Are ‘Theatre Baargers’ Elitists?

Uncle Ant’s Agony and Ecstasy is a monthly column. Uncle Ant will answer questions about anything to do with the world of arts, from how to maintain a soprano girlfriend, to how to pretend to be knowledgeable about paintings, to how to become a soprano girlfriend. Uncle Ant has an answer for everything. Direct your artistic angst to

From: Patrick Teoh

So much has been said about Malaysian English language theatre….

Elitist, Incestuous, Self serving, Must not be entertaining or it will not be theatre, etc. etc.

So my question is this. Which should fuel whom ah?

Stratford fuels West End? Broadway fuels ‘serious’ theatre?

These theatre baargers talk too much and do too little. Sometimes I wish that they would just shut up and do their thing, whatever that may be, and let the paying public decide if they want more or not. Let’s stop or at least pull back a little on this “hey we want to make you think, make a difference in your life and your community etc. etc. blablablahhhhhhhhhhhh.”

I buy a ticket, and they are getting really expensive these days, so make it fun for me first lah. Then if I get something out of it that will make a diff in my life OK that’s a nice bonus. If not so what lah? Nowadays, first first already WAH must think about this and that, much fight with authorities, issues, issues issues… Wah theatre damn difficult to enjoy lah… let’s buy ticket go to Tanjung Golden Village cinema lah. I hope I am making some sense to you, my old friend. If not just delete this email and relegate me to that bunch of wankers above and I shall not bother you again lah 🙂





Congratulations, Patrick, for being the very first to pose an “arty” question to Uncle Ant’s all-new Agony & Ecstasy Column on! Can’t think of a better way to kick this off than with the funny-serious question you raise -which actually opens up a complex of issues to which no straightforward answer could possibly apply.

Theatre has long been represented by a pair of masks – comic and tragic – showing the two sides of human experience, the light and the heavy. The mask as a symbol of personality goes back to prehistoric times when tribal shamans would trance out by donning a mask and robes while channelling an animal totem or the spirit of a powerful ancestor. This magical ritual was usually to bless a hunting expedition with success, or rescue a soul from the astral realms and return it safely to its physical vehicle, thereby curing any illness afflicting it. In Athens, theatre served as social catharsis as well as moral education -with masked players personifying various attributes and tendencies like nobility, loyalty, courage, jealousy, greed, cruelty and deceit.

In general, tragedies were favoured by the ruling elite who found solace in watching their own tragic flaws depicted on stage and were thus able to assuage their guilt a little and discharge a few sentimental tears (even tyrants enjoy a good cry, as exemplified by Hitler’s S.S. officers who reportedly shed copious sentimental tears while listening to Wagnerian opera – after sending trainloads of unfortunates to the death camps).

Comedies were often a form of stress relief for the masses who could enjoy a public snicker or two at the foibles of the upper classes without having to risk their skins by openly rebelling against the power structure. Satire was, in effect, an important safety valve promoting social stability without actually threatening the status quo.

Nevertheless, theatre certainly contributed to radical shifts in the mass consciousness by triggering perceptual change from within, on the ethical and aesthetical levels. Those who desire to maintain tight control of public opinion are understandably wary of the potentially subversive power of artistic expression. Indeed, almost all major shifts in the mass psyche can be said to have been precipitated by specific literary and theatrical works.

So where does “entertainment” feature in all this? A play doesn’t necessarily have to be funny to be entertaining. Any story told with great skill is entertaining in that it effectively engages the audience’s attention. Millions enjoy following soap series on the boob tube in a multitude of languages and dialects. Tragic romances like Tristan und Isolde – the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story– have enchanted audiences for generations. In effect, it doesn’t matter whether the subject matter is light or heavy – what’s important is that the tale be masterfully told.

There’s nothing more deadly than a good joke badly told. A heart-wrenching tragedy, artistically rendered, can be life-affirming and uplifting. In short, giving theatre audiences their money’s worth has little to do with actual content – but everything to do with the degree of skill, the intensity of commitment, the level of passion the performers manage to inject into the overall effort.

