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Tipping Points in the History of Academic Theatre and Performance Studies in South Africa



This article considers five tipping points or phases in the development of modern theatre studies in South Africa. It begins with the period from 1925 to 1935, a time when the first major theatre history appeared, a fully fledged (Western) theatre system was established and the African theatre tradition was recognized. It details 1945 to 1962 for the establishment of a coherent professional theatre system, the first state-funded theatre company and the first drama departments. Thereafter, 1970 to 1985 is identified as the most significant period in relation to the political struggle for liberation in South Africa, while the last two phases (1988–94 and 1997–9) under consideration are characterized by an increase in research output and by the need for practitioners and commentators to seek reconciliation and healing through theatre and performance.



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1 Which does not mean that extensive archaeological and cultural-historical research has not been done to enable us to ‘read’ and understand the records left by precolonial peoples. See note 28 below.

2 I use the term ‘theatre research’ in the way it is broadly used by the IFTR and TRI, despite the fact that this European–American view is clearly open to challenge and contestation by writers and thinkers from other parts of the globe. See, for example, most recently Linda Tuhiwai Smith's throught-provoking book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (New York: Zed Books and University of Otago Press, 1999); and Sandoval, Chela, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

3 The first was the University of Cape Town (1829).

4 See Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little Brown, 2000). Also interesting is Ball, Philip, Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another (London: Arrow Books, 2004).

5 Driven by the Afrikaner nationalist movement and the arrival in South Africa of a number of qualified Dutch and Flemish performers, such as revered actor–manager Paul de Groot, who brought professionalism and literary acumen to his productions. They provided much needed in-service training in Afrikaans to a host of performers.

6 Laidler, P. W., Annals of the Cape Stage (Edinburgh: William Bryce, 1926).

7 Bosman, F. C. L., Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika Deel I 1652–1855 (Pretoria: J. H. de Bussy, 1928). Bosman also published short summaries of the history in English and in Afrikaans, as well as a second volume, Bosman, F. C. L., Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika Deel II 1855–1916 (Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1980).

8 See, for example, Binge, Ludwig, Ontwikkeling van die Afrikaanse Toneel 1832 tot 1950 (The Development of the Afrikaans Theatre, 1832 to 1950) (Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1969); and Fletcher, Jill, The Story of the African Theatre 1780–1930 (Cape Town: Vlaeberg, 1994). The Internet-based encyclopedia of South African theatre (ENSAT) currently being compiled by Stellenbosch University's Drama Department is also largely indebted to Bosman for its data on early theatre.

9 More immediately successful were his attempts to stimulate an interest in theatre among the youth in urban settlements, leading to the gradual growth of many other amateur theatre and performance groups in the various black townships around the cities. His articles and dramatic works were rediscovered and published in the 1970s and 1980s, becoming part of the theory of the new, alternative, South African theatre as articulated by the writers and theorists of the cultural struggle of the 1970s. See Dhlomo, H. I. E., Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. by Visser, Nick (special issue of English in Africa, 4, 2 (1977), pp. 176), idem, Collected Works, ed. by Nick Visser and Tim Couzens (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1985); and Couzens, Tim, The New African: A Study of the Life and Work of H. I. E. Dhlomo (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1985).

10 The Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB), the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT), the Performing Arts Council of the Orange Free State (PACOFS) and the Natal Performing Arts Council (NAPAC).

11 One of the most influential periods of South African theatre was 1956–62, with new work produced including The Cell (1956), No Good Friday (1958), Nongogo (1959) and The Bloodknot (1961) by Athol Fugard; Moeder Hanna (1956) and Die Verminktes (performed as The Maimed, London 1960) by Bartho Smit; Germanicus (1957) by N. P. van Wyk Louw; The Kimberley Train (1958) by Lewis Sowden; Try for White (1959) by Basil Warner; and King Kong (1959) by Harry Bloom, Pat Williams and Todd Mitshikiza (1959).

12 A good case in point was W. E. G. Louw, one of the most prominent critics of the 1950s and 1960s and later an influential and powerful arts editor who not only had a doctorate, but claimed to have seen over a thousand European performances during his frequent visits to Europe.

13 The oldest form of training (beyond pure apprenticeship) in the country had always been in private drama and elocution classes, most of them affiliated later to the SA Guild of Speech Teachers (founded 1945).

