The playwright and the theatre
Bangalore, 2 Sep 2007
A playwright carries within himself the audience he writes for. While writing a funny line, you need to hear at least a titter within yourself which is not your own, or, without gasping yourself, sense the gasp as you deliver the body-blow. It’s because plays are written for this internal audience that they travel less comfortably than novels, short stories or poetry. In the final analysis, each of these latter forms is aimed at a single ideal reader. A play, on the other hand, needs to confront any number of audiences, the one within the writer first, then that within his (read ‘her’ where necessary) director and then the actors, and finally the one in the auditorium, persuading each that it deserves to be taken seriously. What makes this process even more complicated is the requirement that the person, who you hope will enjoy the performance, place himself in the middle of a crowd with no control over the circumstances. Unlike the reader of fiction who can put the novel aside if he is bored or the peruser of a love poem who can savour it in bits and pieces, a person in the auditorium is subject to severe restrictions which are only calculated to make him irritable.
The playwright has to bear all this in mind while imagining his play and hope that ultimately the response of this unpredictable real-life audience will somehow approximate the applause he has received from his imagined audience. Think of Bhavabhuti who, twelve hundred years ago, exploded, “At this moment somewhere in the world there exists a person who can appreciate me. Or such a kindred soul will be born in future. For Time is without limit and the earth is boundless.” Many critics have understood this remark to mean that Bhavabhuti was arguing for Drama as a universal, timeless art form, impervious to the pressures of the age. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For Bhavabhuti here is only berating his contemporaries for refusing to oblige him by conforming to his internal audience. He knows what every theatre person knows, that a play which is not recognized by it’s immediate pubic is quite unlikely to find acceptance from future generations. (Buechner’s ‘Woyzeck’ is virtually the only instance I know of a play that was unknown to its age and discovered as a masterpiece by a later one.) A play has to work at the time of its performance so that it can become a part of the culture of its time and thereby find a place in the history of that language. A playwright ignores this triple dimension of Time only at his own peril.
Everything is risked at the moment of performance. That is the moment of truth when the playwright and his audience are either loving or hating each other. Those limitations, those tensions, that nail-biting – that is what makes theatre such an exciting place to be in.
That’s why I need a Ranga Shankara, as Bhavabhuti needed his. At the very end of Bhavabhuti’s greatest play, Uttara Rama Carita, Valmiki makes a personal appearance on stage (not as a poet, mind you, but as a playwright!) and asks, “Tell me, what more can I do to please you?”
If a playwright can ask that question, he has found his audience.