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The Playwright's Struggle

Sudhanva Deshpande

By Manoj Mitra. Translated and introduced by Mousumi Roy Chowdhury
Seagull Books, Kolkata, 2007, pp. 290, Rs. 375.00


When Marx wrote Das Kapital, he theorized about the social relationships involved in the act of production of commodities under capitalism. But what happens when the commodities being produced are strictly speaking not of a material nature—for instance, what happens when stories are produced? Walter Benjamin addressed this question in one of his most brilliant essays, ‘Author as Producer’. Years later, Roland Barthes did the opposite—he pronounced the author dead in his essay ‘Death of the Author’. Barthes was arguing that the reader, in the act of ‘reading’, makes whatever ‘meaning’ there may be in the text, independent of what may or may not have been intended by the author. In that sense, then, the reader, not the author, is the ‘producer’ of the text. This led the satirist Malcolm Bradbury to quip that when Barthes pronounced the author dead, the happiest was his publisher, because he figured that in that case he need not pay Barthes any royalties.   In a way he could not have anticipated, Barthes’ shadow looms large over the field of Indian theatre, since here too, the playwright is very nearly dead. This may seem strange or paradoxical, but for proof visit the National School of Drama’s theatre festival, which takes place every year in winter in the capital. In the festival schedule, the NSD does not provide the playwright’s name. At the end of each play, the director is called on stage and gifted a memento, while the playwright, even if present in the auditorium, is not even mentioned. While the NSD is particularly callous in this respect, it is also true that many plays these days do not have a playwright at all. Indeed, many plays are not even plays in the commonly understood sense of the term; they are what can be called ‘performance pieces’, most often evolved, not written, by the performer and director (if the two are separate). One of the recent directors of the NSD has made a career of performing literary texts on stage, short stories and even entire novels, with absolutely no authorial or directorial intervention in the text itself—the entire text of the literary piece is memorized by actors and acted out. This sort of spurious theatre has been given a lofty name—kahani ka rangmanch (the story as theatre)—as if it arose out of a well-considered theoretical impulse. Nothing of ...

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