Friday, April 14, 2017


In early 2004 when the arts portal had the infamous Pang Khee Teik as editor, we experimented briefly with an "artistic agony aunt" column that only ran for a few months before it fizzled out for lack of interest. Rummaging through my files, I found these obscure documents I felt were worth re-issuing for posterity.

The very first person to send a question to Uncle Ant's Agony & Ecstasy column happened to be the ever-popular actor/author/raconteur & restaurateur Patrick Teoh....

So much has been said about Malaysian English language theatre. Elitist... Incestuous... Self serving... Must not be entertaining or it will not be theatre... etc., etc. So my question is this: Which should fuel whom ah?

Stratford fuels West End? Broadway fuels 'serious' theatre? These theatre baargers talk too much and do too little. Sometimes I wish that they would just shut up and do their thing, whatever that may be, and let the paying public decide if they want more or not. Let's stop or at least pull back a little on this "hey we want to make you think, make a difference in your life and your community, etc, blablablahhhhhhhhhhhh"...

I buy a ticket, and they are getting really expensive these days, so make it fun for me first lah. Then if I get something out of it that will make a diff in my life OK that's a nice bonus. If not so what lah? Nowadays, first first already WAH must think about this and that, much fight with authorities, issues, issues issues... Wah theatre damn difficult to enjoy lah... let's buy ticket go to Tanjung Golden Village cinema lah.

I hope I am making some sense to you, my old friend. if not just delete this email and relegate me to that bunch of wankers above and I shall not bother you again lah :-)

Patrick Teoh

AGONY ANT says...

Congratulations, Patrick, for being the very first to pose an "arty" question to Uncle Ant's all-new Agony Column on! Can't think of a better way to kick this off than with the funny-serious question you raise - which actually opens up a complex of issues to which no straightforward answer could possibly apply. 

First of all, it prompts us to return to the foundation of all artistic endeavor and see if we can learn anything by excavating there. But let's keep our search focused on theater so this doesn't degenerate into a wordy tome. 

Theater has long been represented by a pair of masks - comic and tragic - showing the two sides of human experience, the light and the heavy. The mask as a symbol of personality goes back to prehistoric times when tribal shamans would trance out by donning a mask and robes while channeling an animal totem or the spirit of a powerful ancestor. This magical ritual was usually to bless a hunting expedition with success, or rescue a soul from the astral realms and return it safely to its physical vehicle, thereby curing any illness afllicting it. In Athens, theater served as social catharsis as well as moral education - with masked players personifying various attributes and tendencies like nobility, loyalty, courage, jealousy, greed, cruelty and deceit.

In general, tragedies were favored by the ruling elite who found solace in watching their own tragic flaws depicted on stage and were thus able to assuage their guilt a little and discharge a few sentimental tears (even tyrants enjoy a good cry, as exemplified by Hitler's S.S. officers who reportedly shed copious sentimental tears while listening to Wagnerian opera - after sending trainloads of unfortunates to the death camps).

Comedies were often a form of stress relief for the masses who could enjoy a public snicker or two at the foibles of the upper classes without having to risk their skins by openly rebelling against the power structure. Satire was, in effect, an important safety valve promoting social stability without actually threatening the status quo. 

Nevertheless, theater certainly contributed to radical shifts in the mass consciousness by triggering perceptual change from within, on the ethical and aesthetical levels. Those who desire to maintain tight control of public opinion are understandably wary of the potentially subversive power of artistic expression. Indeed, almost all major shifts in the mass psyche can be said to have been precipitated by specific literary and theatrical works. 

Scene from Tristan & Isolde
How about the visual arts? Well, they do inevitably exert their aesthetic influence, but they have traditionally been addressed more to the privileged classes than to the masses (cartoons and photography are interesting exceptions that warrant a whole separate study, which we won't delve into here).

So where does "entertainment" feature in all this? A play doesn't necessarily have to be funny to be entertaining. Any story told with great skill is entertaining in that it effectively engages the audience's attention. Millions enjoy following soap series on the boob tube in a multitude of languages and dialects. Tragic romances like Tristan und Isolde - the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story - have enchanted audiences for generations. In effect, it doesn't matter whether the subject matter is light or heavy - what's important is that the tale be masterfully told. 

There's nothing more deadly than a good joke badly told. A heart-wrenching tragedy, artistically rendered, can be life-affirming and uplifting. In short, giving theatre audiences their money's worth has little to do with actual content - but everything to do with the degree of skill, the intensity of commitment, the level of passion the performers manage to inject into the overall effort.

While those in theater are often accused of being there to gratify their enormous egos, the same can be said about every other human endeavor - including warmongering and empire-building. Perhaps it's our deeply-ingrained need to seize some species of immortality, spawned from an awareness of our pathetic mortality and vulnerability in the face of life's vicissitudes.

