Meaningful art is like a mirror, or a system of mirrors, that reflect themes, experiences and ideas, back to the audience. But, of course, there is more than one type of mirror. Some mirrors clarify. Others distort. Some concentrate and distill. Others diffuse and radiate.
When it comes to the great themes — love, death, sex, artistic creation — it is interesting to see how artists use their craft to manipulate these mirrors. If they are very good they orchestrate entirely unique combinations that create both intimacy and distance at the same time.
I was lucky enough to check out a few Broadway shows this season, some still in previews, but, as is often the case, what caught my eye was a surprise. It wasn’t one of the well-fêted, star-studded extravaganzas, but a comparatively modest yet extremely artful and expertly staged Off-Broadway production of Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink”.
The play is about a young woman, Flora, an English poet, who arrives in India just as the British Empire is on the wane. She is in poor health and has endured a series of ill-fated romances and public scandals after the publication of her poetry. So we find her tired and uncomfortable, but also bright, beautiful, engaged, cutting, and lively.
Flora is invited to sit for an Indian painter, Das, and she agrees. And we watch their opposing temperaments and views on art, politics and love emerge as their relationship, and the always-hidden painting, begins to takes shape.
Right from the beginning you sense that this play is a celebration of beauty and the transformative power of art, but Stoppard is wise to place this timeless, powerful theme at arm’s length, in an historical setting. Flora’s poetry has mostly been dismissed — she is known, but mostly as the subject of prurient and small-minded gossip. But she does not retreat into irony or bitterness. She is unashamed, unrepentant, naked, raw. And, in spite of any threat of oblivion, she continues to write.
Das’s doubts about his art are more visible, and after his temperamental explosion that results in an argument between them, their intimacy starts to bloom.
This plot runs directly alongside a series of modern exchanges, between Flora’s younger sister, Mrs. Swan, who is now an elderly widow, and Das’s painter son Anish; and also between Mrs. Swan and Eldon, a dogged American academic in search of new Flora material to footnote.
Just as illness does not dim Flora’s spirit, neither does old age diminish Mrs. Swan’s. Though both Anish and Eldon want something from her — information, artifacts, stories, secrets — Mrs. Swan, realizing their value, carefully tests both of them to see if they are worthy of any bequeathment.
Nostalgia can be a difficult theme because, by its nature, it emphasizes distances. But, though their paths never cross on stage, the love between the two sisters and the father and son is pure and strong, and eclipses the passage of time as their stories unfold in artful proximity on the stage. It is especially strong in comparison to the plodding Eldon, for whom Flora — who became famous and revered after she died — is an academic specimen, something to be studied in the smallest detail, but somehow never really known.
Stoppard is able to construct complicated works seamlessly, using many devices, many mirrors, and one of the loveliest in this play is the evocation of the moon, which, being its own kind of mirror, comes to have special significance for Flora and Das. I think it is especially appropriate in this play, because Stoppard touches on many grand and dramatic themes, but softy, reverently, as though lit by moonlight.
After I saw the play I read a few reviews, and was baffled and disappointed, even somewhat angered, when I discovered it had been called uneven or disjointed. I am glad that Stoppard did not bow to any such criticism. He, and other artists, do well to follow Flora’s example. When her poetry was attacked she threw a drink over a critic’s head, and then regretted it — not that she threw the drink, but that she spent any time worrying over what he had said.
If you can’t see “Indian Ink”, it is also a wonderful read. But, of course, nothing beats a live performance, especially in the hands of an inspired cast and crew. Though the crowd we saw it with was not especially enthusiastic, as soon as the play ended we jumped to our feet and applauded as loud as we could. Our seats were far at the back, but I hope that all the excellent performers could feel the rush of our excitement, delight and gratitude.