The current paucity of good contemporary scripts for directors to wrestle with, continues. They say theatre, like most other arts, goes through a 70 year renaissance every few hundred years. So after the Greek highpoint of the three great tragedians : Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides who monopolized Greek theatre for 70 years, it was centuries before Elizabethan England and the age of William Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, John Fletcher and others. While the Greeks performed open air and in the daytime to an audience of thousands, interpreting their own myths and legends in an hour long format, the Elizabethans played in the Globe Theatre with equal emphasis on tragedies, comedies and histories in performances that lasted over three hours.
Seventeenth century France brought us the great three: Moliere, Racine and Corneille. The early years of the 20 century saw the brilliance of the brooding Scandinavians. Ibsen and Strindberg, then the power of O’Neill, Miller and Williams in the US with their angst ridden stories of individual and family. Social concerns, the emancipation of women, the male-female relationship, the crumbling social order dominated and were played in a realistic style in an indoor theatre in the evening hours.
Finally post World War-II, there was the revolutionary theatre of Bertolt Brecht in Germany, the angry young man of British theatre John Osborne and of the maverick absurdist Eugene Ionesco in France.
And now a slump! For almost 30 years nothing of great significance has been written in any part of the world for the stage. So what do directors do? Reinterpret the classics! In early April this year I had occasion to see Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’ interpreted for 2014 in London, and Alyque Padamsee’s revival of his landmark production of ‘ Death of a Salesman’ by Arthur Miller in Delhi.
‘Hedda Gabler’ tells the story of newly married General Gabler’s daughter, who says, ‘quite on impulse, that I should like to live in this mansion. It was just something to say, I’d never thought of it before. But that conversation led to an engagement and a marriage and a honeymoon. And a house purchase, and here we all are. The place smells of dead flowers ….’
Caught in a loveless marriage, Hedda looks for fulfillment in reviving her earlier affair with her husband’s competitor, Lovborg, and her passionate encounters with the blackmailing local judge. She is very much a contemporary woman, attracting and casting off men and seeking to break free. But for what?
The London production entitled simply ‘Hedda’ was performed in a number of heritage properties in London. Seated in a formal drawing room, the 40 plus audience, got closeup and personal with the travails of Ibsen’s woman. This kind of ‘immersive staging’ made for compelling viewing and the experience was heightened by the screening of a film on her relationship with Lovborg in an adjacent room, as well as an interactive computer display. All in all an exciting site specific performance by an aptly named new company, Palimpsest. The name means a writing surface on which the original text has been partially erased and then overwritten.
Last week in Delhi, we had a chance to see Arthur Miller’s contemporary classic ‘Death of a Salesman’ imported from Mumbai. This particular script touches a raw nerve whenever staged as it narrates the travails of an ageing door to door salesman and his wife and two sons. That it was originally written and staged in the 1950’s becomes irrelevant as the theme is now so universal.
It’s the end of the road for Willy Loman, the lead character, after 35 years of selling. Times have changed, the country is in the grip of a recession and his sons haven’t succeeded. The older one Biff is constantly on the run, a loser, unable to forgive his father for a marital indiscretion. The younger Happy is in flight is in his own way, fooling himself into believing all is well. And the homemaker mother Linda tries to hold the dysfunctional family together, for she feels ‘respect must be paid’ to a man whether or not he succeeds in life. The echoes of this story to contemporary Indian audiences is clear. When Willy commits suicide at the end of the play, Linda finally weeps at his graveside for the last installment of the mortgage has been paid but the householder has gone. Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, like Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’ is a play for all seasons.