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Midweek Review

Call of the sea From Navy to maritime archaeologist, Somasiri Devendra comes full circle

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‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon” by Somasiri Devendra now available in all leading bookshops

By Sajitha Prematunge

The title ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon” derives from the sea-faring days of his maternal grandfather, Lloyd Aswald, who was referred to as ‘Ceylon’ by his shipmates in whichever ship he sailed in, because he was always the only Ceylonese on board. In fact, his penchant for all things water-related, from sunken archaeological treasures to vernacular watercraft, Somasiri Devendra admits, may have been inspired by his grandfather.

Although a book about watercraft, ‘A man called ‘Ceylon” does not run the risk of reading like a research paper, and as the writer himself admits in one chapter, is rather a narrative. It is by no means heady with technical jargon, and is quite readable even for those who haven’t the slightest interest in ships.

His ‘Yesterday is Another Country’ is a collection of autobiographical short stories and he edited his father’s notes about his childhood into ‘The Way We Grew’. But his personal favourite is ‘Two to Tango’, because it is intensely personal, being about his first time living in a village between age 11 and 14. ‘We must have a Navy’ never hit the bookshops because the publishing was undertaken by SL Navy and was sold out within the navy itself. He admits that ‘From Wooden Walls to Ironclads’ was a labour of love.

 

The book

The articles he wrote to various newspapers between books have been collected in his latest ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon”. According to the Forward, the reminiscences, investigations and fantasies had been written, at different times for readers of different ages. Most of the chapters being individual articles previously published, are standalone stories in their own right and could easily be enjoyed even out of context. The book is divided roughly into two parts. The first half, ‘Waterways and Watercraft’, draws upon Devendra’s mother’s awakening of ‘the watery element’ in him. The second half of the book ‘Heritage and History’ is his father’s legacy. “Some of them are serious, some great adventures,” said Devendra, the passage titled VVT Tahiti & The Ghost of the Bounty for example. Devendra admits that the voyage of discovery took many years to put together.

VVT Tahiti & The Ghost of the Bounty is about a ship built in Jaffna, originally named ‘Annapooranymal’ and later renamed Florence C. Robinson known as a ‘tidy little vessel, built of honest workmanship and good hard-wood’ that withstood hurricanes and doldrums, fire in the galley, shredded sails, broken bilge pumps and a malfunctioning auxiliary engine. And where’s the adventure without a ‘man overboard’ scare! She was sailed by an all Jaffna crew from Valvettithurai to Boston, US. “It is the longest voyage made by a sailing ship at the time. It was last recorded to have been used in the copra trade and no further information has surfaced since then,” said Devendra.

It is all the more intriguing due to the fact that it was quite similar in design to HMS Bounty of the Mutiny on the Bounty fame. According to Devendra, it was not entirely home-grown and may also have been heavily influenced by South Indian ship building technology at the time. “There were Indo-Arab boats as well.” The fully home-grown version was the Yathra Dhoni or Maha Oruwa, last of which was Amugoda Oruwa, which perished on a reef off Male, according to the chapter ‘The Mansions of the Sea’. Each of these watercraft types have been meticulously detailed in the book. Devendra surmised that the vernacular tradition was pre-Vijayan, which originated in the forested region with large rivers in the South-West of the country.

His expertise of the watercraft is evident throughout the narrative peppered with nautical lingo such as ”Seventy-five to hundred foot freighters…rigged with jib, main and mizzen sails, rudder and a sturdy outrigger’, ‘…schooner-rigged two-master, 89′ on deck, with a 33′ jib boom…beam of 19′ and a draught of only 8’, ‘greater beam and draft…fully rigged…not a Frigate but a converted Collier…fitted with an auxiliary (50 HP Belinda Marine) engine’, so on and so forth. It may sound like gibberish to the layman, but all this talk of sunken, marooned and altogether missing ships is strangely reminiscent of the ‘The Ghost from the Grand Banks’, the 1990 science fiction novel by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. It makes one wonder if Devendra and the underwater explorer in Clarke would have hit it off instantly, had they been acquainted.

The book as a whole is a pleasurable read, notwithstanding a few typos. Even the little anecdotes that deviate completely from the main story, such as that of one-time skipper of Florence C, Sterling Hayden, who went from being a high school drop out, fisherman, ship mate, Hollywood sweetheart, to decorated war hero and finally writer, is quite intriguing. The Gujarati lore about the Ceylonese bride and the Gujarati prince is another interesting anecdote, retold in ‘The Other Princess Padma’. As the Gujarati saying goes, ‘Like a bride from Ceylon and a groom from Gujarat’, a Ceylonese princess winds up marrying a Gujarati prince, despite the Princess’ father’s best efforts to prevent it. The old WW II story, ‘The Surrender’, of how an Italian warship surrendered to Ceylonese Navy, has been sourced from an old Navy veteran. The Italian government had decided to surrender by then and all its naval units have been ordered to turn themselves into the nearest Allied Forces. It was a historic event, despite the uneventful surrender.

