By Saumya Liyanage –
The majority of theatergoers in Sri Lanka were saddened by the news circulated on social and print media that veteran actor, playwright and a director Jayalath Manorathne has passed away in the early hours of 12th Jan 2020. Many Facebook notes and obituaries started being shared on the net. After a few hours, the news was verified by some of is close acquaintances confirming that Manorathne has passed away. I thought of writing this short paper not as a mere tribute to a veteran actor but to provoke my readers to rethink about what Jayalath Manorathne has contributed to the Sri Lankan Sinhala speaking theatre. Further, I want to explore his acting practice with the light of some of the theoretical stances brought from contemporary performance practice. This would shed a light to further studies on a self-taught actor who has concurred the Sir Lankan theatre for the last five decades. Therefore my intention in this paper is to provide a few clues to understand Manorathne and his legacy of theatre performance and show a way of theorizing his psychophysical approaches to character portrayal in order for us to enliven his legacy and career for the next generation of actors.
As an Actor, Manorathne has been working in the Sri Lankan theatre and visual media for over four decades and his contribution to the performing arts culture in this country is immeasurable and incalculable. His intervention in various characters he has portrayed along with his own theatre productions depicts his versatile performative ability to transform as an entertainer. He has performed many characters in Sarachchandra’s stylistic plays and also performed roles in dialogue dramas that were a rebuttal against the stylistic tradition germinated in nineteen 50s. He continued his theatre performance until he got severely ill and during his treatments, he never left the theatre, but performed his final enactment until he finally resided on bed.
Theatre criticism in Sri Lanka has not paid much attention to actors work and how theatre actors have contributed to enhance the theatre and directorial work. Similarly theatre actors and film actors’ creative interventions have not been critically evaluated or considered as a major part of the creative process of theatre or film making. This marginalization of actors work on stage has been significantly visible in the history of Sri Lankan theatre and Manorathne’s acting practice also has not been very much discussed in this limited literature. However, a few writers have written about Manorathne’s approaches to theatre acting and these writings have unintentionally misled the reader by contextualizing Manorathne within the naturalistic acting practice. For instance, Ranjith Dharmakeerthi articulates Manorathne’s acting legacy as a reflection of ‘Method’ and this Method acting tradition is also incorrectly referred as Stanislavski tradition of acting. Surprisingly, Dharmakeerthi argues that the finest example of an actor who follows Stanislavski’s ‘Method Acting’ is Jayalath Manorathne (Dharmakeerthi 1992, p. 147). I have discussed this theoretical confusion elsewhere (Liyanage 2016). Further Dharmakeerthi continues to say that Neumann Jubal had gone through Stanislavski’s acting practice (he does not say where and how) and had brought this ‘method’ to Sri Lanka to train Sri Lankan actors. Again this assumption is also very vague and cannot be justifiable as Jubal came to Sri Lanka and worked at the University of Peradeniya in early fifties and Stanislavski passed away in 1930s. There are no documented evidence that Moscow Arts Theatre had foreign students under Stanislavski and passed down his practices to them except his close disciples such as Richard Boleslavsky, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Michael Chekhov. However, such a conclusion that actors like Manorathne and a few others have been influenced by Numann Jubal and Stanislavski’s ‘Method’ is a crude assumption or hypothesis that one cannot be justifiable or verified.
Hemasiri Liyanage produced a play titled ‘Chithrage Premakathawa’ (The Love Story of Chithra) and premiered it in 1982. Manorathne played a vital role in the play. The play was very much controversial at the time in terms of its form and content and the play depicted much of sexual politics of Sri Lankan social arena. My father has a scrap book in which he has collected many archival documents and papers on his theatre practices. While going through this collection I found a very special letter. This special letter was sent by late Gamini Haththetuwegama, veteran theatre activist and a critique, and in this letter he writes:
‘Hemasiri, I liked your play. It was very inventive and free. Mano was brilliant. The general standard was pleasing. This is your best play and close to our work. Mano was like a good street drama actor – very flexible and very free’ (Letter dated 06.03.1982).
