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South African Drama in English Mervyn Woodrow O f the three arts forms— poetry, prose fiction, and drama— drama is still the Cinderella of South African literature. The nineteenth cen­ tury produced only two real plays, and rather poor ones at that, while the first half of the twentieth century, though it produced many more, offers few that are likely to survive on merit. Indeed it has been suggested that “ The rise of the cinema at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly in the years following the First World War, meant from about 1925 till 1945 nearly complete disappearance of English professional drama in South Africa.” 1 In the years thereafter, how­ ever, there has been a resurgence of productivity, particularly in plays we might categorise as Political, Social Problem, and Propaganda. The renewed effort in this area of our national literature suggests the latent promise of a Cinderella even as it reflects the neglect: there is, for example, no public or university library in the Transvaal that holds such recent and significant dramatic works as Alan Paton’s Sponono, Basil Warner’s Try for White, or Arthur Ashdowne’s Squad­ ron X. That list could be expanded considerably, and doubtless many of these are held in private collections, but my point— even my plea— is that these monuments of our national heritage deserve preservation by our public institutions. For, if I am right, and not too fond a dreamer, our recent productivity gives every promise of a renaissance in South African drama in English. My dream and my plea run counter, of course, to an opinion shared by many, namely the probability that there is no such thing as South African literature in English— much less drama— or, if there is, then because of the language medium it belongs to the tradition of English literature. This view was upheld in the nineteen thirties, for instance, by the late Professor J. Y. T. Greig, one of our most eminent literary scholars, who then so clearly delineated the problem of defining a national literature that his remarks are worth quoting at length: editor’ s n o t e : In its original form, Mr. Woodrow’s article was delivered as a paper at the English Academy Conference, Grahamstown, South Africa, in July, 1969. It has since been published in English Studies in Africa 13(2), 1970; it is reprinted with the permission of the Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg. 132 Mervyn Woodrow 133 It is difficult— I am tempted to say impossible to find a satisfac­ tory formula for the thing I am supposed to be writing about. How shall we determine the boundaries of South African litera­ ture in English? Must a writer have been bom and brought up in South Africa? If so we shall be forced to exclude Thomas Pringle. . . . Again shifting our ground, shall we count it enough that a writer belongs to South Africa ‘in spirit’ and not consider whether he has lived in this country for one year or fifty? If so we shall at once get into difficulties over Roy Campbell. . . . I should be extremely reluctant to agree that what gives South African literature its peculiar stamp (supposing it to have one) is the ‘subjects’ it treats of— the Karoo, the High Veld, drought, the Voortrekkers, the Anglo-Boer War, Natives, locusts, baboons, mambas and what not. Such a notion . . . distributes the emphasis on the wrong place, and betrays a serious misconception of the method and purpose of literature. Literature is the memorable expression of human experience, not the record, description or delineation of ‘subjects’ considered in abstraction. . . . I am tempted to cut the knot by roundly declaring that there is no such thing as South African literature in English. . . . There is . . . literature written in South Africa in English. But this, because it is written in English, should be regarded as part of English literature. . . . The country it is written in is largely irrelevant. Whatever other distinctive qualities we may discern in it— recurrent modes of thought, recurrent subjects, a tone, a manner of its own— are elusive, very difficult to define. What is more, they change with the passage of time. . . . South African writers...


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