Mister Behram by Gieve Patel- A super quick review

Gieve Patel’s plays explore electrifying themes drawn from the dark side of life.

“The tragic vision of life is often misunderstood as dark and gloomy.”

To enter the world of Gieve Patel’s plays is to ready oneself for an emotionally shattering experience. There is nothing pretty-pretty or sentimental about women fighting to the death for custody of a child (“Princes”), or when a man with a dreadful eczema woos a much younger, penniless girl (“Savaksa”) or when a successful barrister gets obsessed with his son-in-law (“Mister Behram”).

Dysfunctional families are a staple with playwrights, Arnold Wesker’s “Roots” or many of John Osborne’s works come to mind. But Gieve’s plays go beyond mere realism. Written and performed memorably in the 1970s and 1980s when Bombay theatre was looking for indigenous writing, routine Broadway adaptations having run their course, the plays, which are now available in a new compilation, launched by Seagull Books in early October in Mumbai, are major works, crying out to be staged again.

Rooted in the Parsi context

Gieve’s plays are unique, says eminent theatre critic Shanta Gokhale, because he is perhaps the only Parsi playwright writing about the community in a rural milieu, particularly the middle-class, impoverished Parsi city-dweller coming to a village. But his locales — village and district town in late 19th century Gujarat, with evocations of the city too — constitute “three microcosms of India”, as the playwright points out. So while being rooted in the searing specificity of the Parsi context, he is able to address quite electrifying themes, such as the obsessive nature of love; power, with its numerous perversions; self-delusion and how it cleaves relationships; the way women are mistreated. Further, what makes these plays definitely not soothing is the way Gieve uses language, Gokhale points out. He is a poet, who deploys image and metaphor and ellipses to compose a tragic denouement. “The tragic vision of life is often misunderstood as dark and gloomy,” Gieve says. “But it’s because great plays — from the Greeks to Shakespeare and the moderns, Ibsen, Strindberg and Eugene O’Neill — face up to the tragic stature of life itself that they, in a way, free us from darkness.”

Gieve Patel was born in 1940 in Bombay. His parents were from Nargol, a village in Bulsar district, southern Gujarat. His father was from a land-owning family, which gave Gieve access to Warli life, a theme that gains in cadence and centrality by the time he was writing “Mister Behram”.

“The Warli labourers worked on our estate, and that was magical, another kind of life from the Parsi life that I was used to,” he remarks, seated in his studio on Nepean Sea Road, which offers a view of Hanging Gardens’ verdure. He is wary though of looking at any art from the point of view of ‘current issues’. “I address life first — because issues’ will change. What is unchanging is how human beings get involved in these issues and how they interact under circumstances of great strain.”

Language (in Mister Behram)

The language of the play, an intended artifice, is a lapidary mix of Gujarati English, interspersed with literal translation that has been further chiselled to pierce like shards of glass. Emotions run high here and what is spoken mirrors the almost animal violence within. “How can you be taken in! How can you! If we were not around he would take the child in his teeth and carry him off.”

Amid such conflict, which is never black-and-white, “There is also a tremendous amount of love and caring (in families),” the playwright points out. Like the insistence on food? “Yes, yes, absolutely. So then that becomes a backdrop against which the darker forces are seen in stark relief. Perhaps the ultimate heartbreak is this: there is this battle between these two forces happening in the same individual.”

Mister Behram, the self-righteous, reformist lawyer, is quite the guilt-inducing, exploitative ‘parent’ at home, and Nahnu, a Warli youth, who has been taken into his fold, cannot see it. Nothing could say this more dramatically than the opening scene where Nahnu, rechristened ‘Naval’, sees a goat giving birth, as the sun beats down, blinding him and bringing on a seizure: it’s a heraldic image of doom.

There is detailed, moving description in “Savaksa” of a poor man drinking tea with a slice of bread at a railway station. “Focusing on details is very important to me,” Gieve says, “because it is through this that the whole milieu and the life around it are illuminated. You touch universal things not by making large, broad statements but by looking more closely at details. And not trivial details, either,” he qualifies, “but specific details that are telling.”

