“I began with a desire to speak with the dead,” Stephen Greenblatt writes at the beginning of Shakespearean Negotiations. “Literature professors are salaried, middle-class shamans.” For a few years in the ‘nineties, Tom Stoppard also desired to speak with the dead. His plays Arcadia and Indian Ink (the latter is currently being revived by Roundabout) both concern people in the present or the near-present trying to sort out events in the past.
In 1930, the British poet and contemporary of the Bloomsbury Group Flora Crewe (Romola Garai) travels to India, both for her health and to flee accusations of promiscuity and communist sympathies. While there, she meets the Indian painter Nikrad Das (Firdous Bamji), the Rajah of Jummapur (Rajeev Varma), and a well-intentioned but rather dull soldier for the British Raj, David Durance (Lee Aaron Rosen). Based on her letters, which are being edited in the mid-eighties by Professor Eldon Pike (Neal Huff), it is possible she had some sort of affair with one of these men; the audience’s best guess is Nikrad, but Eldon’s is Durance. To gather information, this pedantic academic visits Flora’s still-living sister, Eleanor (Rosemary Harris). Eleanor, in turn, meets Nikrad’s son, Anish (Bhavesh Patel), who owns a nude of Flora painted by his father.
Ms. Harris is delightful as Eleanor, perfectly capturing the cagey but ultimately good-natured way in which an intelligent, older woman would respond to the young men who underestimate her because of her age. And Ms. Garai nicely imbues Flora with a ghostly and inaccessible quality that works both for her relationships to Nikrad, David, and the Raj, but also to Eldon. Mr. Bamji, however, is the standout here. He is bouncy and nervous, constantly adjusting his long hair, bobbing his head, and negotiating how close he can come to Flora; she will often accuse him of “being Indian”—that is, of performing the docile Oriental servant to the superior British master—and he responds with a fine mixture of trepidation and entirely forbidden sexual desire.
With Harold Pinter dead, Mr. Stoppard is likely England’s greatest living playwright, and Indian Ink is a rich work. He takes his cue from E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India—which posits that the Raj prevented true friendship from forming between the British and Indians—but offers a more optimistic take. Flora, combining humanism with an ignorance about the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized, delights her Indian companions with her intimacy and lack of form. But the play’s attitude towards history is less heartening, suggesting that our lives belong to us and not to future biographies, which are, in Eleanor’s words, “the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.” Eldon constantly proves the butt of Mr. Stoppard’s jokes as we see him pass off Eleanor’s knowledge as his own and stumble through misguided assumptions about Flora Crewe, who for him is less a woman or even a poet than a subject, like botany. In Indian Ink, Flora’s poems and letters are all that are left of her—and speaking with the dead is a monologue, not a conversation.