Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Drama needs respect

"Impressions," TV Times, 18-24 March 1979


The beginning was interesting enough: a rhythmic choreography of alternate scenes, leaping from one to the other in quick sequence to evoke the intensity and turmoil of a family crisis. But as we warmed up to the exercise, the editing began to lose pace and rhythm, the scenes started to gain in length and slow down in action, the tension thinning out and eventually evaporating into the heavy air of pedagogy. And the sad thing is that it did not have to do so.

Anak, in its episode the other week, with Renato Robles, Alicia Alonzo, Tina Loy, Didi Nakar, and Joey Sison (?) in the cast, started out quite well. Why did it have to deteriorate into a shopworn message film without even any artistic pretensions (except in the beginning), roughly overacted and creeping with bigotry?

The most obvious reason is that the whole exercise started, not--as should be the case with a free dramatic effort--with a story or a situation, however convoluted, confused, or contemporary, but only with a lesson somebody wanted to teach. And lessons, necessary though they may be in the context of national development, do not often make for good art, even less for good drama. When drama is asked to flesh out a lesson or a perception, moral or social or political, it becomes forced, contrived, heavy. It loses dramatic integrity and becomes an artistic failure, obvious and transparent. Its whole existence becomes thoroughly questionable.

We are not saying that a dramatist should be free of all causes. Walter Goodman of The New York Times, in a very perceptive piece on politics and art, writes: "There are times--war, revolution, some dramatic crisis--that turn all citizens' attentions to public affairs, and many artists find themselves so caught up in a cause or a regime that they want to write or paint or sing about it." But, he hastens to add, whatever force and imagination such works gain come less from their subject matter and more from their intrinsic "artistic" qualities.

Some of PETA's Fort Santiago plays reek of social causes and political biases, pounded down with a heavy hammer. But their dramatists still go through the pretense of cloaking the exercise with the mantle of art. Or, at least, what they believe is art. There is a moral lesson behind each Shakespearean play, but it takes students of the Bard a whole semester or more to unravel the artistic folds of his medieval genius.

The episode of Anak that we watched, sadly, was not even fighting for some deeply felt social cause or some piercing cry for national identity. It was preaching against young marriages: the young mother gets saddled with more babies than she can handle, the young husband is caught between his wife and his mother, the young wife ceases to enjoy the uncomplicated life of student and pampered daughter, the young father must carry out financial responsibilities for which he is not prepared.

So, they say, this is what the television audience needs: this is drama for a specific audience. This, they add, is what it is to fulfill the primary responsibility of a communications medium. This is development communication, or what it should be. The man in the street, the teenager glued to the set--this is what they need.

We do not and cannot agree. But even if we were to accept the above, and carry it further, then we would at least ask that the episode's producers stop pretending that such is drama. Let us not demean and insult the dramatic form by using it to serve a didactic purpose. They can instead make a documentary, or put up a variety show with short skits meant to teach the audience whatever they want to teach them. A documentary can even turn out to be artistic, given enough care and attention.

But not drama. We have too much respect for the genre not to register our protest at its abuse.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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