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Midweek Review

Theatre in the Apocalypse



The “Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted around 1562. Photo credit: Museo Nacional del Prado / Wikimedia

by Dr Saumya Liyanage


During the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, one of the active and innovative English theatre groups, Mind Adventures, led by theatre director Tracy Holsinger and a brilliant actor Lihan Mendis invited me to talk about how live theatre could survive in the wake of a pandemic. A series of discussions with local and international theatre artistes and organisations have been conducted and many ideas and experiences shared with thousands of spectators through Zoom conferences. In my discussion with Tracy Holsinger, I wanted to emphasise that theatre would survive the COVID-19 pandemic. My key argument was that even in the history of theatre, there had been many upheavals and drawbacks. Hence, in this article, I would like to discuss further how theatre could survive hard times. Further, I will assume that theatre artistes will find new ways of making theatre in this era. We have think of theatre not as a practical and entertaining business but as an existential and ontological subject.


Theatre and Disease

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for plague was used to depict the meaning of ‘touch’. The pictographic symbol of the word plague is written with three symbols: eye, leg, and sprout. If we read this Hebrew pictograph from right to left, the sprouting seed designates the spreading and disseminative nature of the plague. The leg signifies carrying or walking and eye indicates the seeing, or knowledge (Cooke, J., 2009, p. 4). Hence the ‘plague’ is the ‘touch from God’ and therefore it is destructive and disseminative.

Stanton Garner in his journal paper titled, ‘Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion’ explains the history of theatre and its relationship with disease. It is a phenomenon dating back to antiquity. The Oedipus Rex opens on a landscape where a plague strikes on nature and human beings living in Thebes. In the 15th Century in Great Britain, the Government imposed restrictions in limiting people to gather in theatres. Followed by the 15th Century plague, in 1603 and 1604, when there was a prolonged lockdown preventing people from gathering and watching plays. These restrictions lasted for more than 12 months (Garner 2006, P.3). Therefore, according to the Hebrew connotation, plague and other epidemics have been understood as a rage or a touch of God. Since 1563, there have been many instances in which theatre spaces have been closed due to its evil spirit for many months and years.

In the history of disease, it is clear that the authorities have excluded religious and political congregations but theatre ‘was morally liable to pestilential visitation’ (Garner 2006, P. 3). This argument indicates that rulers are more conscious about spaces like theatre rather than other congregations because it is believed that theatre is more ‘pestilential’ than religious or political gatherings. Theatergoers are becoming passive observers and they have unconsciously been subordinated to military and intelligence surveillances. The medical procedures are being transformed into a war against evil by othering the corona affected individuals.


Artaud and Plague

I remember an important article written by Antonin Artaud. It is titled, ‘Theatre and the Plague’. This article appears in the collection of essays, The Theatre and Its Double (1964). Artaud uses metaphorical language to write the parallel meanings of a plague and theatre. Artaud sees his contemporary theatre as a crisis and this theatre of crisis should be resolved either by death or cure. What exactly did Artaud talk about the crisis of theatre at the time he lives? As I have written elsewhere, Artaud was very much discontent with his contemporary theatre which was dominated by the realistic acting and dialogic conversations. Artaud believed that theatre was a unique form of art that solely depends on the actor and his/her spatiality. Theatrical extravaganza and the psychological manifestation of acting were rejected. He wanted his audience to experience the similar corporeal sense that a serpent feels when the vibration is infiltrating its skin through the floor; the actor should be able to vibrate the corporeality of the audience member and transform her psychophysically through the performance (Antonin Artaud and Corti, 2014 p. 58). Therefore, it is important for us to see how Artaud juxtaposes theatre and plague as an interrelated metaphor. Artaud writes: ‘Like the plague, theatre is a crisis, resolved either by death or cure. The plague is a superior disease because it is an absolute crisis after which there is nothing left except death or drastic purification. In the same way, theatre is a disease because it is a final balance that cannot be obtained without destruction. It urges the mind on to delirium which intensifies its energy’ (Antonin Artaud and Corti, 2014 p. 21). As this quotation indicates, Artaud wants us to see how theatre could be useful to reveal our lies, meanness, and expose further fake masks that we have put on to hide the true nature of human beings.


