15 September 2012

Going postal at an evening with Ernest Macintyre

People read a lot. Some write too.  Some talk about what they’ve read and some talk about writing.  Such conversations are interesting, provided that those who talk know what they are talking about.  Whenever I attend events where literature is talked about, I lament that I don’t attend enough of them.  

It was nice to listen to Ernest Macintyre speak about his work, theatre and drama (two things, according to him), the people he worked with and those who inspired him.  The event was titled ‘A Gratiaen Evening with Ernest Macintyre’, organized by the Gratiaen Trust and the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. 
This is not a ball-by-ball thing, but let me say that Macintyre was eloquent, precise in response, dramatic in line with audience and venue, and humble.  He painted himself as an ordinary man who had done something he enjoyed doing.  He acknowledged the key figures, giants in their own right, association with whom had helped shape who he became.  He took us from Peradeniya to Australia, Colombo to Jaffna and back, without jumping around but in fact smoothly navigating era and style, prerogative and engagement, weaving through and with the play of language, politics, theatrical device and such.  He was not prescriptive; he kept things open as perhaps they should be. 

One line captured my imagination.  It referred to the ‘purpose’ of theatre (or any art for that matter).  Someone had said that if you want to send a message, go to the post office.  In other words, theatre was not for ‘messaging’. 
It’s an old debate of course.  In Sri Lanka, ‘purpose’ is ‘message’.  The prescriptive drive often directs the play, novel, song, film and other creative pursuits.  At the Gratiaen Awards 2008, one of the judges lamented that the submissions did not engage enough with contemporary political issues, as though it was a ‘must’.  I believe I said around that time that it cannot be that people were being judged for their politics; that it is the literary worth that ought to be assessed.  

In Sri Lanka a lot of people go to the post office.  There are dramatists, authors, film-makers, painters and other artists who feel compelled to do the political, so to speak.  It is not a coincidence that such exercises are often funded by various agencies.  We know that it is not for love of art or the furtherance of understanding of the human condition that prompt such generosity.  Indeed the more pernicious of that particular political economy is the ‘necessity’ to vilify certain communities and faiths, or in the very least cast them in caricature, in order to win accolades in international festivals.  That’s a market.  And that market drives. 

No, such things were not discussed at the ICES last evening.  I remembered, though, Gunadasa Amarasekera’s short novel ‘Gal pilimaya saha bol pilimaya (The solid statue and the hollow statue)’, which was a story that spoke of human relations and invariable spoke to the politics of the time.  It was not prescriptive.  A sequel, published several years later (‘Pilima lovin piyavi lovata’, or ‘From the statue-world to reality’) was self-consciously political.  ‘Project’ underlined the entire narrative.  The nuances of human relations and the societal matrix in which they are played out suffered.   My contention was that if you relate a story, the politics within will get written anyway.  It won’t be in-your-face.  It will be palatable because it is fundamentally laced with humility and gives reader/audience decision and agency. 
Prof. Gananath Obeysekera, during the discussion, made a valid and important observation.  Using examples of various kinds of theatre, he pointed out that ‘message’ was central, suggesting that ‘going to the post office’ doesn’t make that kind of ‘theatre’ lesser in any way.  A couple of others brought in ‘theatre workshops’ and how they play in the political engagement of the oppressed.  Prof. Obeysekera’s  concern was that there seemed to be a certain ‘essentializing’ happening regarding what is theatre, or what theatre ought to be.  I think he made his point. 

It occurred to me then that what we have is not essentializing but essentializings, i.e. in the plural, in other words a politics of definition.   
For me, everything is theatre, everything poetry, everything is sculpted, everything painted.  We transcribe in our innocence and we break tree into sun, air, fertilizer, water and so on and call it one or the other.  We piece together torn love-letters and exclaim ‘Heart!’  It takes nothing from element and nothing from the whole.  We can say ‘message’ if we like.  We can choose to read as we will.  If someone makes a few buck, what harm?  If someone feels good, great.  Delusion is an unguent and if that takes away the throb, who’s to say ‘false ideology!’?  The post office brings multiple messages to us and we string them up and call it theatre.  That’s also true. That’s also ‘essentializing’, Prof Obeysekera might say.    

There’s theatre everywhere, only we don’t pin the label unless the familiar props stare us in the face.   All this is known and was known long before Brecht came along.  ‘All the world’s a stage’ can’t be an unfamiliar line.  ‘Tis all a checkerboard of nights and days where destiny with men for pieces play,’ Omar Khayyam put it in far more alluring terms. 
Ernest Macintyre got the last word and it stuck because it was also (all things considered) the first word: ‘natya’ (theatre) and ‘lok’ (world) are one.  That’s what the ancients knew and said.   And, following Siddhartha Gauthama, one can say that if you cling too tight to one or the other, you lose the plot.