Six of the Best
Compilation revives veteran playwright's greatest hits
By Laremy Lee
This collection brings together six of Tan Tarn How's best works thus far, written and produced over a period of 11 years (1992 2003). Prior to this, The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate 'S' Machine ("Soul") was published individually in 1993, and Undercover and Home were published in play collections that featured various local playwrights. The publication of these plays in one volume are, hence, important in providing readers and scholars of Singapore literature with a holistic overview of Tan's concerns as well as showcasing the diversity of topics he writes on, while demonstrating Tan's dexterity as a playwright when tackling a range of subjects.
Thematically, most of Tan's concerns, as with the majority of P65 Singaporean writers, are with the socio-political environment and machinations of the Singapore state an ostensibly natural reflection of and response towards the environment that P65 Singaporean writers have been bred in. Soul is a satirical piece that depicts a typically Singaporean approach to culture- and nation-building; Undercover provides a glimpse into the treatment of the alleged Marxist conspirators, albeit in a humorous and re-historicised manner; Six of the Best discusses post-colonial and cultural attitudes, using the Michael Fay caning as its backdrop; and The First Emperor's Last Days, though set in a world that is somewhat different from ours, still has enough elements for the Singaporean reader to recognise its allusions to the Singapore state. The only plays with slightly different perspectives in this oeuvre are Home set in a facility for the elderly to discuss the treatment and care of aged persons in Singapore and Machine a play about the sexual and romantic interactions between women and men. Coincidentally, both plays bookend the text the former being Tan's first theatrical production and the latter, his penultimate staging to date.
Home comprises three characters Tang and Alex, two residents at a home for the elderly, and Mrs Goh, the cleaner/tea lady of the facility. Tang is the typically grouchy and anal-retentive resident who has been staying at the home for some time and has seen his fair share of roommates come and go. On the other hand, Alex is the newer resident who has just arrived in a whirlwind of activity, and whose presence places Tang's orderly world and all its rules in peril. Both characters seem headed for conflict, which provides part of the drama in this piece and which Mrs Goh either accentuates or appeases at times. The other aspects of the drama are derived from the following: one, the discovery of how the characters have come to be in the home (Tang has been placed here by his son, Alex has elected to receive care in the light of his impending demise from illness, and Mrs Goh is widowed but determined to be financially independent for the sake of her daughters); two, the humorous ways in which Alex turns Tang's rules against him; three, the duo's knowledge that neither are aware of when their time on earth will run out, and lastly, the nascent friendship that emerges from the tension among the three elderly folk.
Soul, the next play in the collection, takes on a vastly different tack and goes straight for the jugular as a socio-political comment on the state of play (pun intended) in Singapore. The fictitious Ministry of Culture in Singapore has been tasked with 'Creating a Vibrant Nation', a nation with soul. In true-blue, red-blooded Singaporean fashion, a committee is set up to carry out research into the matter and to report its findings and recommendations to the minister and his minister of state. Every aspect of Singapore is satirised: from the "government's new consultative and participatory style of politics", reminiscent of the Goh Chok Tong era of government, to the paralysing weight of the bureaucracy that plagues the civil service, as seen in the various subcommittees that spring from the subcommittees that require the "most important [subcommittee] of all the Subcommittee for the Coordination of Subcommittees". All recommendations are considered to invigorate Singapore, from the Ultimate 'S' Machine, a latex doll that provides sexual pleasure, to the most "dangerous" idea of all that for a vibrant nation to be created, policymakers must be prepared to simply allow society to "loosen up". Which choice is made to move Singapore forward? The answer is most telling in the final scene of the play, when the characters resort (or revert) to a burlesque song and dance to present their findings to the nation.
Though Undercover explicitly states that the piece is meant to take place in "[a]n imaginary country", the similarities between the play as well as the play within it and the incident it is based on (the arrests of members of The Third Stage theatre group as part of their involvement in the alleged Marxist conspiracy of 1987) are clear enough. Dolly Parton Ong/Jane, a newly-minted intelligence officer fresh out of university, is tasked to go undercover by her superiors at "the Department" so as to ensnare Qiang, the leader of the Centre, a "charitable group" that is putting up a play also rehearsed and, possibly, staged during the play itself. This 'play within a play' device is used to good effect: the rehearsal of the play and the uncertainty of whether or not it is staged underscores the powers that an authoritarian surveillance state possesses, thereby heightening the fear the audience might feel at realising how, like Qiang, no one is truly exempt from the "ruthless[ness]" of politicians at bending the masses to their will.