The ability to observe closely may have originated from his career as a doctor, he laughs, but that’s only the beginning, he adds cryptically, of the long gestation period his work involves. “Things that are important to you remain with you. Then you fashion and refashion.”

Mister Behram: What is the play all about? 

Gieve Patel’s Mister Behram, an Indian-English play that has been performed widely across India and has been translated into Marathi by Shanta Gokhale. First staged in English in 1987 under the direction of Gieve’s wife, Toni, this avatar of Mister Behram brings in a “fresh ethos”.

The play is set in the days of the Raj. Mister Behram  is an unusual but successful and rich lawyer who had not only adopted and educated Nanhu, an orphaned Waarli boy, but also gave consent to his daughter Dolly (Neelima Deshpande) to marry him.

It turns out that the father has an almost pathological obsession for the boy; love that is reciprocated by Nanhu himself. However, Behrams love is sexual, one with homoerotic undertones, while Nanhu’s is not. In one instance Behram says

“At sowing, planting, reaping, resting, have I not studied these bodies convinced of a mystical knowledge immured within each of them, each piece of flesh derived from the clods of earth on which they tread season after season! Our bodies are dull dough before this vision. And the colouring…generations of sunlight on that naked frame have burnished each turn of skin from wheat to bronze to a dark clotting in the folds.”

Family dynamics play out against this strange backdrop – Dolly and her father competing for Nanhu’s affections, with Rati, Behram’s devoted wife, struggling to assuage emotions and gain his love. Only when Dolly becomes pregnant, does Behram break.

A parallel trajectory to the central storyline has political overtones. The British district collector, Mr Watts  wants the British to take over the neighboring grasslands to set up an army cantonment, a move resisted by tribals. When Nanhu, a London-educated barrister thanks to his godfather, excels in court, Mister Behram, himself a celebrated barrister of the district, feels upstaged. He has no compunction humiliating Nanhu in Mr Watts’ presence by asking him to strip to his native tribal loincloth, ostensibly to show off his splendid body. Nanhu complies, breaks down, and a shocked Dolly leads him away.

Love, ego, desire to humiliate, possess, subjugate are interwoven into the dark-headed tapestry of this drama. Homoeroticism is a prevalent theme in the play, especially seen in Mister Behram’s dialogues, and the play seems ahead of it’s times, exploring homosexuality in a way never been done before. Yet, there is a subdued quality to the authors writing, as if he knew that the audience of that time would vehemently oppose not to the relationship between Behram and Nanhu, a sexually tinged one, but the nature of their relationship-almost an incestuous attraction between father and son, one where Mister Behram aims to reap “unspeakable pleasures”. The ending of the play is a shocking one, where we see Rati constantly treating and portraying Behram as a martyr despite his mistreatment of her, and the play causes you to reflect on the various issues in India during that time.

 

I’ve kept this review short and sweet because the play is so complex I could write pages and pages on it! If you get a chance, definitely read it. It might be a little voyeuristic and creepy, with hints of pedophilia but it’s a good read. Make sure to pay attention to the important and bizarre stage directions! This review summed up the highlights of the play but in no way was it intended to go in depth-or else it would never end! Visit these links for more information:

https://books.google.co.in/books?id=nGfMAgAAQBAJ&lpg=PA1205&ots=JiQvYTyW6f&dq=themes%20of%20mister%20behram&pg=PA1205#v=onepage&q=themes%20of%20mister%20behram&f=false

http://www.the-criterion.com/V4/n1/Maya.pdf

https://s3.amazonaws.com/tess57/mister%20behram%20and%20other%20plays.pdf –> you should be able to download the play here

Bertolt Brecht and Aristotle: Epic vs Dramatic

My last post was all about Arturo Ui, and my review of the play. Looking back I realized I still had a ton of notes on a discussion we had in class about Bertolt Brecht and Aristotle and how they are really quite different, so I figured this would be a good time to put it all up!

If you read my review then you’d have a brief introduction as to who Bertolt Brecht was (if you haven’t read the review, read it!)

