‘Aadhe Adhure’ or ‘Halfway House’ has often been described as a cross between Naturalist Theatre and Theatre of the Absurd. Interestingly, both these elements actually undercut each other as theatrical movements and are said to have polarized western theatre. Naturalism argues for heredity and a global perspective on human behavior, which is said to develop out of the social environment in which a particular individual lives. On the contrary, Absurdism believes that there are no solutions to the mysteries of existence because ultimately man is alone, forced to perform repetitive actions in a world without meaning.
This play has many elements of Naturalist theatre, including a linear movement, a limited time span, an in-depth psychological characterization and a defined beginning, middle and end. However, the opening line– “Once again, the same thing all over again…” firmly typecasts it as a part of Absurdist theatre, as from the start itself there is a hint at circularity of events and a hopelessness and banality defined by the repetition of the word ‘again’ in the short sentence.
Mohan Rakesh borrowed a common device from the theatre of the Absurd and in ‘Aadhe Adhure’, for the first time in Indian theatre the same actor was used to play five characters. According to Rakesh, “The woman is the central character and I want the four men to be played by the same actor. What I want to indicate by that is that it’s not the individual who’s responsible for his situation, for he would have made the same choice no matter what, regardless of the situation. Any choice anyone makes has a certain irony in it, for things turn out the same regardless of the choice. ”
Though it was passed off by some critics as a gimmick employed by the playwright, its thematic relevance came to the fore when Rajinder Nath, contrary to his own views on the importance of the technique, directed the play using five different actors for the roles. The conclusion was felt to be severely lacking as the notion of inherent ‘similarity’ in all the men which underlines the climax of the play failed to have the same impact. Interestingly, though Savitri implies that it is beneath their appearance, that this ‘same man’ exists, the implication is only forceful for the audience because of the simultaneous visual impact of one man playing different roles.
According to Nath himself it was a powerful theatrical device “to show how according to one’s convenience the same man can put on different masks depending on the situation in which he is placed”. That the authorial view corroborates with this statement is clear from the prologue where the ‘Man in the black suit’ equates identity with fluidity and calls himself undefined. Each character, given a certain set of circumstances, can occupy the place of another.
This also follows the assumption that there is no real development or evolution of character; the character at the beginning of the play will not be shaped differently by the situation, enforcing the idea of a universality of experience, that “things turning out the same regardless of choice”. The prologue defines the play as ‘amorphous’. The audience is told that there is a bit of each character in all of them. Those watching the play and even those outside the theatre.
The characters are said to be people “you bump into by chance in the street” stressing the alienation of urban crowd from one another as the source of difference as well as similarity, since they are all nameless, faceless people who can easily get lost in a crowd comprising of the same. Therefore, one man can play five characters because they are, in essence, the same man. This likeness is reiterated by the naming of the characters in their dialogues, not individually, but rather as First Man, Second Man, etc.
According to the Hindi version of the play, the Man in the Black Suit “has a look of civility with a touch of cynicism”; the face of the First man “expresses the helpless anguish of having lost the battle of life”; the Second Man is “self-satisfied and yet a little insecure”; the Third Man “projects an air of someone who is committed to a life of convenience”; and the Fourth Man “looks older, quite mature and shrewd”.
They have different characteristics, lifestyles and manners of speech, yet according to critics Nita Kumar and N. S. Dharan, this device makes use of the inherent notion of playacting which includes the concept of freedom; to pretend and be whatever one likes. Every man remains an actor and therefore, it is easy for him to put up a facade and to hide his interiority according to the demands of the situation.
This concept is emphasized not by the fact that the same man plays all the characters, but rather by the fact that it is possible for the same man to play all the characters. Simply by changing his costume and facial expression, he manages to change into a different person entirely.
Therefore, the assertion of the prologue of the interchangeability of these characters is understandable. The problematic element in the play arises out of the contention of the Man in the Black Suit that interchange of roles can take place not only between the men in the play but also between the man and the woman. This strikes a discordant note as, according to critic Arti Mathur, it negates Savitri’s gender-specific struggle against social constraints. One of the biggest contributions to the ‘sameness’ of the multiple characters is that they are all men.
And men, by the patriarchal definition especially prevalent in urban middle-class India, have a certain societal role which leads to their convergence into one man. Irrespective of circumstances their position in society is defined while that of the woman is defined in relation to the man. However, the statement is not entirely wrong either as Savitri, as the breadwinner of the household is actually the ‘man of the house’. Every society has an economic base and a cultural superstructure, which is derived from the base.
In Halfway House, the base has shifted and it is the wife who is economically independent, however, the tragedy of the ironically named Savitri lies in the fact that the superstructure has not shifted in accordance with the base. Mahendranath has not become the domestic centre just because of his confinement to the house; Savitri is still required to fulfill her ‘womanly’ domestic duties. She is defined by the context of what it means to be a woman and has internalized the patriarchal system. This is also made clear by Savitri’s contempt of what she believes is Mahendranath’s lack of manliness.
