The Mahabharata: The Epic behind Peter Brook's Battlefield

By Shannon Stockwell

The ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata is the longest known poem in human history. It is roughly 15 times the length of the Bible and 7 times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. It encompasses such a breadth and depth of the human experience that it has inspired legendary theater director Peter Brook to adapt it for the stage twice: his nine-hour Le Mahabharata (1985) and Battlefield, which runs at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater from April 26 through May 21.

A seventeenth-century depiction of the battle of Kurukshetra.
Artist unknown. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 
Although there are several subplots in the Mahabharata, the main narrative is the story of the rivalry between two sets of cousins: the Kauravas (a hundred brothers descended from demons, led by Duryodhana, the eldest) and the Pandavas (five sons of Pandu who are descended from gods, led by Yudhishthira). Both sides of the family think they are the rightful heirs to the throne of the Kuru kingdom (located in northern India), currently occupied by Pandu.

When Pandu dies, both Yudhishthira and Duryodhana want to take the throne. The kingdom is divided in two, but peace doesn’t last. The Kauravas challenge the Pandavas to a rigged game of dice. When the Pandavas lose, they must live in exile in the forest for 13 years.

When they return, the Kauravas won’t give them their half of the kingdom back. War breaks out, and many die in a great battle. The exact death toll varies from translation to translation; Battlefield says 700,267,000 soldiers died (that’s more than double the population of the United States). After 18 days of fighting, Yudhishthira is victorious and is crowned king.

In the wake of this carnage is where Battlefield begins. Yudhishthira must now find a way to rule over a divided people. How do you rule justly after such a battle? How do you navigate through a world where good can exist within evil, and evil within good?

It is these questions that led Brook and his collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne back to the Mahabharata. “We wanted to speak about what happens after the battle,” says Brook. “On both sides, the leaders go through a moment of profound questions: the ones who won say ‘victory is a defeat’ and the ones who lost admit that ‘they could have prevented that war.’ In the Mahabharata they at least have the strength to ask these questions.”

Battlefield runs from April 26 through May 21 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the Mahabharata and Brook’s adaptations of it? Join us for an In Conversation with the legendary director, his artistic collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, and A.C.T. Resident Dramaturg Michael Paller on May 1. Click here to reserve tickets. Or purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

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