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In the beginning there was Ebejer
I would like to start with a brief quote from a local paper of 25 years ago: "In the beginning there was Ebejer. And it was December of 1962 when the curtains of the Manoel Theatre closed on the play 'Vaganzi tas-Sajf' and a new light dawned the Maltese Stage."
If one were ever to write the genesis of the Maltese play, these without a doubt would be the opening lines. And if we look again at the title of the agenda that has brought us here today,
I have to profess that if we do agree that there is no crisis in the writing for the stage today, there is no doubt that 25 years ago we would have been hard put to imagine that by the end of this century we would still be asking if there is or is not a crisis of the Maltese Stage.
We could spend hours discussing what in fact is happening in the Maltese
theatres today. No doubt, we could agree that as usual there is plenty of
activity and the perceptible level of production is by no means getting any
lower. But is that the point of this discussion? Are we discussing
theatrical activity which includes radio, television, the stage, street
theatre, esperimental theatre? Or are talking about drama? The written play
- plays written by playwrights - Maltese playwrights - Maltese writers
writing for the Maltese audience and, more specifically, for the Maltese
Stage, focusing on Maltese idioms and themes, the Maltese soul, the Maltese
self consciense? Is this where we are trying to locate the crisis? The
perennial crisis? If this is the case than the question is more than
abundantly superfluous. There are those of course who profess that there is
an alternative theatre to the stereotypical writer's theatre, the theatre I
would represent. The general agreement is that theatre comes in many a
legitimate form, each of which deserves our support. Nonetheless, being a
writer myself, it needs be that I speak about the writing for the theatre.
Perhaps to some it is too traditional a type of theatre but it is still the
theatre as it is recognised in any country in the world - a theatre which no
culture of any self-respecting country would doubt its absolute necessity.
This preamble seemed justified to me. Hopefully it might help change the
comfortable point of view we adopt when we deign to look at local writing .
It perhaps also helps us identify the background against which we need to
place the local writer, and more specifically, that illusory figure - to
many a derisory figure - which is that of the the Maltese playwright of
It is true that a modicum of mediocrity of writing in Maltese exists. This should not however be of too much concern. We can put up with mediocrity, long as it may hopefully persist, as long as a much deluded writer will nonetheless also persist in hopefully communicating in Maltese. Writing of a not too high a level afterall is to be found in any country. One in fact needs only to enter any local bookshop to find it brimful of junk books - many of them bestsellers whilst the more worthy books, the more demanding ones, find their shelfplace in some hidden corner. It is censorship, to be sure, of a more commercial nature, inevitable even here in Malta.
But let' s not focus on books sitting on a shelf. Let's focus on a play still waiting to be brought to the stage as it sits condemned to wait in that Limbo of apathy and anonymity, not to mention animosity.
Focus alas on the very title of this agenda: "Writing for the Theatre - is there any crisis? Not an accidental choice of words to be sure. It is obvious that one is aware that there be those who would not even wish to imply that there could ever be - and would not even wish that someone might assume that the hypothesis could ever be considered - that there is, God forbid, a crisis in this Maltese theatrical utopia.
The very fact that decade after decade we persist in denying a crisis in the writing for the stage - whilst others assume that this crisis (what crisis?) is a perennial one and therefore is no crisis at all - and we go on nonchalantly with our teatrini, and we go on borrowing foreign works as if they are our very own, than this assumes the semantic dimension of a pitiful serious crisis indeed.
Thirty year on after independence, we persist in this limbo in our culture. We may have opted out of the Third World but you wouldn't know it from the state of this emaciated part of our culture. Because a culture without theatre, without an indigenous theatre, an intimate and own theatre, is a deformed, under-developed and retrograde culture. If the Maltese stage is destined never to exist and this shortcoming is both accepted and ignored, perhaps due to ignorance or snobbery, or perhaps due to pre-emptive needs and decisions which are short-sighted, what can the result be? If it is also ignored by those whose job it is to do what needs to be done but perhaps, having tried, they now have given up?... Very soon we will face the distinct possibility that there will not even be those who are willing to write nothing but drivel for the Maltese theater. A far cry from the Ebejer genesis of the Maltese Theatre - far indeed from a regeneration of the Maltese Stage, or a new birth.
