Before you left Malta in l974 you were a teacher and now that you are back you have gone back to teaching Art. What was your first vocation in life, was it art or was it the theatre?
When I was still very young, I believed art and theatre went hand in hand. My earliest memories as a boy are of the time when I used to draw comic books and fill them up with stories I made up for my brothers. But as soon as I discovered the world of books, I wanted to produce my own.
My first writings were in English - understandably because in those days books
in Maltese for the young were practically non-existent. When I went to college I
started taking art more seriously - I was greatly encouraged by my old teacher,
the artist Carmel Mangion - with whom I later studied for
a couple of years at the Polytechnic. However, by the time I was in my early 20s
I realised it would be next to impossible for me, owing to family problems, to
continue my studies abroad where I stood a good chance to
get a scholarship. So I had to drop art and instead took up writing again - this
time very seriously indeed!
Which family member influenced you most in your life ?
I would have to say it was my mother. She could be very hard-headed at times (I think I take after her!); she also had a very dramatic and traumatic way of dealing with life - in times of a crisis you wouldn't want to be in her way. She had to cater for a family of eight which was no easy task in those days with practically no modern conveniences and very little money. Certain speech patterns, and certain humour which turn up in my plays now and then I can definitely say are but an echo of how I remember my mother.
Another relative of mine who had an indirect effect on me was my uncle Oreste Kirkop. In the mid-Fifties when I was still a boy he was at the apex of his career as an opera singer. His picture turned up regularly both in local papers and in foreign ones. Everywhere I went, when I said my name was Oreste people would immediately ask whether I was related to Oreste Kirkop. With deep embarrassment and a lot of pride I would admit he was my uncle. and godfather!
Looking back I'm sure that my first enchantment with the theatre goes back to my
childhood at Hamrun - in front of the Radio City with a huge evening crowd
trying to get in for a performance by my uncle. To this day I do not know what
my mother was taking us to see. We never did get in. But the mysteries, or the
calling if you will, of the theatre never left me. Even when I stopped writing
after I left Malta in l974.
Oliver Friggieri in his introduction to your book Għasfur taċ-Ċomb regards you as a product of the Sixties. How do you think you fit in?
I believe he is quite right. My formative years came around those years immediately preceding and following, Malta's acquisition of independence in the Sixties. I believe those years were socially and politically very electrifying. In spite of the bitter political struggles of the time we were still very far from the traumatic experiences of the Seventies and Eighties.
The Sixties did see the rise of a protest movement, especially among the young, which touched most areas of our society. How much of it was genuine desire to assert our national identity and how much of this protest was perhaps riding on the wake of the student demonstrations- and uprisings in the rest of the world I could not now rightly distinguish. I can only say that I felt I was at the beginning of an era that was truly inspirational. The Promised Land was finally in sight. All that was needed were those few extra steps - and ours, the youth of the day, would be the ones which would finally get us there.
Alas the sober plod of history seems to have taken us on a erratic detour and we might not make it yet. By contrast, sometimes I feel truly sorry for the young of today who seem so apathetically directionless. The blame surely has to lie with us. The young generation of the Sixties seem to have been of a different breed, both as regards the socio-political and the literary theatrical scene. We took it for granted that the cause for the rightful recognition of the Maltese language is unquestionably tied to that of our national identity. The two cannot be separated. I still believe so.
Back in the Sixties, we were considered by many as an arrogant lot -I'm sure we
gave ample cause for the accusation. Arrogance I believe is a prerequisite for
change. Revolutions could be the unfortunate result of not having been arrogant
enough to achieve change peacefully. In the forefront for the battle for change
in literature was undoubtedly - if not uniquely - the Moviment Qawmien
Letterarju. Those young arrogant people who came up through the ranks of the MQL
are now the bulwarks of the current literary establishment.
Which particular names would you connect with that period, and which were the literary and intellectual characteristics of the movement?
The people I came most directly in contact at the time were Oliver Friggieri, Mario Azzopardi, Victor Fenech, Joe Friggieri, Albert Marshall and Frans Sammut, to name a few. The characteristic of the group undoubtedly was its radicalism, both in the technique and the content of their output. The well-worn, traditional - some would venture even retrograde - state of Maltese literature that had stagnated for decades was outrightly condemned and rejected.
A notable exception was the work of Francis Ebejer. Although not a newcomer at the time, he too came to prominence in the Sixties and he was hailed by the young generation of the time as the beacon for the future. I believe it was from such ranks as those of the MQL that Ebejer got his greatest support in his modernistic approach to theatre.
