Postcolonial Politics and History as dramatized in the Theatre

Shelagh Goonewardene

Ernest MacintyreErnest McIntyre

The ancient land of Lanka emerged as a modern state when, as Ceylon, it was granted Independence in February 1948 by Britain who had been the last imperial power to rule it following  the Portuguese and Dutch.  This meant a recognition and re-emergence of its own identity after approximately four hundred years of foreign rule.  It is a matter of history that violent episodes initiated by civilians and even the waging of war by the state have accompanied the founding of several postcolonial modern Asian states such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  In  Sri Lanka, the country this paper will focus on, armed insurrections planned and executed by disillusioned and disgruntled youth took place in 1971 and during the period 1987-1990 which had nothing to do with the birth-pangs of gaining independence but everything to do with the policies and politics practised by the main political parties which affected education  and economic development.  The objective of this discourse is to highlight both politics and history as it can, and has been, effectively  dramatized in the theatre by commenting on the theatre of that particular time in Sri Lankan history.  Included  is the detailed examination of an re-enactment of that period in a play which was written in 2009.

The Australian historian Greg Dening  has made a  very insightful study of the relationship between theatre and history.  I quote from his book “Performances” (1996) published by Melbourne University Press where he says on page 127 “the brilliance of theatre is that it represents experience and offers us the conventionalities by which the representation can be interpreted.  We do not enter a theatre as if it were a Time Machine in which past experience is repeated……..Experience represented in the theatre is dressed with the same particularities of everyday experience and has the larger-than-itself quality of everyday experience, but is transformed by being selected and shaped for interpretation.

JVP-suspect  JVP Suspect in 1971 JVP-1970S-rehabilitation JVP IN PRISON 1971JVP prisoners 1971

The 1971 insurrection which took place in early April 1971 had its roots in the formation of a radical left-wing party called the Janatha Vimukthi  Peramuna  or People’s Liberation Front  which was a militant organization led by a home-grown Communist Rohana Wijeweera, who had studied in Moscow and was a full-time party worker originally in the Ceylon Communist Party (Peking wing) who had been entrusted with the task of consolidating its ‘’youth league.’’  What actually happened was that Wijeweera, dissatisfied with his party’s agenda which he  may have considered  unlikely to accomplish real, revolutionary change, broke away from it  in mid-1965, taking a group of like-minded dissidents with him.  

The main change in the thinking of the JVP leader and those in his party was the espousal of revolutionary means to effect deep social change, which meant inevitably that they embraced violence.  They started collecting funds to  purchase  arms and other related weapons and material and as their membership consisted mainly of poor rural youth , it was not long before theft, plunder and extortion became the means by which they could build up their funds and  arsenal of arms.  According to some authorities who have written about the origin and history of the JVP, this new party became known, through its propaganda efforts in the period prior to the parliamentary elections of 1970.  It even lent qualified support to the United Left Front a coalition led by Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike which was the leading opposition party contesting the election. When in fact the ULF won the election, the JVP for a short period after the former assumed government,  became intensely critical of it  on the basis that it was hesitant to follow its election pledges to bring about a more socialist form of society by attending to the needs of the working class rather than  a continued emphasis on the priorities of the middle class.  A confrontation with the government became unavoidable as the JVP  continued a campaign of aggressive anti-government propaganda and a return to crime and random acts of violence in order to accumulate arms and more money.

On 16th March 1971 Wijeweera was arrested and detained in a high security prison in Jaffna and a “State of Emergency” was declared in order to pre-empt any major acts of violence by the JVP which might take the form of an uprising.  In fact, it was already too late and although Wijeweera later claimed that they had no alternative because of the government’s extreme actions, the insurrection broke out on 5th April with attacks on several police stations.  While there was considerable violence let loose on individuals who got in the way, policemen and civilians – the government’s strong  retaliation proved too much for the insurgents.  Foreign countries , in response to Mrs Bandaranaike’s appeal, sent  superior armaments from abroad and there was no possibility of poorly armed (sometimes only  knives and hand grenades), poorly directed girls and boys who had no military training surviving the onslaught by the security forces .  Some insurgents were imprisoned and tortured, but the majority were killed, their bodies burnt to death on tyres or thrown into rivers.  This was faceless and anonymous killing and so many youth were referred to as ‘disappeared’ a new and ominous word that came into the vocabulary of violence which still exists in the country  today.  Abductions also took place which were referred to in Sinhala as ‘ussan yanava’  which could be translated as ‘liftings’.  The result was that many parents and relatives did not know what had happened to their children or where they were.