Haththetuwegama here refers to Manorathne’s performance in ‘Chithrage Premakathawa’ and he identifies the overall characteristic of Manorathne’s performance as ‘brilliant’ because his performance resemblance of a ‘street theatre actor’. As an experimental theatre work, the acting style of Chithrage Premakathawa signifies estrangement (Verfremdung) approaches to acting. It is undoubted that Manorathne has embodied the desired acting style that this particular theatre work demanded. Further, Haththetuwegama sees Manorathne’s performance as ‘free’ and ‘flexible’ because of his ability to be in the enactment as a ‘street actor’. Unlike realistic dramas, Street drama actor in general depicts the disengagement with the ‘dramatic situation’ and he is detached from the familiarity of character portrayal. Street actor’s direct engagement with the immediate audience and his ability to perform and spontaneous improvisation create ‘autopoietic feedback loop’ between the actor and the onlooker that the proscenium actor cannot imagine within the conventional Cartesian theatre. In this sense, Manorathne’s acting legacy therefore needs further analysis to understand how this unique actor’s performance regime represents the acting tradition that promulgated theory of estrangement than the emotional engagement in acting.
Paradox in Acting
After I received the news of Manorathne’s demise, many theatre lovers and general public started posting various notes, poetry, statements and quotes from Shakespeare and expressed their gratitude to the late actor. Among those Facebook posts, my attention was drawn to a particular video clip of a movie where Manorathne faces the camera and spontaneously performs various emotional transformations. This video clips seem to be an extract from Dr Indika Ferdinando’s debut film, ‘ho gaana pokuna’, in which Manorathne played a lead role as a bus driver. What remembers me of this particular video clip is the French philosopher, Denis Diderot’s description of David Garrick’s (1717-1779) spontaneous performance depicting various emotional journeys in a single row. Diderot explains:
Garrick will put his head between two folding doors, and in the course of five or six seconds his expression will change successively from wild delight to temperate pleasure, from this to tranquility, from tranquility to surprise, from surprise to blank astonishment, from that to sorrow, from sorrow to the air of one overwhelmed, from that to fright, from fright to horror , from horror to despair, and thence will go up again to the point from which he started (Cole, T. and Chinoy, H.K. eds., 1954, p. 168).
Similar to Garrick’s spontaneity of acting, Manorathne’s ability on stage is not to touch so called internal emotional content but performing emotional expressions through his physiognomy. His physicality is a tool through which he expresses his emotional engagement with the character and the situation. Manorathne’s character portrayal on stage reflects such wittiness and suppleness of the body and he very often performs the duality of seriousness and satirical elements blended together. Even Manorathne has not been able to understand his capacity and his expertise on quick manipulation of emotional expressions because Manorathne lived and worked in the era where liberal humanism was the dominant theoretical stance for theatre and other arts. The physical aspect of acting was intentionally suppressed and replaced with the mental aspect of emotional engagement in acting. In this paradigm, human desires, agonies and social complexities ought to be presented through inner psychical elements. As I assume, Manorathne himself had a dilemma in acting whether he is an actor who follows the estrangement theory of acting or psychological realism.
In his book, Paradox of Acting (1830), Diderot explains how Garrick performs myriad of emotions at a single moment without being mentally affected by them. Diderot intentionally took this example to argue that the actor should or need not to be authentically feeling so called ‘inner emotions’ to portray a character’s emotional expressions. When I see Manorathne’s portrayal of the driver’s emotional registers or complex ‘task emotions’, one doesn’t need to be realized whether Manorathne is actually feeling those inner affecters or not. What matters is how well he is performing those task emotions enabling the audience to be engaged with his performance. Hence, it is sympathetic to note that critiques have intentionally or unintentionally marginalized Manorathne as a realistic or naturalistic actor. But I argue that Manorathne is much into psychophysical tradition that enables him to be both in stylistic and naturalistic genres
As I argued Manorathne’s approaches to theatre acting has been incorrectly and misleadingly categorized as a representation of ‘Method’ or ‘Naturalism’. This tendency is not novel to Sri Lankan theatre criticism. As early as 17th century where David Garrick was playing leading roles in Shakespeare’s master works, many critiques and theatre writers have categorized Garrick’s performances as a depiction of Naturalism. But there is a dilemma pertaining to this categorization and understanding of Garrick’s performance as natural or real. As Joseph R. Roach argues, Garrick’s performances portrayed in paintings at that time signifies statue like figures conveying his approaches to acting not as natural but stylized performance. As clearly indicated in his book The Players Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting, Roach contends that the idea of nature was understood in the 17th century is different than what we coin natural or nature in 19th century.
