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Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 208-212

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Imperialism and Theatre: Essays on World Drama and Performance, ed. J. Ellen Gainor. London: Routledge, 1995. 264 pp. ISBN 0-415-10640-9 paper.
The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, vol. 3 (Africa), ed. Don Rubin. London: Routledge, 1997. 426 pp. ISBN 0-415-05931-3 cloth.

Imperialism and Theatre brings together fifteen essays whose interest is "the unique nexus of theatrical performance as a site for the representation of, but also the resistance to, imperialism" (xiii). But as the brief, sample presentations below will show, all the essays but four—Michael Hays's "Representing Empire," Helen Gilbert's "Costume and the Body in Australian Theatre," Sudipo Chatterje's on the theater of the Bengal Renaissance, and Loren Kruger's on protest theater in South Africa—are devoted to theater's dimension of revolt, in spite of the references to resistance and representation.

Eric Livingston's contribution is a good example of this emphasis. In "Decolonizing the Theatre," he shows how Aimé Césaire mobilizes marginalized, indigenous performance forms and cultural traditions in his plays to create a theater that is both critical and constructive. Livingston sees the emblematic moment of such mobilization in the pastoral masque scene accompanying the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda in Césaire's A Tempest where the disruptive figure of the trickster Yoruba god Eshu suddenly erupts, uninvited and overflowing with sensual energy, in the orderly and stately company of the spirits of the Greco-Roman world. In so doing, writes Livingston, "it is not so much the betrothal as the bloodless Western classical ceremony that [Eshu] resists" (194). In other words, Eshu through his destabilizing activity becomes a metaphor of the postcolonial writer in revolt.

Yet there is more than a concern with resistance in this essay. In a few dense pages, it analyzes the elements of the contribution of the French director Jean-Marie Serreau to the staging of Césaire's vision. Particularly interesting is the link Livingston establishes between Serreau's training as an architect and his theatrical vision, notably his concepts of "'exploded' scene space," "mobile scenery," "rhythmic architecture," and the way in which these notions were applied to the production of Césaire's plays. Livingston makes telling comparisons between the plays, concentrating not just on their performance values (its main thrust and a neglected area), but also on their characters. This said, however, the essay's assertion of a greater ambivalence on Césaire's part toward the "visionary style of Lumumba" than toward Christophe is unconvincing. If anything, the opposite is true. Christophe is, in the words of Césaire himself, both Monsieur Jourdain and Peter the Great, a figure of burlesque comedy and heroic tragedy, a man who betrayed the ideals of the Haitian Revolution.

A second example of an essay focusing on theater as a site of resistance is Elaine Savory's "Strategies for Survival" on attempts by contemporary anglophone playwrights to found "authentic" national theater traditions in the Caribbean by the retrieval and stubborn assertion of what Brathwaite calls the "Little Tradition" of theater. "Little" in opposition to a kind of Caribbean Leavisite "Great Tradition" of play writing that is modeled on [End Page 208] Western dramatic conventions. She explains how, in a gesture akin to Césaire's anticolonial appropriation of suppressed indigenous forms, playwrights like Dennis Scott, Derek Walcott, and Earl Lovelace draw on the technical and thematic resources of, for example, storytelling, calypso music, religious ceremonies, and carnival for their work. Savory is particularly insightful in her analyses of the various functions of the mask in modern Caribbean theater, especially in Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain. Where I would take issue with her is in her insistence that the return to oral forms of theater is, at this point in the history of the region, anti-imperialist. A quarter century after independence, might this return not be the expression of a new national consciousness, one that is...


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