Several foreign writers and newspaper journalists wrote articles about these events1, among them, Rene Dumont a Frenchwoman who was living in Colombo at the time.  She reported,  ‘’From the Victoria Bridge on 13th April I saw corpses floating down the river which flows through the north of the capital, watched by hundreds of motionless people. ‘’  She was not the only one who witnessed this sight.  In doing this, the government’s aim was to strike terror in the hearts of people.

By the end of the month the insurrection had been overcome with only a few pockets of resistance left which were wiped out in the ‘mopping up’ operations.  The estimates of those killed varied according to the different authorities who attempted this task.  Wijeweera, from prison announced in 1972 that this number was 15,000.  Rene Dumont’s estimate was that it could have been as high as 50,000.  The significant fact was that the majority of those who participated were Sinhalese Buddhists from a low socio-economic strata.2

Apart from Wijeweera who was sentenced to life imprisonment by the justice system that was brought into play, the other leaders who had not been captured or killed remained active in hiding. The causes which had brought about the insurgency in 1971 remained, and following the presidential  election  of October 1982 the JVP returned to a critical phase of violence in politics.  Then came the communal violence of July 1983 which began the drift into civil war with the Tamil militant group the LTTE in the north and their acts of terrorism targeting the civil population of Colombo.  All this affected the economy which went into recession and further impoverished all those rural youth who had been attracted to the JVP.  The party was strengthening both in support and armed resources.

JVP rally at Town hall 1977 JVP rally at Colombo Town Hall in 1977

Thus began the second insurgency period from 1987 to 1990 when the JVP became a much more formidable force in society being actually able to terrorize Colombo by declaring 24 hour ‘’curfews’’ during which no normal life could go on and all businesses, including formal and informal, as well as government   departments had to close as employees who came to work were threatened with death.  The government’s counter-offensive began effectively several months after the parliamentary elections of February 1989.  Between 1987 and 1989 the terrible acts of the JVP and the retaliatory violence of the security forces reached a crescendo and while 1971 had been thought of as a beeshana kalaya  or ‘time of great fear’ this insurgency which stretched through 1987 to 1990 was a time of even greater fear and terror.

Yet life went on and somehow people continued their battle to survive and even keep to their daily routines.  Universities closed for long periods and schools must have been similarly affected but still continued to retain their pupils.  One of the most interesting features of the times was that the Sinhala theatre continued to thrive and attract audiences providing, not only entertainment but a forum for dissent as it dealt with socio-economic themes and made references to events  which directly affected the lives of people.

Wijeweera performs  Wijeweera on stage

Both the government and the JVP seem to have been disinclined to interfere with what was happening on the stage because at no time did the theatre have to go underground as had happened in many other  countries  under authoritarian or dictatorial governments.    This was despite strict censorship of the media and all publications, including plays which had to be submitted for approval for public consumption.  Where the theatre scored against newspaper articles or writing of any sort which was offered to the public was in the area of performance.  A theatre script can seem comparatively innocuous but when it is performed by actors, various nuances and emphases come into their own, the characteristic actions or gestures of politicians, even their distinctive dress, can be adopted ensuring that the audience recognizes who is being satirized or portrayed, without it being possible to give offense to anyone!  Performance is also a creation of the moment, a moment or moments that are ephemeral and disappear into what seems a void but actually lodge in the memories and understanding of the members of the audience. 

Ranjini Obeyesekere who has studied the situation in the Sinhala Theatre during the eighties in considerable and fascinating detail3 has provided some examples of scripts from which I take the following:

Naga Gurula — Synopsis

The play is set in Chile.  It opens on a darkened stage.  It is night in what was formerly the most famous theatre in Santiago, now abandoned and used as a distillery.  A security guard, Pero, checks out the place and goes to sleep on some barrels.  Debray, a well  known former actor, arrives.  He is drunk, takes out an old script and begins reading aloud.  A group of people come in quietly from stage left,  see Debray and move stealthily to the back and hide behind the barrels.  Pero, woken by Debray’s loud recitations, shouts at him to be quiet or get thrown out.  They clearly know each other and there is a note of annoyed tolerance in Pero’s tone.  But just then a child from the group in hiding cries out, in a terrified voice.  “Mother, will he kill us?”  Of course the group is then discovered and say that they are refugees from Peru, fleeing political repression.  They have crept into what they thought was an abandoned building for the night. Pero is about to throw them out but Debray intervenes.

