When I try to talk about the language of theatre, the first question that I have faced is, who am I? That includes a series of questions—where do I come from? Where do I belong in the complex social structure of this complex world? What are my times? What is my language? What is my theatre? What is the language of my theatre?

All this sounds egoistic, but it is not. The questions are relevant because I am bound in space and time. I am not independent, I am not absolute, I am not universal. My thoughts, my actions, are limited to the life I have lived, the experience I have had, the choices I have made or have had to make, so far. To talk about the language of theatre, I can only talk about my language in my theatre. I could easily have said ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, for there are many others like me in the present company, for example. I can be taken as prototype of a particular class in a society at a particular period.

Let us do so; let us take a typical person like me. An Indian, a city man, born and brought up in Calcutta—a monster of a city—but a monster that is alive, throbbing with vitality and viciousness, may be with a vision too. A middle-class man. Perhaps his father was a professor in a Calcutta college, his grandfather a school teacher in a village, his great-grandfather probably had some petty land-owning interest. An educated man, which means he has gone through the English system of teaching mills—the system being English all through, the medium of instruction being vernacular in most parts—which will be very apparent if he ever tries to deliver a lecture in English before an august company such as this. He got his education because his father could afford the college fees and could support a dependent up to the mature age of 21. The level of his education is high in the context of a country where 70 per cent of the population is illiterate, but very low in terms of the knowledge a man can really acquire.

Let us do so; let us take a typical person like me. An Indian, a city man, born and brought up in Calcutta—a monster of a city—but a monster that is alive, throbbing with vitality and viciousness, may be with a vision too. A middle-class man.

Where does he belong in ‘time’? Let us assume that his basic education was completed in a colony under the British rule, and he became a wage-earner a little before Independence. And he is still alive; still going, strong or otherwise, in 1982.

His language, philologically speaking, is Bengali. Culturally speaking, it is English; for the culture of his class in the cities of this country was English, still is English.

This person, this typical middle-class, urban-educated Bengali is, at a given moment, the result of all the choices he has made in his life prior to that moment. The choices were not wholly independent; they were determined and limited by his surroundings, his class roots, his times. But even within that framework there may be wide variety, and that makes him an individual even when he is a prototype.

One of the choices that he makes in one phase of his life, let us suppose, is theatre. Like many such choices, it may have initially been just a pastime. An occupation for his leisure hours, it gradually acquires more and more importance in his life; acting in sporadic amateur performances at first, then directing and, finally, trying to write plays, because he wants to produce plays.

Being a city man, he naturally accepts the city theatre in the first instance. To be more specific, he chooses the theatre prevalent in Calcutta at the time, say in the early 1950s; and he adopts the language of that particular theatre. He may be vaguely aware of other kinds of theatre prevailing in the rural areas of India but, having little exposure to them, the question of exploring in that direction does not occur to him.

As a matter of fact, when we use the term ‘theatre’, an English term which we have more or less incorporated into our languages, do we not always visualise the city theatre? A large hall, with rows of seats for the spectators, all facing the same way? If we are the spectators, we find ourselves facing a wall that looks like a huge picture frame, with the ‘picture’ covered by a heavy curtain. When the action begins, we are plunged into darkness and the curtain is removed, exposing the area of action which is virtually another room with a raised floor on the other side of the picture frame. All the light is in that room, all the action, all the speech and sound. The make-believe world of theatre is there, the make-believe life; and we watch and listen, sitting in another room, passive and patient, hiding in the dark. The world of action beyond the frame is real and unreal; it is not reality but an illusion of reality. The people in action are people like us, but also different from us, detached from us. They did not come through the same doors that we used, and they will go out by a different one when the event is over. Even now, they are not aware of our presence or pretending that they are not—which means that they are ignoring us or that we are useless to them. But at the same time we know that we are not useless; whatever they are doing, they are doing for our sake. Without us, they would be useless.

‘Change’ is like a magic element. A person belongs to a given world at a given time, but the world changes in time and he changes with it. The world changes him but he, along with the others, also changes the world. Herein lies his power.

When our prototype chooses the theatre, it is this theatre that he chooses; the proscenium stage, that is the stage beyond the frame known as the proscenium arch and the auditorium with rows of numbered seats, the sets and the spotlights, the costume and the makeup, the greenrooms at the back of the stage and the lobby at the front of the house, the publicity of the show and the booking office with tickets of different prices. Let us suppose that he carries on for nearly twenty years apparently without any change in his attitude towards such a theatre.

