Robert L. King
When the National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time arrived in New York from London, it had already won an Olivier as best play and was so honored here with the American equivalent, the Tony Award. Simon Stephens’s adaption centers on Christopher, a fifteen-year-old who usually cannot cope with the world around him. (He may be autistic or suffer from ADHD; any label is irrelevant to the playwright.) The dog of the title lies dead at the play’s opening, killed by the fork sticking out of his side. Its owner, Mrs. Shears, stands to one side of it and Christopher on the other. In one of the production’s many departures from traditional dramatic presentation, the full company of the play is also on stage—like us observers now and actors later in events that follow no engaging narrative sequence. Christopher takes it upon himself to discover the dog’s killer, but despite his near genius maths talent, he cannot make the deductive connections he proposes to use. He tells the stage and theatre audience that among other impractical matters of fact, he knows and can recite “every prime number up to 7507.” He can multiply 251 by 864 in a moment; we laugh, no more capable of testing his answer (216,864) than the one who challenged him and doesn’t have “a bloody clue” if it is right. His style, however, betrays the inadequacy of his thinking. His clauses, like his numbers, express discreet concepts without a controlling point of view. Speaking to his teacher, for example, he tells of finding the dog:
Wellington is a dog that used to belong to my neighbor Mrs. Shears who is our friend but he is dead now because someone killed him by putting a garden fork through him. And I found him and then a policeman thought I killed him but I hadn’t and then he tried to touch me so I hit him and then I had to go to the police station.
In the same style, Christopher has written a book as a school exercise; his teacher, Siobhan, reads from it at the start of the play and from time to time later. His father takes it from him and won’t say what he has done with it. Christopher looks for it through the house (“I detected in the utility room.”) until only his father’s room is left. He looks under the bed and lists indiscriminately what he finds there and in the closet. As he hears his father’s van approaching, he finds an unopened envelope addressed to him. It holds letters from his mother who, he concludes from a postmark, must be alive. His father has told him that she is dead, a lie to cover his own infidelity and hers, her reason for leaving him. Needing the escape of concentration, Christopher builds a train set with “frantic [and] almost balletic” movement as the Judy character reads one of the forty-three letters she has sent him. She recalls that when the two of them went Christmas shopping, “You were frightened because of all the people in the shop” and “crouched down on the floor and put your hands over your ears.” He wet himself (as he will again); she tried to move him outside, but, in a characteristic reaction, he won’t let her touch him. He lay on the floor “and banged his hands and feet on the floor.” As Judy’s letter ends, he responds exactly as he did in the store, withdrawing into himself, as he often does when confronted socially.
His father finds him, realizes that he knows that his mother is alive and, to explain his affair and rejection by Mrs. Shears, the dog’s owner, admits, “I killed Wellington.” So, Christopher reasons, “Father has murdered Wellington. That meant he could murder me. I had to get out of the house.” Carrying his pet rat (live in performance) in a cage, he sets out to find his mother at her London address. He finds the train station by walking “in a spiral.” Dramatizing his quest, the dazzling stagecraft of Curious Incident leads us to experience the world as Christopher does. The discordant announcements in the London Tube, meant as aids, come in a barrage of recorded voices, difficult for us and for him to sort out. They play for over a minute with the same loud authority. The signs of various stops are flashed at speeds and angles that only confuse. A station policeman, seeing Christopher’s confusion, asks if he is alright. The boy’s reply conveys his unclear focus and, at the same time, the play’s inventive challenge to our preconceptions of what a play should be: “You’re too old to play a policeman.” The audience laughs at his literal-minded response; we, after all, are sophisticated enough to accept casting against type. The playwright, however, has sprung a friendly trap, for from the opening minutes of his play to its apparent conclusion, he reminds the attentive that only a creative fiction can begin to project Christopher’s inner reality. So, the play departs from traditional form while exploiting it in order to present him in a social world he cannot fully comprehend but must inhabit.
At the start, his teacher reads from an autobiography Christopher has written in a choppy style; he thinks that his book “doesn’t have a proper ending” because he has yet to identify Wellington’s killer. At the end, he has identified his father as the culprit and has reunited with his mother. He recites what he has done and concludes, “I was brave . . . And I wrote a book.” The playwright must have smiled when he wrote the teacher’s reply: “I know, I read it. We turned it into a play.” Moments later the lights go down to signal the end of The Curious Incident; the cast takes its curtain call, many in the audience leave. In an easily missed exchange, Stephens has slyly prepared us for what comes next. Christopher wants his solving the maths problem in his play; Siobhan knows what an audience wants: “People don’t want to hear about a maths question in a play. [Beat] Look why don’t you tell it after the curtain call?” About five minutes later, the most unusual stage direction I have ever read is realized for those who stayed; citing it in full summarizes much of the play’s technique and strategy:
Using as much theatricality as we can throw at it, using music, lights, sound, lasers, the boxes, the train tracks, the rest of the company, the orchestra, the fucking ushers for Christ’s sake, using dance, song, bells, whistles, the works, he [Christopher] proves by means of a counter example that when a triangle with sides that can be written in the form of n squared plus one, n squared minus one and two n (where n is greater than one) is right angled.
