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Inspiration over originality

Neil Simon, the famous American playwright who died last week, was immensely poached upon in Pakistan and India

Inspiration over originality

Neil Simon was, for a number of reasons, a writer most amenable to adaptation. Many versions were crafted out of his plays to be staged repeatedly over decades on the various stages and theatre halls of this country.

After independence, the people who initially went to Britain and were exposed to theatre, came back and tried their hands at producing plays they had seen on stage. The previous generation, during the colonial period, only had the text which was adapted by local playwrights into plays that they thought would do well on the box office. All this called for a degree of freedom which was demanded of the script, mixed with a dosage of song and dance considered indispensable for the show to succeed. These playwrights were not educated in the formal sense but were adept at theatre and street smart, having learnt the tricks of the trade as apprentices.

Later, with the greater outreach of cinema, some of these plays were made into films and then screened in distant lands. The third phase was one where films were remade into plays and staged in the country. These were billed as plays and the fact that heavy borrowing had taken place from its film version was hardly mentioned.

Except for a few righteous ones, who either used the term adaptation or inspiration, others failed to mention the source and palmed off the play as their very own. It was all not limited to one adaptation but spawned many. Usually, the scripts remained the same except with some tinkering, like the title of the play being changed to give the impression of it being a new play. Actually, many versions of the same play were made and it became difficult to negotiate the maze and decide which play was adapted when and how.

The educated lot on their return chose the higher and more serious form of theatre led by the likes of Ibsen, Shaw and Moliere but with the films versions providing the inspiration the focus shifted to more entertaining stuff like the Phantom of the Opera,Chicago, Grease and Miss Saigon. Many of the novels made into musicals were also imitated like Les Miserables.

The main thrust was on entertainment value of the show and the spectacle attached to it. Seeing the play in Pakistan, the audience imagined and lived the entire spectacle that they had experienced, while also seeing the film in their mind’s eye, overhearing the original score and comparing it to the original.

Neil Simon’s plays were genial, if that is the word that can capture the emotional content very successfully carried in his plays. People here, especially academics, were very conscious to bring the weighty issues of life on stage, thinking that the professional stage was all about frivolity and frills. The overwhelming questions, so to say, were not addressed in that theatre and they wanted them to be presented in action the way Shakespeare had been able to do despite all his army of characters, multiple plots and a marriage of comedy and tragedy.

The basic problem with local playwrights has been their lack of ability to create a play; in that Neil Simon’s plots and characters provided an adequate grit for the local writers to hang their linen on.

The middle ground was hit by the likes of Noel Coward and eventually by Neil Simon. There were no overwhelming questions, no fighting with destiny, no questioning the purpose of existence, no mocking at the gods, no paradoxical and tragic dilemma perched precariously between the paragons of animal just being quintessence of dust. It was about life’s day to day issues, the warts and glitches with plenty of humour thrown in. Simon kept the audiences entertained and did not bother beyond a manageable disquiet that may have forced many to wallow in the “craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event”.

One, it was very contemporary writing about characters and situations that were current, and two he had an immense recourse to humour, the talent to write dialogues and then a great genius to make a play. Many of our very good writers cannot rise above the narrative to write for the stage but he could do that, and is the cause of his great acclaim.

Issues and  problems were dealt with in a manner where the characters were above them, looking down as with if in full control. This shoring up probably appealed to audiences desperately wanting to be bolstered after the mundane and everyday existence had run them down and drained them.

The basic problem with local playwrights has been their lack of ability to create a play; in that Neil Simon’s plots and characters provided an adequate grit for the local writers to hang their linen on. The rest, the characters and the situations then could be easily modified to make them appear local. In Simon the absence of very weighty issues that local playwrights unnecessarily got into a tangle with and imposed on their characters and situations, helped the local adaptations of his plays to retain a sense of pace that was engaging and entertaining, rather than ponderous and turgid.

More of his plays were adapted in India, and then they were intellectually and artistically smuggled across the border. The change from an inflexion of Hindi to Urdu or any other language like Marathi or Bengali was easier because the characters and situations had already been localised. The facility with Urdu or Punjabi was enough to do the dramatic deed and it did happen in more instances than not.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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