The salungàhara is a (largely) spoken dramatic production that has become the predominant form of performance art among the Là aristocracy. In its modern form, it is played primarily by amateur, aristocratic, actors for small audiences.
The prototypical salungàhara performance takes place in an intimate setting, often the reception hall of a baryōng. Larger performances may take place outside in the grounds of baryōng, where a performance area may often be found among the gardens. Sometimes the salungàhara may be performed to accompany a public event, such as a wedding, in which case a public open area may be used. Connoisseurs of the art, and scholars, may attend ‘practice’ performances in a dance-hall. In recent decades, the lower classes have begun to participate, staging their performances in public function-halls.
The salungàhara is in most cases performed by a small cast: there are from two to six, perhaps up to eight in some cases, main roles, and a number of peripheral roles that can be played by another two or three actors each taking multiple roles. There will be a further two or three participants providing musical accompaniment, and there may be a small number of dancers. In total then the cast typically numbers from six to fifteen people, sometimes as many as twenty in a large production.
The leading roles (usually one to three, sometimes four or even five) are typically played by aristocrats. These roles may comprise all the main roles, or they may be (and increasingly are) supplemented by a small number of roles played by professional actors. These actors also stage their own ‘practice’ performances in dance-halls. The supplementary bit-parts and the musical accompaniment are typically supplied by the patron house. Performances among the lower classes are similar in composition, with professionals sponsored by aristocrats as a form of charitable endeavour.
As with most aristocratic arts, the primary function of the salungàhara is, at least in theory, internal: the beneficiary is the aristocratic actor, not their audience. Salungàhara may be considered in therapeutic and/or religious terms: the actor takes on a role in order to be suffused with a particular emotion, which is considered to be a (indeed the only) form of divine possession (though it should be noted that the Là concept of ‘emotion’ focuses more strongly on social and interpersonal states, rather than on purely private experiences). This contact with the divine is held to have a cathartic and wisdom-granting quality. The salungàhara is therefore structured around provoking strong emotions in the actors playing the primary roles; professional actors are employed as provocateurs to facillitate the possessive process.
However, the content of the salungàhara is limited by the general taboo on the impersonation of the dead. This prohibits absolutely any dramatic content based on the lives of real people, and to a large extent discourages any personalisation of the roles. Sometimes, the roles may be the roles of ‘gods’ from old religions, who are understood as almost certainly fictional entities who can be safely impersonated; other times, fictional and impossible names are given to characters, but even this is seen as risqué. On rare occasions a character may be a clear parody of a real historical figure, but this is highly offensive and found only in the sharpest satires, a genre that the salungàhara does not commonly enter. Most commonly, the main characters are simply un-named.
It should be said that although the primary ideology of the artform focuses on the internal function of the art for the performers, this does not mean that there is no appreciation of the effect on the audience. The actors do to some extent ‘show off’ for the audience, whether of family members of or friends, and if friends have been invited then the host family will also seek to show off the quality of their professional actors, their dance, their music, and the house itself. A minority of aristocrats develop an interest in the craft of the art, and watch wholly professional performances, though these are officially considered only practice sessions.
There are several schools and genres of salungàhara. In general, however, they follow a quadripartite structure: inception (a situation arises that will lead to drama), premonition (characters and the audience begin to realise what may happen), realisation (a dramatic climax), and restoration (a return to normal, or at least in the direction of normal). This gives the play a four-act structure, and the simplest have only four scenes. More commonly, however, each act is divided into several scenes. Scenes within an act typically are set close together in time and in space; acts, however, may be set over long periods of time and diverse locales. Modern salungàhara may increase the number of acts, either linearly (having two premonition acts, two realisation acts, or an act that is expected to be a realisation but in fact acts to twist the plot and stands as premonition to the true realisation) or contrapuntally (having two realisation acts to give dramatic moments to two characters, or less commonly to double both premonition and realisation in this way). Salungàhara with more acts are generally seen as novelties, and although these are increasingly popular with actors, it is the more concise four-act salungàhara that is seen as the more artistically accomplished.
