Summary: Mrcchakatika

MrcchakatikaThe Little Clay Cart, is generally regarded as the model of prakarana plays.  As opposed to nataka plays—among which Kalidasa’s Shakuntala is preeminent—prakarana plays concern fictional, middle class characters involved in fictional, middle-class conflicts.  In Shudraka’s play, Charudatta, a merchant impoverished by his own good nature, falls in love with Vasantasena, a wealthy courtesan.  They try to cement their relationship within a swirl of other issues, including criminal thefts, the king’s brother-in-law’s own interest in Vasantasena, and even a revolution fomented by a goat-herd.

Two elements of the play often perplex western audiences.  First, Vasantasena’s profession.  Second, Charudatta is married.

Vasantasena’s profession is not as tawdry as western audiences often suppose.  She is not merely a body for sale.  In the opening moments of the play, she rejects Sansthanaka’s advances, though he is not only wealthy but the king’s brother-in-law.  Furthermore, we find her speaking Sanskrit (albeit briefly) in act four.  This is not an insignificant detail.  Vasantasena is educated.  She circulates among the privileged of society.  And she circulates in the open, among the movers and shakers of the community—which is to say: among the men.

Indeed, Charudatta is married.  But his wife is only identified as “the wife”, hardly appears in the play, and, then, not outside the confines of her home.  The courtesan has a unique status in the cultural context of this play.

The play gives not a single word to concerns over Charudatta’s marriage.  Like Duhshanta in Shakuntala, Charudatta is free to pursue whatever paramours attract his attention.  The world of Mrcchakatika is a man’s world.  Only educated courtesans like Vasantasena have a place of their own in it.

 

Characters

Director
Actress

Charudatta: an impoverished merchant
Maitreya: Charudatta’s friend.  A brahmin.  (This play’s vidushaka.)
Vardhamanaka: Charudatta’s servant
Radanika: Charudatta’s maid
Rohasena: Charudatta’s son
Wife: Charudatta’s wife

Vasantasena: a wealthy courtesan
Madanika: Vasantasena’s maid
Kumbhilaka: Vasantasena’s servant
Karnapuraka: Vasantasena’s servant
Vasantasena’s Mother

Sansthanaka: the king’s brother-in-law
Sthavaraka: Sansthanaka’s servant

Sharvilaka: a brahmin in love with Madhanika
Aryaka: A goat-herd identified by an astrologer as the future king

A Masseur: A masseur who becomes a Buddhist monk
Mathura: A gambler
Darduraka: A gambler
A Gambler: Another gambler

Viraka: A policeman
Chandanaka: A policeman

Judge
Court Clerk 

Various other servants and civic figures

 

Summary of the Play

Act One: In a dramatic prologue, the director of the play addresses the audience while on his way home for dinner.  He meets an actress, as his wife, engaged in a religious fast to secure the director as her husband, again, in her next life.  The director goes looking for a brahmin priest to officiate the conclusion of his wife’s fast.  He sees the brahmin Maitreya approaching.  From offstage, Maitreya declares that he is too busy.

As the play proper begins, we find Maitreya on his way to Charudatta’s house.  He reveals that Charudatta is impoverished.  He meets Charudatta briefly.  They leave as Sansthanaka and his retinue enter chasing Vasantasena in the dark of night.  She eludes them by slipping into the back door of Charudatta’s house.  Sansthanaka follows her and seizes Radanika by mistake.  Sansthanaka gives Maitreya a message for Charudatta: give up the girl or I’ll make trouble.  Sansthanaka leaves.  Charudatta discovers Vasantasena in his house and walks her home.  She leaves jewelry in a gold box in Charudatta’s house, citing a concern for nighttime thieves.

Act Two: Vasantasena reveals her love for Charudatta to Madanika.  Out on the street, Mathura and a gambler chase Charudatta’s masseur, who owes them money.  They catch him in a temple and drag him out to the street, where they beat him.  Darduraka, another gambler, intervenes.  The masseur gets away and Darduraka goes to find his friend Aryaka.  Mathura tracks the masseur to Vasantasena’s house.  Vasantasena pays Mathura what the masseur owes.  The masseur leaves to become a Buddhist monk.  Karnapuraka comes to tell Vasantasena of saving a holy man by killing a mad elephant.  Charudatta was there, and Vasantasena goes to the balcony in hopes of seeing him.

Act Three: Charudatta and Maitreya return from a concert.  Vardhamanaka gives Vasantasena’s jewelry box to Maitreya for safe-keeping.  Charudatta and Miatreya go to sleep.  Sharvilaka breaks into the house to steal valuables with which to buy Madanika’s freedom.  He takes Vasantasena’s box.  Radanika discovers the thief and shouts.  Sharvilaka escapes.  They discover the theft.  Radanika tells Charudatta’s wife, who gives her own jewelry to Maitreya to give to Charudatta to cover the loss.  Charudatta sends Maitreya to give the jewelry to Vasantasena.  Charudatta goes to morning prayers.

