The Optic Trilogy by Alfian Sa’at

Dark humour marks the trilogy. As Woman puts it in “Brilliance”, ‘fate has a sense of humour. It’s fond of cruel pranks’. In “Transparency”, both the social escort and client turn out to be locals although Woman wanted a Caucasian escort so she can keep her pretense as a tourist and Man hints that he would have preferred a Caucasian client so he can ‘pretend [his] English isn’t very good’ and keep the transaction purely physical. In “Brilliance”, Man finally meets Woman by accident, and has gained the courage to show himself to her as the boy who used to look at her from afar, but she has become visually impaired and will never be able to know how he looks like. In “Iridescence”, Man and Woman wanted to get over their dead lover (Man’s ex-boyfriend, and Woman’s fiance), but become unwittingly involved with each other. The characters also attempt to crack jokes, but the jokes highlight their tragic circumstances, such as Woman in “Transparency”’s loneliness, Woman in “Brilliance”’s inability to come to terms with her visual impairment, and Man in “Iridescence”’s inability to forget his dead lover. In “Transparency”, Woman attempts to prolong the conversation by joking about Man’s previous jobs (teaching computers, cleaning windows, and cashiering at 7-11) as ‘surfing porn on computers’, ‘peeping at women through windows’ and ‘stacking condom boxes’. However, Man becomes more impatient and ‘starts to take his belt off’ (p. 35). In “Brilliance”, Woman self-reflexively tells a joke about the blind and blinds, but Man does not laugh, and later reveals that he will not laugh unless Woman is laughing because he does not know how to behave correctly around the visually impaired. In “Iridescence”, Man relates the jokes the dead lover used to make about Wonder Woman looking like she ‘levitated from a toilet seat’ (p. 67), but Woman replies by asking if he was the ‘dominant’ (p. 68) since the dead lover cross-dressed, and Woman later subverts the joke by referring to the dead lover as Wonder Woman who did not know whom to choose and ‘took off in her invisible plane’ (p. 76), referring to his suicide. Jokes become an attempt to subtly manipulate Man in “Transparency” into opening up to Woman, Woman in “Brilliance”’s way of making others uncomfortable, and a sign of being trapped in memories of the dead lover for Man in “Iridescence”. In “Brilliance”, the audience is put in Man’s position of not knowing whether to laugh or not laugh is polite. In “Iridescence”, the reference to the dead lover as Wonder Woman ‘with his wrists all bandaged up’ (p. 67) at the funeral turn the jokes into dark humour. The trilogy turns humour into signs of suffering and infects the audience with their pain.

(Optische Trilogie)

In the trilogy, the characters betray a longing for the unattainable, and react to their longing by denying it and inflicting pain on others. In “Transparency”, Woman feels alienated from the country because of its hyper-commercialism. However, even though she says that ‘the whole money culture [is] so vulgar’ (p. 42), she has internalized it. For example, Man knows she is a local because she mentioned ‘value for money’ (p. 33). She also verbally assaults Man by reducing him to a soulless body that she can purchase, and his ‘instrument’ (p. 35) as a ‘four-inch syringe’ (p. 34), portraying herself as a consumer. She tries to divorce herself from the country by asserting that she is not local but Australian even though she has just received Australian citizenship, and tries to make him open himself up to her (p. 39) because she feels threatened by him after he saw through her pretense, betraying reactionary verbal violence. Moreover, while her disguise as a tourist allows her to prove her point that the country is ‘built for tourists’ (p. 42), it also exposes her desire to be welcomed by the country at all costs, even at its own terms as a tourist. She also causes Man to reveal that he ‘[hasn’t] talked this way (intimately) with anyone for a long time’ (p. 45), and to tell her his unfulfilled love story with a woman who ‘planted her lips on the glass’ of the windows to kiss him but closed the curtains by the time he opened his eyes (p. 45). In “Brilliance”, Woman tries to inflict some pain on others by manipulating their social awkwardness around the visually impaired. For example, she enjoys saying ‘I see’ so that she can ‘feel the social temperature dropping’ and have a laugh ‘at other people’s expense’ (p. 55). Similarly, she tells Man that it is too bright outside, making him correct her statement before feeling guilty and apologising (p. 48).

(Optische Trilogie)

She also undermines the sense of sight, saying ‘we see once, in childhood’ and ‘the rest is memory’ (p. 52), and portrays herself as being unaffected by her visual impairment. However, when Man asks what she misses seeing most, she tells him he is out of line (p. 52). She also becomes increasingly agitated when he asks about the accident and what the last colour she saw was (pp. 58-59), shouting and throwing her cane at him. When he insists that she does miss seeing, she denies it and reasserts that ‘everything is a variation on a common theme’ (p. 59), but her outburst has already exposed her longing for sight. She also exposes his desire to be ‘heroic’ (p. 56) because he wanted to help a blind man across the road but does not want to help him in the mundane way by buying tissue from him. Moreover, she leads on to reveals his longing to capture ‘vulnerability’ (p. 57), which makes him want to photograph the visually impaired, even though it seems rather unethical. In “Iridescence”, Man and Woman use each other as substitutes to find out if their dead lover could have loved them. Man engages in a relationship with Woman to see if it was ‘really possible for [the dead lover] to love a woman’ (p. 76), and Woman asks Man to make love to her, believing that if Man could do it, it would be proof that the dead lover loved her and could have made love to her (p. 78).