Nevertheless, the forces of change were there, throughout the period, working within, almost secretly.

‘Change’ is like a magic element. A person belongs to a given world at a given time, but the world changes in time and he changes with it. The world changes him but he, along with the others, also changes the world. Herein lies his power. He is a product of a particular society in a particular period, but he can influence the change of that society by every single choice he makes, every single action he takes.

So despite his continued acceptance of the prevalent city theatre, questions arise in his mind with his increasing involvement in theatre. When he begins to write plays, more questions crop up. How much can one express in theatre? Can one express everything that one thinks and feels about? What are the limits? How much of a play is literature? What is the relationship of a written play with the performance of the play? What is the difference between the language of a play and the language of the theatre? What is theatre, for that matter? How does one communicate through theatre? How much of the theatre is entertainment, how much is aesthetics and how much a means of communicating messages? What are the similarities with other art forms? What are its distinctive features? What is theatre in the Indian setting?

The answers that are found are seldom full or final; but the process of asking questions and trying to find answers is the process of ‘change’, and that is what really matters. The change comes from a growing awareness—not just of theatre, but of theatre in relation to life, society and time. The process is complicated and many-faceted, even confusing; only when the answers are not stored in the mind at an abstract level but are tried out in action is confusion gradually dispelled, helping a pattern begin to emerge.

The exploration begins by looking closely at the thing at hand and that is the city theatre of the present. A writer writes a play—that is the beginning. As such it is a piece of literature written in a particular language which is to be read by others knowing that language, just like they read a poem or a novel. But then comes a director who transforms the written play into audio-visual scenes with the help of several performers. Let us call this the score, as some theatre people do. When the performers project the score to other people, it is no longer a piece of literature to be read and enjoyed privately and severally, but an event to be audio-visually experienced by a group of people assembled for that purpose—the spectators. This event is the performance. If the play is the beginning, the performance is the end and the score is the connecting link. And all these three elements taken together—the play, the score and the performance—constitute what we call theatre.

The playwright therefore has to think of the final event, the performance, right from the beginning. He has to deal with two media simultaneously—literature and theatre. His language has to be a special language, different from that in other branches of literature, for it must be translatable into audio-visual scenes which can be projected by a group of performers to a group of spectators. These two groups assemble and stay together for a span of time by mutual agreement, and the play in its entirety must be expressed in audio-visual terms within that span of time.

In order to be translated into theatre language, the story has to be expressed through the interaction of a number of inter-related people—the characters in the play—mostly by means of dialogue. Here, the language of the playwright is the language used by different persons in the story. The playwright is actually copying from life. The characters of his play are most believable when they speak, behave and react in exactly the same way as the spectator would expect them to, under the circumstances created by the story of the play. Those circumstances must also be believable, that is, something that can happen in real life. The settings of the events of the story should be as close to the real-life situation as possible. But just a copy of real life does not make theatre; the playwright has to screen out those inevitable details with which life is encumbered, which are not relevant to his story, which are not interesting. He may decide to omit two hours, three days, several months or even years from the life of the people in his play. This time lapse is indicated by a gap between two consecutive parts or ‘scenes’ of the play, usually created by closing the curtain or by making the stage dark. The change in the locales of different events is also indicated in the same way.

This kind of theatre, as we all know, is called the naturalistic theatre. The performers’ task in such theatre is to speak and behave in the manner of the characters of the play, and the director prepares the score accordingly. The idea is to make the spectator believe that the people on the stage are not performers but the actual people of the story; that the stage is not just a raised platform but the actual places where the events of the story occur. In short, an illusion of reality is to be created in the mind of the spectator, so that he can identify with the characters in the play in terms of his own experiences in real life, feel for them, be moved by the events in their lives.

In naturalistic theatre, the language of the play and the language of the theatre have the same point of reference—real life as we find it; and hence the two languages are not much different if the copy from life is authentic. It is a game of recognition. The playwright knows the man he has put in his play as a character, the director recognises the man and helps the performer recognise him. The performer copies the man in his performance, facilitating the spectator to also recognise him.

The proscenium stage is very suitable for this kind of theatre. One can take the advantage of the distance between the performer and the spectator, and of the separation of the acting area from the sitting area of the spectators, to create the desired illusion of reality. The stage lights play an important role in making the fake look like the real. That is why magicians, also known as ‘illusionists’, always prefer the proscenium stage.