Immediate and Mediate

The major theoretical concern about theatre today amidst corona pandemic is whether the lived experience would be still a reality in the current pandemic situation. Many theatre artistes in Sri Lanka and elsewhere have been discussing how ‘liveness’ of the theatre declines when other alternative mediatised theatre practices are introduced to replace the direct contact with the living audience. For the last few months, major theatre companies and especially National theatres in the UK, Australia, Berlin, and Bolshoi Theatre in Russia and elsewhere have podcast live recordings of their theatre productions.

Theatre artistes who are attached to live events are shocked because the pandemic has us to ask whether the live theatre could survive.

Philosopher Peggy Phelan for instance stands for the intrinsic nature of theatre which favours the lived experience. This engagement is known as the autopoietic feedback loop. In this live theatre, the actor-audience co-presence is vital for the lived experience (Fischer-Lichte, 2014). However, Phillip Auslander opposing Phelan and argues that there is no hierarchical distinction between liveness and mediatized performance. In general, there is a conception that liveness is always priori and primal and more immediate than a mediatized performance. Auslander denies this premise and argues that mediatized performance ‘is just as much a human experience as the live’ (Meyer-Dinkgräfe, 2015). Hence the ‘liveness’ is not an ontological category of human experience but a historically defined and molded against the technological advancement of theatre. The binary oppositions of immediate and mediate are interdependent phenomena and an abstract idea of ‘liveness’ cannot be existed without the idea of mediatization.


Primal questions

Today, theatre artistes in Colombo, New Delhi, Melbourne, New York and elsewhere are experiencing the impact of restrictions on public gatherings and events. There are no more live performances. However, the contemporary theatre artists are the worst affected because they are dependent on the commercial theatre that solely relies on theatergoers and their physical presence.

This apocalyptic time calls for a rethink of our theatre practice, the way we do theatre and engage with our theatergoers. This situation has made us reflect what we have been doing in the name of theatre. The history has given us a moment to revisit our theatres, question the ways that we perceive our practices and imagine alternative ways of doing theatre amidst this human crisis because as Artaud argues, theatre is similar to a plague – both are destructive and generative. Now, it is time for us to go back to the primal questions that theatre has always been interested to explore.

Theatre has always been exploring questions related to human nature and the primal questions that have never been properly answered. Corona pandemic has driven us to question the ideas related to human survival, illness and death, health and wellbeing, being old and vulnerable, governance, democracy, suppression, and freedom. Similarly, theatre itself is a tool with which we try to find answers to those primal questions of human beings and our civilization. Today, again we are being confronted with these hard questions.

So, theatre is always about trying to grapple with existential quests!

Pragmatic philosophy

Daniel Johnston in his PhD thesis argues how actors represent practical metaphysics. In a simple way actors demonstrate philosophical concerns of human being and their practical engagement in the world through performance works (Johnston D., 2007). In line with this, let’s think about the role of the actor. What is actor and what does she do? In our contemporary and apocalyptic societies, the actor is a person who makes her living through performing characters in films, soap operas, and so on. The most recent and contemporary meanings of the notion of actor is very much related to the theatre and film business.

But the idea of actor has got many other connotations and meanings. And it has always never been limited to a single meaning of a person who is impersonating a character. But the idea of the actor/performer for us today is very much attached to the entertainment business and we never see other connotations or other alternative practices within which this idea of the actor could be enriched.

For instance, Grotowski did not believe that the actor should impersonate a character and perform. It is a self-revelation and self-exploration where the actor and the director both reveal their innate selves. Likewise, today, we may need to think about redefining the role of the actor. It is not all about performing every night at the Lionel wendt. It is about trying to grapple with some of the toughest questions in the world through the actor’s body and reveal them in the theatre.



