Thursday, May 15, 2014

THE SECRET GARDEN: Thoughts on England and India


One the musical dramas I have most appreciated and enjoyed directing is the fine piece by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman, an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book The Secret Garden. I had read the book numerous times as a child and loved it.

Re-reading the book in preparation for directing the musical production made me aware of all the references to British India which I had scarcely understood, nor cared about, as a child. Watching the television series The Jewel in the Crown, a fine British production of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, had intrigued me to examine the history behind the British deciding this vast land mass required their governance. A film later brought me to A Passage to India, an exceptional adaptation of E. M. Forster’s wonderful novel, which I am currently reading for probably the eighth time.

No doubt there are many times in the history of world where two cultures have clashed the way the British West and the Indian East did over an extended period of time, in my opinion to the detriment of both, but I don’t know that it has happened with the amount of documentation of this fairly recent event. One thing I find most intriguing, from what I have read … and I do not in any way consider myself an expert on this subject … it seems one of the greatest problems arose when English women arrived on the scene and imposed Victorian morality. And even more intriguing was how tellingly Simon and Norman brought the British Raj into their musical.

In the musical, Mary’s memories of her early childhood in India are more than memories; the people she knew are still real to her and become real to the audience. There are dialogue scenes that point up the bigotry of the English toward their Indian servants; again, especially the English women. I admire Norman and Simon for obviously researching the period carefully. Mary is a child who is immersed in Indian lore, and it leads to a powerful, beautiful and impressive scene in the garden at Miselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, when Mary invokes the spirits of the earth to heal her cousin Colin. It’s also an extremely challenging scene musically for the ensemble.

One of the most wonderful things about the show, in fact, is how the ensemble is used. Many times it is a Greek chorus, setting scenes and commenting on the events that are taking place. Simon has the chorus paint in sound several storms, and since weather is a vital part of life in India, at times it seems these storms are more than those that might actually take place in Yorkshire. They are storms of the human spirit as well as storms from the sky.

Reading Forster again is revelatory. He spent periods of his life in India, and seems to have truly grasped the differences in the way the Easterner and the Westerner see the world. Paul Scott also explores this in his works. The West tried to subdue the East in India. We all know what the outcome was.

I don’t consider myself a political person, but I continue to be amazed at political figures of our day who don’t seem to be able to understand this truth: the Western mindset and the Eastern mindset are totally different. I think Easterners understand this. It seems beyond the comprehension of many Westerners.
Speculation: suppose the roles had been reversed? What if India had come to Britain and taken it over? Would the Easterner have attempted to impose his world view on the Westerner?

Since I’m a musician and musical theater director, I will close by recommending any of my readers who have never listened to the music from The Secret Garden to do so. It has become one of my all-time favorite works. You will hear music from the East and West blending in this story. Thank you, Lucy and Marsha, for this incredible piece of musical theater. It was my privilege to come to know it.