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Euripides in South Africa: Medea and Demea Albert Wertheim With the abrogation ofapartheid in South Africa, that country and its writers happily face new beginnings. But from 1948, when apartheid was first instituted, until its recent dismantling, the situation of the white writer in apartheid-ridden South Africa has been a difficult and complex one. Using the privileges given to men and women with white skins, understanding their access to publishers and to the literate world both within and beyond South Africa, the white writers largely directed their talents to reviling the very system and society that privileged them. To be a member of the dominant group and to challenge that dominance from within required nearly as much fortitude as attacking the dominant group and doing so from the ranks ofthe disadvantaged and oppressed. White writers such as Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard, Breyten Breytenbach, André Brink, Stephen Gray, J. M. Coetzee, Alan Paton, and Guy Butler used their writing to attack the apartheid system under which they have lived. As a result they had their works rejected and banned, and they themselves were sometimes imprisoned or placed under banning orders by their fellow whites. At the same time, they were reviled for their privileged white lives by their oppressed black and coloured fellow countrymen . The plight of white anti-establishment writers in South Africa was surely not an enviable one. Such writers had, furthermore , a double public, their own countrymen and the international community; and in many cases the writers wished not to plead South Africa's special circumstances but instead to use the South African situation to illuminate more universal truths. Among the most impressive white South African writers is Guy Butler, who had for decades used his position as a professor at Rhodes University in Grahamstown and his talents as a poet, playwright, historian, and belletrist to shape a view of a South African history colored as that history had been by racialism and by the formalization ofthat racialism into the 1948 and post-1948 334 Albert Wertheim335 apartheid policies. In his recent Demea (1990), a play first produced just as the strictures of apartheid were loosening, Butler has successfully employed an old playwriting device to create a perspective for seeing that what has happened in the historical past of South Africa and what has happened in recent decades in South Africa involve matters not unique but rather unhappily and tragically inherent in the very history of Western civilization.1 It has not been unusual for playwrights to invoke and refashion historical events and plays of a prior era in order to gain perspective and distance on their own chaotic times. Shakespeare , for example, drew upon both classical history and British chronicles to make guarded but nonetheless pointed comments about contemporary Elizabethan England. Other playwrights have been drawn to glance at their own times by re-presenting the essential human struggles witnessed in classical Greek tragedy. One thinks immediately of Racine (Phèdre) and Goethe (Iphigenie in Tauris); and, in more recent times, playwrights such as T. S. Eliot (The Family Reunion), Eugene O'Neill (Mourning Becomes Electra and Desire Under the Elms), Jean-Paul Sartre (The Flies), Jean Giraudoux (Tiger at the Gates), and Edward Bond (The Woman) have invoked Greek tragedy to formulate dramatic works that are meant to illuminate in new ways not their classical forebears but contemporary political, social, religious, and psychological issues. That a playwright like Butler has adapted a Greek tragedy and Greek tragic themes is not, consequently , of great moment; but what is of interest is his choice of Greek drama and the manner in which he has adapted or re-interpreted it for his own time. In the "Author's Note" that prefaces Demea, Butler writes: In the late 1950s I came under the sway of the Greek dramatists. They seem to have so sure an instinct for archetypal and universal themes. I was particularly struck by the Medea of Euripides, which dealt with an issue much on my mind: racial and cultural prejudice, (p. v) In A Local Habitation, the third volume of his autobiography, Butler explains that he was "fascinated by ancient Greek drama and the power ofcertain...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 334-347
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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