Several questions crop up. To what extent can such illusion be created? Does the spectator really forget that it is the stage, and that the people on it are performers? Whatever illusion is created, how much of it is through the willing use of the spectator’s own imagination rather than through what he actually sees and hears? Does not the spectator come prepared to be deluded, obeying an unwritten law of theatre?

And now, here is the new art-cinema. Can theatre really compete with cinema in the matter of creating illusions? The answer obviously is ‘never’. The images of the cinema are the images of reality where photographs of a snow-capped mountain, a foaming sea, a pulsating city street are taken. Even the indoor sets look real, because much more money can be spent in constructing those sets and the camera can hide many defects and leave out unrequired details. In that case, is it not better to depend more on the imagination of the spectator, at least in the matter of the settings of the events in the play? Why not, for example, put up a free-standing door frame to represent the door instead of trying to show realistically the entire wall with a door in it? Such things are being increasingly done now-a-days in the naturalistic theatre.

But once one emerges from the bounds of the necessity of creating an illusion of reality, the emergence need not be limited to the sets alone. One can come out of the story, come out of the characters, come out of naturalism altogether. The playwright may find that what he wants to say cannot be effectively said through a story with characters who have definite identities. A character may be too limiting in his individuality, a story may be too specific to suit his subject. For example, he may want to deal with the problems of people like himself, urban middle-class people—a minority in society no doubt, but an important minority—who he knows intimately. He may be more concerned with their problem in general than those of certain individuals and, therefore, he may find that prototypes rather than characters would be more suitable to express that the problems are not of one but of many. He can use four prototypes with rhyming names like Amal, Vimal, Kamal, Nirmal to emphasise their generality. He can give one of them another name—say Indrajit—to show that this person is in some ways different from the other three; but Indrajit is also a prototype, not a character. To express the problems of Indrajit effectively, he may put in somebody, one of the dramatis personae, who is neither a character nor a prototype but a kind of alter-ego to Indrajit. As a story would be too specific to project the universal nature of the problem, he uses a cycle of typical events from their lives instead—examination, interview, marriage and career. If he does so, then the exploration begins for a new language of theatre and he soon comes to the fundamental question—what is theatre?

Looking for the answer to that question, the first thing he realises is something he had always known but had never understood the full import of; the fact that theatre is a live show. The event of theatre does not take place unless two parties of human beings, the performers and the spectators gather at the same place on the same day at the same time, and stay together for some time. The performers are here and now, although the story or the theme of the play may be there and then.

As soon as our prototype realises this, the spectators acquire a new importance for him. Can we—he asks himself—afford to put the spectators at a distance? At a different level? In darkness? Have they not come to meet us? Are they not an integral part of the theatre event? In the light of these questions, the architecture of the proscenium theatre appears to be all wrong. Everybody looking in one direction and seeing the action beyond the picture frame creates a two-dimensional image. Why not be in the same space with the spectators to make it a three-dimensional reality as theatre really is?

In theatre, direct communication is possible. That is the strength of theatre. That is where cinema can never compete with theatre. Theatre is a human event, cinema is not.

In theatre, communication can occur in four ways: performer to spectator, performer to performer, spectator to performer and spectator to spectator. Of these, the first two ways are very clear to all of us. The performers always project to the spectators; that is what theatre is for. The performers communicate with one another, for they are interrelated in their roles in the play; even when there is no story and no characters, they work as a team, complementing one another in action and speech. But when we speak of the other two ways of communication, we begin to panic. We think that the spectators communicating to the performers or to other spectators would mean chaos. And so it would, if we assume that communication is limited to language. The attention of the spectator, concentration, the reaction to the performance reflected in his facial expression or the tension in his body—all these can be a form of feedback to the performer or to another spectator. And once the performer recognises the presence of the spectators by coming nearer, by putting them in the light, other opportunities of voluntary and spontaneous participation on the part of the spectators can be included in the theatre.

This process of exploration, of asking questions and finding possible answers, does not remain limited in his mind simply as a thought process. Being actively involved in theatre all through, he tries out many of the answers in his practice even within the framework of the city theatre. The language of the plays he writes, the language of the performances he directs or acts in, goes on changing.

