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Sunday, 16 February 2014





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Men without Shadows:

Gauging the ‘shadowless’

(Part 1)

What does it mean to live and what does death mean to the living? And what will ‘having lived’ and ‘having died’ in a certain way mean to the dead? What excuse can one give for leading a life of fear and what is life worth living in fear and oppression? Or does it matter how one lives so long as life is preserved? “That is not the kind of life I want”, said the character Lucy at one point.

“Dying without a witness; that really is annihilation,” was another hard hitting statement made by the character Henri, as the drama Men without Shadows written by Jean-Paul Sartre unfolded at the Lionel Wendt theatre through a host of Sri Lankan talent marking the directorial debut of Sashane Perera on February 7, the opening night of this praiseworthy production.

Seated in the gentle darkness of the theatre in one of the rearmost rows of the balcony, on the opening night I watched a work of theatre that evinced much hard work and dedication to the craft of proscenium performance come alive with colour, sound and movement that narrated a story of great political and psychological depth about the human mind and heart when pushed to the limits of deciding individually what the ‘worth’ of one’s life is? And what is the worth of a ‘cause’ to which one commits one’s very life? Does ‘Aristotelian logic’ set the scales to provide a simple, uncomplicated answer?


The story of ‘Men without Shadows’ written by one of Europe’s greatest thinkers of the 20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre who questioned human life and existence from a point of ontological inquiry through his works (of which his Magnum Opus was ‘Being and Nothingness’), is how a group of captives held prisoner in France during the Second World War deals with their ‘fate’.

The audience is not shown anything of their life before, since the action started with the prisoners being cast into their cell. The audience is given the context of their circumstances as one as either betray the cause to survive, or die a martyr.

In this two part review of the show, I will first discuss some aspects of what the story brings out as themes that create food for thought and propels the viewer to contemplate on matters that ought to bring a viewer to realise a path of introspection. In the second instalment a few aspects of stagecraft and a discussion about the characters of the captives and the performance of the players will be the central focus.

The human body

One of the first elements that the play brings out is to realise the importance of the human body as our means to sense our world and then form our perceptions. The ‘world’ comes to life when we grasp through our sense faculties phenomena that form the material plane and becomes translated to us as signs and symbols of what they would mean in connection with our consciousness.

The ‘world’ cannot exist without the human consciousness. It is human ‘thought’ that gives the world all its manifold interpretations and myriads of expressions and ‘meanings’. But the human consciousness does not and in fact cannot exist without the material component that it is inseparably bound to as its vehicle –the human body.

When one is in the hands of a merciless captor the first apprehension would be what that captor would do to our body. Every single one of the captives in the play is conscious of that fact. It is the primary factor of fear that sets the ground for a fear psychosis to grip the character played by well-known actor of the screen and stage Gehan Blok.

Blok’s character makes no bones about the cowardice that has beleagued his waning rebel spirit.

True voices

His one desire is to escape torture. He pines for life, the opportunity to live rather than die a martyr. The worth of martyrdom thereby first comes to the fore through this character who admits that he realised his true self in the face of torture and sardonically laughs out, “I found myself!”

As ignoble as it may seem to an observer who will measure out the worth of a man by conventional standards of values that set the status quo to read the actions of an individual as honourable and dishonourable, to Blok’s character the most productive and salutary thing to accomplish would be to be spared of torture and become free at any cost, which in turn could be translated as his own perception of what is unarguably ‘right’, and possibly even ‘good’.

Discovering one’s ‘true voice’ where all the ‘facade’ fades, and the self deceptive garb ‘torn’, and the solitary pulse speaks in isolation where the comforts of collective strengths are no more to be found fulsome, even a redoubtable rebel may be driven to give a laugh sodden with sarcasm and self-pity over what he has learnt of his true, naked self. That moment in some confusing way can even possibly be some bizarre comfort and symbolic liberation that a certain freedom has been gained by him, in seeing who he really is.

Who are we really as people? The captives in the play all narrate their roles in the story to offer some answer to that question of who or what they each can claim to be as ‘entities’ with ‘identities’ and not mere purposeless ‘existents’.

