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Sunday, 27 December 2009

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Portrayal of filth as drama

This week, we focus on Sri Lankan English theatre and the latest trends in the theatre scene with reference to a play bearing the name of moonshine. Moonshine or Kassippu is locally brewed cheap liquor. Although it has been a cottage industry in a coastal area, moonshine has not found its way into theatre, let alone into English theatre.

It is pertinent here to look at the evolution of English theatre in Sri Lanka and its close interaction with the Sinhala theatre particularly following the establishment of the University of Peradeniya. In the 1940's the dominant figure in English theatre in Sri Lankan was E. F. C Ludowyk. D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke summarised the English theatre tradition established by E. F. C Ludowyk succinctly.

"The heyday of this trend was in the 1930s, the 1940s, and the early 1950s, when the Ceylon University Dramatic Society under the guidance of Professor E. F. C. Ludowyk dominated the theatre scene. The Society was the creation of Leigh Smith, Ludowyk's predecessor as Professor of English at the University College (affiliated to the University of London), and was founded in 1920; but when Smith retired in 1932 and Ludowyk took over, the latter established the tradition of performing plays 'in public for the benefit of an audience not confined to the university.' "

Ludowyk's influence was widespread and extended up to academia. He primarily, staged European plays and produced a couple of local farce plays. From the very early stage of English theatre in Sri Lanka, predominant characteristic that demarcates local English productions from Europeans plays was the sheer gulf in terms of aesthetic qualities and depth of the productions; if the European original productions were stimulating theatre, local productions primarily offered zest of pure entertainment to the very sense of the world. Renowned academic, playwright and critic Regis Siriwardena described this as "If you wanted to explore life deeply in the theatre, then you had to go to Shakespeare or Ibsen or Brecht, but if you wanted to present the local life on the stage, that could be material only for farce and caricature."

Ludowyk era in English theatre

Ludowyk's plays contributed to set stage for an English theatre in Sri Lanka. His students, (some of whom subsequently became academics and diplomats), contributed to the substantial growth of English theatre in Sri Lanka. If Ludowyk dominated the English theatre in Sri Lanka in the 1940's, undoubtedly, Ernest MacIntyre dominated the next phase of the growth and evolution of Sri Lankan theatre in English. Perhaps the greatest contribution to theatre by MacIntyre was the change of sensibilities of the theatre. MacIntyre stirred the course of drama towards political and social themes. They were crowd-pulling plays, sometimes, stayed for days in a stretch at the Lionel Wendt theatre. One of the prominent aspects of this period in English theatre in Sri Lanka was its intimate interaction with Sinhala theatre. The period between Macintyre's migration to Australia and 1983 riots marked a temporary pause in the dynamics of English theatre in Sri Lanka. Most of the players migrated to other fields such as cinema. Prominent theatre personality who dominated the English stage at the time was Richard de Zoysa. Like a bright comet his emergence and exit from the theatre was dramatic.

This period of inactivity came to an end with the staging of popular farces such as "Well Mudaliyar" and "He comes from Jaffna". They were popular plays during the 1930's and the 1940's. The principle zest of these plays was nothing but mere entertainment often at the expense of yokels and Queen's English. Mohammed Adamaly, Indu Dharmasena and Jerome L. de Silva are some of the playwrights who emerged subsequent to this phase.

It seems that over the years, English theatre has produced a popular formula appealing to its exclusive audience. The plays are often in the genre of Imported Theatre, Musical or Comedies. They are, perhaps, out of touch with the socio-political realities and volatile political atmosphere out of the proscenium stage. If political plays are produced such as "widows", and "Julius Caesar: An Anatomy of an Assassination" by Feroze Kamardeen, they are couched in highly revamped versions of foreign productions. The only exception is the "Chaminda Pusweddila," a political farce by Feroze Kamardeen. However, the latest trend in English theatre in Sri Lanka seems have shifted from the founders work.

The rationale behind these new plays seems to be that they depict the dormant cruelty of human soul. These dramas are marked for weird ideas, blood curdling murders and sadistic pleasure derived from inflicting pain either on oneself or on others. Though there is a big question mark over the audience's appreciation of such plays inundated with raw filth with apparently little or no purpose, it is certain that the panel of judges who bestowed awards on such drama's thoroughly enjoying the raw filth in the dramas, perhaps, thinking that they (filth) are devises which playwright employed to explore into the recess of human mind in search of that part which is responsible for cruelty and sadism.

Three Star K and Awards

Senaka Abeyratne's play "Three Star K" won both Gratiaen Prize and the State Literary Award for the best English language play of the year. The panel of judges who conferred the Gratiaen Prize of 2006 for the play was made up of Vivimarie Vanderpoorten (Chairperson), Neil Fernandopulle and Priyanthi Fernando. In the citation, the learned judges stated: "Three Star K is not only universal in its appeal, transcending issues of location, time and space but has its core, human conflict. It is a work that forces us to take a look at the dark and disturbing possibility of viciousness and greed within us and our tendency to turn evil when faced with possibilities of annihilation. It not only looks inward at the human psyche, but also outward at a very temporary world of gun-running, bribery and corruption; reiterating very convincingly the dialectical relationship between humans and the disintegrating world they inhabit.

The female characters are strong and unfettered, articulating unusual and un-cliché lines and no less capable of viciousness than men they threatened. The effects of this brave, uncompromising drama are stark and powerful, yet the setting is uncomfortably close to home, making both its ambiguity and its resolution (or lack of it) disconcerting and memorable." One indeed cannot help but agree with the learned judges in reading the drama "Three Star K". The female characters are 'unfettered and strong 'and 'resolution (or lack of it) disconcerting and memorable."

The play is inundated with raw filth so much so that it seems that the playwright's intention was to give vent to scores of filth on the pretext of exploring the dark side of the humanity and innate craving for cruelty and sadism. It is up to the readers to decide whether such drama can ever be given awards or not. I am sure that the content of the play matches well with Gratiaen citation and perhaps, with the kind of literary flavours and zest on the part of the judges on both panels.

A sample of extracts from the script we examined contains a low level of language containing words including the famous "F" word combined with "menopause," "check my tampon the next time I use one," "wet right now?" "Do you want me to lick you? " These words, in my view, are like faecal matters floating on dirty waters added to the contemporary English theatre in Sri Lanka. These words, in our view, are neither metaphoric nor poetic for obvious reasons and do not contribute to the evolution of the plot or characters in the play and can be described as raw filthy words.

If Professor Ludowyk either see or read the script of Three Star K, I am sure he would feel sad about the high standards he set for the English theatre in Sri Lanka.

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