In ‘The Island of Fate’ Devendra explores the irksome possibility that disciplining in the colonial era depended on colour. The Cocos Island mutineers, the only dissenters who were executed, who all happened to be Ceylonese, was a case in point. A contingent of Ceylon Garrison Artillery was posted to Cocos Island off Australia in September 1939, when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. They mutinied and were duly executed. The investigation undertaken by journalist Noel Crusz culminated in 2001 in the book ‘The Cocos Islands Mutiny’. Devendra has placed it in the socio-economic context of Sri Lanka at the time.

Devendra retired from the Navy in 1976, but duty called 20 years later during the war. The Chapter ‘The Forests of the Night’ is the culmination of his service in the Navy during Operation Riviresa as the Deputy Commandant of a volunteer force with a very specific goal. “Riviresa was launched with the objective of retaking Jaffna.” Devendra, et al, were tasked with raising a corps of approximately 10,000 volunteers to send to the Eastern Front, to relieve regular troops so they could be retasked in the North, a quixotic scheme he admits, with more gung-ho than common sense. After much cajoling and promises of honour, they ended up with half the number of volunteers they needed. With only three weeks left for training, the only guns available to them to train with were World War II .303 rifles and factory rejects for uniforms. But the quixotic operation, held together by a ‘string and a prayer’ actually worked and in six months Jaffna was retaken, all without losing a single volunteer.

Devendra hypothesises that the local sense of respect for trees derives from our pre-Buddhist animistic culture and an impetus was provided by the gratitude the Buddha expressed to the Bo tree. The passage ‘Caring for a tree’ explores this symbiotic relationship with trees. In it he describes how his inquisitiveness led him to discover a tombstone-like upright stone slab by the Wellawatta bridge, with indiscernible writing. As it turned out, the slab had been erected by one Sophia Marshall in 1820, before Ceylon was even a crown colony, in gratitude of a banyan tree. Perhaps she was an earlier day ‘ruk rekaganna’, mused Devendra. “What’s amazing is that someone went to the trouble of getting it carved and erected there.”

Sophia nee Brooke, daughter of St. Helena Governor, Col. Robert Brooke, married Henry Augustus Marshall and moved to Ceylon in 1798. The Banyan tree as well as Sophia is long gone but it is rather ironic that her ‘so human act of caring’ is etched in lifeless stone thus;

“To him whose gracious aim in mercy bends,

And light and shade to all alike extends,

Who guards the traveler of his weary way,

Shelters from storm and shades from solar ray,

Breathe one kind wish for her, one Pious prayer,

Who made this sheltering tree her guardian care,

Fenced in from rude attacks the pendent shoots,

Nourished and framed its tender, infant shoots,

Traveler, if from milder climes you rove

How dearly will you prize this Indian grove.

Pause then, awhile, and ere you ass it by,

Give to Sophia’s name one grateful sigh.

A.D. 1820″

The intensely visual imagery in the narrative of ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon”, ‘full bellied sails’, for example, is reminiscent of his brother, Tissa Devendra’s accounts of a bygone age in ‘On Horseshoe Street: More Tales from the Provinces’, although the junior Devendra admits considerable differences in their writing style. Literary talents obviously run in the family and everyone concedes that Ransiri Menike Silva, the younger sister is by far the most prolific. Although the Devendras were, as they say, ‘English educated’, had a good taste of the village life. This is evident in their collective writings, in the authenticity of descriptions on village life, from Tissa’s ‘On Horseshoe Street’, Ransiri Menike Silva’s Worm’s Eye View to Somasiri Devendra’s ‘A man called ‘Ceylon” itself.

 

The man

Devendra, in his own words, is the ‘proverbial rolling stone’, a man of many talents who cannot seem to sit idle. A graduate of the first batch of University of Ceylon, now Peradeniya University, in 1955, he was a school teacher before being commissioned an Instructor Officer in the then Royal Ceylon Navy in 1960 and wound up a Commandant, Naval & Maritime Academy, Trincomalee.

Much like his brother, Tissa and sister, Ransiri Menike, who started taking writing seriously only in her 40s but went on to clinch the State Literary Award, Somasiri Devendra found his calling, archaeology, after retirement, first from the Navy, after 17 years of service, then an illustrious career as a company director. Soon after leaving the Navy and joining Somerville & Co. Ltd., Sri Lanka’s oldest firm of Share and Produce Brokers, Devendra climbed up the corporate ladder to make director. He was also a founding Director of the then fledgling Colombo Stock Exchange. “The adventures of the mercantile forest ultimately gave me heart trouble,” said Devendra.

