The monologue by Kuo Pao Kun is centred on a man who has been tasked to oversee the funeral of his grandfather. It emerges that the grand coffin is too large to fit into the standard-sized grave that has been dug at the cemetery, so the man ends up fighting an uphill battle against government bureaucracy.
The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole is Kuo Pao Kun’s first English play, as he had been writing his scripts entirely in Chinese before this. He came up with the idea for the play when director Tzi Ma invited him to create a piece for Bumboat – a collection of new homegrown plays – that would be staged at the 1984 Singapore Arts Festival. According to former Straits Times arts correspondent Corrie Tan, Kuo said in a 2000 interview with the paper that:
“It was written in about four or five hours. It just flowed out. I still remember that experience – it was wonderful.”Source: Classic Singapore plays #4 - The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole by Corrie Tan. In The Straits Times (1 Oct 2014), http://bit.ly/2pqfHVh
In the end, the monologue didn’t make it into Bumboat, but this gave Kuo the chance to write a Chinese version for it as well. In the words of the playwright:
All the images are there in the same head. It is the same person writing it. I referred to the original text in English and then re-wrote it. It’s a translation and yet not a translation.Source: Coffin comes to life by Caroline Ngui. In The Straits Times (19 July 1985), http://tinyurl.com/lh2cush
The Chinese version made its debut on 23 July 1985 at the Victoria Theatre, staged by the Practice Performing Arts School and starring Choo Woon Hock.
The English version, starring Lim Kay Tong, was staged on 11 November 1985 at Marine Parade Library. Lim recalls panicking when Kuo first asked him to take on the lead role, as he had never done a full-length monologue before, and Kuo seemed to be in no hurry to get started on rehearsals:
“Among other things, they visited a coffin-maker and discussed the nature of funerals. Concerned, Lim secretly started memorising the script on his own.
“In retrospect, he believes Kuo had a very clear vision of how the work would take shape. He says: ‘I think it was probably the correct approach, because it somehow got under your skin – all the talking, the background.'”Source: Classic Singapore plays #4 - The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole by Corrie Tan. In The Straits Times (1 Oct 2014), http://bit.ly/2pqfHVh
Under Kuo’s direction, Lim and Choo also exchanged notes about each other’s portrayal of a man with an over-sized coffin.
[Kuo Pao Kun and Lim Kay Tong] experimented, tried new things, worked on the technical nitty-gritty such as body and voice.
Wenxue was brought in, and both actors watched and learned from each other. All found the two interpretations different but equally valid.Source: Coffin’s English debut by John de Souza. In The Straits Times (15 November 1985), http://tinyurl.com/kwgpvle
With Mandarin and English debuts of The Coffin within months of each other, naturally there were comparisons between the two actors and their renditions.
Says Pao Kun: “Wenxue plays his role with bigger dimensions, which comes from his Chinese theatre experience. Kay Tong is not so exaggerated and, in a way, draws you into the piece.Source: Coffin’s English debut by John de Souza. In The Straits Times (15 November 1985), http://tinyurl.com/kwgpvle
Someone noted that there was more laughter in the lighter, more enjoyable Mandarin version, that this English one was “serious”.Source: Coffin is what you make of it by John de Souza. In The Straits Times (20 November 1985), http://tinyurl.com/n484wea
The play, in both languages, was universally acclaimed. Many identified with the humour-laden story of man-versus-establishment.
It’s only about 35 minutes long, is full of apparent lightness and innate humour, and takes veiled digs at society and establishment alike… It’s power lies in the simple, unpretentious form given by its creator and director, Kuo Pao Kun, of the Practice Performing Arts School.[…]
Very few pieces of local writing I know have that potential. Or that power.Source: Coffin is what you make of it by John de Souza. In The Straits Times (20 November 1985), http://tinyurl.com/n484wea
In the decades following the premiere(s) of The Coffin, many marvelled at how the seemingly simple narrative was laden with multiple themes, rich meanings, and incisive social commentary, all just waiting to be unpacked. The Coffin also cemented its position in Singapore theatre as one of its defining works for Kuo’s success in portraying everyday Singaporean speech.
Coffin is particularly interesting for its deconstruction of the fabric of social values and bureaucratic system… The apparent triumph of simple humanity and sympathy in the face of overwhelming odds dictated by state policies at the play’s conclusion, is in fact a triumph of social mythology; the narrator’s successful one-man stand against the powers-that-be in sociality has effectively ensured his own re-absorption into the social mythology that he has helped to perpetuate.Source: Of Coffins and Parking Tickets by Jeanette Ng. In Interlogue (2000, Vol. 3, p.43-44). Published by Ethos Books.
Kuo, by turning such a reality into comedy, achieves artistic distillation but his achievements do not end here. He goes further and exposes the absurdity of that reality. The audience can therefore feel the impact amidst the laughter.
The depth of this play far exceeds the incident depicted. Rich themes abound in this monologue – relationships between the younger and older generation, between the individual and the family, between the dead and those alive as well as between the individual and society.Source: Dilemma of the modern man by Gao Xingjian. In Images at the Margins (2000, p.72-72). Published by Times Books International.
The journey of the narrator from indifference to respect towards his roots is punctuated with gently satirical humour caused in part by convincing ‘Singlish’ (Singapore English), and with absorbing dramatic tension. Anyone who has confronted the unmovable force of bureaucracy can easily identify with the personal trauma of the narrator. What raises the play from a witty parable to a serious modern drama is the continuous presence of ‘inner feelings’ that imperceptibly insinuate upon the psyche of the narrator and his audience.Source: Kuo Pao Kun – the Man of the future in Singapore theatre by Krishen Jit. In The Coffin Is Too Big For the Hole and other plays (1990, p.21). Published by Times Books International.
The Vault: Dialects and Dialectics revisits two monologues by the late local theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun: No Parking On Odd Days and The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole. Nine Years Theatre’s artistic director Nelson Chia explores the cultural sentiments and grassroots sensibilities of these plays by staging them in Cantonese and Teochew respectively. Presented on 5 May 2017, 8pm, and 6 May 2017, 3pm & 8pm, at Centre 42 Black Box. Admission is give-what-you-can. Find out more about the event here.