This is the result.... This deformity, this monster out of the labyrith, that cannot but be the fruit of our continued whoring on the foreign stage.
So it is good to see drivel being written in Maltese. Yes, good. It would also be good to see them put on stage.
A flop in the theatre is the rule. Success is the exception. To put it in Harold Clurman's words - the flop is the norm. Together with his Group Theatre and writers like Clifford Odetts, Harold Clurman gave American theatre one of its biggest boosts in the 30s and the 40s at a time when the country was going through the deepest of national crisis - the Depression.
A lengthy quote from this eccentric but most productive director and producer:
"The history of the theatre is the history of lousy plays. ...Because you can't have good plays unless you have a lot of bad ones... - unless there's activity, unless you're producing. Some think you'll have one masterpiece after another, and if the thing is not a masterpiece "To hell with it!" People have asked me too: "Why don't we have more good plays?...I say: Why don't you ask why don't we have more bad plays!? "Because if you had more bad plays you'll have more good plays!... That's the manure that makes things grow!... It's very valuable manure! As manure is valuable to growth! We need activity, we need action, we need trial, we need error. Because the success is always a rarity in the theatre and the flop is the norm."
Need it be said that a flop in America, a theatrical flop, carries the onus of loss of thousands of thousands of dollars? Here in Malta the cost may be in tens, perhaps a few hundred of pounds. So, what could be the price , this priceless manure here in Malta? Is there a budget that would forsake pragmatism u slips a few pennies in aid of the cause of the soul of our society? Perhaps at the cost of this anomaly denting a pea-sized hole in our national budget? Is it worth putting at risk a few liri to discover that priceless uniqueness - the soul of a nation?
That too after all is the subject of this discussion - the soul of a nation, the identity of a society, the recognition of our people, people now gone but more importantly, those with whom we coexist today.
No, ethnocentricity is no mortal sin as some would have us assume it is. When the soul of a nation still lies undiscovered, when the story of a people is still hidden behind incestuous taboos, with so many sins still to confess, so many pardons to plead, curses to expunge. So many tales waiting to be told...
Suffice to scan the few stories we have grown used to see blurted out in headlines; stories which if allowed to animate some play would be quickly labelled as melodrama. The tip of an iceberg. If we only had the guts to speak out, really speak out - we the writers. Alas the worst censorship is self censorship. Little wonder teatrini are cheap.
A short quote from the preface of my recent play U l-Anġlu Ħabbar...
THE NEED OF A CONTEMPORARY THEATRE
" What form or forms should this relevant theatre take, this all but inexistent Maltese Stage which has up till now been deprived of the recognition and, more so, the support that it deserves?
The fact is that this type of drama is not comfortable, far from comfortable in fact. Which perhaps explains the lack of support. There may be those who find it more comfortable to take in what goes on beyond the narrow horizons of our shores. But what we need is a more particular, a more direct type of theatre. No matter how skilful foreign scenarios might be, they ill-fit or ill-focus into our particular Maltese environment. They fail to arouse us from the comfortable lethargy of our teatrini so as to make us face the anxiety of the here and now. They fail to discover the richness of the strata and substrata of this ancient race, a richness which has never been allowed to surface onto the contemporary Maltese stage whereupon we have barely scratched surface; we have never tried to tap through the solid beaten earth to find a major vein wherein springs the murky currents and counter currents of our people. Not on this Maltese Stage.
For a writer who wants to commit himself to this endeavour, the prime resources are already at hand, the horizons are limitless, the journey is at its beginning. But in our present environment such a writer has to go it alone in.
