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DateLine Wednesday, 23 May 2007

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Mother Courage and 'Alienation'

THEATRE: We had a fairly good run of Mother Courage. It never ran like Hunuwataya or Apata Puthe. We may have had around a 100 shows. I think it will be appropriate to talk about the much misunderstood 'Alienation' at this point. Alienation is a word that came into the theatre vocabulary with the advent of Bertolt Brecht's plays.

What it means is that the audience should not get emotionally 'involved' with what they are seeing on the stage neither should they identify themselves with the characters in the play. 'This is something that happened somewhere at some time. It did not happen to the audience, not to the actors or even the playwright. See it as a story. Question it. Think about it. See if it could change your way of looking at the world...'

The tradition, particularly in the West so far, had been 'realistic' or ' what we say 'naturalistic' drama where the audience identified themselves with the characters they saw on the stage. Or they identified the characters with someone they 'knew'.

They got emotionally involved with what was taking place on the stage. It is believed that Brecht wanted to change all that. He wanted a 'wakeful' audience not a 'lulled' audience. But this is not easy. Audiences almost always went to 'enjoy' a play. Not to be 'reformed' by it.

Almost all the Theatre houses in the West, in America and certainly in Germany and Russia were built with maximum 'comfort' to the playgoer. They were heated against the cold outside. [The Theatre Season in Germany and Russia always begins with the onset of winter.]

Going to the Theatre is a very serious business in almost all these countries. They wear the best clothes for the Theatre. It is a special occasion that has been planned even months ahead.

In fact it is said in Germany and Russia that some of the older people come to the Theatre for a solid three or three and a half hours of warmth and comfort. It is a lulled atmosphere under any circumstances. Some people have even a good snooze in the process.

This was the situation that Brecht wanted to 'change'. He wanted a wakeful audience. He could not begin by pulling down all the old style 'comfortable' Theatre houses. Neither could he switch off the central heating and allow the cold wind to come in through open doors.

He had to find other means of keeping his audience wakeful and alert. He would suddenly bring on all the lights in the hall. He would keep the curtain open all the time.

Actors would come on stage still putting their make up on. The orchestra pit would be suddenly lit up and some unscheduled loud music would be played. A screen would be lowered from above and remind the audience that they are in fact inside a Theatre house.

Exciting trend

Alienation is a concept that grew, not so much with Brecht, but with his imitators. Whereas Brecht simply wanted audience attention - unemotional attention - and found ways and means of obtaining it, some of his followers both in Germany and elsewhere began bearing it like a cross over their shoulders. It became a fashion - a new and exciting trend!

They abused it so much that they nearly 'bored' the audience out of the halls. Mother Courage and Chalk Circle are two good examples where even Brecht found it difficult to keep strictly to his theory of 'Alienation'.

In both instances the characters were too life-like and too emotional to play them without involvement on the part of the actresses as well as on the part of the audience.

Any actress would find it extremely difficult to play either Mother Courage or Grusche without emotion and involvement. The mother-child relationship rises above all else in Chalk Circle. In Mother Courage her shrewdness her protective attitude, like that of a tigress, towards her children, her ingrained habit of haggling over anything and everything rises above all else.

Half way through Chalk Circle, we forget the rebellion, we care a hoot about the fate of the Kazbekis and we are fully involved as to the fate of the kitchen maid, Grusche, who is risking her very life and even her lover for the task of hiding and bringing up the abandoned child.

Half way through Mother Courage, we forget about the long religious war, we forget about the canons, we forget who is winning or who is losing the war, we forget about Generals and Commanders, but we are keen to know the fate of Mother Courage and her three children.

War-mongering words

It is said that the audiences who saw Mother Courage in its first productions openly wept for Mother Courage. In spite of his theory of alienation, Brecht had spun a character so human, so erring, so trusting and so possessive of her children that even Bretcht could not 'control' the character.

Martin Esslin says in his book 'A Choice of Evils' that Brecht had in fact changed certain scenes and added 'war-mongering' words to the character of Mother Courage.

Even THAT had not prevented the audience from becoming emotionally involved with the character of Mother Courage. Perhaps even without Brecht being aware of it he had created a character so powerful that she was beyond the control of his own theories.

He wanted the audiences to see Mother Courage a 'hyena who lives on the spoils of the war' and wanted them to despise her. But nothing of the sort happened. She was clearly a 'heroine' - a headstrong, wilful, courageous heroine to the audience!

In doing Chalk Circle and Mother Courage in Sinhala, I did not let this thing called 'alienation' bear upon me like a cross on my shoulder. I was faithful to the originals and brought out two productions that the audiences could watch and enjoy.

