Emily of Emerald Hill and the Singaporean Experience

Part 1.2 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 are going to examine Stella Kon's monodrama, Emily of Emerald Hill, because we believe it will contribute valuable insights into the different situations in Singapore and Malaysia. These insights might also help us to understand better some of the complexities of post-colonial literary production, and allow us to ask some searching questions about several of the theoretical positions discussed in the General Introduction to this Study Guide. At this point in your study, you might want to watch the video-cassette prepared specifically on this text. In it, we have talked about some of the salient features of the play in such a way as to supplement this Case study, and our comments are illustrated by a selective dramatiation of key moments in the play.

The value of the play lies in the singular place it has earned for itself within the brief history of modern Singapore theatre in English. Emily may be considered the major catalyst for the outpourings of exciting theatre activity that we see all around us today in Singapore. Things were not always like this. Max Le Blond (1986) tells us something about the situation that prevailed when Emily made its appearance. Goh Poh Seng, Lim Chor Pee and Robert Yeo, among others, had already in the 1970s and early 1980s made a few quiet ripples with their plays. But they were not able to stir sufficiently the sluggish flow of theatrical activity which, in the early 1960s, had prompted Lim to ask, ironically, 'Is Drama Non-existent in Singapore?' (1964). The world of the Singapore theatre in English remained "the world of the Christmas pantomime; of farce and situation comedy à la Boeing-Boeing; and finally, of the elegant, genteel British 'well-made play'" (Le Blond, 1986, p.113).

It was a world 'shackled by a colonial consciousness and a colonial view of reality', which showed Singaporeans that 'we (were) not yet at home.... with ourselves as Singaporeans' (Le Blond, 1986, pp.115, 117).

Emily changed all that. Winner of the 1983 Singapore Drama Competition and, subsequently, Singapore's entry for the Commonwealth Arts Festival and the Edinburgh Arts Fringe Festival, the play has, since its first appearance on stage (interestingly, in Malaysia) in 1984, gone on to 'attain... cult status with an enthusiastic following', 'far outstrip[ping] any other play in terms of number of performances and productions in the history of Malaysian and Singaporean drama' (Chin, 1996, p.92). In fact, there have been more than 60 performances of the play to this day. With Emily, English drama in Singapore lost its fear of 'being itself' (Le Blond, 1986, p.119). The play demonstrated for the first time 'the conviction that our lives, that our experience as Singaporeans possesses the same theatrical validity, has as much right to stage representation, and has the same potential for the creation of great art' (Le Blond, 1986, p.114), as the lives and experience which mainstream colonial art valorised at the time. By doing so, it helped bring contemporary Singapore theatre into being, and together with it, an audience to sustain it. A Research Project (suggestion 1) could examine the work of other dramatists from the region (e.g. Robert Yeo, Goh Poh Seng and Edward Dorall), contrasting their achievement with that of Emily.

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