The Challenge of Form

Part 4.2 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.

This immediately leads us to the important issue of form in Emily. By 'form' we mean more than a set of mechanical techniques packaging a pre-existing experience or content. We are interested in the set of verbal, visual and performative signifiers (signs or symbols) and signifying practices (ways of using these signifiers), which are an integral part of the experiences which they help bring into being and express. All the conventions of the contemporary stage that Emily moved into were adapted to the requirements of the colonising presence that had occupied it until now. How then does the play domesticate the Peranakan presence in what is, in some respects, an alien space?

Emily does it by moving into that space, accepting in broad terms the formal resources that were conventionally on offer and then turning them around to fit new experiences (see the concluding paragraphs of Section 2.1 above). The whole action takes place in a typical Peranakan mansion, with the most overt reminder of this being the 'single item of Peranakan furniture, an imposingly sized patriarchal chair' placed at 'mid-centre stage' which, in Max Le Blond's 1985 production of the play, 'developed into a dominating stage presence' (Le Blond 1991). There is also the costuming, and the involvement of the audience in a wide range of activities typical to a Peranakan household, patchwork, marketing, cooking, various specific customs and personal rituals. These help define a whole way of life which was part of the historically situated realities of fair portions of the first local audiences.

From the point of view of form, what is particularly interesting is that the play is, as earlier mentioned, a monologue, with only a single character on stage throughout. This turns out to be an asset in meeting the challenge of form. As an early stage direction in Act 1 puts it, 'all characters except Emily are unseen, and known to us only through her mime', and they and the whole panorama of an extensive social life are brought on stage only through her words and actions. This means that the Perankan experience is not so much represented on stage in a literal or physical way, as presented to the audience under the strong imaginative control and management of the heroine, who is also a kind of proxy for the playwright. Selecting facets of her life and memory in an apparently random way, Emily seems to find normal time and space disruptive or distracting to the train of her thoughts. She moves her audience up and down across the years and in and out of varied places. Thus she constructs her experience in interaction with the audience, as part of her ongoing presentation of herself to them. Along with such construction of Emily's subjectivity on stage, the Peranakan experience also gets constructed. The two processes are experienced theatrically as almost the same thing, just as Emily's defeat is inseparable from the decline and passing away of that experience.

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