English plays in Dhaka city
At the very outset let me spell out what I mean by English plays. By the phrase I do not mean plays written by English playwrights in English language nor do I mean Bangla translations of English plays performed in Dhaka city. What I mean is: plays written and performed in English language in Dhaka city – beginning from the British rule until now.
Nothing is chronicled in black and white or even print about the staging of English language plays in Dhaka city, which very much endorses and reinforces the fact that we are not a very conscious nation or community with the habit of documenting our history and culture appropriately. I asked people concerned and also my friends of the theatre world if I could find any archival materials – private, autonomous or national – where documents of theatre history were/are orderly archived in Bangladesh but to my utter disappointment nobody could give me any rightful information. There are hearsay evidences – but not substantiated – that in the then East Pakistan there were at least two – or who knows, perhaps more – groups, Dhaka Stage and Prometheans, that used to stage plays in English language in Dhaka. But dismayingly nobody could give me any names of the plays they performed, or provide any information about the performers or activists associated with the groups—not to speak of the kind of audience who patronized them.
Pathetically, though Banglapedia – the national encyclopedia of Bangladesh – has a twelve-page article on Bangladesh Theatre, in its Introduction of European Theatre section it merely describes the history and legacy of initiation of proscenium playhouses in Calcutta by the British colonialists, but chronicles nothing about Dhaka. The colonialists rightly tried to show their supremacist elite culture at that time by staging original Shakespeare, Massinger, Congreve, Sheridan and the likes in The Theatre, the proscenium playhouse built by them in Calcutta in 1753, which continued until 1808 – Banglapedia documents. I am positive similar things happened in Dhaka too but we have no access to that information.
However, the above prologue is meant to be my prefactory remarks to a play that had its shows between December 11 and 15 at Mahila Shamity, Dhaka, and it was all English – meaning, written in English by John Boynton Priestley, an English novelist-playwright, (who was prominently mechanical in establishing International Theatre Institution in 1948 collaboratively with Sir Julian Sorell Huxley, the first Director General of UNESCO) and most of all, it was performed in English by Bangla speaking actors. I witnessed, as far as I can recollect, two plays performed in English by our actors of two theatre groups, and I have no hesitation pronouncing they were of no standard whatsoever primarily because they all had extremely affected English pronunciation having little or no idea about English stress and intonation. No, I do not expect any Bengalee to speak like a native speaker of English but when one acts on the stage one must deliver one's speeches in a way that become both meaningful and communicable to all audiences or the play instantly distances itself to a world of ambiguity. But The Inspector Calls is different – all the performers could speak English loud and clear, create the drama that was essential to interweave the storyline, and communicate the deep-structured yet invaluable message that every successful work of art needed to convey. The directorial flair and aptitude displayed by Naila Azad genuinely calls for spontaneous acclamation, for she was almost hundred percent successful extracting from her team of performers – including off-stage workers – what she needed for the success of her own adapted play. The only person who can be critiqued a bit is Toufikul Alam Emon playing the role of Mr Burhania. It is true that the role demands clowning around but he perhaps overdid it with his slightly affected English pronunciation, and more often than not, unnecessary body movements. All others were well-suited to their respective roles and to be frank Iresh Zaker stands out to be the A+ performer among them, especially because he very skillfully sequenced and queued his dialogues with his co-actors!
The play is a Jatrik production and I have all my good wishes for them mainly because they have put their good and bona fide effort for the revival of the culture of performing English plays in Bangladesh. We love our mother tongue from the core of our heart but we also have respect for all other languages of the world, for languages are the proud cultural heritage of the entire mankind. Keep it up Jatrik!
The writer is a theatre activist, playwright and theatre critic. He is also a Bangla Academy awardee for translation.