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Internet Shakespeare Editions

Shakespeare in South Africa: African Appropriations

Shakespeare in South Africa -- page 7

African appropriations

Educated elites in Anglophone Africa on the whole seem to have taken to Shakespeare (see Mazrui 1967), though with little of the wholesale identification characteristic, for instance, of some Shakespeare enthusiasts in India. Where he has been resisted, this has mainly been for reasons of macro-political or ideological symbolism - it is difficult to reject colonialism on ideological grounds while maintaining sympathy for a cornerstone of colonial cultural imposition. Yet this is exactly the sophisticated acceptance with which Shakespeare has been met. Anti-Shakespearean diatribes are relatively rare in Africa, and South Africa is no exception. Sol Plaatje (1876-1932) struck the keynote with his contribution to Israel Gollancz's Tercentenary Book of Homage to Shakespeare (1916), a work he probably helped edit (Willan 194). The piece details his experience of telling Shakespeare's stories in the townships of Kimberley, where his audiences assumed they were of local origin, as well as his touching recognition of affinities between his own courtship (he was Tswana-speaking, his bride Xhosa) and Romeo and Juliet. His novel Mhudi (1930) treats the defeat of the Barolong by the Ndebele in the 1830s. Originally published by the Lovedale Press, this is the first full-length novel in English by an African. The debt to Shakespeare is written all over it, from the sense of history, to the function of genre and details of diction (the best treatment remains Gray 1976). Shakespearean influence is also there in his major socio-political work, Native Life in South Africa (1916), in which he documents grounds for resistance to the 1913 Land Act, the major instrument of white "legal" appropriation.

The vein of cultural translation inaugurated by Mhudi can also be seen in the Shakespearean influence on some of the long-neglected plays of Herbert Dhlomo, such as Dingane and Cetshwayo (both 1936/7), though here the encounter seems less fruitful. On the other hand, A.C. Jordan's novel Ingqumbo Yeminyana (1940), translated by the author and his wife, Priscilla P. Jordan, from the Xhosa as The Wrath of the Ancestors (1980), is a very substantial achievement indeed. The influence of Shakespeare, noted in R.L. Peteni's introduction to the English translation, is more a question of historical tone than identifiable features. Peteni himself went on to write Hill of Fools (1976), a re-working of the Romeo and Juliet story in terms of ongoing tension between the Thembus and the Hlubis (the former being Xhosa and the latter Mfengu, a group who retreated into the Eastern Cape in the early nineteenth century to escape Tshaka) (see Wright 2004). The novel was translated into Xhosa in 1980 and televised by the SABC as Kwazidenge in January 1996. The theatrical high point of this tradition is, of course, Welcome Msomi's Umabatha, a reworking of Zulu epic on the lines of Macbeth. The original production, directed by Pieter Scholtz and produced by Elizabeth Sneddon, went on tour in 1969 and opened the World Theatre season at the Aldwych in London on April 3, 1972. London audiences were stunned, overwhelmed by the energy, spectacle and exoticism. In 1974-5 the show toured South Africa, playing the festivals, schools and townships. An ecstatic audience of some 20,000 attended one performance at the Jabulani Amphitheatre, Soweto ("Electric Umabatha . . .": 23). It closed the annual Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1976, and wowed the Festival of Two Worlds in Charleston, NC, in 1977, before going on to a very successful off-Broadway season in 1978. There is a fascinating study to be made of the inception, reception and transformation of this worldwide theatrical phenomenon over some thirty years (see McKluskie (1999) and Wright (2004a) for recent debate).

Beyond such formal manifestations, there is also a rich undertow of lesser-known Shakespearean appropriations, from local performances to cultural commentary in the small magazines, to fleeting comments by well-known African personalities. There were early disappointments. An offer by the Zulu poet Benedict Vilakazi to translate Lear into Zulu for the struggling Bantu People's Theatre came to nothing because of lack of adequate theatre facilities and a full-time cast (Stopforth 206). (The Bantu People's Theatre, afterwards renamed the African National Theatre, was a shaky organisation founded in Johannesburg in 1937 by the Belgian director André van Gyseghem, at the end of his sojourn producing the pageant for the Empire Exhibition of 1936. Originally he had wanted to work with the reasonably established Bantu Dramatic Society, but his advances were rejected: see Peterson 160.)

In 1930 a performance of a few scenes from The Merchant of Venice at the Diocesan Teachers Training College in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) so inspired students that they put on their own production of Julius Caesar, as reported in the newspaper Umteteli wa Bantu of 20 December. Much later there was, for example, Cecil Manona's 1963 production of The Tempest at Fort Beaufort and Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, where Prospero, robed in white and wearing a jackal skin, appeared as a traditional gqirha (or diviner), and Caliban's exit line, "Freedom, high-day! High-day, Freedom" etc., was greeted with "a spontaneous burst of laughter and loud shouts of 'Uhuru! Uhuru!'" (Butler 1992).

In the same year, 1963, Can Themba, the short story writer and journalist of Drum magazine fame, produced in four pages a sizzling diagnosis of Shakespeare's relevance to Africa, in the radical review The New African, and Bloke Modisane in his autobiographical novel, Blame Me On History (1963), borrowed Shakespearean speeches to express outrage at what was happening to him. Or we can leap ahead to a 1988 interview with Chris Hani, then deputy commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC: "I was fascinated by Shakespeare's plays, especially Hamlet . . . I want to be decisive and it helps me to be decisive when I read Hamlet" (Weekly Mail, June 10-16, 1988). Hani's callous assassination by right-wing reactionaries in 1992, an event that caused the country to tremble on the brink of chaos, had itself the hallmarks of Shakespearean tragedy - though none of the remoteness of art.


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