In the drama that ensues several themes are touched on.  How the theatre came to be shut down; why Debray chose to stay (the people here will be deserted; your audience abandoned); how Debray is beaten by the police for letting the cast run away; and for playing the part of Higgins, an autocratic colonial vineyard owner, in a recent production.  The refugees are excited at meeting the famous actor and ask him to read a play to them.  In the end all get involved in  a performance of the very play for which the theatre was shut down where he played the role of Higgins.  The play they perform is about the winery of Moncardo owned by Higgins, a Spanish colonial of the 15th century, who has forced the native Incas to work in his vineyards.  A crisis has occurred because the Incas find that they are losing their children, who one by one are ‘missing’.  The audience learns as the play develops that they have been abducted and drowned in the vats, in order to add a special flavour to the brew.  The Incas decide to set fire to the brewery. 

The central conflict is woven around this theme of the missing children.  Who is to blame and what action should be taken?  The various different positions, arguments, attitudes and reasons for different forms of action are taken up, played upon and subtly critiqued.  The play ends with the Inca leader being murdered by an unknown killer, Higgins and his men in control and the Incas civilized and christianized.

The actors then revert to their former roles.  Suddenly one of the refugees, a woman shouts, “Where is my child?  He was here just now but he’s gone.  My son is missing.”  There is chaos as everyone  looks for the child  who is now ,in reality, missing.  The curtain falls.

It is easy to see how effectively the implications of such a play would be driven home to the hearts and minds of the audience.  The cleverness of the playwright in setting the play in another country and civilization avoids the censorship that the script would have been subjected to had the setting been local. The different positions and arguments presented in “the play within the play,’’ the events portrayed, all relate to what is happening around them in the reality of their lives to which the final climax is directed. They know that there are children in their society who are missing presumably lost forever.

Early morning on 18th February 1990, a short time before his thirty-second birthday Richard de Zoysa, a well-known journalist, poet, actor and television personality was abducted from his home, his mother being witness to the event. The men who took him away wore uniform. The mother made immediate inquiries of people who were well positioned in their official capacities to find out what had happened.  She was reassured that he was taken in merely for questioning.  However, in the afternoon of the following day, a fisherman who had found a body floating out at sea and rescued it brought it ashore.  It was of a male who had been shot in the head and some others reported that his finger nails had been ripped off in what was probably a process of torture. This was Richard, identified by his mother Dr Manorani Saravanamuttu by a mark on one of his knees which had been the result of a childhood injury. Before his untimely death, Richard who was the Sri Lankan correspondent of the Third World News Agency, Inter Press Service, had been due to leave the country in a few days’ time to take up the important appointment of English editor at a new Centre in Lisbon run by the same agency.

 There were several theories put forward by various well known people, including politicians and pressmen, as to who had killed him and why, but the most likely explanation was that he was killed at the direction of President Premadasa or a close confidante of his,  by a government vigilante group.  The man who was prominent in this group was identified by Dr Saravanamuttu as a senior ex-policeman who had been promoted to a Secret Service Branch which dealt with subversive activities.  The inquiry into Richard’s death was halted on the government’s orders by the Attorney General in charge of the case when this identification was made and the judge’s order that this man be produced in Court was ignored.  This was by and large an admission of his guilt and his guarantee of government protection.  It was a time of censorship and so newspapers  gave hardly any publicity to the whole affair and neither did they publish appreciations or make reference to the many achievements  that Richard had to his name which had made him a very public figure.  The general tenor of the controversy surrounding his death was that he had been killed because he was either a member of the JVP or strongly sympathetic to its cause.  Richard’s death could not be ignored or covered up as with all the other anonymous young men and women who had been captured, imprisoned or killed by security forces because they were either members or suspected of being members of the JVP.  Though dead, he became the face of all the ‘’disappeared’’ to all the parents who had lost their children.  He came from the upper middle class, not the rural peasantry, his parents  were well known in Colombo society, his father from a prominent Sinhalese family , a member of which had been a former Finance Minister of the country, his mother from a very distinguished Tamil family which had produced well- known figures in several fields.

Here I must make mention of what I consider to be a pivotal argument for the frustration of the young people who joined the JVP.  To my surprise, it is not mentioned in any of the material I have read either in regard to the 1971 insurrection or the insurgency of the 1980s. Among the many pursuits that Richard engaged in was teaching English.  Richard, it seemed to me had perhaps unknowingly, focussed on this very argument, when he began teaching English free of charge to all young people he encountered who had qualifications only in Sinhala and were therefore at a severe disadvantage when it came to getting jobs. I know this because I heard it directly from him since he was a personal friend.  It is my theory that the Sinhala Only Act which was brought into being by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956, who was swept into power on a rising tide of nationalism, and implemented  by his wife when she succeeded her husband on his assassination, gave false hope to the many Sinhala educated who felt that they were discriminated against in their own country as the language of education was English – which they called the ‘’kaduwa’’ – in English ‘’a sword.”  With the promise of at last being acknowledged in their own language and gaining university degrees with Sinhala subjects they would finally be preferred when it came to job selection – or so they thought.  Many poor rural families placed all their scant resources at the service of a son or daughter who could go to university, become qualified and get a good job which would help the whole family to a better quality of life, essentially, lift them out of poverty.  They mortgaged their small holdings and made sacrifices to achieve this.  But the expected result did not come – there were no jobs for these Sinhala qualified youth when the time came for employment.  The final blow was that the probable reason for this was that apart from jobs being scarce, they did not know how to function in English.

