Thursday, October 12, 2017

Marching towards home: Where our children are

The second of a series of articles delving into our local theatre.

What is great about our local theatre – Sinhala and Tamil – is that it’s so relevant and contemporary. It’s always strived to extrapolate, to think beyond the present and to predict what’s out there, what’s unforeseeable. It’s not sustained by nostalgia, although there’s enough and more of that, too: one of the more inscrutable qualities about our playwrights is that they are as adamantly reverent of their veterans as they are disdainful of the conception of the medium those veterans idealised. The latter were in turn dejected sticking to one form of the theatre, which is why they absorbed from new playwrights from elsewhere and which is why we evolved rather quickly after 1956, even more so, in fact, than the cinema, which for 20 years remained with Lester James Peries, and literature, which for 10 years remained with Martin Wickramasinghe. It didn’t take long for Sarachchandra to be upended by Sugathapala de Silva, in turn to be followed by Gunawardena, Premaranjith Tilakaratne, Nawagaththegama, and Bandaranayake.

That our schoolboys idealise serious plays about serious themes and ideas which make people laugh indicates, not surprisingly, how idiosyncratic we are about the social and the personal, the relevant and the irreverent, with respect to the Sinhala theatre. In Preston Sturges’s beautiful screwball comedy Sullivan’s Travels our hero, a director of escapist, shallow musicals and comedies, defiantly leaves Hollywood to lead a life of penury so that he can direct socially relevant dramas. Along the way he meets a girl who loves comedies and in particular those directed by the hero; he questions her choices and asks whether the world has spurned comedies at a time of depression and squalor (“Don't you think with the world in its present condition, with death snarling at you from every street corner, that people are a little allergic to comedies?”), only to be given the defiant reply, “No.” Laughter is the best medicine, the only antidote, which can convey serious themes without wringing controversy. It gets us to think, to reflect, without those contortions and distortions typical of any art form when made to be facilely courageous and profound.

In terms of “ideology” we have moved beyond Sarachchandra – who stood for an ideology of moral upliftment – and Sugathapala de Silva – who stood for an ideology of commitment – and we have even passed the seventies and eighties and nineties, when Sinhala theatre was for the most the prerogative of the Left. It’s interesting to note that our generation, and today’s schoolchildren, tend to affirm and side with actors, scriptwriters, directors, and producers who can make us laugh without cutting corners. It’s not the kind of humour you come across a conventional “tea party” comedy of manners. The closest our English theatre can and does get to such a form of humour is when its own actors relapse into the vernacular, sleekly and efficiently: many of the skits in IdeaCouch’s The Garage Show contain this quality, for instance.

But then there’s humour and there’s humour, the one forced and contrived, the other natural and spontaneous. In the theatre spontaneity is almost always the consequence of preparation, not improvisation. It’s hard to improvise on stage because it’s live, not because it’s impossible, and in comedy what matters is the correct timing, the correct cue. Of the two broadly definable genres onstage, therefore, comedy is the default quality of the medium. Not because it’s greater or lesser than drama, but because it’s easier to make people laugh out of a tragedy gone wrong than it is to wring tears out of a comedy gone wrong. (In fact very few comedies ever go wrong; they are the result of either careful planning or careless miscalculation.) Humour is always felt, never expressly projected, which is why our political satires are so shallow. They always resort to the same tricks and dichotomies: the big fat nationalist versus the young, bespectacled, idealistic understudy, one which our English playwrights alludes to frequently as well.

And then there’s the issue of novelty versus banality: it’s much easier to keep audiences here transfixed on comedies and skits that obsess over the same form of slapstick (the wrong accent, the wrong costume for the wrong gender, a play-within-a-play gone horribly wrong because of miscast actors, etc.), and it’s much easier for a drama, in that sense, to become obscurantist (which, incidentally, can be said of our films too, especially our art-house avant-garde films). In the former instance what comes out is a contorted but refreshing form of novelty: we’ve seen the same slapstick routines in other plays before, but we are alright with it; in the latter instance what comes out is banality: the same themes, once reworked, induce boredom, indifference, sometimes anger.