The resourceful man that he is, Devendra did not want to spend the rest of his life idling. Consequently, he decided to take up the investigation of local maritime heritage as a full-time occupation. Few would believe that a career change at 55 is feasible, but not for Devendra, who, as a child, used to tag along with his archaeologist father, D.T. Devendra, on his excursions in search of ruins in the jungle. He defines the period after retirement, as the most fruitful period of his life. In addition to dabbling with archaeology for the first time, he wrote prolifically, anything from books to feature article to the paper.

“I started attending international conferences on archaeology of my own volition and meeting people from different parts of the world was interesting.” Devendra noted that, unlike people from most other countries, as a people, Sri Lankans were more aware of our own heritage. A pariah in the field of archaeology, notwithstanding his father’s legacy, Devendra wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. All the government institutions wanted him, because they recognised the fact that he could get things done, but couldn’t technically offer him a job, because he was over 55.

“I didn’t represent any university department, and funding restrictions were to be expected,” said Devendra. Luckily foreign institutions took note and invited him to more conferences, some even offering funding. His fascination with archaeology lead him to the most unexpected places such as Jamaica, Mozambique, Hawaii, Taiwan and Germany.

But he caught his biggest break while training a student group for the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology on underwater archaeology, in Galle, with the help of an Australian maritime museum. “The Australian trainers, who happened to have a lot of time on their hands, discovered that the Galle harbour was strewn with shipwrecks, so why not investigate they suggested,” said Devendra. He readily complied. Between 1992 and 1994, the project continued on a shoestring budget, until Minister of Cultural Affairs Lakshman Jayakody visited Galle, was impressed with the project, asked around for a point man, was directed to Devendra and later called in with an offer of funding. “It was several millions and a lot more than we could hope to squeeze out of any government department’s accounts division!” chuckled Devendra. A project plan was drawn up by Devendra and by the time the money was passed, they already had a team in place, and the money was utilised to buy much needed equipment.

From the Navy to corporate director and finally maritime archaeologist read how this multifaceted man came full circle, in ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon”.

 

Pics by Kamal Wanniarachchi



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Midweek Review

Post-war national reconciliation: Diaspora sets prerequisites

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Justice Minister Rajapakshe and Panchalingam Kandiah, of the Canadian Tamil Congress, address the media at the Justice Ministry

Indian Premier Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the construction of the Jaffna Cultural Centre, in March 2015, two months after the change of government in Sri Lanka, in the wake of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shock defeat at the presidential election. Retired Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran served as the Chief Minister of the Northern Province at the time. Since then he deserted the Tamil Alliance (TNA) and formed his own party Tamil Makkal Thesya Kootani. Narendra Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister and only the second foreign leader, after British Prime Minister David Cameron, to visit Jaffna since the conclusion of the war. It was the first official visit by an Indian Premier, since July 1987, when Rajiv Gandhi flew in to sign the disastrous Indo-Lanka peace accord foisted on hapless Sri Lanka.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) wants the Sri Lanka government to hand over the Jaffna Cultural Centre, built by the Indian government, to the Jaffna Municipality.

Danton Thurairajah, Executive Director, CTC, in a letter dated Nov. 01, 2022, requested that the Jaffna Cultural Centre, the tallest building in the Jaffna town, situated next to the Jaffna Public Library, be brought under the Jaffna Municipal Council (JMC). It was the sixth out of the 10 requests made by Thurairajah.

Panchalingam Kandiah, on behalf of the CTC, handed over the letter to Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, at his Ministry, on Nov. 16.

The following is the text of the letter released by the Justice Ministry:

Dear Minister,

We thank you for de-listing some of the Tamil Diaspora organisations, including the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC). We feel this is a first step towards achieving improved ethnic relations and economic outcomes in Sri Lanka. While this is a step in the right direction, by the Government of Sri Lanka, we think that additional and meaningful actions are critical in continuing to build bridges with the Diaspora and help the island nation prosper.

Immediately after the de-listing by the Sri Lankan government, and given the current urgent need, CTC, as a responsible organisation, announced that it would provide critical life-saving medications to six hospitals in the Northern, Eastern, Central and Western Provinces of Sri Lanka.

However, we strongly feel that the Sri Lankan government has not taken any meaningful actions which are long overdue.

These include, but are not limited to: Immediate steps in the short term:

1) Release all political prisoners

2) Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)

3) Release all private lands, occupied by the Sri Lankan military, and cease all illegal land grabs in the Northern and Eastern provinces

4) Allow Tamils to mourn and remember the dead, free of intimidation by Sri Lankan state authorities.

