Colombo Telegraph

Sarachchandra Of Sri Lanka Among 20th Century Experimental Dramatists 

By Michael Fernando –

Dr. Michael Fernando

The purpose of this study is to evaluate the significance of Ediriweera Sarachchandra‘s (1914-1996) experiments in the development of a modern Sinhala theatre in Sri Lanka in comparison with the attempts made by main experimental dramatists  and dramatic trends of the 20th century world. The 20th century was a period of experiments in the field of world theatre. Many dramatists from the main cultural centres felt that contemporary theatre faced several challenges, and they carried out experiments to find solutions to these problems.

One of the main challenges was to find an alternative to the dramaturgy used by Naturalism, which had been the most popular trend in theatre since about the mid-19th century. The changes that took place from the early 19th century in the economic, social, technical and theoretical spheres had paved the way for a new approach in aesthetics as well. In the fields of literature, music, architecture and especially in painting new experiments, such as Cubism, were carried out. Further, the invention of the art of Cinema made it imperative for dramatists to look for new modes of representation. Naturalistic theatre was not in a position to compete with Cinema in presentation of society in a naturalistic way.

Constantine Stanislavsky (1865-1938), who brought naturalistic representation on stage to a new height, observed in 1904 that naturalistic theatre had arrived at a dead end, and new ways were not apparent (Stanislavsky C, My Life in Art 1948, 428 p). Another dramatist who commented on the limitations of naturalistic dramaturgy was Tennessee Williams (1987,  In the preface of his play The Glass Menagerie he stressed that the presentation of human society, like in a photograph, through naturalistic dramaturgy had to be changed (Williams 1987, 23 p). In his plays Williams made an attempt to overcome this problem by introducing a narrator and other tactics used in oriental drama.

Meyerholdt (1874-1940), Yevgini Vachtangov (1833-1922) and Alexander Yakolovich Tairov (1885-1950) made attempts to develop a strong dramaturgy using stylized acting in place of naturalistic acting. In the 20th century their experiments influenced European and American theatre immensely.

Artists such as Gordon Craig (1872-1966) from England, Adolphe Appia (1862-1928) of Switzerland and Jacque Copeau of France carried out experiments in such fields as stage décor and stage lighting, which helped to overcome the limitations of naturalistic presentation.

Ediriweera Sarachchandra

Ervin Piscator (1893-1966) and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) in Germany were able to invent the “epic theatre,” where they proposed a viable alternative to naturalism in theatre. At the same time they also did not reject the potential of naturalism to depict some problems on stage. The plays written and directed by them and their theoretical work immensely enriched the literature on an alternative dramaturgy to naturalism. Both dramatists were strongly influenced by the oriental tradition of theatre, especially Chinese and Japanese.

Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) of France is also a dramatist who observed the limitations of naturalism in theatre. His “Theatre of Cruelty,” which was influenced by the dramaturgy used in Bali, was also a successful attempt to develop an alternative to naturalism. 

The theatre of the Absurd was also an influential experiment for an alternative dramaturgy, the main representatives of which were dramatists such as Samuel Becket, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Julius Hay and Fernando Arable. Some critics call it a form of anti-theatre, since it was an experiment looking for an alternative to the traditional dramaturgy. It is also interesting to note that even Brecht, whose works and theories were criticized by some Absurd dramatists, tried to experiment with the this dramaturgy. He started a project to direct Becket’s Waiting for Godot during the last months of his life.

Jersy Grotovsky of Poland, Augusto Boal of Brazil, Tadashi Suzuki of Japan, Peter Brook of England and Dario Fo of Italy are the most famous experimental dramatists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Experimenting with new methods of presentation to depict new problems on stage has become an integrated element of contemporary world theatre.

Apart from the necessity to find an alternative to naturalism in theatre, other main challenges faced by 19th, 20th and 21st century dramatists include the commercialization of theatre under a neoliberal economic system and the attempt by politicians to make use of theatre for propaganda purposes, and the censorship of drama in countries where the state has become the main sponsor of art including theatre. 