Using the Michael Fay caning as its setting, Six of the Best goes beneath the surface of shiny, happy, multi-cultural Singapore to delve into a topic seldom spoken of in modern Singapore in so forthright a manner the issue of race and racism. Jim, Peter, Huat, Neville, Cherie and Sharon are advertising executives working in the Beckman, Horton and Jones advertising agency. Having just closed a big deal, they gather at Jim's place to celebrate, only to end up falling out over the caning incident and, on a smaller scale, a love triangle between Jim, Sharon and Peter. The conflict within the agency, nevertheless, is a symbol of the simmering tensions in the local and global communities over the incident: Jim and Neville are the foreign ang mos who are either incensed at the seeming incivility and "barbari[sm]" of the caning act, or who are observers, neutral or otherwise, in Singapore's affairs according to Peter: "Neville rather despises us. The ex-colonial observing the ex-colonised fumble about in disdain". Peter and Huat, on the other hand, are the disgruntled locals, unhappy at having their jobs and their girls taken away or so they think by foreigners.
Besides the allure that deconstructing Singaporean bureaucracy seems to hold for Tan, his fascination with the themes of dislocation and displacement becomes increasingly apparent with The First Emperor's Last Days. Gordon, Aileen and See Yew are workers in the employ of the First Emperor, and have been tasked to finish writing his biography. The problem is none of them actually know how to do it. Their predicament is exacerbated by the arrival of Tang; they are unable to tell if he's been sent to spy on them or to help them. This sense of uncertainty is aggravated by the setting of the play; it is a world that is seemingly topsy-turvy when measured by our world's yardsticks, for, according to Tang, television has just been invented, a plague has just hit Europe "Scientists think it's the rats, but the church says it's punishment for wantonness" and Buddha's teachings are beginning to catch on. Nonetheless, like Undercover, it is a world that Singaporeans are all too familiar with, having "National Service", civil servants who work tirelessly at creating policy and preserving national institutions and an Emperor that can have one put to death for the most innocuous of offences.
Finally, Tan's movement away from the naturalistic towards the abstract/surreal is carried on in Machine. Like Home, it marks a departure away from the political themes (or return toward themes centering around the human condition, depending on the way one sees it) that characterised Tan's work in the intervening years between his first play and this play. Again, the setting is inconsequential: Lina and Kim, the two female characters, could be living anywhere in Clementi, or nowhere in Singapore, even. This time, the subject matter is love and relationships: the ladies are paid a visit by Rex and Heng, two nomadic handymen who stop by houses in towns to "fix household appliances" for a living, before moving along and repeating this pattern in another town. As part of the pattern of interactions, the intercourse between the two women and two men slowly moves beyond the social and professional into a darker and more violent realm.
The entire text's greatest flaw was in its presentation of the content that is, the plethora of typographical errors that permeated the entire text. While the typos did not render the text unreadable, it provided for some very ironic and amusing moments at times, evident in this gem from Undercover where Qiang is supposed to respond to the Deputy:
Humorous as they might have been, the typos subtracted from both the quality and the professionalism of the writing this is something that needs to be addressed when the next edition of this volume is printed.
Typos aside, Tan's plays are deserving of the accolades they have received Machine, for instance, with its compelling drama and vivid imagery, won Best Script at the Life! Theatre Awards in 2003. There is also literary merit in terms of the use of devices, dramatic significance and thematic qualities in each text; an example in which anti-thesis is utilised to achieve its intended effect of wit and humour is shown here in this extract from Home:
Before reading Tan's works, however, the reader must know not to expect any happy endings. When one peels back the humour layered on each play via the satire and parody that Tan is fond of using, it is, in fact, a sense of existential hopelessness that is to be found in Tan's writing. Perhaps this might make sense if the Flogger's description of his job in Six of the Best is used as a lens with which to view Tan's work. Just before the Flogger carries out an act of caning on an individual, he discusses "the importance of skin", saying:
Like the Flogger himself, it is Tan's plays which aim to discover all that is human in us by uncovering that which resides at the very cores of our being.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 3 Jul 2011