Because of the themes it engenders and certain demographic realities, the English theatre in Sri Lanka is limited to the Lionel Wendt. What transpired in 1956 and thereafter was, essentially, the bifurcation of our intelligentsia into swabasha and non-swabasha. The latter remain culturally hegemonic: they call the shots in our English Departments. The media helps propagate them, moreover, we already know that the English theatre is popularised by puff-piece sketches which champion its mere existence. The Sinhala theatre by contrast, is more vibrant, more profound, and at school level, the Samastha Lanka Natya Tharagawaliya is wider in scope than its English equivalents. I believe the same can be said of our Tamil theatre.
I observed in an article written not too long ago that the English theatre in our schools tends to reinvent and reflect the English theatre elsewhere. What I meant there was that every positive and negative point about the latter can be gleaned from a school production, from the choice of subject-matter to the attitude of the playwright and the cast towards that subject-matter. Once in a while, one does come across an intelligent production, one that is formally and substantively refreshing. But that’s rare. So rare, in fact that when it does come about, the reviewers tend to salivate.
Drama Comp is an annual inter-school drama competition (the title makes it rather obvious) organised by the Interact Club of Royal College. The Interact Movement in this country teeters between community service projects and projects that celebrate the fact of being members of a particular clique. In the case of Drama Comp, its membership of that esoteric circle which rallies around Lionel Wendt. For the past 31 years it has tried to equal that other celebration of English theatre in Colombo, the inter-school Shakespeare Drama Competition. A few weeks ago it was held for the 32nd time. Here’s a sketch of what I saw and the reflections it compelled in me.
The theatre is rooted for the most in relationships and a sense of interconnectedness. The English theatre here is rooted even more so in those relationships, which is why most of its plays emphasise on a coming together of its characters. I am not sure whether the kind of separation we come across in Sinhala plays is absent in them because of the social content of their audiences (a largely conservative, urban middle and upper class). Before going any further, though, let me return to Drama Comp.
Three of the four finalists at Drama Comp 2017 sustained that aforementioned conception of our English theatre: Ananda College, St Peter’s College and St Bridget’s Convent. All these productions interested me immensely, but owing to spatial constraints, I can only pass over them.
The Ananda College production echoed what I pointed out earlier in its very title: I Know You, one of those hyperlinked plots where we know the relations between the characters which even those characters do not know until the end.
The St Peter’s College production, meditative, jazzy, but basically self-brooding, examined the multidimensionality of the bully and the bullied. The St Bridget’s production, the only non-original skit staged that evening, centred on its protagonist’s memories and fantasies as he grapples with the fact that he’s sitting on an anti-personnel mine. I am not interested in pinpointing the flaws and demerits of these skits, rather to glean some larger and more relevant meaning from the entire event.
Shakespeare’s plays thrive on conflict and drama. The former necessitates the latter: once there’s no conflict, there’s no drama. The 20th century, on the other hand, bred a set of playwrights who saw the dramatic in the un-dramatic, who were (as Susan Sontag observed) “devoted to raking up private, rather than public, hells.” Of course, Shakespeare was no different there but the likes of Arthur Miller and Pirandello brought about a form of theatre that is more at home here with Sinhala productions. In other words, our English theatre is fixated on the Shakespearean maxim that the dramatic subsists on conflict. Our Sinhala theatre in comparison, has evolved.
Isn’t it ironic and interesting that the best continental playwrights – Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen, Brecht, and Beckett – have been the darlings of our Sinhala and not English playwrights? Jayantha Chandrasiri’s plays owe considerably to Beckett, while Dharmasena Pathiraja graduated to the cinema with Koraya saha Andaya, an Absurdist tract which found its cinematic equivalent in his patently nihilistic Soldadu Unnahe. The late Premaranjith Tilakaratne found his Big Theme – the father-son conflict – in Strindberg, while both Henry Jayasena and Parakrama Niriella toyed around with Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.
To be sure, Sinhala plays aren’t perfect. Many of those who took to the English kitchen sink drama in the sixties and the political wave which swept our theatre in the seventies (barring the pioneers, Sugathapala de Silva and Pathiraja included) confused form for substance and skewed the latter in their work. That is why they resorted to symbols and metaphors, which their heirs subsist on even today. They are the theatrical equivalent of what Pauline Kael referred to as movie brutalists: they were tired of the stylised craftsmanship of Maname, Sinhabahu and those who were tutored under and pandered to Professor Sarachchandra.
There are no brutalists in our English theatre, just as there are no brutalists in our English literati and intelligentsia. I believe this has much to do with the social content of those who frequent the Wendt. They are, as I pointed out before, largely urbanised and conservative. It is that conservative streak which inhibits them from doing the hard yards the Sinhala theatre has. Even in our schools.
The Sinhala theatre is focused on open characters who have something to hide. The English theatre is focused on repressed characters who want to get out. This discrepancy can’t really be rationalised: it exists because of that conservative streak among those who go to the Wendt. Because of that streak, they can only be insular.
And like all insular people, they desire to reveal, not hide. The best productions, on that count and in the English theatre, are those which stray away from this trend.
Which brings me back to Drama Comp. The winner this year was Methodist College, whose production TTYL was, as far as I could make it out, a visual distillation of contemporary angst. By disassociating speech from performance, it succeeded in depicting the alienation perpetuated by social media. It was fun to watch, not least because it was free of the formal constraints which characterised the other productions. The Ananda, St Peter’s, and St Bridget’s skits were conservative in that sense. They could only affirm humanity. TTYL however, didn’t affirm humanity, simply because it didn’t feel it had to. I could hence only gasp at the transitions in it, accompanied by excerpts from classical music, including Beethoven’s Ninth, the Blue Danube and the First Movement (“Spring”) from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
I sound pessimistic here. I didn’t intend to. But year after year, I am tired, baffled and even angered by the kind of insularity the English theatre, literati and cinema (yes, we do have an independent English cinema) breed. The Methodist production at Drama Comp 2017 was refreshing. How many such productions do we come across at the Wendt? I see David Mamet has come back, though I unfortunately missed Glengarry Glenn Ross. But for every Mamet, we get Hugo, Leroux, and Shaw. Likewise, for every standalone TTYL, we get three other not-so-standalone skits. The only consolation I therefore can get, which the judges at Drama Comp and the organisers from the Interact Club of Royal College delivered to me that night was the fact that it won. Yes, they win. Yes, they are cheered on. And how.