Over the past year, I have attended a series of lectures, seminars and interactive workshops on drama in my master’s course. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry was on the reading list of the most recent workshops and while reading it, I wished more than once that it had been recommended much earlier. The three-act play about an African-American family living in Chicago in the late fifties was so vividly written that reading it is as good as having watched it on the stage.
In the first scene, the readers are transported to the living room of a two room flat in Chicago, with ‘typical, undistinguished and tired’ furnishings, and they remain there like flies on the wall witnessing the characters live through an experience that changes their lives. It would not be fair to call the dramatis personae as characters for they come alive in each gesture, dialogue and action, from the matriarch Lena Younger to the child Travis. It would be simplistic to state that this is a play about racism – it addresses among other issues that of class, the struggle to rise above poverty, the question of national identity and what it means to an immigrant, the relevance of education and above all, what it means to be a man.
The play commences at a point when the Younger family is awaiting their father’s insurance money of ten thousand dollars. Lena’s children Walter and Beneatha have pinned their hopes on the amount towards securing their respective futures, but Lena has her own plans. From there onwards, the play moves at a rapid pace from scene to scene and as we follow their journey, we learn more about the characters – their dreams, desires, hope, fear and frustration. Like Vonnegut’s glass of water analogy, every character wants specific things. Lena wants her family to be comfortable and see her son as a man worthy of his late father. Walter wants to become a successful businessman, the kind for whom he currently works as a chauffeur. Ruth wants a happy marriage. Asagai wants Beneatha. Beneatha is torn between her need to become a doctor in Chicago and Asagai’s vision of an idyllic return to their African roots. George wants to have a good time. Travis wants fifty cents for school and like the rest of his family members, a more comfortable life. By the end of the play, the main protagonist Walter has transformed from a frustrated chauffeur who longs for a wealthy lifestyle into a stronger man who has started to look objectively at life and stands tall and proud of who he is.
Many scenes stand out in the play. Some of my favourites included the conversation between Beneatha and George – for all his wealth and education, George is revealed as a coarse character who wants a ‘simple girl’ for action more than discussing thoughts and who believes that education means to ‘read books—to learn facts—to get grades—to pass the course—to get a degree’, which has ‘nothing to do with thoughts.’ Lena owns the scenes in which she is present, whether it is admonishing Beneatha against blasphemy, declaring happily that she has bought a house for her family, tenderly handing over the rest of the money to Walter or stating proudly that ‘he had come into his manhood’ like ‘like a rainbow after the rain’.
During class, Professor also recommended the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris which is set in 1959 and 2009 and follows the story of the white couple from whom Lena purchases the house. And it seemed that this is how great literature lives on, passing the torch from one book to another, illuminating minds with fresher insights across the years.
“This is not a world in which I wish to live.”
Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis
The play could be condensed to this one line which could be a powerful epigraph to the writer, as much as the play itself is. Reading 4.48 Psychosis was painful, knowing that Sarah Kane intended this to be a suicide note. Depression is not an easy topic to read about, even when it is portrayed in compelling formal prose as in The Bell Jar. This play is an open window into the mind of a brilliant writer whose depression has reached a point of no return. The dark lines of the narrative which are often split and fragmented as her thoughts, are beautiful but do not hold the promise of hope for life between their lines.
“After 4.48 I shall not speak again… / I have been dead for a long time / Back to my roots / I sing without hope on the boundary”, she says, and “Fuck you for rejecting me by never being there, fuck you for making me feel shit about myself, fuck you for bleeding the fucking love and life out of me, fuck my father for fucking up my life for good and fuck my mother for not leaving him, but most of all, fuck you God for making me love a person who does not exist”.
There is a tirade against the doctors who failed to treat her except with ‘chemical cures for congenital anguish’: “Inscrutable doctors, sensible doctors, way-out doctors, doctors you’d think were fucking patients if you weren’t shown proof otherwise, ask the same questions, put words in my mouth…Who lied. And said it was nice to see me. I trusted you, I loved you, and it’s not losing you that hurts me, but your bare-faced fucking falsehoods that masquerade as medical notes.
Your truth, your lies, not mine.”
