While watching a play at the theatre, our faces are a paradox. They are private and yet public. We are in the company of others in the auditorium, but once we start watching, we are alone. We drop our masks. Our faces are unguarded, not like when we’re in a café or on a bus, when we are aware of those around us. For some, as the play progresses, they become more immersed and unselfconscious. But for others, the opposite happens. They may lose interest, or feel uncomfortable. They might choose to avoid confronting what’s on the stage and resort to texting on their phone, or playing with their partner’s hand, or simply closing their eyes and blocking it all. Still others may fidget, waiting for a lull so they can leave the auditorium with minimal disturbance. There are as many responses to a play as there are people in the audience, and their reactions may be as interesting as the play itself.
I watched ‘Lights Out,’ in Lahore about two years ago. At the start of the play, the organisers said, ‘Please be warned, there are trigger alerts.’ I suppose nowadays we expect to be forewarned, we don’t like to be taken off-guard by anything. We expect to be asked for permission, cautioned if we’re going to be negatively affected. But isn’t that the purpose of art? To allow ourselves an experience which could trigger a memory, moment of self-realisation, expand our imagination or conscience?
Written in 2000, by the Indian feminist playwright, Manjula Padmanabhan, ‘Lights Out,’ is written in one act, with six characters. Set in a middle class drawing room, of a sixth floor apartment in Mumbai, where Leela and Bhaskar live, the play is about the cause of heart-breaking screams which the couple keeps hearing and what should be done about them. First thing in the morning, at noon, at tea time, whenever the doorbell rings and after dark, we can hear the blood-chilling screams of a women. They frighten Leela, and she insists a woman is being tortured and they ought to help, and call the police. But Bhaskar says he is ‘not disturbed by them.’ The screams and cries continue and Leela grows increasingly more paranoid, closing the curtains, and stuffing her ears with cotton wool. She says,
‘We’re part of…of what happens outside….by watching it, we’re making ourselves responsible.’
Leela begs Bhaskar to call the police, but Bhaskar says it’s a waste of time, and doesn’t want to get involved. When she asks why, he says, ‘I am reluctant to stick my neck out, that’s all,’ and the police too, could tell them it was, ‘none of their business, what goes on next door.’ He tells Leela to calm down, which upsets her even more, but she tries saying ‘Om’ and meditating. However, nothing helps, because all the while the screams continue.
The audience is left to imagine what must be happening to the woman. Her cries conjure up images of all the kinds of horrible things that could be happening and because she remains off-stage, it is all the more unnerving. So much went through my mind as I sat there trying to absorb it all, but I was distracted by the people in row behind me. I could hear them fidgeting, and arguing in whispers about leaving. There was the sound of someone playing with their phone and finally two people got up and left. The play had only just started, but it was obviously too overwhelming for them. Is it that easy to walk away from situations that make us uncomfortable?
I was taken back to when I was eighteen. I was studying in Canada, at the UBC and living at halls of residence on campus. During the first week, the warden warned us to take precautions when walking back from the library or pub at night; the campus had proper security lights, guards patrolling the grounds and cameras, but it was best to be careful and not wander around on one’s own. That fall, Vancouver was having an Indian summer and I left my window open. Late one night, when I was reading in bed, I heard noises. My window overlooked a garden with bushes of flowers. I went to the window; it was pitch dark and I could see nothing. Then I heard scuffling coming from the clump of trees and a girl began screaming. Her cries quickly turned to shouts for help. My heart pounding, I opened the window wider and shouted, ‘Who’s there? What’s going on?’ Suddenly everything became quiet. I waited, staring out into the night.
In the play, the couple gets two visitors. The first is Mohan, Bhaskar’s friend who expresses his wish to ‘not to get involved, but just be close enough to see everything clearly.’ He says he gets a voyeuristic pleasure, from watching a crime and defends himself saying; ‘…when there’s an accident in the street, don’t we all turn to look?’ After all, he says, ‘what’s the harm is simply watching?’ Bhaskar agrees. As the screams become increasingly more terrifying and the woman shouts for help, Mohan and Bhaskar continue their debate over dinner. Was it a domestic brawl, a religious rite, an orgy, a type of exhibitionism? Was it, ‘a prostitute who deserved it?’ Or was it the poor, uncivilised, lower class neighbours who ‘typically behaved like this,’ because violence was a normal part of their everyday lives? The cold discussion continues and Mohan concludes, ‘So long as it is the poor attacking the poor,’ they didn’t need to get involved, after all ‘it is not our problem.’ What was happening was something, ‘private,’ and ‘outsiders can never really be the judge of what’s going on.’
Back in halls, after my shouts were met with silence, I rushed to my neighbour’s room and banged on her door to wake her up. I told her about the screams, and that I was calling the police. She said she hadn’t heard anything. She went to her window and looked out. There was nothing, no one in sight, she said. Maybe I had imagined it, she said. No, I was sure, I said. A girl was in trouble. Those were the days before mobile phones and we all shared one phone in the TV room. I quickly dialled campus security and told them what I’d heard. I remember becoming quite hysterical as I asked them to come as quickly as they could. But in the end, after asking me a dozen questions, they did nothing. They said it appeared I was the only one who’d heard the screams, no one else had reported any disturbance around the building, so they weren’t going to investigate it. They often received hoax calls, from students, so unless two or more people complained, they didn’t bother. I hung up, crying.
