Theatre: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

A depiction of capitalist horror that omits the socialist answer in David Hare’s new play.

David Hare has written a play, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, based on a book of the same name authored by the American investigative journalist Katherine Boo – for which she won the 2012 National Book Award for Non-Fiction. The play and the book reflect the lives of the poor who live in the Mumbai (formerly Bombay) slum known as Annawadi, next to Mumbai airport and close to several five-star hotels. Naturally, these luxurious enclaves provide an ironic contrast to the hideous reality of life in the slums.

The play recently commenced its opening run at the National Theatre, and, as one expects from the London theatre, the production features impressive sets and effects, as well as outstanding acting. It shows the poor struggling gallantly to survive in the most appalling conditions, sustained by humour and by slender hopes that, with hard work and persistence, an avenue just might open for escape into a more human environment.

It also shows, however, just how precarious is the slum dweller’s present and future: how infested it is with disease and malnutrition, how cheap is his life, and how preyed upon he is, not only by the ruling class and rich oppressors, but even by those just a little better off than himself, who are seeking to improve their conditions of existence – eg, by being able to afford to send a child to school – by wringing out of the poorest the little that they have.

It is well known that corruption is endemic in India, and the play shows it reaching down as far as the very poorest in society, making demands even on those who scrape a living by sifting through rubbish in order to sell whatever can be recycled.

Slums arise throughout the capitalist world as peasants are driven off their land en masse – mainly, these days, as a result of their farm produce becoming uncompetitive in a world dominated by multinationals. In the hope of averting starvation, peasant families drift to the cities in huge numbers, where there are very few jobs to sustain them, and those jobs there are pay very meagre wages.

Until the introduction of the welfare state, Britain, too, hosted many of these stewpots – festering enclaves of petty crime, beggary, prostitution and filth, which ‘respectable’ members of society feared to visit, as Engels described in his seminal work of 1844, Condition of the Working Class in England.

In the last century, with a view to staving off proletarian uprisings, the British ruling class engaged in programmes of slum clearances, moving most of the former inhabitants either to newly-built high-rise council estates or to various new towns away from the metropolises. In very many of these places, however, although the inhabitants have brick-built homes, colour television sets, running hot and cold water, bathrooms etc, and have access to education for their children and to health care – all of which would be unimaginable luxuries for the slum dwellers of today’s world – they nonetheless suffer hunger and ill health and remain surrounded by petty crime, beggary and prostitution. They, too, are preyed upon by loan sharks, because, just like the slum dwellers, they cannot secure the jobs they need to bring them a decent standard of living and a sense of self worth.

The reason for making this point is not to belittle the suffering of the poor in India but to emphasise that this is not a specific Indian problem to be blamed on ‘Indian corruption’, but a worldwide problem to be blamed on capitalism, which produces corruption everywhere it goes – even if it is not always as visible, rampant and ubiquitous as it is in India. It needs to be remembered that it is an unavoidable law of capitalism that, on average and over time, the rich will get richer and fewer, while the poor will get poorer and more numerous.

This is what produces slums, and getting rid of capitalism is therefore a precondition of doing away with slums.

The frustrating thing about David Hare’s play is that it provides no answers to the abomination of slums. Ms Boo’s belief is that she can make a difference by drawing the attention of those with power to the plight of the powerless and leaving it to their conscience to do something about it. (“If change is to happen, it will be because people with power have a better sense of what’s happening to people who have none,” she is quoted as saying by Charles McGrath in ‘An outsider gives voice to slumdogs’, New York Times, 8 February 2012.)

In this context, it is interesting to note a rather surprising feature of the play – namely, that the Indian judiciary are presented as honest and sensible, if arrogant, with the corruption that surrounds the administration of the law being attributed mainly to the police and court officials rather than to the actual judges.

This may be a reflection of Ms Boo’s hopes in the beneficence of the powerful. Sir David Hare, for all his reputation as a ‘radical’ playwright, and however trenchantly he criticises the capitalist status quo, shies away from depicting how the injustices of the capitalist world would be eliminated in the socialist future.

The play runs until 13 April 2015 and there will be a live broadcast of it in cinemas on 12 March.