By Ashan Nanayakkara –
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…
The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault…
Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me. – Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II
Above words are projectiled by Mark Anthony in the legendary drama, ‘Julius Caesar’ created by William Shakespeare – the modern doyen of Western Theatre. The above celebrated speech was given by Mark Anthony at the funeral, aftermath to stabbing unto death of Cesar by his senate member, the Brutus. Followed by the aforesaid assassination, Rome is thrust into a period of civil war, and the existence of the republic went to an utter chaotic stage. The audience has to live with that tragedy almost in the entire drama. It is believed that even in the first page of Julius Caesar, printed in the second Folio of 1632 named this play as, “THE TRAGEDIE OF IVLIVS CAESAR”. That is an evident to show that the where William Shakespeare has everlasting passion on tragical stories.
As much as Western theatre lovers are dying to see Shakespearean plays, the local Sinhala theatre is also in debt to the late Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, as an icon of Sri Lankan stage plays. Both of them have had the thespian talents to make their names in ingrained history.
As a Tragedian, no one can beat William Shakespeare. It is evident from his most admired tragedies like Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, together with Antony & Cleopatra, Julius Caesar. In contrast, Edriweera Sarachchandra was not a tragedian per se: but, his major dramas are also tragedies. Maname, Sinhabahu, Bava kadathurawa, Pematho Jayathi Shoko, Loma Hansa fall into this category. Even Vessanthara, which has a happy ending is engulfed in pathos.
The tragedy concept in the western tradition of mythical stories has evolved over centuries since the time of its Greek tragedians. It was Aristotle (384-322 BC) who ventured to analyze this art form for the first time in his famous treatise, The Poetics, to explain the major characteristics of a tragedy. It is believed that Shakespeare had a penchant for tragedies, more often, due to this Greek influence.
Subsequently, though young Sarachchandra too was well acquainted with those Western plays when he was doing Drama at the University of Ceylon, this English-educated old-school man strove to discover the Sri Lankan identity on the stage, revolutionizing the quality of stage play existing at that time in the Peradeniya University. In this endevour, he either used our Jataka and Folk stories which are close to the hearts of our people or some tales sourced from traditional Eastern culture. Thus, he can be named as the Shakespeare of Sinhala Theatre.
However, at the early stage of his theatrical career, Prof. Sarachchandra could also not shun his passion for “evil end” that stagnated around the Western theatre. The tragedy in Sinhabahu also ended in mourning rubbing the audiences’ noses with the blood and the guilt, as a result of the inter-play of Trio- Lion, Suppadevi and Son Sinhabahu.
More than Sinhabahu, Maname mirrors the tragedian spectrum of the play from its very first show up to now. It is true that Maname gave modern Sri Lankan theatre a new life and further enriched cultural roots. Besides, it was an outstanding combination of theatrical craft, poetic sophistication, choreography excellence and dramatic concentration in which the essential elements in the folk theatre tradition were adapted to the modern stage. But the tragedian perception was reserved sacrosanct.
Sometimes back, the writer was lucky to attend the 92nd Birth Day celebration of Mr. Wasantha Kumara at his residence at Katubedda, the great ballet dancer who is also the original choreographer of Maname and Sinhbahu, was told by that Maestro, “Sarachchndra’s forte was keeping the audience with full of tear-jerking sensations rather than scenes of jests” Further the said all-time-Socialist English-speaking veteran dancer went on to reminisced, how, about 60-years ago, Ben Sirimanne – the Prince Maname who challenged Edmund Wijesinghe – the Veddah chief with Trilicia Gunawardena, the Princess gave justice to Prof. Sarachchandra’s aspirations all of which are still nostalgic memories beautifully written in the Memory lane of Sri Lankan Theatre.
In the light of Maname, when we re-read Shakespere, the Hamlet is the best play that compares well with Maname. The former dramatizes the revenge of Prince Hamlet on his uncle Claudius for murdering King Hamlet. Since the Maname underlines the fragile qualities of a woman, in Hamlet too, Shakepere scripted that point aginst Gertrude – the mother of Hamlet, by putting, “frailty thy name is woman”. The speech generalizes the attribution of weakness of womankind. Was not this the same thing shown in the Maname too?
Prof. Sarchchandra got tremendous effort to take out the blame from “Maname Kumari (Princess Maname)” who had been branded as an epitome of frailty for years in Sri Lankan theatre. Sarchchandra tried to exonerate the woman-kind by saying, “siduwuni a wipatha nodani kage dosa” (that tragedy happened, nobody knows how). He questioned the responsibility of the murder committed in Maname Drama from a genuine human face not going to make anyone culpable though. As per Jataka Story (past lives of Lord Budhdha), Sakra – the king of Gods and Goddess, had said to Maname Kumari, when she lost both Kumaraya and Veddha, “Another’s faults are plainly seen, ’Tis hard to see one’s own, I ween, Methinks thou too must count the cost, When spouse and lover both are lost.”
Conversely, Shakespeare passed the blame to Masculine Gender too, in his Tragedy of Othello. When Othello smothers lovely Desdemona to death in bed by accusing her of adultery and, finally realizing Desdemona’s innocence, he went into rage. Attributions of jealousy, ignorance and suspicion of man against woman pinpoint that men are also possessed with the characteristic of imperfection as much as women do, as it performed in Hamlet or in Maname.
Considering all these instances and the perpetual adoration to tragedy by both dramatists, are we wrong to call them Theatre Tragedians?