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Midweek Review

Training actors through Angampora:



Guru Karunapala and his angampora team at Sri Jayawardhanapura University, Gangodavila, Nugedoda. Photo credits Saumya Liyanage 2020.

A project to seek alternative paradigm at UVPA Colombo

By Saumya Liyanage | Lyudmyla Honcharova | Banduka Premawardhana

The concept of ‘actor training’ or ‘performer training’ has developed through the modern era of theatre and dance pedagogies. Western actor training traditions started with the influence of master actor trainer and theoretician Konstantin Stanislavski. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, Stanislavski started his theatrical exploration at his main laboratory known as the Moscow Arts Theatre (MAT) in Russia. His lifelong quest for actors’ arts and his passion for finding a methodology to develop an actor training system continued at the MAT theatre. However, Stanislavski’s actor training system is the most misinterpreted performer training system used in Europe, America, and Asia. As Alison Hodge argues, Stanislavski’s exploration of actors’ arts was more into actors’ inner and outer faculties and further discusses how this interior and exterior interact with each other (Hodge, 2010). Although Stanislavski’s teaching has been variously interpreted and adapted for diverse purposes to train actors, his influence in the modern theatre is still influential in theatre and performance studies (Liyanage 2016).

As Sharon Carnicke believes that Stanislavski wanted his actors to train their ‘selves’ to develop the rounded and full-fledged characters they portray (Sharon Marie Carnicke, 2009). For instance, Stanislavski’s early psychological approaches were influenced by French psychology, and he was continuing his exploration to cater to the emergence of the symbolism and naturalism introduced by the theatre texts of Ibsen, Gorki, Chekov, and others. The need of developing systematic ways to train actors was not an abrupt action that emerged at the MAT Theatre but a purposeful intervention to absorb the modern theatre tradition and the naturalistic dramatic texts that were germinating in early 19th century Europe.

Intercultural performer training

It is inevitable that Western actor training has been heavily influenced by Eastern performance traditions. From the father of modern acting, Konstantin Stanislavski, to Bertolt Brecht in Germany, Jerzy Grotowski in Poland, and Antonin Artaud in France, Western actor training has been directly or indirectly influenced by one or more Asian performer training paradigms such as hatha yoga, Balinese dance, or Indian dance dramas such as kathakali and kuttiyattam. Theatre historians have observed that at the MAT, Stanislavski was preparing to produce a Sanskrit play and conducting hatha yoga practices through an Indian yoga master. Further, it is widely discussed that Bertolt Brecht encountered Peking Opera actor Mei Lanfang during his visit to Russia (Tian, 1997, Brecht & Bentley, 1961).

In the late 19th century, theatre practitioners such as Eugenio Barba, John Littlewood, Peter Brook, and Mnouchkine borrowed intercultural performance elements from Asian traditions. However, borrowing and assimilating cultural elements from an alien culture posed several problems. Some critics have questioned the ways that the European avant-garde were looking at cultural ‘others’ in the peripheral world. They argued that the modernist theatre directors’ ideology behind cultural appropriation was constructed within the binaries of ‘culture and savage’ (Gale et al., 2016). Alison Hodge also argues that ‘Asian actor training traditions run the risk of being exoticised or simplistically appropriated by practitioners in the West’ (Hodge, 2010, p. xxi). Jerzy Grotowski has argued that Asian performance traditions are not to be directly used to codify actors’ bodies (Jerzy Grotowski et al., 2015). Rustom Bharucha has extensively discussed the misappropriation, misinterpretations, and mythologisation of Indian dramatic heritage by Western theatre practitioners such as Brook, Schechner and others (Bharucha 1984, P. 2-3).


The project, which seeks to develop an actor training system through the Sri Lankan combative art, angampora, also bears such cultural complexities when adapting and assimilating a martial arts practice that has been passed down to generations of practitioners through guru-shishya-parampara model. There are many angampora groups and schools in the country and each group has its own ways of tracing their historical affiliations to myths and legends that explore various avenues and genealogies of angampora. Many believe that it was introduced by the Yakkha tribe. In more recent history, the ten warrior giants of King Dutugemunu were the first recorded practitioners of Illangam Satan (the use of weaponry in combat), each having specialised in a unique weapon, and technique.

