Watching a tragic play

I went to witness a play which was being staged as part of Bengaluru Habba recently. Since Nazeeruddin and Rathna-Shah were the main actors, I had not bothered to know the name of the play. The hall was only half full. I wondered aloud how such famous actors could not pull crowds. My neighbour informed me that the play being staged was ‘Antigone.’ I thought Bangalore audiences may not be interested in watching tragedies, that too Greek ones. After all Greek and Latin are difficult to comprehend.

Having been a student of literature, and having studied Antigone as part of my syllabus, I was eager to see the play unfold on stage. The announcement that the play was not in its original form but was adapted to suit Indian audience dampened me a bit. When the curtains opened an actor playing a palace guard came on stage, chased a person in the audience for speaking on the cellphone, took him on stage and ‘executed him.’ There was a big guffaw at this not so subtle message not to use cellphones. This scene did not help set the mood for a tragic play.

My thoughts went back to the day Prof Menezes taught us Greek tragedy. He quoted Aristotle stating that tragedy is an imitation of action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude. What the guard did on the stage was frivolous. Prof Menezes had also said that tragedies should have ‘comic interludes’ to help lighten the sombre mood. But can the interlude be the beginning of the play, I wondered. I was taught that pity and fear are the main ingredients of a Greek tragedy.
In the scenes that unfolded, I did not feel pity or fear for any of the characters who were on stage. I had learnt that one of the ingredients of Greek tragedy is spectacle. The spartan stage decor was least spectacular. Probably the Mumbai team could not afford to mount costly ‘sets’ in Bangalore.

Aristotle had said that if a person witnesses a tragedy he should have a purgatory experience; he should identify himself with the central character, mentally undergo the same agony and thereby feel lighter after watching the play. I never felt either elevated or purgated after seeing the play at Bangalore. However, I was amazed that I could recite verbatim what Prof Menezes had taught me about Greek tragedy 39 years ago. I came back from the hall feeling happy.
Thank you, Bengaluru Habba for bringing back classroom memories.

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