“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”
Good evening all,
I hope my disposition conveys my immense gratitude. You are witnessing the realization of a dream. A dream I have harboured since I first got interested in philosophy and theatre.
Ladies and gentlemen, “Bertrand Russell: A Life” took a lifetime of effort.
I usually refrain from patronizing salutations addressing the “distinguished” guests. This time being no exception. Despite my interest in Sir Russell’s logical atomism, I must admit to my laziness. I could conveniently reduce this assembly to notables and non-notables. But it is unlike me. And I am, in fact, echoing Sir Russell’s democratic temper in not doing so.
I am not habitually talkative before the play. Or after. Or anytime in between.
It is not the occasion in particular that tempts me to occupy the stage and the time to talk to you. It is what I have to share. The anecdotal content of this long speech is inseparable from the play. Bear with me.
There is one presence on the stage I would like to draw your attention to. Being inanimate, these presences have never had the privilege of being introduced in this fashion.
I am a big fan of philosophy. So the trivialization of the inanimate is not a natural presupposition.
Dwarfing the inanimate in ontological significance has to do with Cartesian metaphysics. It elevated us, conscious individuals, to the status of “subjects”, who look at “objects”. “Objects” being everything else in the world that is not conscious.
Descartes located the source of our unique animation in our “soul” which inhabits pineal gland, occasionally coming in contact with our vital spirits to enable motion at will. This erroneous anatomy eventually gave way to more accurate accounts of brain events. And our supremacy as “The animates” was endangered.
But the “inanimate objects” on this stage deserve a special mention. My set designer, Searle and I have laboured beyond imagination to bring together the mimetic miracle on the stage. There have been very rare instances in the history of theatre, when the reproduction of actual settings has been faithful to the extent of using exactly real artefacts. My insistence on the authenticity of props had matured obsessively until all museums, researchers, curators, enterprises, antique shops, collectors, and descendants of the Russell family in England had been ransacked. Or in other words, collaborated with.
This play owes its completion to a vast number of people. There are many living men and women around who had glimpses into the Russell household. There were photographs. We looked at the furniture, the paraphernalia, we sketched the descriptions. And then we looked for them. Building similar artefacts should have worked. But no.
Many of Russell’s possessions have been scattered all across the world. We tried our best to acquire as many as possible. They were expensive, some required official permissions to be used. We begged, borrowed, stole- probably unlike anyone ever before. Quite a long book can be written about this quest of ours. I, in fact, do plan to write one in near future.
Whenever we didn’t get the real things, we looked for resemblance. And eventually, we had this set, which, many will testify, cannot be distinguished from Betrand Russell’s home. Except in some acute terms of chemical composition possibly.
An important aspect of this play, where we took almost ridiculous creative liberty, is in reimagining the Eureka moments in Russell’s life. There is this scene where he is sitting at his study, writing, and a China teapot is placed in front of him. He is writing on God. He pauses to look for a metaphor in his material surroundings, and the China teapot catches his attention. Well, I described bit of the play for you. There.
Russell immortalized his eminent atheism with this infamous teapot problem. And this rather unconvincing account of its inception was not nearly a defining moment of the play.
Now, having grown up with this notorious debate about the metaphysical backlog called religion, I wanted a teapot on the set. A China teapot. I didn’t even know whether Russell actually had a China teapot. It is even unlikely that looking at it lying in front of him is how he conceived the problem. But I was convinced. My realist aspirations demanded of me to get a teapot. A teapot that Russell might have used. And it was menacingly urgent. I needed it to go on with my life.
And the quest began for Russell’s teapot. Now, no matter how many people who frequented Russell’s home were around, and no matter how many photographs of the interiors were available- there is really none that could find me the teapot.
Doubting its existence never occurred to me. Russell certainly wouldn’t be proud of me.
It seemed almost ridiculous that if Russell was in possession of such a teapot, its historical significance would be ignored by its inheritors.
I forgot all about the play. The teapot became the central object of my life. We had the pipes, the armchairs, the books, the papers, the pens, the typewriters- everything. How could this entire project of preservation exclude the teapot?
Searle and I had refused to make any progress with the play until the teapot was found. The Late Nicholas Russell, the 6th Earl Russell, who had been a well-wisher of this production, knew of no such teapot. He wished us so well that he even ended up advising us to give up the search.
Upon his early death on the 17th of August, 2014, some time into our surrender, we were grieved beyond words. But what accompanied this tragedy was the miraculous discovery of the fabled teapot!
Searle and I were invited to fetch it. Turns out that Nicholas had informed his servants of our pursuit, just in case they stumble upon the teapot. We arrived at the house, to receive the prized teapot.
And then, the rehearsals resumed. The prolonged dormancy was self-explanatory, as when the actors turned up, they were greeted by a set so elaborate. This elaborate. And crowning this awe-inspiring architecture, upon a book-swathed study table, was the teapot.
We did not rehearse on the set until the final rehearsal. The objects were ancient, fragile, expensive and, often, national treasures. About fourteen minutes into the final rehearsal, the teapot fell down on the floor and broke into pieces with a CRASH. I don’t even remember who dropped it. It didn’t matter.
Now, I do not know when it so happened that the play got anchored to this teapot. It wasn’t really playing an important role as far as the story is concerned. It was a symbol that could be done away with.
But there it was. In pieces. On the floor. The teapot was probably the least expensive acquisition. But you know, when I was standing there on the set- and I heard the CRASH sound, and was lost. Brittle fragments- arcs, domes, jigsaws, dust- speckled the floor.
I was in tears; believe me, for the first time in three decades. I wailed. And I scrapped the play. I announced it through hiccups of grief. And everyone thought, rightly, that I had lost my mind.
My lunacy was evident. But I had company. Searle, who is grinning now at the backstage- was inane from shock. For anyone aware of the intensity of our pursuit, this wouldn’t be unlikely. But I had indeed scrapped the play. And remained certain that it was absolutely the right thing to do.
After regaining sanity, I summoned the cast for rehearsal. Practice resumed as usual.
But on the day that I did scrap the play on impulse, something happened. I must share it. It would also be a natural conclusion to my seemingly meandering speech.
I asked everyone to vacate the set. The broken teapot was dusted away. And a large void occupied the table. We were practicing on this very stage. They all left and I was alone on the set. Searle was seated on one of the audience chairs. I stood transfixed in exasperation for a long time. I really don’t remember who dropped it, and I didn’t know it then. But I was angry, and my impulse was of annihilation. I wanted to fiercely break and shatter all the meaningless inanimates on the stage. To empower myself. They seemed to crave demolition when I gazed upon them.
I rushed towards the study table.
Bulldozing over the ancient papers on the study table, I pounced on it and pushed it.
I pushed it to a loud, caustic collapse.
It went bang, and everything scattered, erupted and blew.
An avalanche of the stationary produced diverse sounds as it landed on the floor. Distinct identifiable sounds- although chorused because of the spontaneous impact- THUDS, BANGS, TINKLES. And there was another sound I was sure I heard.
And I am sure Searle had heard too, because he almost leapt up from his seat, exclaiming.
CRASH. As if echoing the CRASH that had turned the most prized prop in the history of theatre, into sprayed glass. The fine bone that had been long dusted away, of a teapot that was just broken and nowhere on the table.
Words: Deepro Roy
Edits: Saniya Rohida
Illustration: Mohini Mukherjee