IS THEATER REAL OR UNREAL?

“Theater is a reflection of life” is an oft quoted statement by many erudite literary scholars associated with the field drama. However, the reality about realism in theater becomes evasive with the conception of “subjective reality” time and again emphasized worldwide as the only means of comprehending or making sense of the constantly fleeting nature of life which renders all our efforts of stereotyping people or things helpless. Since everything is believed to differ from person to person the idea of “uniform reality” is certainly debatable. In this sense, the dramatists’ struggle to present “Reality” as we “know” it appears nothing but a “utopian ideal”. Consequentially, directorial attempts in theater towards providing “Experiential reality” to its audience seem apparently a superficial endeavor. It also undermines the popular notion that art gives a non-committal unbiased perception of reality; a belief that boosts the globally accepted principle of change and provides repose to the anxiety which springs from aversion towards conformist ideals of fixed realism. Countering this risk of appearing myopic, theater directors continue over the years to create a dramatic world “As Real as Possible” “Realism” in theater is a strange paradox; almost irresolvable however much exciting to explore.

A play based on real life characters and incidents is also a reconstruction and not an actual incident ongoing in front of the spectators. Coleridge’s “Willing suspension of disbelief” that constitutes poetic faith seems the most logical argument to buttress the theory of “theatrical realism”; a conception that has become better known ever since stage, curtains and other theatrical amenities came into being. Stage, lights creating varied kinds of silhouettes providing us the means to realize incidents that cannot be dramatized by humans, different types of stage settings with varied properties used to provide the feel of “actuality” are the ostensibly artificial technical aids in fact used to make a play appear “Real”. This is indeed an obfuscating reality of theater.

That any play is a “performance” cannot be dismissed and this is in fact the “reality” of theater; a matter of proud acknowledgement that theater is exemplary of the prowess in art to make the unreal real. This becomes comprehensible by the willingness to transcend the ordinary notions of reality and accepting the existence of a reality that does not follow the norms of worldly realism. In the scholarly Indian treatise on the nature of poetic composition, Kavyaprakasha, the author Acharya Mammatta begins by saluting the “ unreal world of the artist” terming it as superior to the world of Brahman the creator as it is free from the obligations of earthly reality bound by the essentially conformist rules of propriety which makes it bland.

The real world is indisputably different from the artistic world. When we see a performance, we might get involved in it and relate to it but the consciousness of watching a rendition is perpetually present as the backdrop. However, most astoundingly, this awareness itself allows us to embrace the process of dissolving the pragmatic reality around us which enables the realization of eternal pleasurable truth which we know as Brahmananda.   Attempts to cross the circumference of “worldly realism” seems the most intelligent modes through which artists like William Shakespeare made it possible for us to realize “truth” unadulterated by the ephemeral reality of the earthly life. His most bizarre characters like cannibal, witches, fairies etc., by which he violated precepts of apparent realism in his plays spoke the most unchangeable truth about life which is still remembered as the words of wisdom like “Blow Blow thou winter wind thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude”… from his famous play As you like it. In one of his sonnets, the author has indicated the longevity of art even after the artist’s death which is the clear indication of the truth that art is timeless and therefore it lives forever in the mortal world wherein every living creature is bound to perish. If the world is temporary, it is obvious that its reality is also the same and therefore our quest of reality and efforts of fixing it seems extremely worthless. An enterprise to recreate worldly reality in art is fructified when its latent essence is made the crux of the presentation and not its evident form. The witches of Shakespeare’s play Machbeth are the most unrealistic creatures but they foretell the most horrendous future which gives the message of human being’s unprecedented thirst for power that corrupts the soul. The horrifying witches are the apt openers for the play that deals with ambition and bloodshed. Therefore, the dramatist’s statement, “All the world’s a stage and all men and women players”, makes perfect sense wherein we value the concept of truth revealed through allegory and symbolism that play a crucial role in all forms of theater. It is not merely  an aspect of those plays that involve myths and folktales as the means to reveal certain realities of life for instance Girish Karnad’s Naga-Mandala that selects a folktale of a serpent’s love with a woman as the allegorical means to expose the unwarranted predominance of patriarchy in a woman’s world. It is also present in those plays that are deemed to be realistic like Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder, Kamla or Kanyadan or Mahesh Dattani’s Tara, Bravely Fought the Queen or Final Solutions or even Dance like a Man.