Scenes typically follow on from one another with no break, or perhaps with a sung narrative line explaining a new location or time. Acts are more strictly divided, with a musical and often dance interlude between them. Dance and music, and special sound effects, may also be employed in the scenes themselves for colour, but this is kept to a minimum – they should enhance the engagement of the actors, not distract them.
The material of the salungàhara is most often drawn from the Fifteen Immortal Classics, though there is rarely a direct repetition of content. Where the Classics deal with anthropomorphised gods or animals, the same characters may reappear in salungàhara; where they deal with historical (or supposedly historical) characters, the characters do not reappear, but the events of the Classic may provide the backdrop for the plot of the salungàhara, and certain scenes from the Classics will be overtly referenced or subverted (though not directly re-enacted). Each salungàhara will be introduced as a work drawing on a particular Immortal Classic, giving fifteen genres; three further genres draw on the ‘Lesser Classics’ of the Latter Banōm Dynasty, distinguishing between Histories, Tales, and Fables; a nineteenth genre deals with ‘contemporary events’ (though never with real living characters), and a twentieth deals with ‘events overseas’. Each genre has its own expectations, though the boundaries are not rigid.
The content of the narrative is founded on the experiences of often one, often two, sometimes three and very rarely four or more primary leading characters. Each of these characters has a plotline that builds to a ‘realisation’ act in which they are overcome by some emotion, such as anger, love, or shame; sometimes, there will be a misleading sequence in which one emotion is on the verge of being reached, only for another to arise instead, although this is only true in a minority of works. After each leading character has reached their point of being emotionally overwhelmed, the final act show them returning toward a state of normality. Salungàhara may broadly be divided into comedies (in which an enjoyable climax is experienced) and tragedies (in which an unpleasant climax is reached); however, this classification may appear counterintuitive to those outside the culture, for two reasons: firstly, because some emotions classed as enjoyable in release may be unpleasant beforehand and vice-versa, and so comedies are often sad and painful until the realisation is reached and tragedies may be amusing and pleasant; and secondly because the final restoration act moves against the climax, so that comedies have relatively downbeat endings, and tragedies have relatively upbeat ones. To the alien observer, then, the Là categorisation may appear entirely back-to-front.
Comedies are the most popular genre, although tragedies are often seen as more artistically accomplished. Salungàhara may be very varied in content, and oddity and originality are greatly valued; however, while unusual works may be enjoyed from time to time, as valuable exotica, in general most salungàhara are comfortable works focusing on romantic entanglements.
Modern Là attitudes toward sexuality mean that salungàhara may (though typically do not) contain what elements of what members of other cultures may consider explicit pornography. This is usually limited to the amateur performers, and does not extend to what the Là consider ‘genuine’ sexual activity. This content is notably absent in professional ‘practice’ performances, and in performances among the lower classes.
Creation and Distribution
The salungàhara is a primarily amateur artform not only in performance but in creation. Most salungàhara are ‘written’ by a member of the performing family, or by the entire family in concertacion (typically lines are composed and learnt orally, with actual written notes purely as aids to memory, not as an authoritative text), and there is no corpus of famous or classic works. However, themes, plots, character traits and suchlike disseminate casually between friends, both by watching performances and by hearing about them. Particularly succesful salungàhara may be recorded and written copies distributed to others who may be interested in performing them, although more often these written copies act as guides and inspirations rather than as scripts. A handful of salungàhara authors are so prestigious that their works are widely performed exactly as originally intended – but these works comprise only a small fraction of the total number of performances, and even with these authors popular interest is on novelty rather than ‘classic’ status: afficionados may want to act out the latest work by some famous author, but only a few true experts will remember all the details of the author’s prior oeuvre. The salungàhara is a living and vibrant artform whose standards and tropes exist primarily in an abstract, collective, implicit form, rather than fossilised in guidebooks or hallowed exemplars. Nonetheless, a minority of nobles are conoisseurs of the art, and in addition to (or instead of) seeking out professional performances, these individuals may collect libraries of particularly impressive scripts, and reminiscences of performances. This is considered a literate, respectable, but somewhat dull hobby: for the most part, the salungàhara is to be performed, not read about, read, or watched.