The advances of the Portuguese were resisted by fighters such as King Rajasinghe, the Battle of Mulleriyawa being one such instance. The Kandyan Kingdom resisted the colonizers with the use of angam fighting strategies and techniques. Eventually, the combative art form that received royal patronage through time became the first martial art in the world to be prohibited; the British banned it in 1818 under the governance of Robert Brownrigg.

Suspect practitioners were shot below the knee, while confirmed angampora martial artistes were put to death. angampora was hidden away in various dance forms such as the koti netuma, and more popular styles such as udarata and pahatharata schools of dance. Following Independence, angampora has resurfaced and is becoming popular in Sri Lanka.


Actor Training and Martial Arts

It might seem that actor training and martial arts are disciplines that have nothing in common. However, this assumption is wrong. Obviously, both are forms of art which share similar approaches. In many martial arts performances, one can observe that performing elements such as fighters’ presentations and demonstrations of fighting skills is accompanied with music. In line with this, theatre performance can also be considered the demonstration of an actor’s skills since the actor shows his/her body-mind integration during performance which are gained in a process of training. It is observed that body-mind integration is a common feature in both arts. Therefore, it is clear that martial arts practitioners and actors are experts of the body. ‘In most drama schools of European traditions, actors are trained to use their bodies (Barrault cited in Bloch, p. 220).


It should be noted that martial arts methodologies are comparatively older and have more defined training structure than actor training. Since first actor training systems evolved in the end of the 19th century in the West, it is not surprising that theatre practitioners were using martial art principles during the creation of their actor training methodologies. Such practitioners were Scott, Copeau, Zarilli, Suzuki, and others. For instance, ‘Scott used tai ji quan as an actor training discipline, was not only a rejection of American actors’ exclusive attention to a psychologically/behaviorally based paradigm of acting, but also an attempt to actualize an alternative paradigm’ (Zarrilli 1995, p. 185). They were paying attention to techniques that strive to develop presence, awareness, and a holistic approach to body-mind work in acting. Many of these actor trainers have referred to Asian martial arts styles.


AHEAD Project 2019-2021

In 2019, Prof. Saumya Liyanage and research assistant to the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) Mr Samal Vimukthi Hemachandra submitted a research proposal titled, ‘Lamp in a windless place: developing an actor training methodology through Sri Lankan martial art’. This research proposal won a competitive grant of Rs. 10 million from the Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development (AHEAD) project to pursue a three-year-long actor training exploration. The project was initially influenced by the works of the late Phillip B. Zarrilli, Professor of performance practice and well-known theatre scholar at Exeter University, UK. His research on kalaripayattu martial arts in Kerala India and his years of first-hand experience with kalaripayattu martial arts, kathakali and kuttiyattam dance dramas in India had allowed him to formulate an intercultural actor training system derived mainly from kalaripayattu martial arts in Kerala.


Project Team at UVPA Colombo

Prof. Paul Bowman and Prof. Jonathan Pitches are authorities on martial arts studies and performer training in the world and both professors work as foreign consultants to this actor training project. Prof. Bowman is working at Cardiff University, UK and he has written much about martial arts practice. His latest book is Deconstructing Martial Arts published by Cardiff University Press in 2019. Prof. Jonathan Pitches is a professor of theatre and performance at the University of Leeds and has published many leading academic texts on theatre and actor training. His latest publication is Performing Mountains published by Palgrave McMillan in 2020.

Prof. Saumya Liyanage works as the coordinator of the project and its chief investigator. Dr Samith Herath from the Faculty of Visual Arts is the deputy coordinator of the project. His expertise in virtual reality applications and biofeedback technology also help project researchers to capture and monitor actors’ movement works and their biofeedback impulses through cutting edge technology. Natasha Hillary and Sachini Athapaththu work as admin assistants of the project.