The stage may have a perfect setting exposing the realities dormant within domestic confines of the upper/lower middle class Indian homes, yet this evidently realistic aura created by the immaculately defined sets following the elaborate stage directions is all a theatrical medium to bring realization of truth that is bitter when conveyed bluntly but looks appealing when presented through a dramatization. This is the reason that Mammata puts it in Kavyaprakasha that artist’s way of disseminating truth is appealing as a beautiful woman’s discourse. Presented using a story-line may be based on reality or fiction, an artistic representation for instance drama though unreal becomes real as it conveys a moral which provides us enlightenment. We all are well read that Tendulkar’s Kanyadan touches the most sensitive aspect of pursuing idealism rationally while Dattani’s Dance like a Man questions conformity that boycotts a human’s birth right to pursue interest of one’s choice in life. Questioning whether a woman may give up the moralistic norms of caste can become successful in her decision to choose a man of lower class society Kanyadan illumines our frantic approach towards equality of class and caste. Similarly, Dance Like a Man helps us to reconsider our myopic beliefs like classical Indian dance is essentially a woman’s prerogative and a man having a flair for it is a idiosyncrasy welcoming nothing but derision. A play like Tara is the means to criticize the distasteful gender bias. The fictitious story of conjoined twins (brother and sister) wherein the parents choose to sacrifice a limb of their baby girl to satiate their thirst of saving their baby boy is a poignant truth that unfolds itself as we read or see the play performance.

Stage is always set to PERFORM- Be it a “Realistic” drama with technical particularities of the proscenium stage like that of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Wada Chirebandi which shows the decline of a Wada culture – a hierarchal patriarchy with the changing passage of time or a “dream-like” play belonging to the realm of the imaginary tale governed by improbabilities like Karnad’s Hayavadana wherein we have talking dolls, man with a horse’s head and two men with their heads exchanged by a woman’s folly. Both these plays belonging to two distinct traditions of playwriting realistic and symbolic are directed towards the single goal i.e. exposure of truth that we seldom wish to accept in our life. Rabindranath Tagore writes a play like Dakghar the story of an invalid young boy Amal that slowly awaits his death which eventually fades him away from the world. The unavoidable truth of death is the essence of this play with fictional characters that open us towards the acceptance of tragic phenomena in life. Rakt Karibi or Red Oleanders by Tagore is another example of symbolic theatrical representation that acts as a revelation of truth. Exposing the worthlessness of human avarice towards materialism juxtaposed against the noble values of humanness personified in the characters of the greedy King and the benign and innocent Nandini metaphoric of redemption from evil, Raktkaribi essentially dealing with an imaginary tale facilitates the realization of truth about the futility of clinging to selfish desires in life and the need for altruism.

The tradition of folk theater in the world blurs the distinction of real and unreal most convincingly. It believably shows us the triumph of the unrealistic reality in theatrical rendition of imaginary tales or myths and/or history that is far removed from the present-day.  If we look at plays like Habib Tanvir’s folk play Charandas Chor which deals with the Panthi folk artists unfolding a story of a chor- thief and his failure in remaining truthful in life, we learn the difficulty involved in being truthful in life. The folkish representation including chorus of panthi dancers that narrate the tale musically do not follow the conventions of proscenium realistic drama and yet, the story is reality of not a culture but of the world. Badal Sircar’s play Spartacus based on history unfolds the story of a brave Roman soldier Spartacus. This tale of the past with not a tinge of connection with our practical reality today enlightens us with the presentation of a timelessly relevant message about the contribution of the soldiers that put their life at stake for the benefit of their nation. Sircar’s imaginary story of Bagala and his encounter with Nila a fairy that transforms him from a dependent meek fellow to a confident man in Bagalcharitamanas indeed conveys the perennial truth of being self motivated and driven towards one’s goal without being stirred by any sort of illogical fears.

