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Sacred scripts?

Improvisation and innovation have always been a part of theatre’s DNA. Can recent changes to classic plays be seen in the same light?

Sacred scripts?
A scene from the French opera, Carmen.

There was news at the start of this year that Carmen, the famous opera, was staged with a totally different ending. Instead of the heroine being shot dead by her jealous lover, it was the gypsy siren that pulled out a gun and killed the lover. It was hailed as a great feminist ending by many eager to rewrite not only history but the classics as well. Though one would have preferred an interpretation of the text rather than drastic changes in the text itself.

Carmen centres around Don José, a soldier who has the misfortune to be seduced by the eponymous gypsy Carmen. She is as loveable and hedonistic one moment as she is sardonic and cold-blooded. All in all, a tough woman to love; especially when she loses interest and moves on to the attractive bullfighter who’s new in town. Don José eschews his job, the comfort of home and his childhood sweetheart to doggedly pursue Carmen until he realizes he can never have her – and if he can’t have her, no one can. The opera ends with Carmen meeting him outside the local bullring and telling him once and for all she doesn’t love him; so he stabs her and declares “Oh Carmen, my beloved” as the curtains close. That is, at least, how most of us are used to seeing the opera end. This year Carmen made the headlines with a production in Florence that sees her shoot Don José with his own pistol rather than face death herself. The producers said they had changed the ending in response to the number of women who are killed by their partners every year and this change was quickly associated with the zeitgeist of the #MeToo movement as well.

The tendency to alter, change or edit a work let us say of literature is nothing new. In the past the so called classics have been put to review, keeping in view the taste of the times. Shakespeare is hardly performed or staged in entirety these days. Even the most venerated of the plays like Lear and Hamlet are put on the chopping block, to produce a version that is shorter and supposedly crisper. The four or five-hour long full play is considered to be too long to be staged and made shorter so that it can hold the attention of the audience.

The veneration of the text probably became an issue with the classics being made part of academia. Some seismic change must have happened in the understanding of the printed word with the invention and general use of the printing press because in the oral tradition the text was supposed to be flexible depending on the memory of the narrator and the exigencies of the time when the oration took place. Much changed or was altered with no great qualms experienced as a reaction. But it was only in the nineteenth century that it was considered appropriate for literature to be made part of the formal academic discourse and degrees were issued in the subject by the early twentieth century like in what were called hard subjects: the natural sciences and philosophy. The other arts like music and painting in some countries and universities are still considered to be worthy of a diploma and not a degree. The separation of the crafts and arts is still a sticking point and the freedom of thinking that qualifies a subject from being worthy of a degree is found lacking in subjects like painting and music. It is supposed that sufficient intellectual content is missing.

Painting and music are thus consigned to academies and conservatories, and it is thought that this is where they should stay. In the Middle Ages in Europe the best places for the making of art and music were such guilds and there was hardly any pretension of creating something new or original. This bug of infection was contracted in the Romantic Era when the work was seen as new and the process qualified as creative.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Shakespeare retained his popularity but it was heavily censored and mutilated to be in synch with popular taste. In those centuries, as theatre underwent some lowering of opinion, the acrobatic acts and display of oddities like animals, that also included non-white humans, actually captured from different parts of the world were put on display much to the cheers and delight of local audiences. Once dance, acrobatics and human catwalk was done with, Shakespeare reappeared probably with more blood and gore than it already contained.

In the East too there were no great claims for the work of the poets, painters and musicians to be original. One does not know much about the Chinese with their very vibrant, productive and long history shielded from us because of our apocalyptic Abrahamic take on history superimposed by the post renaissance Eurocentric worldview. But, in the subcontinent the arts were an attempt to restate and rediscover what actually existed in some pristine state. If it were music the pristine surs existed somewhere in their ideal form with the melodies meant to be discovered or reclaimed in that original state.

Theatre as it evolved in the subcontinent under European influence in the nineteenth century saw adaptations of European plays, but with the passage of time greater local flavour found its place. These plots were filled with song and dance (thumri, chand, ghazal in raags) and the situations were heavily localized, characters made indigenous and the dialogue more flowery. The plays lasted from dusk to dawn and the songs were re-sung with greater virtuosity with every encore. Even at times the dying or death scenes were so appreciated that the characters came back to life and enacted the death scene again and again. This went on till the audiences were satisfied and the play had to be wound up at dawn, even if the scenes had to be rushed through.

For what is theatre all about if not willing suspension of disbelief.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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