Two names stand out when one discusses the early days of Sinhala theatre. One is C. Don Bastian and the other is John de Silva. Both were lawyers by profession.
Of the two, the one who exercised the greatest influence on the modern stage and modern music was John de Silva, who was born on January 13, 1857 at Kotte. After being educated in English, he became a teacher but later studied law and passed out as a proctor of the Supreme Court.
Taking a liking towards the theatre he began writing dramas. His first drama, 'Parabhava Natakaya' was a satire on the westernised upper class. His aim was to create a sense of nationalism among the people. He began to draw his inspiration from Sinhalese history and legend.
The drama form prevalent at the time was the 'nurti' as opposed to the 'nadagama' , the traditional form of drama. The 'nurti' was divided into acts and scenes following the pattern of European plays and saw the disappearance of the 'pote guru' or narrator in the 'nadagama'.
Though John de Silva was inspired by the 'nadagam' tradition, he preferred to move away from those tunes while attempting to make the 'nurti' music more systematic. He was more keen on applying the Sanskrit theory of 'rasa' or dramatic sentiment to his plays and adapt North Indian music for this purpose.
John de Silva wrote and produced several historical and religious plays - 'Siri Sangabo' (1903), 'Sri Vickrama Rajasinghe' (1906), 'Devanampiya Tissa' (1914), 'Vihara Maha Devi' (1916) and 'Dutugemunu'. He also wrote 'Ramayana.'
'Sakuntala,' 'Vessanatara,' Uttara Ramacharitaya' 'Ratnavali' and 'Nagananda.' Most of these plays were staged at the Public Hall, where later the Empire cinema was erected. (It is no more since it was demolished to build apartments).
The plays were presented by the Sinhala Arya Subodha Natya Sabha. Later he formed the Vijaya Ranga Sabha and staged his plays at the Gintupitiya Theatre, which was also turned into a cinema later on.
His impact on Sinhala theatre was acknowledged by all and as a token of remembrance the government built the John de Silva Memorial Theatre at Ananda Cumaraswamy Mawatha in Colombo 7. He died on January 28, 1922.
Recognition also came his way in the form of a commemorative stamp released on January 31, 1987.
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Nurthy Nadagam Gee (with lyrics).
"නීතීඥ ජෝන් ද සිල්වා නාටක ඉතිහාසය" (Nītijña Jōn da Silvā nāṭaka itihāsaya).
The history of Proctor John de Silva dramatic literature by L D A Ratnayaka