In the meantime, we’d rather commit ourselves to discuss... what MIGHT be done sometime who knows when (who cares anyway). Until the day will come when contemporary drama, the undiscovered new plays of today, end up getting older and older, until they become history, even better, they become FOLKLORE. And then maybe, they becomes comfortable (to stage). But by then the need for a contemporary theatre which reflects a society that is going through the rapid development which our society is going through today (....) by then, this need for a contemporary, relevant theatre will remain, still, the subject of a discussion, detached and separate from the life and history of this our neutral, neutered and sterile nation. At least, as evidenced by our theatres today."
It is said that every fool has his day. This might be mine, the day I try to see hope in the future. So let us assume that money, some money, might be available to spend on the Maltese stage.
It to be remembered of course that money does not solve everything. Remember also there will not be enough money. Even if perhaps it might ever be deemed to be enough, that there might happen to be a budget strictly for the benefit of the theatre, one is duty bound to make sure that this money is being well spent and to try to find even better ways of making use of it.
For two things are certain, no matter how the money is being spent now it is not achieving the aim of creating the fertile ground needed to foster new original Maltese drama. Otherwise there would be some evidence of Harold Clurman's priceless manure. But there isn't. There is no manure or original Maltese plays in sight.
One must confess, the truth is that beyond our small lethargic circle, we the writers and people of the theatre, within this failing sector of activity I see no special investigation being conducted, no special report commissioned. No - not in this esoteric sector of the arts. Could be because the expected profit has no liri and cents value. Perhaps because with or without VAT the arts can go on without risk of toppling any budget. Perhaps because pragmatism suggests that writers are a lost cause, people who guarantee no votes, people who cannot be depended up on, people you cannot trust, people who have no partisan loyalty to speak of.
Which brings us back to the respect, at least, if not respect, the attention that people who work in the field of theatre, as in any other sector of the arts, deserve to get from the society for whom they speak. And whose conscience they should represent. Pity is, it is a conscience we'd rather remain silent. And not much missed.
The same local correspondent quoted at the beginning of this essay, in another article at about the same time period had asked: Would the responsible authorities confirm the persistent rumours that local people of the arts in Malta are envisaging a strike which would halt and put a complete stop for an indeterminate period of time all local artistic production? What chance is there that this stoppage would in any way effect the every day life of the Maltese public?
To this day I do not believe that anybody ever bothered to answer.
And yet, we might be expecting too much of our writers. With little to show for it.
Let's look at some figures:
A good quarter of a century ago payment for writing a radio play was £M22 - approximately a week's wages at the time. Applying the same measure today then it should be some LM100. But is it? The goodly price actually is LM28.
Then there are those who for commissioning a work for a few liri, or if you win some competition, you are expected to give up all rights - even the copyright.
Play righting competition regulations still prohibit political or religious issues. Is this censorship? Should you win the competition, don't expect to reap the full reward either. My experience in Malta has taught me that that's not the way serious business is conducted. In this regard perhaps I could make a suggestion: not necessarily a totally original but one which might work in the magnamanious ambiguity of the local scene: I agree with whoever came up with the idea (not locally!) that the third prize winner in a competition should get the bigger prize money, the jackpot, the second place gets somewhat less and the winner gets no money! Zilch. Nada. Xejn! The extraordinary achievement and honour bestowed should go a long way to pump a writer's ego... if not his pocket.
Back to the theatre scene: a word of advice to this brilliant local writer who might get the brilliant idea of sending an original script to the management of the (a) local national theatre and offer to finance and stage it for the coming season. Let him not be arrogant enough to expect any quick reply. How long has it been now? A year, two years.... and counting.
So, having got that off my chest, time perhaps for a positive note, or rather, a proactive note, to be more politically correct.
