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.
“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”
― Umberto Eco
Throughout this series of AtoZChallenge posts, I have chosen authors who are not just favourites but also those whose complete oeuvre I have read through, as far as possible. Eco is an exception. Of his work I have read only two novels, a few essays, and the celebrated How to write a thesis. Yet he is more of an inspiration than many others, being one of the quintessential writers of pure metafiction, a writer who celebrated the written word throughout his work, a writer for writers.
“We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
I was instantly hooked by The Name of the Rose when I read it a few years ago. It was unlike anything I had ever read before – a murder mystery set in the library of a monastery with layers of philosophy, discussions on theology, celebration of books and libraries, historical descriptions, and above all, the constant allusion that “books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told“. It was one of my first conscious introductions to metafiction and turning the pages, I was spellbound. It is a book that I look forward to re-read someday.
“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library … was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds”
Umberto Eco, The Name of The Rose
“…a book is a fragile creature…the librarian protects them not only against mankind but also against nature, and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion, the enemy of truth.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the story of antiquarian book dealer Yambo who suffers amnesia after a stroke and tries to reconstruct his memory sentence by sentence, page by page, from the books, newspapers, and magazines of his childhood is a bibliophile’s delight. The illustrations of these books in miniature within the pages make it an exceptionally beautiful book, literally and otherwise.
“But the purpose of a story is to teach and to please at once, and what it teaches is how to recognize the snares of the world.”
Reading Eco’s novels is hard work, which nevertheless yields great rewards in terms of comprehending complicated plots, interpreting allusions and the joy of figuring out the many strands of meaning within the narrative. I have all his books on my TBR list, to be picked up at some time in the future when I can spend hours and days focusing on each book, reading for the pure delight of reveling in erudite essays and metafiction.
In contrast to Eco’s novels, How to write a thesis is a solid, lucid, if slightly dated textbook on the purpose and process of choosing a subject, setting the boundaries of research, conducting research, taking notes and presenting the thesis with proper references and bibliography. The narrative of the text with its examples rooted in Italian academia and the occasional dashes of humour transports the reader to Eco’s classroom.
As he was an honorary fellow of my college, I had very much hoped to attend Professor Eco’s actual lecture someday. and was saddened to hear about his passing in Feb 2016. Now I look forward to reading and learning from the rest of his acclaimed body of work.
Writer as therapist, and fiction, more specifically the novel as therapy.
Stumbled upon this lecture by Professor Patricia Waugh, the author of Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction.
Video Link Source: The British Academy Channel on YouTube
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.
How she had changed. I watched her, both fascinated and repulsed at how she ate and talked at the same time, indifferently cramming the multi-layered chapatis and korma (that took me two hours to prepare, I wished I had that time back) into her mouth even as she passionately berated her husband and mother in law. It seemed impossible to connect her with the girl whom I thought I knew, who had grown up with me. Could a person change this much in five years?
I had last known her as a bright young business analyst who could make herself at home in the corporate workplace, anywhere in the world. The customers loved her. Each of our regional offices across the globe asked her to join them, though it may have had something to do with the way she cultivated people, the way she would give them her full attention, turning her face towards them, head tilted just a little to a side, speaking in those murmuring tones which reminded me of a cat which purred as it calculated its next move. I had once mistaken the fire in her eyes for ambition to dance on the glass ceilings, but what she did later showed that it had merely been an average human’s lust for life. She was really a very ordinary woman.
I wondered if she was assessing me the same way I was trying to piece together the missing parts of her story from the way she slouched over the table, with that inscrutable expression in her eyes. But she seemed too preoccupied with the happenings in her life to talk about anything else. Who thinks of anyone but themselves in today’s world? Even I wanted to know her story only because I am a writer and people are part of my raw material.
Had I changed in five years? But I had stayed back on the fringes of life, observing, analysing, recording and writing. Each story brings me revelations as I type, flashes of insight into the many dimensions of truth, of life. The last time we met, she told me that those who seek the meaning of life often end up not living it. Depends on what you mean by living. If it was relationships, they were no longer reliable, I said, forget security. She had replied that what matters is the courage to forge relationships, to dare to put yourself out there, to take the risk, which was the key to make a life. Of course she didn’t put it like that, rather something to that effect in cruder words, and ungrammatical sentences.
I willed her to stop the melodramatic monologue as she piled salad, and then dessert on her plate. Even a pulp fiction writer of those appalling bored-housewife-finds-herself novels would have balked to plot the commonplace scenes of domestic woes that she was harping on. I wanted to show her out once more, shoo her away from my beautiful new flat and return to the comfort and excitement of the pages of my novel.
An asylum seeker about to migrate to another country: “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, no traveller returns. For so long it has beckoned me. This cliff upon which I stand today, this has been my little nest egg that I had tucked away for the future, my plan B. This little Himalayan town is the polar opposite of others, them where they go to renounce the material world for the abstraction, the endless light of an eternal life. Here where I stand, a poor priest once jumped into these swirling waters where the three mighty rivers merge into one. He was reborn as an emperor, they say, wealthy and handsome, kind and wise, surrounded by good family and friends, replete in the sixteen blessings of life. I too should like to return, someday. To the quietness of the leafy lanes that I have loved, the peace of mild blue skies, the unfailing joy of birdsong, to the hallowed libraries that I have seen, the blessed classrooms where I have been. To voices raised in laughter, to silent warmth of friendship, to glances, handclasps and words of love. In those moments, I remain. To them I will return someday. In another name, with another face.”
A watching stranger: “I see her from the bathroom window. Where have I seen her before? She stands close to the edge of the cliff. The wind blows the hair across her face so madly that now I see her, now I don’t. Hers is that sort of face which once seen, remains imprinted in the mind, as it has remained quietly somewhere within mine. Was it on that winter morning–maybe five, six years ago? The mass of humanity among the bright pink and yellow canopies, the overpowering smells, the muddy taste of cardamom tea in clay cups and the annoying anchor woman who was drooling over me so much that I had to shield my eyes by focusing on the audience. I knew my lines so well by then that I did not have to think too much to speak, and then she came in, midway and left early. I have seen her somewhere else too, recently. She is edging closer to the cliff. Stop, wait, don’t! It will get better, I want to tell her. Please wait. I open the window and shout, willing the wind to carry my voice across the river. She looks serene, hands clutched on the iron railing, eyes focused on the crystal waters. I suddenly remember where I had seen her last when with a graceful movement she steps over the rail. Suddenly she looks up and catches my eye as she glides like an angel into the streams the waters of which are bursting forever upon the rocks like fragments of stars. Unable to do anything else, I wave.”
On a sunny winter morning around five years ago, I listened to a young writer read. He was not conventionally handsome, but had a benign aura about him that few people do, a serene presence which radiated goodness. He spoke poignantly about his book, conveying intense emotions that sounded purer for the directness and lack of sentiment. I read his book soon afterwards with a great deal of pleasure, a meditation on the self in times of trial.
A few weeks ago, I had to look him up for a project and was shocked – His face had weathered a few decades into a collage of wrinkles and dark shadows and messy grey hair. His voice likewise was slower, as though worn with time and life. He could have passed for the father of the bonny lad whom I had seen five years ago. Only the kind expression remained. It sat sweetly on that once-seraphic countenance, which now invoked a crumbling sepulchral cherub in my mind.
My project done, I might never see him anymore, not even in Cyberspace. But I will read his book once more, those lines of achingly beautiful prose and reflect on his words about the changing seasons, the passing of time, and the meaning of life, and perhaps I will weep when I read, in a moment of shared humanity that I will sense across the printed page.