Living with ‘Dragons and Makarakshayas’: Politics of Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s theatre

By Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon

I have watched only three plays by veteran director cum actor Dharmasiri Bandaranayake; namely Euripides’ ‘Trojan Women’ (Trojan Kanthawo), ‘The Dictator’ (Eka Adipathi) and ‘The Dragon’ (Makarakshaya) (originally by Soviet playwright Yevgeney Shvarts). Of these three, ‘The Dictator’ and ‘The Dragon’ have been reproduced and are being staged for a new generation of audiences, about 30 years younger to the original productions of these plays. Can this re-production, or say, re-contextualization of old plays, still produce an appeal in terms of conveying its message (politics) to an audience living in different economic and social conditions, a different historical time?

According to Piyaseeli Wijegunasinghe (I refer to the brochure distributed at the opening show of the reproduction of ‘The Dragon’ at the Lionel Wendt with a quote from her 1985 article in the Aththa newspaper,) ‘a play written during a certain historical and social context, under the limitations and constraints imposed on the artist by the same social context, would not produce necessary knowledge required for us to have social progress’. She further says that ‘to subject a decadent ruling class, depending upon deception, to satire and laughter just to have momentary satisfaction, which is provided by Makarakshaya is not enough.’

A scene from Trojan Women (Trojan Kanthawo)

Wijegunasinghe’s criticism might have got its own meaning and ‘truth’ according to her ideological and political doctrine. However, to counter her idea here is not my aim, but to examine the term ‘political’ which she, several others and I would want to materialise through the mobilization of masses in a revolutionary act.

So, what Piyaseeli has said cannot be ‘the truth’, the absolute truth about Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s theatre. For I assume Dharmasiri’s theatre to be ‘political’ and rich with enough knowledge for social action, which has to be carefully discerned and re-interpreted.

If politics, as in its classic definition of it, involves power struggles, conflict and repression with a universal application on any society at any historical time, Dharmasiri’s plays can be a very good example portraying a universal truth of power politics. Especially, in the local context, when it is contextualised and re-contextualised, the effect of the political message gets more and more sharpened with different interpretations of politics, rulers and their subjects.

Basically, in ‘The Dragon’ and ‘The Dictator’, Dharmasiri derives a fundamental lesson from political realism; the struggle for power and the struggle to protect that power through deception and violence. So, for me his theatre, which is more Brechtian in its form and content, becomes didactic in nature as its original aim is not to just please the audience, but to awaken them to a reality around them and create opposition against existing conditions. In the words of Volter in ‘The Dictator’ this realist political stance turns to be very much a humanist supplication; “ cry children, until a mother’s breast produces milk, cry without stopping, till a mother with mother’s love and affection comes and consoles you”.

As a dramatist Dharmasiri, like any other artist, has to first overcome the existing political barriers on artistic expressions and use his medium very tactfully. So, he chooses satirical plots with a political message and dramatises them powerfully. In Trojan Women, Dharmasiri voiced rather an idealist appeal against the war. It was a timely selection as in the local context we were embarking on a brutal war.

The philosophy of the Trojan Women within, re-contextualization of this ancient Greek play created new meanings and new significations in a society being affected by a civil war. However, the idealist world view, i.e., desire for the maintenance of perpetual peace in society mainly went unheard. It is because the power of the political idea behind a lonely attempt by an artist can only anger a clan of warlords and fail to find that mass (-media) appealing, in the absence of a political movement and criticisms by organic intellectuals.

The attempt of consciousness- raising among the oppressed often becomes a failed exercise or yields very little harvest in an era of mass consumption, in which ‘shopping mall’ ideology has shrouded the conscience of ‘so-called mass’.

It is in fact true regarding the politics of any alternative thinking which certainly has to swim ‘against the tide’.

On the other hand, if we have, with the phantasmagorical effect of consumer capitalism, entered a post-modern context, then again the relevance of our medium becomes problematic. Especially, when there are lots of convincing stories of irrelevance of class based analyses of social relations, Dharmasiri’s theatre easily becomes the target of those pseudo post-modernists as well.

However, if we are permitted to borrow some ideas from the ‘Post Modern Condition’, espoused by the high priest of post-modernism, Jean Franco Lyotard, we can read the politics in the present day context as a ‘game of language’.

In questioning that language game of the post-modern politicians, whose attire and appearance would be highly different from that of Hitler or other great dictators of the past, and who exert similar coercion and control over societies, with a toned -language and deceptions of promises, still the theatre of Dharmasiri offers us the key to identify them.

So, the message of politics expressed in Dharmasiri’s theatre is for all time; the plays being ‘texts’ in its Derridian understanding, can be re-played, re-produced and re-interpreted in different historical times and contexts. When a play, originally written in a Stalinist era or under conditions of slavery in ancient Greece, is re-contextualised in a war-ravaged society, with all the signs of loss of humanity and thirst for revenge, and exploitation of the oppressed, the theatrical enterprise of Dharmasiri becomes original and admirable.

The new significations that present day viewer derives from his theatre are the results of dialectical impact of existing political reality and dramatic expression of a similar reality through the plays..
Moreover, as media, critics, intellectuals and repressive apparatus of states involve in the process of portraying, criticising, producing and censoring various dimensions of political reality that an artist may want to recreate, his work is then not just a lonely task. In fact, it becomes a war against and within all these forces. Whose side wins or who is more cable of convincing of the politics of his work, politics that others would deny, is a question about the political movements in a society.

In ‘The Dragon’ what we experience is this reality of a lack of creative political force which can take on any evil political leadership or repressive ruling class at any context. Rather than blaming the circumstances, the real and imaginative political leadership or movement is able to exploit them and defeat the politics of the oppressor.

The fear psychosis that the masses are overwhelmed with about mysterious character of ‘dragon-like’ authoritarian rulers, are boldly and imaginatively deconstructed and finally laid to destruction in the hands of a leadership with right philosophy and correct action plan.

Dharmasiri is among the few political dramatists in the local context who has dedicated his entire life to a certain political destination that he thinks society as a whole should reach. Through his theatrical depiction of agonising ruling class, passive ordinary masses and untiring and brave effort of right political leadership to awaken and mobilise the masses against injustice, violence and exploitation, he proposes that a better future is impossible without a revolution led by humanists, free of violence.

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