Returning to Patrick's question about whether our theater scene is "elitist, incestuous, self-serving, etc"... of course it is, old chum! Elitism vs Populism is an age-old issue. Elitism assumes that the hoi polloi is a dumb ass that needs to be thrown a stack of hay once in while (or at least a loaf of bread and a few circuses). 

Bread and circuses: another bad review

Populism believes the public is a dumb ass only because elites have rigged the game to keep it forever so. Each of us conducts within our own psyches a neverending argument between the Elitist and the Populist. The Elitist in us knows we are far superior to Most People. The Populist feels it's our sacred duty to disseminate our gifts and insights as far and wide as possible, in the hope that Most People will ultimately benefit - and, even if they don't, at least they'll be forking out hard-earned money to keep us in the business of having fun. 

The true Populist is shamelessly vulgar and watches only wrestling videos, 'Survivor' and late-night product promos - dismissing everything else as "one big self-indulgent wank." The true Populist came into his or her own during Mao's Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals and artists had a real rough time. I don't believe I've ever met a true Populist and I pray I never will!

Incest is how it all began and incest is how it all ends. Remember when there were only a handful of families on the planet - and they were all related? Brother-sister marriage was common practice amongst the ancient royals. Why, they learnt it from the gods among whom incest was not only prevalent, it was perfectly normal. 

Since theater people the world over are a great big fraternity (and sorority) - and since all of us are evolving into soul-brothers and sisters (or water-siblings if you prefer Robert A. Heinlein's terminology as presented in his seminal work of speculative anthropology, Stranger in a Strange Land)... how can any of us have any fun if we don't practise incest? Just answer me that, Bro.

Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the
Dominican Republic in the 1930s
If you argue that incest breeds stupidity... hey, do you think a smart species would go about destroying its own ecosystem and expending most of its energy on perpetual warfare? Maybe it's high time we invited a new crop of ETs to come and revitalize our Gene Pool?

Self-serving? Hey, show me someone who claims to be serving the "common good" or "public interest" - and I'll show you a politician or a creepy civil servant who just wants to get on the censorship board so he gets to see all the naughty bits everybody else can't. Never trust anyone who isn't serving his or her own interests, Patrick. They all grow up and become dictators and dickheads. 

Which brings us to the possibility of ENLIGHTENED self-interest, wherein we finally realize that our lives are all interconnected and interwoven in time and space - and that by guiltlessly fulfilling our own ego needs, we are actually playing a unique role in evolution. There's nothing more inspiring than a self-fulfilled individual, free to do his or her own thing, and in the process turning others on and firing synapses they never even knew existed.

As for your remark that theater tickets are “getting really expensive” – it’s all part of the yuppism that began in the mid-1980s. Remember when a cup of kopi-O cost only 50 cents (that was before the day of the sen)? Now you pay at least RM5 at the Coffee Bean (and it’s not even the tasty local stuff but some fancy imported variety that makes you think you’re in Europe). I couldn’t afford to see a single play if I didn’t get comps as a reviewer – yet I still see full houses at some productions, even the ones with RM100 tickets or more! Obviously there’s a new middle class that can afford a night or two out every week. They constitute the main support of English language theater in KL and Penang.

Theater is generally priced for the comfortable middle class no matter where you live. But now that we have affordable digital technology, there’s no reason why every major production can’t be professionally shot on high-grade digital video and packaged as DVDs and VCDs which can be sold at pirate prices or uploaded on YouTube, so those who can’t afford the luxury of a live performance can at least enjoy good theater at home. Indeed, it’s about time we introduced a cultural channel on TV that features televised plays, interviews with interesting personalities, intelligent discussions on current issues, documentaries on inspiring writers, actors, dancers, sculptors, composers, and so on.

To sum it all up, I'd say that despite the odds theater is alive and well in Malaysia and has actually come quite a long way. There is only one stumbling block as far as I can see: it's the "katak di bawah tempurung" (tempurungism, I call it) patriarchal-provincial mindset - the same that produced the Inquisition and the Taliban - still prevalent amongst our bureaucrats. The sort of bungling interference that has put City Hall in the limelight recently can be viewed as a sign that our theater scene is gaining influence, maturity and power - and therefore poses a threat to the status quo which must be nipped in the bud (not pinched in the butt). This presents us all with an opportunity to seriously question why City Hall has been charged with issuing entertainment licences - why do I need a licence to be entertaining? It's absolute crap.

Anyone know a professional abolitionist who can help abolish all primitive, irrelevant and suppressive laws? Methinks only an abolitionist can deal with those perverted abortionists of art that lurk in the corridors of officialdom.

Agony Ant
25 Feb 2004

[First posted 16 January 2012, reposted 10 December 2015]