The Maltese Janus: Frances Ebejer and his drama.
This essay is intended to serve as an introduction to Ebejet's work as a dramatist and is written in the belief that, however one may ultimately wish to rate his drama, his best plays at least repay serious attention and should be much more widely known. Ebejer's work is uneven in quality as well as extraordinarily varied in style. His best drama, in our view, came earlier in his career; later on, he tended to overindulge his love of words for their own sake, and his attempts at writing comedy and farce were never particularly successful. A half-dozen or so of his plays, however, seem to us to be of substantial interest as well as dramatically and theatrically successful. His neglect, then, seems particularly ironic at a time when critical and academic interest in postcolonial drama and theater has been flourishing. Malta represents a particularly rich and complex case of the postcolonial, and Ebejer has himself written intriguingly about the Maltese colonial and postcolonial experience--and its implications for his own creative work--in The Bilingual Writer as Janus. (2) At the same time, there is nothing narrowly insular about his drama: though he identified himself very firmly as a Maltese writer engaging with Maltese realities, he also saw himself as participating in a larger "Euro-Mediterranean" culture, both pagan and Catholic, "overseen," as he describes it, "when I am writing in English, by some kind of an Anglo-Saxon godparent" (BWJ 34). Unlike his novels, which tend to be clearly localized, none of Ebejer's published plays in English is set in a specifically Maltese locale or concerns itself with explicitly Maltese issues (unlike his plays in Maltese). Also, Ebejer was artistically a cosmopolitan, drawing on his broad knowledge of European and American dramatic traditions to create plays in a range of styles and genres, from the naturalistic to the absurd, from symbolic parable to zany farce.
Rather like Wole Soyinka's Myth, Literature and the African World or Derek Walcott's essay "What the Twilight Says," Ebejer's reflections on his work and its cultural context in The Bilingual Writer as Janus lead us to some of the underlying pre-occupations of his playwriting. Indeed, just as Soyinka has envisaged the function of the modern African artist as the "voice of vision" for his or her own time and place, so Ebejer envisions the artist's role as "that of the mystic humanitarian with his individual conscience transmitting the necessary charges to his creative essence." It is, he continues, "precisely through the agency of this conscience that vision and personal and/or collective memory are stimulated to conjure up characters and their subliminal past-present motivations." Concerned though he was personally by the particular position of the bilingual writer, Ebejer was also convinced that his key themes--conscience, vision, and memory--transcend considerations of bilingualism, are indeed "above language" since they occupy "perennial spheres already known to man even before he had discovered speech" (BWJ 23). However unfashionable Ebejer's views on language and its relation to identity and ethics may now be, at least for commentators influenced by contemporary critical theory, both his preoccupations and his humanistic response to them seem to have much in common with perspectives expressed by other writers--including Soyinka, Walcott, and Fugard--working in a range of postcolonial contexts. Ebejer's humanism (or "Mother Concept," as he liked to call it) had a particular distinctive coloring--that of "a Catholic writer who is also of the Mediterranean" (BWJ 31). The "wildly complex" culture of the Mediterranean has always been defined, in Ebejer's view, by "the spirit of ... interlocking beliefs," including a spirit of mediterranieta conceived as a dynamically ambivalent, Janus-like goddess, with her "atavistic and dichotomous, self-contrasting yet unfailingly life-enhancing, presence." (His personal logo, in fact, represented the Phoenician goddess Tanit.) At the same time, one of the interlocking beliefs in this Mediterranean culture is what Ebejer, quoting Flannery O'Connor, describes as a "Catholic sacramental view of life," with its characteristic ritual pattern of self-interrogation, expiation and cleansing, and emancipatory redemption (BWJ 33, 38).
