Ketu Katrak, Professor of Asian American Studies and Comparative Literature at UC Irvine; dramaturg for The Clay Cart
1. How closely did you follow Sudraka’s text?
We worked with Sudraka’s text during August of 2007 and the play opened in February 2008. It was a wonderful experience to work with Bill Rauch and the Literary team on the text, editing, cutting and making it generally accessible to a 21st century audience. Bill’s approach throughout was that we remain respectful to the Indian world and its aesthetics but not “slavishly so”. Hence, when we needed a more modern-sounding idiom to convey an idea, we would do that.We used the translation by van Buitenen mainly because it retained more of the poetry of the original than other translations.
We had to cut down from the original Sanskrit play that ran 4-5 hours, to a maximum of 3 hours for the OSF audiences. The advantage here was that OSF audiences are used to listening to Shakespeare plays that extend to 3 hours. But, of course, that world is more familiar to them and it was a challenge for Bill to make this world accessible and enjoyable as well. The decisions on the cutting did involve losing several poetic passages, but retained the general flavor of the writing. Sanskrit theatre relies more on lyric poetry to paint a scene and describe a character than props or other modern theatrical devices. There was no artificial lighting during that ancient time, and the plays were done in the glare of the noon day sun often on the occasion of a festival, or a king entertaining an important guest.
In early January we started table-work which included all the actors, Bill, and two Assistant directors. I was on hand to explain certain cultural allusions such as the importance of Shiva as the God of Dance, his iconography, its significance, some of the many legends about Shiva–some of which are in the opening Benediction to the play.
2. How did you handle the verse, music and the dance of the play for this performance?
The music was originally composed by Andre Pleuss for this production. He is an incredibly talented composer. The music blended the Indian tabla, sarod and the western flute in haunting melodic renditions, reflecting the character’s emotions and the action at any given moment of the play. We had three live musicians on stage for the production and that in itself enhanced the experience.
As for the dance, the choreographer, Anjani Ambegaonkar did a wonderful job. The heroine Vasantasena as a courtesan character had to be adept at the arts of dancing and music. The actress, Miriam Laube did a splendid job–she learnt to do a traditional classical Kathak piece at the opening of one of the scenes. There were other movements within an Indian aesthetic world that were woven in, such as four dancers representing the “whirlwind and leaves” in the Park.
The poetry worked very well as we managed to retain the imagery and symbols while rendering some expressions more idiomatic to contemporary ears.
3. Did you try to represent the language changes between Sanskrit for the elite males and Prakrit for the women and lower classes?
No, there was no distinction made between the Sanskrit and Prakrit speaking characters.
4. Sanskrit plays follow fairly prescriptive conventions and use symbolic gestures (like a throbbing right arm) in order to produce certain types of rasa. Did you try to evoke the desired rasa in your audience? Is it possible to do this with a modern audience most of whom may not be aware of what rasa is?
The question of rasa is a fascinating one, and one that I am also pursuing in my current research project on Bharatanatyam and Contemporary Indian Dance–traditions and innovations. Rasa in the Clay Cart was evoked by making the audience connect with the story–one of the main aspects of the text work that Bill focused on was the story line and to make that as clear as possible. Once the audience is involved in that, the emotions (like the traditional description of the Navarasas in the Natyasastra) followed. For instance, the monologues by Sharvilaka, the lovable thief who berates his sad position of having to become a burglar in order to buy his beloved Madanika’s freedom. His discourse on this dilemma is itself an incredible piece and evokes the audience’s sympathy. And for the villain, when he strangles Vasantasena and leaves her for dead, there is clearly a sense of horror and disgust raised in the audience (bibhatsa). And love, sringara, plays in quite a universal fashion as the audience root for the lovers to be reunited.
5. How would you compare the staging of Sanskrit dramas today to that of Greek tragedy – another highly stylised form of drama which has been successfully translated to the modern stage and is beginning to enjoy almost mainstream popularity?
The parallel between Greek and Sanskrit drama is useful in that both do enjoy modern revivals and perhaps for similar reasons. First, both have to work theatrically for a modern audience and in the fabric of most of these plays, there are elements of spectacle that appeal across cultures. Not all Sanskrit plays would play as well with modern audiences as the Clay Cart does since it is a comedy (a prakarana, one of ten types of Sanskrit dramas, the kind that deals with ordinary people and has humor. Hence an audience member would know that s/he will be entertained humorously). There is no tragedy in Sanskrit drama although we do come to the brink of Charudatta’s execution in the Clay Cart. Death or other violent acts were not performed on stage. So, for a “samazdar” audience member, even Vasantasena’s strangling by the villain will come out ok in the end.
