Monday, February 15, 2016

Noordin Hassan, Malaysian Playwright

National laureate Noordin Hassan (born 1929)
Noordin Hassan, whose first and marvellous comedy Peran (mask for comic actor), was staged in Kuala Lumpur last month, is a playwright-director with a rare combination of virtues. After all the nasty things I’ve been saying in As I Please about the tribe of “bumigeois” sasterawans and senimans, it actually makes me feel good to praise one of them. It is made easier by the fact that this “one of them” is in some ways not quite “one of them.”

Otherwise I doubt I would be so consumed by the urge to sing his praise. “His praise” here refers both to the person of the author as human being and to his works. It is an axiom in modern literary criticism that there is no correlation between the quality of a work of art and the moral character or personality of the author. A selfish, petty-minded, egocentric bastard can, if he or she has what it takes, somehow produce a marvellous poem, novel, or play. Even a bloody chauvinist or fanatic, believe it or not, is not necessarily incapable or producing what a humanist, if he is objective, would have to call a good work of art. It may be that the fanaticism or chauvinism in such cases has been kept out, and that work therefore appeals to you because of its strong formal or other qualities. It is also not uncommon that a writer can be guided in real life by values that contradict those cherished in his works.

The word for this contradiction is hypocrisy. And the odd thing is that we, if we are capable of aesthetic objectivity, would have to admit that he or she is a good or even great writer though a lousy human being. For the sake of those marvellous poems, novels or plays, it is just as well that the vast majority of us don’t have the dubious privilege or personally knowing their authors. Some of you may find this rather amazing. You want to know what I find really amazing? That a bore or an insufferable pig can produce an interesting story, a charming poem or a brilliant play. I have met writers whose work I like but whose company I find excruciatingly boring or a pain in the neck. It’s as if when they write in the privacy of their room, some mysterious power of agency transforms them. How the muse can be so unpredictable in her distribution of favours beats me.

Given all this, how marvellous it is to meet and know a writer whose character and personality we like as much as his work , and whose behaviour in real life doesn’t contradict the values affirmed in his writings. Such a person is Noordin Hassan. Noordin is the most courteous, the gentlest and the least pretentious of the senimans and sasterawans I’ve met. Neither his ego nor his head is swollen. He is also an uncommonly intelligent playwright-director with a highly individual style and a marvellous sense of theatre. His theatrical consciousness is multi-dimensional, capable of blending the traditional and modern, and thus generating images and resonance that transcend barriers.

Noordin may be soft-spoken but do not assume that the softness of his manner means a lack of moral or intellectual spine. Whoever thinks so should recall one of the most shameful episodes in the history of modern Malaysian theatre, and how Noordin, who rarely engages in polemics, reacted to it. The episode I mean is the blindly savage attack on Noordin by one of his fellow playwright-directors, Khalid Salleh, a man subject to sudden seizures of epileptic chauvinism. The attack, published in Berita Harian in 1986 after the staging of Anak Tanjung, was basically not unlike the attack by Mohd Affandi Hasson on Prof. Muhammad Haji Salleh which I dealt with in this column about two months ago. Muhammad Haji Salleh was accused of being anti-Islam; Noordin was savaged for having allegedly sold out to the non-Malays. The article didn’t deserve to be published even in a gutter newspaper. The tone was hysterical and the allegations meaningless and totally without foundation. What provoked it was apparently the positive treatment of Malay-Chinese relationships and the sympathetic portrayal of non-Bumi characters in the play. And the fact that Noordin has a Chinese wife must have helped to fuel the demagogic rhetoric of the critic even more. Noordin, whom I suspect doesn’t get really angry easily, wrote a stinging reply. But the sting was lost on the thick skin and even thicker brain of the chauvinist.

Khalid Salleh: epileptic chauviinism
Noordin knows what he believes in; and he is very much his own man. This is even when there is a coincidence of personal perception and that currently approved by his community or society or fellow Bumis. He has the mind and imagination as well as the faith, the sensibility and artistic discipline to embody his values and his vision in the form of a truly living theatre. His is among the few which come nearest to that difficult thing called “Malaysian” rather than Malay theatre. 

Even when he is motivated by a deep-seated concern for the future of his race or inspired by the desire to dramatize what he perceives as compelling religious truths, the Malaysian spirit is never far from his heart and his art. Aspiring young dramatists should think of him and his kind of theatre as a model to emulate. With him, pride in his racial and cultural heritage doesn’t lead to the mind being trapped in the divisive categories of race and religion. He is open to the sheer variety of life, just as he is open to the marvellous possibilities of the theatre. He takes his theatre very seriously but is never solemn about it. His delight in the sheer fun of theatre-making communicates itself to the audience seductively. And that urge to delight ensures that in his plays even serious matter can be treated with wit and humour without compromising their seriousness. The wit and humour of Noordin’s plays have their roots in folk imagination enhanced by modern Western influence such as surrealism (most evident in his plays of the Seventies).

Since his first major play, Bukan Lalang Ditiup Angin (1970), Noordin has been a dramatist whose profound social concerns have always had a religious dimension. In the last decade or so, the religious dimension has become more pronounced, but never (with the possible exception of 1400) at the expense of theatre. Being a “natural” theatre man and an open-minded humanist despite (or because of?) his religious faith, Noordin seems to know instinctively that the true religious conversation must embrace reality (both social and metaphysical) in all its complexity and variety. In his best plays, he doesn’t preach; he shows, knowing full well that the language of theatre has a special kind of power and penetration. This was shown once again in his new play Peran, a hilarious satire on the theme of big heads and small heads, of swollen fantasy and painful reality. The comic form Noordin had chosen for this play dramatizes even more suggestively and compellingly that ambiguous complexity of his vision of man. Considering that Noordin has demonstrated his talent for visual and verbal satirical wit in his earlier plays, it is rather surprising that he never attempted a comedy until Peran. When asked why he hadn’t, he said that he was afraid of the temptation of frivolity that comedy as a form offers. That I thought was a rather funny reason. Now that Peran has been a great success both as entertainment and as a piece of serious theatre, I hope Noordin will write more comedies in future. 

6 April 1991


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