The Good Woman and the Little Cart

Remembering Edith and Lyn Ludowyk

The Ceylon University Dramatic Society [DramSoc] was Ludo’s brainchild, and he developed a mission for it. This was to introduce University audiences and Colombo’s playgoers to a wider variety of dramatists other than the hoary classics and frothy comedies staged by amateurs drawn from Colombo’s ‘White’ expats and their local peers. He introduced to playgoers a wondrous variety of plays by dramatists, drawn from Ludo’s encyclopaedic knowledge of theatre. 

l by Tissa Devendra

(February 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Not long ago, I took along my grandson on a nostalgic tour of our oldest University on Thurstan Road, where I had spent the happiest days of my undergraduate life. Peering into the dark and empty space of K.G. Hall I had a sudden vision of those halcyon days, many decades ago, when I was one of the happy band that Professor Ludowyk moulded into players on that now-silent stage.
The Ceylon University Dramatic Society [DramSoc] was Ludo’s brainchild, and he developed a mission for it. This was to introduce University audiences and Colombo’s playgoers to a wider variety of dramatists other than the hoary classics and frothy comedies staged by amateurs drawn from Colombo’s ‘White’ expats and their local peers. He introduced to playgoers a wondrous variety of plays by dramatists, drawn from Ludo’s encyclopaedic knowledge of theatre. Plays by Goldoni, the Quinteros, Plautus, Pirandello, Master Hsiung, Brecht and Anouilh were among his productions in addition to Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, O’Neill and O’Casey
The Good Woman Of Setzuan [1949]
It was, therefore, both an honour and a pleasure to join the magic band selected by Ludo to present the ‘fable’ by Bertolt Brecht [whom we had never heard of] – ‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’. Most of us were from that historic batch of undergrads who entered the University in 1948 the year Ceylon achieved Independence. Reading the dog-eared Programme Note, I had treasured since 1949, I find that most of the actors and supporting staff were drawn from various Departments of the Arts Faculty. This was, perhaps, inevitable as our University was really an intimate little place [the intake for 1948 had been only 150 or so] and most of us knew, or knew of, each other. Our rehearsals fostered great camaraderie – which developed into real friendship and, occasionally, into fleeting romance.
Evening rehearsals in K.G. Hall inspired us players to follow Ludo’s casual knitted T shirts. The demurely sareed girls at lectures now boldly came in coloured dresses. [Denims were decades in the future] Once we mounted the stage and read aloud the roles tentatively assigned, depending on our delivery Ludo decided who would do what. As rehearsals progressed, from the well of the hall he taught us how each character should show his/her character by a unique turn of phrase or movement. Edith was by his side making a discreet comment while planning, in her mind’s eye, the stage décor and the costumes we were to wear.
Whenever we were not on stage, we had a grand old time swapping yarns. The Kumar twin brothers had a well polished routine where they pretended they had a stock of numbered jokes. As soon as a number was called out they demurred at first claiming it was either too obscene or too long. Soon after, however, they got into their stride and had us in fits of laughter.
Our star performers, who carried the action on their shoulders, were two veterans, tried and tested by Ludo in earlier plays. They were husky-voiced Jeanne Pinto in the title role and Osmund Jayaratne with his commanding presence. Both, alas, long gone to that amphitheatre in the sky. Most of us were bit-players in colourful costumes moving ourselves and spouting our lines as directed.
For this play the Ludowyks transformed the plain and simple stage of K.G.Hall into something rich and strange. It was backed by a semi-circular cyclorama [the first in Ceylon] on which a dissolving play of colours matched the action on stage. And, perhaps, even more wonderful was the beautifully crafted miniature skyline of Peking, designed by Edith. Its pagodas, temples and palaces were on a long beam the length of the stage. It lay hidden below eye level at the back of the stage and in front of the cyclorama. I will never forget the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the stunned audience as this skyline, hand-powered by an under-stage winch, gently rose into view with its little lights twinkling away.
Our Edith-designed costumes were gorgeous. The rooms backstage, venue for undergrad tutorials in ‘real life’, were transformed into a whirlgig of activity. Actors were carefully putting on their Chinese robes and the make up artists, among whom I recall David Paynter, were slathering on colours, moustaches, fierce eyebrows etc on our faces. The scent of grease paint was all pervasive.
Meanwhile, the corridors leading to K.G.Hall were gradually filling up with Colombo’s playgoers – waylaid by lovely undergraduettes selling programmes or ushering them to their seats. A much sought after ‘task’ as it entitled these lovelies to free seats. Our Programme was brilliant on its own, its cover drawn with panache and wit by Edith, displayed the dual persona of the Good Woman. As the Programme was opened it revealed the list of characters, printed in white on black tissue so that it could be read in the darkened auditorium – a revolutionary innovation.
