PIONEERING SRI LANKAN THEATRE

E. F. C. Ludowyk

Sri Lankan theatre in English is now a genre that is blossoming, with many theatre groups, companies as well as independent directors developing socio-politically conscious, cutting-edge pieces of performance. However, in the beginning of the 20th century it was still a journey hardly embarked upon, with performers deciding to engage in theatre ‘imported’ from mainly Britain and several other selected countries. Sinhala theatre was experiencing an upward hike, with playwrights such as Ediriweera Sarachchandra developing original plays depicting Ceylonese history and contemporary issues. 

E.F.C. Ludowyk was one of the pivotal figures from the early 1900s who contributed largely to the English theatre scene in Sri Lanka. Evelyn Frederick Charles Ludowyk, born in 1909 was of Sri Lankan Burgher ethnicity. He studied at Wesley College, Colombo and then at Richmond College, Galle, slowly moulding himself into a scholar of English Literature. He received a degree in the same field from the University of Cambridge. Several years later, he joined the University College Colombo as a member of the academic staff and became a Professor in 1936. When the university was reinstated as University of Ceylon, Ludowyk was its first Professor of English in 1942. Under Sir Ivor Jennings’ guidance he was made the first Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Peradeniya in 1952. In 1956, Ludowyk and his wife Edith moved to London, England permanently and he passed away in 1985 in Colchester, Essex. 


Image courtesy: Daily News

Ludowyk was one of the few personalities with an interest in theatre with an academic background. He played a pivotal role in bringing down plays of western origin including those by Shakespeare onto the local stage for local audiences. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s the University of Ceylon Dramatic Society performed under the guidance of Ludowyk, carrying on the legacy of Leigh Smith, Ludowyk’s predecessor as Professor of English in the university. According to Ludowyk, the Society took on the role of performing plays “in public for the benefit of an audience not confined to the university.” Therefore, the foremost goal was to reach out to the groups that were interested in watching plays of western origin but had no access. Some of the remarkable productions the Society were able to perform were ‘Marco Millions’ by Eugene O’Neill (1942), ‘The Lower Depths’ by Maxim Gorky (1953), ‘The Rivals’ by Brinsley Sheridan (1934), ‘The Imaginary Invalid’ by Moliere (1935), ‘The Pillars of Society’ by Henrik Ibsen (1946), ‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’ by Bertolt Brecht (1949) and Antigone by Anouilh (1950). The range of plays performed is impressive, as they comprise a variety of genres including  comedy, drama, realism and even inspirational pieces created from Greek influence. Ludowyk had impeccable taste and understood very early on that the local audiences would enjoy plays that they could relate to, especially in relation to their contemporary socio-political circumstances. Ludowyk’s influence was what led to the formation of the Little Theatre Group and Stage and Set, two theatre groups that carried on the tradition of performing relatable plays with a view to educate local audiences comprising the general public. 

As a teacher of theatre, too Ludowyk was exceptional as some of his students have indicated. According to Ian Goonetilleke he had the virtues of “honesty, compassion, and an attractive, often mischievous, sense of humour” (in his preface to ‘Those Long Afternoons. Childhood in Colonial Ceylon’ by E.F.C. Ludowyk). Tissa Jayatilaka, an alumnus of the University of Peradeniya and Executive Director of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission spoke of Ludowyk as the “magister magistrorum” at the 18th Annual Memorial Lecture. Some of his well-known students that carried on his legacy in the academic and theatre spheres include C. R. (Dick) Hensman, R.C.L. Attygalle, Izeth Hussein, Reggie Siriwardene, Gananath Obeyesekere, Ranjini Ellepola Obeyesekere, Ashley Halpé, Yasmine Gooneratne and Thiru Kandiah. 

Image courtesy: Francis Pietersz

Ludowyk did not merely perform popular plays of the time and pass on knowledge to students at the University of Ceylon. He made genuine efforts to bridge the gap between English theatre and Sinhala theatre in the country, especially with English theatre being recognized more and more as a pastime limited to the elite in the country. He was often misunderstood to be “‘lacking roots in the native soil’ and...aloof from anything outside the department of English”, as Jayatilaka recalls. His contribution to Sinhala theatre is highlighted by none other than Ediriweera Sarachchandra in ‘Ludowyk and the Sinhala Theatre’: 

“It was difficult for people to accommodate themselves to the belief that a professor of the English language, a Dutch Burgher by descent, could produce a play in Sinhala… Ludowyk not only understood spoken Sinhala, but had a feel for its nuances, and, being a linguist, enjoyed the new opportunities he got, in the course of play-production, of enlarging his knowledge of it.”

However, Ludowyk and his students worked closely with Dharmasiri Ratnasuriya, Professor of Sinhala, who was his contemporary at the University of Peradeniya. Ludowyk’s and Ratnasuriya’s students Amaradasa Virasinha and Gananath Obeyesekere used their combined efforts to translate ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen in 1949-1950 into Sinhala as ‘Sellam Geya’. The script has gone through several editions and many performances throughout the years since its inception. Ludowyk encouraged the study of Sinhala literature as a whole in his classroom, manifested in one his essays entitled ‘The East West Problem in Sinhalese Literature’: 

“The fruitful results of English have to be sought elsewhere – in the effect it has had on writing in Sinhalese. Within a limited scope it has influenced both the Sinhalese language and its literature. It has done something to create a group of professional writers in Sinhalese, a group which hardly existed before. Imperceptibly, yet nonetheless definitely, English has made a considerable difference to writing in Sinhalese.” 

He believed that Sinhala Literature and English Literature could always influence each other and that through criticism and translation a cross-fertilization should occur in order for the arts in Sri Lanka to thrive. E.F. Ludowyk was therefore not merely a pioneer of Sri Lankan theatre in English but also a pioneer of an ecosystem of theatre of Sinhala and English origin. 

ARTRA is Sri Lanka’s Art Magazine exploring curated content on Sri Lanka’s visual art, performance art, applied art and written art. Launched in 2012, ARTRA Magazine is a compact monthly art read providing a comprehensive understanding on Sri Lankan artists, art events, monthly art calendars and the Sri Lankan design landscape. In sum, all you need to know about art in Sri Lanka

11th July, 2019 Performance Art

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