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Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 186-201

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Dimensions of Theatricality in Africa

Joachim Fiebach

Human behavior (presentation of the self) and social interrelationships (acting out roles) have been quite often understood in Western cultures, at least since the sixteenth century, as theatrically structured. Given the prevalent assumption that there was a rigid line of demarcation between society as the objective reality, and theater as a subjective, constructed, fictional representation (mimesis), the two realms were mostly compared and interrelated on a metaphorical level. This has changed in the twentieth century. Scholars and artists themselves have come to conceive of social realities as more or less made up by the very components, structural relations, and "techniques" that comprise the phenomenon of theater art. In the 1920s the German anthropologist Helmuth Plessner took an actor's activity on stage as the paradigm for human attitudes and interaction with others in real life and in the sociopolitical world. Humans, Plessner argued, act and interact in "real life" the same way as a performer does in theater arts (109-29, 399-418). In the 1930s-early 1940s, Brecht described the acting out of social roles and, implicitly, the display of the self in "real life" as "natural theater" and "everyday theater" ("Die Straßenszene" 74-106; Arbeitsjournal 131-32, 300). In 1959 Erving Goffman summed up this line of thinking: theatrical techniques, he wrote, were constituents of the individuals' interaction in real life (254-55). Since the 1960s larger groups have been re-thinking societal realities as "theatrical" or forms of performance. This, for instance, has resulted in the establishment of special academic institutions for performance studies in North America and in a joint research project "Theatralität/Theatricality" conducted by several universities in Germany. Different strands of postmodernist theorists focus in particular on developments in highly industrialized societies. They claim that the exponentially accelerating production and circulation of commodities and audiovisually mediated images have created an entirely new historic situation. Some hold that it has been only since the 1950s that performance and theatricality have become decisive agencies (constituents) of reality. Most tend to assume the distinction between "reality" and "image circulation" is being blurred to such an extent that reality (realities) appear to be lost or dissolve altogether (Anderson 3-6).

This essay's general interest is to provide an outline demonstrating that African cultures do bear out what Western anthropologists, sociologists, and artists like Brecht have advanced about theatricality and performance beginning in the 1920s. Its special goals are twofold. First, it attempts to contribute to further research into the vast range of African "theatrical phenomena" that may exist beside the already widely discussed performance formats. It seeks to indicate that theatricality has been a major dimension for upholding and contesting power structures and social (general) difference. Second, elaborating on pre-industrial African cultures, the essay argues that performance as symbolic action was a decisive agency in constituting societal realities well before the advent of the "age of television," as Martin Esslin calls it. [End Page 186]

I will start by considering four examples of acts of performance described by foreign visitors to Africa from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. I will then proceed to comment on each of those performances. The first is by Ibn Battuta. Looking back at his travels in the Mali empire of the fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta described the audiences the sultan (king) held in the palace courtyard on certain days. There was a platform under a tree, with three steps, silk carpeting, and cushions placed on it, and with a huge umbrella protecting it from the sun. The king made his appearances from a door in a corner of the palace, with a bow in his hand and a quiver on his back. He was preceded by musicians who carried two-stringed guitars; behind him came hundreds of armed slaves. He walked in a leisurely fashion, affecting a very slow movement, and even stopped from time to time. On reaching the platform he halted and looked round the assembly, then ascended it "in the sedate...


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