Art for a purpose
Today, I discuss the functions of drama and the concomitant question "why do we go to the theatre?"
I was nudged toward the issue by playwright-producer Barbara Gloudon, whose comments on a column of mine were published in The Gleaner of February 6. It seems to me that she was agreeing with my opinion that the Little Theatre Movement's (LTM) annual pantomimes (which she has been writing for about 20 years, give or take) are "staged primarily to entertain and make money".
As she stated, and I concur, there is no "theatre sin", no "problem", with stage shows - or books, or poems, or TV sitcoms, or songs and other artistic works - being written just to entertain. And, of course, it would be a foolish producer who doesn't want to make money from a show.
Gloudon explained that the money a pantomime makes is ploughed back into the following year's production - and, she might have added, into the upkeep of The Little Theatre. It costs a lot to run, I was officially informed.
So, yes, there are patrons like the one my late uncle Barry Reckord, also a playwright and producer, delighted in telling about. Walking out of one of Barry's plays with a hiss of his teeth, the man remarked "mi come yah fi laugh, mi nuh come yah fi tink (think)." He wanted entertainment, and nothing else.
But there are playwrights and producers who think theatre should give more. Last week's column dealt with three - Trevor Rhone, Basil Dawkins and Dahlia Harris - who manage to evoke laughter while addressing serious issues. We admire them, for it is a truth universally acknowledged that the best art entertains and enlightens.
Let's see who else acknowledges that truth in Jamaica. I start at the launch of University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor Emeritus Mervyn Morris' book Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture on February 10 at the UWI. The book is amazingly (in light of the respect and love with which Ambassador the Hon Dr Louise Bennett-Coverley was regarded) the first written about her.
That fact was pointed out by keynote speaker Prof Edward Baugh, who also reminded us that Morris' engagement with Miss Lou came to public attention with his prize-winning essay 'On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously'. The title hints at the poet's dual intention, to say important things entertainingly in the Jamaican language.
The poets who performed their works at the launch - Oku Onuora, Jean 'Binta' Breeze and Mutabaruka - also showed they have that dual intention. One of Onuora's poems was about liberation from neo-colonisation, and he spoke of others on the societal conditions that led to his being sent to the "hell" of prison (where, happily, he started writing).
Breeze said one of her poems, 'Natural High', got its title from her mother's question about smoking "too much" ganja. So the question was "whatever happen to your natural high?" Another poem, 'Repatriation', which Breeze said is "my answer to the back to Africa issue", is a love poem to Jamaica's natural beauty.
All of the poems that Mutabaruka read, including 'Call Me No Poet Or Nutten Like Dat', 'Nursery Rhyme Lament' and a poem about Haiti's fight for freedom, were thought-provoking. Yet many listeners laughed. That patron at my uncle's play would have faced a dilemma about whether to stay or leave.
What did Prof Rex Nettleford think was the function of theatre? In a 2007 Caribbean Quarterly essay, he writes that "the role of the arts in general and the dramatic arts in particular in post-colonialism" is to assist Jamaica and the Caribbean "in both nation-building and the quest for identity and cultural certitude."
He also observes that the arts, "the conscience of a free society", and drama especially, provide "an excellent means of self-cleansing, self-reflection, and self-criticism, uncomfortable though this at times may be to the government, to private sector moguls and to the wider society."
Neither does actor-playwright-producer Louis Marriott believe in theatre only for entertainment. In a panel discussion on theatre in 1986, I heard him say that plays should have a message, nobility of theme and heroic conflict. Rejecting a popular notion held by many producers, he cautioned against giving the people exactly what they wanted, reminding his listeners that in the early decades of Christianity, the people of Rome went to their arena-theatre to see people thrown to lions.
Actress-educator Honor Ford Smith, who lectured at the Edna Manley College's School of Drama in the 1970s and'80s, wondered in a 2007 CQ article how the college could "create narratives [plays] which might transform colonial stereotypes and inspire postcolonial subjects to transform their societies."
In a 2008 article, 'Building a Humane Society', published in The Gleaner, Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips identifies four specific functions for Jamaican drama - as a preserver of our best traditions, as a mirror for our life experiences, as a provider of wholesome family entertainment, and as an aid in the reduction of crime. He also cites two general functions of theatre - as an aid in improving the quality of our lives, and as an asset in nation-building.
Here is Professor Baugh again. In a 1968 essay, he notes approvingly that our literature (and I include plays in that classification) concentrates on "defining and assessing the society" and is "directly concerned with questions of West-Indianness, of the values and aspirations of the society. In other words, it institutes a dialogue with the society about who we are and where we are going."
In Introduction to Theatre in the Caribbean by Ken Corsbie, Trevor Rhone states that Jamaican theatre "has become a source of pride" and it is "helping to restore the spirit of Caribbean man". This was being done by toppling old negative images of ourselves that our colonial masters foisted on us and providing us with inspirational models and heroes with whom we can identify and draw inspiration from in "our present daily struggles."
Those who would like to know what Gloudon (formerly?) thought of the give-the-audiences-what-they-want approach by producers, should read interviews published in Class on November 19, 1989, and in the Jamaica Journal in 1982. There she suggests that the approach led to a deterioration in our theatre standards.
True, there is no "theatre sin" committed by playwrights and producers who only want to entertain (in order to make money). But, considering the higher functions of theatre, is that the best that they can do?