Celebrating Creativity

Applause at the Wendt:

by Yasmine Gooneratne

Celebrating 50 Years at the Lionel Wendt Theatre 1953 - 2003, ed. Neville Weereratne. The Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund. lxix + 246 pp. Illustrations in b&w and colour. Price: Rs. 4000/- (available at the Lionel Wendt Theatre office)

In the early pages of this book, the reader steps back in time into another world, a ‘Ceylon’ of the post-Independence 1950s, which, is barely recognizable today. Independence in 1948 had brought with it a new confidence in the present and future of the country, creating an euphoria in many cultivated minds that inspired a creative impulse in every area of the performing arts. Individuals who had hitherto "followed their bliss" in comparative isolation, came together in various different organizations and groups, believing that what they had to contribute to the arts was of value to the nation.

In the area of the English theatre alone, the 1950s saw Professor Lyn Ludowyk combining his devotion to English-language literature and to European drama to involve his youthful students (among them Iranganie Meedeniya and Jeanne Pinto) in plays by Shakespeare, Brecht, Ibsen, Pirandello, Karel Capek, Gorky, Shaw and others that were presented at King George’s Hall in Colombo. These DramSoc productions benefited from the talents of seniors such as Lucien de Zoysa, Johann Leembruggen, Arthur Van Langenberg, Percy Colin-Thome and Winston Serasinghe, some of whom were already known for their performances in Radio Ceylon’s occasional English radio plays; and notably from the skills of imported directors such as Neumann Jubal.

Ludowyk’s work survived the shift of the University’s Arts Faculty to Peradeniya; and, following his departure to England in 1956 (his last production for the DramSoc was Shaw’s "Androcles and the Lion"), his influence continued in the work of Stage & Set, the leading members of which came from the the University DramSoc in the 1960s and 1970s. "Applause at the Wendt" takes us into the 1980s and beyond, highlighting (in the work of Richard de Zoysa, Michelle Leembruggen and others) the outstanding productions of five decades in a remarkable combination of depth and comprehensiveness.

Also functioning during the 1950s was C. R. Hensman’s Shakespeare Society, which sponsored a production of "The Taming of the Shrew" to which Rowan de Costa contributed a stunning Katharina.

The Little Theatre Group combined the talents of students from Bishop’s and St Thomas’s College in a production of Chekhov’s "The Wedding" under Hensman’s direction. Plays regularly put on by the CADC (the Colombo Amateur Dramatic Company) drew on the talents of Colombo’s expatriate population in order to present plays that had scored notable popular successes on the London or New York stage.

In the background were the island’s schools and colleges, where dedicated teachers of speech and drama such as Irene Edirisinghe, Wendy Whatmore, Marian Abeysuriya and Patricia Pantin Munro, aided by Arthur van Langenberg and other theatre enthusiasts in the area of make-up and stage sets, coached student actors for the annual All-Island Shakespeare Drama competition: actors such as Shelagh (Jansen) Goonewardene, who later worked under Ludowyk and Jubal at Peradeniya, and still later, in the course of a close alliance with the Lionel Wendt Theatre and Ernest Macintyre’s Stage and Set played (among other challenging roles) an intensely moving Linda Loman to Serasinghe’s superb Willy Loman in Miller’s "Death of a Salesman" at the Wendt.

All these various streams came together most fortuitously at the arts centre complex in Guildford Crescent affectionately known to several generations simply as the Wendt’, that is celebrated in this wonderful book. The centre was established in Colombo in 1953 from the bequests of Lionel and Harry Wendt, two brothers who both died early (in 1944 and 1945), and carried to its completion by their friend Harold Peiris.

"We loved the theatre," wrote Shelagh Goonewardene to me while I was reading this book, "but we also felt that we were serving the great playwrights to the best of our ability. What we did really affected the lives of some of us beyond the reach of the stage: it shaped us as people. Not everyone felt like that - for some it was just ‘good fun’, but for a few it was a really important part of our lives. It also fulfilled the talents of really good actors like Sera who would never have had the opportunity of showing his true mettle if not for all the forces that shaped the theatre of that time."

