The war is over. The Pandavas have wiped out their royal cousins, the Kauravas, and Yudisthira is the rightful king of all he surveys. Except that what he surveys is horrible to contemplate: a vulture’s paradise, where mad widows root through heaps of severed body parts, trying to reassemble their husbands. Too traumatized to claim his crown, Yudisthira declares the victory a defeat. How can he rule? What is there left to rule? He’d rather live in the woods, he tells his mother, “without tears, without joy . . . wandering aimlessly, seeking neither death nor life.”
That’s how matters stand at the start of Battlefield, running through Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “It’s a narrative,” says its French cocreator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, “of an earth covered by dead corpses.”
Battlefield is a 70-minute distillation of The Mahabharata, the monumental nine-hour work by legendary stage auteur Peter Brook and writer Jean-Claude Carrière. A retelling of the eponymous Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata premiered at the 1985 Avignon Festival, attracting what the New York Times characterized as “ecstatic” reviews, and was adapted for film four years later. Estienne was something of a junior partner in those efforts, though she assisted with the years-long development of the stage production and received a writing credit for the movie. She and the now 92-year-old Brook share equal billing on Battlefield; indeed, a recent story in the Guardian calls her the “powerhouse” behind Brook—a notion she rejects as a reporter’s fancy. Asked to describe her relationship with Brook, she responds, “I would not describe it. I live it.”
Reached by phone in Washington, D.C., where Battlefield was playing the Kennedy Center, Estienne seemed anything but jaded by her decades of exposure to the material. Just the opposite, she assured me: “If you enter the world of the Mahabharata, you will not be able to leave it, because it asks you questions which are important in life.”
Certainly, Yudisthira’s tale has its topical resonances. “If we say, for example, that victory is defeat,” Estienne says, “we can go to the Iraqi War or to whatever happens in the Middle East, which is linked to a victory which is a defeat. . . . People die and we do nothing and it is not even moral.” In that context, she considers Battlefield a reminder of all we ignore—all we have to ignore to have a semblance of a normal life.
Yet Yudisthira finds himself dealing with much more basic concerns as he tries to find the will and the right to rule. In Estienne’s words, “How can we live in a world that is so desperate? How can you go on?”
When The Mahabharata first appeared, some critics attacked its “orientalism,” arguing that it colonized Indian culture just as the Raj colonized India itself. Having lived with that objection for almost as long as she’s lived with The Mahabharata itself, Estienne’s response is almost tender. The story is “never yours,” she says. “It’s never yours. You cannot possess anything, really. It belongs to humanity.” v