Sunday 19 August 2018

What Price the Bard?


Scene:          A STAGE. Working Lights. Chairs strewn all over the place, empty coffee cups. Director and cast enter in ordinary day clothes.
CAST: Director; Weedy Young Man; Serious Young Man; Old Headmaster; Portly Jovial Man – Prim Tightlipped Lady, Cross Young Marxist lady; Old Lady in her Eighties; Stern Lady Lecturer, Brahmin Lady

Director:  Okay, everybody! We are starting on a mission where none of our groups have gone before! We are going to do Shakespeare!
Cast[all]: Ooh! [some clapping]
Director: Yes, it’s going to be tough. And I am going to be mercilessly professional! Got that! You will be made to weep! But at the end of the day, you will be doing Shakespeare!
More clapping from Cast.
Someone: We are with you!
Others:         All the Way with Boss-man’s Say!
Director: Good. For our first play I am picking the most difficult, and also the most theatrical. We are going to do Richard the Third!
More Oohs and Ahhs.
Prim Tightlipped Middleaged Lady[uncertainly]: I’m not very sure [pause] I’m not at all sure we should do that.[in a rush] At least I am not going to be part of it if you insist!
Director[confused]: Why?... Why, what’s the matter?
PTM Lady: Well, the main character, Richard the Third, he is differently abled. Shakespeare keeps on about his deformity, makes me sick. My husband lost a leg defending our country in 1971. God only knows what I went through during rehab! And it was heartbreaking to see how people – even your good friends – were callous. My husband deserved the respect of the nation, not pity!
Director [mumbling]: I am so sorry... what you must have suffered...
PTM Lady: Humiliating. Not just me, my poor brave husband!
Director [brightly]: Shakespeare wrote 39 plays! More if you ask me, but that’s the official tally. Let’s start with something funny! Midsummer Night’s Dream! I have been laughing at Bottom and his group since I was six!
Cross Young Marxist Woman: I am sure You have. It sickens me to think how the bourgeois middleclass think poor people are idiots. They are not! Who do you think puts food on the table? The poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed! Have any of you spent a day in a village? Anyone? I have. A celebration in a village is far more sophisticated than any show I have seen in Covent Garden or Carnegie Hall!
Director [quickly to cut discussion short]: You are right, you are right. Let’s all put our heads together. Come on people! Community Effort!
Weedy Young Man who fancies himself as an Actor: I say! I have an idea. Let’s do Henry the Fifth! I ... was Henry in our school play.
CYM Woman: In our first production we will show ourselves to be unashamed colonials! For the Brits, Agincourt was a romantic victory; for the French a disaster. The Brits raped France for a hundred years then turned on India!  
WY Man shrinks back out of the light, as some nod doubtfully.
Director[trying to regain control]: Let’s stick to Comedy, shall we? Which one gets the most votes?
Mischievous Portly Man: I vote for Taming of the Shrew!
Stern Lady Lecturer: If I didn’t know you, I would hit you over the head with my bag. You know, it’s not funny! Not funny at all! How long must we tolerate male chauvinism? You think it is a joke, but it is only a pathetic admission of your own adolescence!
Director: People! People! Let’s not quarrel! A dramatic cast should be knit closer than any family. Madam, you know we would not do that play. I have serious reservations myself. Okay, [uncertainly]shall we try Twelfth Night?
Old Headmaster: It is vulgar. We did the play once at my old school. All the boys – I mean the bad mischievous ones – got on to the double meanings, and kept shouting ‘and so she makes her Pees’ during ‘Founders Day.’  I was embarrassed. Our richest patron withdrew her support. I still shiver at the thought.
Serious Young Man[lifting his head from a book by Foucault]: We should do something really meaningful, if we do anything at all. Let’s do King Lear.
Old Lady in her Eighties: Poor old well-meaning man. There is no respect for old people. I suppose there never was. I am not complaining, my servants are reliable, of course they pilfer, but who doesn’t? But don’t you think it’s a shame, the way the old are treated? Even architects and designers, who should know better. Slippery floors, narrow stairs, uncomfortable chairs. Will the play help people see things in a different light? I am afraid not. They will say, a foolish old man, confirming stereotypes.
