Sunday, January 3, 2010
CREATIVE RESPONSE OF A DRAMATIST TO A "DICTATOR"
The ‘Angry Young Man’ is back...
Aristotle, the first scholar to theorise stagecraft in his legendary text poetics written in the 5th Century BC, clarifies the role of the poet/playwright as being in a prophetic mission. It is a universal journey in which the poet/playwright sees into the future. In Sri Lanka, a 25-year-pld rebel par excellence ventured on a similar mission in 1976 with his debut play Eka Adhipathi which reverberates with its timeless, universal criticism of corrupt politics, proving the playwright’s prowess. This is an interview with the rebel on the theatre Dharmasiri Bandaranayake who brings his highly acclaimed Eka Adhipahti back to theatre after 33 years.
By Dinidu Karunanayake
Q: As you believe, an artiste makes an attempt to express himself and to read ‘life’ through his creative mission of which your first stage work Eka Adhipathi (The Dictator) is a good example. What were the forces that motivated you as an amateur in 1976?
A: I entered theatre as an actor. Theatre has been the most dazzling medium in my life since my schooling time. I obtained much knowledge from the teachers I associated with. From the outset, I realised that I was being moulded by the training of drama in my creative sphere as well as personal life. While I gained immense pleasure and satisfaction out of theatre activities, I did not want to be a mere actor. Making an attempt to give life to good characters became a duty as well as responsibility for me. In this regard, I must mention three playwrights who had an enormous influence on me - Dayananada Goonewardena, Henry Jayasena and Sugathapala de Silva. Among the work I received to exhibit my talent, I must gratefully remember Makara by Henry Jayasena in which I was trained for the character called ‘Lanslot.’ My limbs, my voice, my gestures were all trained well for this character which was totally different from the character I play in Eka Adhipathi.
When I got involved in that play, the 1971 rebellion had just been over. It was the 1971 rebellion that devastated our education and the whole future. By the time I finished schooling, my dreams of university entrance had been shattered against a backdrop in which universities had become jails and rehabilitation centres. In 1971, I got a job as a government clerk, and this period was a turning point in my life. While all my future expectations had collapsed, the only recuperative power existed in theatre. As I feel, the ’71 rebellion and its context, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime and its collapse, the betrayal of the leftist movement etc. which gave birth to a political upheaval in the wider context had created a psychological tension within me. It was this tension that propelled me into my first stage creation, Eka Adhipathi at the age of 25. Initially I scripted this as Ghaathanaya (‘Murder’). The play was premiered at the Lumbini Theatre on November 25 and 26, 1976. The audience response was enthralling. Interestingly, the critics were polarised into two extremes as some argued the play as an excellent piece while some were of the view that it was a bad piece of work. Both types of criticism were important for me as an emerging playwright in terms of guidance which contributed to my successive work.
Q: The term ‘Eka Adhipathi’ is not confined to the protagonist per se, but it transcends to some other characters such as Malcolm the junior (the protagonist’s son). How do you perceive the contemporary political milieu of 1970s that paved the way for this play, and what is your reaction to the contemporary left-wing and right-wing political movements?
A: After Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike came to power, she opted for an alliance with the pioneers of the leftist political movement, and this existed since 1963. By 1970, the latter had much trust in the Bandaranaike administration, and accepted ministerial positions in her government. We, government servants, were fed with stuff like manioc with the so-called purpose of developing the country. At the same time we were informed that those who imposed the regulations were not consuming the same stuff. As I see, the ruling class is the one that burdens the ruled with innumerable burdens while living comfortably. This is called democracy. During the rebellion those from our generation who got involved were eliminated. This contemporary milieu had much impact on my play. The ‘super-speedy’ characters I have created in Eka Adhipathi were, in fact, drawn from my contemporary time.
Today, I do not look at this play as an antique work. Many spectators praise that I had created a prophetic work more than three decades ago of which the dialogues bear relevance even today. In the latest production, I haven’t changed even a minute detail of the original script.
The reason for me to re-stage it today is not because an election is forthcoming. We stared rehearsals around five months ago.
Q: This play is located in a Western context in regard to the fictional characters and also references to the real political figures to such an extent that the spectator may feel it is an adaptation of a foreign play. Why did you opt for this technique? Were you influenced by the Western theatre?
