35 Journals Theater Review: India Ink by Tom Stoppard
Last night the Mr. and I continued what is becoming the preview of “See-a-play-for-his-birthday” month. And by preview I mean, this is not even his birthday month, and his birthday is at the end of THAT. A few weeks ago we saw a blah play whose name I cannot even remember, but last night’s production of India Ink at the Roundabout Theater in New York, New York, was indeed a gem, as are, in my opinion, all of Tom Stoppard’s plays. The first play I ever saw of his was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. My English teacher took a few of the biggest nerds (i.e; me and my best friends) to see a production of this amazing play, which combines Dadaism and Shakespeare to amazing effect. Thank you, Mr. Denver! That is just one of the ways that Mr. Paul Denver changed my life. But I will write more about that at a later time. The other plays I have seen by Tom Stoppard have been equally thought-provoking, not to mention incredibly well-researched. I have come away from them with much to think about, even when I found them at times, shall we say, discursive and undramatic in parts. Stoppard has enough confidence in his audience to 1. Assume that they are reasonably well-educated; 2. Give them enough information so that if they missed something, there has been enough discussion of the major issues so that by the time the person has left the play, he and she will know where to start digging for more; and 3. He actually does tell interesting stories in his plays.
India Ink is a story set in two different times: in 1930 when a glamorous poet named Flora Crewe comes to India “for her health”—despite the fact that India at that time and no doubt today were infamous to putting an end to one quickly. She rents a small villa and meets an artist named Nirad Das who wants to paint a portrait of the poet (as indeed, Modigliani had—NUDE!!!). Simultaneously, and overlappingly (if such is a word) it is also set in the 1980s, when a biographer named Eldon Pike is overcome with excitement as he reads the correspondence of and interviews Flora’s sister, Eleanor Swan. Soon, Eldon is ready for the fainting couch because it is rumored that there is a painting of Eleanor Swan by an Indian painter, once again, NUDE. Not nude as in “Damn, I don’t know what to wear.” Nude as in an allusion to the Hindi god Krishna’s married lover Radha, the most beautiful of the cowmaidens (Gopis, I think?) who would cluster around him. Radha waited naked in a house waiting for love. Basically, if Flora had been painted naked by an Indian artist at that time, it would be an even more scandalous breach of the times’ mores. Not that Flora would have cared. As her sister archly noted, “Flora used men like batteries. If one wore out, she’d plug in another one for energy.”
Much of the play is devoted to the mystery of seeing if the modern day Eldon and his Indian colleagues—and Nirad Das’s son—will find out the true story of this rumor and who the artist is if it exists. But along the way, one is exposed to a slice of history as rich as the Battenberg cakes and “sponge” that Mrs. Swan stuffs her guests with. It grapples with the coexisting cooperation unrest between Hindus and Muslims that existed at that time, Gandhi’s salt march, the fact that more and more Indians were being invited to join the government, but not the clubs, the ways that the English considered that their great contribution was making India “governable” (although it points to ways that it did not—for example, there were parts of India, notably Rajasthan, that were controlled by princely states rather than the British themselves–) and the idea that what ruined the British/Indian system was when the Suez Canal opened and “Memsahibs”—British ladies—could join their husbands, so the husbands were no longer forced to deal with the local population for their, um, family needs. One fairly sympathetic British character is amazed that the Indians don’t rise up and slaughter the English. The intensely Anglophilic nature of certain aspects of Indian culture is mentioned repeatedly, with affection, bemusement, and dismay. If one knew nothing about India, one would absorb a lot quite painlessly, following the story of the free-spirited Flora. But it is absolute catnip for those who find India, its art, history, theology, and intensely atmospheric way of being itself (which means being a million different things as well as being one things—somewhat like the Hindu gods) endlessly intriguing. As my husband teaches Asian literature and I have not only edited several thick books on India but have had the good fortune to have a number of Indian friends, this was like a parade of hits. We even have a beautiful painting of Radha being courted by Krishna in a clearing in our living room.
One thing that I found interesting, frustrating, fair, brave, and/or annoying (can’t decide) was Stoppard’s choice to write this story—his take on India, basically—from the perspective of /or a story about a white woman. Naturally, it harkens back to (and even refers to) Forster’s A Passage to India (at least in part). It was an interesting choice to write from an English woman’s perspective rather than an Indian one. But then again, in this modern era, when there are so many famous and talented Indian writers who can tell their own stories, it seems less bothersome to let Stoppard choose the story that calls to him. Especially because, as the husband says, I wish I could have read the script over—it was so rich, and it didn’t have that “forced” quality many plays have—four people are waiting in the room waiting to find out who the murderer is or whatever.”
So, will the flutey, flirty, frail Flora be, um, united in a very special relationship with India? As I think I said at the end of every book report I wrote, “You’ll just have to wait and see for yourself.”
In the meantime, four thumbs up from the two of us!
Writing Prompt: When you think of India, what images, tastes, bits of history, and more come to mind?