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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 133-143

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African Metatheater:
Criticizing Society, Celebrating the Stage

Brian Crow

Metatheatricality, or the capacity of stage text and performance to refer to and comment on its own nature as an artistic medium, has been a long established and richly elaborated feature of Western dramatic and theatrical tradition. Shakespeare famously essayed it in comic mode in the mechanicals' play of Pyramis and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream and tragically in Hamlet. In the modern period Chekhov explored it through Konstantin's play within the play in The Seagull, Pirandello built a whole dramatic oeuvre around it, Genet weaved his brilliantly subversive baroque fantasies around it in plays like The Balcony and The Blacks, and Sartre made philosophical entertainment out of it in his adaptation of Dumas's melodrama in Kean. More recently, major dramatists such as David Mamet, Timberlake Wertenbaker, and Tom Stoppard, among others, have continued to enquire into the relations between life and art, everyday theatricality and the organized theatricality of the stage in plays such as A Life in the Theatre, Our Country's Good, and the comic or tragicomic intertextuality of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Travesties.

It would be unwise to generalize too rigidly about the tenor of these dramatists' purposes in their treatments of the theatrical image. If in, say, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Stoppard was exploring in his customarily playful, philosophical way an existential condition acutely experienced in our times--our sense of being bit players in someone else's drama, without ever understanding our roles or the convolutions of the plot (except that it is taking us inexorably towards death)--Timberlake Wertenbaker's preoccupation with theater and acting has a quite different drift, for she presents theatricality as an opportunity for people who have been atrociously brutalized and debased to discover, through the playing of scripted roles and the interactive process of rehearsal, aspects of the self that have been submerged, in some cases well-night obliterated. But if generalizations are to be risked, mine would be that for all the evident diversity of its use and function, the image of theater and theatricality in Western drama ever since Hamlet seems to have been overwhelmingly existential in its central thrust--centered on the self and the "problem" of its identity and individual capacity for fulfillment and realization.

There is, however, nothing exclusively Western about the continuing interest among playwrights in the capacity of the theater to comment on itself and its relations with the larger world that in various ways it refracts. A notable feature of contemporary African drama is the persistence with which its writers foreground the act of performance itself and seem concerned to investigate its status. In part this may be related to a deep-seated pleasure in many African cultures in playful theatricalizing and comic, often satirical observation and parody of different kinds of behavior at the everyday social level. It may also be a natural offshoot of the intense [End Page 133] "theatricality" of so much African theater--by which I mean simply the excitement generated by and in the theatrical event itself, characterized often by music, song, and dance and by audiences who demand, and respond to, very direct relations with performers who at their best are highly energized and remarkably skillful stimulators and manipulators of audience response. It may be that some African actors who have emerged, as many now have, from a university context have acquired some acquaintance with Konstantin Stanislavsky, whose ideas and practice dominate actor-training and, more often than not, professional practice in the West. But African theater is for the most part resolutely non-Stanislavskian, even in the campus-based "art" theaters. Such notions as the playing of objectives and actions in the context of psychological naturalism, public solitude, or detailed and precise attention to given circumstances have little if any part in the contemporary African actor's repertoire of working methods and artistic ideals, even when he or she is acting a role in a literary, "realist" drama. In...


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