If this sense of pagan-Christian "Mediterraneanness" provided the matrix for Ebejer's overall artistic project, his exploration of characteristic themes assumed a rich diversity of artistic forms and styles, not to mention the differing perspectives of his two literary languages. If we allow Ebejer to be our main (and, as he points out, subjective and therefore not necessarily reliable) guide to his own writing, we may note that when he looked back over his work he identified its primum movens as the quest for an all-around emancipation, expressed in a range of ways in varying contexts--personal, social, and political. (3)
Indeed, the action and counteraction of much of his drama is defined by the desire or need for freedom of some kind and the obstacles that impede its realization.
THE PLAY Boulevard was first written and performed in Maltese in 1964 and was subsequently translated by the author into English. (4) Although an early play, it is one of Ebejer's most accomplished, a carefully crafted piece of expressionistic absurdism that works at a number of levels. Looking back on it over two decades later, the playwright clearly felt it to be pivotal in his development, a work in which, without being fully aware of it at the time, he had been "taking some sort of measure of a string of equivocal and anti-Mystery offshoots of Western civilization: among them, the denial of sin by the Renaissance; of Revelation by the Enlightenment; of God by Communism" (BWJ 35). On a section of boulevard overlooking the sea, a group of characters interact, each in his or her own way seeking to fill a void in the self by becoming what one of them wishfully claims to be--"strong and whole and superbly integrated." Ebejer's vision evidently has affinities with Beckett, Ionesco, and other absurdist dramatists of the period in its existentialist emphasis on the difficulty of achieving an authentic personal freedom, and the correspondingly seductive enslavement of the self in one or another form of ritual, stereotype, or system. This is revealed in the basic plot action, which moves from the characters' growing regression into a kind of atavistic egoism, culminating in Blonk's murder of the benign yet not-altogether-in-control Author (who is heard but not seen); through their descent into a state of unfreedom, tyrannized by the sinister and now overtly fascistic Blonk; toward a possible redemption, which is nullified, however, by their inability to escape the temptations offered by selective memory and illusion. For much of the second and third acts the characters wait for the arrival of one of the ships that used to visit them in the hope that they will depart to the "beautiful port" beyond the horizon. But even when its horn sounds they remain oblivious of its coming, lost in contemplation, as one of them says, of "the memory of the time when they thought they were free, not when they were freed." The action ends where it began, with the characters promenading on the boulevard, gradually freezing into silhouettes of selfhoods they are apparently incapable of transcending.
Ebejer's primary meaning seems to be that, even when people are offered a second chance for some kind of fulfilment or happiness, there is a perversity about them that may destroy that which they most desire. This perversity derives, not so much from anything forced upon them--though in the person of the murderous Blonk the forces of repression are certainly present and temporarily dominant, as they are in some of Ebejer's other plays--as from the characters' servitude to wish-fulfilling memory and their creation of self-serving illusions. Behavior, in this perspective, is a pattern of activity condemned to repeat itself incessantly, determined by the fixities of the ego. Much of Ebejer's effort, and achievement, as a dramatist in Boulevard is to present expressionistic stage images and dialogue powerfully evoking what he describes in a note at the beginning of act 2 as "a vacuum-existence, a spiralling round and round a void." And that void, in this play, is the self, and its inability or unwillingness to communicate with others.
In Boulevard, the characters' tendency to egotistical self-deception is an important dimension that has implications for art--especially, of course, for the theater. Though the canvas in act 3 is completely blank, the characters huddle around it, seeing on it whatever they wish to see. Also, like Pirandello in Six Characters in Search of an Author, Ebejer was evidently fascinated by the idea of the playwright's inventions taking on an independent life of their own, adopting objectives and behavior contrary to their author's original intentions. As he wryly notes, not even the artist is immune to the risks arising from his own creations since even fictional creations may become so egotistically willful that they turn against their creator. With choked gasps and "a long, amplified, toppling sound like that of a huge avalanche," act 1 ends in truly Barthesian fashion, with the death of the Author (played by Ebejer himself in the Maltese production). Witty and theatrically effective though it is, Boulevard does not in fact develop the Pirandellian implications of this metatheatrical conceit very far. More prominent, in fact, are its social implications: left to their own devices, and deprived of a script that has been reduced to bits of paper blowing across the now barbed-wired boulevard, the characters appear to have been deprived of their liberty by the despotic Blonk. Most suggestive of all, however, is the even larger, specifically Christian dimension of the theatrum mundi motif, the idea of men and women as the destructive and ungrateful creations of a Being who seeks only their good but continually receives only their evil. As a Christian existentialist, Ebejer can be seen, and certainly saw himself, as a writer in pursuit of "that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula" (BWJ 33). In Boulevard, he presents his vision of the desolation of a world in which the human actors have killed off God. For Ebejer, it is as if Godot actually arrives (in the form of the long and eagerly awaited ship), but the characters who have been waiting for his redemptive visitation are too engrossed in other matters to notice that he has come and, eventually, departed.
