For the survival of theatre.

March 2, 2017 § 1 Comment

The aesthetic gravity has shifted from the written text toward the production as a whole. No longer

it is ‘drama’ with its overtones of literary art but it is ‘ the theatre’ or ‘the stage’ referring to the

entire activity. A director as an identifiable artist did not exist before the last quarter of the 19th

century either in the West or East. Does anyone know who directed ‘Hamlet’ during the Elizabethan

period or the contemporary of Kalidasa who directed ‘Shakuntalam’? Only if there had been a

director in those days endowed with the kind of theatre sense we associate with him, as of now,

these plays would have been reduced to half their size, with the consent of the playwrights, of

course, and the loss would not have been much except some glorious lines of immortal


Do we not know that our modern playwrights Samuel Beckett, Jean Anouilh, Jean Genet, Eugene

Ionesco and a host of others have only written production scripts and their texts do not draw

attention to themselves by their style to evoke an imaginative response but instead, their style is so

self-effacing that it gives the impression of merely doing the function of performed plays? The accent

is not on words and this willingness of the playwrights to regard the dramatic compositions as

pretexts for actors’ performances, would be hard to imagine in Sophocles, Shakespeare or


Peter Brook says:

‘Anouilh conceives his plays as ballets, as patterns of movement, as pretexts for actors’ performances.

unlike so many present-day playwrights who are descendents of a literary school, and whose

plays are animated novels, Anouilh is in the tradition of the commedia dell’arte. His plays are recorded

improvisations. Like Chopin, he preconceives the accidental and calls it impromptu. He is a poet,

but not a poet of words: he is a poet of words –acted, of scenes-set, of players’- performing’.

Perhaps, modern playwrights assert their right to compose the whole play for the stage by

anticipating every last detail of a production and leave little room for the director to edit what they

have written.

When I read ‘Waiting for Godot’ for the first time, as a playwright myself, I felt Beckett’s prose

was bland and uninspiring. Then I realized that I should not have read it the way I read a novel or

a conventional play with literary nuances but read it again as a poetry of words-acted, of scenes-set, of

players’-performing. Once I did it, there was a sudden transformation in me and I experienced that

I was not reading a play but seeing it. The play reads more like balletic notation than like literature,

and this effect is not a result merely of the unusual quantity of instructions for the actors. It is rather

a matter of the imaginative priorities which are established at the start and maintained throughout.

The dialogue, that is, derives most of its literary eloquence from the rhythm of stage business; the

emotions are expressed in movements and gestures before they are put into words. This is the method,

not a man of letters, but of an actor expressing the vision of a director.

I am not saying that the modern director is responsible for the modern playwrights writing production

scripts sans literature for the sake of acceptance by the likes of Peter Brook, who has ,as he himself

once said that he has contempt for ‘the descendents of a literary school’ .Of course, modern directors

have transfigured purely logical and literary meanings of modern texts by their imaginative, technical

skill. They have given new theatrical life and often a contemporary import to the classics which were in

danger of sinking into the category of mere oddities of archival value. They have rescued the stage

from the tyranny of star performers who tore a passion to tatters by their unrestrained virtuosity,

which often was the case in the 20th century theatre till the fifties and sixties. They have, in fact,

introduced organic unity in productions that eliminated a good deal of tiresome and inartistic

vanity of individual performers.

But one cannot overrule the possibility of an over-ambitious director spoiling an excellent play by

burdening it and distorting it with production tricks designed to call the audience’s attention to his

own cleverness. Some modern directors grow weary of language and they suggest a gesture can

say anything. What has Maurice Bejart has said is worth quoting in this regard. He says: ‘ A gesture

can say anything-but you must have something to say’. And that is precisely the intention of the

playwright, who communicates through language; he has something to say. The director must not forget

that he is only an interpreter, an innovative one at that through the visual medium.

Even when the playwrights intentions are not deliberately ignored by the director, they are likely to

get lost on an audience that is distracted by the sheer novelty or ingenuity of the production. In short,

innovation is not to overwhelm significance.

