Source: Dalton Trumbo

Dramatizer-director: Essi Rossi


In perhaps the first visit by a Finnish theatre troupe to Kolkata, the trio of Essi Rossi (director), Johannes Holopainen (actor) and Pauli Riikonen (designer) honoured our city with the Asian premiere of Johnny Got His Gun as part of Pickle Factory’s “Leap Into” event. Those aware of the source text, Dalton Trumbo’s pathbreaking antiwar novel published in 1939, will know that the McCarthy committee blacklisted him, one of the “Hollywood Ten”, and he did time in jail, and that it won international recognition only much later. In 1982, Bradley Rand Smith dramatized it into a monologue that saw many stagings both in the original and in translation across the world. For this version, running since 2015, Rossi dramatized it in English anew, retaining Smith’s solo format.

An explosion on the battlefield in World War I left Trumbo’s soldier protagonist not only as a quadruple amputee, but also unable to eat, see and speak, kept alive in hospital with breathing and feeding tubes. Through the novel, he contemplates his near-vegetative existence and recollects incidents from his past. As one can expect, such trauma becomes extremely difficult to present on stage, leave alone the compression of 300 pages into Smith’s 90 minutes or Rossi’s 60 minutes. While Smith upheld a semblance of conventional realistic narrative, Rossi dehistoricizes it impressionistically and interpolates topical anachronisms.

As director, she capitalizes on Holopainen’s abilities as an electric guitarist and singer. Thus, we get startled by his delivery of the Lord’s Prayer to the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and his bluesy interpretation of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”—with its telling first line, “Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?” On Riikonen’s soundscape, we hear audio clips of Martin Luther King, Trump (no, not Trumbo) and others though, surprisingly, no allusions to Ukraine, so close to Finland. However, many of Holopainen’s spoken lines turned incomprehensible because, at loud volume, the Kolkata Centre for Creativity gallery reverberates into a sonic haze. He should have taken more time over shouted phrases and sentences, or lowered the pitch appropriately.

At the end, the question remained: how does one aestheticize war’s brutality? The method here touched neither extreme of Theatre of Cruelty nor philosophic existentialism, which in the monologue form Beckett mastered. I think Rossi can learn from Beckett’s measured but deeply unsettling quietude, even though he never wrote about war.


20 February 2024