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Witness for the Prosecution and Selected Plays

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Title: Witness for the Prosecution and Selected Plays

Author: Agatha Christie

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 348

Format Read: Paperback

Agatha Christie needs no introduction really. Her books and plays are immensely popular and she is, quite deservedly, the queen of crime fiction. I’ve enjoyed the books by her that I’ve read (although I’m a long long way from reading them all!). Her easy to read style has a natural flow  that really brings suspense to life.

Coming to the book I had in mind for this post…this is a collection of four of her plays. The volume I have has Witness for the Prosecution, Towards Zero, Verdict, and Go Back for Murder. I rather think I enjoy her plays more than the novels.

Witness for the Prosecution is arguably the most famous, and the play that led me to purchase this book many years ago. There’s a murder trial in progress. The wife of a man accused of murder, Romaine, has a few tricks up her sleeve when she testifies against him. But then again, tricks sometimes go awry…

Towards Zero was a novel that was adapted into a play by Christie herself in 1956. This one deals with a murder, a man caught between two women, jealousy, and mystery, all during a gathering at Gull’s Point. It raises a lot of questions about who did what and is a study in suspense and psychology.

In Verdict, the professor Karl Hendryk is a carer to his wife Anya, an invalid. Much tension follows as someone else, a young woman named Lisa, enters the picture. Lisa is, purportedly, here to look after Anya and perhaps help the professor out. And then there’s another young woman, Helen, who seeks private lessons with the professor. Passions simmer.

Go Back to Murder is the last play in this collection, and this one started out as a novel as well titled Five Little Pigs, with Hercule Poirot in it. The play differs a little I think. Caroline is in jail for murdering her husband. Her daughter, Carla, finds a letter from her mother declaring her innocence…and the letter leads her to investigate what really happened to her father.

To sum up…I greatly enjoyed these plays. There’s suspense and a study of human emotions and its impact on rational and irrational behaviour. Fascinatingly written plays that really make you think, and it is, I believe, exactly what made them stay on in my memory after so many years.

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The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays

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Book: The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays

Author: Bhasa, translated by A.N.D. Haskar

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 127

Format Read: Paperback

Not much is known about the Sanskrit playwright Bhasa although there is a fair deal of speculation. He did, however, predate Kalidasa – for Kalidasa mentions Bhasa in what is presumably his first play, Malavikagnimitram. If Bhasa did live in the Mauryan period, his works might be dated to the third or fourth century B.C. as the Penguin edition suggests on the first page.

“The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” is a compilation of six of Bhasa’s plays, all of them tied in to the Mahabharatha. As the introduction reveals, the works of Bhasa were thought lost until palm leaf manuscripts of his plays were discovered in the Malayalam script. His plays are still performed, especially in that very ancient art form of Kerala, Kootiyattam.

The first play, ‘The Middle One’ or Madhyama Vyayoga, focuses on Bhima’s son Ghatotkacha. It has at its core a father-son relationship, of Bhima, exiled in a forest, meeting his son Ghatotkacha for the first time in unusual circumstances.

The second, ‘Five Nights’ or Pancharatram, has at its core a scene from the Mahabharatha, where the Pandavas, dwelling in disguise in the kingdom of Virata, are almost captured by the Kauravas, their sworn enemies. However, Bhasa takes liberties with the telling here – and introduces a cattle raid and a sympathetic Duryodhana, the Kaurava king. It is a very interesting take on the character.

‘The Envoy’ or Duta Vakyam introduces Lord Krishna as a character trying to mediate peace between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. But Duryodhana has none of it, and Krishna is incensed.

‘The Message’ or Duta Ghatotkacham reintroduces the character Ghatotkacha from the first play. This time, he attempts to the deliver a message to Duryodhana, who mocks him.

‘Karna’s Burden’ or Karnabharam focuses on Duryodhana’s close aide Karna, and his discovery of his parentage. He is not a Kaurava as he believed, and he cannot join the Pandavas. This play reveals his turmoil and self-doubt.

The last play, ‘The Shattered Thigh’ or Urubhangam is again portrays Duryodhana with a lot of pathos and feeling, and in a rarity for Sanskrit theatre, shows death on stage. The setting here is towards the end of the Mahabharatha war, with the Pandavas  on the verge of victory, and Duryodhana at death’s door.

The translation of “The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” is fluid, and Bhasa’s style is forceful yet crisp, and very evocative of the scenes of skirmish and battle. The scenes are stark, and the world is fraught with the tribulations of war and weaponry, a world where honour is held dear. Duryodhana’s characterization is especially fascinating, with the Kaurava king shown to be honourable, conflicted, angry and just – sometimes all at the same time. All the plays appear to be tied in to each other, with one picking up where the other left off. And yes, Duryodhana’s real name has also been used by his father – Suyodhana.

In “The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays” each play is small, and some of them comprise a single act. All of them are powerful, masterfully crafted, and worth reading.

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The Loom of Time

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Book: The Loom of Time

Author: Kalidasa, translated by Chandra Rajan

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 343

Format Read: Paperback

There are many legends surrounding the great Sanskrit poet and dramatist Kalidasa – from his being a court official of the Emperor Chandra Gupta II, to his being divinely blessed by the Goddess Kali, turning him into a literary genius. Whatever the case may be, there is little doubt that the surviving works of this incredible writer from antiquity are rendered in exquisite and expressive Sanskrit.

“The Loom of Time” presents three of Kalidasa’s works, and Chandra Rajan has done a commendable job translating these pieces. The English versions are poetic and beautiful, capturing a lot of the lilting cadence of the original Sanskrit. And the three pieces in “The Loom of Time” are, in order, Rtusamharam (The Gathering of the Seasons), Meghadutam (The Cloud Messenger), and Abhijnanasakuntalam (the Recognition of Sakuntala).

Rtusamharam, as the title suggests, is an ode to the seasons in six cantos, beginning with summer, and ending with spring. Each season is also linked to romance and separation, reunions and longing. Woven in to the poetry is also an astute understanding of nature and the flora and fauna of the time, as well as the subtle interplay of human emotions.

Meghadutam has a celestial being, a Yaksha, punished and separated from his wife. In his desperation to get a message across to her, he spots a cloud – and imagines the cloud to be a messenger that can carry his words over the eternal skies.

Both works of poetry I found fascinating and rich in imagery (of jasmine flowers and jewels and incense, among others) – and strikingly lyrical.

Abhijnanasakuntalam is a play combining elements of mythology, and romance, song, poetry, and a sprinkling of magic. Sakuntala, brought up by the sage, or rishi, Kanva, in a forest hermitage, meets King Duhsanta. Soon they are married, and the King returns to his capital, with Sakuntala to follow later.  But tragedy strikes when Sakuntala, daydreaming about her husband, ignores the sage Durvasa when he comes calling. And earns his curse in the bargain, meaning that Duhsanta will forget her (and their son, when it comes down to it) when he sees them. Sakuntala’s story has its roots in the Mahabharata.

Also accompanying the translated pieces are notes, a lengthy and very useful introduction, and a glossary. I found all of these very informative, especially the introduction, with its references to the Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni, which discusses stagecraft and the performing arts among other things.

I’m happy this translation exists, because I, for one, have been looking forward to reading Kalidasa’s works for a long time. “The Loom of Time” was exactly what I was looking for, and I hope to read more.