Family bonds under lens
June 12, 2019
Kolkata saw two masterpieces from the West presented in brilliant adaptations within a spell of one week. First, there was a classic, Death of a salesman, by Arthur Miller (1915-2005), the acerbic controversial figure of the American theatre in the twentieth century, whose razor-sharp wit could make him comment: There are two things most common in this world, the first is hydrogen and the second is stupidity. Coming before him almost by a century had been an epic saga, Father, by August Strindberg (1849-1912), the Swedish playwright, who combined psychology and naturalism in a new kind of European drama that evolved into Expressionist drama. Described variously as "neurotic, reactionary, religious and fragmented", the world of performing arts learnt from Strindberg sexual madness, fluidity of form and the power of dreams. Poles opposite from Miller, Strindberg also had written about sex with absolute realism, dramatizing the compound of love, hate, fury and desire that characterizes random couplings and permanent relationships. If Henrik Ibsen - the other Scandinavian celebrity playwright of the time -- caught the tensions of the night before, Strindberg revealed the acrid taste of the morning after. In summary, the two plays, showcased in this metropolis, provided an excellent contrast of dramatic study across the span of one century.
Miller's 1949 work, Death of a Salesman, became one of the most famous American plays of its period. It was the tragedy of Willy Loman, a man destroyed by false values that were in large part the values of his society. For Miller, it was important to place the common man at the centre of a tragedy. As he wrote in that year: "The quality in such plays that does shake us...derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world. Among us today this fear is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than it ever was. In fact, it is the common man who knows this fear best".
Death of a Salesman addresses loss of identity and a man's inability to accept change within him and society. The play is a montage of memories, dreams, confrontations and arguments, all of which make up the last 24 hours of Willy Loman's life. The play concludes with Willy's suicide and subsequent funeral. Miller uses the Loman family - Willy, wife Linda, and sons Biff and Happy - to construct a self-perpetuating cycle of denial, contradiction, and order versus disorder. Willy had an affair over 15 years earlier than the real time within the play, and Miller focuses on the affair and its aftermath to reveal how individuals can be defined by a single event and their subsequent attempts to disguise or eradicate the event. For example, prior to discovering the affair, Biff adored Willy, believed all Willy's stories, and even subscribed to Willy's philosophy that anything is possible as long as a person is "well-liked." The realization that Willy is unfaithful to Linda forces Biff to reevaluate Willy and Willy's perception of the world. Biff realizes that Willy has created a false image of himself for his family, society and even for himself.
Willy is not an invincible father or a loyal husband or a fantastically successful salesman like he wants everyone to believe. He is self-centered. He fails to appreciate his wife. And he cannot acknowledge the fact that he is only marginally successful. Hence, Willy fantasizes about lost opportunities for wealth, fame and notoriety. Even so, it would be incorrect to state that Miller solely criticizes Willy. Instead, Miller demonstrates how one individual can create a self-perpetuating cycle that expands to include other individuals. Spectators continue to react to Death of a Salesman because Willy's situation is not unique. He made a mistake - one that irrevocably changed his relationship with the people he loves most - and when all of his attempts to eradicate his mistake fail, he makes one grand attempt to correct the mistake. Willy vehemently denies Biff's claim that they are both common, ordinary people, but ironically, it is the universality of the play that makes it so enduring. Biff's statement, "I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you" is true after all.
Salesmaner Sansar (The Family of a Salesman), presented on May 30 by Anjan Dutta Productions is by Anjan Dutta, for Anjan Dutta, and of Anjan Dutta. Directed and scripted by him, he also plays the main protagonist Loman with great panache. What is remarkable in the present version is that it has shorn other characters -besides Loman family - to bring to the focus only the essential love, anguish and conflicts, chiefly between the elder son Biff and Willy; but also between Willy and wife Linda; and between Biff and the younger sibling Happy. Additionally, the 15-year old casual affair -and its fatal impact on Biff - is repeatedly played out on front stage as a stark reality show, even showing Anjan in his bare undies. It is almost revolting, but only almost, because it hits audience that much harder not only with the crudity of it all, but also with its enormous consequences. (This critic recalls a decades-old, very successful Bengali version of the play, Feriwalar Mrityu (literally meaning Miller's title) by the formidable 'Nandikar', under the baton of thespian Rudraprasad Sengupta, the latter also playing the lead role. The performance stood out because of Biff enacted by a very gifted youngster, Goutam Halder, who even skipped with single bounces atop all the front-stage tables and yet vented his angst in mouthing the dialogue! It was unforgettable.
The rest of the crew stands up beautifully, particularly the athletic Biff (donned by Anirban Chakrabarty), the set is superbly constructed, the lighting is superb, and there is the ethereal music track by Frank Sinatra, Now the end is near..., in both French and English. The entire play remained a memorable experience, particularly of Anjan's virtuoso genius!
The idea of marriage as a lifelong torment and the marital life as an unending conflict between the two contending partners is partly what makes Strindberg seem so modern. His 1888 play, The Father portrays the tragedy of a man and a woman struggling for the possession of their child. The father is an intellectual and a man of ideas. His wife is narrow, selfish, and unscrupulous in her methods when her antagonism is aroused. The father wants to rescue the child from the hot-house environment and send her away for higher education, nor because he plans to make her an image of himself, but because he wants her to grow up with a healthy outlook on life. While the father's love is concerned with the development of the child, that of the mother is interested mainly in the possession of the child. Therefore she fights the man doggedly with every means at her command, even to the point of instilling the poison of doubt into his mind, by hints that he is not the father of the child.
Not only does she seek to drive her husband mad, but through skillful intrigue she leads everyone, including the doctor, to believe that he is actually insane. Finally, even the old maid is induced to betray him: she slips the straitjacket over him, adding the last touch to the treachery. Robbed of his faith, broken in spirit and subdued, the scientist rants away and is seen as being taken away in an asylum, almost a victim of the Earth Spirit -- of motherhood, which slays the man for the sake of the child. Laura herself will have it so when she tells her husband, "You have fulfilled your function as an unfortunate necessary father and breadwinner. You are not needed any longer, and you must go."
Babai, presented on June 5 by Ushnik, is an adapted version of Strindberg's play, and yet it retains beautifully his essential concerns: the genuine anxiety for the daughter of the scientist-researcher father Priyatosh Ghosh (played with aplomb by the redoubtable Debshankar Halder); the initial grave doubts and the gradually prevailing conviction of Doctor Samanta (essayed by the small-screen veteran Shubhasis Mukherjee); the total possessiveness - to the point of becoming neurosis - of the mother (donned very well by Srijata Bhattacharjee); and the simplicity and faithfulness of the family retainer Masi (enacted by the old-time actress Chhanda Chattopadhyay) made for a great teamwork.
Many kudos are due to Ishita Mukhopadhyay, who directed and particularly wrote the script, adapting an end-nineteenth-century play and making it totally credible to the twenty-first century milieu. Her use at the end, of her own beautifully nuanced poetry with lines like "Crocs and sharks lurk only in human mind...," fitted very well to the spirit of the dark play.
Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.
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