The 20th century dream of an integrated, signifying type of production using all the stage’s resources-

what some of its promoters call, ‘total theatre’ –is by no means entirely new. Most of the minority

theatre in Europe around 1900, convinced that the 19th century playwrights, performers, and decorators

had lost touch with real people and contemporary predicaments, were fervently naturalistic in outlook

and method. Their ideas have since been diluted and commercially processed in the majority theatre

and used to justify realistic veneer for romantic evasions and sentimental comedies.

And precisely at this period, they have been violently challenged by the avant-gardists and rear gardists.

But that naturalism is still a force cannot be doubted. One has only to think of details in the works of

such prominent post-Second World War playwrights as Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, John Osborne,

Jean Paul Sartre, and our own post-independence authors like Mohan Rakesh, Dharam Veer Bharati,

Vijay Tendulkar and a host of others.

Why ,then, did ‘the Naturalistic Theatre’ seem to have become an inadequate label for modern drama,

particularly in the second half of the 20th century?

In the later half of the 20th century, the Western stage was greatly influenced by the Oriental theatre.

In India, we had great playwrights in the classical Sanskrit and not in the regional languages of the

country in the past. There were visual splendours outlined by music and dance in the regional

theatre but there was no literary tradition of play-writing in the regional languages of India. In my

opinion, ‘Cilappadikaaram’, the earliest epic in Tamil , written around the 5th century A.D, was

conceived by the author as a play but composed as an epic because of the lack of literary credibility

for the dramatic forms. This may be the reason why Tamil did not adapt or translate the Sanskrit plays

till the 19th century, whereas most of the other Sanskritic works have the Tamil version from time

immemorial.’ Cilappadikaram’ mentions various theatrical forms of which most of them are now

extinct in Tamilnadu but which still constitute the intrinsic aspect of Kerala theatre. The vital aspect

of this folk theatre does not depend upon its texts but on its visual appeal, the dynamic nature of its

performance, its symbolic and abstract Nowhere settings, its cosmological time, its stylized acting

methods and its for ever green contemporariness in narration in spite of retelling an old puranic


This kind of Oriental theatre appealed to the Western avant-gardists. For them the world had become

suddenly absurd and as Alison says in ‘ Look back in anger’, ‘ something has gone wrong somewhere’.

How does one project this on the stage? For this, they found the naturalistic theatre of the West with its

obsessive conformity to the literary texts, classical logic and chronological time was totally inadequate.

No longer it is possible for all of us in the world, thanks to globalization in art and commerce, to

convince ourselves that there is God in heaven and all is right with the world. The Eastern theatre

by its very nature of performance breaks the barrier of illusion and reality between the stage and

audience, which we find, has to a large extent influenced the Western playwrights and

directors. Whether life is the reality and theatre an illusion or the theatre is the reality and life

an illusion may after all be a point of view. We are simply told to stop fooling ourselves about

ourselves, about society, about the meaning of life and the universe and about the theatre,

which after all is merely make-believe of which you are also a part.

This message emerges very clearly in the work of Brecht, Ionesco, and Beckett, who are usually

considered the most modern of playwrights and whose ideas and methods have been filtering around

the theatrical world in the later half the 20th century and even now. Brecht in such plays as Galileo,

Mother Courage, The Caucassan Chalk Circle and ‘The Good Woman of SeZuan’ is the master of

throwing cold water on our ardour to believe in political and moral realities. His bleak wit, elaborate

playhouse irony, and frequently inconsistent characterizations are particularly destructive of the

bourgeois-liberal idea of the individual. To be fair, I suppose one ought to add that as a Marxist he

was aiming at the construction of a new system of values and a new, more just society; but the fact is

that his drama appears to destroy appears to destroy the basis for ‘Soviet man; as thoroughly as it

does other kinds of idealism. Maybe, he seems to believe in theatrically is that of the apolitical,

amoral human animal ‘Mother Courage’, for example.

