Art in the times of Corona

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on March 20, 2020

Plan B: Performing artistes and production houses need to rethink their plans for professional survival in the times of social isolation   -  ISTOCK.COM

As theatres, cinemas and public places down shutters, how can artists and performers keep their craft alive?

Natural disasters, incurable diseases and pestilence are nothing new to our world. About a century ago, Walt Disney and MK Gandhi were fortunate enough to recover from the Spanish flu though millions succumbed to it. Earlier, in William Shakespeare’s time, the Bubonic plague forced King James I’s office to shut down major theatres including the Globe. This was at a time when Shakespeare’s plays King Lear and Macbeth were enjoying huge popularity, bringing him fame and fortune. But 15 per cent of London’s population died in the 1603 epidemic, and people could not ignore the risks from proximity to infected people and pests. So, many of the playwright’s patrons chose to stay indoors following the advice of doctors. Most theatre artistes living in rodent-infested London fled to the countryside. The Bard did so, too.

While Shakespeare survived the dreaded disease, he lost three sisters to it. He had already lost his only son, Hamnet, during an earlier outbreak of the plague. This must have been a devastating time for him in many ways. Personal tragedy, professional loss and artistic solitude may have taken their toll on many artists, but Shakespeare also made the most of his isolation writing some of his finest plays. In the period of self-isolation during the 1590 outbreak, he wrote his finest poem, Venus and Adonis, which also happens to be his first published work.

Indeed, the first instinct of all sentient creatures is survival and we must follow our instinct to stay out of danger. If social isolation is the only solution, we do not have a choice. But performing artistes and production houses need to rethink their plans for professional survival too. It is the service industry dependent on particular spaces that is hardest hit — such as theatres, gyms, cinemas, religious institutions and airlines, among others.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl writes in the Opinion section of The New York Times on March 13: “The theater, I have always maintained, is composed of language, ether and actor. One commodity the theater has that film and television do not have is air. Air is that wonderful substance that denotes presence. It creates that magical backstage dust we inhale together. It is also the substance through which people cough, sneeze and infect one another.”

So what do we do when the very air that crackles with tension during a performance is denied to us? At the same time, one is relieved that the world has understood the gravity of the situation and is doing what is thought best to save society’s collective coughing soul.

We are fortunate that we live in a time where the marvels of technology allow us to communicate freely even during a time of social isolation. For many of us, it is possible to go about our work and education by being online.

In the pre-computer era, many artists turned to books. In those times, paper, fortunately, was not a carrier for deadly germs. Shakespeare and his friends got together and read The Decameron, a set of stories within stories told in the book by 10 young people, interestingly set during the Black Death in 15th-century Florence. Othello, a tragic melodrama, and All’s Well That Ends Well, an uplifting comedy, were ‘inspired’ by some of these stories in The Decameron. So it ended well for Shakespeare, in some ways.

It’s also said that Disney would not have created his most famous character, Mickey Mouse, had it not been for his rejection by the US army on account of an influenza infection.

In Italy today, people under quarantine have taken to singing to each other from their windows. The human body’s need to express the soul it contains is perhaps the greatest affirmation of life.

As I write this, watching a beautiful sunset, I look at my bookshelf, which has more books unread than read. Now is the time. I am staring at my laptop where I started writing a new play but never quite got around to developing it. All this solitude is just as exciting as the shared spaces of the theatre that I am in love with. I consider myself privileged to have both, although one has been temporarily withdrawn for the greater common good. As a wise person said, “Dance like nobody’s watching.” Nobody is, so please let’s do just that. In this solitude, we must continue to dance, even if alone. So when we are together again we will remember the dance.

It will be Shakespeare’s birth anniversary in April. Let us hope that by then we can celebrate a grand return to movie halls, sports arenas, cultural halls, temples, mosques, churches — all the spaces that define civilisation, and we breathe the ether together once again.

Mahesh Dattani   -  BUSINESS LINE


Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

Published on March 20, 2020

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