A: By 1971, institutions such as the British Council were staging many good theatrical pieces than earlier. Sometimes we did not understand their language because we were part of a generation that kept the English language aloof. However, their alluring quality, mode of casting and stage direction etc. inspired and impacted us a lot. This does not mean that we tried to imitate the Western theatre. As I think, drama is not a discipline of our own, but it came from ‘that side.’ Once it came to us, it could be moulded in accordance with the requirements of the Asian context. In the casting in Eka Adhipathi, I made an attempt to transcend beyond the locally prevalent mode of casting. Conversely, we were also highly influenced by the local playwrights such as Sugathapala de Silva, Dhamma Jagoda and Upali Attanayake.
With regard to the use of foreign names etc, if I had used local proper names for the characters, the play might have become a dreary, boring thing that could not be called a play.
Concurrently, I was greatly influenced by the role of Hitler, A ‘weakling-turned-dictator’ who devastated a human civilisation with despotism and genocide. Such ‘weaklings’ emerge as a result of our weaknesses. At this juncture, we should be determined to overcome our weaknesses in order not to give into a weakling. Eka Adhipathi features bloodshed, rape, murder and anarchical rule which I captured as a person who did not participate in the rebellion.
Q: The universality and the timelessness of the play are indisputable. It is a praiseworthy endeavour on your part to bring this back to the stage for the entertainment of a generation that followed yours. But, why did you decide to bring your first stage creation three decades instead of opting for a new production?
A: After making Trojan Känthäwo (adapted from Trojan Women by Euripides) in 1999, I did not make any stage creations. I was motivated to re-stage my earlier work by the young students studying theatre and drama who come to this institution (Trikone Cultural Foundation) to collect material on my plays. They select my drama for their theses and dissertations. They come here, ask for information, get the scripts and reviews photocopied, and go. A question I recurrently asked them was whether they had seen any of the plays. They hadn’t seen.
Then I would ask them as to why they would continue this dishonest work. As I say, if they are going to write on a play by merely looking at its script, they had better write on Shakespeare. Then at least they would have compiled a good research work. These students give us a signal. They say ‘we haven’t seen any of your plays because we were born after you finished staging them.’ As playwrights who speak of the world, we should be concerned about these issues too. Therefore, I decided to present all my plays from May this year till November next year, one in three months. Thus, following Eka Adhipathi, Yakshägamanaya (The Sinhala adaptation of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht) which I made in 1994 as a sequel to Eka Adhipathi will be staged at Lionel Wendt early April. This play explores how the nuances of dictatorship are socially institutionalised. Subsequently, Makara Räksha, Dhawala Bheeshana and Trojan Känthäwo will come. In the meantime, I’m working on a new play which will come out next year, The Crucible by Arthur Miller. It has been translated by Gamini Viyangoda, and I present it as Mäya Wësha.
Q: What are the challenges and the difficulties you encountered when you re-staged Eka Adhipathi?
A: They (destructive comments) have come from the political sphere and the mass media. All of them ask me as to why I stage this at this time. It may be because of its name ‘Eka Adhipathi’. It is not even ‘Ekadhipathi’ but ‘Eka Adhipathi’ meaning ‘that one is the superior.’ Here, ‘that one’ refers to the ‘weakling,’ someone who is shamelessly and limitlessly weak. I act this role, and it is an enthralling experience for me to give life to this character as a man of 60. Up to now, I have been analysing the nature of the weakling for three decades.
However, when we present this play, the Presidential election has been notified. When a poster of this play is pasted by the side of the poster of a Presidential candidate, the general public who see the poster would pause to question who that person is. We do not know whom he selects. We have to face this issue. We have faced numerous issues in our lifetime, but have never faced something like this. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime collapsed when we started staging this play, which was staged 1,400 times under the subsequent Jayewardene regime. That regime did not come up with any issues with this play. As I believe, there are some positive features in the capitalist system. It is this leftist movement that brings out wretchedness into the public.
Even the current President expressed his concern about this play by congratulating me over the telephone and visiting Lionel Wendt in person. We do not know how the other parties would react to this. What I asked from everyone including the President was not to make this play a form of political propaganda on the political stage. Leave us alone with our own engagement with innocent spectators.
