- On the Tragedy of the Commoner:Elektra, Orestes, and Others in South Africa
Like their counterparts in other countries beset with internal conflicts if not outright civil war, such as Jean Anouilh in occupied France (ca. 1940) or Griselda Gambaro in Argentina (ca. 1980), South African theatermakers during the apartheid era found in classical tragedy scenarios for representing the struggle against the brutality of an authoritarian state. Sophocles' Antigone, in particular, which inspired both Anouilh and Gambaro, also prompted the well-known South African playwright Athol Fugard, as well as lesser-known locals like Peter Se-Puma, to depict Antigone as a political rebel who defies Creon, her kinsman and her king, and asserts on pain of death an ethical obligation to resist the tyranny of the state.1 In The Island (1973), Fugard's collaborators Winston Ntshona and John Kani, both of whom created the roles of political prisoners, play Antigone and Creon respectively. The drama concludes not with death but with defiance, with Winston's endurance despite his life sentence, John's anticipated release and, by implication, the amplification of this defiance in the world outside. In this scenario, the hero and her drama represent not so much tragic sacrifice as commitment to struggle. The darkness of tragedy, the fatal outcome of the collision between hubris and necessity, appear to fade in light of prospective liberation.
If the commitments of the antiapartheid movement encouraged a theater of resistance whence the suffering protagonist emerged transformed as an agent of struggle, the achievement of democracy in the post-apartheid era might appear to have escaped the threat of catastrophe and thus the grasp of tragedy. Invoking tragedy in this context may [End Page 355] invite the argument that South Africa avoided the calamity of full-blown civil war, and achieved instead a relatively peaceful transfer of power in 1994.2 Moreover, so the argument might continue, the historically divided population has come, as a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as well as lesser known but far-reaching changes in law, economics, and education, to understand itself as a nation. Even if the TRC's final report could not produce a universally sanctioned truth or full consensus about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of acts of violence committed by the apartheid state or its opponents, which might have led to collective reconciliation, the hearings compelled those who paid attention to reevaluate their place in the country after apartheid.3 This aspiration to national belonging invites the representation of resolution if not quite reconciliation. If this representation does not rise to the rounded form of high comedy, defined by the resolution of conflict and harmonization of difference rather than by eliciting laughter, then it might still offer the redress proposed by satire, or the critical resolution of the Brechtian parable play, through which the audience comes to see beyond characters blind to history and their own contradictions to reach an understanding of social conflict and its potential redress.4
Despite the strong appeal of resolution, the comedic scenario has only partial purchase in today's South Africa. The persistence in post-apartheid society of inequity and injustice perpetuated by new rulers, even if they were former victims, prompts a skeptical revaluation of the official narrative in which the African National Congress (ANC) claims the moral high ground of a national hero. As the wealth gap increases, poverty remains entrenched, and death stalks the country in the shape of AIDS, assaults on women and children, and criminal violence out of all proportion to the value of property being stolen, the epic narrative of national liberation and the victory of justice over oppression have been cast into doubt. As expressed by a recent book, Do South Africans Exist?, some have become skeptical about the very identity of a national protagonist.5 Many local theatermakers have used satire to indict the corruption, impunity, and indifference of the newly powerful. Audiences at national and regional festivals have applauded these unpublished but popular plays, such as Professor Mzantsi (Professor South), a parliamentary comedy of errors (2006), or Brother Number, a surreal treatment of the really Kafkaesque conduct of the Home Affairs Department...