(Optisk Trilogi)

They try too eagerly to reject social assumptions, such that their insecurities are exposed. Man repeatedly rejects Woman’s suggestion that he was the ‘dominant’ or ‘top’, and speaks against about the stereotypes about gay men and sex and ‘categories’ (p. 68) that define gay sex. However, he later admits that he is ‘top’ (p. 68), which ironically reinforces the stereotypes he was trying to reject. Similarly, Woman says that she wanted to have her honeymoon with the dead lover before the wedding because she wanted to find out if he was ‘capable of loving [her] physically’, and that if he was not, she would ‘call the wedding off’ (p. 74). However, she later reveals that he ‘never touched [her]‘ (p. 76) and that she just ‘wanted him to hug [her] body tight’ (p. 75), instead of wanting to test his ability to make love to her. They are also haunted by a sense of guilt for ‘pushing [the dead lover] towards a future that was more [hers] than [his]] and for ‘using the past to hold him hostage’ (p. 75). Across the trilogy, the characters are people who have a deep longing for a sense of belonging to the country, for sight, and for a dead lover, and their longing is transformed into the tragic desire to inflict pain on others and themselves.

In each part of the trilogy, a video camera, camera, or photographs appear, symbolising the documentation and snapshots of Singaporeans – the everyday (video of the Woman), the contrived (video of Singapore’s ‘kitschy’ (p. 31) tourist spots), the fantastic (the pictures of the dead lover dressing up as wonder woman), the faceless (pictures of blank space) and the Other (pictures at odd angles). The nameless characters, only known as Man and Woman, and the roles being portrayed by the ‘same actor and actress’ (p. 31) also suggest that it represents a generic local or Singaporeans in general. The portrait is bleak, showing them to be a generation of hurting and hurtful people, ashamed of the country and themselves yet unable to extricate themselves from it, living in a dark reality (p. 57) and vulnerability, and haunted by irretrievable losses.

(Optische Trilogi)

The trilogy does not offer conclusive endings, but leaves a glimmer of hope. The stage lights or description of light changes from 588 lumens to 639 lumens to 745 lumens, showing increasing brightness and symbolic hope. The locations also become less oppressive, from the ‘interior’ (p. 31, 47) in “Transparency” and “Brilliance” to the ‘exterior’ (p. 63) in “Iridescence”, with the characters looking through the window, then opening the windows, and finally standing at the balcony in “Iridescence”. Human touch is also partly reclaimed. It changes from deconstruction of the body and comments about unfeeling copulation, or the clinical as suggested by ‘instrument’ and ‘optic’, to touch that represents warmth, condolence, and perhaps the possibility of love. Moreover, ending positions become progressively reciprocal. In “Transparency”, Woman puts her hand on Man’s shoulder as he is kneeling; in “Brilliance”, Man puts his hand on Woman’s shoulder; in “Iridescence”, Man puts both hands on Woman’s shoulders and Woman puts her hands on his. The titles are also hopeful and increasingly so. It begins with “Transparency” or allowing objects behind to be distinctly seen, lightens up to intense brightness and vividness of colour (“Brilliance”), and ends with a showing of luminous colours that seem to change when viewed from different angles in “Iridescence” (OED). From “Transparency” to “Iridescence”, a change from denial of self to exhibiting one’s inner beauty seems to be suggested. “Iridescence” also has its etymology in ‘iris’, ‘rainbow’ in Latin, suggesting hope despite the resignation of the ending dialogue, ‘He’s gone. It’s gone. You can’t break a diamond in half.’ (p. 79).

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Comments
3 Responses to “The Optic Trilogy by Alfian Sa’at”
  1. Zach says:

    The examination of Alfian Sa’at’s The Optic Trilogy has given me a more informed perspective about the form of tragedy found in local plays. I now understand the use of dark humour as an interesting devise used by Sa’at, which offers a different take on tragedy that was developed in Western theatre (mainly by the Greeks and the likes of Shakespeare). In a way, tragedy is no longer understood as a play that requires the fall of a hero (as per Greek and Shakespearean tragedies). Such detractment from the “original” form shows how playwrights like Sa’at has redefined the form of tragedy for a contemporary (Singaporean) audience; after all, just how cathartic are deaths?

  2. Rachel Ng says:

    while i agree that the country is geared towards attracting tourists, the play doesnt convince me that singapore is too commercial, or more commercial than other countries, e.g. australia. just take a little walk around Singapore’s heartlands and you’ll find culture that you can never find in other countries. our coffeeshops with a gazillion variations of tea/coffee (tae-c-gao-siew-tai), with local cuisine such as charkwayteow and rojak.. of course, the Singapore Government is trying its best to pitch these ‘highlights’ as ‘tourist attractions’, but that doesn’t make the ‘attraction’ itself any less ‘local’. and, you can’t blame the government for trying to make Singapore prosperous. Australia has its fair share of commercialising local culture via tourism packaging too anyway. checked out the movie ‘australia’? the attempts at glorifying the indigenous spirit/culture? all in all, i don’t think Singapore is as bleak a country as the play suggests her to be. it still has a beautiful blend of city-spots and heartland areas.

    • Zach says:

      er. sa’at isn’t trying to convince his audience that singapore is too commercial or more commercial than other countries. true, he made that claim, but that is not the point of his play at all. so, i’m not sure why you’re getting worked up over that.

      on the other hand, what you’re doing (defending singapore) is what sa’at is trying to achieve: to get his audience to not just see singapore as a commercial centre, but look past it all and simply see how singapore is home to them.

      and i would have to say that sa’at is effective in his craft. i mean, you can’t deny that there’s an economic pragmatism that singapore adopts (as perpetuated by the government). but sa’at is right in reminding us that we need to look past that and recognise singapore as our home. basically there’s a line in the play that reminds us to look past ourselves (or something like that).

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