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Peace as Theatrical Experience


Bharat Gupt

Introduction: Conflict as a Modern Value

There are three main features of modern culture which distinguish it from nearly all the ancient cultures: individualism, presentism and agonism. These are values initially fostered by modern Europe and America and are now being foisted on all other cultures of the world, sometimes blatantly as in economic and military affairs, and sometimes surreptitiously through the export of new ideologies.

Individualism, presentism and agonism are intrinsically promoters of conflict. They create an environment in which peace becomes the first casualty, which otherwise could have been an easy fruit of modern science along with opulence and leisure. Whereas in ancient societies higher personal fulfilment consisted of achieving a position of transcendence such as ‘an existence of fame’ (yasassarira) through heroism or martyrdom, in modern times fulfilment resides in the achievement of material power which is regarded as synonymous with immortality. The individual now does not wish to subdue or abnegate but mostly to aggrandise himself, and hence is placed in unending competition with others.

Presentism, which is a natural corollary of the myth of progress, takes it for granted that only those aspects of ancient cultures are worthwhile which have supposedly led to the development of modern civilization. For instance, Periclean Greece has been graded as the golden age because it formulated democracy and rationality leading to modern parliamentary democracy and the natural sciences.1 Presentism having given a new shape to historiography, studies of past societies tend to become exercises in reconstructing the past according to the prejudices of the present. History becomes a myth retold (projected as a fresh discovery of facts) to serve new values. Historical developments are seen as an evolution in which the present age is the best. Whereas the ancients held their ancestors in unquestioned veneration and treasured their past with obstinate pride, the moderns are raised to hold past people in axiomatic contempt.

Since the theory of evolution postulated the survival of the fittest, conflict has come to be regarded by the West as a basic virtue, indeed the prime mover of life. Contest, duel, struggle, agitation, protest, fight, these are the fundamental paradigm for achievement in any field. Like other ideologies of European Romanticism, the theory of evolution also postulated that man is intrinsically good and not a fallen creature with evil within him. He is chained by other men or the outer environment, be it nature or social hierarchies. He has hence to fight, not with himself but with the outside constraints. Conflict with the other or the outer, not with the self, was therefore the road to freedom. With this attitude, modern civilization got far removed from peace, in faith as much as in action.

For ancient and even medieval cultures, conflict was an intervention (a vighna), or for the very unlucky ones their unhappy portion (moiras), thrust upon them by the gods or by fate. One who was able to overcome conflict and win was proud of his conquest, but never claimed the credit all to himself as he could not ignore the element of what was believed to be divine grace. But in our purely anthropocentric world all conquest is a logical culmination of a well-planned contest. Everything depends upon man and man alone.

Seeing the parameters of our thought today, how can there be peace unless there is a major shift from the value of conflict and acceptance of a different perception of the nature of things? For this we may need to revisit some older cultures and understand their philosophical tenets.2 Through the focus of theatre one may now analyse three older visions: of Renaissance Europe, which retained some medieval Christian concepts, of the classical Greek period which had just begun to emerge from the Indo-European sacrificial religion of the Olympian deities, and of ancient India of around the second century bc, when iconic worship was yet to start in a big way.

European Theatre: Peace as an Argument

Shakespeare set the tone for the thinker-playwright-reformer tradition of Europe, prevalent to the present time, in which the dramatist projects the futility of war and heroism as an argument for peace. In Troilus and Cressida he took an episode from the siege of Ilium, recasting the ancient heroic myth into a story of degenerate behaviour. Here is a vision of gloom, concentrating on the worst aspects of human nature. Shakespeare consigns all idealism to transitional brilliance that has no chance of survival in a brutish world. Love is shown here to be no more than lechery, and honour a cover for plunder. There is no extolling of peace but a strong argument in its favour is made through the devalorization of war.

Although in the history plays there is hardly a Shakespearean character who vaguely resembles a glorious hero, in Troilus and Cressida, while portraying the Greeks as an alien and heathen race, the playwright speaks out against war with full frankness. What the modern classicists3 allege through a historical analysis (that the Greek-Trojan conflict was primarily a strategy by the Western Hellenes to capture the trade routes of Asia Minor), Shakespeare depicts dramatically as lust for plunder and sexuality cloaked under heroism. Those who believe in honour and the rules of the game are condemned to defeat. Here, in contrast to the Homeric account, an unarmed and unarmoured Hector is killed by Achilles, not in single heroic combat but by a crowd of warriors. Earlier in the play, Achilles is shown refraining from battle and ditching his fellow Greeks because he was lusting after one of the daughters of Priam. Troilus, the faithful lover, has to face disappointment on seeing his fickle beloved going into the arms of an enemy with irresistible passion. War is shown as murderous waste; and heroes are downright immoral, like Menelaus and Paris, the ‘cuckold and cuckold-maker’.

The direction pointed out by Shakespeare by deglamourizing war and deconstructing the hero was taken up by many playwrights in Europe from Dryden to Shaw, whose work I have no time to discuss here. But the important point to be noted is that peace in this theatric tradition is argued for as a value, not portrayed as a presence. The dramatic action hardly ever shows an experience of peace.