As Richard was a prominent theatre person he was involved in a play which was said to satirize President Premadasa.  The poster advertising the play was apparently a picture of the President with the  words “Who is this Man?” printed across it.  It is not clear whether this was the title of the play and whether it was in English or Sinhala because it was never performed. The government supressed the whole enterprise and arrested the producer who was never seen again.  It is not certain whether other actors who were to take part in it were also taken away and never heard of again.  The script itself must have been destroyed because it has never surfaced.

For the government, perhaps this was the final piece of what they considered evidence of the desirability of doing away with Richard De Zoysa. His supporters felt that the most damning evidence against the government was that Richard, who as a journalist was well aware of all the abuses against human rights committed by the government in power, would reveal all he knew once he reached Lisbon and had the freedom to publish the information.

In 2009, nineteen years after the end of the insurgencies of the eighties, Ernest MacIntyre, one of Sri Lanka’s foremost playwrights writing in English and living in Australia to which he and his family had emigrated in the early 1970s, wrote a play which focussed on the insurgencies and took specific material from both 1971 and 1987-1990 with very telling effect. The play is called ANTIGONE IN SRI LANKA as IRANGANI or in a shortened form IRANGANI which was a popular Sri Lankan name deliberately chosen by the playwright as it rhymes with ANTIGONE.  The play draws deeply on the Greek tragedy ANTIGONE by Sophocles, juxtaposing an ancient dilemma with its contemporary parallel in the context of Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history of violence.  The Antigone of the early 5th century B.C. daughter of a doomed father Oedipus, renders time honoured funeral honours to her dead brother Polyneices against the express wishes of the King and the Senate of Thebes who had decreed that, as a traitor to the state, his body should lie unburied to be dispatched as carrion.  She suffers the inevitable consequences of her disobedience and dies.  Irangani, her counterpart in the period of the uprisings by poor rural youth already referred to, seeks a religious burial for her brother Robert who had joined the insurgents and died by torture followed by a bullet to the head.4 In her case, she lives in the palace of the President, Sidat Rajakaruna, her uncle, who had taken Robert and herself into his home in their early youth when their parents were killed in an accident, their mother being Sidat’s sister.  Irangani now seeks to rescue Robert’s body from the anonymous heap of bodies of insurgents, wishing to give a religious service in the palace followed by a decent burial at Kanatte (Colombo’s major burial ground).  The president is adamant that he will not permit this as he is the Head of State occupying the palace by virtue of his position.  Now begins the struggle between the human rights of the individual and the rights claimed by the sovereign state, the hallowed bonds of family pitted against the political bondage of the Head of State, an encapsulation of the continual conflict of the powerless with the powerful.

For a full understanding of the dimensions of the drama, all that is implied directly and indirectly in the play, it is helpful for each member of the audience to the read the playwright’s preface and notes given in the programme, preferably before the performance.   Not only do they give explanations of the historical backgrounds as well as the main ideas that govern the play, the identities of actual people mentioned and the significance of certain items used, but the audience follows the whole intellectual and creative process by which MacIntyre came to write what is probably his most meaningful play to date.  He is dealing with universal themes that apply to all people in every country where there is conflict due to ethnicity and class, riches and poverty, the top  and the bottom rungs of society, the human suffering implicit in secret wars and uprisings, intractable personal dilemmas that pit human beings against their governments.

An unusual aspect of this play is that apart from the above themes and historical events portrayed with all the immediacy and acute realization of character that the performances of the players project, there is also an exploration of ‘the other’.  A crucially important character, Deputy Inspector General of Police Serasinghe who is a close friend of the President from the time of their shared schooldays provides a compelling view of how the terrible effects of torturing prisoners and killing them callously also lacerate and wound the humanity of these men in the security services who have to carry out the orders of their superiors.  The weight of the personal burden that Serasinghe carries makes him uncertain of himself, and as the tragedy runs its course, he questions whether those who rise to high positions in the state, like Sidat and himself, have demonstrated proper leadership which should be strong but also wise and humane.  This is underlined to great effect in the words of the poem that Robert had on his desk and which Irangani frames and reads out at a climactic moment later in the play.  It asks where the middle class classes were when the lights of their civilization were flickering out and warns that one day they will have to account for their dereliction of duty to the poor and weak in the society they are responsible for creating.  So we see the hitherto unknown face of the insurgents as well, their humanity which has been betrayed and ignored.

