The Question of Relevance
language thesaurus says that relevance means admissible, apposite,
appropriate, pertinent, proper, related, significant, suited,
to the purpose. English lexicon describes relevant as connected
with and, therefore by implication, justified.
of the words, quoted above from the Thesaurus and the description
given in the English lexicon, indicate a set of societal value
judgments. While dealing with as fluid and subjective an art
form as theatre, imposition of or recourse to value judgment
might seem slightly over-bearing. And, also, given the words
mentioned above to describe relevance it might seem that we
would be calling for too rigid and orthodox a value judgment
to intimidate as dynamic and dialectic a medium as theatre.
For, theatre cannot be bound by values like apposition, appropriateness,
suitability or significance just as literature or painting could
not be contained by such values.
automatically mean that theatre is anarchic? It is devoid of
discipline? Order? Organised process of thought and action?
Far from it. Theatre is a very orderly and disciplined expression
of, at times, very undisciplined, very chaotic and almost anarchic
feelings. It is necessary, hence, to seek a historical or pre-historical
analysis of theatre being, or not being, relevant to a given
time or society.
It is often
said that stage is the mirror of life. The socialist realists
amended this to say, "stage is the mirror of the society".
Be its, relevance, social or otherwise, automatically emerges,
the moment we look for life or human interaction on the stage.
the phrase is an abstraction. It is well nigh impossible to
bring all the dimensions encompassed by this small word 'life'
within the confines of a connotation. What connotes 'life'?
Culture with all its components like religion, language, social
norms, rituals, human interaction? Or psyche driven-abstractions
like love, hate, aspirations, ambitions, jealousy-- so on and
so forth? In fact all these. Just as, in Phyllis Hartnoll's
words, " the origins of theatre go back far into the past
to the religious rites of the earliest communities "through
the passion play of Abydors, "which recounts the death,
burial and resurrection of the god Osiris that smacks of a "corporate
religious exercise" to immortal Shakespeare plays with
"Amazingly varied style and scope, ranging from tragedy
to comedy with excursions into history, tragic-comedy and pastoral".
All these are life.
sake of convenience and to avoid being way ward I would like
to keep this discussion focused on a selected number of playwrights
to drive home the issue of relevance as it was or is, if at
all, embodied in theatre. Let us take Sophocles, for example.
known and acclaimed plays transcend the dictates of time or
age. Of the great Greek playwrights his plays deal with the
"subtleties of human character in relations between people...".
He has been described as "more humane, more closely concerned
with the complexities of human relationship". It was, perhaps,
Sophocles who for the first time observed and examined fellow
human beings as closely as a social scientist, or a psychologist,
if you may please. Positioned against the back-drop of an ancient
society Sophocles was obviously aware of the role that fate,
belief in the supernatural, gods etc. played in human life.
But, it would be exceedingly interesting to observe that in
the scheme of things within the plots of his plays it's the
characters of his that led the fate to take its toll rather
than fate itself initiating the tragedy. In Sophocles’ tragedies,
at times, one could pause and see in one's mind’s eyes the playwright
having the last laugh at what befell his characters much to
the chagrin of the vintage exponents of nemesis.
intrigues in Shakespearean plays even today seem blood chilling
to people who are subject to similar predicaments, especially
in the third world societies.
at this point to share a personal experience with you. On March
23, 1983 Martial Law was clamped in Bangladesh. Soon afterwards,
Shakespeare's Macbeth, jointly produced by Theatre and Nagorik
had it's premier show at the local British Council auditorium.
The British Council authorities, the sponsors of the play, invited
one of the Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrators to be the
Chief Guest in this maiden staging of the play. I was acting
as Macbeth. It was the beginning of Act-III, Scene-1. The Chief
Guest was seated right there in the middle of the front row.
I took off the crown from my head, observed it with full concentration
and quietly, almost reflectively uttered my lines "to be
thus is nothing; but to be safely thus". The entire audience
was gasping for breath. It's one of those profound moments of
silence that speaks a million words.
only one voice that was heard. It was that of our Chief Guest.
He blurted out a dry, shrilly laughter. I could immediately
fathom his discomfiture. It was as if he was repeating the line....