And then, on stage. A slight sinking feeling gradually dissipated as we mouthed our now familiar lines and moved in unison with our fellow players. The spontaneous applause of the audience as they saw the lights of Peking glimmering before the cyclorama’s indigo horizon, and the rich costumes of the actors would have been manna to Lyn and Edith, and to us lesser beings as well.
In between our acts we quietly sat, shoulder to shoulder, speaking in whispers, on the dark side of the Hall overlooking a grassy little lawn – sharing an intimacy that we had grown into during our rehearsals.
Once we had finished our last show, there was the customary rush to collect the autographs of or fellow players on Programmes. Mine is yet with me – now a sad memento of many, too many, who are no longer with us. The makers of this miracle, Edith and Lyn Ludowyk invited us home for the final round up, good food and superb company, and thus our revels ended.
But not quite. We waited in suspense for the reviews by those veteran critics GJP and RS. We were elated for GJP, in his perceptive review, wrote “The Good Woman of Setzuan will rank as one of the most delightful performances in the annals of the University players” Over sixty years later this yet warms the cockles of my heart.
The Little Clay Cart. [1951]
The Ludowyks were as bold as usual in producing The Little Clay Cart a classical Sanskrit drama whose origin is obscured in the mists of antiquity. But it was great theatre and, according to Sanskrit Professor Wijesekera, ‘one of the three best plays in Sanskrit’.
This play too called for a large cast and the net for talent was thrown much further. Apart from the ‘usual suspects’ we now rubbed shoulders with medicos, scientists, geographers and, naturally, a Sanskritist. There were also two cart-bulls in the cast, more of that later.
Ludowyk drew in a variety of talent to lend authenticity to the sets, costumes and the production at large. They included Professor O.H. de A. Wijesekera, Professor of Sanskrit who wrote the Introductory Note in the Programme, Dr. and Mrs. Sarachchandra for expertise in costuming [especially in draping our dhotis], the dancer Vasantha Kumar for dance movements, master musician Lionel Edirisinghe and his student Tennyson Rodrigo for the haunting music and the Heywood art students of Principal J.D.A.Perera for bulls’ heads. No other DramSoc play ever drew on such a galaxy of talent.
Rehearsals were as great fun as usual. In the intervals in between strutting our [minor] roles on stage, directed by Ludo, the cast gathered in little groups on the lawn outside K.G. Hall swapping yarns and mild horseplay. We had the good fortune of having Siri Constantine amongst us – master of card tricks and sleight of hand – to fascinate us.
The characters we depicted gloried in many names such as Madanika, Sharvilaka, Aryaka, Chandanaka – all names ending with ‘ka’. Thus when it came to the two bulls [two actors per bull] in the cast, Ludo was not happy with calling them ‘First Bull’ and ‘Second Bull’. With his usual wit he ‘christened’ one with the Sinhala term “Haraka” and its companion “Varaka”! Dancing maestro Vasanta Kumar had quite a struggle to get the four players acting the bulls, to ‘tango’ in rhythm. The well orchestrated crowd scenes in this production were among the best ever on the K.G. Hall stage but it called on all Ludo’s mastery of stage technique to get them going. And it worked.
I seem to remember the production as a bright and most colourful spectacle. The girls were truly lovely in their rich finery, vivid swirling skirts and costume jewellery. The little domed pavilions round which they moved were perfect little Mughal marquees, straight out of Rajput miniatures. The sweet melody of Angela’s song, and Tennyson’s violin accompaniment, held audiences spellbound. We men went bare-chested, swathed in (initially awkward) dhotis – Our bare chests would have provided the audience an amusing ‘suspension of disbelief’ as the skin tones exhibited ranged from quite black to ivory white with beige, nut-brown and cream in between. But that, after all, is true India.
Edith’s programme cover for this play was as appropriate as ever – a dancing girl drawn in the style of folk art.
After the show was ever, and bidding the Ludowyks a heartfelt and grateful ‘good night’, the men took off to Galle Face in the cars a few fathers had [with some trepidation] loaned their sons. Today its impossible to imagine a thug-free green where we parked in a semi-circle and – somewhat tipsily – belted out such well-worn ‘classics’ from the Middle East as “Abdul Hamid” and “The Harlot of Jerusalem”
When the newspaper reviews appeared we had plenty to be happy about. H.J.M [once a DramSoc man himself] paid us the compliments { we thought} we deserved. He wrote “a full hall of theatre goers were convinced once again that we could once again depend on the University to deliver the goods….an evening’s entertainment in every sense.”

“Our actors gone, what’s there to see?
This empty stage, this silent scene….
The memory of what has been
And never more will be.”

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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