The importance of the dramatist Ediriweera Sarachchandra is that he was able to find solutions to all or many of these challenges faced by contemporary world theatre in the context of Sri Lankan theatre. In this sense Sarachchandra can be considered as one of the most effective experimental dramatists anywhere in the world. However, it is also true that he is not well known in the world at large. The main reason for this is that he wrote and directed plays in the Sinhala language, which is used only by 74% of a population of about 22 million. Other than his survey of Sinhala folk plays, all other theoretical writings are also published in the Sinhala language. India was a country that recognized his contribution to the theatre by awarding him the prestigious Kamaran Ashan award. He also received the Ramon Magsaysay award in recognition of his contribution to the field of art in Asia.

In  this study an attempt will be made to examine  Sarachchandra’s contribution to modern theatre, especially to experimental theatre, through his experiments carried out within the context of Sri Lankan Sinhala theatre of the 20th century.

As already mentioned, Sarachchandra was able to find a successful solution to the main challenge faced by 20th century theatre in the context of the Sri Lankan situation. When he entered the theatre world as a young artist in the 1930s, he observed that in contemporary Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) there was no serious theatre that could satisfy an audience with good taste. On the one hand there was a tradition of folk theatre, but at the beginning he was not aware of its strengths or weaknesses. Nurti, which started in the 1860s, was the first professional theatre form of Sri Lanka, and was highly influenced by the Parsee theatre of Bombay, but it was in a very weak condition artistically and financially during the 1930s. Sarachchandra was critical of Nurti and considered it as a hybrid and decadent phenomenon. He also found that the plays produced by another troupe, which were somewhat popular, to be melodramatic and artistically of poor quality. 

In this situation he first tried with some friends to develop a new Sinhala theatre based on European theatre by translating dramatists such as Moiré and Anton Chekov, and also by writing and directing a play himself following European naturalism. By 1952 he decided that the dialogue play in Sri Lanka had come to a dead end, and he carried out research to find whether there was a traditional dramaturgy in Sri Lanka through which serious problems could be discussed on stage. After doing this research on Sinhala folk play, he started his own experiments based on the indigenous tradition. Later in 1954 he had an opportunity to travel to the USA via India and Japan and carefully observed the theatres in these countries. He did not find any serious theatre in India, but was attracted by the dramaturgy used in the No and Kabuki traditions of Japan. He also observed the experiments by dramatists such as Tennessee Williams as being not very successful. The film Rashomon by Akira Kurasova which he saw in Japan helped him to develop a modern or even a postmodern attitude to look at social problems. As a person who had studied Buddhist philosophy and western positivist philosophy, he was also able to formulate a worldview free of moral restrictions to look at human behaviour. 

On his return to Sri Lanka he wrote and directed a play that took a traditional Buddhist story as the plot and used the structure of the Sri Lankan folk theatre form Nadagama, which was based on the Nattukutthu tradition of South India and Jaffna. His interpretation of the plot was largely influenced by Rashomon. With this production Sarachchandra was able to create a dramaturgy that overcame the limitations of the colonial mentality, modernism and traditional attitude towards human relationships. He further developed this dramaturgy in his later play Sinhabahu, which was perhaps the best drama produced in Sri Lanka. 

It is also noteworthy that the achievement of Sarachchandra is unique as compared with experiments done in other South Asian countries. Even though there was a conscious attempt by some dramatists who were gathered in the movement called “Theatre of Roots” to develop a modern dramaturgy based on the indigenous tradition, it was only in 1972 that they achieved some success with the production of Hayavadana by Girish Karnad. 

With his experiments Sarachchandra was able to invent a dramaturgy that can be compared with the epic theatre introduced by Brecht. In other words he was able to identify the epic elements that were inherent in Asian theatre. Unlike European and American experimental dramatists who had to look towards the oriental theatre in search of a new dramaturgy, Sarachchandra was lucky to find a model in the folk tradition of his own country. However, it is doubtful whether the importance of his achievement has been understood by Sri Lanka dramatists, even today. It is true that several Sri Lankan dramatists tried to imitate Sarachchandra but without understanding the meaning of his invention. At the same time a section of Sri Lankan dramatists criticized his dramaturgy, questioning whether the burning problems of contemporary society can be depicted using it. 