Now, the question is whether contemporary theatre could survive if the corona measures are going to be continued for months. Without its audience members how could the theatre be a sustainable practice? What is the current situation of theatre artistes, practitioners, technicians who are making a living out of theatre? How do small theatre ensembles survive without its support of audience?

It is a hard time for professionals who depend on theatre to make a living. My sympathy is with them. When we talk about theatre, it connotes certain meanings within the context of contemporary life and society. In an extreme situation, for some people, theatre means tele dramas. For others, theatre means a particular building, a place where people gather, buy tickets, and sit in the darkness to watch an event happening on stage. This is a limited understanding about the notion of theatre. Now the problem is that we are lamenting about the declining of theatre. We think that this proscenium theatre is going to be ceased because of the corona outbreak. But theatre in its broader sense is not limited to theatre as an architectural structure. With this new world order, as it were, theatre will be flourished with novel modes of practice and reception.



Antonin Artaud and Corti, V. (2014). The theatre and its double. London: Alma Classics.

Auslander, P. (2011). Liveness : performance in a mediatized culture. London ; New York: Routledge.

Auslander, P., 2012. Digital Liveness: A Historico-Philosophical Perspective. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 34(3), pp.3-11.

Cooke, J. (2009). Legacies of plague in literature, theory and film. Houndmills England ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Davis, T., 2009. The Cambridge Companion To Performance Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fischer-Lichte, E. (2014). The Routledge introduction to theatre and performance studies. London: Routledge.

Garner, S., 2006. Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion. Theatre Journal, 58(1), pp.1-14.

Garner, S., 2006. Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion. Theatre Journal, 58(1), pp.1-14.

Johnston, D. (2007). Active Metaphysics: Acting as Manual Philosophy or Phenomenological Interpretations of Acting Theory. University of Sydney, Australia.

Meyer-Dinkgräfe, D., 2015. Liveness: Phelan, Auslander, and After. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 29(2), pp.69-79.

MUNRO, I. (2000). The City and Its Double: Plague Time in Early Modern London. English Literary Renaissance, 30(2), pp.241–26

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Midweek Review

‘Professor of English Language Teaching’



It is a pleasure to be here today, when the University resumes postgraduate work in English and Education which we first embarked on over 20 years ago. The presence of a Professor on English Language Teaching from Kelaniya makes clear that the concept has now been mainstreamed, which is a cause for great satisfaction.

Twenty years ago, this was not the case. Our initiative was looked at askance, as indeed was the initiative which Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare engaged in as UGC Chairman to make degrees in English more widely available. Those were the days in which the three established Departments of English in the University system, at Peradeniya and Kelaniya and Colombo, were unbelievably conservative. Their contempt for his efforts made him turn to Sri Jayewardenepura, which did not even have a Department of English then and only offered it as one amongst three subjects for a General Degree.

Ironically, the most dogmatic defence of this exclusivity came from Colombo, where the pioneer in English teaching had been Prof. Chitra Wickramasuriya, whose expertise was, in fact, in English teaching. But her successor, when I tried to suggest reforms, told me proudly that their graduates could go on to do postgraduate degrees at Cambridge. I suppose that, for generations brought up on idolization of E. F. C. Ludowyke, that was the acme of intellectual achievement.

I should note that the sort of idealization of Ludowyke, the then academic establishment engaged in was unfair to a very broadminded man. It was the Kelaniya establishment that claimed that he ‘maintained high standards, but was rarefied and Eurocentric and had an inhibiting effect on creative writing’. This was quite preposterous coming from someone who removed all Sri Lankan and other post-colonial writing from an Advanced Level English syllabus. That syllabus, I should mention, began with Jacobean poetry about the cherry-cheeked charms of Englishwomen. And such a characterization of Ludowyke totally ignored his roots in Sri Lanka, his work in drama which helped Sarachchandra so much, and his writing including ‘Those Long Afternoons’, which I am delighted that a former Sabaragamuwa student, C K Jayanetti, hopes to resurrect.