Some of the main themes and motifs of Boulevard recur in Menz, a parable play combining elements of naturalism and expressionism, which was written and performed three years later and also translated into English by the author. (5) The aging yet lively Menz tums up one day in a town to which, he says, he has always wanted to come. The town has a totalitarian, xenophobic atmosphere, and the old man quickly becomes the object of intense and generally hostile attention. Only Tereza and Gorg, who have once been lovers but are now estranged from each other, offer him affection and understanding. Gorg seems to be the only person in the town willing to buck its conformist trend, though at the price of making himself an outsider distrusted and disliked by the others. Eventually, the town's despotic ruler, the gaudily glamorous Ludilla B, arrives with her entourage to take a look for herself at the newcomer. Her presence, however, has a disastrous effect on Menz: he is soon reduced to senility and inducted into the prevailing conformism. Only Gorg intervenes, trying to save the old man's soul, but he is ruthlessly punished for his efforts. Menz dies, having--according to Tereza--willed his own demise. The bleakness of the ending is only qualified by the action of Tereza's lover, Razz, hitherto an epitome of the town's self-seeking conformism, in symbolically undoing his ceremonial sash and flinging
it to the ground.
In Menz, Ebejer takes up a strand of Boulevard but expands it into a much more elaborate image of a society that has not so much been cowed into conformist submission but, in truth, collectively acquiescent in it. If the small-minded insularity of characters like Taxi, Cake-Seller, and Police (they never acquire the dignity of individual names)--who seek their own profit in a society where no one is allowed to get out of line---is meant by Ebejer as a critique of or window on postcolonial Malta, his strategy is to offer no overt clues that this is so. In any case, the expose of conformist and totalitarian mentalities is less compelling, dramatically, than the journey taken by Menz himself from free spirit to pathetically broken conformist and the reasons behind it. Ruthless though Ludilla B's regime is shown as being, it is not its brute force that destroys Menz but his desire for love, and specifically his Oedipal quest for the mother-figure, which leads him to willingly cast off his freedom, indeed to see his former liberty as a form of enslavement and, conversely, his new enslavement as a relief from his "intolerable burden." Memory, and the act of remembering itself, is as important for Menz as it was for some of the characters of Boulevard, but as is the case in the earlier play, it turns out to be an activity that can ensnare the self and prove the greatest threat to personal liberty.
The Cliffhangers, written like Menz in 1967, reworks in a more straightforwardly naturalistic style some of the central concerns of the two plays already discussed, especially that of memory and the need to come to terms with the past, and Ebejer's pagan/Catholic preoccupation with guilt and expiation. (6) A group of people live or work in a small hotel deep in the country. Two young people, a brother and sister, who as children lived in the area, have come back on what seems at first to be a kind of pilgrimage cum holiday. But it transpires that they have more precise and passionate reasons for returning. One of the long-term guests at the hotel, Jean, was their father's lover, and they are seeking revenge on behalf of their mother, a once-famous singer who has died in misery, aware of her husband's infidelity. Having more or less been absorbed into the small community, Andre and Casta, the brother and sister, put on a ritualistic evening "entertainment" for the other guests that turns out to evoke or elicit the secrets of their guilty pasts and appears to end with Casta's stabbing of Jean. In fact, she has been stopped at the last moment, but the next day the young people leave, having transformed forever their own and the other guests' lives.
