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A Passage to India

At the Wilbur Theatre through January 26

By Joseph L. Fratherstone

Since it appeared in 1924, E. M. Forster's A Passage to India has come to be recognized as one of the finest novels of the century. Given the possibilities in the book, it was perhaps inevitable that some one would write a play based upon it, and some one has, with astonishing results . Santha Rama Rau's stage adaptation of A Passage to India is-not to put too fine a point on matters-superb. She has taken only the hard, tight plot of the book and fashioned of it a play crackling with enormous, concentrated tension, an exciting drama which yet retains much of the novelist's insight and generous wisdom.

Part of the reason why A Passage to India is such a great success as a play is that the novel is quite a different sort of achievement from anything else that Forster has written. It is a political and a social work, both the least personal and the most dramatically constructed of his novels. There is less creation, less imagining in it than you would expect from Forster, and more careful, studied understanding of what a people ruled by aliens is really like. If the message of Howard's End was that private relationships are all, that men must only learn to connect, the message of A Passage to India is that an unjust social order can be a stronger barrier to understanding than even sex; that even lover between friends will drown in a sea of racial suspicion and hatred.

What you are most likely to miss in a play made from a Forster novel is the figure of Forster himself, one of the most politely intrusive of modern novelists. You will miss his voice and his modest, fair comments on the story he is creating for you.

This is a real loss, and must have presented a difficult problem for Santha Rama Rau-not simply because of all the eloquent and evocative passages that are left out, all the descriptions of India and its spirit, but also because the absence of Forster himself on the stage means that his story becomes slanted. Of course in the novel, plot and conflict couldn't be more clear. There is no doubt whose side is the right one, which set of people are more human. You must immediately dislike the British, admire the renegades from the compound who try to make friends with the natives, and see the Indians with understanding and affection.

But, clear as all this is in the novel's outline, Forster's presence makes you less sure of your instincts; as he fills in the story, things begin to seem complicated. True, the English are hypocrites who cannot believe the natives are men like themselves, but they stand for a noble, if stupid, way of life based on service. Even the English girl whose foolish hallucination is the cause of so much bitterness is decent, if dull. And the Indians themselves-generations of subjection have made them children, with all that is appealing and discouragingly immature in children. If they are warm, Forster says, they are also querulous and lack dignity.

Forster, the gifted, intelligent observer of a nation, is thus cut from the play, but Santha Rama Rau has nearly solved the problem of his absence by an unbelievably skillful job of compressing and condensing his views into the speeches of her characters. Her play has shed much of his subtley, but his outlook remains: simplified, the play still tells us the complexity of India's tragedy. (Wherever possible, she has kept Forster's original dialogue, too-an admirable practice, since he is one of the few modern writers who can make characters sound natural when they are talking brilliantly.)

Act One describes the manners of the educated Indians and the English civil servants who rule the town of Chandrapore. An informal tea party introduces us to a circle of characters: the impulsive, Dr. Aziz, a young Indian who desires friendship with the English; the host, Mr. Fielding, a wise English teacher who is immediately attracted to Aziz. And two Englishwomen: Miss Adela Quested is a frigid young thing, engaged to an English magistrate in Chandrapore; and the mother of her fiance is Mrs. Moore. They accept Aziz's invitation picnic with him at the Marabar caves.

The scene at the Marabar caves is good-the painful, amusing attempts of a poor young Indian to impress two foreign ladies are nearly successful. Only one thing mars the picnic. Miss Quested, in a disturbed state, leaves the party and they return to Chandrapore without her-to discover that she has accused Dr. Aziz of attempted rape.

In the British club, Fielding-convinced that Aziz is innocent-defends him against the noble hysteria of whites who think that one of their own has been insulted by a nigger. He is ostracized and must turn to be Indians in the town, who are enraged over Aziz's arrest. This club scene is not as well handled as others, with the exception of an eloquent speech by Mrs. Moore on the terrifying echo in the caves:

The echo undermines one's hold on life. It says, 'Pathos, piety, courage-they exist, but are identical, and so is fifth. Everything exists, but nothing has value.' If one had spoken of vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same-'ouboom.' If one had spoken with the tongues of angels and pleaded for all the unhappiness of the world, past, present, and to come, for all the misery men must undergo, whatever their opinion and position and however much they dodge and bluff-it would amount to the same.

What is wrong with this scene is the response of the actors who play the English. Forster wrote in anger about the Anglo-Indians, but he was not so imperceptive as the play and the production are here. What the actors should be talking about when they try to persuade Fielding to side with them is a way of life; they must show that they are unable to believe that the grand work of civilizing India which they have undertaken is largely humbug. Instead of their vision, we see only a rather dowdy collection of distasteful bigots.

Aziz's trial is done well. The principles are perfect, and the scene is an ingeniously constructed one in which Adela Quested realizes her mistake and withdraws the charge against Aziz-leaving the British angry and spiteful and the Indians exuberant and spiteful. Fielding and Aziz hold a strained conversation in which it becomes all too apparent that they never will be friends again until the Empire dissolves, and maybe not even then.

Zia Mohyeddin, a young actor from Karachi and the star of the 1960 English production of the play, brings one of Forster's most brilliant characters to life. He is surely Aziz, whose moods flow like water, who desires to please his friends even at the price of lying, who lives closer to his feelings than ever the British can, whose corroding fear that he has no dignity almost ruins him and provides Forster with his subtlest and angriest plea against the subjection of a race.

Gladys Cooper is an eloquent Mrs. Moore, the woman whose spirit, after she is dead, hovers over all the play's events; she comes to a mystical understanding of India, a sense of how its enervating cycle of season and its vastness make a mockery of human values and the understanding spas her will to live. Miss Quested is played by Ann Meacham, and she is stiff and frightened and honest in just the right English proportions. Fielding (Eric Portman), the old teacher who learns that Indian and English are like oil and water, is good-a rueful, dignified portrayal.

Santha Rama Rau and the play's director, Donald McWhinnie, deserve the highest praise for A Passage to India, and I wish its American production the best of luck. E. M. Forster explained the novel's popularity here during the '20's by saying that Americans liked it because it showed what a botch the British made of India. Perhaps now we shall understand Forster's book better. It talks about India, and blames the British for acting like gods; they were not big enough-and who is?-to rule another people. But it also enters a plea for tolerance, good temper, and sympathy-qualities which are not enough in this world, but still are something.

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