Scorpion Orchid and the Act of Resistance

Part 5.2 of Drama in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Thiru Kandiah, PhD, formerly of the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

We find little of this in Emily. But we do see a more overt interrogation in the Malaysian Lloyd Fernando's Scorpion Orchid, The Play, which is based on his earlier novel of 1976 with the same title. The play deals stirringly with some of the tumultuous events of the 1950s that led up to Singapore's independence. Let us look briefly at it before continuing with our examination of Emily.

At the very beginning, the play announces its intention to subvert the colonial gaze. The British national anthem, 'earnestly' sung on Empire Day by the four main characters, each representing one of the main races (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian) that make up modern Singapore, transforms itself by an overt act of rejection into the crude ditty 'Roll the Queen over (in the clover), lay her down, and do it again', itself, ironically, taught them from the same colonial source. The British lecturer, Ellman, entertains 'the fantasy of the superior race', of having to carry 'the white man's burden'. But his pregnant Indian girlfriend's declaration of independence from him emasculates him and he decides to 'get out of this place... forget it ever existed'. The power of the coloniser is simultaneously both recognised and eroded. The play also expresses an unflinching awareness of the uncertainties and inadequacies of the victims themselves and their complicity in the whole process of empire.

SANTINATHAN: Afternoon tea with the Professor on the lawn, old chap? Polite conversation with the Professor's wife? .... Shall we look back in anger? The bloody cheek. After two hundred years of colonising us the buggers say they have no brave causes left. We were their brave causes... how funny they are as they go about their mission. But we, we take the cake, sitting at their feet like obedient children...

The liberation of the four friends from empire turns itself into an unsettling personal crisis that reproduces a nightmarish national predicament, as they begin to mistrust each other. The most painful dramatic expression of this condition is their impotence in saving from her rape the woman of uncertain racial descent whom they all shared. Their failure casts a shadow on their ability and strength to preserve the country to which they all belong. A Research Project (suggestion 5) could take up Fernando's novel and play for comparison, and show how drama and fiction handle similar materials very differently.

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