I believe the “unreal reality of performance” transcends its lexicon meaning and becomes comprehensible only through the work of artists that know how to represent fiction that is believable. Acting skills of dexterous artists is a process of possession wherein the soul of a character possesses the body of the actor and dictates it. This phenomenon again defies the notion of pragmatic realism but is perfectly comprehensible to those that fathom the meaning of “True art”. A director’s vision makes a play something beyond just a stage rendition to regale an audience.  Theater direction is not achieving the knowledge of the tenets of theater. A study in a reputed acting/directing institution does not guarantee a truthful dramatist and theater practitioner. A successful theater director knows the means of enabling his actors experience the sublimity in theater that transgresses the boundaries of the ephemeral realism and makes all his characters eternal. This immunity is achieved only through a holy theater direction that does not believe in the codes of stage effects, but is strongly rooted in the “tradition” that humbly aims at the exposition of TRUTH. It is not merely reality as the word realism itself is susceptible to conjecture in the world governed by the notion of subjectivism. Therefore, genuine theater practitioners are able to comprehend the nature of theatre in its true form and they are well aware that exposure of this truth is not dependent upon any sort of worldly realistic norms. Instead, the basic principle that a play is the means of self-realization through dramatization of incidents based on fact or fiction becomes the staple goal of such sincere theater artists. It is thus that senior Indian playwright like K.N.  Panikkar for instance resorted to unreal folktales and folk theater not complying with the means of pragmatic reality to get across the message in his plays. The playwright acknowledges the need for a theater artist to retain the understanding that a play is a play and not reality and therefore restrict oneself to the level of a performance not get drifted in the pool of emotional fervor while acting. He differentiates the acting from temple rituals wherein the participant gets possessed by the divine energy and states this isn’t a stage performance. However, Panikkar does involve the artificial tenets of folk theater to compose a play a performance with chorus, musical dance dramatic narration of the story which all appears distinct from the codes of naturalism and realism in theater governed by the Western proscenium drama influenced by the wave of modernism. This consciously selected mode of theatrical representation on the part of the dramatist is I feel a proud recognition of the RIGHT that theater has to be THEATRICAL. It is a simple logical truth that when we speak of plays like Zoo Story, we understand that why the characters are not animals of the jungle when the title talks about a Zoo. We care to delve into the implicit truth that the play reveals for us and that is the irrelevance of avoiding the truth whether by camouflaging your existence in the midst of the so-called orderly society or by trying to act as a maverick flouting the social norms. There isn’t any respite anywhere in the human world essentially turned into a ZOO with people trying to battle against their own insecurities in life. The play Look Back in Anger by John Osborne with the introduction of the angry Young Man that defies all notions of conformity and the symbolic ironing board on which the rancor is continually expressed aptly conveys the agony, turmoil and frustration of the alienation experienced by humans during the time when society demands them to be clones of orderly behavior. The play has effectively stood the test of time with its exposure of truth about human obsession with material reality. The American play All My sons by Arthur Miller dramatizes the tale of a hardworking man Joe Keller and his tragic end on account of his own flaw which enlightens us towards the futility of avoiding truth in life. Joe Keller responsible for a crime that causes the death of 21 pilots in World War II ultimately comes to a point wherein he’s unable to conceal the fact about his involvement in the same in spite of being evicted by the court.  The play ends in the tragic death of the man which shows the detrimental consequences one could face in life when not adhering to the principle of preserving humanitarian values. This message is the ultimate truth which unleashes itself as the play comes to its close and becomes universal.

Drama is a reflection of the values that pertain to human culture worldwide. It therefore is global art form and not a cultural tradition.  Natyasastra, the famous Indian treatise on the nature of dramatic composition states that theater is a means of Mokshaprapti or salvation that can only be obtained by sages through rigorous penance. This elevated concept of theater in India makes it a pious ritual more than merely matter of stage presentation as according to the Natyasastra doctrine, theater originated as the means to free humans in tretayuga or the third epoch from the vices like jealousy, anger etc., that had consumed them and therefore, Brahman the creator of the world was requested by the gods to create a mode by which humans could attain beatitude by becoming emancipated from evil impulses. Thus dramatic art appeared in the form of the fifth Veda to redeem humans from the sinful existence. This exalted concept of theater owned by the Indian tradition is reflected worldwide as we see in the message contained in every honest attempt of writing a play. This message becomes evident as the play unfolds itself in varied forms as we read it. Though we are free to interpret it the way we want, it cannot be denied that eternal truth inherent in it does not escape the attention of attentive and sensitive readers. Thus, we are able to make sense out of the most absurd plays like Waiting for Godot for instance wherein there is nothing but waiting and yet we derive the meaning that the play talks about the eternal human quest in life which is never-ending. In theater, weaving the authorial and directorial intent skillfully, it is the director that explains a play in his own way incorporating sensible novelties though without losing its crux that bears the message ingrained in it. A play like Naga-Mandala could be directed in varied modes but its folk essence and story that narrates the pathos of a woman struggling against patriarchy cannot be dismissed altogether.  The overall appearance of this play is undeniably purely imaginative without a tinge of pragmatic realism. However, the message ingrained in the play about a woman’s triumphant glory resisting the onslaught of male-dominated society makes it the most truthful play ever.

I would like to conclude by stating that for me, “conscious attempt of creating experiential reality” in a play is “unrealistic” . Instead, the most “unconscious attempt of presenting a play as a “performance” that gradually unfolds “truth” for us is indeed “Theater” . Such a theater is not to be “taught as a part of a school/college syllabus or with the aid of any “workshop” it is felt within every true theater practitioner who is not simply passionate about theater but in fact one who “exists because theater exists”… One who breathes theater…one who loves theater because its UNREAL. This apparent falsity makes it the most ingenious art form and only a true theater artist understands the pleasure of the “false” that is inherently “true”. Theater is the embodiment of Shiva- the Natraja –the  actor who is conspicuously adorned with everything in the world that is profane – Snaikes, human skulls, ash of the funeral ground, is surrounded by the fearful ghosts, resides in the symmetry with aghoris and tantrics is the perpetual drunkard but is perpetually worshipped as the EMBLEM OF BEAUTIFUL TRUTH -SATYAM SHIVAM SUNDARAM – Theater is Satya, Shiva and Sundara that is unadulterated by anything that is untruthful  in spite of being untruth. This is the impressive paradox of theater irresolvable by material understanding of true and false. Only by the willingness to cross the material border, one may come to terms with the deep-rooted essence of the TRUTH – The REALITY OF THE UNREAL THEATER.

Dr. Payal Trivedi

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