Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Shakuntala Adaptation: Interview with Margaret Kelso

The story of Shakuntala is part of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The boy who is born to Shakuntala and Dushyanta becomes that epic’s greatest hero. The story itself was first dramatized by Kalidasa, known as the greatest Sanskrit poet and dramatist. (Little else is known about him, however. It’s believed that he lived in the 4th century A.D.) His play about Shakuntala is considered a masterpiece.

It’s a very famous story in India, and has been the subject of a few European operas but it is virtually unknown in the United States. Margaret Thomas Kelso first read Shakuntala in a textbook.

  “When I first taught a class in theatre history, and textbooks were beginning to become multicultural and international, I came upon this story which I thought was charming.”

“I never thought about doing a production of it until I saw another Sanskrit drama-- The Clay Cart—at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I thought, why are they doing this when Shakuntala is a better story, and easier for westerners to understand?

I began looking at the available translations, and found they were very difficult in terms of syntax and vocabulary. A lot of them were old, from the 1930s. They weren’t hard to understand if you were reading them, but they would be on stage.

So I became interested in the idea of adapting it. I had adapted Gorky’s Lower Depths, which was done at Carnegie Mellon University, and I really enjoyed that process. This was a many-year process. I did a lot of research on the play and Indian drama. Then I tried to separate that, and look at it as a play for the stage today.

I had about 8 or 9 different translations and went through line by line, and there were tremendous variations, even in the story. Some had scenes the others didn’t, or they had long speeches the others didn’t. But I knew I wanted to keep certain elements—the charm of the piece, the importance of nature, which is such a basic part of the culture and the dramatic tradition in India. Mostly I wanted it to be understood by a contemporary audience.

  At some point, when I was talking about it with my colleagues, I found out that Rae Robison also loved this play. I said I want to do an adaptation-- she said I want to direct it, so we’ve been talking about this for several years. Because we both love the play.”

How different is Shakuntala?

"This is a very old story. The play comes from the beginning of the dramatic tradition in India, which happened at about the same time as classic Greek drama. But it’s a totally different style from the Greeks. It’s much more Shakespearian, more epic, rich and intricate. But the essence of it is this very sweet fairy tale-- with the usual ominous complications-- that everyone can understand, including children.

  For instance, there are three worlds portrayed in this play: the world of the ashram and nature, the world of the palace and the world of the gods. Those are familiar kinds of worlds in western stories--including folk tales and fairy tales, though the details are different.

One of the stylistic differences is that Sanskrit drama is concerned with something called rasa. The closest translation would be “flavor.” They believed that each act should feature a different rasa. So one rasa might be romance, and another might be fear, or a warning, and so on. That was a new and very interesting concept to me. It was really through this story that I became interested in Indian drama."

What changes did you make to adapt to contemporary audiences?

"In the original script, many of the big events happen offstage and are just talked about. But in western theatre we want to see things happen, so I wrote scenes for the wedding, for instance, and the big battle of the gods, so we would see them, but in a stylized way. Rae Robison came up with the idea of doing them with shadow puppets, which is an eastern tradition and really suits this play.

  I made some smaller changes, too. One might sound a little strange. In the older English translations, they felt they had to describe what an ashram is, because western readers might not know. They called it a “hermitage,” for instance. But now we’re more familiar with “ashram.” So I changed it back.

I did have to invent the “love marriage.” I’m not 100% satisfied with it, but that’s the best I could come up with. There was some clause in the law that allowed for pre-marriage, at least for royals, before it was sanctified by an absent parent. But I didn’t want to go into the legal explanation, so I came up with this term love-marriage.

  But though we try to be true to the essence of Sanskrit drama, we present it as a fairy tale story with a rich cultural history. It’s fresh, exotic and it’s fun. It’s family oriented, and should be a nice holiday alternative for families to go to. It’s very magical and fanciful.”

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