The Red Silk Thread: An Epic Tale of Marco Polo


Stella C. Y. Sung

Ernest Hilbert

Performance forces:



The first act begins with the famous Venetian traveler Marco Polo returning to the court of his patron, the Great Kublai Khan, after a diplomatic journey. A lavish celebration is underway. Khan’s daughter, the beautiful young Princess Cocachin, has been promised in marriage to the cruel King Arghun of Persia in order to quell the threat of looming war and reopen the profitable but oftentimes dangerous trade route from Persia to China. Marco Polo and the unhappy teenaged princess find themselves mysteriously drawn to each other. The princess’s lady-in-waiting, Saran, senses trouble and vows to keep the two apart until they leave for Persia. During the celebration, the superstitious Khan’s favorite soothsayer delivers a worrying prophecy about the princess’s future, but the emperor, in a contented mood, chooses to dismiss it. During a secret rendezvous the next day in the palace garden, Marco and the princess come to realize that their forbidden love is hazardous not only to themselves but to the future of Great Khan’s empire. Marco Polo pledges to set off at once on a new journey and forget the princess forever, but he is waylaid by the emperor, who announces he has chosen Marco Polo, the only man he truly trusts, to escort the princess across perilous seas and deserts to the court of the dreaded King of Persia. In the second act, we find Marco Polo in command of a fleet of Imperial War junks carrying the princess to Persia. She has chosen to remain below deck during the passage. Captain Ganbaatar warns of the threat of Wokou, rapacious Japanese pirates, but Marco Polo, preoccupied with thoughts of the princess, ignores the warning. That night, by the light of a full moon, Marco restlessly paces the decks alone. Princess Cocachin, also believing she is alone, emerges from her cabin to sing to the moon. They meet and wonder why they cannot be together. The princess gives Marco Polo a cloth into which she has woven a red silk thread, promising that, according to a Chinese proverb, whatever happens, the invisible “red thread of fate” will always connect them. They are surprised by Saran, who sends the princess back to her cabin. Saran tells the sad story of her own youthful love gone dreadfully wrong. She explains again why the two must remain apart. After she leaves, Marco Polo sings his own plaintive song to the moon, wondering who he really is after all these years. Before he can finish, alarms are sounded as Wokou swarm the junk. Marco Polo leaps into a ferocious sword battle with the pirates. He must decide if he will risk his life against impossible odds to rescue the princess as pirates carry her back to their ship. Years later, we find Marco Polo’s uncle Maffeo arriving before the rest of the expedition in the Persian court only to find it empty. He imagines himself a king for a day, but then begins to suspect that something is amiss after happening upon the Persian King’s attendant Caspar, who frantically prepares for the wedding. When Marco and the princess arrive, it is obvious to all that they have grown dangerously close. They are introduced to King Arghun’s dashing and charismatic son Prince Ghazan, who charms the delegation, including the princess. Princess Cocachin trembles at the thought of the impending marriage, but sudden news arrives that the old King Arghun has died. Marco rejoices only to discover that the wedding will proceed with Prince Ghazan, who by rights will become the new king and bring peace to the warring kingdoms. Marco, jealous and protective, draws his sword on Prince Takesh and the two prepare to duel. Princess Cocachin assumes control over her life for the first time, separating the men and explaining to Marco Polo that their love could never be and that she has decided to fulfill her destiny by marrying the prince and becoming a queen. In the final scene, Marco Polo finds himself a prisoner-of-war in a Genoese prison cell with the writer Rustichello, to whom he relates his wondrous travels, leaving out only the story of his lost love for the princess. Upon being freed from captivity, Marco Polo is given a letter from the Persian court announcing that the princess has been poisoned. The most painful memory of his long life rushes back and Marco finds himself transported to a desert, where he encounters a vision of the princess. Still connected by the red thread, they sing to each other one last time.