Drawing the Line

Drawing the Line by Howard Brenton‘Drawing the Line’ by Howard Brenton at the Hampstead Theatre

4th December, 2013

‘You British make this mistake, every time you colonise. You move into a huge area of the globe and call it a country, when it is not. You have done so all over Africa, in Arab countries, in Iraq.’

‘Drawing the Line’ was inspired by conversations Brenton had during a visit to India in 2009, and continues his theme of political upheaval seen in other plays he has written.

In 1947, finding empire morally insupportable, and short of post war funds, the ruthless Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, decides to dismantle 200 years of rule of India in just five or six weeks. ‘Drawing the Line’ concentrates on the role played by one man, Cyril Radcliffe, played by Tom Beard. He travels to India, a country he has never visited and of which he has almost no knowledge, and with limited survey information, no expert support and no knowledge of cartography, aims to draw the border to divide the Indian sub-continent into two new Sovereign Dominions: India and Pakistan.

The scenario unravels like a Snakes and Ladders board game. Radcliffe is flung into a maelstrom of Indian politics, religion, culture, languages and opposing beliefs.  Ironically, it was the same incident that preoccupied WH Auden in 1966 which sums up the play’s chronology of events:

He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

Brenton follows the same narrative to rid the Empire of ‘the white man’s burden’. Radcliffe naively attempts to formalise this catastrophe.  Innocently, he tries to carve it up fairly, ‘All I can suggest is a tentative scribble’: an impossible task, and, as Brenton makes clear, there was no ‘fair’ solution apart from getting out and letting the different groups decide between themselves.  In contrast, Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy representing British self-interest, epitomises British indifference to the mass murders that were to result from this cavalier map-making.

Brenton captures the overall upper class confidence and Tom Beard delivers Radcliffe’s desperate sense of duty in his steep politicised learning curve of his incendiary mission. The frustrating complexity and absurdity of the cartographical task is highlighted when Radcliffe has diarrhoea: the quarrelling Congress and Muslim League quickly concur that the South Asian ‘flushing’ approach is much superior to the British ‘blocking’ strategy.

As the personal agendas of all the major players come further into play in the second act, we sense Radcliffe’s increasing frustration; he realises he is the fall guy that everyone else will use to escape blame when the inevitable conflict occurs, as a result of the final boundary decision.

Brenton gets away with stock Indian characterisations with Tanveer Ghani’s Gandhi in a sedentary role; Silas Carson’s Pandit Nehru is a ladies’ man enjoying an adulterous affair with Edwina, the wife of the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten; and Paul Bazely as the Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The play taps into contemporary speculation that the unsympathetically portrayed Mountbatten rushed the timetable for independence in order to terminate Edwina’s affair with Nehru.

Despite any historical inaccuracies, it is impressive how a geopolitical subject of a larger scale that can be fully translated into two hours of drama. Under the comfortable direction of Howard Davies and the beautiful Indian fretwork panels by Tim Hatley, the audience is channelled through this tragi-comedy.   There are many lines that linger such as Jinnah spitting: ‘The British will always favour the Hindus. They think their religion is pretty.  But the British see Islam as frightening.’

Interestingly, in August 1947 Ahmed Faiz wrote the poem ‘Dawn of Freedom’ as comment on the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan:

This stain-covered daybreak, this night-bitten dawn,
This is not that dawn of which there was expectation;
This is not that dawn with longing for which friends set out
That somewhere they would be met within the desert of the sky
The final destination of the stars…

And sadly, the words rings true of Pakistan today. The shameful British act of partition saw the displacement of millions of people on different sides of the border – and continues to affect the region even now.  Brenton only alludes to the mapping consequences, as we sense Radcliffe’s increasing awareness of the cruelty of his government’s realpolitik.

One can’t help but speculate whether such thinking was also applied in determining the borders  in the Middle East and parts of Africa.  In particular, the Israeli/Palestine boundary was the creation of another new state based on religious fault lines.