This paves the way for a subtle layer of existential questioning as to who, what a person is, and what purpose does ‘life’ have in comparison to plain existence? This threading can be seen as the consciousness of Sartre embedded in the creativity of his play, since the life and works of Sartre was what propelled the discourse and philosophy of 20th century existentialism.

‘Identity’ as we hold the word to denote meaning, is essential to interpret a human entity from a biological classification to a ‘human being’. ‘Who are you?’ then becomes the question that opens the door to an answer ripe with claims of affinities and subscriptions, allegiances and oppositions and so on. Interestingly what comes to mind in this juncture is what Khalil Gibran the great Lebanese poet and philosopher says in his work ‘Sand and Foam’ “Only once have I been made mute. It was when a man asked me, who are you?”

But by no means would the answers of those captives in the play be one of muteness if the question was posed to them.

That question would not seem to seek an obscure answer which is fraught with uncertainty if it was posed to them.

They had their identity which they adhered to and upheld, and would claim as their ground of meaning to them, in defining their lives. Even the 16-year-old brother of Lucy, Francoise who though bitter at being caught up in a collective consequence he never bargained for, claiming he had no activism in their rebel movement, would have a list of ‘labels’ that would assert an identity for himself.

A reason to die

Sadly for all of them, the predicament blares in their face the question of what is any of their identity worth if their meant to die? To survive through betrayal would mean a symbolic death for ones as Henri and Lucy since their commitment to their cause defines them. The identity rests centrally on that factor.

To Blok’s character what he fights for or claimed to fight for does not define who he really is, as he had discovered in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Admitting his cowardice Blok’s character brings a very hard hitting argument to the floor when he says that the multitudes sleeping in their beds that very moment who haven’t been put to the test as to how strong their will is for a cause are also cowards like him, the difference being they are yet unproven of their cowardliness while he has come to terms with his true sentiments.

Who really is a coward or a hero until proven though circumstances? And then do their actions of cowardice or heroism elevate or lower them in their worth from the common reality of existence?

To Blok’s character, and to Francoise, the prospect of physical torture paves a means to define their definitions of who they are and thereby their own ‘politics’ for survival. To Lucy and Henri the prospect of torture does not pose a force great enough to shake their resolve. It is interesting to note how the politics of these two camps of thought are drawn on the central premise of what the body would be subjected to and to what degree the person will consider it powerful enough to form his or her politics. Aristotle stated ‘Man by nature is a political animal’. And thus it may be reasonable to propound that a man’s politics begins with his body.

With our sense aggregates we perceive the world and thereby give it meanings, as sensed and digested through the faculties in our body. In that respect what we perceive as our world in a given moment is quite rightly at that moment the world at that moment to the ‘perceiver’. On this line of philosophical discussion as to what the body means in relation to ‘ontological reality’, with no intentions of infusing religiosity to this critique but to be read for its philosophical merits to understand the condition of the body and mind in creating the reality of the captives whose body would largely determine their politics, I would like to cite the words of the Gautama Buddha from the Samyutta Nikaya text:

“In this one-fathom long body along with its perceptions and thoughts, do I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the path to ending the cessation of the world.” (Samyutta Nikaya)

The touch

The body as an assemblage of organs sense faculties translates the external world as sights, sounds, smells, tastes and what is felt on the skin as ‘touch’. The power of a touch as a means to affirm our existence in relation to another person and the ‘realness’ of existence in this world, cannot be overstated.

A touch can be welcoming and comforting as well as invasive and repulsive. And it is these two ends of what a touch can translate into that is seen, first when Lucy and Francoise huddle together in an embrace to comfort each other with fraternal warmth and later when Lucy being returned to the cell after interrogation forbids anyone from trying to place a comforting touch on her, including her brother. To a molested woman who had been violated by her captors a touch can in the immediate aftermath surely mean the most certain sensory aspect that reignites the crushing memory of that primordial oppression of her body.

To Lucy who was made a rape victim, in the fresh aftermath of her ordeal, a touch can only mean the negative, the invasive, the repulsive, from which she will recoil automatically. The power of what the ‘touch’ brought on in different velocities, different textures, could do to a human being’s mindset is thus portrayed through those hapless victims.

