Singapore theatre is greatly influenced by the theatre of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, especially in regard to the purpose of the play. Ibsen and Chekhov use their plays as social commentaries to explore Europe’s social issues and criticise outdated norms; Singaporean plays function as social commentaries, too. However, Singapore theatre and the theatre of Chekhov and Ibsen are definitely not entirely the same, with writing styles being a main contrast. This paper examines how much the work of Ibsen and Chekhov has affected Singapore theatre.
One may say that we cannot compare the issues addressed by Singapore theatre and the theatre of Chekhov and Ibsen, because these are performed in different eras, in different countries with different cultures. However, the common thread between the two lies in the use of social issues as material for plays. In 2011, with what was hailed as a “watershed” General Election and a Presidential Election that produced a winner by a margin of 0.35%, Singapore’s political climate was charged, to say the least. Politics became a topic that was discussed by Singaporeans from young to old, regardless of our eligibility to vote. And of course, politics became fodder for Singapore theatre. As a result, 2011 saw plays like Mata Hati, HERstory, The 1955 Baling Talks, Cooling Off Day, Fear of Writing, as well as restagings of Gemuk Girls and Model Citizens (Martin, 2011, p. T11).
In 1996, Tan Tarn How’s Six of the Best explored racial and ethnic tensions, topics seldom discussed, but highly relevant to multi-ethnic Singapore. Six advertising executives gather to celebrate the closing of a big deal, but the gathering quickly degenerates into a fall out over the controversial caning of Michael Fay, an incident that took place in 1994, and a love triangle between Peter (a Chinese male), Sharon (a Chinese female), and Jim (an American male) (Lee, 2011, para. 6). At one point, Peter angrily asks Sharon, “Tell me, what’s fucking great about his fucking white dick!” (TheatreWorksSG, 2010) His emphasis was not on “dick”, but on “white”, and is one of many manifestations of racism in the play.
This use of social issues is also evident in Chekhov’s plays. After the liberation of Russian serfs in the 1860s, many intellectuals began to discuss ideas on liberty and the equal rights to land and education. Chekhov’s writing showed his stand in this debate, as many of his stories examine the effect of change on a prevailing social or familial hierarchy (SparkNotes Editors, n.d.). This is a major theme in The Cherry Orchard, as the aristocratic Russian family’s inaction in attempting to save their estate eventually results in its sale to the son of a former serf, and the cutting down of their beloved cherry orchard. The plot reflects both the rise of the middle class and the decline of the aristocracy in Russia at that time, and the breakdown of this social order is discussed by Chekhov in many of his plays.
There are other...