This semester, I took a module on Singapore English-Language Theatre. It made me realise how rich our local theatre history is and how one generation of playwrights builds on the previous generation. As part of our course assessment, we are required to put together a hypothetical anthology and write a critical introduction to said anthology. The following is an excerpt from the introduction which offers a brief analysis of all the plays to be included in the anthology based on the theme of invisibility.
If you are interested in reading the plays, click on the links to either purchase or borrow (when they are not freely available) the collections which feature the particular play.
This collection starts with Elangovan’s Talaq. It is arguably the most controversial play of the collection as it was perceived to be against Islamic principles which offended the Indian Muslim community (Hamilton 1999). This resulted in the English version being banned in 2000. Talaq explores the plight of Muslim brides from India being married off to Indian Muslim husbands in Singapore. They are often ill-treated and Islamic precepts are intentionally misinterpreted as a justification for their subjugation. The use of monodrama thus empowers the wives as we only hear their perspective and anguish which is normally silenced in the public sphere. Having the wife voicing the comments made by her husband and her community gives one a vivid impression of how she is personally affected by it. Cyril Wong (2014) also notes that it evokes a sense of schizophrenia and that “[i]n a world gone insane, patriarchy is the unscalable wall that the victimised woman in the monologue rams and rails against, and predictably to no avail.” In a society that is so afraid to discuss anything pertaining to religion, Talaq boldly breaks the silence and insists we take a look at what is happening to Indian Muslim women.
Apart from its historical importance of it being used as incriminating evidence against members of Third Stage, Esperanza by Wong Souk Yee and Tay Hong Seng, presents the struggle of maids trying to earn a living in Singapore (Li 2012). It is unfortunate that, despite a rise in advocacy of their rights, some of the scenes in the play still ring true almost 30 years on. The employment of naturalism allows the playwrights to present situations that mirror the treatment of maids in some households. This affords easy identification with the plight of the maids which is evident from the sympathetic and positive press reviews of the performance (Speeden and Sampang 1986). Yet, Esperanza is controversial in other ways. It raises the question of why there was a clamp down on this rather tame play with modest ambitions and whether the maid character is truly pitiable considering that she did certain things out of revenge. While there are no easy answers, this play should not be dismissed simply because it was mired in some political controversy.
Russell Heng’s Lest The Demons Get to Me is one of the few plays that depicts the experience of a transsexual in the face of societal pressures and expectations. While it is also a monodrama, Heng adds an additional layer by including the voices of other characters but they are only heard off-stage. This gives a sense of the public intruding on the private—familial and societal demands encroaching on the privacy of Kim Choon (KC) as she has to decide whether to capitulate and conduct her father’s funeral rites as the only son, or to secretly pay her respects as the disgraced son-turned-daughter. To make matters worse, the impending closure of Bugis Street also threatens the collective memory of her and other transsexuals. Should she hold on to the identity that she identifies with or should she conform to that which society puts on her? Unlike other plays which present issues about transsexuals within a socio-political framework as camp is used to subvert societal norms, Heng’s poignant piece is firmly grounded in a personal struggle. The title is most fitting for as a child, KC wears an earring to ward off traditional supernatural demons. But as an adult, she must decide if she wants to don her earrings to reclaim her identity and fend against demons of tradition.
While the prevalence of dementia is generally known, it is rarely talked about. Haresh Sharma’s Don’t Forget To Remember Me was commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Association of Singapore. Such a collaboration shows that organisations can tap into the potential of theatre to inform without resorting to a skit filled with clichés and awkward writing. This lyrical piece juxtaposes the reality of the dementia patient to that of the caregiver and it depicts the struggles that both face. Getting the mother and daughter to converse in different languages not only marks the generation gap but it also emphasises the difference between the two realities as both try to reach out to the other. Kenneth, the day care centre manager, delivers the medical information but without sounding as if he is reciting a medical brochure. The ability to write such a heartfelt piece while including the need of educating the audience about taking care of dementia patients is a strong testament to Sharma’s skill as a playwright. It is unfortunate that this play had a short run before touring to selected communities for it deserves more attention not only for the message, but for the writing as well.
In terms of technique, Alfian Sa’at’s Asian Boys Vol. 3: Happy Endings can be said to be the most complicated of this collection. Similar to Asian Boys Vol. 1, this play has a strong inter-textual element in which Johann S. Lee’s Peculiar Chris (1992) lies at the heart of the play. The play revolves around Joe who sets out to write a novel called Peculiar Chris. In the process of crafting his novel, his Muse and the characters in the story will question his authorial choices and the audience gets to see the storyline of the novel being enacted. Based on this simple premise which is enhanced by meta-theatrical (the actor playing Joe will play Chris) and meta-narrative (the Muse and characters asking him whether the plot should be that way) devices, Alfian Sa’at presents us with a typology of gay men and some of them will be based on stereotypes that have been perpetuated in a hetero-normative society. We are thus compelled to examine our own perceptions, especially if we are heterosexual, of the gay community. This is emphasised further by the characters discriminating among themselves or arguing over whether they should agitate for change or be content with the limited freedoms that they have. Whatever opinion one holds, Happy Endings makes you recognise that the gay community is not homogeneous and perhaps convince you to get to know the individuals better.
All the plays in this anthology have received previous publication. The details are as follows:
Elangovan. “Talaq.” The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Three Banned Plays. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014. 13-53. Print.
Heng, Russell. “Lest The Demons Get To Me.” Fat Virgins, Fast Cars and Asian Values. Singapore: Times International, 1993. 28-53. Print.
Sa’at, Alfian. “Asian Boys Vol. 3: Happy Endings.” Collected Plays Two: The Asian Boys Trilogy. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010. 191-272. Print
Sharma, Haresh. “Don’t Forget To Remember Me.” Don’t Forget To Remember Me. Singapore: Necessary Stage, 2013. 124-146. Print
Wong, Souk Yee, and Tay, Hong Seng. “Esperenza.” 5 Plays from Third Stage: A Collection of Five Singaporean Plays. Ed. Anne Lim and Suan Tze Chuan. Third Stage, 2004. 100-129. Print.
Hamilton, Andrea. “The Rights of Marriage: A One-woman Play Has Caused a Stir in Singapore’s Little India.” Asia Week. Cable News Network, 26 Mar. 1999. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <http://edition.cnn.com/ASIANOW/asiaweek/99/0326/feat3.html>.
Lee, Johann S. Peculiar Chris. Singapore: Cannon International, 1992. Print.
Li, Lisa. “Third Stage: Theatre Company or “Marxist Network”?” Remembering 1987. 26 May 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2015 <https://remembering1987.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/third-stage-theatre-company-or-marxist-network/>
Speeden, Muriel, and Crisanta Sampang. “Play May Help Bridge A Yawning Chasm.” The Straits Times 7 June 1986. 34. Print.
Wong, Cyril. “Preface.” The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Three Banned Plays. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014. 5-9. Print.