Crisis in Sri Lankan theatre | Sunday Observer
For a broader theatrical discourse

Crisis in Sri Lankan theatre

5 December, 2021
Adam’s passion by Robert Wilson
Adam’s passion by Robert Wilson

Part 1

The main challenge faced by anyone who inquires about the theatre in Sri Lanka is the lack of adequate academic research in the field of theatre and the lack of adequate preservation of sources.

The main challenge I faced in writing this article, which seeks to understand the crisis in Sri Lankan theatre, is how to find the sources for certain aspects.

For example, suppose we study or talk about theatrical styles and tactics created to escape state censorship of drama productions during the period of terror in Sri Lanka, what are the credible academic research studies and sources that give us the knowledge to base ourselves on? Is there any conservation method to find sources including hard copies?

We know that a number of university undergraduate and postgraduate thesis and research is conducted annually on a variety of topics directly and indirectly related to the performing arts.

Weak and questionable

But unfortunately, when we look at the research dissertations we find that most of them are not at a level to be taken seriously. Although research usually has elements that must be included, such as the way in which research is done, the way it is argued, in most of these research dissertations the way in which sources and data facts are presented is extremely weak and questionable.

However, to show seriousness, in some cases the statements of foreign theorists have been embedded in various places, but as long as the above weaknesses exist they also do not seem to have been used logically and meaningfully.

These essays seem to be hastily written notes for a degree program rather than the result of a passionate and curious exploration of the topic. Also, the lack of interest in serious reading due to the confusing society created by the use of electronic media in the recent past should be considered as a crisis in education itself and solutions should be sought. However, the crisis in this educational background must be due to the fact that the vast majority of books published have similar weaknesses mentioned above.

If we look into this further with two examples, Kumari Jayawardena's extraordinary research Nobodies to Somebodies was a great source of information for many subsequent social studies and research and also for artistic creations.

Tissa Kariyawasam's series of books on the early history of Sri Lankan theatre (The evolution of Sinhala drama) and Ranjini Obeysekera's book Sri Lankan theatre in a time of terror, are good examples of accurate research. What I am pointing out here is the inadequacy of such sociological research and inquiries. It is even more difficult to find the sources for such research because there is no formal conservation program for theatrical information in the country.

Major role

The epistemological issues that arise through research and studies on any subject and field play a major role in its development and evolvement. The ideological universe or the discourse of the subject is enriched by the circulation of advanced ideas and knowledge produced through academic research.

Through them, various technical, artistic and philosophical concepts and boundaries must be explored, from the use of stage materials (such as whether it is appropriate to show blood on stage) to the civilised and uncivilised binaries on stage, and the social, cultural and political existence of the playwright must be explored.

However, the limited number of research studies and books that have been produced so far in Sri Lanka, especially in the field of Sinhala theatre, have not been based on credible facts, arguments and sources. In the discourse on the art of Sinhala theatre there are many unquestioned theories and beliefs that many of these facts are used without even questioning.


If I recall one such important flaw, as I have pointed out elsewhere, in most cases Sinhala theatre is the only language that speaks of Sri Lankan theatre excluding Tamil and English. Many reference books are based on ideological beliefs which have not been examined.

In that sense, the history of Sri Lankan theatre should be rewritten. Research and studies that have influenced many opinions should be re-examined or re-read. (In the final stages of this series I hope to take a few common ideas that are commonly found in the contemporary Sinhala theatre discourse and examine them.)

At present the discourse on Sinhala theatre in particular has become so philosophically impoverished that interest in knowledge and philosophical matters on the subject has waned, yet the interest in welfare, privileges, awards and competitions have increased.

This situation is similar to the decline in interest in the quality of education compared to the interest in gaining welfare at universities, which are considered to be the only place for knowledge production. In the end, is it possible to create rich creativity and appreciation from such a poor discourse? An advanced theatrical discourse is much needed to develop and advance theatrical art!

At this juncture we can make some urgent proposals as a solution to control the crisis.

* Special attention should be paid to more accurate and serious research dissertations in universities, including courses in the performing arts. The most successful dissertations should be published and kept available for study. It also prevents wasting huge sums of money and labour on thousands of degree-related programs every year without providing any specialised knowledge on the subject.

* Set up a formal program for the preservation of all historical and contemporary information relevant to all Tamil, Sinhala and English theatre in Sri Lanka.

* Include as much production information, including scripts of plays produced throughout Sri Lanka.

* With the appropriate professional use of professionals who have successfully researched and conducted studies and research on areas that have not yet been explored in Sri Lankan theatre.

* Since the crisis of production of the above knowledge is most evident in the work done in the Sinhala language, it is necessary to set up a comprehensive program to translate the most important texts in the art of universal theatre into Sinhala as much as possible.

This is the first in a series of articles to identify the 'crisis’ in Sri Lankan theatre. What was mentioned here was not the only crisis but only one major aspect of the crisis. We will try to identify it further in the future through various aspects.

Translated by Anuradha Kodagoda