Artistic Statement From Playwright
Of all the Charles Dickens novels I read as a youth, Great Expectations was always a favourite. The novel felt very Indian to me! Even the names sounded vaguely Indian: Pumblechook, Gargery, Magwitch (say them with an Indian accent and you’ll see what I mean.) This was a story I could really relate to because of the rags to riches plot, the eccentric but wonderful characters, the intricate storylines, and the aspirations of the main character, Pip, to rise above his class and social status and to be educated. It was what my 24-year-old father aspired to in 1961 when he got on a ship in Bombay and sailed to England with the obligatory £1 note in his pocket.
The great thing about adapting such a classic novel for the stage is that the plot and characters are already in place; as a playwright, one is able to inject one’s own ideas into the pre-existing drama. This adaptation is set in India in 1861 because it meant that I could use Dickens’ language without having to worry about modernising it. I didn’t want to simply retell the recent “immigrant” story and I didn’t want to do a straightforward “Indian” adaptation. Therefore Magwitch is an African convict from Cape Colony; he is not a slave, since the British had abolished slavery by 1861, but an African sailor with a criminal background (there are over 50,000 Africans known as the Siddi living in India today, who descend from Bantu Southeast Africans going back as far as 628 AD.) His story, as in the original story, is one of poverty and degradation. In this version, his anger at the way the white man treats the black man lends an added fury. He is determined to make the Indian Pip into “an English gentleman” able to hold his head high. Miss Havisham, the lawyer Jaggers, and Herbert Pocket all represent the different English facets of the Raj whilst Joe Gargery (now a cobbler instead of a blacksmith), Pip, and Biddy are Indian villagers.
I was fascinated by the way the colonial British authorities educated Indians of so-called good families in a very British way, encouraging them to embrace English values and morals. It wasn’t an accident that Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Premier of India, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan, and even Mahatma Gandhi qualified as barristers in London before going back to India to fight for independence. In this adaptation, Pip’s aspiration to be an educated English gentleman awakens his sense of Indian pride. Ultimately his dissatisfaction at the way the English treat him leads him to question English wisdom. While Pip loses a lot at the end of the play–Estella, Magwitch, and his inheritance, he gains a life long friend in the quintessentially English Herbert Pocket. It is this friendship that gives us hope and propels us forward into the present day.
I am so delighted that this adaptation is enjoying another life in Chicago, with a new and diverse audience.