In the initial stages of this project, the research team explored the traditional practice of angampora of Guru Karunapala, an 80-year-old angampora master, at his angampora maduwa located in Mirihana, Nugegoda. The field research and embodied practice of angampora are conducted and his legacy of angampora martial arts and indigenous corporeal practices are further explored. Research assistant Lyudmyla Honcharowa explores angampora martial arts with Guru Karunapala while investigating indigenous healing practices of body and mind. Lyudmyla Honcharowa is an actor from Ukraine reading for her MPhil research degree under Prof. Saumya Liyanage’s supervision to explore the connections of actor training methodologies in Europe and Asia. Banduka Premawardhana. also a research assistant of this project, is also reading for his MPhil degree under Prof. Liyanage. He explores how a traditional martial art like angampora could facilitate the training of actors for film and digital medium.

The second phase of the project will start with establishing an actor training laboratory at the Faculty of Dance and Drama, UVPA Colombo. The AHEAD grant supported in renovating an existing rehearsal room into a fully equipped studio space. At the first stage, a group of actors will go through angampora training under supervision of Guru Karunapala to understand and embody angampora principles. During the second phase of laboratory work, actors will be introduced to methods that will be an amalgamation of acting methodologies and angampora martial arts. All stages of actors’ laboratory work are going to be video recorded. Further, actors will be writing personal journals with reflection on the training process which will serve as a source of material for developing a new actor training methodology. In the last stage of the project, a workshop demonstration will be created and performed in front of a selected audience to evaluate the impact of actors and their engagement with the audience. As a part of the project, several angampora groups are chosen for field visits around the country. Project members will also be presenting papers and sharing their findings at international conferences during the project.



The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the activities designed for this actor training project in 2020. The project team was planning to conduct a six-month-long actor training laboratory at the newly renovated studio located at the Faculty of Dance and Drama. However, due to the pandemic situation, these actor training activities have not been able to proceed. In 2021, and with institutional support, the project team is looking forward to launch their laboratory actor training sessions.

UVPA Vice Chancellor Senior Professor Rohana Mahaliyanaarachchi and his office, the Dean of the Faculty of Dance and Drama, Dr Indika Ferdinando and the OTS office director Dr Anusha Jayasiri and her team have extended their fullest support for the project, which is the first actor training project initiated in a State University in Sri Lanka. This project further intends to work with the University Business Linkage (UBL) office and the Director of UBL, Dr Priyeshni Peiris to seek a business model to use this methodology in the creative industry in Sri Lanka and beyond.



Authors of this paper wish to thank Himansi Dehigama and Sachini Senevirathne for proof-reading this paper.

About authors: Prof. Saumya Liyanage is a well-known actor and an academic currently working at the Faculty of Dance and Drama, University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo. Lyudmyla Honcharova and Banduka Premawardhana are both working as research assistants to AHEAD DOR HEMS actor training project and they are reading two MPhil degrees exploring martial arts and actor training under the AHEAD grant scheme.


Bharucha, R. (1984). A Collision of Cultures: Some Western Interpretations of the Indian Theatre. Asian Theatre Journal, 1(1), 1.

Brecht, B., & Bentley, E. (1961). On Chinese Acting. The Tulane Drama Review, 6(1), 130.

Gale, M. B., Deeney, J. F., Rebellato, D., & Lavery, C. (2016). The Routledge drama anthology and sourcebook : from modernism to contemporary performance. Routledge.

Hodge, A. (2010). Actor training. Routledge.

Jerzy Grotowski, Barba, E., & Brook, P. (2015). Towards a poor theatre. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

Ministry of Higher Education, A. O. (2020). Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development (AHEAD).

Saumya Liyanage. (2016). Meditations on acting : essays on theory, practice and performance. Dev Publishing.

Sharon Marie Carnicke. (2009). Stanislavsky in focus : an acting master for the 21st century. Routledge.

Tian, M. (1997). “Alienation-Effect” for Whom? Brecht’s (Mis)interpretation of the Classical Chinese Theatre. Asian Theatre Journal, 14(2), 200.

Zarrilli, P. B. (2002). Acting (re)considered : a theoretical and practical guide. Routledge.

Zarrilli, P. B., T Sasitharan, & Anuradha Kapur. (2019). Intercultural acting and performer training. Routledge.

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Midweek Review

Post-war national reconciliation: Diaspora sets prerequisites



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



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



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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