13 November 2009

Death of Theatre

It has been in the air for some time now. A decade or so at the least. Theatre, widely acknowledged by its own dwindling proponents as a dying art, is on its last legs.

It can be traced back to the 1950s when television and cinema came in a big way all over the world. As their appeal intensified over the years and more and more televisions and movie halls found their way into homes and communities, the importance of theatre steadily declined to the point that today it is no longer significant in our social life.

Indeed, for all its functions have been successfully taken over by these two mediums. Where earlier theatre served as an accessible medium of mass entertainment, diffusing societal tensions and propagating ideologies as it made people laugh and cry, now television and cinema act as carriers of culture and propaganda.

Of course, it was television much more than cinema which really struck the fatal blow to theatre. It stripped it of the mass popularity which it once enjoyed before its advent, and by thus usurping its vital role as the propagator of popular culture it pushed it further onto the margins of the entertainment industry. Television was cheap, widely accessible and convenient, providing all that drama right in your living room without the hassles of going to the playhouse. No wonder general interest in theatre declined as the reach of television increased.

No wonder too that an increasing amount of plays produced from the 1950s onwards were shown on T.V. For all their dedication to the institution the producers could not resist tapping the immense potential of this wide-reaching medium. Yet, even as it opened avenues it narrowed them down so that while the producers made greater profits the people got another incentive to stay at home glued to the box. A move meant to bring theatre back to the masses ultimately succeeded in furthering it from them.

Deprived of its primeval foundation, its watching audience, all theatre today is, to a great extent, redundant. What purpose remains to a communal art which fails to attract people to it? One can read plays, yes, but that essence of communality so integral to any dramatic performance is lost in any easy-chair appraisal. To feel theatre, to be moved fully by its power, to even strip that illusionary power, one must see the action unfold before one’s eyes. The binary is quite simple: no audience, no theatre.

Though it was not just this pervasive disinterest which brought theatre to such a pass. The death of theatre has also been precipitated by the death of its two distinctive genres, tragedy and comedy.

It was Modernism which took its toll on the genres. Before the reductive, unifying pressures of a modernity which laughed at all things great and grand and which sought to locate the source of life, its very greatness, in the routine life of normal, everyday subjects these primary distinctions had to fail and fall into each other. It became imperative to recognise comedy in tragedy and tragedy in comedy and so came about the genre of tragicomedy, an in-between form which best reflected the absurd realities and tensions of everyday life. What came about was the Theatre of the Absurd.

Which, as can be guessed, was not spectacularly popular with the masses. Critically acclaimed as the movement was, it was typically urban and drew only a small section of that population towards it. The middle and working classes remained more or less isolated from it, caring as little for it as the movement cared for them and their tastes. Once initiated, this process of alienation of the art form from the masses only picked up speed and though in the late 1960s and early 1970s Agit-prop and the Theatre of the Oppressed brought it momentarily close to the people the old days of regular, popular theatre were over.

Indeed, for what has emerged is basically a queer, eclectic residue of the Absurdist and Agit-prop, a brand of theatre which adapts, modifies and re-enacts. Theatre today is more or less black, satirical tragicomedy, reflecting a bleak worldview running short of hope and despairing of change. Most new plays are adaptations of established classics, attuned to (post) modern sensibilities by changes in language and costumes. Some of these are comic, ridiculing the older tragic works through mock-heroic imitations. Others, loaded with sarcasm and generally cynical, are openly political and critique society through juxtaposition of an essentialised past and present- a tried and tested dramatic trope wherein a figure from the past miraculously appears in the present and laments about existing social evils. Others still present tormented subjects trying to bring change but failing in face of the overwhelming social superstructure.

Be that as it may, it is these types of productions which have further contributed to theatre’s alienation from the general public. Whether justifiably or not, theatre is widely perceived to be an elitist institution, the refuge of be-cigeratted khadi and jhola clad (pseudo?) intellectuals: subversive malcontents who wish things to change but have nowhere else to go and no one else to listen. It has gone back into a niche, an exclusivity reminiscent of the isolation which Restoration Drama enjoyed, though, of course, the seclusion here is much in the manner of an irrevocable exile than a voluntary migration. Consequently, it has again become a predominantly urban middle-class art so that only those connected with theatre through familial ties or attracted by extraordinary curiosity find their way into playhouses.

The abiding irony of this situation is, therefore, that while on one hand theatre screams to be listened it gets only the converted as an audience. Talking about poverty, safe sex, unemployment, caste, communal and regional politics, female foeticide, corruption, dowry and so on to a section which deliberately maintains a distance from governance, is educated enough to generally have nothing to do with these social evils and does, on and off, try through civil institutions to bring change is ultimately redundant. When theatre should actually be diversifying and reaching out to the masses our self-appointed messiahs remain stuck in the comfortable campuses of the Universities and the NSD, so much so that even street plays-nukkar natak-are usually organised in air-conditioned halls in posh localities.

Consequently, theatre has become an easy and convenient way for naturalising the society’s dramatically-inclined malcontents, for by giving them an exclusive space for expression the State on one hand effects a sort of cumulative catharsis and on the other furthers their marginalisation. Indeed, as far as the State is concerned, nothing can be more beneficial than this sort of hermetic containment which ostensibly encourages the form but in the long run only works towards its ultimate doom. As it becomes more and more a part of a system whose ideologies it takes pains to oppose, theatre will only loose its importance and become gradually redundant.

It has already started. We’ve come to the last act; the curtains are about to draw- we near an end.

The end.

The end of theatre.

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