Although Garrick’s performances had been categorized as ‘natural performance’ or realistic to the character, Garrick’s and his contemporaries have understood the human body and its functionality in diverse ways than how we perceive and understand the human body and nature today. As Roach show us, 17th century science and the understanding of the human physiology were developed through Garrick’s contemporary writers and philosophers. Descartes’s philosophical theorization of human spirit and the body as a machine and particularly French physiologist and physician Julian de la Mettrie’s seminar book Man a Machine had a significant impact on Garrick to portray his roles and characterization (Roach J. R., 1982, p. 432). Therefore, the depiction of Garrick’s postures and gestures in the majority of remaining images and paintings undoubtedly signify unnatural physiognomy.
Similar account can be noticed in the Sri Lankan theatre especially with Manorathne’s stage performance. Manorathne’s own words also affirm the fact that he understands the modernist assumption of theatre – lokadharmi and natyadharmi and in both styles his portrayal of characters are very much psychical. Growing as an actor with Sarachchndra’s stylized theatre and later stepping into the dialogue dramas, Manorathne has conceptualized the human body and mind as two separate entities. Manorathne argues:
‘In our mundane life, or in our physical world, we confront with many adversaries. Hence, it is a meditational challenge for us to get unified our body, mind and voice’ (Dharmakeerthi 1992, p. 158 – Author translation).
As I argued in the foregoing, Manorathne’s conception of human nature, body and emotion are dichotomously understood as the liberal humanism did not allow him to see that human body as a unified entity. As the economic and political instability created through open economic reforms of Sri Lanka in early 70s, he portrayed characters of humanistic appeal who are suffering from those liberal economic changes in the society and lament against the political unjust and inequalities in the society.
Jayalath Manorathne is a gifted actor whose capacity has expanded over Sinhala speaking theatre and film for decades. His portrayal of characters signifies a man of many talents and his ability to engage with the audience and his magnetism of stage charisma was unprecedented. Manorathne has left an array of performances and theatre histories in the Sri Lankan cultural industry. His performances on stage or his charismatic screen personality will not be the same without his presence. He has already proven that the life and the theatre are ephemeral and never be able to preserve in its original form unless otherwise we preserve it in another form. Manorathne’s silent corpse lying in this coffin today also signifies this universal truth. Hence, our task would be to revisit his legacy of acting and his theatrical contribution to extricate lessons and experiences that one can learn from him. This is the utmost honor that we could pay to this legendary actor – director.
*Dr Saumya Liyanage is Professor of theatre and drama and the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo.
Roach, J.R., 1982. Garrick, the Ghost and the Machine. Theatre Journal, 34(4), pp.431-440.
Cole, T. and Chinoy, H.K. eds., 1954. Actors on acting: The theories, techniques, and practices of the great actors of all times as told in their own words. Crown Publishers.
Roach, J.R., 1993. The player’s passion: studies in the science of acting. University of Michigan Press.
Dharmakeerthi, R., 1992, ස්ටනිස්ලව්ස්කි සහ ඔහු ගේ රූපන විධික්රමය, Madhu Printing Works, Delgoda, Sri Lanka.
Carnicke, S. (1998). Stanislavsky in focus. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.
ho gaanaa pokuna. (2020). [DVD] Directed by I. Ferdinando.
Liyanage, S. (n.d.). Meditations on acting.