The experimental structure with numbers and words scattered around at random and the uneven spaces between words, sentences, and pages reflect the writer’s mind. The play’s form complements the theme and the content, and the random spaces align themselves between the words into an unbearably sad harmony.
There are still, the last flickers of hope within the distracted monologue. ‘I beg you to save me from this madness that eats me‘, says Kane. Like most artists, she is aware of the limiting nature of happiness. ‘when I am charmed by vile delusions of happiness,’ she says, ‘I cannot touch my essential self.‘ In between the moments of struggle, the desires remain, ‘to achieve goals and ambitions’, ‘to be seen and heard’, ‘to excite, amaze, fascinate, shock, intrigue, amuse, ntertain,
or entice others’, ‘to communicate, to converse’, ‘to laugh and make jokes’, ‘to feed, help, protect, comfort, console, support, nurse or heal’, ‘to be fed, helped, protected, comforted, consoled, supported, nursed or healed’, ‘to be forgiven’, ‘to be loved’ and ‘to be free’. It is sad that she had to pay such a terrible price for her freedom.
As a survivor of suicidal depression, I thought that the words were far too familiar, making this one of the most difficult pieces that I have read in a while.
Even after two careful readings, I was unable to get the point of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and was not sure about picking up yet another play belonging to the theatre of the absurd. But reading The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco was an experience by itself, so much that I could see the play unfold scene by scene through the pages, in spite of the complicated stage settings, the large cast of invisible characters and the disconnected, often meandering dialogue.
The play remains open to a number of interpretations – it is never clarified if the main characters of the nonagenarian man and his wife are the among the last few survivors in an apocalyptic world, or merely two sad souls who regret their uneventful life and long to be accepted, respected and remembered. Thought-provoking, darkly funny and saddening, this is one of those works of literature, the likes of which Yann Martel said makes the reader ‘existentially thicker’.
The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan takes a realistic approach to the teacher-student relationship explored in books like Good-Bye, Mr.Chips, Dead Poets Society, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and To Sir, With Love. In a few powerful scenes, it narrates the touching story of an honest, hardworking schoolteacher whose lack of charisma distances everyone around him. Shortchanged both personally by a wife who openly cheats on him, and professionally by the headmaster who denies his pension and even by his pupils who mockingly refer to him as the ‘Crock’ and the ‘Himmler of the lower fifth’, Crocker-Harris’s redemption in the end which is triggered through a small gesture by a pupil is both realistic and satisfying. The classical references to the Agamemnon are tempered with mild humour, and the sense of pathos which hangs over the entire play lifts it up into a classic in its own right. The 1951 film version is excellent, but I prefer the taut scenes in the play which conclude at the moment of Crocker-Harris’s transformation.
I had to read The Visit and A Raisin in The Sun for the same drama class. Though these are two very different plays in all other aspects, Langston Hughes’ poem that inspired the latter’s title can also be thought of as constituting the former’s premise. Claire Zachanassian’s eventful visit to the impoverished town of Guellen is about the betrayal of love which then turns into a festering, toxic hate that drains her of humanity as she pursues and extracts her terrible revenge from the judge who declared her a fallen woman, the false witnesses who claimed to have fathered her child, the lover who disowned her for pecuniary gain and above all from the society which passively watched as her life was ruined.
Despite the darkness of the premise, the play reads smoothly, almost like a fable, with dialogue that evokes questions on ethics and morality interspersed with light comic relief. Dürrenmatt implies the inevitable fallibility of human greed through the fall of the townspeople, which triumphs even the voice of morality and reason in the character of the schoolmaster. A play that leaves the viewer with plenty to think and reflect on the nature of society, the concept of morality, and the ultimate meaning of good and evil.
More mini-reviews of plays read for a recent drama class.
Cet enfant by Joël Pommerat: This is a review of the English adaptation This Child by Nigel Gearing, a play consisting of ten unrelated scenes, each portraying a different aspect of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. A pregnant woman sees her child as a reason to turn around her life and redeem it from the less than ideal place where she has been pushed to owing to her mother’s neglect. A small girl who does not care to see her father anymore. A mother who tries to keep her ten-year-old son at home, jealous of his teachers and friends. A sick father deploring his teenage son’s rudeness and a grown-up son reproaching his father’s parenting. A mother nagging her grown up daughter on how to live her life and another mother trying to reason why her grown-up daughter is now avoiding her. Most of the scenes are intense, depicting relationships that have gone horribly wrong. The long dramatic monologues are especially powerful. Including a few positive relationships into the mix would have taken the play to another level.
