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April 9, 2004

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The Question of Relevance in Theatre

Aly Zaker

The english 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.

Each one 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.

Does this 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.

Now, 'life', 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.

For the 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.

His most 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.

The palace intrigues in Shakespearean plays even today seem blood chilling to people who are subject to similar predicaments, especially in the third world societies.

Permit me 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.

There was 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.

Rabindranath 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.

Brecht's 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.

"Neither 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.

Now, if 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 further exploration.

I have, so far, endeavored to present the fact that theatre, like any other creative art, is as relevant as life itself.

If this 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.

The dialectic 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 death tomorrow.

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.




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