Rabindranath Tagore Drama Analysis
To say that Rabindranath Tagore was a prolific dramatist would be an understatement. In his sixty-year career as a playwright, he wrote more than fifty works in the dramatic mode. He tried his hand at so many different styles that a classification of his dramatic output is essential. Tagore himself applied the following terms to his plays: ntak or ntya (drama), ntyakvya (dramatic poem), ntik (playlet), prahasan (farce), gitintya (musical drama), and nritya-ntya (dance drama). His conventional ntya can be further subdivided into two categories—the early blank-verse dramas The King and the Queen and Sacrifice, and the others, numbering twenty, all written in prose and, with one exception, published after 1907. Although Tagore separately classified seven of his works as “dramatic poems,” they are technically similar to the two verse ntya, the only substantial difference being that the latter are in five acts. Because all seven “dramatic poems” were printed by 1900, it would be appropriate to categorize them chronologically, together with the two poetic plays, as his early dramatic work in verse. To them should be added two of Tagore’s “playlets,” both written in verse, published during this same period. The author also labeled as “playlets” four other dramatic works in prose, published after 1907, of which the most important is Chandlik. While Chandlik is a short play, two of the other “playlets” are about as long as some of the full-length plays. Once again, therefore, it may be more helpful in an analysis to place these four pieces with Tagore’s later plays, which are exclusively in prose.
Tagore wrote four “farces,” three of them during the 1890’s. Of all of his plays, these lively and relevant social comedies were the only popular successes he had for a long time on the professional stage. Tagore also attempted several artistically successful adventures in fusing music with drama. Songs are incorporated into the scripts of virtually every Tagore play, but in some of his works, the music and songs command precedence over spoken dialogue. He initiated his dramatic career with three such “musical dramas” published in the 1880’s. Six more exercises in this genre appeared between 1923 and 1934, but they were more in the vein of collected songs linked by a loose plot on a common theme, for example, the advent of a particular season. Finally, in the last five years of his life, Tagore introduced his “dance dramas,” in which Indian dance and musical forms merge with stories borrowed from earlier writings. Two of the three dance dramas published before his death, for example, were based on Chitrngad and Chandlik, respectively. In addition, he wrote many minor dramatic miscellanea: sketches, dialogues, satiric and comic skits, and short riddles “in imitation of European charades.”
Tagore constantly revised, reworked, or abridged his existing work and made dramatizations of his own fiction. Apart from the two pieces that became dance dramas, three plays (including Sacrifice) had their origins in novels and five others in various short stories; Worship of the Dancing Girl had its genesis in a poem. Tagore’s last dance drama began in the form of a poem written in 1899, metamorphosed into a dance drama in 1936, and was transformed a second time in 1939 to its present fully developed shape. Similarly, the play Paritrn started off as a novel published in 1883, was dramatized with a different title in 1909, and ultimately rewritten under another title. In the cases of five other plays, including The King of the Dark Chamber, Tagore constructed concise acting editions with altogether different titles, the stageworthy versions succeeding the originals sometimes by as many as forty years, sometimes by as few as six. In recasting The King and the Queen as Tapati forty years later, Tagore indicated his dissatisfaction with the verse original, observing that he had virtually to write a new play in prose in order to make it suitable as theater. Indeed, the very existence of his acting editions indicates his concern for the staging of his plays and should serve as compelling evidence against those critics who dismiss them as mere closet drama.
The literary influences of Tagore offer important insights into his plays. Above all writers, Tagore perhaps revered the classical Sanskrit master Klidsa the most; his early drama contains much proof of the impact of Klidsa’s heroic themes, nature imagery, and lyric language. The mysticism of the fifteenth century poet Kabir attracted Tagore, too, as did the devotional fervor of Vaishnava religious poetry, presenting human love as simultaneously sacred and profane, and the folk songs of his native Bengal, particularly those with a spiritual flavor, as of the wandering minstrel bul. Among Western dramatists, he respected William Shakespeare. It is significant that he liked Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623) “very much” and found Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622, revised 1623) fascinating, a “harrowing” experience. His early verse drama was to a great extent modeled after Shakespeare. Tagore admired as well the Romantic idealism of Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. In later years, he acknowledged the debt to Maurice Maeterlinck in his mature “symbolic” plays. Although the initial spark may have come from a reading of Maeterlinck, there is considerable difference between the uses of symbolism as practiced by the Belgian poet and by Tagore.
The Western concepts of illusionism and naturalism in the theater, much in fashion among Tagore’s contemporaries in late nineteenth century India, did not find a place in Tagore’s theory of drama. Many critics, ignorant of the principal consideration that realistic drama and the representational stage (a “childish intrusion”) did not in the least appeal to Tagore, are quick to point out flaws in Tagore’s dramaturgy. This well-entrenched vogue of Tagore criticism has rarely been opposed, fostering the article of faith among scholarly and theatrical circles that his plays are weak on stage. That this attitude is patently false has been proved on several occasions in the theater, especially in the capable hands of the Bengali director Sombhu Mitra. Tagore is no Henrik Ibsen, and his plays consequently should not be judged by realist standards. If a comparison must be made to a Western author, the proper analogy might be William Butler Yeats, perhaps the Yeats who composed Four Plays for Dancers (pb. 1921) and other such later works. Tagore derived his mature drama mainly from Indian traditions, from sources as apparently divergent as Bharata’s ancient theoretical discourse, the Ntyashstra, and the indigenous folk theater of Bengal, the jtr. From Bharata, Tagore enlisted support to vindicate his practice of discouraging painted sets in productions of his plays; as for the...
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