The post-factual playwright

Issue No: 117

I recently discovered an interesting statistic. I have written at least one play a year since 1996. Some of these are school plays, some of these are children’s plays. Some won awards, some were commercial hits, some sit unfinished. Some years were good, some were slow. However, through thick and thin, through exams and through personal disasters, through the IT boom in Bengaluru, the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and the 2016 US elections, the muse of theatre simply kept prodding me along.

At first this stamina was fuelled by the noble pursuit of truth. The ephemeral kind that happens when a word penned in solitude, somehow translated by directors, actors, designers, audience, becomes the perfect moment. A moment that remains. The English playwright Sarah Kane is quoted as saying, “… theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts… I keep coming back in the hope that someone in a darkened room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind”. We all have those moments in the theatre. I still remember a performance of Khalid Tyabji’s The Fool’s Song at the Alliance Francaise in Bengaluru in 1995, It was one of the reasons I was drawn to the theatre. There is no reason why one should remember any one moment in that play, where Tyabji transmutes from character to character as a fool who has lost his hat, who is thrust into an incomprehensible dream world, which is in fact the real world full of hypocrisy! There is no reason why I should remember a moment when Tyabji transforms into a woman, praying, only to be bothered by a mosquito! Yet, that image remains.

At some point the stamina shifted into a quest to understand the world. The existential search for meaning is all well and good. As long as one is in a comfortable cafe, drinking coffee, healthy and not particularly broke. The injustices of the world require a little more engagement! It requires an understanding of how and why the world is the way it is. How is it that some have so much, while others have so little? How did the 1% get there? What causes war and conflict? Is it the grind of nations and states colliding, or the fundamental nature of violence? Harold Pinter was the playwright that triggered me on this search. In 2007, with ten other playwrights from all over the world, I was part of a heady political discussion on the various social issues with which we were all engaged. In a moment of soaring internationalism Pinter held up a glass of champagne and all of us playwrights toasted to, “The Truth!”

When I began to take on post-modern themes in my dramaturgy, this pursuit too began to waver. I began to question the pact between audience and performers. Truth was no longer singular, it was a matter of perspective. Universal stories were fine, but the universal is not found in some rarified ether stripped of references and markers of time and place. The universal was found in the particular, in the granular, in the microscopic details of a very specific subject.

I began to stress the shapes of my plays with the ideas I was engaging. In one piece the narrative darted backwards and forward in time to show the fallibility of memory in relationships. A new piece of information when it arrives in a scene, changes our perspective on the relationship, on the events prior. What was true and real a moment ago, is no longer true – this is the playing out of betrayal. I began to work with the idea of unreliable narrators and frame narratives. What if the narrator and the sutradhar, those important intermediaries between the action and the audience, were not in fact being truthful! I began to struggle with the problems of minimalism. Minimalism, paraphrasing David Mamet, is the question of how much one can take away from a composition and still have it coherent. How much of the performance can be stripped away? How many of the conventions of what we understand to be theatre, be upturned, while still retaining the pact with the audience?

These questions do not have direct answers, but at this moment one must really think about the kinds of shared experiences we are creating as playwrights. The current global political climate requires those of us working with collective emotions to think about what and why we do what we do. Critical or commercial, traditional or experimental, on the political spectrum from right to left – the drift away from facts and reasoned argument should worry us.

In his world theatre address of 2002, Girish Karnad describes the Myth of the First Performance presented by Bharata, depicting the triumph of the gods over the demons. The Myth speaks much of the hate speech we witness on a daily basis and the quick resort to physical violence that is so much the preferred response to silence dissent. Karnad highlights the many forms of drama present in the world, but says “while these forms can engage or even enrage the audience, in none of them can the viewer’s response alter the artistic event itself. The Myth of the First Performance points out that in theatre, the playwright, the performers and the audience form a continuum, but one which will always be unstable and therefore potentially explosive.”

As I grind into year 21, stamina, quests, formal experiments and searches have given way to the only constant – change. The theatre is the site of transformation. A place where the social continuum reinvents itself, rediscovers itself. Our current media worlds are echo chambers. We hear what we want to hear, and are encouraged to hear and share, more of what we already know. I find myself turning away from the post-isms and the radicals, and back to the Enlightenment philosophers. To listen to the other, to understand a point of view, to debate the facts and to have one’s mind changed… these ought to be the basics of public discourse. It seems odd to think of the theatre, ordinarily a site of passion, as the place for this. Perhaps like the fool who has lost his hat, one has to adapt to the vagaries of the times, incomprehensible as they may be. When the politicians have taken up theatrics and spectacle in new form, perhaps it is time for playwrights to take up informed debate and reason.

Ram Ganesh Kamatham is co-editor of e-Rang. He is a playwright and director with the Actors Ensemble India Forum. He writes on arcane themes like globalisation, dramaturgy and arts management.

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