Very recently a young Sri Lankan dramatist/critic stated that Sarachchandra had become a ghost in Sinhala theatre from whose spell many young experimental dramatists still find it difficult to escape. Such ideas seem to emanate from a grave misunderstanding of Sarachchandra’s approach to theatre. He never rejected the potential of different dramaturgies prevalent in the world. Even after finding a new dramaturgy through his experiments before 1956, he further wrote and directed naturalistic dialogue plays. In some of his later plays he experimented with different styles and called them ‘musicals’ (geetha nataka). The play Pematho Jayathi Soko, written and directed in 1969, was categorized by him as a musical. 

In finding solutions to the other main challenges to contemporary world theatre Sarachchandra was able to establish a non- or semiprofessional theatre tradition that has been able to overcome the problems of commercialization and politicization of theatre. 

As very clearly stared in his book Kalpanalokaya, a theoretical manual written in 1958 in Sinhala language  he stated that all the arts including theatre face two main challenges in the contemporary world. The first challenge was the risk of commercialization. When the arts seek the help of the state to avoid such commercialization, they face the risk of coming under the grip of politicians who have very little understanding about the arts. He saw that the arts in the grip of politicians posed a more grave danger than they face in trying to comply with the taste of the common man. Whether one agrees or not, this position paved the way for a not badly commercialized theatre even under increasing neoliberal economic conditions. The non- or semiprofessional theatre institute established by Sarachchandra in a university environment has been carried out by many non-professional troupes in the country. 

It is true that theatre is increasingly becoming inaccessible to lower-income audiences. However, Sri Lankan theatre still exists as an art form controlled by artists and not by the business community. On the other hand this situation has also enabled dramatists to stage works that directly criticize both politicians who hold state power and those who control armed anti-government groups. It is also true that there were instances when dramatists were murdered by government forces. Some plays that criticize rulers, the armed forces and some religious institutes faced censorship, and plays that followed the policies of politicians in power were rewarded, especially under the previous regime. But society was able to protest against such actions, even though these were ignored. In this regard wittingly or unwittingly Sarachchandra’s conscious policy has opened up a space for a political theatre that has the ability to address a broader audience all over the country. 

When one compares him with other great 20th century experimental dramatists of the world it is clear that very few had the linguistic, intellectual and creative skills he possessed as a university teacher in languages, philosopher, academic, researcher, novelist, short story writer, literary/theatre/social critic, and last but not least as a great poet. Sarachchandra was conversant with Western and Eastern languages such as English, Sanskrit, Pali and Sinhala. He studied Western philosophy under scholars such as Bertrand Russell and A.J Ayer and received a Masters degree from the University of London. He also obtained a doctorate from the same university submitting a dissertation on the topic “Buddhist Theory of Perception”. He had also acquired a deep knowledge of Western and Eastern aesthetics and applied this knowledge in writing a ground breaking book on the Sinhalese novel in 1949. He also studied the theatre traditions in India, China and Japan  and did field research on the folk theatre in Sri Lanka and published his findings in his book “The Folk Play of Ceylon”  which enabled him to win a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation of the US to do a study on contemporary Asian and Western theatre in 1955.  

Sarachchandra was able to find a new dramaturgy based on the folk tradition of Sri Lanka with the production of his play “Maname” in 1956. With this production he introduced to Sri Lanka (Ceylon ) a dramaturgy that could overcome the limitations of the Western naturalistic theatre and the moral values which were prevalent in the contemporary Sri Lanka society. However, this writer still has some doubts about whether Sarachchandra himself was aware of his importance as one of the greatest experimental dramatists of the 20th century.

Michael Fernando, BA (Ceylon), D. Phil (Berlin) – Former Head Dept. of Fine Arts, University Peradeniya, Sri Lanka

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