Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Critical Responses: The Evolution of the Theatre Critic in South Africa

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Critical Responses: The Evolution of the Theatre Critic in South Africa

Article excerpt

[The Theatre ... ] was opened for the first time a few days ago - a very pretty one indeed. We felt ourselves obliged to go and to pay a sum for our box, else we should have been call'd stingy and ill-humoured. The scenes were well done, some of them by young Cockbum. [.,.] It opened with an address to Apollo, spoken by Dr Somers, and wrote by Mrs Somers. It was too fine for anyone to understand it, and seem'd rather an index to pretty learning than to any conversation which Apollo could have liked to listen to - however the scene was good and all was new. The piece was a dull one, the first part of Henry the 4th. The Doctor thought he shone in Falstaff, we did not agree with him.

- Lady Anne Barnard, Cape Town, 1801

IN HER DIARY entry, considered by many to be the first formal and extant 'review' in South African theatre, Lady Anne Barnard, the influential socialite and hostess of Cape Town society, described her (reluctant) attendance of the opening performance in the newly built African Theatre at the start of the nineteenth century. Today she might have used an internet blog and written something much less circumspect.

So much of what one talks about in the field of the humanities, and specifically so in arts criticism, is highly dependent on its use in a particular context and epoch. For example, the very notions of drama and theatre - even ideas about performance (and indeed criticism and scholarship) - are at best slippery in post-apartheid South Africa and the surrounding regions.

Over the course of the first three hundred years after the arrival of the first Europeans on these shores in the seventeenth century, a particular mind-set about the new continent was imported, imposed, and entrenched. One effect was to overshadow and devalue local traditions and cultural practices. Only during the twentieth century, and more particularly its second half, were indigenous cultural expressions and practices, and the values underlying them, slowly recognized. Then writings about them became more than marginal commentaries on what appeared to be radical, oppositional, esoteric, or possibly even eccentric local practices. Today, of course, indigenous forms have become a much more serious area of study and contemplation and, for most of us today, experimentation and exploration with the forgotten forms and traditions are major driving forces in the arts. Yet, the process of re-interpreting the original histories has only begun and obviously still has far to go, as formerly hidden aspects of the history are unearthed, re-evaluated and integrated into the new thinking. This change has naturally been heavily influenced by the arrival of a spate of new paradigms for thinking about African and South African history in itself, especially during the transitional period (1987-94).1

A necessary, broader, and more flexible concept of theatre would include the products of an oral/kinctic or 'performance' culture, as David Coplan so aptly termed it.2 3 Today we tend to accept that theatre history, particularly in non-Western contexts, needs to be a study of the history of performance, rather than a literary study of (printed) texts - and this is markedly the case with contemporary theatre in Southern Africa. However, colonial thinking had long favoured a focus on the text, thus tending to exclude a comprehensive world of theatre, performance, and "theatrical playing'"' in the region.

Like so much of the early history of mankind, the history of this period in Southern Africa is still extremely tentative, and based on much theorizing and speculation. This also applies to ideas about the social life of indigenous communities and the function of art within them, which no doubt were as varied as the social, economic, and political conditions. There are certain indications, however, of widespread material culture in the region, notably represented by San rock art, and the pottery, bcadwork, and other artifacts of the Nguni, Sotho, and other peoples. …

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