Portly Man: I say! Let’s do something romantic. That will bring in an audience. We should try and get a few more than the usual dozen family and friends type. Let’s do Romeo and Juliet. It’s a crowd puller if ever there was one.
Brahmin Lady [sharply]: No thank you! The cinemas and TV give us enough of all this romantic love nonsense. Children start to believe that they must fall in love, and that too with the most unsuitable person! I live in dread everyday thinking of my daughter in college. I will not breathe easy till she is safely married off to some good wellplaced boy from our community. I am not prejudiced, don’t get me wrong, not at all. But marriages with Muslims and Dalits do not work. It’s all this wrong notion of love. Marriage means having a family like your ancestors with their way of life.
Dead silence for a bit.
Weedy Young Man re-emerging: We need strong theatre. Something that gives us actors good parts. Like Macbeth! Good roles for men and women!
Stern Lady lecturer: Witches! And Bad Women! Yes, let’s perpetuate patriarchal prejudices. Every year idiots burn poor old women as witches!
WY Man slinks back into darkness.
Old lady: Shakespeare always meant magic to me. Taking us out of our present world. Tempest is magical. My daughter played Miranda when she was in sixth class. She wore a blue dress and she danced so beautifully.
Cross Young Marxist Woman: It’s very good of you to bring it up, Madam. The East India Company was given its commission in Shakespeare’s heyday. And the Tempest is prescient it how mercantile-capitalism was going to invade other countries and enslave oppressed people!
Old lady [bewildered]: Enslave? Enslave who? I mean whom?
Director[quickly]: Yes, yes, Madam, there is this new version, making Caliban a slave and all that. Played out if you ask me. Any other ideas?
PTM Lady: I do not hold with all these newly-worked political versions. Now someone will tell me Othello was all about racism!
CYM Woman: Yes, it was!
PTM Lady: How was it? Go ahead tell me!
CYM Woman: Pretty obvious, isn’t it? Black anti-hero!
PTM Lady: He was a Hero! A great military leader! He loves Desdemona deeply. Read the play, he was misled by a traitor, Iago.
CYM Woman: Read the subtext. A black man, however normal on the outside, however great a man, is deeply flawed in character! It’s as plain as the nose on your face.
PTM Lady: I beg your pardon! If we are to make personal remarks...
CYM Woman[hastily]: I meant idiomatically, I mean.
PTM Lady: Well, watch what you say!
Brahmin lady[firmly]: That marriage was doomed because it was unsuitable. That’s the point.
Portly Man [butting in good-naturedly]: Why don’t we think of something, which both a serious play and also a comedy. Let’s do The Merchant of Venice. It has a good court scene and that is always a crowd-puller. And a very good role for Portia! Hey, ladies?
Stern lady lecturer: I do not support Israel after what they have done to the Arabs. But I am also not a Holocaust denier. Europeans victimised Jews, and Jews victimise Arabs. We should not make fun of anybody because of their race or looks, or impairments [looking kindly at PTM Lady] 
Director [taking a grip on himself and the situation]: Hamlet! The master play! We are doing Hamlet! It’s my decision and I am sticking to it!
Oohs and Ahhs and an uncertain pause.
Old Headmaster: There has been an ongoing debate ever since I can remember whether Shakespeare, the Modern Humanist, had any political agenda. Remember, the English Revolution, the first of many, was already in the making. Was the Bard making a point in Hamlet?
Stern lady Lecturer: Most probably, that women shouldn’t remarry!
Serious Young Man: The role of violence in maintaining State Power.
Cross Young Marxist Woman: Why did Hamlet put on an air of madness? Why?
Serious Young Man: Ah! What is called madness is dictated by the State! Hamlet was withdrawing himself from the structures of State Rule.
Cross Young Marxist Woman: Wrong! He was waiting for the Popular Will to manifest itself. Neither the aristocracy, with which he identified, nor the bourgeoisie, with whom he studied in Wittenberg, could bring about revolution. Shakespeare antedates Winstanley!
Old lady in her eighties: Who, my dear? Stanley who?
Director [getting up]: Look, I have to run along now, and tell the sponsors that we are agreed on a play. Shall we do Karna confronting Kunti? We have done that before, and the sponsors will support any dharmic play.
Everyone nods. Light dim out.   

No comments:

Post a Comment