IF two books by the same writer appear in quick succession, then a comparison between them becomes inevitable. Following closely in the footsteps of A Carrot Is a Carrot, Zia Mohyeddin’s Theatrics is a very different kind of book. While A Carrot Is a Carrot contains forays into the writer’s past and delightful vignettes about memorable people he met during his long association with the world of theatre and cinema, Theatrics focuses on the great writers and directors of theatres. Where the former is entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable, the latter is of a more serious nature and intended to form part of the curriculum at the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa). Reading it is like getting a guided tour of the world of theatre in the impeccable style and crisp manner that one associates with the author.
Zia Mohyeddin is perhaps more qualified to speak or write about things theatrical than any other person in our part of the world. He disappointed his parents and family elders by not taking up a lucrative career, in a field such as the civil services, and instead chose to make a mark for himself on the London stage. Not having been privileged to see him perform on stage, people in my age bracket associate him more with the unforgettable Zia Mohyeddin Show in the early days of Pakistan Television and with the reading of classics from Urdu poetry and prose. Mohyeddin currently heads Napa, the institution credited for reviving theatre in Karachi. And it is from the vantage point of this successful career that he writes.
In brief and pithy individual pieces, Mohyeddin brings out the works of great dramatists and directors and describes different aspects of theatre. There are pieces on Beckett and Chekhov, the Parsi theatre of Bombay with which Urdu drama marked its beginnings and comedy shows with Moin Akhtar.
A brief introduction opens the collection and also defines the point of view and the purpose Mohyeddin has employed. He speaks of the changing fashions of theatre and how the magic has remained the same: “By magic I do not mean trickery and hocus-pocus, but something which extends the horizons of the spectator, a magic that shakes and alters our notion of what we consider to be substantial, and transports us to the realm of beyond,” he writes, and it is this realm which one finds in the pages that follow. “An Actor’s Lot” is an unforgettable piece which begins with the “ordeal” of auditions. Built around the musings of a seasoned professional who literally seems to be taking a novice through the various steps of the steep ladder of an acting career, it is a kind of summing up, in a manner similar to what Somerset Maugham did for aspiring writers. How much aspiring actors and students of theatre stand to gain from his reflections becomes obvious in the next piece, “Stanis — Lavski”. Notice the broken name, but then it serves a purpose. The teacher refers to Stanislavski in one of his lectures and a baffled “aspirant” dares to ask who he was. The teacher explains that Stanislavski was “the Guru of the actor’s craft” but notices a blank look on every face. In the manner of a classical aside, he tells us: “a gentle probing into their background
revealed that their concept of drama did not encompass anything beyond their favourite television soap and the odd Shahrukh Khan movie”. What follows is an excellent lesson on what Stanislavski stood for and what can be learnt from him. Not limited to the aspiring actor, the lesson has a lot to teach those who are interested in the use of imagination and the need to acquire better self control.
From Moscow theatre Mohyeddin makes a quick turn to old Bombay theatre and Agha Hashr, linking the beginnings of Urdu theatre to stage craft today. Wit and wisdom combine with an insider’s insights in the pieces which follow on Chekhov, Ibsen, Beckett, Shaw, Brecht and of course, the master of them all, Shakespeare. Encounters with Kenneth Tynan and Satyajit Ray qualify for separate pieces and there are others on the art of reading aloud, comedy and the business of writings plays. The slim volume of just less than two hundred pages covers much ground and while it will be invaluable for the theatre students for whom it is primarily intended, it will also delight and inform all those sitting in the audience.
The reviewer is a writer, critic and publisher Theatrics
By Zia Mohyeddin
National Academy of Performing Arts, Karachi
191pp. Price not listed