I have gone at some length into the situation in the nineties because I notice that your syllabus includes in the very first semester study of ‘Paradigms in Sri Lankan English Education’. This is an excellent idea, something which we did not have in our long-ago syllabus. But that was perhaps understandable since there was little to study then except a history of increasing exclusivity, and a betrayal of the excuse for getting the additional funding those English Departments received. They claimed to be developing teachers of English for the nation; complete nonsense, since those who were knowledgeable about cherries ripening in a face were not likely to move to rural areas in Sri Lanka to teach English. It was left to the products of Aluwihare’s initiative to undertake that task.

Another absurdity of that period, which seems so far away now, was resistance to training for teaching within the university system. When I restarted English medium education in the state system in Sri Lanka, in 2001, and realized what an uphill struggle it was to find competent teachers, I wrote to all the universities asking that they introduce modules in teacher training. I met condign refusal from all except, I should note with continuing gratitude, from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, where Paru Nagasunderam introduced it for the external degree. When I started that degree, I had taken a leaf out of Kelaniya’s book and, in addition to English Literature and English Language, taught as two separate subjects given the language development needs of students, made the third subject Classics. But in time I realized that was not at all useful. Thankfully, that left a hole which ELT filled admirably at the turn of the century.

The title of your keynote speaker today, Professor of English Language Teaching, is clear evidence of how far we have come from those distant days, and how thankful we should be that a new generation of practical academics such as her and Dinali Fernando at Kelaniya, Chitra Jayatilleke and Madhubhashini Ratnayake at USJP and the lively lot at the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University are now making the running. I hope Sabaragamuwa under its current team will once again take its former place at the forefront of innovation.

To get back to your curriculum, I have been asked to teach for the paper on Advanced Reading and Writing in English. I worried about this at first since it is a very long time since I have taught, and I feel the old energy and enthusiasm are rapidly fading. But having seen the care with which the syllabus has been designed, I thought I should try to revive my flagging capabilities.

However, I have suggested that the university prescribe a textbook for this course since I think it is essential, if the rounded reading prescribed is to be done, that students should have ready access to a range of material. One of the reasons I began while at the British Council an intensive programme of publications was that students did not read round their texts. If a novel was prescribed, they read that novel and nothing more. If particular poems were prescribed, they read those poems and nothing more. This was especially damaging in the latter case since the more one read of any poet the more one understood what he was expressing.

Though given the short notice I could not prepare anything, I remembered a series of school textbooks I had been asked to prepare about 15 years ago by International Book House for what were termed international schools offering the local syllabus in the English medium. Obviously, the appalling textbooks produced by the Ministry of Education in those days for the rather primitive English syllabus were unsuitable for students with more advanced English. So, I put together more sophisticated readers which proved popular. I was heartened too by a very positive review of these by Dinali Fernando, now at Kelaniya, whose approach to students has always been both sympathetic and practical.

I hope then that, in addition to the texts from the book that I will discuss, students will read other texts in the book. In addition to poetry and fiction the book has texts on politics and history and law and international relations, about which one would hope postgraduate students would want some basic understanding.

Similarly, I do hope whoever teaches about Paradigms in English Education will prescribe a textbook so that students will understand more about what has been going on. Unfortunately, there has been little published about this but at least some students will I think benefit from my book on English and Education: In Search of Equity and Excellence? which Godage & Bros brought out in 2016. And then there was Lakmahal Justified: Taking English to the People, which came out in 2018, though that covers other topics too and only particular chapters will be relevant.

