The Old Playhouse by Kamala Das – Poem Summary

The poem “The Old Playhouse” was written by Kamala Das. She was educated in Kerala. A bilingual writer, she prefers to write in English and fiction in Malayalam. The literary awards she has won includes the Asian Poetry Award (1963) and the Sahitya Akademi Award (1965). Kamala Das is essentially known for her bold and frank expression. The prominent features of Kamala Das’ poetry is use of the confessional mode and acute obsession with love. Against the frustrating emotional experience, guilt and depression  expressed in her autobiography, there is a section of poetry where she writes about an idealized childhood and of a nostalgic yearning for her grandmother’s Nalpat House symbolizing freedom, lobe and protection.

‘The Old Playhouse’ is selected from the book with the same title that deals with Das’ recurrent theme of failure and frustration in love and marriage. It clearly reveals the plight of a housewife who bewails that her egocentric and male chauvinist husband has virtually reduced her full-blooded and aspiring self to a mere entertaining toy. Consequently, the caged wife, with her stifled and crippled spirit, is helplessly destined to witness the pathetic transformation of her mind into ‘an old playhouse with all it’s lights put out’. The network of concrete and evocative  imagery and imaginative symbols transcends an individual’s suffering and makes it a generic experience.

‘The Old Playhouse’ Summary and Analysis

You planned to tame a swallow, to hold her
Pathways of the sky.

In the poem, The Old Playhouse, Kamala Das expresses her disastrous married life experiences. This poem has a personal touch thus it is a public protest against her husband. She blames him because he doesn’t think beyond his sensual gratification on her.

Kamala Das symbolizes herself as a domesticated “Swallow”, a bird, after her marriage.

Tame a Swallow in Kamala Das' Poem The Old Playhouse
Kamaladas Poem The Old Playhouse Symbol – Swallow

… to hold her
In the long summer of your love..

Her husband put full-stop to her dreams, caged life a tamed swallow bird. He didn’t care about her happiness and interests. She was considered as a mere toy for him to quench his sensual thirst.

so that she would forget
Not the raw seasons alone

her nature, the urge to fly…….. endless
Pathways of the sky.

Being a caged wife she was put forth to live like his slave, her all ambitions were put down. She was forced to live in the summer of his love and she forgot about other beautiful seasons and suppressed to forget her urge to fly into the endless pathways of her sky of ambitions.

Of yet another man that I came to you but to learn
What I was,

Lesson you gave was about yourself.

She had wished to learn more about herself, for that she came to him. She wanted to learn ‘What is she’, and by learning that she wanted to learn how to grow into a better future. But when she came to him, it was merely contradictory. The every lesson he gave her was about himself.

You were pleased
nook and cranny, you embalmed
My poor lust with your bitter-sweet juices.

The above lines are more personal, the Poetess Kamala Das turns to express male domination her husband shown her, in a more deep way with some piercing words.

Her husband treated her a a sex toy. He were pleased by her body’s response and its shape, and the sensual pleasure.

Kamala Das exposes her husband’s wild sexual nature through these lines – “You dribbled spittle into my mouth, you poured yourself into every nook and cranny,” – Husband treated her in a wild nature and tried to embalm her poor lust by dribbling spittle to her mouth and every nook and cranny. Her all expectation was a peaceful romantic life with freedom to fly high in her own way, but what happened is that was exactly opposite. Her all urge were put down before her self-centered husband.

You called me wife,
Cowering Beneath your monstrous ego I ate the magic loaf and
Became a dwarf.
I mumbled incoherent replies.

Being a wife, she was taught to serve him food and vitamins at right time. She was always lived under his monstrous ego. His monstrous ego totally subjugated and turned her into a dwarf as she fully surrendered to his demands, performing all wifely duty and functions.. Falling into the trap of his hypnotic lust, she lost her former stature. She left her desires behind. As a wife under control she always mumbled his questions with unclear replies.

The summer
Begins to pall. I remember the rudder breezes
Of the fall and the smoke from the burning leaves. 

Under the stifling and ‘mechanical’ surroundings of her husband’s company she has lost her zest for life and is reduced to a passive, lifeless individual, Again, note the nature imagery – the summer, the rude breezes of the fall and burning leaves. This reinforces the suffocation of the woman, aptly symbolized in the ‘smoke’

Your room is
In the vases have begun to smell of human sweat.
my mind is an old

Playhouse with all its lights put out.

The husband becomes the very source of the pervasive oppression. Even the air stinks of his sweat. He turns her life into a mere playhouse with its lights put out.
Note the urban imagery – artificial lights, air-conditioner, cut flowers in the vase – these point to the unnatural state of her sapless life.

The strong man’s technique is
Always the same, he serves his love in lethal doses,
For, love is Narcissus at the water’s edge, haunted
To shatter and the kind night to erase the water. 

Love becomes sheer lust and acts like a killer. Note the irony: love is supposed to be the spirit of life but is here, the killer.

Narcissus (According to the Greek legend) was a Greek youth who fell obsessively in love with his own image reflected in a fountain, thinking it to be the nymph of the place. His fruitless attempts to approach this beautiful object drove him to despair and death; Narcissism: sexual gratification found in one’s own body.

The Greek myth symbolizes the fall (destruction) on account of excessive and obsessive self-love. The ‘lethal’ love between the husband and the woman is sure to lead too destructive end. The woman, however, would like to strive against this self-destructive aspect of love and treat it as a self-realizing agent, winning over the false (mirrored) image of love.