In the play, the screams continue and Leela is beside herself. Then her friend Naina, the second visitor appears. She is confident and while all this time Bhaskar has stopped Leela looking out of the window, Naina insists on seeing for herself where the screams are coming from. She goes to the window, looks out, and says she can see, ‘a woman being…’ but she stops short of saying the word. There is a silence until Mohan says, ‘You must have seen a lot of rape to recognise it,’ to which Naina retorts, ‘Three men, holding down one woman, with her legs pulled apart …What would you call that —a poetry reading?’
Bhaskar and Mohan pull Naina into a discussion on rape, insisting that the victim could be a whore. Mohan says, ‘You see, if she were a decent woman, we people would go to her rescue! … She is not, and so she’s being left to her fate!’ Naina, who initially offers hope, reassurance to Leela and a possible intervention for the victim, too, however, ends up intellectualising the incident and Mohan comments on how the media would love the news were they to sell it- he sees an advantage at last to getting involved. ‘Hey, come on! Any newspaper! Pictures like these, even the foreign press would snap them up—-I’m telling you, we’d make a lot of money— after all, how often does anyone see authentic pictures of a gang-rape in action?’ By the end of ‘Lights Out,’ the screams have stopped and Leela has a mental breakdown.
Back on campus, I never heard anything about the incident, again. There was nothing in the UBC newspaper, there was no mention of the screams by anyone else and my neighbour convinced me not to ask or talk about it. It was better I didn’t get involved, she said. Wasn’t it better to forget about it and enjoy campus life? I should have done something more, I said. A girl was being raped. Calm down my neighbour said, you have no idea who she was. She could have been having fun. How do you know it was rape? It’s only your first month on campus and you still have four whole years to go, why do you want to get dragged into a situation where you could be called as a witness to a crime? I tried to push the whole thing to the back of my mind and forget it. But when I walked around campus I wondered, who was she? What could I have done? Should I have gone down to look for her in the garden? Should I have insisted the police come? Should I have dragged my neighbour down to the garden with me? I know I didn’t imagine the screams.
Now, thinking back to the experience of watching ‘Lights Out,’ and how I got lost in my memories, I wonder, what did my face give away and what emotions did it mask? In ‘Reflections on Theatre,’ (1993) K Madavane explores ‘the peculiarity of theatre,’ which he describes as a ‘vaporous creation,’ because, he argues, ‘it seeks nothing more than to leave an indelible impression on the memory of the spectator.’ But is this reflected on the spectator’s face?
In ‘Shirin,’ an Iranian film directed by arthouse master Abbas Kiarostami explores the reactions of an audience watching a film. We are an audience watching an audience, similar to Hamlet, watching a play within a play. The women on the screen are professional actors, this is not a documentary, they have poise and verve, and they are acting a part. What do we see? Women in a crowded, dark theatre, watching a film. They are all wearing headscarves, and have deep almond-shaped eyes and luminous skin. Shirin is based on a 12th Century poem about Shirin, Queen of Armenia, a Persian king and a humble sculptor. But we never see the film. We only see it reflected through the eyes of the women watching it. We hear the Farsi dialogue, Iranian music, sounds of horses neighing, and battle cries. And we are given a succession of female faces, entirely in close-up one after another, intently watching the film. The camera frames each woman for about 30-50 seconds before cutting to another, sometimes we see two other women in the seats behind, occasionally there is a male viewer. We notice some movements; an elegant hand scratches a chin, adjusts a hijab, brushes away a tear. Some women wear ornate jewellery- bracelets and earrings, and others have varnished nails. But what is most striking is when there is a show of emotion- when tears start to roll down a face. Then we are curious- what made her cry? What memory did it trigger? What did it spark in her imagination? And we wonder was is ‘Shirin’ the film itself, about? A long gaze on female physiognomy, a study in the art of watching, a meditation on the cinema experience, on drama and catharsis, on female empathy or a scrutiny of reaction shots? Or all these?
In an interview Kiarostami explained that most of the women were well-known Iranian actresses and he filmed them in his home, without showing them the film. It was all a contrivance he said, they were acting, those were not real emotions. The actors were self-conscious. Kiarostami turns the cinematic experience on its head. Would the expressions have been different if the actors had been ordinary people watching the film? And how would the reactions have been different if the actors had been watching the film without the self-consciousness of knowing they were being filmed? For myself, I was glad that the auditorium in ‘Lights Out,’ had been dark, that no one saw my face, and the experience remained intensely personal.
In the same essay mentioned above, K Madavane explains how:
‘…theatre overlaps itself into memory. Its poetry stretches into the silence of the spectator’s recollections… we try to seize it, and believe that we can hold on to it forever. But it disappears from us like water slipping through our fingers…Theatre belongs entirely to the realm of memory, nothing but memory with its immense powers to forget and interpret.’
I suppose you could say every theatre viewing performance comes with an implicit warning: be careful, you might just find yourself looking into your past at yourself, and you may not like what you see.
Farah Ahamed’s short stories and essays have been published in The White Review, Ploughshares, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, The Massachusetts Review amongst others.
You can read more of her work here: farahahamed.com