The Sunday Times of Malta
THE MASK AND THE FACE
ORESTE CALLEJA: 4 Drammi."Anestesija"; "Ċena Perpetwu"; "Satira"; "Iġsma Iħirsa".
Best known of his plays is Ċens Perpetwu, a teleplay produced by MTV last year, and another play, also included in 4 Drammi; Anestesija (which has now been adapted for TV and will be shown on MTV fairly soon) was heard by many Rediffusion listeners. Satira and Iġsma Iħirsa have both been performed at the University Theatre, and so has Għarghar, a three-act play which is still unpublished. The Manoel Theatre ought to encourage some production of works by Calleja, to bring him to the knowledge of a wider audience.
Like Ebejer, Oreste Calleja worked his apprenticeship as a writer of radio plays. This is reflected in the crispness, liveliness and variety of his dialogues, but it has rarely led to his relying overmuch on dialogue to the neglect of action. Even a stage play like Iġsma Ihirsa, which makes considerable demands on an audience’s listening, comes over effectively from a visual point of view in production. Calleja has that talent which is basic for the writing of good drama; he is able to visualise something' concrete and dramatically striking round which to construct his action: the dying man and his heart-beat in Ċens Perpetwu, the cart-load of actors in Iġsma Iħirsa, the Clerk on his high desk and the off-stage violence in Satira, the fairground atmosphere in Anestesija and the lighthouse in Għargħar. These are what remains in the mind long after details of plot and neatly phrased lines have been forgotten.
Like a good many other young writers, Calleja tends to be a cynic and a pessimist. His characters are often people who have opted out of living a useful life in society because they cannot endure it, or else, like the Astronomu-Bekkamort in Satira, wreak their vengeance on the Society that has spurned them. Following in the foot-steps of Pirandello, Calleja uses in two of his plays the image of the mask and the face, but his aim is not identical with Plrandello's. The clown in Anestesija and Pantalone and his crew in Iġsma Iħirsa don their masks in order to be like their fellowmen and this achieve the bliss that conforming can bring. But whilst the Clown still hangs on to his private and real personality until his disguise is destroyed, Pantalone's happiness lies in convincing himself that his persona is his real self. When pressed by the Spettatur to give his real name, he still answers "Sor Pantalon dei Bisognosi." He refuses to appear before others unless he wears his mask and towards the end of the play he reveals why: "Taħt il-kruha ta' dil-maskra talanqas hemm tama li wiċċna ma jistax ikun ikreh daqsna," and in chorus with his crew he adds all the ingredients of the "grotesque scenario".
Someone had written long before "hekk jeħtieġ li jkun. U aħna nwettquh — u ngħixu." This utter submission to the traditions and conventions of social life, symbolised by the "scenario", has led to increasing lifelessness and confusion in the "play" Pantalone's company is supposed to be presenting. Some members of the Company, we are told, have not woken up to play their parts for a good long time, and at the end of the play, Pulcinella sinks into a sleep from which he will not awake.
Pierrot is the only surviving member of the Company who refuses to conform. In anguish he asks the others why they will not face reality by seeking to know themselves, and when at the end he sees that he is alone and he will always be so, he takes own life. The most puzzling character in Iġsma Iħirsa, is the Spectator who finds himself playing an active part in the play he has come to watch until he is killed by the troupe, angered by his scorn for their inconclusive antics. Since his torch is used by the troupe as a "magic wand" to raise the others, it is possible that the spectator may be the author himself who gives life to his characters but is finally defeated by them. Or could he also be God — an ineffectual, feeble God — whom the modern world has "killed"?
The black despair of Iġsma Ihirsa is just as evident in Satira and in Ċens Perpetwu. Satira is a descendant of German expressionism of the twenties. The opening dialogue between the Clerk and the Astronomer — blind, uncaring bureaucrat opposed to the bewildered citizen — is not original in concept but it is very well done. The illogical twists in this scene's development wickedly satirise the mentality of all too many officials, and there are brilliant touches like the Clerk's horror when the Astronomer declares that he wishes to be struck off the register of unemployed: the man himself does not matter, but the entry in the register must be preserved.
Satira develops excitingly from this scene into a nightmare of explosions and massacres, mostly off-stage, with Clerk and beadle watching horror-struck and unable to lift a finger. At times, Calleja introduces wisecracks which, while not irrelevant, are not in keeping with the atmosphere of mounting fear, like when the Clerk, unable to leave the office because old the chaos outside. declares that there is union ban on overtime. The Astronomer, who has been sent away jobless comes back and successfully applies for the job of undertaker, after having made sure that he will have an abundance of customers. The social comment is clear without being boringly so. Techniques of the Absurd Theatre are used with an unerring sense of dramatic effect.
Ċens Perpetwu is basically realistic in style, though from the start the incessant heartbeat in the background warms us that Calleja is impatient of the restrains and limitations imposed by realism. The second part as published here differs from the version shown on TV and, unless I am mistaken, also from the original version, which I had read in manuscript before its performance. The latest version is greatly preferable to the TV version.
The old man, whose silent figure and later his corpse dominate the action, is a former statesman, a son of Nerik Mizzi, whose integrity and ideals have left him penniless and even forgotten. His relatives squabble disgustingly over the few things he owns and when be dies, heartbroken at the smashing of his beloved photograph of the Sette Giugno monument, he is still betrayed, as his relatives raise money to erect him a monument, money which is intended for the nephew's pocket. But the heartbeat begins once more, the corpse regains some form of life, and we know it will remain there to reproach the people — and the country —who have proved so unworthy of the tradition he has handed down to them.
It is a daring conclusion, one that is unsatisfactory from a strictly realistic point of view, but then the best drama is always ready to bend the conventions. Ċens Perpetwu was written for television, but I feel sure that it could adapt very well to the stage, on which I hope to see it some day. With Satira it could provide a powerful double-bill.