been sold. Anyhow, a lot of banners have been hung outside the place. Today's Monday and we still have six more days to go."
"I hope so, my old artist friend."
Returning home, the artist felt very sad. "In addition to the applause and flowers of some friends for form's sake, who else will pay attention to my performance?" he asked himself. As for the businessman, he was also depressed. Although their brief meeting seemed unimportant, it made him think a lot. Instead of playing tennis he went straight home along a suburban road. Usually, it looked dreamy and windy, but this afternoon it appeared deserted and desolate. Until now, he had had no ideas about his origin. He had no relatives either. Except for his family with three adult sons and a hard-working wife, this artist two years older than he was the only friend he had in his life. Driving to a rice field, he smoked and smoked. Not until his sixth cigarette did he stop smoking. Many sweet memories of the past turned up one after another: ancient pagoda roofs, village clusters of bamboo, hibiscus edges, a few sweet potatoes and manioc roots shared with his dear chums. Growing up, he left the village for various urban centres to eke out his living, with the ambition to get rich as soon as possible. At the same time, his friend hoped to become a great artist of nationwide recognition. Finally their dreams came true and their friendship stayed the same. The evening's breath of fresh and fragrant air wafted to him. Keys in hand, he stood motionless and lost in thought. He seemed to be pondering something very important. At last, he came to his car and drove to the theatre where his friend was going to perform. In its parking lot, cars of all description, expensive and cheap, made long queues, row after row. A bit farther, motorcycles were arranged in neat order. In front of the theatre, fluorescent lights were hung in plenty, brightening the whole place. Newspaper reporters huddled together or went to and fro to welcome the event. Inside, the hall was full of onlookers and the stage was covered with red carpets.
Finally, the old artist appeared on the stage with a broad smile. He was warmly greeted with loud applause. He looked around, eyes brimming with tears. When the theatre director congratulated him on his successes over the past years, the audience cheered to their heart's content. He looked down at the row of honorary seats, but did not find his wife and children. In their places, he saw unfamiliar faces. He spotted his closest friend's heavily made-up wife with a handkerchief in hand sitting amid her three sons. "Where's my closest friend? Why isn't he present to congratulate me?" he asked himself. "Damn the guy who regards money above all the others!" Actually, the businessman had given the tickets to his young sons and told them to get flowers for him as well.
From Act One to Act Four, the theatre seemed to shake with thundering claps of hands. Then came Act Five.
"Hey Lu Bu*, cast your spear away then surrender to me immediately," shouted Cao Cao*, with white face and black beard in a suit of military armour, brandishing his hands in martial art gestures that coincided with the rhythmic drumbeats.
"Aha! Cao Cao…" Lu Bu called out, moving gracefully in harmony with the drumbeats. "This young gentleman Lu Bu will never submit to such a rebel as you!"
Words of cheer resounded again and again until the end of the performance. Again flowers were thrown abundantly onto the stage. Flashlights sparkled continuously. Not until half an hour later would his fellow actors come to shake hands with him. "Your soiree is successful beyond my expectations!" commented one of the journalists.
The artist was now on cloud nine. He felt utterly ecstatic. He forgot everything, even his wife and children and the closest chum of his childhood.
In the meantime the businessman, standing in a high dress circle, stared at his old friend, eyes in tears. Tonight he had finally come to know the value and significance of tuong art. "How wonderfully my friend has played!" he exclaimed. At that moment he saw all his sons, one after another, walking to the stage with proud faces to offer their bouquets of multi-coloured flowers to their father's best friend. He also glanced at the reporters and his wealthy partners, to whom he had given the remaining tickets for free along with big bunches of flowers he had bought outside.
Translated by Van Minh
*Lu Bu and Cao Cao are well-known figures in the Period of Three Kingdoms of ancient China.