As in Greek tragedy, the play ends with several deaths.  All the deaths of the protagonists take place off stage but are reported to the audience not by a Chorus, but by Serasinghe and Alice Amma, the faithful old family retainer, in dialogue which conveys very vivid images of a burning pyre and the fearful actions of those watching it.  They also relate the death of the President5, now a broken man who understands himself and what has happened to his family, all too late, outlined against the huge posters along the road that dwarf his small figure, the angry rumblings of the crowd surrounding his car from which he steps out in a last bid to rally his supporters, and the approach of the assassin.

As the final curtain came down on the opening night at which I was present, the audience spontaneously accorded the play and its fine performers with a well-deserved standing ovation. The extraordinary power of the theatre, the melding of words and performance, was made manifest and a clear indication that each person in the audience viewed all that was seen and heard from a great diversity of perceptions and was moved to express appreciation at the culminating cartharsis  of both pity and fear, the essence and gift of Greek tragedy, now applied in a postcolonial context.

This play is as relevant to the present situation in Sri Lanka as it is to past historical circumstances.  The need for a government that rules not only with strength but also with wisdom, understanding and compassion, especially in a country where Buddhism is the state religion, is still a perennial problem.

The insurgencies of 1971 and 1987-90 also pose a likely scenario of events that may take place wherever these needs are not met by any government in power, especially in a country that has a large percentage of young people.  IRANGANI is a play that arouses the conscience and makes its demands felt.  It cannot be performed without probably being banned if the climate of opinion in the community in which it is presented does not favour an open and healing discussion of all its significant aspects which delineate the political situation in many countries today.

Most of all, I see the play as a fitting, living memorial to those known and unknown who died during the period of the uprisings, some inspired, others misguided or misinformed, others still, innocent  but punished with the guilty, all aspiring to a vision of what they thought would be a better world.  By implication it is also a memorial to the suffering of grieving parents and relatives, many of whom still do not know what fate their children suffered, because they have never seen their dead bodies.


1        A comprehensive guide to this documentation is provided in Ian Goonetileke, ‘’The Sri Lanka Insurrection of 1971: A Select Bibliographical Commentary” in Religion and the Legitimisation of Power in South Asia, Bardwell L. Smith (ed), Leiden, Brill, 1978

2        See G. Obeyesekere,  “Some Comments on the Social Backgrounds of April 1971 Insurgency in Sri Lanka (Ceylon).  Journal of Asian Studies, 33 (3), 1974 pp 367-384 which indicates that of the  10,192 persons imprisoned during and after this insurrection, 97.6% were Sinhalese and 94.3% were Buddhists.

3        See Ranjini Obeysekere, “Violence, Censorship and the Sinhala Theatre during the Eighties,’’ Studies in Society and Culture : Sri Lanka Past and Present in association with  The National Library of Sri Lanka, 1995

4        The reader will note that this is an accurate description of Richard de Zoysa’s death and was an indirect reference to him as he was known to the playwright.

5        This scene recalls the death of President Premadasa killed in a  huge explosion detonated by a suicide bomber on 1st May 1993.  Security men  accompanying him, were also killed and they included the ex-policeman who had headed the group that abducted and killed Richard de Zoysa.  The demands of natural justice were fulfilled.


 A.C. Alles, Insurgency – 1971, (an account of the April insurrection in Sri Lanka).  First edition, November 1976.  Justice Alles was a judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka and a Member of the Criminal Justice Commission which presided over an inquiry into the insurrection.

Ernest MacIntyre, Michael Ondaatje’s Sri Lankan Identity: Running in the Family  and Anil’s Ghost.  Arbiters of a National Imaginary: Essays on Sri Lanka .  Festschrift for Professor Ashley Halpé. Edited by Chelva  Kanaganayakam, 2008

G.H. Peiris, Vicissitudes of the People’s Liberation Front: Insurrections in Sri Lanka. In Conflict and Violence in South Asia: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka,  edited by K. M. De Silva, ICES SOUTH/SOUTHEAST ASIA STUDIES SERIES, Published by  The International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka  in association with The Netherlands Institute of International Relations, Clingendael, The Hague, The Netherlands, 2000

Richard de Zoysa: his life, some work…..a death  Edited by Rajiva Wijesinghe, Published by The Sabaragamuwa University Press, 2000


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