Mythologies on Stage (1988)

Inter-Arts 7 (1988)

Mythologies on Stage

The Mahabharata, written by Jean-Claude Carrière, translated and directed by Peter Brook, designed by Chloe Obolensky, performed by the Centre Internationale de Créations Théâtrales (Glasgow, 13 April-17 May, 1988)

‘All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ (Tolstoy). If for families one reads ‘reviews’ and for happy one reads ‘favourable’, a little of the dilemma of reviewing the Mahabharata after the shower of praise that has been heaped upon it becomes apparent. Essentially I must count myself in agreement with the statements about its being ‘one of the theatrical events of this century’ and an extraordinary act of cultural embassy’ – but, having said that, I cannot help feeling that there are still some qualifications to be made, Just how does it achieve this effect, for example? In what sense is it ‘epic’? – Through its portentousness, or through its fidelity to Brechtian notions of theatre? One would have to be a very trusting person to accept the plaudits at face value without actually seeing the show.

Perhaps the easiest way of delineating what it is that makes this play (or, rather, series of plays) unique is to compare it with earlier attempts to encompass an entire mythology on the stage – and since a comparison with Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen was inevitable sooner or later, we might best begin our analysis there.

It has been stated (I do not know with how much authority) that Wagner’s great operas virtually always come off when they are performed at Bayreuth, and virtually never when they are performed elsewhere. I never saw the quarry at Avignon where the Mahabharara began its life, but I can state that the Old Glasgow Transport Museum won half the battle for the English version before the play had even begun. It was not just that the setting was so fruitfully bizarre – though the vast zeppelin hangar of a building, with its tiny wicket-gate of an entrance, immediately started one thinking in terms of the ‘elect’ who had been let in, and the rest of the people (symbolised by the traffic held back by the omnipresent police cones and barriers) who had not booked in time, and must therefore be excluded. We all know the story that hearing the original epic read right through guarantees one salvation, and there was a certain sense that watching the play right through might go some way towards accomplishing the same objective. Inside the building, too, the atmosphere was relaxed but somehow reverent – one could see members of the cast determinedly ‘mingling’ with the audience, and I for one saluted the gesture, but I didn’t dare to approach them myself. Somehow, the fact that almost all of them were simultaneously memorialised in a little gallery of carefully posed black-and-white photographs made one regard them as, in a sense, living works of art – and all good Westerners know that such things are to be treated with respect, not familiarity.

This false reverence soon wore off when one went inside the theatre, though – and this highlights one of its most significant divergences from Wagner and the nineteenth-century gigantesque. The stage set was, it is true, rather impressively strange: a mud floor with a small pond imbedded in it (I heard someone speculate that this was supposed to represent ‘all the oceans of the world’). The walls were the original brick of the museum, complete with grime and iron staples (used as rungs at various points in the action), and there was even a stream at the back. Rather than being used to overawe the spectators, however (as at Bayreuth), the good humour and low-key nature of the play were made obvious from the first – with the elephant-headed god Ganesha entering exactly on cue as Vyasa, the author of the poem, is announcing that he needs a scribe to write down his words (‘Rumour has it that you’re looking for a scribe for the Poetical History of Mankind’).

Admittedly, like the rest of the play-script (from which I am quoting) this fails a little flat without the accompanying gestures and tones of voice – but it was, somehow, exquisitely comic. Nor did this easy domination of the audience relax at all through A Game of Chess, the first three-hour play, devoted mainly to introducing the various groups of characters: Krishna, the Pandavas, their enemies Duryodhana and Duhsasana, and the two tutors Bhishma and Drona. Brook’s indebtedness to the Brechtian ‘epic theatre’ tradition was nowhere more apparent than in this section of the play: doubling of roles, assumption of masks, stylised settings (the mud floor had, at various times, to stand for a palace, a forest, a desert, the Himalayas, a battlefield, and even Heaven and Hell) – with, of course, a complex moral fable to be considered. To be sure, Brook follows Brecht’s practice more than his theory – as in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the effect is to encourage more complex identification with the protagonists rather than truly to ‘alienate’ us. And yet it was observable that as time went on even this initial distancing (conveyed in Brook’s terms by Brechtian irony rather than Wagnerian ‘sublimity’) began to relax into a more human appreciation. As the Pandavas, the half-divine cousins, became familiar, so did their emotions and moods become a subject for compassion rather than laughter. Indeed, it was this that astonished me most as I watched the play over three evenings – the first play seemed to set a tone familiar from modern theatre groups generally when they set out to dramatise history or legend; the second play (Exile in the Forest) was more static, with psychology beginning to penetrate the melodrama; the third play, however, (The War) built upon the familiar scaffolding of these first two to enter a new realm of representation: a sort of apocalyptic tragi-comedy (in the Shakespearean sense. As a devotee of the late Romances, I found myself reminded, as I watched, of the Winter’s Tale or Pericles – but in this ease it was a Pericles that worked: that fulfilled its promise as the most poetic of all Shakespeare’s plays.

To sum up, then – without wishing to type Peter Brook’s play as representative of any tradition except his own, I can best convey my impression of it by describing it in terms of other versions of myth in the theatre. From Wagner, Brook has taken a sense of deepening intensities: the successive musical and dramatic climaxes of each act building up to a single climactic moment of insight (the Good Friday music in Parsifal, Siegfried’s Funeral March in Götterdammerung). He has, however, rejected Wagner’s intimidation of the audience – his attempt to hypnotise them into participating in a wholly instinctive and emotional (and therefore politically suspect) ritual. From Brecht, he (like other modern directors) has taken over the spirit, rather than the letter, of ‘epic theatre’. As with Brecht’s Galileo or Azdak, he creates protagonists whom we identify with even as we question their actions – not so much alienation, as comprehension and empathy. Brecht, of course, is also significant for prompting a return to the conventions of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, and it is here that Brook seems to have learnt most. The Mahabharata is not at all like his Lear or Midsummer Night’s Dream in its style of production – but it does have something of the mood and completeness, the prevailing tone of reconciliation through adversity, of Shakespeare’s extraordinary final plays.

Some have seen the play as an allegory of man in the twentieth century – complete with ‘sacred weapons’ that can destroy and scorch the earth – and certainly this interpretation is left open to us; but I prefer to see it in more humane, less doctrinaire terms, as:
Assuming man’s infirmities,
To glad your ear, and please your eyes

An epic fable brought down, like the god man Krishna, to the level of the human.


Inter-Arts: A Quarterly Journal of Cultural Connections 7 (1988): 27.

[1310 wds]

Inter-Arts 7 (1988)

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