While those in theatre are often accused of being there to gratify their enormous egos, the same can be said about every other human endeavour – including warmongering and empire-building. Perhaps it’s our deeply­ ingrained need to seize some species of immortality, spawned from an awareness of our pathetic mortality and vulnerability in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

Returning to Patrick’s question about whether our theatre scene is “elitist, incestuous, self-serving, etc”… of course it is, old chum! Elitism vs Populism is an age-old issue. Elitism assumes that the hoi polloi is a dumb ass that needs to be thrown a stack of hay once in while (or at least a loaf of bread and a few circuses). Populism believes the public is a dumb ass only because elites have rigged the game to keep it forever so. Each of us conducts within our own psyches a neverending argument between the Elitist and the Populist in our psyches. The Elitist in us knows we are far superior to Most People. The Populist feels it’s our sacred duty to disseminate our gifts and insights as far and wide as possible, in the hope that Most People will ultimately benefit – and, even if they don’t, at least they’ll be forking out hard-earned money to keep us in the business of having fun. The true Populist is shamelessly vulgar and watches only wrestling videos, Survivor and late-night product promos – dismissing everything else as “one big self-indulgent wank.” The true Populist came into his or her own during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals and artists had a real rough time. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a true Populist and I pray I never will!

Self-serving? Hey, show me someone who claims to be serving the “common good” or “public interest” – and I’ll show you a politician or a creepy civil servant who just wants to get on the censorship board so he gets to see all the naughty bits everybody else can’t. Never trust anyone who isn’t serving his or her own interests, Patrick.

They all grow up and become dictators and dickheads. Which brings us to the possibility of ENLIGHTENED self­ interest, wherein we finally realise that our lives are all interconnected and interwoven in time and space – and that by guiltlessly fulfilling our own ego needs, we are actually playing a unique role in evolution. There’s nothing more inspiring than a self-fulfilled individual, free to do his or her own thing, and in the process turning others on and firing synapses they never even knew existed.

As for your remark that theatre tickets are “getting really expensive” – it’s all part of the yuppism that began in the mid-1980s. Remember when a cup of kopi-O cost only 50 cents (that was before the day of the sen)? Now you pay at least RM5 at the Coffee Bean (and it’s not even the tasty local stuff but some fancy imported variety that makes you think you’re in Europe). I couldn’t afford to see a single play if I didn’t get comps as a reviewer – yet I still see full houses at some productions, even the ones with RM100 tickets or more! Obviously there’s a new middle class that can afford a night or two out every week. They constitute the main support of English language theatre in KL and Penang.

Theatre is generally priced for the comfortable middle class no matter where you live. And it’s about time we introduced a cultural channel on TV that features televised plays, interviews with interesting personalities, intelligent discussions on current issues, documentaries on inspiring writers, actors, dancers, sculptors, composers, and so on.

To sum it all up, I’d say that despite the odds theatre is alive and well in Malaysia and has actually come quite a long way. There is only one stumbling block as far as I can see: it’s the “katak di bawah tempurung” (tempurungism, I call it) patriarchal-provincial mindset – the same that produced the Inquisition and the Taliban – still prevalent amongst our bureaucrats. The sort of bungling interference that has put City Hall in the limelight recently can be viewed as a sign that our theatre scene is gaining influence, maturity and power – and therefore poses a threat to the status quo which must be nipped in the bud (not pinched in the butt). This presents us all with an opportunity to seriously question why City Hall has been charged with issuing entertainment licences -why do I need a licence to be entertaining? It’s absolute crap.

Anyone know a professional abolitionist who can help abolish all primitive, irrelevant and suppressive laws? Methinks only an abolitionist can deal with those perverted abortionists of art that lurk in the corridors of officialdom.


PS. Remember to send in more questions to

First Published: 25.02.2004 on Kakiseni

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