All the World’s a Stage

Shelagh Goonewardene ** …. sadly and fondly In Memoriam -Editor 

 Shelagh 002 (2)   The words are Shakespeare’s, the greatest English-speaking playwright, and continue “and men and women merely players / They have their exits and their entrances.’’

For all performers, including politicians who are invariably performers of high calibre, this is the view of the world that is dominant.  For me, I was a performer since childhood and devised my own plays with my sister and friends to which we would invite our families and the neighbours. This activity was welcomed at school where we were encouraged once a year to produce a concert for the Principal’s birthday.  Each class was left entirely to its own resources, sans teachers, to produce an item which could be dramatic, comedic, tragic and frequently involved mime and song or music of some kind.  All this was preparation for me to continue these activities when I entered the University of Ceylon in 1954.  The University Dramatic Society had been established by an Englishman, Professor Leigh Smith, in 1922 when he was Professor1 of English.

Shelagh 001 (2)_edited-1  Starting with play readings, the students gradually progressed to the production of a short play for the benefit of an audience not confined to the university.  It was not until 1933 however, when E. F.C. Ludowyk (a member of the Burgher community whose primary language was English) returned to University College after three years in Cambridge and a strong admiration for the Festival Theatre which he had observed there, that the production of plays featured as a major activity sponsored by the English Department of which he was head.  There followed a rich variety and range of dramatic literature originating in Britain, the United States, Europe, India and China.  The plays were so successful that they also drew the talents of actors in the wider society who wanted to perform together with the university students.  Among these were notable names such as Winston Serasinghe, Percy Colin Thome and E.C.B. W.  Wjeyesinghe.

The common factor, shared by all, was the knowledge of the English language which was the best and most lasting gift from imperial Britain, long after colonization had ended in both India and Ceylon,  later Sri Lanka.  When Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar  How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” he little knew how accurate his prediction would be! His plays have surely been acted in every single country that the British conquered or occupied during the days of Empire.  However, the English spoken would have a different accent in each and hence the English speakers in Ceylon had their own distinctive Ceylonese accent.  Some English people who heard it in England actually thought, on hearing such a voice on the telephone, that the person speaking was Welsh!  This was my own personal experience while working in England for a short time.

In 1956 a nationalist government which had promised to implement the language of the indigenous majority, Sinhala, as the language of education in twenty-four hours swept into power with a huge majority and in that year, what became known as the ‘’Sinhala Only” Act was passed in Parliament.  Many experienced teachers of English began to seek  new pastures where they could teach their skills and Professor Ludowyk left to live permanently in England.  His last production under the banner of the University Dramatic Society was Bernard Shaw’s ‘’Androcles and the Lion’’ and I played the major female role in it.  But there was still an English speaking theatre in Ceylon and a good audience for English plays so from about 1962 a group of people who had acted in the University Dramatic Society and were products of the University of Ceylon gradually came together in order to keep their interest in theatre alive.  These were all people who worked at their various professions and jobs during the daytime but devoted the evenings and nights to the study and production of plays.  Ernest MacIntyre who had experienced a strong desire to direct plays at university was the first to suggest  Ugo Betti’s “The Queen and the Rebels’’ for production in 1964 and  this became the first full length play to be produced by STAGE & SET  the chosen name of the   group.

Under MacIntyre’s direction and with the encouragement  and support of good audiences,   STAGE & SET presented  a series of great plays drawn from the world theatre repertoire much as had been done by the University Dramatic Society in its heyday.  Among the playwrights of these plays were Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, and Bertolt Brecht.  I was privileged to have leading roles in some of these plays which helped me to advance as an actor and later as  a director of school plays.

What had happened in the meantime in the Sinhala theatre which was of greater importance to the majority of the people in the country?  Unlike India which had a tradition of Sanskrit and other theatres long entrenched in the different local cultures that thrived in that country, Sri Lanka, almost surprisingly, had virtually nothing.   In this connection, it is useful to read Rustom Bharucha’s “The Politics of Cultural Practice’’2 as it gives an entirely different picture of how Indian producers of plays  worked on translations into Hindi of well  known European plays such as Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.’’  Barucha himself as a producer of such plays comments that the Hindi speaking professor of Russian literature and language ‘’had no feeling for Russian  theatre language.  His grammar was anti-theatrical, oblivious to Chekov’s echoes, whispers and sentences left hanging in the air.’’ 

In contrast, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Professor of Sinhala in the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya at the same time that Ludowyk had been Professor of English, became very interested in developing a Sinhala theatre as he observed the work of his colleague in directing and producing English plays.  Appealing to Ludowyk for help in this direction they collaborated on translations into Sinhala of Gogol’s ‘’The Marriage” (Kapuwa Kapothi) and later with a Viennese producer, Jubal who Ludowyk invited to work in the university,  on Moliere’s “Le Malade Imaginaire.’’  These translations, unlike the ones Barucha had to work with, were done by a man who was very conversant with theatre and had a certain genius in getting at the very bones of the original play.

