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Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 24-31

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Theater and Anthropology, Theatricality and Culture1

Johannes Fabian

One: A Confession

I am not a theater-goer. There are years between the plays I occasionally take in because friends take me along. In 1997, during a stay in New York, I did have what was for me a busy season: in Brooklyn, I saw a Peter Brooks play based on Sack's "The Man Who Forgot . . . ." Then I went to a triple header, including a Woody Allen piece, in the Village, and finally there was a Shakespeare play, with free admission, by a group of young actors in the basement of Dean and de Luca's coffee shop. I left after the first act. The actors were unable or unwilling to adjust to the intimacy of the room and made a shouting match of the occasion. It was embarrassing. In fact, embarrassment may be the main reason for my apparent lack of interest. I am embarrassed by most institutionalized theater in my own society as I am embarrassed by church services I must attend for a confirmation, a wedding, or a funeral. In German, I would translate embarrassing as peinlich, a cognate of painful, something that hurts.

A few years ago, I was thrilled to see my seven-year-old daughter share my feelings. Together with her mother they had decided to attend at least one of three lectures I was invited to present in the Jefferson Rotunda at the University of Virginia. She appeared to enjoy the crowd in this strange, solemn environment until I approached the lectern. When I began to speak she tried to hide under her mother's skirts.

I am not going to analyze this response, but I should make my confession more complete and perhaps more intriguing. I have never known this feeling of embarrassment when, as an ethnographer of contemporary African culture in Zaire/Congo, I attended scores of improvised plays performed by a troupe of popular actors; or when I spent countless hours with members of religious movements engaged in teaching, prayer, and ecstatic experiences. The question of why this is so I shall leave unanswered. I remain unconvinced by the obvious explanation: as an anthropologist, I can maintain a kind of distance I do not have from my own culture. Such a response would run against everything I have tried to accomplish in my field.

Two: A Trajectory

It is safe to assume that something that becomes a consuming interest in one's later professional life had its origin in early dreams and experiences. As to dreams, I don't recall ever wanting to be an actor, or even pretending to be one in the games we played as children. I do have vivid memories of a circus show we once put on in an arena built from the rubble that, three years after the bombs had fallen, still covered much of the street where we lived. I had no act, though; I was the impresario and announcer, or rather, one of several who claimed that role. [End Page 24]

As to early experiences, my memories of acting and pretending go deeper. They are tied to learning to speak a foreign language. My parents were bilingual but I grew up at first speaking German only. We lived in a region that eventually became a part of Poland, a process that had not yet become a fact when I was eight years old. Within what must have been weeks I spoke Polish. Perhaps I was prepared, having heard from early childhood the sound of another Slavic language, a Moravian dialect spoken by the adults in my family; and there must have been some gradual acquisition of linguistic competence. But my memory tells me nothing about acquiring anything and a lot about joining something; hanging out, playing along in an ongoing piece, pretending that there was nothing strange about mustachioed men kissing ladies' hands and young mothers openly nursing their children. I felt proud and excited about being talked to in Polish and being able...


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