Q: In 1976, you were a passionate and enthusiastic young dramatist yearning for experience. By 2009, you are a mature and experienced playwright and filmmaker. How would you compare these two periods in relation to staging the play?
A: I have to emphasise this point. It is with enormous difficulty that we save humanity. It is because of the sensitivity of our generation that I can make this statement. The spectator who sees this play today for the second time repeatedly tells me that ‘we could not understand this that day, but we understand it today.’ While I’m delighted by this fact now, I see the drawbacks of this play too. But, I’m not going to voice them because it is the duty of critics.
Anyway, why is this play so impressive? It is because it is a play. When you are seated on your seat, if you feel any discomfort, we would sense it from the stage. I met many viewers then, and meet even now who would say that it is their first ever experience of seeing a drama. Some famous figures in the current creative field say this is the first drama they had seen, and they had started liking drama after that.
But when the present young generation is considered, their involvement in the political stream is much. If we compare 1976 with the present work of the young artistes, you may see an answer. You can discern something. Acting has been underestimated. The main reason for this is that drama is a medium which does not have a professional basis. But a young generation has emerged who think that it is a profession based-medium, and they tend to get involved in it with the idea of earning money. This is not the only medium they work in. They go to other media like television. They have very busy schedules in which they cannot allocate sufficient time on proper rehearsals. As I think, such a group do not contribute to art. There is no point of begging of them. But educating them and moulding them productively is our duty as an older generation. But even in this process, the situation is tragic. All the playwrights of out preceding generation are no more now, creating a huge gap. When I saw the play Marasad by Sugathapala de Silva, I came out of the theatre with the idea of making Dhawala Bheeshana. That play gave me two actors and one female actor for my drama: Jackson Anthony, W. Jayasiri and Kaushalya Fernando. Thus, this is an interconnected procedure.
“I do not enjoy acting in cinema”
Q: The success of your first stagecraft might have contributed to your first cinematic creation, Hansa Vilak in 1980. How did the experience lead to your filmmaking process?
A: I joined cinema in 1969 with Bak Maha Deegaya by Dayananda Goonewardena. After making Eka Adhipathi I was given a chance to join Wasantha Obeysekera’s Palagetiyo as the protagonist. The experience I gathered from working in Palagetiyo encouraged me to enter cinema with a work of my own by directing Hansa Vilak.
Q: What are your latest plans in cinema? You were not present in cinema after your appearance in Satyajit Maitipe’s Bora Diya Pokuna. Are you planning to direct a new film?
A: After Bawa Duka and Bawa Karuma, cinema became a taxing experience for me. One issue is after making a film, the director has to screen the film as well. As a filmmaker from the young generation, Prasanna is striving to keep this up. Handagama also made an attempt. He ventured with an alternative cinema movement with Me Mage Sandai. But he was exhausted. Censorship and regulations affect the current cinema in a wretched manner. However, after re-staging my plays, I am looking forward to working on a film after November next year.
Q: As a director?
A: Yes. In the meantime, I am analysing several readings of Hansa Vilak. I acted in Bora Diya Pokuna considering the request of its young director. But I do not enjoy acting in cinema.
Q: Do you think the future of Sri Lankan theatre and cinema is hopeful and positive?
A: Yes I do. These political anarchies come to an end at a particular moment. It may not happen automatically. It is our duty to expedite that moment.
Q: Can that journey be made possible by artistes alone?
A: It is a collective journey. The discussion should be made possible by all of us.
Q: In this context, what is the responsibility of the administrative bodies?
A: The state should move beyond the state drama festival, and confining artistes to the exam papers. Knowledgeable figures rarely come to play the decisive roles. There is an intellectual vacuum in the relevant administrative positions. The culture-related issues and clashes we witnesses during the last few years were resulted because the respective administrative positions were held by some ignorant people. We are immune to this system now. Those who are not accustomed to this will find this situation uncomfortable. Once you are used to it, it is useless having conflicts with this.
Brecht says at the end of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (that has been adapted into Sinhala as Yakshaaweshya): “Do not rejoice in his (Hitler’s) defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” We told this to the Sri Lankan audience in 1994.