I had the opportunity to see “Disgraced” at the Berkeley Rep last weekend. The play’s emotional arc is extraordinary. The tension begins to simmer over the course of the first several scenes and explodes in the penultimate scene, a four-person dinner party in which each attendee degrades himself in words or actions.
The core of “Disgraced” is the self-understanding of the protagonist–Amir, a Pakistani-American muslim and high-powered lawyer. “Disgraced” represents his self-understanding through a portrait. The play begins with Amir’s wife painting him, and it concludes with Amir staring ambivalently at the completed portrait. The portrait depicts Amir in western business attire, looking down at the viewer in semi-profile. In one sense, it depicts Amir’s image of himself as a successful Westerner.
Amir behaves despicably in the course of events and comes to realize that he is still alienated from his life in America by virtue of unresolved anger toward his family, his wife, and Islam’s history with the west. However, while Amir disgraces himself during the play, the ending suggests that he is in a sense the play’s hero. In its final moments, Amir places his completed portrait over his fireplace. The portrait occupies the same place that a statuette of Shiva, a Hindu god, occupies in the opening scene–a gift from a colleague that represents how his colleagues misperceive him. This composition suggests Amir sees his portrait, and the identity it depicts, as form of self-misunderstanding, and it suggests he has begun a process of reflection in light of the play’s events.
The tone of his ending, moreover, contrasts with the abrupt and emotional departures of two other characters. These characters have not yet begun a process of reflection and adjustment. Even while Amir falls the furthest, there is hope for his character that’s lacking for the others. The great nemesis of “Disgraced” is shame over the past, which leads characters like Amir to act irrationally and wrongfully. Only Amir, however, shows awareness of shame’s danger and the danger of anger at events beyond his control.