Tuesday, July 11, 2017

'Dear Children Sincerely': Reflections on hatred and apathy

Review of “Dear Children Sincerely”, directed by Ruwanthi de Chickera, presented by Stages Theatre Group, and unveiled on July 5 and 6 at the Lionel Wendt Theatre

Should 1956 have happened, or should it have not? This question, which everyone claims they know they answer to, is frequently touted by our liberal intelligentsia. What is forgotten is another, as valid question: was it inevitable, or was it not? The critic is not obliged to answer either, because that’s the artiste’s job. He or she is, however, obliged to assess how well they are answered and whether the standard the artiste has created for himself/herself is achieved when projecting those answers to the audience. I believe the playwright is best equipped to undertake this task, at least after the novelist. The problem however is that while many contemporary novels have touched on this theme, only a few contemporary plays have.

Dear Children Sincerely, staged at the Lionel Wendt last Wednesday and Thursday, tried to convey to its audience the trauma this country has faced through seven decades, from the thirties to 1956 and all the way to the new millennium. Contemporary theatre is about raking up private, as opposed to public, hells (as Susan Sontag put it), so it conveys that trauma through the personal reminiscences of actual people, from those decades, in voice-overs which exude their presence.

Most critics will lavish praise on Ruwanthi de Chickera’s imaginative use of space and lighting, the way her actors (I saw, to my astonishment, how agile and flexible they could be) displayed their acrobatics while still conveying the smallest nuance of emotion, and of course how ably she eats into the optimism of the first few decades (until the sixties) before moving into the more cynical seventies. They will praise her for the themes she has chosen (the forties for independence, the fifties for Sinhala Only, the sixties for the attempted 1962 coup, the seventies for the insurrection, the eighties for Black July, the nineties for the civil war, and the first decade of the new millennium for 2009 and Menik Farm), and we will agree.

But I don’t subscribe to the notion that one should qualify a production’s content by form alone. How one says something matters, but so does what one says, and for me, Ruwanthi’s production, commendable though its grasp of the medium is, provokes me more over how she has used her players to articulate its politics. There is an emphatic appeal to our conscience, to be sure, but was my conscience moved?

Ruwanthi is assured in how she gets her actors to articulate the sentiments of those elders throughout the decades. It can be through a word, a sentence, but she does it, and as far as the projection of ideas is concerned, she has achieved what she’s trying to get at. You may agree or disagree with the politics her skits espouse, but her method of articulation is almost effortless. The rift between the skits of the first three decades and the subsequent decades is essential to our understanding of how we, as a people and country, have moved on.

“I don’t understand why children today take things so seriously,” the old lady in the sixties skit tells us. The reason for that, which we discover as the play moves on, is that we have subsumed the personal for the impersonal. The 1971 insurrection was a whole new world to the attempted coup of 1962: the latter could have belonged to an Alistair MacLean thriller, while the former was harder, tougher. The eighties were much darker: it showed us how one collective waging war on another could be both absurd and terrifying. It took two decades for us to de-sensitise ourselves in the face of such tragedy, which is why the nineties, with all its carnage, is presented as a cricket match, with the scores representing the murdered.

I think I’d be doing both Ruwanthi and her group a disservice if I didn’t point out a contradiction at the heart of her production, though. In the first skit, we laugh at our own independence, echoing the popular notion (which I personally concede) that we never won independence, only got it because (as one actor puts it) we were so good and well behaved. We hear a portion of Nanda Malini’s deliciously notorious “Master Baila” as another actor tunes a radio (this crisscrossing of several decades, even for one instant, is jarring), and we realise the pathos behind our bitter laughter.

Now pathos on this scale has its reasons. Those reasons are behind every tragedy we face, as it follows us. In the case of Ruwanthi’s tragedy, which is really our tragedy, the reason (which I again concede) is that the corridors of power were never opened to the people. Our independence struggle was a movement sustained from above. It never trickled down to us. The ethnic fissures that were to come up two decades later were forcibly repressed. Logically, therefore, if one condemns or depicts our inability to clinch our own independence, one has to condemn and depict the milieu to which our founding fathers belonged.

Whether or not 1956 should have happened is an entirely different debate altogether. But one can’t have the cake and eat it too. One can’t depict the insensitivity of our leaders and then condemn the inevitable. That old lady was a caricature of the class to which those leaders and their cohorts belonged, yes, but in what she said and did not say about those emancipated by 1956, at least temporarily, I inferred a direct contrast to the mood of the preceding decades. For how can one condemn what transpired after 1956, if one caricatures those who were repressed so much that it was made possible? How can one condemn the consequence, if one condones the cause?

It was the insensitivity and the apathy of the landed aristocracy that led us to 1956 and 1983. They were insensitive because they came from an insensitive background: conditioned by a privileged childhood and education, they saw no differences, only an uprooted world in which dinner parties, unfinished puddings, and nostalgia for the past flourished. Sinhala Only wouldn’t have been Sinhala Only, and July 1983 wouldn’t have been July 1983, if the leaders elected for their times were sensitive. In both instances, our leaders were so cut off from their own people that they were like dinosaurs, bewildered by what was unfolding before them so much that they could only cave into extremism. The Sinhala Only skit has the person who was interviewed bringing up an extraordinary observation: that the British brought the Sinhalese and the Tamil together. Historical texts tell us a different story.

In productions like this, it’s not up to the playwright to shove opinions down our throat. Rather, they should let us see what might have been. Notwithstanding that contradiction I have outlined above, Ruwanthi triumphed in that respect, particularly with how she depicted how we have numbed ourselves to tragedy. In that sense, however, she picked the wrong crowd. Not hard to see why.

Barring a few exceptions, those who patronise the English theatre at Lionel Wendt are indifferent to the social relevance of that theatre. They are moved to pity, intense anger, and profound sorrow, but the minute the curtain falls they return to their comfortable lawns. “5,000 enforced disappearances?” a rather young lady, surprised and not a little repulsed, asked her friend as they walked away. (She was referring to an observation made in the final skit.) The oohs and aahs provoked by these statistics were, not surprisingly, tempered by their milieus.

What a play like Dear Children Sincerely deserves is not apathy, or oohs and aahs, but genuinely felt, genuinely articulated contemplation. That is why I thought that Ruwanthi did a commendable job in inviting Saumya Liyanage to moderate a discussion that followed her play. Despite that, however, I was dissatisfied. When that old woman ridicules the Sinhala teachers recruited by Mrs Bandaranaike after her government took over several private schools (housed their milieu, by the way) with a scathing remark (“Our children were taught that eggs were hatched by thunder!”), for instance, the audience laughed. They weren’t laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. They were laughing with the satisfaction of recognising in the Sinhala teachers the class which they have, all their life, laughed at.

I believe DCS is an ongoing project, that more shows are to come, and that more people have been interviewed. They will need an entirely different audience for their impact to truly seep in. And they will need to resolve the following question and dilemma: if the result was inevitable, and if you think it was undesirable, shouldn’t you find out what caused it in the first place? The fact is that chauvinism and terrorism weren’t just products of our hatred. The fact is that those were also products of the apathy of our leaders. As far as the politics of Dear Children Sincerely is concerned, that is my two cents.

Photos by: Prauda Buwaneka

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 11 2017