Howard Brenton’s new play examines the last act of British rule in India, the dissection of the country in 1947 to create the independent nations of India and Pakistan. Its focus is on the man who came out to Delhi to draw the line, a British barrister, Cyril Radcliffe, who had never visited India before and never returned.
In a matter of weeks in the hectic, contested, close-down summer of Britain’s Empire in India, Radcliffe charted an international boundary through the provinces of Punjab and Bengal – presenting his award just days before independence, though it was not publicly announced until a couple of days after Lord Mountbatten’s dual handovers of power.
Partition was never going to go well. The communal violence which marred Britain’s hurried exit from India began in Calcutta a year before independence, gained a hold in Punjab in the spring of 1947, and reached a crescendo in the weeks after August 15th.
It unleashed one of the most immense tragedies of the twentieth century. No one can be precise about the figures – a conservative estimate is that more than half-a-million were killed and well over ten million became refugees. Radcliffe is reputed to have turned down his fee – though his career prospered in the years that followed as he became a member of the Privy Council, a law lord, a life peer and eventually, in 1962, a hereditary viscount.
Cyril Radcliffe has not had a good press. W.H. Auden set the tone, without mentioning Radcliffe by name, in his poem ‘Partition’:
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
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 The maps at his disposal were out of date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.
Howard Brenton adopts the same approach. His Radcliffe is neither malign nor lazy, simply out of his depth, unfamiliar with India and its politics, and over deferential and so open to improper influence by Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, in India’s favour. He was a ‘patsy’, the word Brenton puts in Radcliffe’s own mouth, a fall guy. A drama lingering on this exquisite difficulty could have delivered rich reward. This drama is altogether too shallow. Radcliffe is mocked more than understood. His stay-behind wife, in awe that her husband is lodging with the Mountbattens, has a touch of the Joyce Grenfell about her (“I’ll send more socks!”).
The same is true of almost all the characters. They are little more than cut outs, and in the case of Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and founder of Pakistan, not at all convincing. Only Edwina Mountbatten comes to life, vivacious, carnal (consorting with Nehru in broom cupboards and the like) and at the same time lobbying for resources for the sprawling refugee settlements that accompanied Partition.
Howard Brenton suggests that one reason for Mountbatten’s indecent haste in partitioning India was to prise his wife free of India’s first Prime Minister. That’s not entirely implausible, but weakened by the fact that Mountbatten didn’t leave at independence but stayed on for almost a year as India’s Governor-General. Brenton also liberally sprinkles Mountbatten’s household small talk with epithets such as ‘wogs’ and ‘darkies’, and prompts the Viceroy to muse, as Radcliffe arrives in Delhi to draw the line, that Partition could lead to 100,000 deaths. All that is dramatic license, if rather free in interpretation of the facts.
What’s more concerning in a play billed as a historical drama is the absence of attention to important detail. Brenton laments in the programme: ‘You always get a few nightmare letters about inaccuracies when you write historical plays’. So here’s a missive to the author. However tidy it might be to wrap in the most troubled legacy of Partition, the Kashmir dispute, with Radcliffe’s cartographic mission, it’s simply not right. Radcliffe’s remit did not extend to the princely states, so the recurring references to maharajah-ruled Kashmir are misplaced … Radcliffe certainly didn’t consider a referendum in Kashmir … and the founder of what was in 1947 Kashmir’s royal family was not ‘a pro-British Muslim prince’, indeed the kernel of the Kashmir conundrum was that a Muslim-majority principality had a Hindu ruler who eventually threw in his lot with India.
Inconvenient facts apart, ‘Drawing the Line’ is certainly engaging and well paced. The dialogue is acute, the cast of seventeen generously ample, the set design clever (and in the closing moments quite magnificent), and there’s humour too. When Radcliffe gets the trots (to use Auden’s meaning) at a crucial meeting, the quarrelling Congress and Muslim League quickly concur that the South Asian ‘flushing’ approach is much superior to the British ‘blocking’ strategy. You could hear a murmur of assent in sections of the audience.
There is a touch of the agitprop in the style of production – decide on a narrative, in this case that Britain made a pantomime mess of Partition, then hammer it home. For a subject so complex, a more seasoned drama might have been a better bet.
‘Drawing the Line’ by Howard Brenton, directed by Howard Davies, is at the Hampstead Theatre until 11th January 2014