Bertolt Brect and Aristotle had two very different views on theater, and after a ton of research and notes I’ve written a (not so small) piece on what I understand these two views to be:

Epic Theatre is a theatre movement in mid-20th century that is greatly linked to German playwright Bertolt Brecht who called it his modern theatre; it’s also known as Brechtian acting.

Bertolt Brecht

The goals of Epic Theatre are what make it so different. The main purpose of the play is to only present ideas and not to imitate reality. It encourages the audience to think and then make judgments and act. It clearly shows the audience an argument with its different viewpoints. Due to the fact that the audience is only an observer, he remains at an emotional distance from the action thus always aware that it is watching a play. It’s an enacting of reality and not reality itself. It should be able to change the human being because if the audience can be critical about what’s happening, it’ll be able to know its causes and effects and will be able to change it in their own real lives. Brecht deliberately used unrealistic techniques in set design, light and visuals to always remind the audience that this is not even close to reality and that they are watching a play. Brecht wanted actors to make a balance between “being” their characters and showing the audience that the character is “being played”. The actor must always remember that he is an actor and that he is only portraying the feelings and emotions of his character. Epic actors are only narrators and tools of representation. They narrate the events and do its actions only to make the audience understand the situation.  Brecht wanted to create productions that are entertaining and that provokes people to think and learn. An epic play consists of scenes that exist by its own and doesn’t connect to the scene before or after it.

 

Aristotle 

Dramatic (Aristotelian) Theatre on the other hand is not the opposite of epic theatre but has different goals and techniques. Dramatic theater treats its audience as passive and can not be reached except through their emotions. The dramatic stage fully embodies the plot/event. It fully involves the audience by putting them into the action thus endangering emotion in him. For example in The Skin of our Teeth, the audience are asked to get chairs from the auditorium to ‘save the human race’ by burning them to keep themselves warm. It makes the audience very involved in the play and what’s happening to the extent that it doesn’t give them a chance to look at the play from a distance and reflect. Scenes are linked to each other; in The Skin of our Teeth, scenes lead to each other. It presents you with the world as it is so the audience leaves the theatre believing that life is unchangeable and inevitable. Dramatic theatre allows the audience to see a representation of reality encouraging us to accept it without thinking so that’s why it gives you a sense of inevitability and fate. The audience identifies with the characters through terror and pity. Dramatic theatre’s illusion of representing the present event doesn’t encourage the audience’s reflection on what’s happening and on the themes presented.
According to Aristotle, to achieve unity of action and maintain its illusion, the dramatic play must consist of scenes that are linked to each other and that lead to each other leading to a climax of catharsis (evocation of intense fear and pity).

Brecht believed that theatre should not play with the audience’s feelings but should appeal and influence his reason/mind. It should encourage the audience to have a more critical attitude to what’s happening on stage. He wanted to reach ultimate objectivity from the audience’s side instead of identifying with the characters. This way the audience will learn the real truth about their society and world.

Brecht refuses to assume that the audience could only be reached through their emotion but through their minds so he doesn’t want the audience to relate to the characters and become emotionally involved with them (breaking empathy for characters) at all but make them think about their own life and this is where change will come. He did present feelings but he did that from a standpoint critical to the feeling.

Feelings and identifying with the characters affect the audience’s objectivity and reasoning. Brecht believes that the Aristotelian thought on feelings (The audience feels exactly what the character on stage feels) wears out the audience. Feelings alone are not enough for transformation and change; thought and reason are the keys.

Some extra notes and my reflections:

-For Aristotle–> drama=representational–> what ‘Poetics’ aimed to target

-Impact of drama has to be ‘cathartic’–> you go to watch performances in order to “purgate” your emotions

-Greek theater–> wanted to invoke Gods, and these Gods would enter on stage–> demons would enter from other places (related to Indian folk theater)

-Brecht–> politically charged, known for his plays, poetry and fiction

-Brecht-> big believer in art being closely linked to society and his work has given a new direction into art and society

-Brecht countered much much of what Aristotle said, and Brecht believed in the Marxist idea of changing society (base, structure and superstructure) and especially focused on superstructure