But those who had. previously laboured in the field, the weathered precursors and poineers of Maltese literature, those who had valiantly created the space for the recognition of our national language, previously denigrated and considered of less than kitchen-sink value, were I believe truly shocked at the so-called "arrogance" of these up-and-coming young zealots who expected to make a clean sweep, uprooting myths and traditions that were the lifeline of the establishment.
For, it is true, the new generation was not intent on some kind of ethereal,
intangible refurbishment of the system - but a total and complete reappraisal.
The "new order" was to be built on the very ruins of the old one which had been
"a big moral and cultural lie" ("gidba rnorali u kulturali kbira"- to
quote Oliver Friggieri, again from the introduction to Għasfur
taċ-Ċomb). Today one can of course see it all in a better perspective –
albeit perhaps it is still early days for a reappraisal of how much was promised
and how much was actually delivered. I believe the death of Francis Ebejer might
be the opportune milestone for such an eventual appraisal.
Having spent l5 years in the United States what would you say are the changes you have observed on the local literary scene?
As I left Malta precisely at the time (l974), when the "rebellious days" were practically over and ‘the barricades were already being torn
down, coming back has been quite a let-down. I might first add that my absence
was pretty much total. I kept up no links with the island once I left and I
never looked back. My homecoming was therefore tantamount to a rebirth. And I
seem to have walked back into a vacuum - a time-warp, if you will. It's as if
those young writers of the Sixties and the Seventies (who did leave an indelible
mark on Maltese literature and there can definitely be no going back) seem to
have had no immediate following. The same old names of my younger days, are
still around. But then there is, as I said, a vacuum. I am perhaps being unjust
to quite a few unknowns (to me) whose work is undeservedly not quite well-known
and if this is the case than I would like to see a resurgence of the MQL spirit.
I've been told by some that this is really not needed nowadays. But I have my
doubts. Quoting loosely from Lampedusa's Gattopardo
- If things are to be as they were
How and when did you start writing drama?
It must have been around the mid to late Sixties. I remember coming across an old discarded radio play script. It wasn't so much the play itself - a translation of an English detective story - that interested me, but the actual physical layout of the script: the names of the different characters, the actual words to be spoken, the sound effects, production directions, and most importantly, the front page with the names of the characters and, handwritten in, the names of the cast - familiar names of people whom I regularly listened to on Sunday and Thursday night on Rediffusion. One particular character had his name underlined throughout the script and I realised I was holding in my hand the actual script that that particular actor had used to record the play. All of a sudden I must have realised that there in my hand was the tangible, physical reality horn that world of disembodied voices on cable radio. And it did not seem to be particularly hard to me to do something similar. At the time one of my (four) brothers had just bought the latest technological gadget of the day, a reel-to-reel tape-recorder, and I got the idea to write a script for my brothers to enact on tape.
I wrote the play but we never recorded it. In fact when I finished the script I figured it seemed good enough to send to Rediffusion and I did. It was my first radio play Meta Jhabbat il-Bekkamort (An Undertaker Calls) - an improbable detective story which had its limitations. Though I believe the characterisation wasn't all that bad, it never pays in Malta to admit to writing a bad play - except the one you've thrown away and nobody knows about.
I wrote one or two more detective stories before venturing into the real world
of drama. The art of a good whodunit is an invaluable asset to any writer. The
careful, fateful networking of actions and characters, the clues that
predetermine and prophesy the future - the ultimate revelation - crime and
punishment, or lack thereof, are the essence of any good piece of dramatic
What do you think of the facilities that Rediffusion provided for dramatic broadcasts in those days?
Though of course at the time Rediffusion did not have the sophisticated equipment available nowadays, yet they did have a formidable Drama Department, complete with actors, producers, technical assistants, drama advisers (or Drama panel, as it was called), which managed week in, week out to produce two full-length Maltese radio plays a week (complete with a repeat) and also a radio-series of three half-hour episodes in the evenings.
It was a considerable output which at the time was believe highly underrated and ignored by critics, though greatly appreciated by the listening public. The output suffered from unpredictable highs and lows: there was the routine drudgery and poor melodramatic writing and productions. However not too infrequently you could listen to some pretty good works - especially in the mid-Sixties - when experimental and innovative writers and producers managed the odd breakthrough. Doreen Micallef, now better known as a poet, was then always in the forefront with her dramatic writings, as were Alfred Sant and Joe A. Grima. You had to put up with the whims of the censors too. Suicides were taboo, for example, and politics and religion as well. In an early radio play, Għollieq fis-Serra (l968) - in which by the way you find the first germ of an idea for my latest three-act play, Għasfur taċ-Ċomb - the censors made me change the endding so it would not end with a suicide; while the character of Sa Perpetwa (a bigoted oldish lady) came up against it too because it was erroneously assumed that Sa meant she was supposed to be a nun!
