Theatre and politics

Badal Sircar, who passed away recently, was the founder of what he baptised as the Third Theatre. He performed his plays on the streets and in open spaces, as against the proscenium — a conventional and colonial addiction. He was one among the pioneers of the parallel theatre movement in India during the turbulent 1960s. The street theatre focusing on social and political issues was inclusive in the sense, it banished the aesthetic distance between the performers and the audience. The viewers had a participatory function in the sequential narration of the play.

The parallel theatre movement, perhaps, started with Shakespeare. Among his plays, only Troilus and Cressida was not staged before 1898. On the evidence of the Stationer’s Register, the play was in existence in manuscript form by February 1603, but was not printed, as permission for printing was not forthcoming from the authorities. And yet, a vague reference to it as having been enacted by Lord Chamberlin’s Men round about the same year it was available in manuscript form, shows it could have been performed as a sort of parallel theatre cut off from the mainstream plays staged during the Elizabethan period.

Why?

Was it considered an intellectual and politically loaded play not fit for public consumption? The 1609 quarto hailed it as ‘new play never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar’, and requested the reader not ‘like this less for not being sullied with the smoky breath of the multitude’. It looks strange that such a statement is found in the folio – speaking disparagingly about the people of the Elizabethan era. It is common knowledge that all Shakespeare’s plays were appreciated during his period by all sections of society cutting across class divisions, if perhaps, for totally different reasons. And the fact remains he did have popular appeal that extended to both the elite and ‘the multitude’. It is true that Troilus and Cressida was an unusual political play. Its unconventional form — neither comedy, tragedy nor history— its intellectualism, savagery and disillusion speak forcefully to contemporary audiences naturally skeptical about shelf-worn ideas of bravery, nationalism, patriotism, nobility and military glory. Through a character like Falstaff, Shakespeare has rubbished all ideas of sacredness and honour, but by writing a fulllength play Troilus and Cressida, he brings out the vagaries of human values in a world, where absolutes of good and evil are totally irrelevant. All men and women, however high they may be in political or social status, have a price in the marketplace, depending on the fluctuating laws of supply and demand, decided by the yardstick of political convenience. No wonder therefore, that this play, perhaps, had but one clandestine show during the Elizabethan period and was not performed till 1898. But even the classicists like Dryden could not comprehend it as a political satire but read it as a sentimental tragedy. He rewrote it to bring out what he thought was the burden of the play but only succeeded in demolishing the play’s eternal modern appeal and everlasting freshness.

What is its theme?

Like our own Bhasa, Kalidasa and Bhavabhooti, who took their plots from the great epics, Mahabharat and Ramayana, Shakespeare made use of a minor situation occurring in Homer’s Iliad for dramatising it in his own way. Almost all the characters of Greek literary mythology and Roman history constituted the intrinsic part of the Western cultural psyche. Nestor, Hector, Achilles, Ulysses, Ajax and a host of others featured in Iliad represented heroism, valour and chivalry. Helen, considered to be the most beautiful woman on earth, and eulogised by Edward Marlow, the senior contemporary of Shakespeare, as ‘a face that launched a thousand ships’, remained in the aesthetic memory of an average European as a woman of angelic charm and tenderness. The love between Troilus and Cressida is chosen as the theme for this play by Shakespeare. But, interestingly, both are not major characters in Homer’s Iliad. Troilus is the son of Priam (King of Troy) and the brother of Paris who abducts Helen. She is the wife of Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon the Greek general. Cressida is the daughter of Calchas, a Trojan priest who deserted his native camp and joined the Greeks for his survival. Cressida remains with the Trojans.

Troilus loves Cressida intensely with moonshine thoughts of idealism and chivalry, but the latter, although in love with him, is almost cynical in her attitude towards men and matters. She is bitter, ironic and distrusts herself and everything that is held sacred. The Trojan War started when she was eleven years old. An introspective girl used to such a situation could not but be cynical when the war dragged on for seven years with no hope for the future. The central theme of the play is that the two warring parties – the Trojans and the Greeks – decide to exchange Cressida for an army commander even without consulting her. She chooses to spend the previous night with Troilus and leaves for the Greek camp the next morning to ‘honour’ the agreement of exchange without any sentimental hang-over only to become a slut! This is just what can happen in a war-ridden country where living in the moment and for the moment are the bottomline of existence. Nestor, Ulysses and all such heroes revered for their honesty and bravery keep silent in regard to this shameful exchange – a girl for a soldier – because in their consideredopinion all is fair in love and war! This reminds us of the Mahabharata scene, in which Draupadi is humiliated in Duryodhana’s court, and all the wise and honourable men like Bheeshma and Drona keep a discreet silence because all is fair in royal gambling. Ulysses, as he makes his primary appearance in the play, gives a long speech on morality, justice and righteousness, and this is the classical Shakespeare touch in bringing out the dramatic irony. Each one of the characters in this play that claims to fight for a cause, is, in fact, fighting for himself, which, perhaps, sums up the essence of politics in any era, the world over. No play can be written without reference to politics. All human relationships, between man and man, man and woman, woman and woman, society and the State, are politically wired, with all possible contradictions and compromises. They therefore find fullest expression in the hands of a talented artist in diversified ways. Treating Silappadhikaram as a play, I am inclined to believe it is the first of its kind as a political drama. It is all about gender politics and nationalistic aspirations. The heroine and ‘the other woman’ suffer for no other reason than being women. The heroine suffers injustice from her husband and from the king of the neighbouring country.

As it happens in all our fables, the suffering heroine is deified only after her death. The ‘other woman’ embraces Buddhism, the Hindu religion having failed her. The Chera king, who constructs a temple deifying the heroine, for the first time in Tamil literary history justifies his invasion of the northern region of India by raising slogans of Tamil nationalism. The intellectualism of the story does not diminish its emotional force. If it is worked out as a play in the contemporary context, it demands a dazzling response from its audience, a combination of detachment and involvement, sympathy and criticism, more exacting than in any other epic. In part the complexity which characterises this epic as a play, springs from its subject matter and from the ironies generated by the audience’s detailed foreknowledge of the destiny reserved for each character. 

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