In early 2004 when the arts portal kakiseni.com 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?
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 :-)
Congratulations, Patrick, for being the very first to pose an "arty" question to Uncle Ant's all-new Agony Column on kakiseni.com! 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.
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.
|Scene from Tristan & Isolde|
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|
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
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.
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.
25 Feb 2004