Yet another play, Satira (l970), by far the most direct and unequivocal denunciation of the establishment, was accepted and recorded without any quibble. They paid me my royalties, to be sure, yet it was never broadcast - I must assume because of its political implications. Later - when I was already in the States, they tell me that it was also actually taken up by MTV and recorded for TV. Yet it was never screened. I would welcome any further clarifications or corroboration on this. This notwithstanding, looking back I believe if Rediffusion hadn't offered me and quite a number of other writers, an accessible medium and a reasonably benevolent appreciation for our efforts, I would perhaps not have persisted as much as l did in those early days.
Awards, drama seminars or workshops and competitions were the norm of the day. Rediffusion being the one and only (cable) radio station on the island in those days, you were practically guaranteed a very substantial audience. It is highly deplorable that nowadays Maltese radio drama is practically extinct except on PBS, where the output is not even half what it used to be.
Outstanding works may be hard to come by even when you have a voluminous output.
Imagine when all we have now is but a trickle. I am also told that nowadays the
monetary remuneration for the script-writer has practically remained the same as
it was several years ago. Money does not make a good writer either, but it
surely could help attract some new ones.
Can you recall the first impression that suggested your first play?
The first radio play of some note was Għollieq fis-Serra. written in l968-l969. The idea was sparked by a story told to me by one of my students about his bird-trapping experiences. Apparently he had been out trapping for robins when a bird which happened to enter his trabokk was smashed to death by a malfunction of a spring.
This reminded me of an incident in my own boyhood when we had a bird as a pet which we used to allow to fly free around the house, until one day we had left a door open through which the bird tried to make its escape. I slammed the door shut but alas, the bird got squashed against the door jamb. I seem to remember my mother, very angry indeed, putting the bird out of its misery. The two incidents, much reworked and synthesized, were the basis for a main scene in that radio play and, now, this many years later appears again in Għasfur taċ-Ċomb.
My first stage play actually produced was IġsumaIħirsa (loosely: Bodies with no Souls). How l actually got the first idea I do not know but I surely had enough background knowledge from the number of Commedia dell'Arte skits that RAI used to show every so often. It was the first and only play I was actually commissioned to write.
The University Players and MQL used to put on avant-garde
dramatic pieces annually at the University Theatre under the title Xsenuru
and Lino Farrugia one day asked me if I could write a one-acter for the
occasion. I was pleased he had asked - but terrified that I would not meet the
deadline In the long run I did, though as fate would have
it, the play was eventually co-produced by Mario Azzopardi after Lino Farrugia
was taken ill. I hardly ever have the patience to sit through an entire
representation of my plays - I believe IġsmaIħirsa
was the only exception - and only during the final dress-rehearsal at that.
Would you say you have undergone some psychological change in your character since your first plays in l970?
Yes, I would say I've changed, in many ways. I am less irritable, more patient - but less tolerant, less ready to accept excuses, though I try to keep it all to myself. I've also shed a good number of inhibitions. I find people very suspicious -always looking over their shoulders, so to speak, before voicing an opinion or criticism.
Since coming back I've found it very hard to recognise the people I thought I knew and remembered well. And not just because of the passage of time. these people pass me by without saying hello, but with a faint sign of recognition that follows me like a ghost, beckoning.
The one thing I do treasure is that the long absence from Malta, a
self-inflicted exile, if you will, has helped me face the reality that is Malta
today and draw my appraisal and conclusions in a fresh, hopefully unbiased,
way. The very knowledge that there is a big wide world beyond these presumably
golden shores with even bigger golden (sic) shores - the very fact that I have
been there, and can go back, should I so desire - render more tolerable this
little cage in which we jostle, hustle, flaunt and Hatter each other. Few people
have the opportunity to be born again. I guess I’m one of the lucky few (as long
as I refrain from mourning the past) . For a writer I think it's an invaluable
experience. And a tremendous asset.
How many plays have you written so far for radio, TV and stage and have they all been produced?
To date I have written some ten radio plays in all, two television dramas, three three-act plays and a couple of one-acters. All have been produced at some point or another. The play Satira. already mentioned, although it never made in on the airwaves, has in fact proved the more popular having been produced three times, including two productions by Joe Friggieri who was one of the earliest producers to support and encourage my work. A fourth production of Satira, in the guise of a musical, was also was also produced by Peter Busuttil in the Eighties.
However it was Anestesija, which started as a Rediffusion award winner in l969, which went on to create probably the first and greatest controversy for a TV play when it aired in an eclectic production by Albert Marshall on MTV during the television company's tenth anniversary celebrations in l972.