A couple of suggestions then, free and gratis as is normally expected of our writers, of course:
Artistic directors. The need of artistic directors to work on a national level. exclusively and spherically for the Maltese theatre should be nominated for a short period of time, perhaps one year or two, and allowed to give vent to their abilities. Directors with vision - disillusioned in the past perhaps, or perhaps still not, but the kind of directors who still believe that Maltese Theatre is more than a dream. Let them rage and reign for two years. But not more ,lest they feign their own persona to obscure the dream. Other directors will be there to take their place - new blood to take the unique opportunity to go seek their dream Young or old, traditional or not so traditional ,with something to give, something that they will leave behind. In any case better than the bareness of today.
A copyright directory: to start with listing all original Maltese drama, leading eventually to an economical printing service for these plays, a recycling plant, cheap manure... A script service that makes available plays to anyone who would wish to find a play in Maltese to produce.
And how about some national entity, of a private or national level, taking it upon itself to offer our theatrical companies a suitable selection of relevant drama, new or not so new, with an appropriate reciprocal subsidy for each production , plays which necessitate 5 or perhaps 6, even a thousand liri? And each one of these grants would be totally related to whether the plays end up making a profit or not. One hopes this would encourage theatre companies to participate more and not be left to bear the full burden when they try to put on the best new plays in Maltese.
Yet, the future for the Maltese playwright is indeed in doubt.
Thirty four years into the post-Ebejer era and the death throes are all there to see. Perhaps the signs have been for quite a while. The newspaper correspondent quoted at the beginning of this essay proclaiming the advent of a new era for Maltese Theatre was me. But then so was the other correspondent predicted the strike of the Maltese artistic people and my 'strike' did last some twenty years. Today I do not have any illusion about the apotheosis of the stage and neither about the strike of the writer. In the end, one writes because one has to write regardless. I see no solution that might bridge the semantic divide which stands between a writer and his audience.
I suspect the Maltese audience has lost the capacity of introspection. Lost perhaps the capacity to dream. Lost also, perchance their ideals.
Worse would be if the writers lose all this too.
In the end, it is hard to identify who should shoulder the responsibility for this in a society as unaccountable as ours seems to be. Should it be the writers? Perhaps. They too to a degree. Perhaps the least degree. For what about the theatres, the producers, the television and radio stations? Yes, the authors, why not? But where are the directors then, the critics, the theatrical companies, the producers, the actors, the schools?... The University?
So blame the author, nonetheless. As long as he is not the only one to blame.
Why the hypocritical question then: What are our writers doing?
Who really is responsible for taking us back to the labyrinth of Maltese teatrin? How many have long since decided that writers are after all an unnecessary evil and theatre can well do without them in a modern Malta, that a theatre without writers will survive?
But should we want to return and try to answer and hazard an answer to the original superfluous question which headed today's agenda:
Yes, there is crisis in the writing for the theatre, but the only malaise it engenders seems to be felt only by writers themselves. It is an anxiety which each writer must face alone as he tries to once again keep on writing It concerns nobody else. So, in this case, let us say, no - there is no crisis in the writing for the theatre. At least, none that we can discern, no obvious turn for the worse in the sickness. It is a chronic malady, the pain dulled by the effective anaesthetic of resignation..
A final quote from Edward Albee during a speech to the National Press Club of America a year or so ago. The reference is to contemporary American theatre, but it seems apt to out present circumstances: The playwright says:
“We invented the Arts to define ourselves to ourselves - to define consciousness to ourselves — and we live still in a society where there is nobody to deny us access to the tough truths that the Arts can tell us. Nobody yet - except ourselves. There are two important things to remember about a Democracy - the first of which everybody pays a great deal of attention to; the first thing about a democracy is that - in a democracy you can have anything you want. The second truth, which most people don't want to pay any attention to, is this: in a democracy, you end up with exactly what you deserve."
Here in Malta, our democratic theatres, our good citizens, our beloved audience are getting "exactly what they deserve": a truly democratic teatrin.
 A subsidy program directly related only to financial loss has up till now been the standard.
Calleja - January/February l997 St Julians. Malta