Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembering Henry Jayasena

I remember a conversation I had with a budding playwright. This person, a friend of mine and fully conversant in English, was a fanatic when it came to the English theatre here. He followed play after play with interest. His reviews of them were spot on, for the obvious reason that he himself had acted in some of them and hence knew the workings of a “good” play.

We were not talking about the English theatre that day. I admit I’m neither a big follower nor a fan of it. We were instead talking about the Sinhala theatre, and about how a renaissance of sorts was unfolding in it. I put it to him that while Lionel Wendt is still considered the “elite” hall to stage plays, the YMBA and the Lumbini Theatre stage even greater plays which have tapped into local talent in ways no top-end “ivory tower” has or ever will.

It was at that point that we started to talk about Henry Jayasena. It was also at that point that we ended our conversation. The reason was simple, though not easy to bear. This person hadn’t heard of Henry Jayasena. A blank stare was what I got. “Who’s that?” he mouthed.

That was one encounter. Here’s another. This person, a follower of both English-language and Sinhala-language plays, was talking about the state of our theatre today. He agreed with me wholeheartedly that a renaissance was happening. But he had reservations. I pressed him on, wanting to know what it was he was lamenting. He came out with it eventually:

“Few people who follow the English theatre, very few people in fact, know our icons in the Sinhala theatre. What’s all the more sad about this is that most of our Sinhala playwrights were in fact bilingual (and even trilingual), whereas not many of those in the English theatre, except until a long time ago, made even a passing attempt to know and read up on their own language and culture.”

He mentioned Jayasena with unqualified praise.

Henry Jayasena died five years ago. I was quite young back then, but had come to terms with the fact that he would always be “sudu seeya” in my mind. Yes, I had seen Doo Daruwo around that time. Yes, it took some time for me to grapple with the fact that he was a playwright as well. Yes, it also took some time to realise and be burdened with the fact that he was among our greatest icons. His death moved me for this reason.

There is a section in his autobiography, The Play is the Thing, where he recounts to us his first experience with staging a play. This happened while he was a teacher at a school in Dehipe. The play, Janaki (based on the Ramayana), was his first. He tells us just how difficult it was to get the costumes, actors, and guests for the event. The play was staged, however, and turned out to be successful. This is what happened to Jayasena afterwards, in his own words:

“There is a kind of sadness that settles over me at the end of every play. I mean, when all that lovely work is over and there is little to look forward to in the evenings.”

It is the same kind of sadness we all revel in, whenever hard work is done with and the effort put into it has been appreciated by everyone. It’s a burden for anyone, and for Jayasena it would be a burden he would get used to as time passed by and as he rose higher and higher.

Plays weren’t his only “thing”, of course. We celebrate him for those brilliant films he took part in. I always thought that stage actors could never properly adapt to the subtle, natural style which films demanded. Jayasena’s performance as Piyal in Gamperaliya, however, was the exception to this. I remember someone telling me just how effectively he underplayed his part in that film, to the extent where almost all his other roles seemed theatrical and overacted. That’s true. Even in his acclaimed performances, in Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s Hansa Vilak for example, you can find him consciously trying to rid himself of any theatrical tendency, a tendency to overemphasise gesture and feeling.

So what exactly was the secret to this man, whose life we celebrate today? He had a voice, no doubt. He could register nearly every emotion with it. Perhaps this was shown in the final sequence of Gamperaliya, where, for the first and only time in the entire film, his mood changes and he harshly rebukes Nanda for grieving over her first husband Jinadasa. Perhaps this was also shown in G. D. L. Perera’s Dahasak Sithuvili, where, as a clerk who suspects his girlfriend of carrying an affair with a colleague of his, he practically exemplified and gave light to all our lost loves.

He also had a vast repository of knowledge when it came to the stage. He was at once firmly rooted in his land and with the rest of the world. With a UNESCO fellowship in his arm, he left to Russia and later to England, and from both countries learnt and absorbed much. He also realised, shrewdly perhaps, that imitating what he had studied there was not the way to resuscitate his country’s theatre, which by then was seeking a way out of Sarachchandra’s stylised plays.

Hunuwataye Kathawa, without a doubt, was his masterpiece. It represented him at his peak. Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle had been wildly popular in both Russia and England. In keeping with his style, however, Jayasena refused to slip Brecht’s famous “alienation effect”, which tried to strip a play of its emotional power, into his adaptation of it. The reason was simple: “I had seen enough of dry, spiritless, and embittered productions of Brecht not to commit the same mistake here”. Deliberately and to great acclaim, he included song and dance sequences in Hunuwataye Kathawa, to provoke raw emotion in the audience he wanted to reach.

Perhaps Jayasena taught us a lesson here. He knew the theatre, inside-out. He realised that for all the trends the rest of the world had popularised, he still would have to shape and adapt his stories to suit his own people. He understood that we had our own stories to enrich our theatre with. He also understood that it was not imitation but adaptation which would develop our stage. That this didn’t mean a local playwright should be divorced from the issues of his time was proved by his next play, Apata Puthe Magath Nathe. That’s the closest thing to a political statement Jayasena came up with. It was based on a true incident, was banned, and was later staged to wide acclaim.

But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, have I lost my faith in our theatre? I don’t think so. Icons live. They live in our memory and in the collective memory of an entire nation. This happens even if the snobs and elitists in our midst forget them. This happens even if they neglect and rubbish them. This happens even if they become culturally uprooted and drag some of us into their rootless worlds. There is a reason for this, of course. Not too hard to find.

The truth is, icons are remembered so long as we remember them. So long as what they did, and what they left behind, was done to further the progress of our culture, we will not neglect them. The truth is, so long as they have left something for us to continue, as Henry Jayasena did, we will not cast them to the dust.

My friend there was a snob, though I’m sure he isn’t aware of this. He doesn’t know who Henry Jayasena is, and I know he doesn’t care anyway. Doesn’t matter. If we all could take stock of those we forgot, those we left aside in order to become part of the culturally uprooted, however, then I think we can all mend our ways. Lionel Wendt isn’t for snobs, after all. Nor is it an ivory tower. The English theatre continues to bloom, rightly. The Sinhala theatre continues to be reborn, again rightly. We have Henry Jayasena to thank for it. Those who have forgotten him, happily, are in a minority. I am glad. I know we all are.