Sanskrit drama is different from the Greek unities of time, place and action. In fact, one of the most delightful aspects of the dramaturgy lies in an actor noting that s/he will go to the next village, only to return in a flash to report on what s/he has seen there!
In Sanskrit drama, nature reflects human emotions and is not portrayed as vicious and antagonistic to the human world. So, the storm through which Vasantasena travels to meet her lover reflects both of their emotions.
Bill Rauch, Artistic Director of the OFS
7th May 2008
1. You chose Sudraka’s Mrcchakatika (The Little Clay Cart) for the first ever non-Western classic at the OSF – why this particular play?
As a candidate for the job of Artistic Director at OSF, I knew that I wanted to introduce non-Western classics to Ashland’s audiences. As the United States’ largest Shakespeare festival (and largest rotating rep theater) with a 73-year history of producing European classics, I felt that it was imperative that we expand our canon outside the borders of Europe and the U.S.
More than 16 years ago when I first read this epic Indian social comedy, I fell in love with it. The company I co-founded, Cornerstone Theater Company, decided to adapt and produce it in collaboration with a housing project for low-income senior citizens in Los Angeles. That production was performed in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Korean and Tagalog; all the older actors spoke their native language.
The Little Clay Cart is one of my all-time favorite plays because of its inclusive and gentle vision, and its wonderfully improbable mix of characters from various walks of life. I responded then and now to the overarching theme, as our dramaturg, Ketu Katrak, so beautifully expresses it, that “character trumps wealth.” In fact, this almost 2,000-year-old play’s outrage at economic and political injustice is a great reminder of how much Bertolt Brecht was influenced by Asian theater forms.
2. Did you meet with resistance in trying to stage this play in such a prime spot for the OSF?
I brought the play to my colleagues and everyone loved it upon reading it. I had imagined that we’d do it in a slot that would have a shorter run—perhaps four months, as opposed to nine months. Interestingly, it was a colleague in Marketing who suggested running it all year. He said “we all love this play and it says a lot about Bill’s priorities as the new artistic director—why don’t we run it all year so that anyone who comes to the Festival at any point is able to see it?” I was surprised but completely energized by that challenge, and we decided to go for it. It was a big risk but it felt like a reasonable one given our enthusiasm for the play and the hunger in our audience for new experiences.
This slot has heretofore been a British or American comedy like The Importance of Being Earnest or You Can’t Take It With You. Happily, this risk was rewarded by our audience: The Clay Cart has been the top-selling plays among our members (our equivalent of subscribers) and has done extremely well with our general audience as well.
3. Audiences of Sanskrit plays were chiefly the rich, educated (‘refined’) courtly elite who could be expected to understand the complex conventions. Do you think though that the Mrcchakatika can have popular appeal too?
The dramaturgy of such an ancient and non-Western work has thrown some audience members for a loop I admit. But the play’s themes are so populist that it feels like it was written for a popular audience. It is a huge success with young people here in Ashland as well as adults of all ages.
4. Sudraka’s play is of the prakarana mould – he invented the story and characters rather than drawing on an established epic/mythical episode. As a result, his characters are not kings and celestial beings but ordinary people. Does this make the Little Clay Cart more accessible for a modern audience?
Absolutely. It is a big part of the appeal of the play for me. To see a cross-section of an urban society from such a distant time and place. Courtesans, gamblers, Brahmins and even a Buddhist monk impact each other’s lives in a story that freely blends the sacred and the profane. Even the play’s satiric jabs at the rigidity of the caste system and religious boundaries have more relevance today than one might expect. Although the social structure that allows our married hero to pursue a relationship with a courtesan is foreign to contemporary American sensibilities, the nobility of spirit and love that guides Chârudatta and Vasantasenâ can inspire across the millennia.
5. Do you feel that there is likely to be a greater interest in the West in Sanskrit drama in the future? Would you yourself consider staging another Sanskrit play?
We are committed to doing non-Western classics as long as I’m artistic director here in Ashland. We want to explore traditions from other parts of the world as well, but I am confident that we will return to the rich Sanskrit canon in future seasons.
6. Sanskrit drama is never tragic (according to convention, the hero cannot die); its endings are always happy. Do you think this a strength or a weakness?
There is room at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for all types of drama. The joyful ending of this play is a great strength as far as I am concerned- it fills me as an artist and our audiences with hope. It reminds me a lot of Shakespeare’s romances—an improbably happy ending after a lot of tragedy. It feels like the work of a mature artist who has lived long and hard enough to know that life is hard and terrible, but there is reason to rejoice and find peace in the end. Ultimately, I love The Clay Cart because of this very optimism – optimism which we desperately need right now in our world.
The Clay Cart is on from 17th February to 2nd November 2008 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, see www.osfashland.org for tickets and more details