“But to be safely thus”. The line must have nightmarishly crossed
his mind, "But to be SAFELY thus"? There was historically,
linguistically, culturally nothing in common between the Scottish
usurper and the Bangladeshi General except for the fact that
both had overstepped their authority and defiled humanity.
Tagore, one of our greatest playwrights, has dwelt upon subjects
like fanaticism, bigotry, authority, greed and all those human
aberrations that have reduced the lives of the modern day human
beings to microcosm of total catastrophies. Take his play Achalayatan
for example. The play is a legal attack on the bigotry of an
entrenched religion with its numbing control of the mind of
man. Tagore unleashes a virulent attack on this with the weapon
of devastating sarcasm. In his play Muktodhara, where
authority is passively defined under the leadership of the wandering
hermit , Dhananjay Bairagi, who has the audacity of telling
the king, " You may have an access to my surplus food but
you have no right to touch the food that appeases my hunger"
amply relates to the defiance of authority when human existence
is put to jeopardy. This play, in a parallel level, also deals
with the conflict between man and machine.
Of the eminent
playwrights of the world the most relevant, as it would rightly
seem is, perhaps, Bertolt Brecht. Indeed more relevant for the
third world societies than the developed world. In his plays,
crime, drink, rape, murder, prostitution, mob violence, nothing
is spared. All these are as evident in today's strife-torn society
as they were when Brecht wrote his plays. We might have, nearly
fifty years back, raised our eyebrows in skepticism when Brecht
had the guts to say “Man's fate is man himself”. Today, living
in a society forever plagued by an impressive array of transgression
we have painfully realised that all our misfortunes have been
borne out by our fellow human beings.
works, at times appearing almost naive, brought together the
three most important components of human life, in fact human
existence, i.e. ethics, politics and economics. "it is
no good”, says MOTHER courage in her "Song of the Great
Surrender", adopting positions which one cannot hold. And
here again rises the whole question of the social conditions:
the question posed in the Three penny Opera & St. Joan of
the Stockyard, and, most persistently in the Good Person of
Szechwan, with its moral that in a competitive society goodness
is often suicidal.
Principles or people are what they appear". The theatrical
possibilities of this continual fluidity of our world occurred
in Pirandello too, but in Brecht's case the social and moral
aspects are much more clearly pointed out. The ethical confusion
of a confused society means the evil actions may be undertaken
from good intentions, or that good actions may have evil consequences,
or that evil intentions may be thrust on men who carry them
out laboriously and with reluctance: that the individual himself
is often a peculiar mixture of extreme good and extreme bad.
Anyone may become Shen Teh and Puntilla and, less schematically,
Mother courage, as having two conflicting sides. This suits
both Brecht's conception of the dialectic and his own instinct
for sharp oppositions.
the above analysis seems very close to Bangladesh interpreter's
own vision of Brecht or close to his comprehension of Brecht
then the relevance of Brecht in Bangla theatre does not need
so far, endeavored to present the fact that theatre, like any
other creative art, is as relevant as life itself.
is what we think of the question of relevance in theatre, why
do we then question its validity? I think there exists an enormous
confusion between relevance and topicality. Now, topical is
not unacceptable, Brecht was topical. So were Becket, Osborne,
Stoppard, Albee so on and so forth. But, and it is a big BUT,
topical plays must be able to surpass time or space of its creation
and lend support to an universal and time tested psychological
and physical feeling. Just as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Tagore,
Brecht, Ibsen, Chekov have. They have been able to ignore self-limiting
topical appeal and emerged as universally acceptable creators
beyond time and space.
that is brought about by the socio-political dynamics here,
in itself, is rife with such exciting elements of drama that
may tempt a playwright to hold an eager court with topicality.
As I have discussed, topicality does not have to be inconsequential
in theatre provided 'that' topicality does not interfere with
creativity to an extent that the play of today dies an unsung
In the foregoing
paragraphs I have endeavored to focus on the fact that relevance
is almost intrinsic to any great work of art just as life is
intrinsic to art. Relevance is, if I may be allowed to submit,
not a question but an inevitability.