In spite of the Ebejer phenomenon, the general public was obviously far from ready to accept the current avant-garde and the polemic went on for several weeks in the Press, including an editorial in a daily paper which put up a brave attempt in its defense. Quite a few notable personalities also came to the defense of the production, but the usual 'anonymous' crowd engaged in a mud-slinging exercise with no holds barred.
Some ten years later, on the only occasion when I had to come back to Malta for a brief visit, I discovered that absence must have made the heart grow fonder since the play was in fact being studied in our schools as part of the Matriculation examinations in Maltese Literature and is now still being studied at secondary school level.
Għasfur taċ-Ċomb was the
first play to be produced at the Manoel since my return to Malta, and I am
grateful to the Maleth company for having shown such great confidence in my
work. They are a company with a very old tradition, perhaps the oldest surviving
theatrical company in Malta. Though a stage production's costs are exorbitant
indeed, thank God for companies like Maleth which do not just look at the
theatre as a mere money-making exercise.
How do you classify your drama or yourself as a playwright?
My earlier plays tended to be pretty much eclectic as far as form is concerned. Looking back I find obvious signs of the Theatre of the Absurd in quite a few of them - even in some I have not published yet. I believe this type of theatre had a particular fascination for me in that it represented the very essence of our (meaning our generation's) protest in those days.
There were also plays which vacillated between Expressionism and Symbolism.
Black Comedy had its appeal for me too. But what else didn't? Having avidly read
all the dramatic works that I could possibly lay my hands on, or watched them
on TV and listened to them on radio, Strindberg, Ibsen, Joe Orton and Tennessee
all found their place on my rather copious library. Having said all this,
that way anybody who wishes to brand me a follower of such or such (the
preferred occupation of many a minor armchair critic) can take his pick,
I believe my current playwriting style - if there is such a thing - is I
suppose definitely based on the "straight play" - pretty much realistic in
mode, but laced with the ubiquitous underlying unifying metaphor(s) and what
have you. But I cannot help every once in a while to tear down that comfortable
lazy realistic front with a good streak of "absurd" - or overblown action - or
reaction. I find a particular fascination nowadays in characterisation. I
actually enjoy the writing experience most when I can watch the cocoon-like
emergence and self-revelation of my characters. It is truly the greatest
satisfaction I get from my writing. I'm almost sorry sometimes that I have to
stop at act three.
What is your opinion of the theatre public in Malta and of the present situation of our theatre?
By and large, not much different from that of other countries, I suppose. If you make allowances for our small size, I believe percentage wise you can find a small nucleus of theatre aficionados who really appreciate good theatre, a hundred or so in Malta's case. I have heard complaints about the diminutive theatre audiences at the Manoel where local plays are concerned. There used to be the same lament back in the Sixties and early Seventies. So what has changed? Well, I guess back in the Sixties and Seventies we still hoped that the best had yet to come. I don't hear too many espousing that hope nowadays.
Back in the Seventies in the foreword to my first book 4 Drammi I
claimed that there was no Maltese theatre, period. The usual brash statement of
the arrogant young, as you might expect. Well, well, here we are some 20 years
later. Do people still ask where is the Maltese theatre? Somewhere out there,
there is a young, brash, arrogant playwright who is just dying to put us all
straight. Let us all hope so. She or he will be our future.
What do you think should help encourage the further development of our literary theatre?
Quite a few theatre buffs would tell us there should be no such thing as a literary theatre. However, forging ahead it would help if there was some kind of compatibility between what is written and what the theatre public in its great majority would rather see. Going by our TV audiences, and this applies to many other countries, the prime choices are telenovelas and soap-operas, the electronic age answer to our old teatrin. So a telenovela or two might help boost our theatre attendance numbers. This would in no way help upgrade our dramatic output, however.
I guess there are no easy answers to the question: Who is to be the arbiter, after all, of what should be public taste? The hackneyed answer has always been that we should have a better educated audience - a more appreciative public with perhaps a keener sense for the theatrical experience. How to bring this about seems to have eluded us for many years now. I would venture to say that television is perhaps our best bet to recapture an audience for the theatre. If our public is given a decent dose of good drama in Maltese, perhaps they could re-acquire a taste for the theatre.
A complaint I have often heard since I returned to Malta has been that nobody is writing for the stage any more. I do not believe I'm capable of explaining why the theatre has lagged so far behind where other spheres of Maltese creative writing, such as poetry, novels and short stories seem to have established an acceptable momentum. Personally, I write plays because it's what I've always done, it's what gives me the greatest satisfaction, but what is being done to encourage new playwrights? There, I believe, lies the greatest challenge.
Prof. J. Aquilina - Interview MEETING PEOPLE: ORESTE CALLEJA THE SUNDAY TIMES - December 18, 1994