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Of national politics and social problems

Alfred Buttigieg: The collected plays
Self-published, 2017

Alfred Buttigieg is one of a handful of Maltese authors who have established themselves as playwrights on the Maltese stage in the past half-century. A co-founder, with Michael Fenech, of the group Ateatru in the last years of the Mintoff-Karm Mifsud Bonnici era, he was a strong believer in the use of theatre as a tool of social and political change. And it was his full-length play Ir-Rewwixta tal-Qassisin, based on a historical episode in Malta’s 18th century but meant to comment on Malta’s political condition in 1986 when the play was produced at the Manoel Theatre, that brought him very strongly to the notice of theatregoers and politicians.

The three plays he has produced since then, all of them staged, have not been about national politics but about social problems and social change. They are notable for their skilfully written dialogues; his last play, Mela hawn xi Manikomju?, is known for its vivid characterisation of old women in a terminal hospital ward.

The present volume contains English versions, none performed so far, of the four plays I have referred to. However, it contains none of his shorter pieces – such as the very successful La Logique.

Marco Galea, who has written a perceptive introduction to the volume, is also the translator of Ir-Rewwixta tal-Qassisin under the title The Priests’ Revolt.

Irene Mangion has translated the other three: Ippermettili nitlaq (Please let me go); Dwar menopawsi, minorenni u muturi highspeed (On Minors, Midlife Crises and Fast Motorbikes); Mela hawn xi Manikomju? (What is this, a Madhouse?).

All the English versions are mostly idiomatic, with very rare slips like Mangion’s “Close that bath-tap” for “Turn off that bathtap”. Perhaps, Galea’s versions of the ballads are occasionally unsure from a rhythmical point of view but, to be fair, even the original Maltese versions of the ballads are sometimes unsatisfactory.

Set in the 1790s,The Priests’ Revolt remains Buttigieg’s most striking work with its close alliance of a play within a play and the performers’ constant and lively commentary on what they are doing, linking it with what they experience in real life. The 1986 audiences had no problem linking Maltese dissatisfaction with Grand Master Pinto, and then with his successor Ximenes, with Malta’s experiences first under Mintoff and then under his successor Mifsud Bonnici.

The surprise appearance on the stage of the real Mannarino, who has been released from 20 years of imprisonment, is not only effective theatrically but also changes the plot’s direction. Unlike the play within the play, he does not criticise Malta’s rulers as much as the Maltese people who did not support Mannarino’s revolt as they should have done, leading to the revolt’s total collapse.

Please Let Me Go depicts a medical dilemma that affects both the medical practitioner and the parents of the patient involved, a young female born suffering from the rare condition omphalocele, with her guts emerging from her body.

The father would prefer the child to die, rather than live a hugely disadvantaged life. His wife desperately wants her child to live and the surgeon, while pointing out the dangers of using repeated surgery to prolong the child’s life, is clearly wishing to test her skills against the child’s fearful physical state. The surgeon has her way, as the author makes clear by presenting the girl – now 14 – but confined to a wheelchair as she cannot walk.

The author uses another character, an experienced paramedic, to present an argument – too didactic for a play– for preventing the child from living years of pain and discomfort. In a replay of the scene between parents and surgeon, this time the surgeon is more honest and the child is allowed to die. The play ends with a heartbreaking scene as the parents bid an anguished farewell to the dead child.

On Minors, Midlife Crises... is a play much lighter in tone, but Buttigieg here shows his concern about the future of family life in his picture of  the middle-aged parents of a teenage son who have lost interest in each other and try to find satisfaction in reliving their young, pre-marital selves. Henry has never sought satisfaction in his banking career and does not care about being pleasant to his peers but has a lively interest in young, sexy girls, like Fay, his son’s uninhibited girl-friend, while his wife Kate is  engrossed in her work as school counsellor and allows herself to be seduced by Donald, the teenage boy she is counselling, at a crucial moment in her relations with Henry. The audience is made to realise that the problem lies not just with spouses who have fallen out of love with each other but also, and significantly, with the rampant sexuality of the younger people they meet.

In the last play, What is this, a Madhouse?, Buttigieg admirably creates the tragic, but superficially comic, picture of a women’s geriatric ward in a hospital. Even a reading should grip most people, but an actual performance will convince an audience that here, Buttigieg has written a piece that is powerful.

To quote what I have already written about it: “Even the younger people in the audience who guffawed initially at the four old women’s loud, obscene and seemingly senseless outbursts, soon began to observe more calmly the semi-tragic situations the women were living and the huge task faced by their carers and relatives”. Though this English version does not make quite the impact of the original, it is more than acceptable and deserves to be performed.

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