For instance, when he comes to realise that theatre is a live show, he naturally begins to depend more on human beings—both performers and spectators. That brings him to a further realisation that the basic tool of the art of theatre is the human body. Coming out of naturalistic theatre confirms this realisation. All the paraphernalia of the conventional city theatre—sets, props, spotlights, costume, make-up—are they really essential? They may be helpful, they may be necessary for some kind of plays, but is any of them the essential tool of the trade of theatre? In other words, will theatre cease to be theatre if any or all of them are absent? Without the human body, without the active presence of the human being, theatre will not exist.

So even in his proscenium-theatre practice, the emphasis on sets, props, costume, makeup and lighting gradually gets reduced, whereas the dependence on the human body increases. The language of the plays he writes changes accordingly, although they are still written with the proscenium stage in mind. Even when he writes a play which has a story and identifiable characters speaking naturalistically, he prepares a structure that is far from naturalistic. Continuity of time and separation of space are not respected; the action flows from one time to another, one space to another, without any break, without changing sets or props. Even events occurring at two or more different places at two or more different times are enacted simultaneously. Sometimes space is expanded, sometimes time is telescoped. As sets and props are suggested rather than shown, so are events and actions suggested by signs rather than actual actions—like a series of abstract movements and gestures, like a burst of body energy and sound energy. He does these because of his increased dependence on the human being—the performer’s body on the one hand, and the spectator’s imagination on the other.

And if the magic of change really works, the final outcome for him is to come out of the proscenium theatre altogether. It is a difficult step to take for a city man like him who has accepted the proscenium theatre for so long but, once he takes the step, the language of his theatre begins to change rapidly. A kind of consolidation of all the little changes that have occurred so far in his thoughts and actions begins to take place.

This is an intimate theatre. The performer is able to see the spectator clearly, can approach him individually, can whisper in his ear. The performer may even touch him if he wants to. The action can take place in front of the spectator, but may also be behind him or by his side. The mistaken notion that each spectator must be able to see the entire action at all times, no matter if he sees it from a distance of 200 feet, is dispensed with. The language of this theatre involves being within and experiencing, not viewing and hearing from a separate distant sanctum. It involves projecting individually to another human being and receiving his feedback here and now, not projecting to a dark amorphous mass and pretending to be unaware of the fact that the mass is composed of human beings.

Experience is the key word in every art. The appeal of an art form is principally, if not solely, through emotion and not through intellect. The function of a novel is not just to tell a story to the reader but to create a world through the feelings and associations aroused in his mind. A good painting does not just depict a scene or an incident but moves the viewer emotionally. Does that not apply to the language of theatre as well?

The demand of the spectator in the new theatre is not of an illusion of reality but of reality itself, the reality of the presence of the ‘performer’.

New theatre demands a different language of performance altogether. The performer has to take off his mask and lay bare his real self. In the ‘civilised’ world, theatre is probably the only public place where this is at all possible, and now the performer can take advantage of it. It is also a great risk to take, for he is vulnerable without his mask, without his protective armour. But the risk has to be taken because that is the only way to appeal to the spectator to take off his own mask. When that happens, theatre becomes a real human event, a real meeting of human beings; not mask to mask, armour to armour, but man to man.

By all this, the importance of the intellect is not being belittled; one acquires knowledge through intellect and knowledge is extremely important. But knowledge without feeling makes one pedantic, as feelings without knowledge can put one in an ivory tower or send one to the mountains to meditate. The integration of knowledge and feelings is what can be called consciousness, and it is consciousness that can induce and guide any meaningful action that can in turn change the world for the better. We know that people in this world die of starvation, that people are tortured behind prison walls, that the planet earth can be destroyed totally by a minute fraction of the stockpile of nuclear weapons: all this is knowledge. But unless we feel the full import of that knowledge, we do not take action.

Let us come back to the consciousness of the person we are talking about.

He has another realisation which is very important to him. He finds that by dispensing with the costly stage and auditorium, the paraphernalia of non-essentials like sets, props, spotlights, costumes etc., and by depending on the human body, he has freed his theatre from an abject dependence on money. In a society based on buying and selling, art unfortunately also becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold, and he was forced so far to accept that condition. But now the possibility of creating a Free Theatre opens up. And that brings him to one of the first questions he asked himself right at the beginning—what is theatre in the Indian context? So let us go back to the beginning of the process of change and examine it in another light.

