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The Poetry in the Prose

by Amelia Foong

THE PROSE

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

I had the pleasure of encountering E.M. Forster’s work for the first time while watching The Prose and the Passion, a play that sets out to contextualise not one but two of Forster’s works – A Passage to India and Maurice – in a modern Singaporean setting. Our main protagonist Aakash is an author writing a romance between two National Servicemen that is inspired by his own experience as a gay man. At the same time, he has inherited his late mother Cecily’s diaries and learns posthumously that she was the first person in Singapore to undergo sex reassignment surgery in 1971. This happened after much determined lobbying of her sister to write a letter of recommendation for the procedure, and of her doctor to perform it. Similarly, the general public learns after Maurice is published posthumously, in 1971, that Forster was himself gay.

Magical realism and connection across time and fictional worlds feature heavily in the play, a theme underscored by members of a lean cast playing multiple characters throughout. In one scene, Aakash and Forster discuss society’s changing attitudes towards homosexuality. In another, Aakash seemingly projects his own regret at leaving his lover by questioning Forster’s decision to keep the male friendships at the heart of A Passage to India platonic. Yet, the main characters in Aakash’s novel, Aziz and Fielding, are named after A Passage to India’s protagonists. Notably, the same actor plays both the restrained Fielding, who breaks Aziz’s heart when he invites him to his upcoming nuptials; and Clive, Maurice’s first romantic partner, who returns from a trip abroad declaring he has “become normal” and plans to find a bride.

Over the course of the play, key themes and decisions are reinforced across multiple narratives: the courage to pursue and affirm one’s identity; the wordsmith’s obligation to write a happy ending, not just for his readers, but for his characters; and the importance of connection across differing identities — race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation.

Presiding on-stage over these kaleidoscopic storylines is a two-storey steel frame with screens resembling graffitied chalkboards. Phrases from Forster’s oeuvre and those from Aakash and Cecily’s storylines illuminate at key moments during the play, literally highlighting and reinforcing the centrality of the written word in a world where authors and authorial intent take centre stage. In the next section of my response, I take inspiration from this literary beacon, and let the characters from The Prose and the Passion tell their stories by reconfiguring words from A Passage to India.


THE POETRY

As A Passage to India celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, it seemed fitting to pay it homage. Using the technique of blackout poetry on its chapters, I tease out layered verse and hidden meaning to reimagine The Prose and the Passion’s characters’ perspectives; hoping in some small way to have my own conversation with Forster (the way Aakash did) by breaching the fourth wall between time and space, between author and collaborator.

When I first attempted to blackout words, the chapters seemed impenetrable, recalling the steel frame on the set of the play. But soon enough, as with the wall-like screens onstage, key words seemed to highlight themselves. It was a simple but imperative job then, to blacken the solitude away and uncover the poetry within the prose, allowing A Passage to India and The Prose and the Passion to once again only connect.

 

Chapter I – Aziz


nothing extraordinary.

hidden away
drowned and sinking,
an unconsidered man

has nothing
except the
sky, and
the tenderest stars.

feeble benediction
comes from
lies and

endless
caves.


Chapter II.i – Clive


Yielding
was delicious,
sensuous but healthy,
not
particularly sad -
there was no friction.
Delicious indeed.

only I come out
feeling both pain and such
profound emotion--
I shall never forget or describe --I --I
            think that I want something, and I cannot face. Oh,
I do not admit he --
it is difficult.

Once is enough.


Chapter II.ii – Forster


I would die unwed, for
two men have
no position of an equal.

the brevity of love.
whispered, scarlet; a note, a
vivid sense of speed.


Chapter II.iii – Maurice


the gifts the gods provide–
Beautiful women
pained him.

the exact truth is,

He, daintily put together,
walking fatigued in hostile soil,
rigid and pressing; he
was broken.

by the moon, God stood.
The temple, Hindu, Christian, Greek.

Here was Faith, exquisite and durable,
where his body and thoughts found their home.

the builder had never
intended, Alas,
him a husband.


Chapter III.i – Cecily


Windows barred,
wounded, out of order.

I want to see the real girl

commissioned son,
I want to see the real you.


Chapter III.ii – Cecily’s sister


why, fancy, the lady is
As a matter of fact, a
Brother of the girl

too late to
avoid eyes,
most uncomfortable
withdrawal from the evening,

the little gods of civility
can’t be fooled–
he as
  she?
you can’t do that sort of thing.           It’s not done.
            he wasn’t allowed to.

impudence. a trick, forming the body,
altering, shifting,
            my dear boy—

you are disloyal to caste,
Why the nonsense,

little boy who wished
He had changed to
            Pretty dear.


Chapter IV – Cecily’s doctor


            he would be glad to
            sympathize at a            distance
            why give him trouble And
            postpone other business?

I do not expect I shall make myself cheap

but
a man of benevolence and
hospitality, eminent, would embrace
our Father’s multitudes
of mankind with a loving heart.

            young Mr.

Yes?

            to change is going too far. We must exclude,
            or we shall be left with nothing.


V - XIX – Aakash


successful at doing
nothing

no one here matters;
some vague future occasion: it’s simply not worth the

            seditious heart, the
            untouched silence, words not
            coloured but
            translucent,
            vigorously repressed, in order to hurt
            nobody’s feelings.

the performance was
hard – atonement or despair from the first.

He had blundered, he knew, he
knew everything; The impressions left
behind consumed him, a burnt sunset; long, tropical.

to long for Colour–the pageant of
bodies            flesh            movement
            would remain long enough in the nucleus of his heart–

God…but The desire…
            the mistake, increasingly he regretted—

outcaste            poet            gay
            he loved a man
            He strode away

He realized painfully,
no one ever told him the truth.

he had fallen in love
his love he had lost.

Is there a meeting-place? a hope he should hold, for
he had changed
his mind; indeed, he didn’t change it, it
changed itself.

in his sorrow: with strange insight
            writing called for him.
he would commune with
            unreality and

passionately
invoke

            A happier conclusion.

 

Note: The verses above were created from the text of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India using the technique of blackout poetry. Check out the process here:

Theatre
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