Sarachchandra was to be the creator of the modern Sinhala theatre and before he undertook the task of actually writing original plays he made a very close and detailed study of all the different types of folk drama and performance, including exorcism, which existed in the diverse villages of Ceylon and published the results in a ground-breaking book, ‘’The Folk Drama of Ceylon’’ in 1952.3  Having also visited the United States and Japan to further  his studies in theatre in various countries, he wrote his celebrated plays ‘’Maname’’ in 1956 and ‘’Sinhabahu’’ in 1958.  This began the creative stream in Sinhala theatre which was to flourish for about three decades.

The underlying significance of the developments in the Sinhala theatre was the prominence of Ludowyk who taught in English and Sarachchandra who taught in Sinhala but the importance of what followed is that all the playwrights and most of the actors in the Sinhala productions that ensued were bilingual.  They were able to learn from plays in English, including translations from French and German into English and they were aware of the techniques practised in the international theatre, again through their knowledge of English. Henry Jayasena and Dhamma Jagoda who were to be leading figures in the writing and production of Sinhala plays were sent abroad by the British Council to study theatre, Henry in Moscow and Dhamma in England.  Karan Breckenridge of the Ceylon Diplomatic Service was serving in Moscow at the time of Henry’s visit and their meeting was to prove significant as Karan was a leading exponent of theatre, also from schooldays, and when he returned to Ceylon, acted in some of the best productions done by “Stage & Set”.4

The first production of this theatre company to make a powerful impact on audiences in Colombo, directed by Ernest MacIntyre was Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in 1966. I had the leading female role of Linda Loman and Karan was Biff, the son of Willy Loman, played by Winston Serasinghe.   There were others included who originally were University Dramatic Society actors.  It was the impact of this play that drew the interest of Henry Jayasena (who wrote a review in Sinhala published in a Sinhala newspaper – the first English play to attract this accolade).  Henry already knew Karan and expressed the view that this was the first English play he had seen in this country which seemed relevant to his own ideas and conceptions of life and dramatic art.  This view was echoed by another very important artiste who was a dancer, Chitrasena, who had brought the rituals of Kandyan dances and other important traditional and ceremonial indigenous dances to the modern stage in original and creative ways suitable for a modern audience.  He choreographed significant ballets, to use the western term, with indigenous stories and themes.

Chitrasena had toured many countries in the world with his Dance Ensemble and Drum Orchestra which supported the dances and so he was an international celebrity, although many of his own countrymen, especially the English educated elite as they came to be called, had not seen his dances on the stage, even when they took place at theatres they had easy access to.  Karan Breckenridge had also met Chitrasena on tour in Moscow and they had become firm friends.  The result was that Breckenridge became the important link between the English and Sinhala theatres.

In a merging of talents, experience and interests, the members of ‘’Stage & Set’’ came together with the Sinhala actors who gathered around Henry Jayasena and Chitrasena’s dance ensemble to bring the most memorable theatrical events to the public in Colombo from 1966 to 1968.  Included among these was a magnificent festival of dances and ballets  by the Chitrasena Dance Ensemble which ran for ten days at the Lionel Wendt  Memorial Theatre, the stronghold of the English Theatre, presented by ‘Stage & Set’’ in 1966.  It is significant to note that both Chitrasena and Ediriweera Sarachchandra had attended Santiniketan the open-air  university established by India’s famous Rabindranath Tagore where they no doubt imbibed ideas for the  practices they  were to develop to further Sinhala art and culture.  Tagore’s concept of an university was totally different to that of the western concept in that classes were held outdoors and students could walk from one class to another as they wished without keeping to a fixed curriculum.

There were other talented playwrights such as Sugathapala de Silva and Gunasena Galapatty in the sixties and seventies  who wrote good Sinhala plays.  They  maintained their  indigenous audiences which grew steadily because they continued the creative flow begun by Sarachchandra although their plays concentrated more on dialogue rather than the dancing and poetry of the latter’s plays.   

What then, in the final analysis, did the English-speaking theatre contribute  to the development of a truly postcolonial theatre in Sri Lanka which had become the name of the country when a new constitution was introduced in May 1972?  In my view,  as one who acted in some of these plays,  participated fully in the business administration of the productions and observed the whole process of the unusual merger between the English and Sinhala theatres upto 1968, I offer the following conclusions.