Right from the beginning he is aware, however vaguely, that the theatre he is choosing is not the only theatre of India, nor the most prevalent or popular in terms of the number of spectators. It is not even a theatre born in this country. There is great variety of theatres, grouped under the general heading of ‘folk theatre’ or ‘traditional theatre’, having different forms and names in different regions. India, therefore, does not have one theatre but two distinct kinds. The first kind is indigenous and is prevalent in rural areas, whereas the second kind has been imported from a western country, namely Britain, a little over a century ago; and even if we say that it has acquired Indian citizenship, it is still very different from the first kind and is contained in the urban areas. These two theatres have been running parallel for over 100 years without any significant give and take.

This state of affairs is not surprising. One of the most important characteristics of the socio-economic conditions of India is an unfortunate dichotomy between urban and rural life. This dichotomy is not limited simply to disparities in economic standards, services available, educational levels, cultural developments and so on, but is something more fundamental. Its root lies in the historical fact of India having been a colonial country for so long. In the first phase of colonial exploitation, the products of the highly developed cottage industries of India were purchased at unfair rates by the East India Company and paid for by the money collected by taxing the Indian people; and cities like Calcutta, Bombay, Madras were created to serve as centres for collecting and exporting such products to Europe. The capital accumulated through this exploitation enabled Britain to complete her Industrial Revolution. Then, of course, it was not in the interest of Britain to import Indian products but, rather, to sell her own industrial products in India. Hence, first, the Indian cottage industries that tended to compete with the British industries were systematically destroyed and next, India was converted into a backward agricultural country to serve as a gigantic market for British industrial goods on the one hand and to supply raw material to the British industries on the other hand. The establishment of the zamindari system was a very effective means to achieve these ends. The cities and ports of India played a greater role in this phase of foreign exploitation, and the urban-rural dichotomy in the economic field became much more pronounced. Cities developed and thrived literally at the cost of the villages.

The effects of this dichotomy in the cultural field were also very pronounced. English education was introduced to serve British colonial interest, and quite naturally, the facilities were first provided in the cities. Those who could take advantage of the English education in the first instance belonged either to the families of landholders under the zamindari system, or to the families of businessmen, brokers, usurers etc., who acquired wealth in the process of colonial exploitation. As a result, the culture of the cities found its roots in western soil and there was almost a clear break from the traditional indigenous culture. The culture of the countryside, however, did not die and the two cultures ran parallel, thus extending the urban-rural dichotomy to the cultural field.

This perspective of the theatre situation in India gradually develops in the mind of our prototype through the period of his activities within the confines of the conventional city theatre; and, while searching for a new language for communicating more effectively in theatre, he wants to do something about dichotomy also, however inadequate and limited his attempts may be. His exploration, therefore, includes a search for a Free Theatre that will not be limited to an urban audience belonging to the middle and upper classes, nor tied down to backward values unrelated to the life and problems of the working masses of the country. He realises gradually that a flexible, portable and inexpensive theatre is needed for that, a Third Theatre, at least for the time being.

And now, when he finally breaks away from the proscenium theatre after so many long years, he finds that he has not only found a way of communicating directly in theatre, thereby utilising the strength of this live art form, but that the solution to the problem of creating a flexible, portable and inexpensive theatre—a Free Theatre—is also at hand, because he is no longer dependent on the money required for the costly inessentials of the proscenium theatre. His theatre can now serve two purposes, can move in two different directions. Firstly, through an intimate theatre, an intense emotional communication is possible and, secondly, theatre can go to a place where people are not waiting for them specifically. Both these theatres can be free in principle as well as in effect, for they can function on the basis of voluntary donation. Payment of money need not be a condition of entry. This is very important, not just because most of the people in this country cannot afford to pay the price of the tickets but, principally because a human act like theatre should let people meet freely on the basis of equal status so that their relationship can be human.

Although the philosophies of the two kinds of new theatre are the same, the respective languages differ considerably. The environment of the intimate theatre obtained by the arrangement of sets, the individual approach made possible by proximity of the spectators, the intensity of communication, the subtlety of projection—all these are not to be had in an open-air performance in a village or a park where, sometimes, thousands of people gather. But this may be more than compensated for by the fact that his theatre can now reach the working people of villages and slums who would never have come to his intimate theatre in Calcutta. So if he is reluctant to leave any of the two theatres, there is no other way but to work hard to develop and master both the languages.

From ‘The Changing Language of Theatre’, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Memorial Lecture, 1981 (Courtesy: Seagull Books, Kolkata)

Excerpted with permission from
Badal Sircar: Search for a Language of Theatre
Edited by Kirti Jain
(Niyogi Books, 2016) Rs 595