Ionesco , notably in Rhinoceros, Chairs, and ‘The Lesson’ derides conventional ambitions and personal,

family, and social relationships; his usual method is to combine a fantastic farce with a Dada-surreal

babbling of the commonplaces of modern conversation. In fact, he would provide an excellent copy

for a modern director to work on, there are no texts but only pretexts. There is very little dramatic

action in Beckett’s plays, to show that life is a meaningless treadmill.

Occasionally, a modern playwright draws the drastic conclusion to such iconoclasm; Willy Loman

in ‘The death of the salesman’ drives his car off the road for good, and the old couple in ‘The Lesson’

jump out of the window. More than not, however, we are let off with a warning to go and fool ourselves

no more. Upon on what basis are we to live after we have lost our old certitudes and have found no new

ones. Since scientific facts are irrelevant in a value realm of discourse-explicit in several of the modern

plays- that we must learn to live stoically on a strictly as-if basis. Examined closely, this basis turns out

to be a substitution of ‘aesthetic belief’ for ‘religious faith’, moral conviction and philosophical

reason. Not that purely aesthetic values are recommended or preached. But their strictly negative

critique of inauthenticity does come down to a suggestion, conscious or unconscious, that to live

successfully in the contemporary era we must believe and not believe, which is precisely what we do

in experiencing a work of art.

This raises several questions. The Alison of ‘Look back in anger’ seems to have a point. Something has

wrong somewhere. But where? Is destructive pessimism, which, when not suicidal, leads to an

ambiguous doctrine of wide-awake make-believe, a symptom of something that has gone wrong merely

in the modern theatre? Merely among the exiles and alienated eccentrics of the minority theatre?

Or else how do you explain that playwrights like Beckett with immense talents comparable to

Shakespeare merely draws sketches in pale Irish prose to create a universe not unequal to what the

earlier master had already done in unparalleled verse? Has the world suddenly become absurd? Has

it been privatized to the point of turning into a farcical dream? Symptoms which are very similar to

today’s can be found in Western drama a long way back. In ‘Tempest’ it is implicated that the world is

a stage and life is a dream. Does not even such an apparently separate phenomenon as the shift in

emphasis from the text to production, where illusion can proclaim itself as illusion, fit nearly into the

large pattern? The modern plays with texts as pretexts to convey this idea of illusion being illusion

and the world a stage, have stepped into the realm of philosophy ,whereas they were once in the

psychological and naturalistic pedestal. Lionel Abel would call this as metatheatre.

As for the absurdity or non-absurdity of the world, it will always lie partly in the eye of the beholder.

There is also the possibility that what is absurd will turn out to be the beholder. There are indeed

strains in today’s playhouse pessimism which can set the teeth of a reasonably tough mind on edge.

There is a lot of self-pity, a lot of pointless hide-and-seek with appearance and reality, a lot of

neo-Romantic appointment with the alleged death of God, a lot of illogical despair over the loss of

value systems which were in fact never capable of surviving serious examination.

I cannot predict what is going to happen in the future. Now that the western theatre has recycled

our own folk theatrical methods of production and sold them back to us under various labels, we need

asking ourselves about the life expectancy of these bastardized forms. Pushed only a little further,

Brechet’s demonstration-style acting, playhouse irony, and ‘loose’ epic form must result in the

break-up of drama into mere narration and mere spectacle- at best a puppet show. Ionesco’s

attack on conventional language and texts cannot be carried much further without destroying the

literary ingredient in drama altogether. Brecht’s anti-heroic tendencies and his insistence on depicting

the end of a story- the end of man’s history- can be ‘developed’ only into a rejection of all dramatic


I am not painting a gloomy picture but we need to think about balancing the form and content and

not at the cost of one for the other.


§ One Response to For the survival of theatre.

  • John Looker says:

    I have found your article most thought-provoking, Indira Parthasarathy. At first I took your theme to be drama and the theatre, and on one level it is; that is where you begin and end. Along the way however you share thoughts about life and belief in the modern world. I particularly noted this remark: “in the contemporary era we must believe and not believe, which is precisely what we do in experiencing a work of art.” That is a gloriously compressed epigram for the reader to take away!

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