Choice and fate

One of the questions that stare the viewers as much as the victims of torture in the play is whether any of them can decide what their fate could be? It seems very much an impasse they are faced with and thereby it appears their chances of actually being granted their freedom even if they agree to give all the information they have, seem rather bleak. For the character played by Blok his lack of knowledge of the specific whereabouts of their group’s leader, the key detail the captors require, is unknown to him. His one chance of having a real bargaining chip is therefore not possible.

Interestingly, however, he is the one character from all those who were captives initially, who is able to chose his moment of death, by taking his chances of jumping out the window accidentally left open in the upper storey of the building where the integration takes place. The window left open was to let the stench out as said by one officer against the wishes of the officer in charge who wanted it closed. It is rather curious how fate can at times open doors or in this case a window to allow a hapless victim a take a chance to change his fate, but that alternative being not so much a solution to the problem but merely a lesser evil.

“I didn’t squeal!” is what Blok’s character defiantly proclaims to his tormentors in something of a triumph before taking the leap out the window. His last words being his one fleeting moment of pride and perhaps emotional consolation although he did not feign to be one who would take pride in martyrdom over the chance to be spared. Allegiances can shift depending on what seems to offer the most favourable to one’s interests and also conscience. Just as Lucy sanctioned the silencing of her own younger brother in the belief that it had to be done as true to what she believed and fights for, Blok’s character admits cowardice but doesn’t want to go on the record as one whose desired to betray the cause he fought for. And so he wants to be known as one who did not die a traitor since he was not allowed to live as one.

Fated to die

For young Francoise, however, the reasons to give any information about Jean the rebel leader are far simpler. He blames Jean for their plight and would gladly give him away and denounce him, after Jean too is brought in as a suspect but unknown of his identity to the captors. The reason is that he simply does not owe any allegiance to either Jean or their cause. Why should he suffer for a cause he professes he does not fight for? Francoise blatantly defies his sister and says that he has no reason to maintain silence as she decides to.

An allegiance to a movement in this scenario is not founded on blood ties, interestingly enough. And Francoise doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind and offer what he sees as the plausible reason that his sister would have to protect information relating to Jean’s whereabouts and identity. “I don’t sleep with him.” He retorts as his reason to give him away to ensure his own safety, huddling into a shivering ball alone in a corner. Being Jean’s lover makes Lucy’s motives questionable in the eyes of Francoise. He sees Lucy having to gain much personally from her politics whereas he has nothing to gain.

Meeting death

On the matter how one meets his demise, the character Henri offers an interesting proposition. Just as Blok’s character took the effort to make his last statement before ending his misery and thereby leaving some impression in another human being (even though they were the very ones who drove him to his suicidal ‘exit’) of his last moment, his truth of death, Henri expresses how he wants a witness to his death. More than fearing death it is the thought of having to die without a ‘witness’ to his martyrdom that daunts Henri.

Michael Ondaatje has written in his novel ‘The English Patient’ “Death means you’re in the third person.” But what if no one ever witnessed your death and you do not even qualify to the ‘third person’ in a living dialogue amongst human beings? Then truly it was as if the person who died never even existed. It is truly extinction from human memory. An annihilation that goes beyond death. A fate as that would mean the rebel who died for a cause was not to gain anything for his sacrifice. Not even the cherished and revered badge of ‘martyr’.

“To thine own self be true, as night follows day.” Says Polonius to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. And when looking at the character’s who are the captives in the play none of them would seem pretentious or contrived for deceptions. Francoise tries to desperately change his ‘tune’ when he is faced with the threat of being silenced, but it convinces no one. All the misery they are caught in cannot but bring out the very truest being within them. Each of them appears nothing short of being true to themselves. It is finally what seals their fate–death.

It was a case of being damned if they did it, and still being damned if they didn’t. What difference then would it make to live a lie if death stares you unflinching in the face? Is there such a thing as a noble death? The rebels convinced of their righteousness seem to think so. Their mettle and thinking seem to resound what can be found in these words of Thomas Macaulay in the poem ‘Horatius’:

“To every man upon this earth,
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can a man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.”

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