Popular plays revel in topicality and reap rewards from their engagements with something resembling the carpe diem philosophy relished by Metaphysical poets in the camp of the ‘Cavaliers’ of the seventeenth century. They seize every opportunity to take the best advantage of topical references and strike the hot iron of burning popular issues, things that are in fashion and whatever is current in social behaviour or political affairs.
The principles of carpe diem were a bit different as advanced by those Metaphysicals, but it has certainly not been alien to the practice of popular theatre. Not only does it adopt the current morality of the contemporary popular culture, but it thrives on the use of styles and techniques that will appeal to the populace as much as it does with topical subjects.
Interestingly, in this respect, popular theatre has not changed since the rise of the Morality Play in the Middle Ages, where pitched battles between devils and angels amused the audience. The style was slapstick, but the fight for the human soul and sinners being dragged off to hell and torn to pieces was a common concern of the populace and a fear to keep them on their best behaviour.
Today’s audience is both entertained and frightened by seeing the consequences of their actions resulting from the influences of the latest popular fashion or social evil. Popular plays will show the depravities of public behaviour arising from developing social phenomena, with warnings of what might happen if and when people are led astray by a particular harmful influence. But the plays use these same issues as popular appeal; drawing cards to attract mass audiences into the theatre because of popular interest in these topical issues.
The mobile phone or the cell phone is among these current topicalities. The phone itself as a popular device arising from the amazing new technological advances has captured and captivated the attention and the imagination of the populace because of its increasingly varied utility. It has rapidly become a truly unbelievable instrument and it is no wonder it is a fascinating phenomenon of growing popularity. It is marvelled at for its range of functions. It is a radio and a camera taking pictures and videos, which it not only stores, but sends to other phones; it is a mini-computer with internet and email; it is a calculator, a clock and a calendar; it is a recorder, it plays music and shows movies; it sends and receives written messages; it is a device used by students to cheat in exams; it stores information and no one in the modern world can do without it.
And, by the way, it can also make telephone calls.
However, all these technological wonders are not what really make the cell phone so significant. The greater issue is its social function; the way it has become much more than a scientific convenience, but rather a social phenomenon. Much more than its usefulness, there is the matter of its overwhelming influence. Everyone is worried about the effect of the cell phone on teenagers and pre-teens who have no idea what life was like in the ancient days when you had to write letters, go to the library and read books, or actually buy records and play them in order to listen to music.
Even more than that, the cell phone has become highly fashionable. Phones make fashion statements and define the status and popularity of their owners. The iphones, the ipods and the Blackberrys are status symbols and wield heavy influence in social circles. Among the youths they serve as vehicles for the latest popular behaviours, which include various forms of mischief and are sometimes cause for concern.
In the recent National Drama Festival these issues became the subject of a play. A group of second form students from Queen’s College performed a play called I-Phone Disaster that had been written by two of them, and which focused on the popularity of the new fashionable device. The authors were Jemima Holmes and Grace Hutson, and the play was directed by Violet Holder. The main theme of the drama revolved around the potential dangers of cell phone over-use, stressing not only harmful distractions and social withdrawals, but how the iphone can be a danger to health. Given their inexperience in matters theatrical, the play might not have made the impact it should have, but it was a courageous achievement by those second and first form students to use drama to comment on their own behavior, and warn against the likely consequences of their own actions.
After that, the most recent play on this subject was by leading contemporary Guyanese dramatist Ronald Hollingsworth, who seized the day with the production of Text Me. The Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company Limited, GT&T, also leapt on board with him because of the obvious marketability and popular appeal of a play dealing with the highly topical subject of ‘texting.’ One of the most popular, fashionable and influential uses of the mobile phone is the sending of text messages, and Hollingsworth zeroed in on that in Text Me. This new form of communication has put the post office out of business, not to mention books and formal writing skills, and has utterly revolutionised correspondence and social interaction. It has also had a significant effect on the language, threatening to drive language change. ‘Text me’ and ‘texting’ are now parts of the language, as is ‘sexting,’ one of the off-shoot social phenomena that have driven fear into parents and school heads. Hollingsworth touches on some of these in the play. It is now a fashion to use the technology to record and exchange sexual by-play and activity, and this is also treated in the drama.
Hollingsworth has never been reticent in taking advantage of topicality for playwriting. He has been responsible for some of the most popular plays based on topical issues, such as Till Ah Find A Place (arising out of the housing shortage and squatting) and Watch De Ride (about the mini-bus sub-culture and ‘bus riding’). Now his Text Me with the ready support of GT&T certainly caught the attention of the audience.
With a cast that included some of the most outstanding actors, Mahadeo Shivraj, Sonia Yarde, Kijana Lewis and Michael Ignatius, he portrayed a family, quite happy until the intervention of the cell phone and the texting culture. Those major protagonists, particularly Sonia Yarde and Shivraj, who has a comfortable and confident command of the stage, helped the strength of the production. So did Ignatius in a minor role and others who were un-named, such as the actress who played Savitri.
The highly entertaining drama included a wife already addicted to the mobile phone and its texts, and children growing up on the texting sub-culture and learning all the tricks and mischiefs. The dramatic conflicts involve a husband who has so far resisted the cell phone, but once persuaded to use it, falls victim to some of its bad habits, including some that invade his relationships with his wife and threaten the marriage. Texting leads to mistaken identities and misunderstandings which also nearly destroy friendships. It also has a good touch at the end when the young daughter, who was ironically responsible for some of the comedy of errors in the plot which led to a frosty shut-out of her father by his wife, offers to tell him how to thaw her out. “Daddy,” she advises, “text her.”
However, having captured the audience’s attention with this attractive topic, the play did not have much to tell them. While it included some of the relevant issues, it was not very deep. Other matters of intra and inter-family relationships fuelled conflict. Apart from being the source of a dangerous misunderstanding and minor spates of coolness between husband and wife, the phone and texting did not weigh too heavily upon the main plot and its complications.
The theatre of texting, though, did invoke some humour and mild reminders of what could result from the ominous presence and the dangers of misuse of the mobile phone. Further, because of the slightness of treatment of the texting issue, what the play unintentionally showed was that the lurking evil lies not in the phone but in the mind of man; in the weaknesses of human nature.