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African Theatre and the West Donald Baker In what has become a standard work on the “oral literature” of Africa, Ruth Finnegan observes that the “existence and sup­ posed nature of drama, mimetic dances, or masquerades in Africa have been taken as evidence in discussions of the origins of drama.”l There is no doubt that tribally structured societies, especially those relatively untouched by Western culture, have increasingly attracted the interest not only of anthropologists but also theatre historians and directors alike who seem to be­ lieve that there exists in Africa an immediate, spontaneous form of theatre in close touch with both nature and the community. It was a search for the essence of theatrical forms that ap­ parently prompted Peter Brook and his international theatre research company to embark on a three-month journey across the Sahara from Algeria to the Guinea Coast, returning to Al­ geria via a different Saharan route. By means of improvisations in the villages and towns they passed through, the company in­ vestigated the possibility of a non-verbal or cross-cultural lang­ uage of communication, a theme that Peter Brook has pursued for some years.2 On the African tour, he hoped to find what he called the “simple forms” of theatre which would be “freer, more open, more accessible and which, in their first level, [would] communicate to anyone.”3 Plainly, these observations assume that African theatrical forms contain the quintessence of theatre itself. Similarly, the Becks have based much of the work of The Living Theatre on what Judith Melina, Julian Beck’s wife, claims to be “the theatre of certain tribes.”4 More often than not, especially among experimental directors, there is a tacit belief that ritual, however defined, is the source and inspiration of a universal theatrical experience. It is, therefore, not surprising to note the current emphasis placed on ritualistic techniques in both conventional and avant-garde productions. 227 228 Comparative Drama But as Peter Brook himself has admitted, ritual means many things to many people.5 The major problem is one of under­ standing the nature and function of ritual itself, and therefore, if we are to argue for the inclusion in Western theatre of ritual forms derived from another culture like that of Africa or, as Artaud so enthusiastically urged in the thirties, of Bali6 or of any non-Western culture for that matter, then we must of neces­ sity make a detailed study not only of the rituals themselves, but of the cultural matrices of which those rituals are an integral part. This essay deals with some aspects of African theatre and their formal and thematic relationships to Western forms. The phrase “African theatre” comprehends a wide range of varied activities not all of which would be defined as theatre according to Western criteria. Indeed, the analysis of African theatrical phenomena in this essay is based on a definition of theatre that is much wider than that given in conventional terms of a differentiated actor/audience relationship. It postulates a theatrical field or spectrum ranging from the festive, partici­ patory phase, more properly called “drama” or “a thing done” as the etymology of the word indicates; through a median phase or blurred area in which both participation and performance may occur; to the final theatrical phase where theatre as “a place for seeing,” again reverting to the original Greek meaning of the word, implies performance by actors to an audience who watch “a thing done.” In this sense, therefore, “theatre” is vicarious “drama,” though we may regard each of these phases, categories, or genres as linked by the common dynamic of play or ritual. Obviously play and ritual have much in common, as Susanne Langer and Johan Huizinga have made plain. Thus Huizinga, discussing the correlation between ritual and play, asserts: “Primitive society performs its sacred rites, its sacrifices, consecrations, and mysteries, all of which serve to guarantee the well-being of the world, in a spirit of pure play.”7 And Peter Brook hints at a ludic link between theatrical activities when he observes that “It is not by chance that in many languages the word for a play and to play is...


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