The 'Aesthetisation' of Drama

Part 7.1 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.

The arts were not insulated from such developments, as Kuo Pao Kun explains in his interview with Jacqueline Lo (1993). Until his detention in 1976, his 'guiding ideology was [that] art comes from life', and his interest was in 'a very socially committed and political sensitive theatre', which in fact attracted a 'very broad audience'. His detention, however, was 'a very deep education process', which led him to 'a new insight', which was that 'art first and foremost has to be art', and that 'the inside story' of the individual must be recognised to be as important as 'the externals'. As far as drama went, this meant that it would no longer draw on the perspectives or the experience and resources of imagination and understanding which were associated with the other constituencies, the people who happened to be the ones who most fully and immediately maintained the indigenous traditions, in the more overt socially-embedded manner of earlier times. If it needed to do so, the way to do it was, rather, in an 'aestheticised' form, which projected public struggles as going on mainly within the consciousness of individuals. This would explain the often oblique but always very suggestive symbolism and other such techniques of Kuo's plays on the contemporary stage, such as The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree. A Research Project (suggestion 6) could explore the many ways in which the theatrical practice of Kuo moves away quite radically from conventional notions of the dramatic text.

An alternative response was to accept the terms of the new order and work within them. This did not mean that the traditional indigenous experience that was most directly represented by those in the other constituencies was not to be accessed. In Emily, the Peranakan experience made available exactly the compromise that was needed. If the Peranakans represented indigenous culture, they did so as an elite class who in their heyday under the British enjoyed 'immense wealth...and good relations with the Malayan royalty and the British colonial administrators' (Pakir, 1991, p.387). A large part of their distinction and position derived from their cultivation of things English in preference to indigenous things. Their attitude towards those of their compatriots who belonged in the lower orders was not one of identification but of separateness.

Such considerations indicate why the emerging theatre audience in post-independence Singapore could, at that moment in time, so readily assign iconicity to the Peranakan experience, regardless of whether they were Peranakan or not. They also explain why Emily, which draws so foundationally on that experience, would be the play which could bring them together in a common re-cognition and construction of their shared, post-colonial, identity. However, this identity was 'post-colonial' in a rather unexpected way, since it combined features of both Fanon's first and second phases. It gave a significant place to what had been appropriated from the coloniser even while consigning the other constituencies in the same space to their suitable positions away from the Centre.

These matters help explain certain features of Singaporean drama which appear initially to meet some of the expectations raised by the theorising. Consider, for instance, the intercultural endeavour in this drama. As Seet points out, the Singapore theatre has become 'increasingly intercultural', as it 'decanonise[s]' and breaks away from its 'former reliance on Western dramaturgical forms'. This is clearly an act of post-colonial resistance. However, the endeavour speaks on the Singapore stage from the position of the English-using elite class. Destabilisations do occur, but they are of facets of the indigenous cultural elements that stake their claims for recognition within the emerging national identity. The way in which, for instance, Sukdev in This Chord & Others 'manages to straddle (his) two identities' is to reject his Sikh heritage and even shorten his name to 'Dev', which allows him to function as 'Dave the Brave, trendy man-about-town'. A Research Project (suggestion 7) could examine some current Singaporean plays for their treatment of the intercultural endeavour from the point of view of the claim made here.

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