Again, as in Boulevard and other plays such as Summer Holidays, Ebejer focuses on a group of people whose relations are characterized by their enmities or inadequacies. In The Cliffhangers, the recurrent image of the much desired "beautiful place," where peace, serenity, and a kind of perfection are finally achieved, is embodied in the small country hotel where the guests stay for years, having chosen to cut themselves off from the rest of the world and their previous lives. Memory and guilt cannot be altogether stilled, however, and the play's inciting incident is the arrival of two strangers whose lives have been deeply marked by the actions of one of the guests. As a result, everyone is forced, in an act of cathartic remembering, to relive their past and accept some share of the guilt for what has happened. By the end, nothing has apparently changed, but everything in fact is different. What has been hidden has been brought to the surface; the pretence is over, and now they must go on living together, knowing the truth about each other. The Cliffhangers reveals Ebejer's talent, at his best, for complex, nuanced portrayals of personal relationships and his ability to leave an audience feeling deeply ambivalent about almost all the characters, and Jean in particular.
GUILT AND MEMORY ARE ALSO IMPORTANT ISSUES in many of Ebejer's Maltese-language plays. They are very obviously central in Hitan (Walls) a television play from 1970 that subsequently became a stage production about three generations of a Christian Jewish family, two of which had survived the Holocaust. (7) The grandfather, who has settled his family in Malta after the war, is obsessed with remembering the Holocaust and making sure that his grandchildren know it as if they had lived through it like himself. He had lost his wife in a concentration camp, and it is clear that he feels guilty about having survived, as he claims all those who had their dear ones taken from them likewise feel. But he also harbors a deep hatred toward the perpetrators of the great genocide, a hatred that seems to extend to all non-Jewish members of the human race. His house is a shrine to the Holocaust, and he has even enlisted his grandchildren to reenact symbolically the tortures of the camps, armed with Nazi flags and Jewish and Christian icons. Nevertheless, there is one important item missing from his shrine of memories, which is anything that might remind him of his wife. Among the many pictures hanging on the walls, there are no photographs or other images of her.
The reason behind this lacuna is revealed toward the end of the play, in one of those ritualistic scenes that recur in Ebejer's drama. The return of the old man's daughter from Israel, where she has worked as a university professor teaching Jewish history until being sacked because of her insistence on exclusively teaching the Holocaust, prompts him to "renew the house" through a sinister ritual. He reads from what seems to be his gospel of hate, and his grandchildren enact the parts of prisoners (including their own grandmother) and of Nazi soldiers. It is when the ritual is interrupted by the granddaughter's non-Jewish boyfriend that the play reaches its climax. The young man becomes the object of the grandfather's anger, but the daughter halts the ritual to recount another side of the story. She tells of how her father was not welcome in Israel because he betrayed his wife in the camp and sent her to her death. It is only when the truth has finally come out that the old man and the rest of the family can get on with living and are able to put the events of the Holocaust in their rightful place in memory, rather than perpetuating them in their daily lives. Only this way can the suffering of the Jews serve a useful purpose, instead of being used as an excuse to make other people suffer as a sort of perpetual payback. (8)
Hitan is stylistically a straightforward play, which owes its success to its uncomplicated plot and sharp naturalistic rendering of the strong emotions--hate, anger, and pain--that over-power the characters. It was also one of Ebejer's first plays with a precise geographical setting, though the fact that it is set in Malta is not particularly relevant to the drama, except perhaps to justify it to a Maltese audience. This was not the case, however, with much of his drama of the 1970s. Plays such as II-Hadd fuq il-Bejt (Sunday on the roof), L-Imnarja Zmien il-Qtil (Imnarja--A time for killing), and Meta Morna tal-Melliena (The day we went to Melliena) are deeply rooted in the fabric of Maltese society, though they do share with Hitan the naturalistic style that seems to have been more agreeable to Maltese audiences than the absurdism or expressionism of his earlier plays. Whereas in his drama of the 1960s Ebejer tended to use antirealistic elements even in plays where much of the plot and characterisation are realistic, in his work of the 1970s he insisted on a greater degree of naturalism both in the acting and in the stage design, which had to reproduce as faithfully as possible well-known Maltese locations. In these plays, the audience learns much more about the main characters' backgrounds, and the dialogue is written to represent as truthfully as possible their geographical origins, age, and temperament. In spite of this, Ebejer was never interested in naturalism for its own sake, and there are scenes in all the plays that are difficult to reconcile with a thoroughgoing naturalism. It is a style described by Ebejer as "naturalism [that] can be raised to the power of metaphor or symbolism" (BWJ 30).
