|Fiction on stage - 2|
Devendra Raj Ankur
The third director who comes to mind in this connection is Dinesh Khanna. In a career of more than a decade, he has often turned to fiction as a source for his productions. Among others, he has done productions based on The Boring Story by Chekov, Dedh Inch Oopar, Subah ki Sair, Zindagi Yahan aur Wahan by Nirmal Verma, and Rasapriya by Phanishwarnath Renu. Dinesh too has never stuck to the original story line, and has even altered dialogue. In a way, he discarded the established norms in an effort to find a new direction. Picking out images from the original stories and evolving new images, he has created a new form. He is thus different from the earlier two directors and his plays give a sense of being fresh creations with a distinct form and style.
All the plays of Bertolt Brecht, one of the most significant and creative playwrights of the twentieth century, were based on folk tales and fiction. The Caucasian Chalk Circle was based on a Chinese folk tale, The Threepenny Opera on John Gray’s novel, The Beggars’ Opera and Mother on Gorky’s novel of the same name. However, he carefully chose these well-known folk tales and famous novels not just as raw material but to establish a new theory for theatre. This was the theory of alienation whereby the audience, already familiar with the story line, does not get caught up with the narrative. Instead, without getting involved, they objectively grasp the ideas that emerge from the play and use those ideas to work change in their own lives. It was a happy coincidence that Brecht’s theory of alienation was inspired by folk tales and folk theatre, which relied a lot on story-telling. In order to establish his theory on stage and make it complete, Brecht made innovative and attractive use of music, songs, dance and choruses. He also used slides, films and stylistic theatrical props to ensure that the audience did not forget that they were witness to a play and not a slice of real life. Brecht’s plays are an unparalleled example of how fiction and theatre can complement each other. He went far beyond the ground traversed by realistic directors such as Stanislavsky and also proved to be a major influence on theatre directors who came after him.
In my discussion on the relationship between fiction and drama, I have deliberately left out one important form of literature because it is completely different in both form and style and also because it could be argued that it does not strictly belong to the category of contemporary Indian theatre. I am referring to India’s rich oral tradition — telling stories through recitation and song — that thrives in many parts of the country to this day. In a way, this tradition is the starting point of the mutual exchange between fiction and theatre but has not become as associated with theatre as many other folk forms. But the historical significance of the oral tradition cannot be denied.
The final link in the relationship between fiction and theatre is Kahani ka Rangmanch (Theatre of story). As the title indicates, in this form fiction and theatre are so intertwined that it becomes difficult to differentiate whether theatre is encompassed by story or the other way round. In this form, the story is not adapted or altered in any way. The original form of the story is retained in the presentation. Since the existing framework is inadequate for enacting the story on stage, actors evolve a new form and style in the production process.
What is this new style and form? How has it evolved? Does it have a historical tradition to fall back on? The answers to these questions are indeed interesting. Should one turn to the classical tradition of Sanskrit theatre or the traditions of folk theatre to find the answer? Or should we probe the methods of Parsi theatre or look to the form of surrealist theatre? Can Brecht’s alienation theory provide us with an answer or should we consider the anti-acting tradition followed by the theatre of the absurd? The fact is that when a story is actually performed on stage, not one of these alternatives is of much help. And every time the actor has to evolve a fresh, spontaneous and original style. If a repertory has as many artists as there are characters in the story, the task is somewhat easy, but the real challenge arises when the number of available artistes is far less than the number of characters in the story. It is here that the creative process begins, as the drama within the story is unfolded before the audience. In the process, the story breaks free from the constraint of being presented as a theatrical adaptation. And this freedom opens up a number of alternatives and possibilities.
For instance, the artist cannot tie himself down to a fixed framework because the story is, first and foremost, a descriptive medium. So the first challenge is how to depict the descriptions on stage. Should one just speak them out? Or should one first convert the descriptive elements into emotions and then act them out? Or should a situation or ambience be created to express them? The artist has to weigh all these alternatives and, every time, seek a new path. This becomes possible because, unlike drama, no two stories have the same structure. A study of the structure of Sanskrit, Greek or Shakespearean drama will bear this out. But in the case of fiction, even two stories by the same writer differ in form and structure. The challenges posed by the form and content of stories are well known and I have discussed them elsewhere. To reiterate these challenges — what to do with a story told in the third person, with a wholly descriptive one, or one entirely in the form of dialogue — is not necessary. Suffice it to say that having worked on the relationship between story and theatre for a quarter of a century, I have come across many issues, only some of which I have indicated here.
In this essay, I have attempted to take note of the intellectual, theoretical and practical aspects of staging fiction. This has been done not just in Hindi theatre but in several Indian languages, and elsewhere in the world too. It is neither possible nor necessary to elaborate on all of them. But there is one problem that every director faces — how to condense a long work of fiction into a play of just an hour or two? Directors have adopted different methods to tackle the problem of editing without compromising the basic text. Two plays based on Premchand’s novel Godan come to mind in this context. The first, Hori, was an adaptation by Vishnu Prabhakar. It was staged in the open-air theatre of the National School of Drama and directed by Kumara Varma in 1967. The other was a production by Anamika Natya Mandali, Calcutta, in the 1970s. It was adapted by Pratibha Agarwal and she played Dhania in this play, which was also called Godan.
In both the plays, portions of the novel dealing with urban life were edited out and the focus was on the rural situation of Hori and Dhania — their family, the cow, the village landlords — which proved to be an extremely emotive device. I recall a third production based on the same novel — Bhanu Bharati’s Ek Kisan ki Kahani, which was presented through songs and music. However, I feel that it did not move the audience because the form overshadowed the content. This leads to an entirely new question — when choosing a novel or story for adaptation, should a director concentrate more on form or on content? Personally, I have never experienced this dilemma because the narrative has always been more important to me than form and style. It is the basic content of a story that inspires me to adapt it for drama.
Translated from the Hindi by TLM
p. 1 p. 2
Noted theatre personality Devendra Raj Ankur is Director of the National School of Drama, New Delhi. His major contribution is in developing the ‘Theatre of the Story’ in Hindi