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Buddha, Kazantzakis’ Most Ambitious and Most Neglected Play Peter Bien “My method . . . does not involve a denial of spirit and body, but rather aims at the conquest of them through the prowess of spirit and body.” In the spring of 1941, Kazantzakis embarked on one of his most ambitious works, the play Yangtze, now known under the title Buddha. If we consider the seven months from Mussolini’s invasion of Greece on October 28, 1940, until the fall of Crete to the Germans at the end of May 1941, we see in condensed, intensified form the whole of human existence as Kazantzakis had conceived it previously and had expressed it in earlier works. What I mean is that we see, in the successful Greek defense against Mussolini, the noble and Quixotic effort of a youthful man or nation to do the impossible, and then we see, in the German victory, the inexorable power of an overwhelming fate nullifying and obliterating (so it would seem) all the effort that had preceded. Once more in Buddha, as he had in the Odyssey, Kazantzakis set himself the task of examining this totality of experience which seemed now to have been confirmed in the political cataclysm he had just witnessed. The play is therefore huge and comprehensive; it presents not only the total situation, but also various reactions to it, all of which were facets of Kazantzakis ’ own conflicting reactions to the actual events of 19401941 . Specifically, it presents the reactions of a man tom be­ tween the need to remain Buddhistically aloof from events and the opposite need to participate in the world’s ephemeral shadowdance —to indulge in the supreme folly of trying to act as though the phenomenal world were real. But these contrary reactions are held at arm’s length, as it were, and are unified by the magic 252 Peter Bien 253 of the poetic imagination. We may think back to a statement made by Kazantzakis in 1935: I felt a great joy trying again to harmonize . . . fearful anti­ theses. . . . Woe to him who sees only the mask! Woe to him who sees only what is hidden behind the mask! The perfect sight is to see simultaneously . . . the sweet mask and behind it the abominable face. To harmonize within oneself—to create —a new synthesis unknown in nature, and to play masterfully upon life and death as upon a double flute.l This statement provides as good a formulation as any of the cen­ tral theme of Kazantzakis’most ambitious play. Buddha is set in China at an indeterminate time in the early twentieth century. As the curtain opens we see the central square of a Chinese village, with a huge statue of Buddha in the middle, the bamboo huts of the village whores on one side, and the great gates of the fortified palace on the other. The principal char­ acters are Old Chang, the war-lord; his son, Young Chang; his daughter, Mei-Ling; and a Magician. Secondary characters are Young Chang’s wife, Li-Liang; the chief slave and his son; a Mandarin; Old Chang’s grandson; peasants, musicians, whores, and ancestors. Lastly, there are Buddha, his disciples, tempters, etc. The main plot is very simple: The Yangtze River is rising, threatening to flood the village and drown its inhabitants. The characters react to this threat in various ways which bring them into dramatic (as well as philosophical) conflict. Young Chang is a revolutionary, attempting by force to overthrow the static social order represented by his father. Mei-Ling (like her brother, Young Chang) is Europeanized; she wants to fight the river with cement, sand, and science. Old Chang, the war-lord, lost in his hashish dreams, is concerned only with obedience to the ancestors and continuation of his dynasty. He attempts to fight the river by sacrificing his son to it as the ancestors have demanded, and by ordering his grandson to be carried to safety. Eventually he learns that fate is neither placated nor tricked so easily, just as Mei-Ling learns the inadequacies of science. But both also learn to “conquer” fate in a new way, as we shall see when we examine...


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pp. 252-272
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