Posted on November 21st, 2022


When Ralph Pieris told me ‘I was one of those who persuaded Sarachchandra to show Maname at Lionel Wendt theatre’ I sniggered a little. I knew the Lionel Wendt audience of the 1950s. It was culturally insensitive, utterly ignorant, and wanting only to be seen at a ‘western’ cultural event. Why present Maname there. My own preference for seeing Sinhala plays in Colombo was Lumbini or YMBA, never Lionel Wendt.

But I recently read something that changed my mind. Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund issued a document to celebrate fifty years of performances at Lionel Wendt Theatre, titled Applause at the Wendt” (2003). This document gives great prominence to Maname, starting from the front flap of the cover and going on till the 1960s section ended.

The front flap said that the Lionel Wendt theatre opened in 1953 with Gorky’s Lower Depths” directed by Jubal. The next sentence said, Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s Maname was produced at the Lionel Wendt Theatre in 1956, breaking new ground.”  I realized then that the Lionel Wendt Centre was very proud of the fact that it had hosted Maname.

The Foreword” on page ix said ‘The Lionel Wendt Memorial Art Centre has been the site of many revolutions, [including] the meeting of East and West when Sinhala language theatre found acceptance at the Wendt.’ The author is talking about Maname.

The book continues to talk about Maname and Sinhala theatre in the main text. There are 28 essays in the book on the various performances held at the Lionel Wendt theatre and of these, the greatest amount of space is given to Sinhala theatre. There are nearly thirty pages on Sinhala performances at the Wendt.

 Maname gets ten pages (p 23-33) with four essays, titled Maname the masterpiece”, Maname the super drama”, The finest thing on the Sinhala stage”, and ‘In Sinhala at the Wendt”, which is about a lady who wanted to send her servant to see the play. They were written by Shyamon Jayasinghe, Chandraratne Manawasinghe, Regi Siriwardene and DC Ranatunga.

This sequence was followed by two more essays, ( p 34-52) by Henry Jayasena ‘Theatre without barriers’ and    DC Ranatunga ‘Sinhala theatre’s golden era’ . There were a record 270 Sinhala plays produced by about 200 dramatists in the 1960s, he said.

 In his essay, Shyamon Jayasinghe said that with Maname the Wendt formally opened for indigenous drama.  Shyamon added that in 1956, there was a cultural revolution in Sri Lanka. Change was demanded by the intelligentsia and the burgeoning indigenous middle class. Maname was a product of this new creative spirit.  Maname was also something of a movement, said Shyamon. The actors had wanted to ‘attack the   bastion of the westernized Kurunduwatte bourgeoisie with their play’. This explains the ‘missionary ‘motive for the choice of venue, concluded Shyamon.

 Others observed that those who pushed for the Wendt as a venue probably felt that the local westernized elite needed a substitute for its half baked English theatre.  In their own interest, they should be exposed to high quality local theatre instead. Sarachchandra   also thought so. He had invited Martin Wickremasinghe to an early rehearsal and Wickremasinghe had written about the play under the title an intensified folk play’ for Daily News.

Sarachchandra had  asked the undergrad performers  also to write to the news papers on Maname. This is not as absurd as it sounds. Most, if not all of the performers would have offered Sinhala as a subject for the degree and would have been able to write effectively on the subject of Sinhala theatre. HL had written a piece on the potential of the folk play for contemporary national theatre but Daily News had not published it, he said.

DC Ranatunga noted that Maname was the start of Sinhala theater at the Wendt. This was the start, he said.  With Maname, Sinhala theatre had made its way to the Wendt. DC Ranatunga drew attention to comments made by Regi Siriwardene in the 1959 State Drama Festival souvenir. In that essay, Regi had   said Maname broke down the barriers of taste and culture which had separated the English educated and Sinhala educated urban and provincial audiences.

Maname demonstrated that the popular interest in song and dance could be reconciled with the demands made by the cultivated theatergoer. Sinhala theater is no longer stagnant, new creations are going on and an audience is being built up which is capable of responding to the original experiment, concluded Regi.

