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Asian Theatre Journal 18.2 (2001) 270-273

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Sri Lankan Theater in a Time of Terror: Political Satire in a Permitted Space by Ranjini Obeyesekere. Walnut Creek, London, and New Delhi: AltaMira Press, 1999. 212 pp. Hardcover $45

The attention Sri Lankan performance has always rightfully deserved has mostly gone to its formidable neighbor, India. This book helps to fill some of that unfortunate void. Ranjini Obeyesekere posits some provocative questions about Sri Lankan theatre in the mid-1980s when a reign of terror unfolded on the South Asian island. Why did the government in Sri Lanka, despite strict censorship over all forms of critical expression, permit severely satirical performances in a theatre that spared no opportunity to take the regime to task? Why was theatre allowed to remain a sanctuary where a critique of government processes could be conducted quite unhindered? Why did similar forms of political criticism not occur (or why were they not permitted) in other genres like poetry or fiction?

In the first half of her book Obeyesekere talks at length about this turbulent time and its severe impact on all kinds of artistic and creative endeavor. The introduction tells of a society becoming literate through the spread of a religious path--Theraveda Buddhism--and how a critical hermeneutic mode of inquiry leading to the development of satire became an integral part of the evolution of Sri Lankan society. But Obeyesekere does not really engage the overwhelming question posited in the preface and the first half of her book. Leading her readers back and forth through several examples and incidents, Obeyesekere asks: why did the government tolerate such open criticism of its authoritarian activities? The answer is not made easily available. And when it does appear, after a long wait of more than a hundred pages, it appears in the conclusion as a seven-page analysis. [End Page 270]

The book's first half is divided into six short chapters. These explore extensively the terrible times Sri Lankans experienced in the 1980s. There was a growing violent movement to establish a Tamil nation by separatist groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as well as parallel movements by Sinhala youths that sought to overthrow the authoritarian regime perpetuating appalling atrocities in the name of national security. The struggle between the two movements led to a violent decade of guerrilla groups abducting, assassinating, and brutally killing innocent civilians. Putting theatre in the middle of this bloody conflict, Obeyesekere goes on to analyze how it established itself as an important site of politically creative expression. Although there were vicious "elimination" campaigns carried out by the Sri Lankan government, the theatre was never made an explicit target. In fact, although the theatre was consistently critical of the entire political climate, the government gave it considerable support. At this point the reader hungers for an analysis of this ambivalent process. But Obeyesekere only suggests conjectural explanations without adequate elaboration. That comes much later.

In Sri Lanka, satirical performances were not traditionally considered to be politically disruptive. Rather, they were read as comic interludes in ritual performances. But different attitudes, Obeyesekere argues, prevail in different cultures where the lines between satire and blasphemy are differently drawn. The same play that receives government support for performance in Sri Lanka might in a different country with a different view of satire end up with the entire cast and crew behind bars. Obeyesekere states repeatedly that somehow the government's strict censorship laws over the entire media did not adversely affect the levels of political satire and sociopolitical criticism that found expression in the theatre. Why not? The reader's hunger for discussion of this subject is again left tantalizingly unsated. Instead the author discusses how an open economy affected theatre producers who looked for commercially viable light comic fare that had a broad appeal among theatregoers.

Obeyesekere next interviews young theatre artists about their experiences during the reign of artistic repression. Not all the stories recounted by these artists are clear cases of government noninterference. In...