Those who wished to further the Sinhala theatre were bilingual and as indicated already, were therefore able to take advantage of all theatrical material and techniques that were available to them through the English language.  These gave a tremendous boost to their own ways of shaping the Sinhala plays and productions of the time.  To give the most important example, Jayasena did a brilliant translation of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasion Chalk Circle” into Sinhala, creating a record-breaking production ‘’Hunuwataya Kathava’’ which premiered in March 1967 and had hundreds of performances to its credit over the ensuing years.

As a result of studying and producing great playwrights from international theatre, Ernest MacIntyre learnt sufficiently to start writing his own plays in time which were set in Sri Lanka and took themes from the characteristics of English-speaking society as his subject material.  The immediate need for this was demonstrated by the fact that audiences for international playwrights were falling off as socio-economic circumstances and the language change to Sinhala began to show their effects.   MacIntyre’s first successful attempt at a play with a local setting was ‘’The President of the OBA’’ (1970) which satirized the ‘’old boy’’ network which flourished as it did in any public-school network created by the British model which the colonized countries adopted and adapted.   This was a success and brought the audiences back but the next attempt at the wider theme which was embedded in ‘’The Education of Miss Asia’’  (1971) with its insights into the types of relationship of poverty stricken countries in Asia with their affluent western counterparts, expressed through the experience of a fake Indian professor who tutors a prospective Miss Asia to prepare her for the contest, brought more than success.  Here was a playwright who through the use of satire,  as well as many other nuances of comedy, could make serious statements that were worth hearing.  There was social comment and food for thought most acceptably hidden under the layer of comedy which sometimes verged on the hilarious.  It was a winning recipe to bring audiences back to the English speaking theatre.

To have a postcolonial theatre in the English language is not a phenomenon to be denigrated or criticized as it was shaped by writers, actors and producers who could use all their resources which were based on their own experience of Ceylonese society.  Being a multicultural society until the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, three languages were used by the majority of the population, Sinhala, Tamil and English.   In doing international plays, the local accents of the actors gave new relevance  and insights to the audience of their own experiences.  For example,  Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” would essentially give American audiences  entry into the inner world of the salesman, an occupation that was common in their society, where failure  would be almost unbearable.  In contrast, the family situation with its sensitive exposure of relationships between father, mother and two sons  in the play was for Ceylonese audiences the central feature which moved them deeply and ensured the great success the production became.

Having theatre people who were bilingual made it possible for translations and adaptations to make a valuable,  and sometimes indispensable,  contribution to writing skills being developed in the indigenous theatre.

By 1973 the indigenous theatre had audiences all over the country whereas the plays written for an English-speaking audience were confined to a small audience in Colombo which made such plays no longer commercially viable.   Ernest MacIntyre decided to emigrate to Australia with his family in that year in the knowledge that there was no future for him personally while the situation in the educational sphere made prospects for his children doubtful if they grew up in a Sinhala dominated Sri Lanka.  He was not the only one who was thinking of his children’s future,  and as the years passed and there were ominous signs of an ethnic conflict becoming an outright war others followed suit.  I left with my family in 1984 and after two years in Guyana, South America, migrated to Australia in 1986.  That was the end of my years in the English- speaking theatre of Sri Lanka but I was in a position to write about everything that had happened in theatre in Colombo both indigenous and English-speaking and in 1994 I published a book, “This Total Art’’ with the sub-title, ‘’Perceptions of Sri Lankan Theatre.’’

Ernest MacIntyre could not forsake theatre entirely and not many years later, he started writing plays which focused on the lives and preoccupations of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia.  In 1982, just over eight years after he left Sri Lanka, he returned to the local theatre to present his play “Let’s Give Them Curry!” which had already been performed to audiences in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra and had a huge response from the diaspora.  The play was also well received in Colombo and something of a personal triumph for MacIntyre.  This was evidence that he had matured as a playwright who could successfully satirize three societies simultaneously, the colonial British, the diasporic Australian and the postcolonial Sri Lankan.   While MacIntyre wrote other plays that were interesting to his Australian audiences, one major play emerged in 2009 which is probably the best play written by this playwright because it relates to significant social and political events which happened in Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s, namely the insurgencies or youth revolts of 1971 and 1987-1990.    The play is called ANTIGONE IN SRI LANKA as IRANGANI or in a shortened form,  IRANGANI  which is a popular Sri Lankan name  which rhymes with Antigone, the Greek heroine of the tragedy by Sophocles bearing her name.

To understand the play which deals with Sri Lankan material and its relationship with the Greek tragedy we need to sketch out the historical details involved.   In April 1971 an armed insurrection against the Sri Lankan government took place which had its roots in the policies practised by the main political parties which affected education and economic development.  It was organized by a left-wing party called the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or People’s Liberation Front but what made it distinctive was that it was a rebellion of young people educated wholly in Sinhala and mainly Buddhist,  who had become frustrated at the lack of employment  and the government’s economic policies which did not meet their needs.  The insurgency broke out with attacks on several police stations and government and other individuals who got in the way.  The government declared a “State of Emergency” and put down the rebellion with great force.  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.  The result was that many parents and relatives did not know what had happened to their children, whether they were dead or still alive.