The metaphorical or symbolic potential of which Ebejer speaks is powerfully realized in II-Hadd fuq il-Bejt, written and performed in 1971. (9) On the face of it, this is a play about a thirty-something middle-class Maltese woman, Rita, who is married yet childless. Her inability to bear children governs the way she organizes her life and tries to organize the lives of those around her. She spends far too much time on the roof of her villa, the farthest she can get away from the noise of the children playing in the street, which she claims is driving her insane. Her deliberate isolation, it becomes clear during the play, is a desperate attempt to exclude anything or anyone from her life that will remind her of her "failure." As a result, she has lost the friendship of almost everyone, including her husband. When her childhood friend reveals her pregnancy, Rita pushes her away as well, even though only hours before she was clinging to her as one of her few remaining supports. At the same time, her mother, on whom she has modeled her life, is on her deathbed in a hospital. Her death is the catalyst for Rita to turn her life around. In a symbolic scene, Rita goes through a process at the end of which "she gives birth--to herself, a new woman" (67). She loses her old prejudices, her sense of superiority toward her husband and the village world he came from, and is able to embrace those things around her that can offer her the support she lacks. At the end of the play, she is still childless but at least has come to terms with her situation.
II-Hadd fuq il-Bejt works on several different levels. Besides the human drama of the protagonist--one of the most powerful characters Ebejer ever created--the play is also a portrait of various aspects of postcolonial Malta. Rita belongs to the middle class that prospered after independence but which, Ebejer suggests, was unable to find any meaning in its existence except monetary gain. It does not enjoy art or culture; many of its members, too preoccupied with their businesses, have failed in their family relationships--traditionally one of the priorities of Maltese life; and, even more importantly, it has created an artificial distance between itself and the rest of Maltese society. All these issues are raised by the play, along with problems like the great disillusionment of young people growing up after independence. Another reading of the play involves seeing in the character of Rita a metaphor for the postcolonial condition of Malta. Like his character, Ebejer sees Malta as sterile and unable to adapt to new conditions. Like Rita, Malta must go through a process of soul-searching and emerge with a viable identity in the new era.
Meta Morna tal-Melliena, first performed in early 1976, is very similar in structure to II-Hadd fug il-Bejt. (10) Here, too, the action takes place on a rooftop on a spring Sunday. However, this rooftop belongs to a humble family home in a seaside village. A widow has a visit from a suitor and his children--the aim is to come to an agreement about their proposed marriage. The main obstacles to the union are the two sets of children and geography, but most of all the resistance of the widow's mother to her daughter's plans. The old grandmother is in fact the central figure of the play, dominating the proceedings from her wheelchair. She has farmed all her life and cannot bear to see her family deserting agriculture for a different, if more comfortable, way of life. Her only remaining goal in life is to convince her grandson that he should leave his city job and take up farming. She is insensitive to the pain she is causing not only the boy, who is in a dilemma; but also his mother, whose children are being taken away from her by the power exerted by the grandmother; and the grandson's girlfriend, who loses him simply because she does not fit in with the grandmother's vision. Having her way also nixes the widow's marriage plans, since she will have to stay in her mother's house to watch over her children and brother in an attempt to prevent the old woman's influence from destroying them.
