Water and fire Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton

Stabroek News
February 20, 2005

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Destruction by water and by fire has been for a long time a well-known and often rehearsed archetypal theme in literature. A good example of this that immediately comes to mind is a work by acclaimed American writer James Baldwin called The Fire Next Time in which Baldwin indicates what inspired his title at the beginning of the book with the inscription "God gave Noah the rainbow sign/no more water the fire next time."

It continues in Dylan Thomas's poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of A Child in London. In less direct fashion the fire and water motif finds its way in T S Eliot's The Wasteland, described by critics as the most influential poem in the twentieth century because of the way it directed the changes, the shape and direction of modern poetry, taking it into the age of modernism. Quite relevantly, that great poem attempts to reflect the state of modern society seen by the poets as fragmented, desolate and directionless, having lost faith and purpose. Destruction was seen as the courted fate of rudderless mankind captured in the words of another poet of that Modernist group, W B Yeats: "things fall apart, the centre cannot hold," and "the falcon cannot hear the falconer."

The source of this is a story in a book that has itself been called a great work of poetry, a fascinating record of oral poetry and an epic, among other descriptions. It is the story in the Bible, referred to by Baldwin in which the state of mankind was very much as Eliot and Yeats described it. It was so faithless and the falcon was so deaf to the falconer that God sent a great flood to cover the earth, saving only the faithful Noah, his family and a sample of each type of animal. At the end of it a dove returned carrying an olive branch in its beak and a rainbow appeared as a symbol that the world would not be destroyed by water again but by the fire next time. Since then, all these elements of the story have served as a rich store of motifs, symbols, metaphors and themes for creative writers within and without the Christian faith.

There is no plausible comparison between the Bible story and what has happened in Guyana, except what emerges from the literary imagination. But inevitably, that popularly appropriated theme of the great flood so prevalent in literature was not very far away when the worst flood to have hit Guyana in most people's memory plagued the land with its several different repercussions that plague it still. Clearly, however, it has happened before, if only from the evidence of the poem Over Guiana, Clouds by A J Seymour, written in 1944 to describe scenes from flooding which match the depressing scenes suffered in 2005 to every precise detail.

The National Cultural Centre

However, what has prompted this revisit of floods and the reference to their rehearsals in creative writing is the way these aquatic invasions have shut down and damaged the National Cultural Centre. The building which now serves as Guyana's premier venue for theatrical performances is now closed for an unspecified period because of the considerable damage caused by the recent flood in Georgetown. Particularly hit have been the lower sections of the auditorium, the orchestra pit and many parts of the infrastructure, while the stage has been undermined.

Yet, such inundation is not new to the cultural centre which is well known as being prone to invasion by renegade water from rain and even, it is believed, from groundwater sources. There are many theories, including the suggestion that the geology of the area determines that the site of the building will always attract water in this manner. If this is true, then one would think that the NCC seems doomed to its fate. It faces a perennial problem since its foundations appear to be so irrevocably cast in bedrock. But the writer of one of the letters on the subject appearing in the Stabroek News suggests that some salvation could come from a study of the plans and drawings of the design of the building if they are accessible. There seems to be some scientific sense in that. One of the pictures in the newspapers shows the Minister of Culture wading her way into the building to examine the destruction, and one should expect that her strategies include a search, not only for concurrent repairs, but for studies towards a long-term solution to ward off this recurring periodic destruction by water.

Although it is by no means insurmountable, it cannot be an easy task to maintain this large structure. It is large by any standards of theatres in any of the world's cultural capitals, despite the fact that most of them have more sophisticated and state-of-the- art stage and infrastructural fittings. They also tend to be better designed for dramatic performance, but they do not have more space to cover in larger auditoria than the cultural centre. In the best and driest of times it has proved difficult for the NCC to keep its air conditioning, its lighting and sound equipment functioning effectively. There have been repeated sound defects during performances and frequent overhauls and repairs of the systems. Considerable sums of money have been spent in these areas and it is a major setback to have to cope with the current problems caused by floodwater.

It is also a major setback in the context of the steady decline of the other major theatrical building in Georgetown. For some time now the famous Theatre Guild Playhouse has been falling into ruin for lack of maintenance, repairs and the necessary funds to keep it standing. Previous appeals and attempts at fundraising have been unsuccessful and destruction threatens.

The area in which that theatre is located was also inundated but there have been no known reports so far about the further damage that that might have caused to the building and its surroundings.

The context may even be further extended to the long history of destruction of Guyanese theatres by fire or by water. The famous performance venues of the past and of previous centuries had a habit of falling victims to fire. There was more than one auditorium named the Theatre Royal, many other theatres and auditoria where several visiting companies, local gentlemen amateurs and a flourishing nineteenth century Portuguese theatre performed as well as the Assembly Rooms which housed thriving theatrical activity in colonial British Guyana. Those venues are all gone and their histories as recorded by Joel Benjamin, Professor Sister M N Menezes and Lloyd Kandasammy make interesting reading.

Fire accounted for many of them, as it did elsewhere around the Caribbean and the western world. The famous theatres of the Elizabethan period including Shake-speare's Globe, all went that route and it is likely that some were deliberately torched during the time of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Common-wealth in 17th Century England. There, elsewhere and in later years, the destruction by fire that has been a favourite metaphor for poets, playwrights and novelists took its toll in reality on many of the stages on which those very works were performed.

What might be somewhat better news is that the recent destruction by water did not seem to have affected the fine arts quite as badly. Nothing has been heard so far from the Hadfield, which is located in a flood-prone area, but Curator Elfrieda Bissember has been quoted as reporting that Castellani House had very few casualties. While water did invade the building, the valuable National Collection seems not to be stored near ground level and escaped. Other works on the ground floor were rescued in time and moved to higher levels.

At a later date she may be asked to comment on the possibility of contamination of pieces whose medium is paper, fabric or canvas by fungi. While such contamination has been checked and probably controlled in the badly struck University of Guyana Library, the account of items lost and damaged there is much sadder than the state of the fine arts in either UG's Creative Arts Division or Castellani House.