One of those ‘forces’ was undoubtedly the civilized character and benevolent personality of the cultivated philanthropist Harold Peiris, who bore the financial burden imposed by the Wendts’ demise following Harry Wendt’s death within a year of his brother Lionel’s passing. The dedication of the centre to the performing arts (in particular to drama, music and ballet) and to painting, sculpture and photography, reflects Harold Peiris’s sympathetic understanding of his friends’ special interests and talents. Barrister Lionel Wendt’s true interests had been in photography and music, and he had made his mark in the latter field as a virtuoso pianist and as a dedicated teacher. His work as a photographer is drawing increasing attention today, marking his emergence as a truly great modern artist in this area.

Neville Weereratne’s account, which opens with a cartoon of Lionel Wendt in colour, facing p. ix, does justice to Wendt and his artistic interests, and to the contribution made by Harold Peiris. The vibrant culture that flourished in the decade following Independence found its true expression in Peiris, who had studied Sanskrit and Pali, and was equally at home in German and French. Harold Peiris translated plays from their original languages into English because he enjoyed doing so. His connection with Lionel Wendt was crucial to the development of the Theatre, for he encouraged with moral, organizational and financial support the work of those involved in every department of its activities. Such personalities as Harold Peiris’s are rare anywhere (sadly, perhaps unknown in the Sri Lanka of today), and this book makes very clear the ways in which his benevolent spirit helped the arts to flourish.

The artistic flowering that marked the culture of the 1950s, and was particularly associated with the Wendt, was by no means limited to the field of English-language theatre. The Centre opened in 1953, with Jubal’s production of "The Lower Depths", but it soon hosted (in 1956) Ediriwira Sarachchandra’s ground-breaking Sinhala play "Maname" (in the year of its first presentation at the University of Peradeniya’s open-air theatre), and was followed in 1961 by Chitrasena’s ballet "Karadiya", which had its first performance at the Wendt. The uneasy separation that existed between the English-language theatre and the Sinhala language was first bridged at the Wendt, and as Weereratne notes, ‘players from both sides of the divide’ joined in some remarkable performances. The Wendt was to become the city’s most widely used venue for Sinhala, English, and occasionally Tamil, productions. Exhibitions of art, arangethrams, musical performances, have all found a place in its theatre, in pleasing fulfilment of all that was hoped for it by the Wendt’s founding fathers in 1953.

"Applause at the Wendt" brings together personal accounts contributed by actors, producers and directors that encapsulate not only a marvellous record of artistic achievement, but convey the inspiration and the lively enjoyment which marked that record. Photographs of sets, and of actors and performers embellish the book. Henry Jayasena, Winston and Iranganie Serasinghe, Osmund Jayaratne, Lucien de Zoysa, Richard de Zoysa, Karl Goonasena, Karan Breckenridge, Shelagh Goonewardene and Christopher Greet are all among the ‘stars’that illuminate the Wendt’s firmament, and they all, together with a multitude of others, have lent the brilliance of their performances to this book.

For theatre-lovers with long memories, "Applause at the Wendt" will bring back recollections of unforgettable experiences in our very own theatre, where we witnessed productions comparable with those on any stage in the world (and in some cases might even have participated in them, in however small a way). Some of us, reading this book, will be able to say: "I was there! I saw it!" Truly, to have been young in the Sri Lanka of the 1950s and 1960s was an exhilarating sensation. It was also a great privilege, and there will be many readers of Neville Weereratne’s outstanding book who will remember that period with joy and gratitude to those enlightened spirits who, in establishing a living theatrical tradition at the Wendt, changed our lives and gave our hopes and dreams a focus: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven".

Readers of this book, and in particular those who are active on the stage today, and dedicated to the development of drama, may like to know that they will be able to find many of the landmark productions mentioned by Weereratne documented and analysed in detail in Shelagh Goonewardene’s survey of contemporary Sri Lankan theatre, "This Total Art", published a few years ago. Her book stands on its own, but is at the same time a fitting companion to Weereratne’s work. Together, the two books convey a sense of the fun and excitement (and also the hard work) involved in play production.

For inviting theatre folk of today to venture behind the curtains of the Lionel Wendt Theatre, and allowing them to connect creatively with the theatrical and artistic tradition bequeathed to this country by the theatre ‘greats’ of the past, "Applause at the Wendt" truly merits our sincere thanks. By permitting, and hopefully, inspiring a determination in actors, directors, and administrators of our day to continue that tradition and illuminate it with their individual talent, Neville Weereratne has performed an immensely valuable service to the contemporary theatre.