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Sophocles In South Africa: Athol Fugard’s T he Islan d Errol Durbach Two Bantu prisoners in their cell on Robben Island recall with nostalgia a memorable performance of Sophocles’ Antigone in a black township near Port Elizabeth, one of South Africa’s industrial seaports on the Indian Ocean: JOHN. . . . Jesus, Winston! June 1965. WINSTON. What? JOHN. This, man. A n tigon e. In New Brighton. St. Stephen’s Hall. The place was packed, man! All the big people. Front row . . . dignitaries. Shit, those were the days.l Those were the days when Athol Fugard was working with a group of black amateur actors, the Serpent Players, under con­ stant surveillance by the Special Branch of the South African police who, as he says in his Notebooks, “could have taken me away and locked me up for 90 days without any trouble.”2 It was the year when Fugard’s offense—whatever it might have been— against the Group Areas Act was made all the more heinous by Proclamation R26 which extended the Act to cover more efficiently the segregation of races in the theatres of South Africa. And it was in June 1965, on the eve of production, that Fugard was denied a police permit to enter the black township of New Brighton for the dress rehearsal of Antigone, while the Serpent Players were refused permission to perform before white audiences in Port Elizabeth.3 It is difficult to know whether this enforcement of petty apartheid legislation was an instance of malicious harassment against a black theatre group with a white director, or an astute recognition by the Special Branch of the potentially seditious ERROL DURBACH teaches Modern and Comparative Drama and Theatre His­ tory at the University of British Columbia. His ‘Ibsen the Romantic’: Analogues of Paradise in the Later Plays appeared in 1982 (University of Georgia Press). 252 Errol Durbach 253 nature of Sophocles’ play which argues for the priority of human rights against the encroachments of the State. This, at any rate, is how Fugard reads the Antigone in The Island, not as an Hegelian balance of equally ethical forces in tragic collision, but as the indictment of a political system which devalues human dignity in the name of law and order. It is another instance of the besieged individual in a totalitarian state turning, with seeming inevitability, to Sophocles and giving his myth a Polish or Czechoslovakian or, as in this instance, an African incarna­ tion. “There is hardly a year,” as George Steiner writes in his Antigones lecture, “in which one or another samizdat version of Antigone does not emerge from eastern Europe.”4 Among his list of Sophoclean analogues—Anouilh’s Hege­ lian treatment of the myth under Occupation, Liliana Cavani’s revolutionary film, the Living Theatre’s anti-Vietnam version, Brecht’s Antigone 48, Carl Orff’s Antigorue— Steiner includes Athol Fugard’s The Island.5 As a dissident political version of the myth, however, Fugard’s play stands rather uncomfortably in the ranks of distinguished Antigones. No furore attended its premiere; and the Special Branch and the censor have been generally indifferent to The Island. The obstructive tactics de­ ployed against Sophocles in 1965 were not repeated in 1973. Perhaps the times had changed for the better. Perhaps Fugard’s growing reputation abroad would have called international attention to the ludicrous and damaging operation of the Group Areas Act. But there is at least the possibility that Sophocles’ Antigone remains infinitely more dangerous as a political state­ ment than the apparently dissident agit-prop Island of Athol Fugard. Giving Fugard his full and rightful due as an important modem dramatist depends upon our finding a more accurate comparative context for his peculiar political vision. If Steiner places him in the uneasy context of Eastern European samizdat politics, the Marxist critics demand of Fugard that he write as a socialist artist in a capitalist society— and then reject him as a pinko-grey liberal who belies the ideals of the revolutionary classes in Africa.^ Why, they ask, does he not inveigh against the exploitative nature of capitalism in South Africa? Why does he accept the situation as unalterable instead of agitating for...


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