5) Support economic growth in the north, and foreign investment, by reopening the Palaly International Airport

6) Hand over the Jaffna Cultural Centre, funded by the Indian government, to the Jaffna Municipality

7) Comply with the UNHRC resolution 46/1 of 2021

8) Fully implement the 13th Amendment and immediately hold the provincial council elections

9) Reform the security sector, especially in Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, to the same levels as the rest of the country and stop all business initiatives in the Northern and Eastern provinces operated by the Sri Lanka military which makes it difficult for local farmers and businesses to compete (Farms, Hotels, and Bakeries, etc.)

10) Open the KKS and Mannar ferry services to India.

The CTC urges the Sri Lankan government to take some firm steps to help build trust and create a conducive environment for reconciliation. The work on a permanent long-term solution, acceptable to all Sri Lankan communities, is vital for the collective growth of the island.

The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government delisted six Tamil diaspora organisations, including the CTC, and 316 individuals. The following organisations were delisted:

1) Australian Tamil Congress (ATC)

2) Global Tamil Forum (GTF)

3) World Tamil Coordinating Committee (WTCC)

4) Tamil Eelam People’s Assembly (TEPA)

5) Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC)

6) British Tamil Forum (BTF)

The delisting was announced through an amendment to the List of Designated Persons under Regulation 4(7) of the United Nations Regulations No. 1 of 2012. The ban was imposed in 2014 by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also held the defence portfolio. The ban covered 15 Diaspora groups. Rajapaksa now serves the incumbent government.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s successor, Maithripala Sirisena, lifted the ban in 2015 to pave the way for talks with them. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa re-imposed the ban in 2021.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) issued a statement appreciating the decision. The TNA pointed out: “However, it must be noted that even others who remain on the list have been so named without any evidence, connecting them to terrorism, and by not following the prescribed procedure. We urge the government to at least continue this process of re-evaluating and de-proscribing all.”

Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, and the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, virtually inaugurated the Jaffna Cultural Centre, on March 28, this year, three days before public anger exploded at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, most probably a well-planned instigation rather than a spontaneous eruption that triggered a series of violent incidents, leading to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster. It was like the well-orchestrated attacks and torching of residences of then government politicians, across the country, on May 09, followed by more mindless violence on July 09.

The Jaffna Cultural Centre, built at a cost of USD 11 mn, on an Indian grant, with 11 floors and facilities, including an auditorium that can accommodate 600 persons, a conference hall, an amphitheater and a digital library, was completed in January 2020. Having signed the agreement for the facility, in 2014, construction took place during the Yahapalana administration, and the work completed close on the heels of the Nov. 2019 presidential election.

In terms of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by India and Sri Lanka in 2014, New Delhi was expected to hand over the facility to the government, which in turn would have handed it over to the Jaffna Municipal Council. Amidst concerns that JMC lacked the wherewithal to maintain the facility, New Delhi has offered to provide the required funds for a period of five years.

There are growing concerns that the building has been used only once,after the virtual opening in March.

The Jaffna-based Indian Consulate celebrated India’s 75th Independence Day, on August 15. Several hundred invitees were treated to Nadaswaram performance by Maestro Banu and group, a Bharatanatyam performance by the Natya KalaKendra institute Barathanatiyam group, and folk dance performance by the Kumara Narththanaalayam group. Earlier in the day, Consul General Raakesh Natraj and Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General W.M.G.C.S.B. Wijayasundara paid respects at the IPKF Memorial in Palaly by laying a wreath, an annual event and a grim reminder of Indian intervention here and the heavy price it paid for the folly of heavy-handed interference in the affairs of a neighbouring country, in which powerful Western countries, too, were very much involved, but through covert subtle means, in instigating the turmoil here, from the early ’80s, most probably with the wish to break up India for being close to the former Soviet Union. The West then obviously wanted to fan separatist flames right across India by not only giving succor to Eelamists, but to others like separatists in Punjab, Assam, etc. New Delhi should be doubly wary of possible new plots for not blindly towing the Western line in Ukraine.

Post-war reconciliation

The CTC’s prerequisites for post-war national reconciliation underscored their refusal at least to repent the war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) until terrorism was finally eradicated. If not for Sri Lanka’s successful campaign against terrorism, that brought the war to an end in May 2009, 15 years after the capture of Jaffna town, the Jaffna Cultural Centre would never have been a reality.

It would be pertinent to ask Justice Minister Rajapakshe, who received the CTC’s letter on behalf of the government, whether the government could accept those prerequisites. The CTC played a significant role in the overall campaign that led to the Canadian declaration of May 18 as Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day.