Act Four: Vasanatasena and Madanika discuss Vasantasena’s painting of Charudatta.  Vasantasena refuses an invitation from Sansthanaka.  Sharvilaka arrives, and Vasantasena eavesdrops on his conversation with Madanika.  Sharvilaka produces the jewelry.  He swears he didn’t hurt anyone.  Madanika tells him the jewelry is Vasantasena’s.  She tells him to give them to Vasantasena as though returning them for Charudatta.  He does so.  Vasantasena plays along and gives Madanika to Sharvilaka as a reward.  Sharvilaka and Madanika go to leave together in Vasantasena’s carriage, but hear that the king has put Aryaka in jail.  Sharvilaka sends Madanika ahead in the carriage and goes to free Aryaka.  Maitreya arrives.  In the company of one of Vasantasena’s maids, he moves poetically through eight splendid rooms of Vasantasena’s house.  Vasantasena welcomes Maitreya.  Maitreya tells her that Charudatta lost the jewelry by gambling.  Maitreya gives her the jewelry from Charudatta’s wife.  Vasantasena accepts the jewelry and plans to visit Charudatta in the evening.

Act Five: Kumbhilaka arrives at Charudatta’s house and riddles with Maitreya.  Vasantasena arrives.  Vasantasena’s attendant brings out the jewelry box.  All is clarified amongst everyone in whispers.  Charudatta and Vasantasena embrace.

Act Six: The next morning in Charudatta’s house.  Vasantasena meets Rohasena.  She gives Radanika her jewelry to buy the boy a toy cart made of gold to replace the clay cart with which the boy is unhappy.  Vardhamanaka arrives in a carriage to take Vasantasena to meet Charudatta.  He remembers the cushions and drives away to retrieve them.  Sthavaraka, in Sansthanaka’s carriage, stops in front of Charudatta’s house.  Vasantasena, unwittingly, gets in.  Sthavaraka drives away, unaware of his passenger.  Vardhamanaka returns.  Aryaka, just escaped from prison, hides in Vardhamanaka’s carriage.  Vardhamanaka drives away, but is stopped by police looking for Aryaka.  Chandanaka searches the carriage, finds Aryaka, but promises not to give him up for the sake of their mutual friendship with Sharvilaka.  Chandanaka and Viraka fight.  Vardhamanaka drives away.

Act Seven: Vardhamanaka arrives at the meeting place.  Charudatta and Maitreya discover Aryaka.  Charudatta gives Aryaka the carriage and sends him off.  Charudatta and Maitreya avoid a Budhhist monk as they exit.

Act Eight: At Sansthanaka’s garden, the monk enters with a freshly dyed robe he hopes to rinse in a garden pond.  Sansthanaka and the Courtier arrive.  Sansthanaka beats the monk.  The Courtier helps the monk escape.  Sthavaraka arrives in the carriage.  Sansthanaka discovers Vasantasena in the carriage.  She spurns his advances.  Sansthanaka tells the Courtier to kill her.  The Courtier refuses.  Sansthanaka tells Sthavaraka to kill her.  Sthavaraka refuses and leaves.  Sansthanaka moves to kill her himself, but the Courtier stops him.  Sansthanaka convinces the Courtier of his good intent long enough to convince the Courtier to leave him alone with Vasantasena.  While the Courtier is away, Sansthanaka strangles Vasantasena and covers her body with leaves.  The Courtier returns.  Sansthanaka tries to blame him.  The Courtier runs off to join Sharvilaka.  Sthavaraka returns.  Sansthanaka sends him to the palace with his ornaments, planning to frame him for theft later and have him thrown in prison to prevent him from squealing.  The monk returns and Sansthanaka leaves to avoid him.  The monk discovers Vasantasena alive beneath the leaves and takes her away to a nearby hermitage for medical attention.

Act Nine: A court of law.  Sansthanaka brings murder charges against Charudatta.  Vasantasena’s mother is brought as a witness.  She confirms that Vasantasena went to visit Charudatta.  Charudatta is brought in.  The judge chastises Sansthanaka for bringing frivolous charges against Charudatta.  Viraka runs in to accuse Chandanaka and confirms that he met a carriage carrying Vasantasena to Charudatta’s.  The judge sends Viraka to investigate the garden.  Viraka returns to report that there was a body there which has been dragged off by animals.  Charudatta reveals (in an aside to the audience) that he sent Miatreya to return the jewelry that Vasantasena had given to Radanika to buy Rohasena a gold, toy cart.  Maitreya enters, revealing in an aside to the audience, that he didn’t make it to Vasantasena’s house, because he heard Charudatta had been arrested and came straightaway.  Maitreya fights with Sansthanaka and the jewelry falls on the floor of the court.  Vasantasena’s mother calls the jewelry a forgery.  The court suspects Charudatta.  Satisfied, Sansthanaka leaves.  Informed of the verdict, the king (offstage) orders Charudatta’s execution.  Charudatta asks Maitreya to bring Rohasena.

Scene Ten: A public street.  The executioners enter with Charudatta and announce the execution.  Maitreya and Rohasena arrive.  They both offer to trade places with Charudatta.  Sthavaraka, from a high prison window, sees the commotion.  He risks death leaping from the window and tells his story to the executioners.  Sansthanaka approaches, denying everything.  Sthavaraka is dismissed as a lying slave.  The execution proceeds.  Vasantasena and the monk enter on their way to Charudatta’s house.  They discover what is happening.  Vasantasena presents herself alive.  Sansthanaka flees.  All is clarified.  Sharvilaka enters proclaiming that he has killed the king and set Aryaka on the throne.  Sansthanaka is dragged in.  He begs Charudatta for mercy.  Charudatta sets him free.  Charudatta puts the monk in charge of the Buddhist monasteries.  Charudatta frees Sthavaraka.

 

Further Study

The Little Clay Cart, Arthur Ryder, trans.