Christopher reappears, thanks those who stayed, and using “all the machines and computers in the theatre,” proves the answer to the question that earned him an A+. He is showered with confetti from above and exits to more applause. He could not read that question on the exam and recited prime numbers until it was explained to him. For all his limitations, he emerges in complete control at the very end—outside the boundaries of rounded form.
Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and a Pulitzer Prize. She spent three years in a Mumbai slum, Annawadi, and so completely gained the confidence of her Indian subjects that they allowed her to use their names in her account of their difficult lives. With his long, principled commitment to a theatre of values, David Hare adapted Boo’s book for the stage, calling it a play. The title mimics a billboard promoting tiles; it stands between the shacks of the impoverished and luxury hotels. The play begins and ends with Sunil, a twelve-year-old picker. Like his friend Abdul, he picks over garbage to retrieve plastic bottles, glass and, if he is lucky, something metallic. Abdul, a teenager and most skilled picker, is the main source of income for his family; his career gives the play one strand of continuity as he and Sunil try to cope with the burdens and challenges of slum life. A neighbor of Abdul’s family, Fatima, is known as One-Leg; despite having both her handicap and a husband, she makes money as a prostitute in her home. Resentful of the relative success of Abdul’s family, she provokes a fight with his mother and others; expecting to survive and exact revenge on them, she pours kerosene on herself and sets it on fire. She planned to blame them for limited injuries but after lying about her role, she dies six days later, no doubt taking some satisfaction in knowing she has left her enemies to the mercy of the corrupt judicial system. Because the cost keeps rising, Abdul’s mother comes to regret that she didn’t give a bribe to the first court officer who offered to work the system for her. In custody the guiltless Abdul is severely beaten; his hands are deliberately damaged so that his earnings as a picker will be diminished. As kind of concession to his age, he is sent to a Youth Detention Center where, given time for reflection and influenced by a positive example, he reaches a principled, impractical resolution. When he is released from the Center, his mother pleads with him to “come back to work,” but he is resolute: “I want to stop dealing in stolen goods.” He goes back to being a picker, but will not trespass on airport property for discarded metal. In the final moment of the play, Sunil leaps down to a ledge rich in cans and water bottles discarded by taxis. Abdul has refused to join him, and we are left with the image of a boy risking his life to get rich people’s garbage. Abdul loves Allah “immensely” but he “cannot be better because of how the world is.”
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers has thirty-five speaking parts and fifty-four scene changes. It is as much a study of characters trapped in the slum as a presentation of life there. Its production required the resources and space of London’s Olivier theatre. There was no need for us to imagine One-Leg’s fire—we saw a wall of flames. The noise of landing jets roared from the back of the house over our heads to its landing. What Boo might describe is set before us with direct appeal to our senses, imaginative participation trails behind. Beside the drab clothing of Abdul and others we see colorful costumes, hear music, and watch dancing.
Hare calls his play “epic,” probably to suggest the broad sweep of slum life and give it a measure of dignity. Some of the people do indeed preserve values of family and friendship despite inescapable, oppressive pressures. Even the best, however, live in a place of anti-Muslim prejudice where a child is forced into an arranged marriage with a much older man. It is a place where one dream of a better life through learning ends in suicide and where a government plan for universal education is converted into a scam. As bulldozers level some shacks, the project of airport expansion overrides the basic needs of those displaced.
Brecht distinguished his epic theatre from a traditional one, and consciously or not, Hare follows his guidelines in Beautiful Forevers, an episodic play with no causally structured plot. The form also allows for some sharp juxtapositions that a linear story could not accommodate. “The Other Mumbai” of the privileged celebrates a colorful wedding deep stage; it is followed immediately by the early exit from a family party in Annawadi of Asha who gives herself to an influential officer. The setting of scenes in the clinically appointed police station, home for its own corruption, jars against the grime of the slum. The vast stage can hold separate, simultaneous action with a complex point of view as a result. Less dramatic are the ten direct addresses to the audience; various speakers provide information from the realm of non-fiction, and, in one, Sunil improbably explains the Wall Street recession for our benefit. As in many of his thirty plays, Hare will lead his audience to think about moral standards even as they are violated; he advocates no absolute principles, just their inevitable presence in conflict with a character’s practice. A police officer accepting a bribe from a reluctant woman patronizes her: “The right thing is always difficult.” We hear Hare’s voice behind the compromises Abdul makes as he tries to act morally in a hostile world. Others create pseudo maxims to justify themselves. The self-centered Asha introduces a virtuous abstraction (“hope”) in one of hers and the notion of moral choice (“wrong”) in another: “Corruption gets a bad press, but for us it’s our best hope.” And, “If you don’t think it’s wrong, then it isn’t.” We may smile or shrug in recognition of the cynical posturing; if so, Hare’s point hits home.