Maname at the Wendt had other positive results. After Maname, the Lionel Wendt theater became accessible to the Sinhala theatergoer. Earlier, there was a forbidding aura about the Wendt, which kept Sinhala theater people away. Perhaps it was the location in Colombo 7.  Also the price of the ticket which was Rs 2,  was too much for clerks like us, said Henry Jayasena.

The Sinhala dramatists were first drawn to the Wendt to see Maname, said Henry Jayasena. We four, Gunasena Galappatty, Dayananda Gunawardena, Sugathapala de Silva and myself were there   on all four nights to see Maname, said Henry Jayasena. The performance of Maname for four nights at the Wendt was a breakthrough, said Jayasena.

 After Maname the Wendt was not longer a strange place for Sinhala theatergoer.  We started to book the Wendt for our plays, after that. Lumbini was still our main location, but it was a school hall, it was hot and the audience noisy.  The Wendt had the atmosphere of strict theatre and we liked it. Wendt was the only building that had been designed as a theatre and it was comfortable. Actually, this type of closed theatre was developed in the west because of the cold climate, but the local dramatists liked it.

Sinhala dramatists and theatergoers no longer felt strange at the Wendt, agreed Ranatunga. Following the usual opening turn at the Lumbini or YMBA in Borella, they would bring their play to the  Wendt where   they found a new audience. Henry Jayasena preferred to open at Lumbini but always brought his creations to the Wendt. They come because of the acoustics and also because it is much more intimate, concluded Ranatunga.

 The Lionel Wendt Memorial Theatre was initially associated with western culture because that was what was shown there first.  But the two personalities responsible for the Theatre, Lionel Wendt and Harold Pieris were not that obsessed with our western culture. They had seen western culture in situ, in London in its authentic form and had little patience with its imitation in Ceylon.

In Ceylon, Lionel Wendt and Harold Pieris supported traditional culture and contemporary talent. Harold Pieris (1905 -1988) who was the Chairman of the Wendt complex in  1956, was receptive to Maname because he was interested in traditional culture. His specialty has been Sanskrit, but he has also known as classical Sinhala.

 Harold Pieris had studied at Cambridge,   had gone to  Berlin in 1932 to study Sanskrit and Pali, then back to Cambridge in 1934 to do his Masters in Sanskrit.   He was a dayake at Gotami Vihare, Colombo and had invited his brother-in-law, George Keyt to do the murals there. Harold Pieris and Len Van Geyzel contributed 13 English translations from classical Sinhala poetry to the Anthology of Sinhalese Literature edited by Reynolds and published by Unesco (1970).  

When Sarachchandra vacillated about  Colombo, Harold Pieris sent a positive response.  He was determined to show Maname at the Wendt. He was not going to let this chance go.  When Sarachchandra announced that they simply could not afford the Wendt, Harold Pieris offered the full run of four days, free of charge, an offer Maname could not refuse.

Lionel Wendt(1900-1944)  would have been pleased that Maname was shown at his theatre. The intelligentsia knows Lionel Wendt as a skilled exponent of ‘western’ culture, notably photography, western music, and the 43 Group. But he was also interested in the indigenous culture of the time, specifically dance and music.

He admired Udarata dance, gave it financial support, and made stunning photographs of the leading dancers and drummers, Gunaya, Jayana, and Suramba. He included the Gajaga vannama in Song of Ceylon,  and took the dancer Ukkuwa and the drummer Suramba to London for the soundtrack.

I  vaguely recall seeing at an exhibition, a concert programme  of a performance by Lionel Wendt, which featured Sunil Santa,(sic) somewhere near the interval. I think   this was dated 1930s. I am unable to locate this item now but I am tentatively including  this here  because  Wendt    knew the local music scene. He   knew Deva Suriya Sena and included him in at least one concert.  It is quite possible  that Wendt  would have   also   met  Sunil Santa.  Sunil Santa’s  musical ability was well known before he went to India.