The CTC’s message this year stressed that (1) Not a single case on wartime atrocity allegations has been resolved in a court of law (2) Not a single Tamil victim of enforced disappearance has been found alive or the circumstances of their disappearance revealed to date and (3) Not even a single person was held accountable.

As usual, the CTC, like other Diaspora groups, and the TNA, conveniently forgot why Sri Lanka had no other option than to eradicate Tamil terrorism at any cost. The Tamil Diaspora should at least now prepare a list of dead and the disappeared, since 1983. (1) the number of people killed as a result of fighting among Tamil terrorist groups, trained by India (2) the number of people killed due to fighting within a particular terrorist group (3) members of rival groups killed by the LTTE (4) LTTE cadres killed by rival groups (5) killings within the LTTE (6) Tamil terrorists who fled their respective organisations and sought asylum in the West and those who went underground in India (7) Tamil civilians killed during the Indian Army operations (8) LTTE cadres killed in clashes with the Indian Army (9) PLOTE cadres killed in abortive bid to assassinate Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in Nov. 1988 (10) LTTE operatives killed by Indian security agencies after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 (11) Tamil civilians killed during military operations, particularly the last phase of the assault on LTTE human shields in 2009 and finally (12) how many Tamils received foreign passports during the war and since the conclusion of the war.

Where was the CTC when the LTTE forced the entire Vanni population to withdraw across the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road towards the Mullaithivu district where the group brazenly used them as human shields to deter the advancing Army? The CTC, like its counterparts in other countries, remained confident of the LTTE’s superior fighting skills to defeat the Army on the Vanni east front. They started protests in the Western capitals, in 2009, after the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s Army inflicted devastating battlefield losses on the LTTE and forced conventional fighting units to retreat towards the Mullaithivu coast.

Perhaps, the Diaspora should be reminded that the Tamil community voted overwhelmingly for Fonseka at the January 2010 presidential election, at the behest of the TNA after accusing him and his army of committing war crimes. Fonseka comfortably won all predominantly Tamil speaking northern and eastern districts, though Mahinda Rajapaksa routed the war-winning Army Commander in the South.

The Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) never acknowledged Sri Lanka bringing an end to forcible conscription of children for the war. The LTTE deployed children as fighting depleted its units over the years and UN efforts to discourage conscription of teenagers in the late ’90s failed. Hope those who shed crocodile tears for war victims at least appreciate lives saved by the eradication of the LTTE.

The Army paid a huge price for trying to minimize loss of civilian lives. If not for U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, who was sentenced in August 2013 to 35 years in a military prison for turning over more than 700,000 classified files to Wikileaks in the biggest breach of secret data in the US history, Sri Lanka wouldn’t have known what was happening behind the scenes. There was a spate of cables that dealt with the situation here. But one of the most valuable cables from our point of view originated from Geneva.

The cable, dated July 15, 2009, signed by the then Geneva-based US Ambassador Clint Williamson cleared the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) of crimes against humanity during the Vanni offensive. The cable, addressed to the US State Department, was based on a confidential conversation Ambassador Williamson had with the then ICRC head of operations for South Asia, Jacque de Maio, on July 9, 2009, and several weeks after the war was brought to a successful end, that hardly anyone expected, with the annihilation of the LTTE in the battlefield.

Ambassador Williamson wrote: “The army was determined not to let the LTTE escape from its shrinking territory, even though this meant the civilians being kept hostage by the LTTE were at an increasing risk.

So, de Maio said, while one could safely say that there were ‘serious, widespread violations of international humanitarian law,’ by the Sri Lankan forces, it didn’t amount to genocide. He could cite examples of where the Army had stopped shelling when the ICRC informed them it was killing civilians.

In fact, the Army actually could have won the war faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths. He concluded however, by asserting that the GoSL failed to recognize its obligation to protect civilians, despite the approach leading to higher military casualties.”

The government should respond to CTC’s demands, as issues raised by other Diaspora groups are essentially the same though the writer hasn’t previously come across any group demanding that the Jaffna Cultural Centre be brought under the Jaffna Municipal Council. Their first demand for the release of political prisoners is silly. Minister Rajapakse has repeatedly denied that there were political prisoners and explained both here and abroad the circumstances in which they were held.