Apart from the leader, Rohana 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 powered the insurgency remained, and following the presidential election of October 1982 the JVP returned to a critical phase of violence in politics.  Then followed the communal upheaval 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.  The government was face with two entirely different conflicts and as the economy weakened and went into recession, the rural youth were further impoverished  increasing their support of the JVP.  Thus began the second insurgency period  (1987-1990) when the JVP became a much more formidable force in society being able to terrorize Colombo  by declaring a 24 hour ‘’curfew’’ during which no normal life could go on and all businesses, including formal and informal ones, 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.  Many important events took place but for our purposes it is enough to note that violence became endemic in Sri Lanka.  Gradually as the insurgency was suppressed the emphasis moved to the war in the north and north-east which  provided jobs for rural youth to become soldiers and earn a living, effectively furnishing an excuse for the government  not to call for  compulsory military service.   As of writing the devastating war ended in May 2009.

IRANGANI draws deeply on the ANTIGONE of 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 despatched as carrion.  She suffers the inevitable consequences of her disobedience and dies.

Irangani, her counterpart in the period of the insurgencies 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.  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.

The development of this plot and its final denouement gives MacIntyre ample scope to make several references to traditions, actual public events  and social and political relationships, all part of the fabric of Sri Lankan life and society.  One example I can quote of how the play affects individuals who see a performance is as follows.  One particular evening, a person who did not know MacIntyre personally came backstage to meet him and congratulate him, identifying himself as one of the insurgents who had taken part in one of the insurgencies in his youth.  He said that no one, to his knowledge, had written so truly about the whole episode  up to date and made such a relevant work of art on this subject.

Sri Lanka today is still plagued with violence but it is a secret violence that does not relate to any war or insurgency.  The present  government could be called a benevolent dictatorship which has changed the primary role of Parliament and meddled with the justice system.  It would be very interesting to see the reactions of audiences in Colombo if anyone was brave enough to do a production of IRANGANI.  Until such a person emerges, MacIntyre  is about to release the publication of the play in English and Tamil.  He also hopes to have a Sinhala translation soon in the pipeline.

From the current dearth of meaningful original plays in either language in Sri Lankan theatre, it appears that the creative stream in both English and Sinhala in Sri Lanka seems to have dried up after the deaths of all the leading figures in the theatre, playwrights and performers,  mentioned in this article.  How much this is due to the present political atmosphere in the country is a matter for conjecture.  MacIntyre remains as a lone and relevant voice speaking from the diaspora.

Shelagh Breck Sera (2) Shelagh, Breckenridge, Winston Serasinghe et al in their prime


  1.  GOONEWARDENE, S. THIS TOTAL ART, published in 1994.  See Article: ‘’Recalling the ‘Dram Soc ‘  Tradition.’’
  2.  BHARUCHA, RUSTOM  THE POLITICS OF CULTURAL PRACTICE, subtitle:  Thinking through Theatre in an Age of Globalization.  Published by Oxford University Press, India.
  3. SARACHCHANDRA, EDIRIWEERA  THE FOLK DRAMA OF CEYLON.  Published by The Department of Cultural Affairs, Government Press, Ceylon.  First edition in 1952, Second edition April, 1966.
  4. For a detailed history of STAGE 7 SET productions, see Article: “Stage & Set: A Theatrical Odyssey’’ in THIS TOTAL ART, details above.
  5. A Sri Lankan reader who is familiar with the significant events that took place in the country will recall the murder of the well known journalist, Richard de Zoysa  who was first tortured and then received a bullet in the head.  He was one of the ‘disappeared’ whose body was identified.


Filed under accountability, cultural transmission, female empowerment, governance, life stories, literary achievements, performance, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, tolerance, unusual people, women in ethnic conflcits, world affairs

3 responses to “All the World’s a Stage

  1. Aloma CIVET

    I enjoyed that article very much! The style of writing, so fluid. I worked as
    secretary to Ediriweera Sarachchandra when he was Ambassador for
    Sri Lanka in Paris, and typed many of his books written during his stay in
    Japan, but “With the Begging Bowl” a book writen on his impressions during his stay in Paris, his last book, is really very good!!

  2. Pingback: Irangani Meedeniya steps unto the stage University via Dram-Soc | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Pingback: Irangani Serasinghe: A Beacon for Her Times …. Versatility Unconfined | Thuppahi's Blog

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