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African Traditional Drama and Issues in Theater and Performance Criticism John Conteh-Morgan In this article, I propose to examine traditional African drama in the light of a number of issues in theater and performance criticism. Although I will be making references to a variety of this drama's discrete forms of expression, the discussion will center mainly upon a few paradigm cases. The first part of the paper will be devoted to the idea of traditional African drama as a species of social performance, and the remainder of it to the notion of that drama as a more specifically aesthetic activity, one that is related to but distinct from other performative genres in traditional Africa. I A feature of traditional African societies that has rarely failed to strike the observer and elicit his comment is their eminent theatricality. "A mere glance at African life," writes the Cameroonian scholar Thomas Melone, "is enough to convince one that it is eminently theatrical."1 Echoing a similar view in her article "Tradition et Modernité dans le théâtre africain," the French critic Jacqueline Leloup observes: "the rich theatricality of the African past no longer needs to be proved."2 At the most immediate level of observation, this stated feature of theater of traditional African societies is perceptible not only in the formal contexts of what Duvignaud calls "social ceremonial" (secular or sacred) and their accompanying dramatic performances3—a topic to which we shall return shortly. It derives more fundamentally from two factors, the first of these being the quality of performed behavior that is exhibited by members of these societies in the course of their routine existence. 4 African Traditional Drama In these cultures, characterized by normative and sometimes highly stratified social structures, individual conduct and intergroup relationships are less a matter of spontaneous and natural interaction than of conformity to a codified mode of behavior, to what some role-theory sociologists have aptly called a "social script."4 This "script," present to be sure in all human societies but particularly in evidence in traditional African societies where it allows for far less improvisation, is actualized in a variety of ways. Chief among these are symbolic movements and actions, stylized gestures, patterned dances, and even speech, which is often molded into a variety of fixed forms, formulaic expressions , and tropes. A graphic instance (among the Manding people of West Africa) of such theatrical behavior—even in a sphere as private as that of the expression of personal emotion—is provided in the gold-smithing episode in Cámara Laye's autobiographical narrative . The Dark Child. The narrator's father, the reader learns, never savors his gold-smithing successes alone in the quiet recesses of his workshop. His joy at an item of jewelry wellcrafted , the narrator explains, always finds expression in a piece of exhibited behavior, the douga dance: "At the first note of the douga, my father would arise and emit a cry in which happiness and triumph were evenly mingled; and brandishing in his right hand the hammer that was the symbol of his profession and in his left a ram's horn filled with magic substances, he would dance the glorious dance."5 Similarly, the reader is informed, smith/(female) client relationships are usually mediated by the services of a bard, a "griot," who uses the fixed format of the praise-song to relay messages between the parties and to exhort his patron. Intercession thus, like the crafting of gold or the harvesting of rice (the latter activity described by the narrator as a "festival"), as indeed the expression of joy, will become a form of theatricalized performance with invariant rules and operations that must be observed if the right outcome is to be achieved. The expression resulting from such behavior in traditional African societies confers on the relations between individuals the character of relations between role-players ("social dramatis personae") and establishes social life as similar to an elaborately choreographed stage-drama. A second factor accounting for the perceived theatricality of traditional African cultures inheres in the very orality of the cultures and the interactive mode of communication this feature John Conteh-Morgan5 imposes. The restriction of all...


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