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Midweek Review

War as a way-of-Life

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Helene Weigel Vera Tenschert

Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children:

by Laleen Jayamanne

“Like the war to nourish you?
Have to feed it something too.”
Mother Courage

Chaplin on Seeing Brecht’s Galileo

Charlie Chaplin had dinner with Brecht’s long-term musical collaborator Hans Eisler, after the premier of The Life of Galileo in 1947 in LA. The play was very well attended by leading artistes and intellectuals, some of whom worked for Hollywood at the time. It included German Jewish and gentile refugees from fascist Europe. Over dinner, Chaplin told Eisler that he would have liked a bit more ‘drama’ and that Brecht could have ‘mounted’ it differently. Eisler (who was familiar with Brecht’s radical work in Weimar Germany in the 20s), explained to him that Brecht never wanted to ‘mount’ things. American theatre critics from Variety and New York Times also complained that the production was ‘too flat and colourless.’ They thought the play was not theatrical enough, not ‘dramatic.’ In this piece, I will discuss the formal features of Brecht’s epic theatre (use of narration, scene construction, dialogue and acting), which Brecht thought was a form more suited to a scientific age of reason than the more emotional form of traditional dramatic theatre.

Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children; A Chronicle of the Thirty Year War, is a parable relevant to our moment of world history as well. It’s based on a character called ‘Courage, an Adventuress,’ in the 17th Century picaresque novel, Simplicissimus by Hans von Grimmelhausen. In Lanka it was first produced in English, in the 60s by Ernest MacIntyre, and, soon after in Sinhala as, Diriya Athi Mawa. Written in exile in 1939, the year Hitler invaded Poland, triggering the second World War, it was about another devastating war in Europe, the Thirty-Year Religious Wars (1618-1648), between the Catholics and the Protestants. Now we have yet another European war, between Ukraine and Russia, with no end in sight, which has already begun to affect global trade in essentials and much else. The flow of refugees and the scale of non-stop destruction of Ukraine by Russia is now broadcast daily on our TV screens creating a new ‘cold-war.’ The polarising American slogan for this war is ‘Democracy versus Autocracy.’ There is even talk of limited nuclear strikes but hardly any diplomatic solutions. Lanka also has had her own experience of a 30-year civil war whose wounds have not all healed because they remain unacknowledged.

Brecht’s 1949 production of the play in East Belin (with the nucleus which became the Berliner Ensemble in East Germany), within the Soviet Union, is celebrated in theatre history not only for the written play itself but also for the singular Epic staging and Epic acting of Helene Weigel as Mother Courage. She was an Austrian-Jewish actress and Brecht’s wife and also, according to him, a rare ‘epic actor.’ More of that later. The 1957 Berliner Ensemble production of it (after Brecht died in ‘56), again with Helene Weigel as Mother Courage, is on YouTube, now with English subtitles, an extraordinary chance for Lankan theatre folk to study her celebrated performance. It’s nearly four hours long and worth watching for people serious about studying, Epic Theatre, acting and staging.

The main set in the play is Mother Courage’s large wagon on wheels, ‘a cross between a military vehicle and a General Store’ servicing the different armies fighting in the Thirty-Year War, which decimated the population of Germany, destroying villages, towns and livestock. She follows the armies as they are her main source of income, she feeds on the war, so she needs it. It makes good business sense to her. Brecht hammers this point repeatedly. In the opening scene, the cart rolls on to the stage, drawn by her two sons, Eilif and Swiss-Cheese, because their horse has died. A revolving stage floor adds to the sense of dynamic curving movement of the large heavy wagon as it creeks and groans on to the stage with Mother Courage lounging on it, singing with her mute daughter seated beside her playing a Jewish harp. The rhythm of the song, the marching gait of the sons pulling the wagon, is robust, light-hearted even, despite the war. War for them is certainly a way of life, quite normalised.

Theatre for a New Scientific Age

In this piece, I want to build on the ideas developed in my three previous pieces on Brecht for The Island in two ways. First, by exploring Brecht’s idea of an ‘epic’ rather than a ‘dramatic’ structure, in his episodic scene construction and narration. Second, Brecht’s famously difficult idea of ‘epic acting’ will be explored by focusing on Helena Weigel’s celebrated performance as Mother Courage; she did not seek a response of empathy (identification and sympathy), from the audience. Instead, she performed in a manner that made her appear astonishing, strange though she was always believable as an efficient, robust petit-bourgeoise trader. Brecht’s carefully thought-out reasons for developing this mode of theatre will also be discussed.

Given that the European war lasted 30 years, Brecht presents its long duration by focusing on specific years without following a chronological progression. He calls the play a ‘chronicle of the thirty year war,’ so it jumps from 1626 to ‘29 for example, and ends the play in the middle of the war more than 10 years before it actually ceased. In this way, he is able to create a large number of episodic scenes whose duration varies wildly. Some even where the curtain opens and closes within minutes! So, he frees himself from chronological, causal, historical narration, and is able to build a freer sense of the relationship between one scene and another. This way, he can abstract events and produce his own views of that war without being tied to chronological history. This juxtaposition of scenes is what Brecht calls montage, using a film editing terminology. This freedom derived from its episodic structure is vital for the spectator who is invited to make the connections by learning to think in the theatre and not only just to feel with the characters. Mother Courage herself does not invite identification. she is neither heroic nor pathetic. She is dogged, living at all cost, unwittingly even at the expense of her three children. She is called ‘courage’ not because she is heroic, but because once she followed the army into dangerous territory because she had to sell a large stock of bread before it turned mouldy. Her business is with the army, regardless of which side it is, as long as she can sell her goods. Profit is the motif.

