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Shakespeare in South Africa: Some Perspectives

Shakespeare in South Africa -- page 5

Some perspectives on South African Shakespeare

To regard South Africa as saturated with Shakespearean theatre would be a mistake. As in most constituencies of the Shakespearean diaspora, South African Shakespeare is a small but significant element in the story of colonial, post-colonial and perhaps international theatre, set against the complex cultural life of an enormously complex society. There is a measure, a proportion, which Shakespeareans need to respect.

Secondly, the chronicle of Shakespearean production outlined above follows roughly the pattern of colonial incursion in the country, from the Cape up the eastern seaboard and then inland to the diamond and gold fields - rather like following the handle of a frying-pan until you reach the pan itself. The sketch could be filled-out to include the spread of colonial theatre in the towns and "dorps" of South Africa, the rise of Shakespearean production in the schools and universities, his presence in the broadcast media, and so on, before going on to consider issues of public reception, production styles and the history of metropolitan artistic influences. Followed through, the implied historiography would be appropriately colonial.

But such a colonial historiography has important extra-national implications which all too often are neglected in national Shakespearean studies. [Note 8] I have attempted to correct this by suggesting the early synergy between South African and Australian theatre in the colonial period, including Shakespeare as part of a southern hemisphere cultural system responding to the pressures of European economic expansion and trade. This should be seen as a first step towards describing the full sub-system, which clearly includes New Zealand and the Indian sub-continent. Almost from the outset, early economic globalisation and Shakespearean "Globe-alisation" proceeded in tandem. As Gary Taylor has pointed out, there is an impressive congruence in the fact that early modern England's two great joint stock companies were formed side-by side on the banks of the Thames: the British East India Company, and the Globe Theatre, in which Shakespeare was a shareholder (Taylor 234).

The trajectory of nineteenth century Australian and South African colonial theatre had much in common until the turn of the twentieth century, when localised nationalisms, the disastrous racial policies of successive South African governments, and latterly, cheap air travel, precipitated divergent paths for colonial cultural development in the two countries. Contemporary historians (see, for instance, Etherington 2001) are now attempting to re-write a post-colonial South African history giving full weight to indigenous continuities and upheavals, an enterprise which re-focuses the unfolding cultural ensemble and puts western culture, western art forms, by implication very much on the periphery (many of these issues are broached in Peterson 2000). Shakespeare shares this marginality, though he remains a fairly significant point of contact with western culture, and there are occasions where he has been drawn into processes of African self-reflection.

A further perspective I have tried to bring out is the role played by women in the creation of South African colonial theatre in the twentieth century. This is partly attributable to the impact of the Second World War, and perhaps also reflects the (white) colonial conviction that, except as consumers, theatre and the arts are not the concern of "real men" - a silly prejudice that may have something to do with the struggle for economic development in a rugged environment. More importantly, this perspective pays an ambiguous tribute to the cultural energies of colonial women striving to reproduce the ambiance of the established western art forms that were their reference points. How far this effort also constituted an evasion of political pressures must remain matter for speculation.

As far as race is concerned, the mainstream white colonial theatrical enterprise was in many respects so insulated from socio-political realities, both by acculturation and later by law, that I have deemed it best to preserve the illusion, aside from occasional comments and some footnotes. Theatre people were often less racially bigoted than some other sectors of white society, but classical western theatre had little of the overt liberatory impact attributable to South African protest theatre of the 70s and 80s. South Africans speaking languages other than English conducted their own Shakespearean transactions, and it is to some of these that we must now turn.



[8] It is probably no accident that the recent book edited by John Golder and Richard Madeleine, O Brave New World: Two Centuries of Shakespeare on the Australian Stage (2001), shows very little interest in the sub-global system of which nineteenth century Australian Shakespeare was a part. The emphasis is on establishing Shakespeare's post-colonial Australian credentials, to pre-empt his possible marginalisation under pressure from more stringent notions of Australian nationalism. [Back]

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