Greek Theatre: Peace as Epiphany

It has been customary to state that Greek drama, particularly the tragic, was devoted to the portrayal of the conflict between the human and the divine. But on closer scrutiny one realizes that this is a simplification under the impact of the modern fascination with conflict. This understanding of Greek drama is based upon the habit of looking at the Greek plays singly and not as trilogies. It is well known that in actual performance at a Greek festival, not a single play but always a set of three tragedies were performed; and the playwright presented them as three parts of a single opus. A single play like Oidipous Rex or Bacche does not represent the totality of the Greek tragic form and experience. The ninety-odd plays extant are only parts of trilogies. Each trilogy, like the only surviving one called Oresteia, was more concerned with showing mutability as the essential human condition. While starting on the course of agon, it worked towards creating a balance. It depicts two murders but avoids the death of the hero Orestes, and instead of ending in horror and deprivation arrives at reconciliation and harmony. Its last prayer-song sounds surprisingly similar to the concluding benediction of ancient Indian plays.4

Consequently, we see that in tragedy, conflict is not the essential human condition, what is more important is mutability. As in many tragic plays, change of fortune could as well be from bad to good, but always emphasizing mutability and working for a happy balance. However, as tragedy was always keen to point out, both the balance and the ensuing peace are extremely precarious. In the cycle of mutability, this peace is fragile and is a momentary manifestation. But none the less it is real and worthy of celebration. It is a promise and a resurrection and a recognition of the possibility of happiness, no matter how mutable. In the tragic plays it is recognized with awe, in comedies with wanton gaiety, as in Aristophanes’ Peace.

However, in Greek theatre, over and above the arguments given for peace, the tragic and the comic genres created through myth and fable (paramyth), respectively, an emotional experience of peace for the audience. The plays, particularly as trilogies, such as Oresteia or the tale of Oidipous, were made to ritually enact, after the suffering (pathos) and the tearing apart (sparagmos), the process of restoration and purification (kenosis and katharsis), which was reinforced through dance, music and festive participation. Peace, here, howsoever short-lived, was known as an epiphany.

Indian Theatre: Peace as Benediction

In a somewhat similar way, theatrical activity in ancient India created an experience of peace through emotional purification and elation (satvodreka), which led to the deeper aesthetic experience called rasa. Whatever may be one’s view of the cause (karana), arising (nispatti) or nature (padarthatva) of rasa, it is universally agreed that it is a profoundly peace-giving experience. Nor is this aesthetic experience an escapist or individualistic enterprise, as was sometimes projected by the Marxist critics of regional Indian literatures. It was aimed at elevating a whole community, not only theatre lovers. It began by inviting the gods to protect and watch the theatrical performance and ended with a benediction (bharatavakya), presuming that the sacred act of enactment ensured the well-being of all sections of the audience. What is more important, it aimed to elevate both its divine and mundane audiences into a pleasure (rasa) which, more than merely bringing peace to the soul, also made the onlookers more sensitive to the pain and suffering of others. It also pleaded for an acceptance of suffering by bringing most tales to an auspicious (subham), not necessarily happy, conclusion. But it always, as in Svapnavasavadattam or Mricchakatikam, gave a deeper understanding of individual desires or personal love reconciled with social and spiritual responsibility enveloped by the new peace in the land.

Theatre of the Future: Peace as Consonance

The theatre of the future, though not required to be committed to peace in a propagandist manner, needs to work for it in a major way, for peace is now more than ever a global need. Though theatre in the future shall have to be created and performed locally, it must reflect global movements and events. The perception of ‘global’ is, however, a matter of bitter controversy because of the differing traditional (pejoratively called ‘ethnic’ by the West) identities of the perceivers. In fact, there seems to be a widespread fear among many circles, particularly of the White majority nations, that the twenty-first century will witness an extensive ‘clash of cultures’, of ethnic groups.

In such a situation theatre has to alter its approach to artistic truth. From agonism and presentism it should turn to consonance between cultures. Instead of continually emphasizing the differences between civilizations and cultures, their history and their development, which has been the thrust of social and cultural anthropology for nearly a century, theatre should go on to discover the similarities beneath the cultural diversities.

Theatre can begin by locating the common ground between cultures, because commonality and not differences are the need of the hour. If culture is to be something more than the exchange of goods, then we may benefit most from turning to an old definition of human communication called samvada. ‘Ekatrasya tu anyatra darsanam samvadah’ (When something existing at one place is also seen at another, this phenomenon is called samvada). This is done by locating a core of vibrant similarity between the two objects, a similarity that exists beneath all differences and which, instead of being wiped out by the individual differences, sustains itself and the differences as well. To provide a simile, it is like the consonance between two musical notes, which are always independent yet capable of generating a mutual resonance by virtue of their common grounding in a given scale. Within our pluralism we need to explore our common scale. Theatre, as the oldest art of communication, is best suited to highlight consonances between cultures and promote the common scale of peace.


1. In his Early Greek Philosophy, first published in 1892 and reprinted till 1930, J. Burnet says, ‘. . . a new thing came into the world with early Ionian teachers — the thing we call science. . . . Science has never existed except among people who have come under the influence of Greeks’ (p.31).

2. We now need to turn away from the modern habits of individualism, sensationalism and mass indulgence. In this endeavour of forging new values, nothing can be more helpful than pre-Aristotelian Greek thought and Upanisadic Indian thought. These philosophies can help us prepare a new ground through ethical courage (areetee), metaphysical humility (eulabeia), self-analysis (atmanavesana), and unpossessiveness (aparigraha). These are the values most needed to evolve new cultural constructs and balanced social structures.

3. ‘The Trojan war is historical, and whatever the immediate cause may have been, it was a trade war’ (Robert Graves, Greek Myths 2, Penguin, 1955, p. 302).

4. For a detailed discussion on this, refer to my Dramatic Concepts: Greek and Indian, Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1994, p. 216.


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