Tension between parents and their children is a recurring theme in Ebejer's drama. Wherever it occurs it points toward the belief that parental influence can be an oppressive force that hinders children, even as adults, from leading an independent and fulfilling life. The grandmother in Meta Morna tal-Mellieha has such a hold on her family that her daughter must continually affirm her own maternity. In II-Hadd fuq il-Bejt, Rita can only resolve her identity crisis when her mother dies and she has to stand on her own feet. The ties with one's own parents, however, can never be completely broken. The eponymous protagonist of Menz sees his trip to the unnamed town as a return to his parents' house, and he confuses its political authoritarianism with parental authority. As we saw, his need for a mother figure, which he finds in Ludilla B, proves to be his downfall. References to the oppressive ties between parents and children are present throughout Ebejer's work, whether in English or Maltese, but they are never as strong as in his plays with specifically Maltese backgrounds, where they reflect the rigid structure of the island's family ties.
GIVEN THE SPACE AVAILABLE, we have not tried to offer an overview of Ebejer's entire dramatic oeuvre, nor have we dwelt at any length either on Maltese history, colonial or post-independence, or the dramatic and theatrical environment within which his plays were written and performed. (11) Instead, we have chosen to concentrate on a handful from among what seem to us to be his most interesting plays in Maltese and English. By doing so, we have tried not only to give some sense of the dramatic and theatrical qualities of the individual plays but also an idea of how, more generally, Ebejer has used the stage to explore a number of ultimately related and deeply felt preoccupations. We hope that in due course Francis Ebejer's best work will become more widely available to English-speaking readers and possibly theatergoers, allowing a fuller evaluation of a playwright whose interest lies both in his individual achievement and in the affinities he shares with some of his contemporaries, especially those writing in other postcolonial contexts.
(1) The only published account of Ebejer's drama that we know of is Bruce King's brief discussion in Contemporary Dramatists, 4th ed. (London/Chicago: St. James Press, 1988).
(2) In September 1987, Ebejer was invited to write about his literary output for a conference on Commonwealth literature at the University of Venice and the Comune of Mira. The resulting text was The Bilingual Writer as Janus (Malta: Foundation for International Studies, 1989). Page references to this work, hereafter abbreviated BWJ, will be given parenthetically.
(3) See The Bilingual Writer as Janus, 25-28.
(4) Published in Francis Ebejer, Collected English Plays, vol. 2 (Valletta, Malta: A. C. Aquilina, 1980).
(5) Menz is also available in Ebejer's Collected English Plays, vol. 2.
(6) Published in Francis Ebejer, Collected English Plays, vol. 3 (Valetta, Malta: A. C. Aquilina, 1980).
(7) Francis Ebejer, Hitan, 2nd ed. (Malta: Klabb Kotba Maltin, 1975).
(8) In The Bilingual Writer as Janus (25), Ebejer controversially attributes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at least partially to the Jews' failure to move on from the Holocaust legacy.
(9) Francis Ebejer, II-Hadd fuq il-Bejt, 3rd ed. (Malta: Klabb Kotba Maltin, 1997).
(10) Francis Ebejer, Meta Morna tal-Melliena, in Id-Drammita' Francis Ebejer, vol. 5 (Malta: Klabb Kotba Maltin, 1977).
(11) Marco Galea deals fully with these aspects--discussing the work of Ebejer and other leading Maltese playwrights--in his forthcoming Ph.D. thesis (for the University of Birmingham) on Maltese theater.
BRIAN CROW teaches in the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham, England. The author of An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 1996), his specialty is in the area of postcolonial studies, especially African drama and theater.
MARCO GALEA teaches Maltese literature and drama at the University of Malta. His main area of interest is the development of theater in Malta during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is the editor of It-Teatru Malti tas-Seklu Dsatax, a two-volume anthology of Maltese nineteenth-century drama, published by Mireva Publications in 2997.
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|Author:||Crow, Brian; Galea, Marco|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2003|
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