-Brecht counters Aristotle’s idea of theater and questions the idea of the “natural”–> Brecht see’s life as never being natural, and believes ideas to be constructed by society (beginning, middle and end given by society, not God)–> drama considered to come from social constructs

-Brecht believed there was no set beginning, middle and end because life is EPISODIC

Exposition–> Brecht said it was Episodic, as life occurred in Episodes—> Aristotle believed in an ‘Act’ structure

-Brecht strengthened Marxist ideas and weakened Aristotle’s ideas

-According to Brecht- what is important is not to imitate life but what are the forces that create life? who created that human pattern? what has made human patterns the way they are? Doesn’t want to imitate feelings and characters but imitation of thinking processes is needed=called empathy–> Aristotle believed the opposite

-Stanislavsky- Russian director who proposed the idea of sympathy and was very important in character building

-There is a need to look at life through empathy rather than sympathy= Brecht

-Brecht didn’t want the audience to feel cathartic effects–> doesn’t want the audience to only focus on emotion

-Brecht wants to create characters and scenes that cause “defamiliarization” and estrangement in the audience–> he wants to separate the audience and the play

-During Brecht’s plays–> the audience at some point acts as a 3rd person

-During Aristotle’s plays–> plays engaged the audience as if audience were characters

-Brecht was the audience to detach and think and then feel, not only feel, therefore Brecht creates thoughtful, analytical and creative engagement with the audience

Want to know more? Visit the links below!

http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/L/A-Robert.R.Lauer-1/Brecht.html

http://nebo-lit.com/drama/illusion-and-alienation-drama.html

Folk Traditions and the Dramatic Performance Act

Folk traditions are an integral part of drama in India, as modern Indian drama and society has evolved through traditions, primarily oral traditions—> we see that folk traditions and drama are closely interconnected and can’t be separated.

British education was very important for traditions in colonial times-it provided a base to differentiate between folk theater (tamasha, nautanki etc) and classic drama (sanskrit plays). Unfortunately, while classic plays were respected, folk theater wasn’t, which is a real shame because it truly personifies Indian culture.

To the British, folk represented “going back to the roots” of Indian culture and society. Folk traditions and plays were used by dramatists to talk about nationalism and was considered a way to address the ‘Dramatic Performance Act’–> it acted as a way of circumventing this act. No one could really object to folk traditions, and the realism within folk centric plays broach much deeper, socially relevant topics.

Folk theater and plays couldn’t be considered “real”-they explored the world beyond, a fantasy world or space, that wasn’t really tangible and certainly not “realistic”. Through this fantasy space, playwrights addressed their concerns directly to a person on most occasions–> satire was especially crucial in putting points across to the audience.

Although folk could bypass the Dramatic Performance Act, it was still affected by this new “law” imposed by the British. How?

A cleansing of folk traditions took place, and people started questioning the sophistication of plays–> suddenly they wanted properly structured, refined and sophisticated plays of the Europeans–> thus, the new tradition of “sangeeth natak” emerged.

 

Stay tuned for more posts on folk traditions and the dramatic performance act!

What’s all the drama about?

You might be wondering, so, what exactly is Drama Performance and Society all about? Well let me clear it up for you.

We all have read plays at some point in our lives whether it be:

long, very very confusing Shakespearean texts

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doesn’t make him any less confusing…

bitingly witty dramas by Oscar Wilde

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or especially meaningful plays by George Bernard Shaw

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Drama continues to be an important literary form, and these popular dramatists still hold a place in literature today.

But..have we actually “read” the play? By reading, I don’t just mean the text, I mean how much interest have we taken in understanding the construction of the drama? Do we look at the cultural aspects that provoked the writing of the play? Or the time period it tries to depict? What about the political and social influences?

Many of us, unknowingly, miss out on all these elements that make drama what it is; a vital insight into society and societal issues. Not only that, dramatic performances act as a depiction of various cultural and social norms, gender and class constructs, traditions, and even can have political connotations.

Essentially then, it seems quite simple; drama and it’s performance goes hand in hand with society.