Brecht’s theatrical theory is superbly edited in Brecht on Theatre by John Willet and is highly readable, enjoyable and useful for understanding 20th Century radical European political epic theatre. Brecht provided the following model, laying out the ‘changes of emphasis as between dramatic and epic theatre.’ They are not opposites but it’s a matter of what needs to be emphasised to create a rational spectator who can evaluate what’s being presented without being emotionally swayed. This does not mean there is no feeling in the play. But rather, that reason and understanding are emphasised, paramount. (See table)

Brecht thought very highly of Charles Laughton’s performance of Galileo Galilei. He has written admiringly of Laughton’s work ethic and the way he understood the aesthetic of the play and performed the role in an ‘epic’, rather than in a purely ‘dramatic,’ that is to say, emotional, empathetic manner. This new element is probably what Chaplin and the American theatre critics didn’t appreciate. Joseph Losey, who directed the play with close input from Brecht, had plans to make a film of it, but because of the communist scare Laughton had backed out. Losey did make the film much later, but with the dramatic actor Topol, who played the lead role in the musical Fidler on the Roof. For students of theatre, it would be very instructive to study his highly emotional film version of presenting Galileo (which is on YouTube), and then read Brecht’s ideas on a cooler, more ‘distanced’ mode of performance which he says Laughton provided, which he named ‘epic acting’.

Helena Weigel as Epic Actress

Similarly, here’s Brecht describing Weigel as a rare, exemplary epic actress in her role as Jocasta’s maid in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

“… she announced the death of her mistress by calling out her ‘dead, dead, Jocasta has died,’ without any sorrow but so firmly and definitely that the bare facts of her mistress’s death carried more weight at that precise moment than could have been generated by any grief of her own. She did not abandon her voice to horror, but perhaps her face, for she used white make-up to show the impact which a death makes on all who are present at it.”

He says that Weigel as Jocasta’s maid didn’t mix up her own emotions and try to make the spectator ‘punch drunk with feeling.’ But rather, her cold delivery left room for the spectator to understand the magnitude of the action of suicide, as a moral decision. The suicide of the queen Mother (who had unwittingly committed incest with her own son, Oedipus, after she had unknowingly married him), was not made into an occasion for new sensations.

Brecht again on what epic acting should be:

“Witty. Ceremonious. Ritual. Spectator and actor ought not to approach one another but to move apart. Each ought to move away from himself. Otherwise, the element of terror necessary to all recognition is lacking.”

Mother Courage’s Silent Scream

In theatre studies, Helena Weigel’s ‘silent scream’ is legendary, a part of her epic performance. As she lives off of the war, she considers peace bad for her business. And in the play when someone exclaims, ‘peace has broken out!’ Mother Courage is upset because she had just stocked up on new supplies and says it will now go to waste. This is epic dialogue, it makes one pause.

When Mother Courage realises that her son’s death (off-stage), is imminent she stands up saying:” I think I bargained for too long,’ and slowly sits down on a stool. Her body is tense. And as she hears the volley of bullets executing her son, her body shudders, arching back as though she was shot, her mouth opening wide into a snarl, letting out a silent scream. The gesture is so fleeting that we can miss it. But this silent cry carries huge weight. We still hear its reverberations. But it doesn’t make us empathise with Mother Courage, rather, we see her in all her animal drive to survive at all cost. But at that very moment when like an animal she instinctively bares her teeth to scream, she stifles the cry as only a human animal could. The silent-scream is a complex epic gesture. It encodes her contradictory life of sustaining her family by living off of war.

Because of her wheeling and dealing and haggling after a good bargain, each of her children dies. Brecht shows clearly the link between her decision to carry out a business deal and the loss of each of her children. When she is shown Swiss Cheese’s corpse, she is not able to even acknowledge that it is her son, as doing so would compromise her and Katrina. So, his body is thrown into a mass grave and Mother Courage turns her face away from us as the curtain falls in silence.