She despises his dependency on herself as well as Juneja and constantly searches for escape routes through other, more suitable men. An element of unrealism is brought in, in which even the characters seem to be aware of an underlying similarity between the men, a device not available to them as characters. Askok’s sketch of Singhania leads Savitri to ask Binni if the portrait reminds her of someone, and on being asked, “Whom”, she replies “Your father. ” This intermingling of the play and the outside elements draws attention to this device.
There is irony in the fact that one of the ways in which these men are actually the ‘same’ is in their exploitation of Savitri. According to critic Veena Das, these characters are seldom all of a piece, they are the broken images of a decomposing society. Mahendranath is a self-described ‘parasite’ and is later shockingly revealed to be a former wife-beater. His inability to hold the position of the ‘head’ of the family has made him bitter and suspicious; suspecting his wife of illicit liaisons, which, although hinted at are never confirmed by the text.
His ‘unmanliness’ makes Savitri lose all respect for him, till their marriage is reduced to a sham of public expectations. Singhania treats Savitri with condescension and his ‘favors’ are granted with an obvious air of patronization. His pompous manner and speech is calculated to make the listener feel inferior, a fact that is explicitly stated by Ashok. However, in Savitri’s eyes his position as her boss and his salary makes him ‘superior’ and she remains silent in face of his thinly-veiled innuendos and his humiliation positioning of her as “one of his child’s ‘aunties’”.
His crude behavior is a caricature of the sexual exploitation that women have to deal with in work places. Jagmohan is introduced almost an antithesis of Mahendra. He is suave, successful, with a man-of-the-world air and is presented as the eleventh hour rescuer. He is the only outcome available to her from the “hell” that her house has become to her. However, this apparent proactive position loses much of its worth as it is weakened by the fact that she waits for Jagmohan to ‘fetch’ her.
She overlooks his barbs at her expense and goes with him willingly, an act in defiance of society which is only rewarded by rejection. Again, this seemingly perfect man is unable to provide her with emotional support or security. Her disillusioned return drives home the point that there is no escape route left available for her.
The point of concern becomes the fact that though Savitri is an economically independent woman, her means of ‘escape’ from the house is linked to a man. Savitri, in her search for the “complete man” speaks in the language of patriarchy, as the concept of ‘masculinity’ is a derivative of society.
Even though she is a ‘modern, independent’ woman, she is unable to cut off the suffocating patriarchal bonds of the environment in which she lives. The Fourth Man, Juneja is introduced onto the stage around this point. He gains the sympathy of the audience by showing kindness towards Kinni, a character who is almost absolutely neglected in the play. He comes as a voice of rationality; as an almost omniscient character. He seems to have intimate knowledge of both Savitri and Mahendranath, as well as their circumstances. His seems to be the projected authorial voice in the play.
His looks and manner of speech is structured so as to make the audience favor his point-of-view and assessment of character. Juneja espouses the belief that to Savitri the meaning of life is “how many different things you can have and enjoy at the same time. ” He lays the blame for the current situation of hopelessness squarely on her shoulder and her quest for the “complete man”. According to him the problem is not a social reality, but instead lies in the psychological realm. All of the men she encounters are incomplete and therefore her solution is multiplicity.
Her way of filling her void is “excess”. And she is only attracted to men because, “they are not Mahendra. ” According to Juneja, if she had married one of the men whom she is attracted to she would have still felt she had married the wrong man. Juneja brings in another element of unrealism by accurately recounting the encounter between Jagmohan and Savitri because “in his place I would have said the same”. Once again this brings forth the ‘sameness’ of these characters, as Juneja’s claim is validated by Savitri’s shattering realization- “All of you…every one of you…all alike! Exactly the same.
Different masks, but the face…? The same wretched face…every single one of you! ” The tragedy of the realization is heightened by Juneja’s ruthless perusal- “And yet you felt you had a choice…? Was there really any choice? Tell me, was there? ” In the above dialogues lies the greatest significance of that particular theatrical device. It brings out a clear dichotomy between the ideal and the real. What Savitri has been pursuing all along, the ‘ideal man’ does not in fact exist.
The notion of her having had a ‘choice’ has been illusory all along; she is trapped in a world with no exit. The play shifts focus to lack of freedom for a female in urban, middle-class India. The tragedy is that Juneja’s speech provides a dual closure for Savitri; both in her search for the ‘perfect’ man who can “fill her void”, as well as an acknowledgment that she shall never gain satisfaction, and related to that, happiness. In naturalism, free will is not denied but is contained and confined within the environment in which the individual lives.
