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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Zia Mohyeddin column

Zia Mohyeddin column

An imaginary lecture

I am aware that I would be scoffed at and jeered for making a such a frivolous suggestion at a time when we are going through, in the words of one newspaper, 'agonizing times,' but I do so, unabashedly, for I believe that the theatre can go a long way towards creating a degree of sanity.

Look at it this way: if I were to make a fervent appeal for establishing a genuine National Library, worthy of our ambitions, would anyone demur? No one dares deny the importance of a library. I do not wish to digress by dwelling upon the appalling state of our libraries. Suffice it to say that a library is a veritable source of knowledge and enlightenment. So, indeed, is the theatre.

In the sixty years of our existence, the torch of theatre has been kept burning in spite of censures and strictures. Even in the grimmest period when our puritanical general ruled us, various groups -- amateurs or semi-professional -- kept performing plays, albeit clandestinely. We now take pride in our National Folk Art museum and our newly established National Gallery. Isn't it time, then, that the very best of our dramatic efforts be seen in the National Theatre?

Ladies and gentlemen, the sense of wonder is at the root of all artistic experience, but never more palpably so than in the theatrical art. There are moments, while watching a play, when we have glimpses of beauty which our conscious minds are unable to explain. Drama, like poetry, enables us to see things as though for the first time. A conjurer too, holds an audience spellbound, but after a while his magic wears thin. How many times can you see a scantily clad lady being sawn into half and still emerge, intact, from underneath the coffin?

The magic of the theatre implies a suspension of disbelief and therein lies our complete surrender to what is being presented, in front of our eyes, be it a chain of realistic or surrealistic events. Oddly enough, even the most severe, violent scenes enacted before us can, sometimes, fill us with a sense of purity. A play-goer, watching a great play, cannot leave the theatre without having seen something that he has never seen before. Like poetry, drama is a homage to infinity.

Drama enables us to see and understand beyond our individual limitations. The Greeks, in their drama, interpreted and re-interpreted their myths. These myths have gone on being reinterpreted for over three thousands years. Theatre and myth help us to understand the mysteries of life -- birth and death, love and hate, revenge and forgiveness.

Theatre is a live contract between the audience and the performers. At each performance the audience agrees to imagine with the actor. "And certain it is," wrote Francis Bacon, "though a great secret in nature, that the minds of men in company are more open to affections and impressions than when alone."

The National Theatre will have a permanent company of the best trained actors appearing in a wide repertoire of first-rate plays. This is bound to set up a chain reaction that will encourage a grid of subsidised smaller theatres in other cities. The formation of the National Theatre will be a step towards placing the theatre on the same footing as art galleries, museums, public libraries, zoos and amusement parks.

The National Theatre will present to the public the widest selection of good plays from all periods and places -- each play to be presented in the style appropriate to it. It is an ambition by no means as modest as it sounds. It will not concentrate solely on high-brow, avant-garde experimental work; it will include in its repertoire, drama in all its manifestations, including the hyperbolic melodrama which so gripped the attention of the 19th century Urdu dramatists that they wrote scores of plays in that genre for 80 years.

Good theatre cannot make profit. It is a fact acknowledged universally. You cannot think that public libraries should profiteer or that the educational system should pay its way. National Theatre in all the countries, who possess one, is an amenity for which the state or municipal bodies provide subsidies

Subsidy offers what commercialism negates: continuity. If a new production fails on the first showing, it need not be lost for ever: it can be put to rest for a while and then if the political or social climate changes, be revived. But even if it doesn't fail, the production, when it is brought back after an interval, gains something because like good wine it has had a chance to mature a bit. Subsidy generates permanence of performance.

In the commercial theatre, drama competes with every huckster and it necessarily, turns to a kind of art dependent on quick financial returns. The managements then become concerned, as Tynan says, "to produce uncontroversial, easily digestible, audience-ingrating trifles that pass for dramatic entertainment." Such a fare is invariably, tailored to fit stars. Box office begins to tyrannise the managements.

Our National Theatre will have to make a very serious effort to explain to people that the theatre belongs to them and that it will not be motivated by the need or desire to show profit. It will not offer its backers quick financial gains. It will, instead, offer a repertory run that would last decades. In this way each new generation will be kept in touch with history. The National Theatre must be prepared to have first-rate work play to less than capacity than a third rate work filling the house every night. Public patronage may not be strong to begin with, but given time, and continuity of theatrical activity, it will grow.

The first task of the National Theatre is to assemble the best trained actors and put them into a snowballing repertoire of the best available plays, ancient and modern, comic and tragic. But a National Theatre is not just a company of actors. It is an organisation that needs directors, designers, costumiers, wig-makers, carpenters, stage-hands, electricians, and musicians as well. More: it needs to motivate our poets and novelists to turn their attention to writing exclusively for the stage.

I once asked Intizar Hussain, the eminent novelist and short story writer, why he hadn't written a play for over forty years and he said, "Who do I write the play for? Readers?"

Intizar Hussain's only stage play 'Khoabon kay Musaafir' a drama that reflects the complexities -- and absurdities -- of the society in which we live, would still do the National Theatre proud.

I rest my case by reminding you, ladies and gentlemen, that the theatre does not merely entertain and stimulate an audience; it is also a copious source of instruction as to a nation's ideas, ideals, manners, phobias and philosophy.


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