Why Classics?

On November 18, 2013 by admin



Utpal Dutt

Snobs have always been contemptuous (over their morning cups of coffee, if you please) of the non-professional theatre groups in the city who are modestly building up a movement. Slogan-mongering, puerile, Communist, un-Indian—they have used many such odd epithets. So far, perhaps, they have had a ground—we have been busy too long making theatre a living newspaper and we had reasons for it. But we have also been guilty of neglecting the past, of scoffing at it with silly phrases borrowed from our smattering of Left literature. But now we can throw down the gauntlet. One group is rescuing Tagore from the emasculating chauvism of Santiniketan; another is rediscovering forgotten classics of the nineteenth century; a third bringing you Shudraka’s masterpiece. The classics belong to us and we alone can interpret them for the modern audience.

Shorn of the classics, a modern repertoire becomes shorn of tradition, rootless and empty. For, the greatest experiment consists in carrying tradition forward, not in denying it; in interpreting and moulding it for our epoch, not in rejecting it as old.

Moreover, the classics give us elemental noble passions that are wanting in contemporary drama. As Robert Jones once said in disgust, “Modern drama has been reduced to conversation about whether egg is hard-boiled or not.” There is a tendency in the name of revivalism to compress the emotions of men and women into the trivialities of breakfast and dinner. The dramatists are busy imitating probable conversation: what would such a character caught in such a situation say if he were real? The result—not even a fraction of complex modern life finds expression in theatre. Life is not just conversation and behaviour, but thought, emotion, passion. Desperate attempts have been made all over the world to capture on stage these other great aspects of life. Tagore heightened his drama from the real to the allegorical. Toller poetized the struggle of the working class. O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (1928) introduces inner voices of the characters. Brecht tried the epic style with modern themes. Eliot wrote Shakespearean verse about cocktail parties. But most of this expressionist and poetic drama has failed; it has become mere jugglery with forms. It has not the simplicity of the classics.


Why is this so? Because theatre has abandoned its conventions. There was a time when the theatre was all convention. The Chorus introduced the play; the king’s chariot was imaginary; Vasantasena’s lavish villa was described purely through the spoken word; so was Cleopatra’s voyage down the Nile, and the death of Ophelia. There was a time when the actor soliloquized and gave us a glimpse into his soul and not only into his behaviour. What after all is the value of the opera-bouffeish murder of Duncan without the beautiful revelation of a man’s soul in ‘Is this a dagger?’ speech? Hamlet would be a typical Renaissance melodrama of intrigue, murder, ghost, duel, suicide and four corpses to bring the curtain down, except for the soliloquies, the conflicts within a thinker, his struggles with himself, which tone down the horror and give the frantic incidents a new meaning. The Chinese tragedian entered the stage and immediately introduced himself and his problems to the audiences. The Japanese stage manager in black freely walked around on the stage, prompting and helping the actors.

But in 1840 a man called David Hill invented the photograph, and soon after, the disease of realism gripped the theatre in Europe. And now the Bengali theatre has caught it too. In this country of picturesque gesture and musical language, the dramatists are busy limiting the actor to the appearances of life, immobility and prosaic how-do-do’s. Would you believe this is the country where the Jatra developed—Jatra, which relies entirely on blank verse and sweeping gesture? Would you believe that Girish Ghosh wrote his Pandab Gaurab (The Glory of the Pandavas, 1900) and Kshirodeprasad his Bhishma (1913)? The playwright today is afraid to philosophize, whereas his predecessor could dare to write in dramatic form a full-fledged treatise on the essential loneliness of man, to express through Bhishma the philosophy of individualism.

Thus, the classics teach us to heighten events from merely a photograph to a full painted canvas. They recapture for us the language of theatre. They show us the methods whereby we may so handle a modern theme that will surprise with a fine excess; it will awe, astound, ennoble. Behind the humdrum incidents of daily life, it will capture the soul of man.


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