The Old Playhouse
‘The Old Playhouse’, selected from the book with the same title deals with Kamala Das’ recurrent theme of failure and frustration in love and marriage. It vividly reveals the plight of a housewife who bewails that her egocentric and male chauvinist husband has virtually reduced her full-blooded and aspiring self to a mere entertaining toy. Consequently, the caged wife, with her stifled and crippled spirit, is helplessly destined to witness the pathetic transformation of her mind into ‘an old playhouse with all its lights put out’. The network of evocative and concrete imagery and imaginative symbols transcends an individual’s suffering and makes it a generic experience.
Summary of ‘The Old Playhouse’
This poem is a title piece of Kamala Das’ third volume of verse, The Old Playhouse and other poems (1973). It is addressed to ‘you’, to the husband, who wanted to curtail her freedom of movement and action through his subtle manoeuvrings. The poetess does not like this, just as she does not like him or his ways. His ‘monstrous ego’ comes under fire herein, since it has totally reduced her and disappointed her. As a result, her mind becomes ‘an old playhouse with all lights put out.”
The poetess needed love and tenderness, security and permanence, from her strong man but he could not satisfy her on these scores. Hence her unredeemed damnation and suffering in his company.
The possessive instinct of the man is stressed in the opening of the poem. The man (or better, the poetess’ husband) tried to tame a free bird that she was and subject her to sexual torture so that she should forget her happy seasons, old homes and her intrinsic value as a woman. But she had come to him not to learn of him but of herself and thereby ‘grow’ in a carefree atmosphere. He was pleased with her body’s response and its fragile convulsions. He made hectic love to her and overwhelmed her by his forceful physical contact. He rather over flooded the organs of her body by an energetic mating and dribbled his spittle into her mouth. He called her ‘wife’, who was taught to attend to her domestic duties ungrudgingly and look after him properly by supplying him tea, food and vitamins at the needed moments. She tried to adjust herself in accordance with his wishes but she lost her individuality in the process and became a mere dwarf under his disastrous male ego. She was totally reduced and annihilated in due course:
Beneath your monstrous ego, I ate the magic loaf and
Became a dwarf. I lost my will and reason, to all your
Questions I mumbled incoherent replies.”
The days of happiness came to a grinding halt in her case. She began to feel the arrival of the autumn for her and the suffocating atmosphere of the burning leaves and the rising smoke. The man she loved adopts artificial measures to satisfy himself – ‘artificial lights’ and grows indifferent and insolent towards her by keeping his windows shut. But the artificial measures have not helped him in any way to override his dominating male impulse. Even his ‘breath’ is strongly masculine. The overall impact of all this on her is dejection and cheerlessness, with no hope of regeneration. Her singing is gone, her dance is forsaken, and her mind becomes ‘an old playhouse with all its lights put out.’ In contrast to this, the man adopts a hard line towards her and serves his love in deadly doses, whereas for her love is self-obsessed and unenjoyable and yet it seeks its fulfilment in freedom rather than in bondage. Love for its healthy growth wants to be pure and emotional, and not lustful and muddy. The expressions like ‘the water’s edge’ and ‘to erase the water’ signify sexual consummation between the man and the woman, which the woman does not like.
In this poem, the poetess’ personal predicament is expressed. She who was as free as a swallow has now been domesticated with all her wings severed.
She desired to discover a meaning, a perfect fulfilment through love, but her man broke her completely by thrusting household responsibilities on her shoulders and by creating barricades for her in life. He asserted his marital prerogatives, curtailed her freedom totally, and showed his masculine power to her. Consequently, she became a dwarf under the heavyweight of his lustful masculinity and monstrous ego. All her hopes were dashed into pieces; all her cheerful spirits disappeared for good. She began to feel a great emotional vacuum and couldn’t enjoy sexual encounters with him. She got possessed with abnormal psychology and sought love at strangers’ doors. The lustful advance of her man grew distasteful to her and she took revenge upon him by craving for freedom from his snares and by seeking shelter in others’ arms (to use her own expression).
In its tone and temper, the poem is gloomy and pessimistic. In its language, it is fiery and charged. At places, it gives the impression of being verbose and long-winded. The metaphorical expression – “my mind is an old playhouse with all its lights put out” (p 1) – is highly impressive and truculent. There are difficult words used here and there in the poem, but the meaning is quite plain everywhere. The central idea is ‘freedom’. The woman was free as a swallow in the beginning and she aspires for freedom in the end:
“… and yet it must seek at last
An end, a pure, total freedom …” (pp 1-2)
The middle of the poem strikes the note of paradox in her situation; her ‘freedom’ so long cherished and so highly valued is completely curtailed and her personality totally annihilated. She had never dreamt of it, and when it stood as a reality before her she was terribly shocked, she felt utterly lonely and miserable.
Major themes of the poem
Kamala Das is a confessional poet. Most of her poems carry the theme of nostalgia for her past sweet memories and a frustration for her failure in married life. She is eternally in search of true love and affection which unfortunately she was unable to find in her lifetime except her wonderful childhood days. Also in some of her poems like “A Hot Noon in Malabar” she attempts to recapture and sustain her childhood memories.
‘The Old Playhouse’ is a poem which deals about the poetess’ own autobiographical experiences. The poem highlights frustration of her married life. The poem, which was first published in ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India’, is a strong indictment against injurious male behavior. It protests against the manner of treatment meted out to her by her own man. She also highlights the injustices levied upon her as a wife and the sufferings she has undergone. Also she regrets her lost freedom.
Questions and Answers
1. To whom is the poem addressed?
Ans. The poetess’ husband
2. Why does the poetess call herself ‘an old playhouse with all its lights put out’?
Ans. Her husband wanted to curtail her freedom of movement and action through his subtle maneuverings. The poetess does not like this. His ‘monstrous ego’ comes under fire herein, since it has totally reduced her and disappointed her.
3. Why is the poetess suffering in her husband’s company?
Ans. The poetess needed love and tenderness, security and permanence, from her strong man but he could not satisfy her on these scores.
4. Which duties are assigned to the poetess as a wife?
Ans. The poetess was taught to attend her domestic duties ungrudgingly and look after him properly by supplying him tea, food and vitamins at the needed moments.
5. How is the language of the poem?
Ans. Fiery and charged.