Savitri’s free will is her ability to choose but the fulfillment of that choice depends on the context. Her freedom is linked to a man. She is free to choose which man, but it has to be a man. The illusion of choice arises from the four men and her ‘independence’ is related to shifting from one man to the other. In the prologue, the Man in the Black Suit had asked the existentialist question of ‘who am I’. This is now problematized, as the dramatic innovation of using the same man for multiple characters casts doubt on whether there is an ‘I’ at all.
‘I’ refers to individuality, the existence of a self different from the ‘other’, a projection that the men in the play are all different which is negated through Juneja’s speech. Savitri uses the language of social realism to justify her belief that she moves on to other men because Mahendra is not the right man. Juneja uses the language of absurdism to articulate that there is no ‘right man’; her search is futile because such a man does not exist. All the men in her life are essentially the same man and can only satisfy her for a limited period of time.
Surprisingly, the text does not lead up to its realist conclusion; that she is trapped because of the prohibitions of the society in which she lives, a world in which a woman has no choice in her own destiny. It, in fact, veers from its apparent initial realist stance of ‘all men are the same in a patriarchy’ and seems to suggest that all men are the same only to Savitri. Halfway House has often been described as a woman-centric misogynistic play. “Even as the play builds up a dark vision of trapped humanity, it weakens the force of its statement by simultaneously cutting Savitri’s credentials.
” (Nita Kumar). The play does not imply that if the only conditions were different or could be changed then Savitri would be able to escape from the ‘trap’, instead her sexuality is morally condemned, she ought not be able to escape. Juneja contends that all the men who had come into her life were different. They were individuals with their own diverse characteristics and, according to critic Veena Das, what made Savitri see them as parts of the same fractioned entities was her own “diseased imagination”.
Juneja, in saying that all men are the same, is trying to define the essential nature of desire. Desire is always in excess of the individual and can never be completely satiated. The frightening aspect of desire lies in its limitlessness. All men are the same because they are looked at through Savitri’s desire, the fact that they will all eventually be unable to satisfy her is the reason for their ‘sameness’. Their amorphousness derives from the fact that they change in accordance with Savitri’s assessment of them.
The transcendental nature of desire will always make her move on to other men and search for completeness. It seems to suggest that every being is half-incomplete, it is not a tragedy, but rather a fact of existence, and Savitri, in her search for masculine perfection and inability to accept this fact, is herself responsible for her ruination. Unexpectedly again, the play doesn’t build up even to the absurdist conclusion; it does not suggest that everybody in essentiality is like Savitri, because desire is universal, exceeding every individual.
Instead, the elements of Naturalism as well as Absurdism are developed only to lay the blame on Savitri’s inherent nature, which is considered responsible for the destruction of this particular family. She stands the last accused and the play ends before there can be any possibility of defense on her behalf. Interestingly, though certain relationships in life are deterministic, including that of a mother-daughter, sister-brother, etc, the same cannot be said about spouses; however, in this very context the language used by Juneja is the final language of containment, of absolute, rigid determinism.
As earlier mentioned, the device of one man playing multiple roles is that of the actor and is not available to the character, and therefore it is significant that the visual of the play itself shows that nothing can be changed. Juneja’s speech corresponds to the structure of the play, which has to come from without and therefore indicates a concurrence with the playwright’s view. According to critic Kirti Jain, this device loses a little of its relevance in the actual stage performance as the focus of the audience is drawn primarily towards the clothes, mannerisms and voice of that one actor rather than the thematic import.
However, there is no ambiguity on the fact that the nature of the play cannot be understood without a reference to this particular device. Through this, the area of thrust changes entirely from the ‘universality of human experience’, and the ultimate censure is not of society, or even the circumstances, but rather of Savitri’s desiring nature. Her lack of constraint and implicit sexuality stand accused as the essential reasons for what makes her home an incomplete, halfway house.
Bibliography i. All textual quotes are from Worldview Critical Edition of ‘Halfway House- Mohan Rakesh’ ii. Halfway House: A House Divided by Nita N. Kumar iii. A Note on Indian Theatre by Kirti Jain iv. The Director’s Viewpoint by Om Shivpuri v. A Thematic Interpretation of One Actor and Five Roles in Halfway House by Arti Mathur vi. Lust For Life: A Study of Savitri in Halfway House by Naresh K. Jain vii. Halfway House: Absurdism of the Indian Middle Class by Bharat Gupt viii.
Uncertain Circumstance, Undefined Individuals: A Study of Halfway House by S. G. Bhanegaonkar ix. Sexism and Power Games by Manchi Sarat Babu x. Halfway House: Some Stray Comments Only by Dilip Kumar Basu xi. There is Something in this House by N. S. Dharan xii. Halfway House: A Play of Incomplete Utterances by Veena Nobel Das xiii. Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition by William Demastes xiv. Mohan Rakesh, Modernism, and the Postcolonial Present by Aparna Dharwadker.
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