Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 202-205
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Post-Colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics, by Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins. London: Routledge, 1996. ix + 344 pp. ISBN 0-415-09024-5 paper.
To date, the medium of fiction has been the favored object of contemporary postcolonial cultural criticism. There is perhaps a theoretical reason for this: since Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, it is the novel that has been most paradigmatically linked with the project of establishing national identity. But at the same time much of the conceptual discourse of postcolonialism is expressly theatrical or performative. Homi Bhabha's essay "Dissemination," for example, rests on a distinction between "performative" and "pedagogic" modes of subjectivity. And political cultures of anticolonialism, past and present, often utilize theatrical imagery and media. When Frantz Fanon gives an illustration of "National Culture," it is the medium of a play that he selects, and there is a theatrical underpinning to his notions of the roles played by colonizers and colonized, the scenes of colonialism and resistance, the masks and stages of identity-formation. Metropolitan English departments may tend to analyze the prose projects of Ngugi, C. L. R. James, and Aidoo (for instance) more often than their drama, but it is surely no accident that at certain historical moments these writers prioritized theater as their medium.
For recognizing theater as a medium that deserves postcolonial critical attention, this book is most welcome. In its approach, organization, and regional spread the book shares much with Bill Ashcroft et al.'s The Empire Writes Back, and is best viewed as a companion. Like that volume, Post-colonial Dramaincludes settler colonies alongside occupied colonies, and consequently addresses anglophone plays from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, as well as plays from Ireland, the Caribbean, India, and Africa. Like The Empire Writes Back, the chapters are divided by theme. Each chapter explores a different component of drama: canonical counter-discourse; ritual and carnival; postcolonial histories; the languages of resistance; body politics and neocolonialisms. Like The Empire Writes Back, the book aims to combine literary and theoretical discussion, and serves as a general university textbook introduction to dramatic expressions from formerly colonial countries. And like that book the conceptual emphasis falls on "writing back"; what unites these plays as "postcolonial" is the ways they "dismantle," "disrupt," and "subvert" metropolitan cultural conventions and values.
The book supplies lucid descriptions of a wide range of primary material, much of which comes across as intensely exciting theatrical experience, creatively vibrant and stimulating for audiences and future researchers alike. For this, for the impressively extensive research and for the thoroughness of each chapter's detail, the book is to be highly commended. The shortcomings lie in the conceptual framework, which effectively excludes consideration of some of postcolonial drama's most potentially compelling issues by its limited working definition of cultural politics, resistance, and postcolonialism. [End Page 202]
The authors defend their inclusion of settler-invader colonies alongside occupation colonies on the grounds that "the settler-invader colonies share many similar subject positions, and historical and geographical elisions with the 'occupation' colonies" (6-7). At the same time, they contend that "the particular position that such settler-invader colonies occupy is extremely problematic [. . . they] are located in an awkward 'second world' position that is neither one nor the other; they have been colonised by Europe at the same time that they themselves have colonised indigenous peoples [. . .]" (6). On the one hand, all colonies are alike by virtue of their "historical and cultural marginality" to, and othering by, an imperial Europe; on the other hand, settler-colonies occupy an indeterminate or double position which differentiates them from occupation colonies. The latter perspective neatly aligns settler colonies with a formulaic deconstructionism; settler colonies embody and epitomize a subjectivity that is hybrid, double, and consequently provides an exemplary destabilization of the premises of binary thought.
At times, indeed, the book seems to suggest that whereas indigenous and occupied colonial cultures can call upon traditional, precontact resources of narrative, ritual, and relationship to the land (as well as manichean models...