Interview with Udayan Sen

Your new play, "Salai Alas," is about Leonardo da Vinci; why Leonardo, and why a play?
Certainly Leonardo is consistently among the most fascinating of historical figures, has been even since his own youth in fifteenth-century Florence. I think that fascination goes beyond his very obvious talent and genius, and even beyond the amazing range of that genius; those are easy enough to sample from any number of sources.

I started the thinking on this play with a question, one that emerges in the sources on Leonardo almost simultaneously with the recognition of his unique genius: why did he seem to accomplish so little? Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, laments Leonardo's unproductiveness, it is commented upon in Castiglione's Courtier - it becomes a commonplace that he was phenomenally gifted, yet seemed never to follow through on very much. I decided to investigate the problem from the point of view of character, the notion of "character being destiny," and a play seems the most direct way to portray character.
So how does his assistant, Salai, figure into this investigation?
Salai is a somewhat shadowy figure in Leonardo's life. What's known is that he came to stay with Leonardo at a young age, and remained with him until Leonardo finally left Italy for good to go to France, when Salai would have been somewhere around thirty. Neutrally he is described as Leonardo's "assistant," and in fact was a painter in his own right, after his apprenticeship with Leonardo. But he doesn't seem to have been any great talent as a painter; most of his assigned output consists of copies of Leonardo's compositions, which were presumably marketed as products of the "school." He doesn't appear to have had any more than an average talent, intelligence, or character. In fact, many of Leonardo's notebook entries that mention Salai have to do with some mischief or other that he gets into: stealing money, stealing art supplies, cadging money, gobbling sweets, things of that nature.

However, glancing through Leonardo's drawings, we'll notice a certain type of face that appears throughout; pretty and androgynous, with curling hair and soft features. It's become the image of the "Leonardesque" type. And it has been speculated that perhaps the source of this pretty type was Salai, whose beauty captivated Leonardo, and whom Leonardo in a sense needed near him, as a kind of muse.
There is in fact a sexual suggestiveness in the play; it might even be described as somewhat coy. Is there any particular reason you're treading so lightly here?
I think we have to be thoughtful when treating sexual identities in historical situations. There's been a movement to "reclaim" certain historical figures as "gay." The tendency has been qualified more recently, with more sensitivity about what sexual identity consisted of in times past. Which I think is good, because speaking for myself, I'm not comfortable describing such personalities of the past as Leonardo and Michelangelo as "gay men." Such an identity didn't exist in their time, and how they viewed or expressed their own sexual proclivities would have been profoundly conditioned by the context of their society and its treatment of these matters. Which isn't to say that one, Leonardo and Michelangelo, among others, don't seem clearly to exhibit a sensuous and sexual response to males; and two, that it isn't perfectly understandable that contemporary gay culture seeks in them figures of validation.

So what I hope I've been able to do in the play is provide a scenario that leaves the question more or less open, and put most of the insinuations of - whatever - into the mouths of other characters, particularly the fictitious Florentine aristocrat Spini, who embodies the skeptical attitude towards Leonardo, sort of saying, "What's so great about that weirdo?"
Do you think in this play you've created a plausible portrait of such a familiar figure as Leonardo da Vinci?
Well, that's always the risk, isn't it? Any time you venture to show a historical figure as a living, breathing character, you're heading into difficult terrain. The obvious accusation is that "Oh he's just putting his words into this famous person's mouth." Which, of course, is true. Hopefully you will hit upon a historical figure that is sympathetic for you to the point that you can feel a certain empathy with the character, try to channel it in a way. On the technical and research front, I can claim that some of the most striking quotes of Leonardo's are taken directly from his own writings...
Such as?
Well, "Who can tell me, what was ever done?" "The sun does not move." Leonardo's own description of his qualifications is adapted into a speech by Cardone; and of course the epigraph of the play, Leonardo's stinging description of Salai, is in fact the very first thing he wrote about Salai in his notebooks. The riddles that open the play are based on the kinds of riddles and rebuses that he liked to doodle with in the notebooks. I'd also like to point out that certain of Leonardo's abilities are rarely talked about today, but were much noted in his time: he was said to be a wonderful player and singer, and his designs for stage spectacles and masques were famously impressive.
Why have you styled the play a "comedy?"
I actually like to think of it as a "melancommedia," a kind of sad comedy, in keeping with the theme of great promise unfulfilled. That said, some of the situations, particularly in the first act, and in scenes involving Salai's parents, are definitely played for comic effect. The end of the first act is in fact conceived along the lines of an opera buffa finale, where all the characters come onstage, one by one, until at the end you have this great comic pile-up, and scandal and commotion and scurrying about. From there, things go slowly downhill, as Leonardo's failures are less and less amusing and seem more and more pathological and sad.
What do you want readers to come away with from this play?
A sense of Leonardo as a human being, I guess - hackneyed as that may sound. A sense of what an odd icon he really is. An odd artist, an odd scientist, sexually odd - I guess I want to address some of the hero-worship that goes on around Leonardo, and remember that in addition to all the superhuman things he might have been, he was also an interesting, flawed, human being.
Your previous play on Smashwords was "Kelenkari Condo," about Indian immigrants.
Not just Indian, but Bengali, from the Calcutta area of India and from Bangladesh. That was great fun to write, and I hope that I was able to evoke something of the flavor of Bengali culture while also touching on universal aspects of the immigrant experience.
The structure of the play is a little unusual; it's not a continuous story, but more like four one-acts.
There's always so much to say, and only so much time and space. So I thought I'd just touch on a few salient topics of the Bengali immigrant experience, and open a window into each. There's the famed "Asian overachieving kid" theme in the first act; so I thought it would be interesting to find out what's going on in the kid's head. There's the issue of popular representation of Indians, which I cast as a story of a young actor dealing with those stereotypes. Then there's the trope of the Big Loud Life-affirming Ethnic Wedding, which we've seen umpteen times starring whatever you-fill-in-the-blank culture is of the moment; well, I wanted to do a reversal of that, and have a small, quiet, disastrous ethnic wedding, and that's the third act. As a finale, I change tone, and look at what happens as an immigrant ages and begins losing their faculties, and is once again feeling adrift in a foreign culture.
Why present your plays this way, on Smashwords?
Obviously the purpose of writing a play is to have it performed, somewhere, sometime. And I am exploring that possibility, but understandably it isn't easy to get that done. For one thing, I'm a latecomer to this, and theater, even under the best circumstances, is a complicated and not usually inexpensive undertaking. So I'm trying, but in the meantime I'd just like to get the work out there, hopefully get some audience and response to what I think are interesting and unusual pieces, and without any particular agenda in mind see where things go. And Smashwords is a wonderful resource for doing just that.
So what's next?
Sometime next year I plan to publish a new play, about a seminal cultural figure of the Enlightenment, Winckelmann. His analysis and insights into classical art broke new ground in our understanding of Greek and Roman artistic practice, and he laid the groundwork for the modern, scientific approach to archaeology. And his life ended in a horrific murder that was an international sensation in its time. So that is the starting point for this play about Winckelmann and his murderer. Stay tuned.
Published 2013-12-11.
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