The former book is bulky but I believe it is entertaining as well. So, to conclude I will quote from it, to show what should not be done in Education and English. For instance, it is heartening that you are concerned with ‘social integration, co-existence and intercultural harmony’ and that you want to encourage ‘sensitivity towards different cultural and linguistic identities’. But for heaven’s sake do not do it as the NIE did several years ago in exaggerating differences. In those dark days, they produced textbooks which declared that ‘Muslims are better known as heavy eaters and have introduced many tasty dishes to the country. Watalappam and Buriani are some of these dishes. A distinguished feature of the Muslims is that they sit on the floor and eat food from a single plate to show their brotherhood. They eat string hoppers and hoppers for breakfast. They have rice and curry for lunch and dinner.’ The Sinhalese have ‘three hearty meals a day’ and ‘The ladies wear the saree with a difference and it is called the Kandyan saree’. Conversely, the Tamils ‘who live mainly in the northern and eastern provinces … speak the Tamil language with a heavy accent’ and ‘are a close-knit group with a heavy cultural background’’.

And for heaven’s sake do not train teachers by telling them that ‘Still the traditional ‘Transmission’ and the ‘Transaction’ roles are prevalent in the classroom. Due to the adverse standard of the school leavers, it has become necessary to develop the learning-teaching process. In the ‘Transmission’ role, the student is considered as someone who does not know anything and the teacher transmits knowledge to him or her. This inhibits the development of the student.

In the ‘Transaction’ role, the dialogue that the teacher starts with the students is the initial stage of this (whatever this might be). Thereafter, from the teacher to the class and from the class to the teacher, ideas flow and interaction between student-student too starts afterwards and turns into a dialogue. From known to unknown, simple to complex are initiated and for this to happen, the teacher starts questioning.

And while avoiding such tedious jargon, please make sure their command of the language is better than to produce sentences such as these, or what was seen in an English text, again thankfully several years ago:

Read the story …

Hello! We are going to the zoo. “Do you like to join us” asked Sylvia. “Sorry, I can’t I’m going to the library now. Anyway, have a nice time” bye.

So Syliva went to the zoo with her parents. At the entrance her father bought tickets. First, they went to see the monkeys

She looked at a monkey. It made a funny face and started swinging Sylvia shouted: “He is swinging look now it is hanging from its tail its marvellous”

“Monkey usually do that’

I do hope your students will not hang from their tails as these monkeys do.

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Midweek Review

Little known composers of classical super-hits



By Satyajith Andradi


Quite understandably, the world of classical music is dominated by the brand images of great composers. It is their compositions that we very often hear. Further, it is their life histories that we get to know. In fact, loads of information associated with great names starting with Beethoven, Bach and Mozart has become second nature to classical music aficionados. The classical music industry, comprising impresarios, music publishers, record companies, broadcasters, critics, and scholars, not to mention composers and performers, is largely responsible for this. However, it so happens that classical music lovers are from time to time pleasantly struck by the irresistible charm and beauty of classical pieces, the origins of which are little known, if not through and through obscure. Intriguingly, most of these musical gems happen to be classical super – hits. This article attempts to present some of these famous pieces and their little-known composers.


Pachelbel’s Canon in D

The highly popular piece known as Pachelbel’s Canon in D constitutes the first part of Johann Pachelbel’s ‘Canon and Gigue in D major for three violins and basso continuo’. The second part of the work, namely the gigue, is rarely performed. Pachelbel was a German organist and composer. He was born in Nuremburg in 1653, and was held in high esteem during his life time. He held many important musical posts including that of organist of the famed St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. He was the teacher of Bach’s elder brother Johann Christoph. Bach held Pachelbel in high regard, and used his compositions as models during his formative years as a composer. Pachelbel died in Nuremburg in 1706.

Pachelbel’s Canon in D is an intricate piece of contrapuntal music. The melodic phrases played by one voice are strictly imitated by the other voices. Whilst the basso continuo constitutes a basso ostinato, the other three voices subject the original tune to tasteful variation. Although the canon was written for three violins and continuo, its immense popularity has resulted in the adoption of the piece to numerous other combinations of instruments. The music is intensely soothing and uplifting. Understandingly, it is widely played at joyous functions such as weddings.


Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary

The hugely popular piece known as ‘Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary’ appeared originally as ‘ The Prince of Denmark’s March’ in Jeremiah Clarke’s book ‘ Choice lessons for the Harpsichord and Spinet’, which was published in 1700 ( Michael Kennedy; Oxford Dictionary of Music ). Sometimes, it has also been erroneously attributed to England’s greatest composer Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695 ) and called ‘Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary (Percy A. Scholes ; Oxford Companion to Music). This brilliant composition is often played at joyous occasions such as weddings and graduation ceremonies. Needless to say, it is a piece of processional music, par excellence. As its name suggests, it is probably best suited for solo trumpet and organ. However, it is often played for different combinations of instruments, with or without solo trumpet. It was composed by the English composer and organist Jeremiah Clarke.

Jeremiah Clarke was born in London in 1670. He was, like his elder contemporary Pachelbel, a musician of great repute during his time, and held important musical posts. He was the organist of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and the composer of the Theatre Royal. He died in London in 1707 due to self – inflicted gun – shot injuries, supposedly resulting from a failed love affair.


Albinoni’s Adagio

The full title of the hugely famous piece known as ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’ is ‘Adagio for organ and strings in G minor’. However, due to its enormous popularity, the piece has been arranged for numerous combinations of instruments. It is also rendered as an organ solo. The composition, which epitomizes pathos, is structured as a chaconne with a brooding bass, which reminds of the inevitability and ever presence of death. Nonetheless, there is no trace of despondency in this ethereal music. On the contrary, its intense euphony transcends the feeling of death and calms the soul. The composition has been attributed to the Italian composer Tomaso Albinoni (1671 – 1750), who was a contemporary of Bach and Handel. However, the authorship of the work is shrouded in mystery. Michael Kennedy notes: “The popular Adagio for organ and strings in G minor owes very little to Albinoni, having been constructed from a MS fragment by the twentieth century Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, whose copyright it is” (Michael Kennedy; Oxford Dictionary of Music).


Boccherini’s Minuet

The classical super-hit known as ‘Boccherini’s Minuet’ is quite different from ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’. It is a short piece of absolutely delightful music. It was composed by the Italian cellist and composer Luigi Boccherini. It belongs to his string quintet in E major, Op. 13, No. 5. However, due to its immense popularity, the minuet is performed on different combinations of instruments.

Boccherini was born in Lucca in 1743. He was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, and an elder contemporary of Beethoven. He was a prolific composer. His music shows considerable affinity to that of Haydn. He lived in Madrid for a considerable part of his life, and was attached to the royal court of Spain as a chamber composer. Boccherini died in poverty in Madrid in 1805.

Like numerous other souls, I have found immense joy by listening to popular classical pieces like Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, Albinoni’s Adagio and Boccherini’s Minuet. They have often helped me to unwind and get over the stresses of daily life. Intriguingly, such music has also made me wonder how our world would have been if the likes of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert had never lived. Surely, the world would have been immeasurably poorer without them. However, in all probability, we would have still had Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, Albinoni’s Adagio, and Boccherini’s Minuet, to cheer us up and uplift our spirits.

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Midweek Review

The Tax Payer and the Tough



By Lynn Ockersz

The tax owed by him to Caesar,

Leaves our retiree aghast…

How is he to foot this bill,

With the few rupees,

He has scraped together over the months,

In a shrinking savings account,

While the fires in his crumbling hearth,

Come to a sputtering halt?

But in the suave villa next door,

Stands a hulk in shiny black and white,

Over a Member of the August House,

Keeping an eagle eye,

Lest the Rep of great renown,

Be besieged by petitioners,

Crying out for respite,

From worries in a hand-to-mouth life,

But this thought our retiree horrifies:

Aren’t his hard-earned rupees,

Merely fattening Caesar and his cohorts?

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