It is not that we don’t feel any emotion but rather we also feel the moment in all its inarticulate horror; we observe the phenomenon of this woman, her instinctual drive to survive at all cost. Once all her children are dead, she straps herself on to the wagon and slowly hunching down like a very old woman, drags it along alone, doggedly following the army as she has always done. She doesn’t learn anything, but it’s we who do. It’s not that we don’t feel, we do feel an immense sense of desolation for this myopic and hugely energetic woman who still lives off of the war, the end of which is a generation away. Meanwhile, Germany is laid waste. In 1939, Brecht looked back at history to understand the emerging catastrophe in Europe. He directed the play in East Berlin in ’49, where the rubble of WW2 was not all cleared. This play feels so current now for Europe deeply enmeshed in an unwinnable, seemingly endless war which has global repercussions.

Brecht was against tragedy which he called Aristotelian drama with its famous tragic heroes and their profound ethical epiphanies when facing cruel Destiny. Instead, he formulated his theory of modern epic theatre for a scientific age of reason, so that an audience would learn to observe characters as epic constructs and historical events in microcosm, and learn from them. He wanted the audience to understand the world through the way in which epic characters interacted in episodic scenes. He used either a chorus or projected intertitles to create an epic narration to narrate complex historical forces which simply couldn’t be dramatized by individual characters alone. Within such a rich epic structure the spectator learns in a relaxed way, how to balance emotions with understanding. The emotion that Brecht was especially suspicious of in theatre was empathy, which is an Aristotelian value. Brecht believed that by emotionally identifying with characters in an empathetic manner we lose our capacity to evaluate their behaviour. What he wanted was a process he called ‘distanciation,’ so that we don’t simply cry and say, ‘Aiyo, ane- Amme!’ and go home wiping a tear or two. He wanted a theatre fit for the modern scientific age, providing spectators with a greater understanding of political forces at play in normalising war within capitalism. Religion is the ritualised camouflage for gaining territorial political power, in the play.

So, soon after Mother Courage lets out her silent scream the stage is blacked-out for about eight seconds. When it opens for the next episode in full bright light, Mother Courage is still seated on the stool but there is no carry-over from the previous episode. As a cunning business woman, she is facing another moment of survival with quick-wittedness mixed with acute pain. Weigel’s Mother Courage is not played as a sentimental maternal figure or the ‘eternal sorrowful mother.’ She is not part of ‘the little people’ helplessly caught in the cross-fire, say like the poor peasants who appear in the play. But rather, she actively feeds off of the war as a petite bourgeois trader. This class-analysis is important for Brecht, who read Marx as a young student and continued his research into the history of capitalism and socialist politics as a playwright.

Joe Abyewickrama; A Lankan Epic Actor?

Prasanna Withanage in his Purhanda Kaluwara (Darkness at Fullmoon), brilliantly created the character of Wannihamy, as the blind father of a dead soldier. Joe Abyewickrama played this role in an epic mode. He didn’t cry out when his son’s sealed-coffin was brought home to his hut unlike his daughter. He was stoic like Mother Courage when her son’s body was brought in for her to identify. Wannihami, in his unique situation simply listened carefully to all the sounds and through his quality of attention, we too were given a glimpse of the terrible cost of the civil war on an impoverished Sinhala family and much more. Joe didn’t play for empathy, his restraint, enhanced by his blindness (a form of Brechtian distanciation), showed us and taught us in an unusual way about the terror of the civil war and of state terror, which Sinhala folk are belatedly experiencing now, not for the first time of course, in the South also. The sealed coffin, solemnly draped in the Lion flag, did not hold the corpse of the ‘Rana-viru’ or ‘tragic-hero’ son, but a banana trunk. The hero’s coffin, too big for the little hut, provides food for thought.

Similarly, Brecht’s play continues to nourish our thinking as we experience unending wars and State terror. Brecht and Weigel and Joe offer Lankan playwrights and filmmakers very rich resources to learn from, to make theatre and film that speaks to Lanka’s complex history and contemporary ongoing struggles, so that we might learn and understand in an enjoyable way. Brecht (always full of surprises) says theatre must be entertaining and should be performed in a relaxed manner. Go figure! Look at the many photographs and the ’57 production itself by the Berliner Ensemble now online.

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Midweek Review

The Legacy of the Missing

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By Lynn Ockersz

Whether they were spirited away,

In the arid stillness of the night,

In the city’s fear-frozen by-ways,

By ghoulish figures in vans,

Or brought down in battle,

By nerve-grating, lethal weapons,

That erased villages from maps,

And swelled ‘Missing in Action’ lists,

Promising lives, from wherever they hail,

Have, thus, been made to disappear,

Leaving behind a string of questions,

Begging in vain for answers,

Along with a grieving community….

Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters,

Whose sobs may be heard but dismissed,

In the besieged fortresses of power,

But there’s none other imprisoning weight,

Than the accusing conscience of a criminal.

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