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  • Fugard, Kani, Ntshona's The Island:Antigone as South African Drama
  • Robert Gordon (bio)

Despite the many features that ground Antigone in the particular political ideology of fifth-century Athens, Sophocles' Antigone has "spoken more to the modern imagination than any other Greek tragedy except perhaps his Oedipus the King."1 It may not therefore seem surprising that of all Greek plays Antigone is the most often revived, revised, or rewritten for performance in African and Caribbean countries.2 Clearly the play exposes the nexus of the personal and the political as a fault line, calling into question the conventional verity that places loyalty to the state above family relationships and private conscience.3 The Island represents a new intercultural approach to writing South African performance, finding common ground between indigenous African modes of storytelling and ritual performance and European approaches to postdramatic performance in a hybrid theater piece that inscribes Sophocles' text within a South African context.

In 1973 the three leading members of Port Elizabeth's multiracial Serpent Players created a revolutionary piece of theater that, together with Sizwe Banzi is Dead (1972), ushered in a new era of South African political protest theater and constituted a new paradigm for postcolonial South African performance. By working together to Africanize the narrative content of Sophocles' tragedy as a subversive tribute to Nelson Mandela's endurance of what had then been a nine-year incarceration on Robben Island, the writers defied apartheid laws that prohibited blacks and whites from collaborating as theater artists; while by showing two black political prisoners playing the roles of Antigone and Creon as representatives, respectively, of the ANC martyrs and their apartheid oppressors, they exploded the conventions of the well-made drama that [End Page 379] had previously colonized the theatrical imagination of black and white South African writers. The radical deconstruction of the Greek text made the play an overt symbol of the liberation movement, while the subtle and spare deployment of African storytelling conventions decolonized South African drama, providing a new form of "protest" theater that influenced South African dramatists for over thirty years.

Throughout the twentieth-century South African drama had been dominated by an English model of the well-made play whose late-Victorian form propagated British imperialist values in the colonies. Afrikaans theater was lively but, between1948 and 1992, proscribed by the hegemony of National Party race ideology. The growth of English-language theater was stunted by a colonial subservience to the home culture typical of settler societies. British actors regularly toured South Africa in Shakespeare and modern plays, and local English-language productions slavishly mimicked dated styles of acting, production, and writing that were once considered appropriate for the Old Vic and London's West End, but which stunted the development of indigenous forms of performance and writing.4 South Africa's first major black playwright, the Zulu writer Herbert Dhlomo (1903-1956), had written a series of plays in English based on the lives of the Zulu chiefs Dingane, Ceteswayo, Moshoeshwe, and the tribal prophet Mtsikane. But as adventurous as Dhlomo's plays were in their time they were also to a large extent constricted by the paradigm of the "well-made" West End play. In the fifties, English-language South African playwrights did make sporadic attempts to tackle local subjects, but their plays tended to be straitjacketed by the forms of West End drama5 and could not compete with the more ambitious development of prose fiction in works such as Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country (1947) and Nadine Gordimer's The Lying Days (1953),6 both reflecting the injustice of race discrimination immediately before and after the advent of apartheid. Perhaps the most innovative uses of theater forms were made by the musical King Kong (1959) and the revue Wait a Minim (1962), but these were subject to the typical constraints of commercial theater, so while they attempted to be authentic and topical could hardly be expected to exemplify radical changes in theatrical convention.

Having written a number of small-cast plays—The Blood Knot (1961), Hello and Goodbye (1965), People Are Living There (1968), Boesman and Lena (1969)—predicated on an Ibsenite structure...


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pp. 379-399
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