Harvest : a defense

The playwright of Harvest, Manjula Padmanabhan, did not like our production. I have a lot of thoughts on her reaction, as well as some dismay at the angry (and disrespectful, I felt) reactions in the comments to her post. To put it bluntly, if she feels that the play has rarely been performed the way she wants it, why not rewrite it? Instead, she accuses the production of taking liberties with her script, liberties that I will argue are within the bounds of standard performance practice. Her two main complaints she has is that (a) the play was too long, and (b) it was too “ethnic.” In both cases, she “justifies” her reaction by claiming that the embellishments are external to her text and hence unsupported. Her complaints are with the effect and spectacle, and the authorial intent she writes about in her critique is applied inconsistently or contradicts the instructions given by the playtext.

The fundamental problem with Padmanabhan’s critique of the production stems from her apparent belief that the play text, as received, is transparent and entirely specified. I understand the difficulty of keeping editorial control over one’s work. Her complaint, however, is one-sided — the omissions are not mentioned, but the additions are castigated. Why not complain of certain lines being cut? Why not complain that the Contact Module did not sink “to floor level, making clicking, whirring sounds?” Her substantive point is that the production was/is too long (and I agree), but nowhere does the script indicate the pace of the production.

Padmanabhan makes herself out to be wronged:

…He [the director] has added at least an hour of performance time to the play, including lines, movements and moods that are in no way part of the original.

Let us take up these issues (lines, movements, and moods) one at a time. Having written a few plays myself, I am sensitive to the issue of lines being changed. The embellishments made to the text that bother her most are interjections, many in Hindi, which I will deal with later. No more text has been “added,” unless you count some shouts during a fight scene. Many lines were cut, but no complaint is made of that.

Turning to “movements”, it is true that the production is heavily choreographed. Padmanabhan never wrote in the introduction to the play that “the style of this piece is natural realism.” On my initial reading of the text in 2000 or so, I thought the play veered between melodrama and camp — the heightened unreality made it more effective to me. Apparently Sudipto Chatterjee (the director) believes that it endorses a gradual breakdown of reality. If the playwright truly has a strong opinion of how the play should look (c.f. Beckett), then that should come across in the text as well as the comments associated with the text. Her complaint again seems based on taste and aesthetics, couched in a claim that an injustice has been done to her written word.

If the added choreography is not the problem, then what about the missing choreography? In the last scene Jaya is supposed to be

… bathed in the unearthly radiance emanating from him [Jeetu]. She fidgets, knowing that she must avoid turning around. Behind her the figure crouches down, so that his head is level with hers. She can no longer bear the suspense. She turns.

Most actors would find such descriptions highly constraining, unless that is the character of the entire script. I would argue that most of the descriptions of this nature in the text are suggestive rather than proscriptive. They are inconsistent in frequency and Padmanabhan seems less concerned by their absence.

The final issue is that of “moods.” Here her complaint turns ugly, as she declares

By mid-play, I found myself wanting to drown the whole, whining, screaming, wailing, whimpering family of four grotesques — that’s what they had all become, human gargoyles — it seemed to me no-one could possibly care about what fate lay in store for such creatures.

Here is also where the “violation of the text” argument holds the least water. A play is meant to be interpreted — the “moods” inherent to a scene are those which are supportable by an interpretation and embodiment of the scene. The “mood” of each scene can and should be subject to interpretation — the only question is if it theatrically consistent and effective.

A second strand in her negative reaction is the “over-ethnicization” of the play. In the opening comments to the play she writes:

The DONORS and RECEIVERs should take on the racial identities, names, costumes, and accents most suited to the location of the production. It matters only that there be a highly recognisable distinction between the two groups, reflected in speech, clothing, and appearance. [emphasis mine]

Apparently, Padmanabhan wishes to be the arbiter of identity politics in every locale in which the play is produced! If the director is not allowed to make choices choices in “establishing the recognizable distinctions,” who is? The politics of race, ethnicity, and identity are very different in the United States than in India, and a performance that is powerful in one locale may be ineffectual in another.

In this vein, she is disturbed by our use of Hindi-isms:

For instance, he has permitted his actors to use a number of Hindi-isms such as “arre”, “beta” etc — which I find very hard to accept because (a) I am not a Hindi-speaker and specifically resisted falling back on ethnic touches of that sort while writing the play (b) the use of Hindi is a reminder that the family would never normally be speaking English and besides the actual words and terms are cliches, utterly colourless in themselves. I far prefer the play to inhabit a language-neutral space by remaining in ONE language, rather than attempting to balance uneasily between two.

The play is set in India, and there are very India-specific things in the text — the cadence of the English, various turns of phrase, and so on that mark the language as post-colonial Indian English. Indeed, it seems unnatural that the family should speak such English given their socioeconomic status. The extent to which Hindi phrases were added hardly puts the play “balancing uneasily between two” languages.

The introduction to her play states that “for the sake of coherence, this play is set in Bombay.” Her reason (a) is largely irrelevant — if she wanted to avoid Hindi, she could have set it in Madras. She could have easily set the play in “an unnamed city in the Third World” — would this have lessened its effect? — with characters having names that could change based on the context. Why not rewrite the play to make this more clear if it is her intention?

In her comments to the cast, Padmanabhan repeatedly insisted on the importance of the play’s “portability.” However, this seems to be a red herring — she is uncomfortable with the choices made to make the play work within the political context of ethnic politics in the US. Put another way, the aesthetic impositions of making “a highly recognizable distinction” here is not worth it to her. Indeed, she writes:

since I don’t feel the need to underline the fact that I’m Indian/SouthAsian, it is utterly unimportant — no, more than unimportant, actually UNATTRACTIVE — for me to make a big deal about that identity. I want to go the other way — I want to universalize the experience of being whatever — Asian/Indian/whatever — and to explore the notion of sameness-in-otherness. Whereas for this production, what seems to have overwhelmed the tone is the heavy spice of Indianness.

Padmanbhan’s expressed desire is for the production to play into the neocolonial meme of “sameness-in-otherness.” In the United States, ethnic distinctions are obliterated by being “other.” As one of the commenters, Shawn Jain, points out:

even at a school as liberal and supposedly multicultural as UC Berkeley, when most students here think of Indian performance, they think of bhangra, Bollywood, or that “Addictive” song by Truth Hurts.

Pop culture in the US reduces the complexity of the “other” into an index card’s worth of associations. While a universalist approach may work outside the center, in order to subvert those stereotypes for a general audience it is necessary to co-opt and twist them.

If the play is to be set in India, to complain that it is too Indian is a matter of aesthetics. If her intention was to remain in the abstract, then the play could have been written in that way, but it is crucial to remember that effective performance is most often about specificity and not about personified arguments dueling on stage.

This has been a long post, so I will sum up in brief. Manjula Padmanabhan’s critique of the UC Berkeley production of Harvest is fundamentally a matter of taste. She claims the production is too long because of excessive tampering with her text, but she has a double-standard when it comes to specific adherence to the script. She is uncomfortable with the ethnicization of the play for personal reasons — her stated (written) objectives support (to an extent) the choices made by the director in the production. In the end, she did not like the production for very good (and largely personal) reasons, but those reasons do not at the moment support her underlying assumption that the play has a canonical, obvious interpretation.

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Amardeep Singh Hullabaloo at the Berkeley Theater.