In any case our audiences, in most of our rag-tag Theatres hardly need to be reminded that they are, in fact, watching a play. That this is not 'reality'. There will always be the mosquitoes, the cockroaches and the bugs to remind you that you are watching a play and not in the comfort of an air conditioned hall, lulled by what is happening on the stage! If that fails, there will always be that cool cat [the four legged kind] coolly walking across the stage while the play is going on!

In any case our 'traditions' are different. In the West and the rest of the professional world, rehearsals are a sacred thing - almost. They are held under closed doors and no outsiders are allowed in. So to the audience every new play is a 'surprise'.

In our case, we rehearse at any available place - open or otherwise and certainly not behind closed doors. So within a week everybody knows that so and so is doing such and such a play.

Even at village level when a Gammaduwa or a Vesak or Poson play is rehearsed the entire village joins in. Even the makeshift hall or Gammaduwa itself is a community effort.

The whole village will know who plays the part of the Prince, the King, the Villain, the Princess etc. Those being our 'roots' we don't need any Western manoeuverings to remind our audiences that they are watching a play.

About making a 'change' in the thinking of the audience, I seriously don't think that happens either. It might inspire others to 'do' a play, but I rather doubt that the general thinking of the audience undergoes any 'sea change'. If that were so seeing a play like 'The Dragon' (Makara) should have changed the whole polity of the country. Hamlet and Macbeth should have made more resolute and better Kings, Queens and Princes in today's world.

Sinhala awakening

Sometimes, given a particular period of time it works. I am sure John de Silva's plays brought about a 'Sinhala Awakening' at that time. But we never totally got rid of the 'Kalu Suddas' who are still among us. Prof. Sarachchandra's Maname filled a void in the Sinhala Theatre of that time and opened new vistas - culturally. But the imitations were so bad that they nearly knocked off the Nadgam tradition that the professor so painstakingly remodelled.

Coming back to our own Mother Courage (Diriya Mava) it was performed in almost all the major cities and towns in the country. Strangely enough it was received extremely well in places such as Negombo, Chilaw, Nattandiya and Bandarawela.

It is possible that the Christians, being familiar with the religious wars, understood its conflict better than the others. I remember a particular performance in Bandarawela where the audience shouted 'Tavat oya wage naatyayak genenna! {Bring another play like that!} Incidentally it was at Bandarawela that Lionel Fernando, who had been away from the country saw his wife, Somalatha, perform Mother Courage for the first time.

He joined us in our trip. That day we gave the matinee performance to Manel and gave the main show to Somalatha. I must say she did extremely well - perhaps because her husband was in the audience!

The songs and music in Diriya Mava were so down to earth and pithy that I did not employ a 'Music Master' to create the tunes. I created the tunes together with Leslie Fonseka - leader of our orchestra, who played the harmonium. I must say they went down very well. So, dear readers, I have created some 'music' too, although I cannot play a note!

'Diriya Mawa' was revived twice more. Once by Somalatha Subasinghe - she herself playing the role of Mother Courage and later, in 2006 - 34 years after our first production - it was revived by Anoja Weerasinghe, with her ABHINA group of players where Anoja herself played Mother Courage.

Of course she got Maestro Premasiri Khemadasa to create a totally new score of music and she got Ajantha Ranasinghe to rewrite some of the lyrics. Perhaps mine were not good enough!

Thought of the week

Last Sunday, in one of the newspapers, I read a soul stirring story for a change. Open any newspaper and all you get are soul searing news. Air attacks, bomb explosions, disappearances, hostage takings, murders, robberies, rapes, harassments, child abuse, so many killed in Iraq, so many all over the world, car bombs, landmines - in fact all the mayhem one could think of.

It reads like the whole world is on a rampage of revenge. The TV, radio or any other media is no better. There is hardly anything to make a person happy at least for that day.

This particular story on Sunday, the 13th was a report of a marriage - not an ordinary marriage but a very extraordinary one. The marriage was sealed with a toe on the part of the groom. The man, A.Ratnayake from Gomarankadawela, had joined the army in 1987.

He lost both his arms and his sight to a pressure mine in Mullaitivu in 1991. He was treated and joined the Ranaviru Sevana where with colleagues of similar misfortune he found a new life - 'I realized life was not all over'.

Then this 39-year-old man met K. Kumudulatha - an ex-national athlete- at a wedding. She fell in love with the man and they got married amidst family and friends in her hometown, Mihintale. Says she :- "I am a religious person and my dream was to find a faithful husband and I have found one in Ratnayake.I will look after him all my life." I have no doubt they will be looked after by the Good Gods too and that they will always have the blessings of the Triple Gem.

I am so glad that such soul-stirring things happen too in this tangled, deranged world!

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