That Face by Polly Stenham: This play about how a broken family tries in vain to pick up the pieces after the father deserts them is sad, poignant and realistic. There are many open questions that arise from the scenes, left to the viewer’s imagination and much implied between the lines of dialogue. Disturbing scenes of bullying at a school hostel are followed by surprising insights into the point of view of the bullies. Even the sordid allusions to incest come across as a heartbreakingly sad attempt of a son determined to protect his mother from a complete breakdown. There is some excellent writing in terms of dialogue and characterisation which could have been uplifted further, by at least a hint towards the hope of redemption for the tortured characters.
Published in 1982, Top Girls is a dated play in many ways. Yet it raises questions on feminism and women’s emancipation that are still relevant in the present day. The first act in which Marlene invites five women from various periods in history for a celebratory meal sets off the mood for the play. Six women who have lived very different lives which were against the norms of their period, sit down to dinner. Their conversation progresses rapidly, recalling real and fictional incidents across the centuries, voicing notions about the role of women in each period, and shows glimpses into the minds of these women who defied social expectations. The fact that among the six women, only patient Griselda found something like happiness after several years, presents itself as a paradox at the end of the dinner.
The next two acts move from surreal settings into plain realism, going back and forth in time into scenes from Marlene’s personal and professional lives, spelling out the question – do a successful job and financial independence really make a woman successful in life, or do they transform her into a calculative, manipulative person devoid of filial or maternal emotions? While present-day women are empowered to choose one or the other or can easily have both, the above questions still remain significant in the context of changing equations between the genders.
There is no clear plot or character development in the play. The characters are presented fully fleshed out, as they are, and leave the reader with a number of open questions, but no clear answer.
Watched an amazing performance of the play Club Asylum by John Retallack on Sunday evening. The energy of the actors was incredible as they read from the script, bringing out various emotions of refugees who are bound for Glasgow, or are living there. The effect of chorus in dramatic dialogue which Retallack taught us the previous day, came through wonderfully in the play. The success of the presentation was a testimony to the strength of the script and the talent of the four actors considering that they had rehearsed for only an hour before the performance.
When compared to the musical London Road by Alecky Blythe that we read and enacted a few scenes from last year, the effect of chorus in drama came out clearly through the play. London Road is an experimental musical drama based on the Ipswich serial murders, with dialogue reproduced verbatim from actual interviews. The chorus scene in which the residents discussed the murders and how it affected them (‘Could have been next door to you!…/They must have sleepless nights / I know I do’) brought out emotions of anxiety and fear among the readers – our voices dropped almost automatically to a worried muttering as we read together from the script.
Whereas in Club Asylum, which was not a reading but an actual performance by professional actors, the chorus was loud and vibrant. The actors’ voices rose naturally at points like (‘I hate my foreign name / I hate my foreign face / I hate my stupid english / I hate to have to live in this … scottish place’) expressing the resentment, frustration, pain and helplessness of the refugees. It was poignant and painful, and thought-provoking.
A single note jarred for me, though: when the chorus spoke of ‘refugees from India’. Refugees and from India? Throughout history, India has only given asylum to people from around the world, having been the most inclusive of all societies which has taken in people who wanted to stay and for a long period of its history welcomed every foreigner according to tradition as an honoured guest and a trusted friend (the repercussions of which are a different story). There are no refugees from India, except perhaps the absconding Indian business tycoons hiding in London who aren’t refugees in the sense of the word as it was used in the play. Reminded me for no reason of a recent conversation with a colleague in my day job – we spoke of how highly educated young men and women now choose to live in India rather than migrate abroad as now India has everything, including the facilities of any developed country.
I suppose that is the effect of all great drama, as all great art, which makes one think at both personal and universal levels about the thoughts and themes presented through its words.