Part of the reason why our playwrights turn political and resort to symbols and caricatures is that, obviously, they want to circumvent censorship. The more direct they are, the more likely it is that the Censor Board (a remnant of the past if ever there was one) will censure and block it. Directness is the preserve of the madly honest, and our political playwrights are for the most not mad, only honest. The capitalist is Big and Fat, the worker Thin and Sallow. (I capitalise these terms because the producers do a pretty good job of doing so onstage as well, without spelling them out overtly to audiences.) In Jayantha Chandrasiri’s Mora the titular protagonist is shot at in the end, but doesn’t die. Why? Because the truth can’t die: it survives and grows. Likewise the Dragon in Makarakshaya dies off to be replaced by the Burgomaster; we have so many dragons, but many more Burgomasters. The message is potent, but vague.

Which is why some of these symbols and caricatures evoke laughter, sometimes intentionally, often not. A few plays do, with extraordinary resolve, keep us transfixed and deeply depressed throughout – some of Bandaranayake’s plays, like Trojan Kanathawo, are like that – but they are unfortunately rare. Rajitha Dissanayake’s POLITICAL plays are more the rule than the exception here, since they subsist on a contrapuntal mixture of anger and laughter. His best intentions are undone by what those intentions lead up to, a point summed up by my friend Dhanuka Bandara: “I strongly feel that he has much more to offer, a fact that his older plays attest to.” Again, this goes back to my earlier contention: in any art form, especially in the theatre, comedy is the default form of expression, not tragedy, because tragedy is the consequence of meticulous planning, while comedy can both be planned and also undo the most carefully constructed dramas. There’s a name for this latter phenomenon, by the way: bathos.

Our schoolboys and schoolgirls believe that there’s something new and innovative and exciting about plays that make you laugh and make you think about people who live without homes and sanitation and even employment, at the same time, because they are fascinated by what’s being staged and also repelled by the way these articulate their intentions. They want something new out of what they believe is already new. They are the new purveyors, who are enamoured of what their predecessors do but want to go beyond. “For exactly what kind of play?” I asked one of these schoolboys the other day. Momentarily stymied, he finally settled on an answer: “One that involves music and dance and laughter and at the same time provokes you to think.” A play that does all that is pretty much like a film that eventually becomes a parody of its own genre, its own kind. The new theatre, which these boys idealise, is provocative but spontaneous, aware of its own falsifications but not overtly joyful about it. That conversation, incidentally, got me talking with two other boys, about the kind of plays they not only like but also write.

Both these boys had, in fact, scripted their own plays at their school (note: very few children take to scripting these days: they prefer acting, naturally I suppose). One delved into a stock tragicomic situation: a dying family elder being fought over by his prodigal sons and daughters (the undercurrents of tension and hilarity were there). The other too presented a stock situation: three men, all three two-faced and duplicitous, on a boat. But while they are, in a manner of speaking, stock, their treatment at the hands of these young scriptwriters bespeak to a higher sense of self-confidence in them: there’s no proper resolution in either production, and the fact of there not being a proper resolution compels both laughter and reflection, the amalgamation of which, as we all know, is pathos (“කරුණාරසය”). Pathos has always been fresh, current, relevant because it stands against both indifferent humour and over-the-top seriousness.

For all their intentions and efforts, however, these boys are doomed to forego on their conception of the theatre, not because they’re discouraged from engaging in those conceptions but because they’re institutionally discouraged from indulging in the theatre in the first place. There are reasons for this, clearly. Pathos has almost never been the preserve of the Wendt because the Wendites are content in being formally conservative and facilely novel, a sensibility that lacks that revolutionary, tongue-in-cheek daring to be found in your typical Sinhala stage production. It’s a new way of looking at old themes and ideas, a new way of looking at the world in fact. Why it’s so hard to come by, and why our children find it difficult to engage with it, is a completely different topic, one which I intend to explore. Next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 12 2017