The seminal contribution of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in developing Sinhala theatre  in the 1950s and early 1960s  has not been  sufficiently recognized. The Sarachchandra plays in Peradeniya were not amateur theatricals.  Undergraduates were not performing plays for the casual enjoyment of a university  audience. Sinhala theatre at Peradeniya was a serious activity with a national objective and the result was very positive.

The University of Ceylon, Peradeniya produced a series of Sarachchandra plays which   became part of the national repertoire of Sinhala theatre. Maname  (1956) was followed  by Kada valalu,(1958)  Elova gihin melova awa,(1959) Vella vahum (1960) and Sinhabahu (1962).  Except for Maname,  the rest were   first performed at Peradeniya.

In all the plays , except Vella Vahum,[1]  the actors were Peradeniya undergrads.  Two of them went to become influential theatre personalities, Trilicia Gunawardene and Somalatha Subusinghe.    Malini Ranasinghe sang for decades in Sinhabahu.

At Peradeniya there arose the happy coincidence of a brilliant dramatist, Sarachchandra,   on the permanent staff,   supported by clumps of  willing undergraduates,  arriving batch after batch from 1955 to 1961,  eager to  participate in his plays. They   were available because University of Ceylon was the only university at the time,  and  all undergraduates, talented or otherwise,  ended up there.  Today they will be scattered in numerous universities.

Sarachchandra was also able to get support from those members of the academic staff who understood what he was trying to do, were sympathetic and possessed the skills the plays needed. The University administration allowed the use of university premises for rehearsals.  Permission would have been needed for any activity taking place within the university, and play rehearsals would have been readily allowed. No university will refuse to support a play.

The first of this cluster of Peradeniya plays was Maname.’ Maname’ was uncharted territory and its creation was a collective effort observed H.L.Seneviratne.  If so, then Peradeniya is entitled to some credit for Maname.

My view is that long before Maname appeared at Wendt in Colombo Peradeniya would have known that it had produced a play of national stature. It is the Arts faculty at Peradeniya which would have seen the significance of Maname first, not the audience at Wendt. The Arts Faculty had the competence to evaluate Maname .

As the Maname rehearsals progressed, the indications were that the play was going to be a success, said HL Seneviratne. The poetic excellence of the play, the allure of the songs, the music, the visual impact, the excellence of the acting, and the perfection of its artistic unity, could be seen at the later rehearsals, especially the final dress rehearsal. 

This evaluation would have come from those watching, certainly not those performing, nor from those working backstage. Those two groups would have been too close to the play to judge it. Also, they were on stage, or backstage, not in the audience.

I am making these comments from my own experience of watching Sinhabahu. Like everybody else in Peradeniya at the time, I too attended the first performance of Sinhabahu.  To me, it looked like a dress rehearsal. Some actors looked scared and I thought at least one would fall off the circular stage.

 But when I went for lectures the next morning, I found the ‘Block’ buzzing with admiration. They all said Sinhabahu was absolutely marvelous.   The first positive response therefore was from within the University.  I think that it would have been the same for Maname.

Maname was a pioneer venture. That is probably why Peradeniya allowed it to open in Colombo and not Peradeniya. When it came to Sinhabahu, Peradeniya wanted the honor of presenting it first. Sinhabahu first appeared at Peradeniya and then at Kandy. It went to Colombo much later.

Maname continued to be a hit because, like most successful plays, it appealed simultaneously at the level of high culture and also popular culture. For high culture, Maname offered a jataka story in refined language, with chorus and Potegura. The play contained conflict, suspense, and resolution.   For those who wanted entertainment, Maname dished out the formula, there was music, song, dance, romance, and betrayal. The song Premayen mana ranjita” came early on in the play, and the audience was hooked. ( Concluded)

[1] Vella vehum was written for the minor staff of the university, at their request. I saw it at  St Anthony’s College Hall and liked it. Vella Vahum showed that the minor staff of the University of Ceylon were also talented.

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