Absolute power corrupts absolutely

Updated: 06 November, 2019 09:24 IST | Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

That's the maxim explored in an Eugene Ionesco play to be staged in Mumbai for the first time this weekend

Jaya Virlley plays the student
Jaya Virlley plays the student

Few things are as self-destructive as completely surrendering your will and subjugating yourself to the whims and fancies of another person. The power equation this creates is liable to ensure that your own desires and self-worth are quashed with time. You might not realise it at first. Your oppressor might use unassuming tactics to begin with. But the more you bend, the more you'll crawl. And before you know it, chances are that he or she has so much control over you that you are made to dance like a puppet.

That's one of the central themes that playwright Eugene Ionesco explored in the script for The Lesson (1951). It is one of the earlier examples of his foray into the Theatre of the Absurd, and Mumbai-based Sukant Goel has now directed a version of it that will premiere this weekend as part of the Prithvi Theatre Festival.

The plot revolves around the equation between a young girl (Jaya Virlley) who arrives at an elderly professor's home for private tuitions. His demeanour is meek and timid initially. She, on the other hand, is eager to learn and ambitious. The lessons begin, and the professor (Atul Kumar) is encouraging towards her. When, for instance, he asks her what the capital of France is and she answers, "Paris," he beams with satisfaction and tells her that she knows her country like the back of her hand. But slowly, this su­pportive attitude disinte­g­rates and the Hyde in the pr­ofessor takes over the Je­kyll. He becomes abusive wh­­en she answers incorrectly and displays little patience. His acerbic tongue makes the ambi­t­ious girl increasingly reticent. She ev­en develops a toothache, which tu­rns so severe that her entire body st­arts aching to the extent that she is pa­ralysed. And things finally come to such a pass that there is a dramatic sequence in the end that displays how the professor's control over his pupil is so complete that she is as good as dead.

AtulAtul Kumar as the professor

The story has obvious political overtones. Ionesco wrote it with an anti-fascist attitude in a post-war era. Some might say that the same perception holds true even today, when some democratic countries are starting to resemble totalitarian regimes. But Goel prefers a multi-layered reading of the play. "These are broad, archetypal characters. You can put one man in there who could be many men all at once. The relationship between the professor and the pupil can be the same as that between a doctor and a patient, a coach and a player, and even a director and an actor. See, capitalism is such a thing that anyone who has something that you need is automatically in a position to exploit you. That is almost always what happens, and that's the tragedy of human nature," he says.

He adds that in an ideal world, however, we wouldn't label one person as the professor and the other as the student. Goel says, "The big bee can learn from the small bee, and vice-versa. It's rare, but this happens. That's why you hear things like, 'That director has always been a student of films.' The Theatre of the Absurd always questions prevalent hierarchies. It says that in the end, we are all going to the same place; we are all heading in one direction. So, why be so serious? And why be so militant about what we think is right and wrong, and how life should be lived?"

Sukant GoelSukant Goel

These are pertinent questions at a time when liberal principles such as the freedom of speech are at times being sacrificed at the altar of one dominant narrative — majoritarian nationalism. There is a third character in the play who is the professor's house help (Anna Ardor). She plays the role of being his conscience. But in the end, she fails to raise her voice adequately enough to stop the inevitable doom. And the question that we must thus ask ourselves is that are we, too, going to remain equally mute and ineffectual observers when we witness tyranny around us, or are we going to take a stand to make the world a better place?

On November 8, 5 pm
At G5A, Shakti Mills Lane, Mahalaxmi.
Log on to bookmyshow.com
Cost Rs 300

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First Published: 06 November, 2019 09:10 IST

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