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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 184-186

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Book Review

The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics since 1910

The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics since 1910, by Loren Kruger. London: Routledge, 1999.

The appearance of this book is part of a remarkable phenomenon of the past decade or so: a period of intense interest in and sweeping changes to South African theater and performance. Over the past five years alone, we have seen the appearance of more than twelve new books on the subject--more than had appeared in the previous fifteen years! It is of course part of a process that really began round about 1984-85, when a number of (then young) researchers began to document, describe, and analyze the processes taking place in theater and performance in the country, as well as seeking to re-interpret the origins of the various processes and products. (The works of writers such as Coplan, Hauptfleisch and Steadman, [End Page 184] Kavanagh, Larlham, White and Couzens, et al. all appeared then, along with a string of enormously influential doctoral theses, notably Steadman's.) What makes Loren Kruger's work relatively unique is her attempt to go beyond the limitations of the concept of theater and the parochial boundaries of cultural/linguistic group to produce a more comprehensive overview of all South African drama, theater, and performance traditions. She starts with such nonformal events as pageants, music-hall, and vaudeville, and then moves on to discuss writing and performance in all the communities, languages, and traditions of the country, from plays in Afrikaans to performances in Zulu. In a sense, she seeks an overview of South African drama and theater as a single entity. And this attempt alone makes it an extremely valuable and useful addition to the stock of literature on South African drama and theater.

What bothers me, though, is that the dust jacket takes this marvelous intention, and turns it into a rather hyperbolical factual claim for the book, calling it "the first comprehensive account of drama and performance in twentieth-century South Africa." This claim is not only a little excessive, it is patently untrue. It is so that only a few other researchers have ever attempted this kind of research, for it is an enormous (and, yes, frustrating) task in any context, and even more so in a society dominated by segregationist thinking. However, the fact is: there have been a few other attempts to do the same thing over the years--though not all of them appeared in full book form, not all use Kruger's specific perspective, nor were any of them completely successful. But then neither is this one wholly successful, nor is it really "comprehensive" in what it seems to set out to do, despite the manifest thought and labor that went into the research and writing.

Besides the little things (the occasional small but significant factual errors, a few misspellings and proofreading errors, my two central problems with the book revolve around the way the publication tries to occupy two different domains of knowledge dissemination at the same time. On the one hand it seeks to be a hard-core academic study of the phenomenon of South African performance, and on the other it is trying to be the first comprehensive (and popular perhaps?) history of drama and theater in South Africa. It is a schizophrenia that affects the book in its entirety.

As an academic treatise the book relies on a wide range of appropriate theoretical perspectives for justification of its particular approach (ranging from modernism and colonialism to postmodernism and postcolonialism, and utilizing the ideas of Bakhtin, Bhabha, Boal, Carlson, Fanon, Jeyifo, Mda, Williams, et al.) The necessity for this is undisputed, for dealing with African performance is still very much a maze of theory and speculation, at least from a methodological point of view. Also, the points are well argued, but the problem arises when this kind of discourse takes up a chunk of the available space and...


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