14 Pioneering actor–director André Huguenet's rather self-aggrandizing autobiographical work Applous! Die Kronieke van ‘n Toneelspeler (Applause! The Chronicles of an Actor) (Cape Town: HAUM, 1950) provides a thoughtful insider's view and acute analysis of the way theatre worked during the 1930s and 1940s. Other works discussed influential producers (Muriel Alexander, the Hanekom family, African Consolidated Theatres and the Stodel family), the King Kong production and children's theatre in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

15 L. W. B. Binge, Ontwikkeling van die Afrikaanse Toneel; L. D. M. Stopforth, ‘Drama in South Africa’, unpublished MA dissertation, University of Potchefstroom, 1955; B. De Koker, ‘South African Playwriting in English 1900–1950: A Survey’, unpublished D.Phil. thesis, University of Pretoria, 1969.

16 ‘The Struggle’ or ‘the Liberation Struggle’ normally refers to the period from the Sharpeville shootings (1960) and the 1976 uprisings to the negotiations of 1989–90. This includes the ‘armed struggle’ and the ‘cultural struggle’.

17 In its narrower, specific sense the term ‘cultural struggle’ refers to the period when culture and the arts were consciously used as weapons in the struggle against apartheid and the Nationalist regime (1963–90). The struggle did much to shape artistic and critical theories and practice in the period, producing and condoning a specific kind of political art, but – in the eyes of many – at the expense of artistic freedom and artistic standards.

18 Later part of the South African Centre for Information on the Arts (SACIA) in Pretoria. Also deriving from the HSRC documentation project in the 1970s were the Afrikaans Nasionale Letterekunde Museum en Dokumentasie Sentrum (NALN) (The National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Documentation Centre) and the National English Literary Museum (NELM) established in Grahamstown. Both centres are still invaluable sources for literary and theatrical materials.

19 Besides trade associations, there was the Centre for Cultural and Communications Studies Unit (later the Centre for Culture, Communication and Media Studies – CCMS) at the University of Natal, founded and run by Keyan Tomaselli and a number of academic associations, such as the Association of Drama Departments of South Africa (ADDSA) and the South African Association for Drama and Youth Theatre (SAADYT).

20 For example, Gray, Stephen, Southern African Literature: An Introduction (Cape Town: David Philip, 1979); idem, ed., Athol Fugard (Johannesburg: McGraw Hill, 1982); and idem, ed., Stephen Black: Three Plays (Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1982).

21 See Temple Hauptfleisch ‘Theatre Research in South Africa’, Critical Arts, 1, 3 (October 1980), pp. 11–22.

22 Kavanagh, Robert, ed., South African People's Plays (London: Heinemann, 1981). This book was initially banned, but later unbanned for academic use.

23 Hauptfleisch, Temple and Ian Steadman, , eds., South African Theatre: Four Plays and an Introduction (Pretoria: HAUM Educational, 1984).

24 A further three publications on aspects of Afrikaans theatre were Senekal, J. H., ed., Beeld en Bedryf (Image and Act) (Pretoria: J. L.van Schaik, 1978); Malan, Charles, ed., Spel en Spieël. Besprekings van die Moderne Afrikaanse Drama en Teater (Play and Mirror: Discussions of the Modern Afrikaans Drama and Theatre) (Johannesburg: Perskor, 1984); Brink, André P., Aspekte van die Nuwe Drama (Aspects of the New Drama) (Pretoria: Academica, 1986).

25 Larlham, Peter, Black Theater, Dance, and Ritual in South Africa (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985); Coplan, David, In Township Tonight! South Africa's Black City Music and Theatre (Johannesburg: Ravan Press; London: Longman, 1985); Kavanagh, Robert, Theatre and Cultural Struggle in South Africa (London: Zed Books, 1985); and Ian Steadman, ‘Drama and Social Consciousness: Themes in Black Theatre on the Witwatersrand until 1985’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 1985.

26 Following this initial burst of activity, other individual researchers also made significant contributions (through research reports, theses, articles, lectures and books) to broaden the scope of theatre research beyond the narrow confines of written literature or formal theatre. More than forty more publications appeared in the period.

27 See Clark, VeVe, ‘The Archaeology of Black Theatre,’ Critical Arts, 2, 1 (1981), pp. 3450.

28 Notable in this regard have been the research and publications of J. D. Lewis Williams and his colleagues at the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand; the research on oral narrative and literature carried out by a wide range of scholars from 1975 to 1995, including Harold Scheub, Isabel Hofmeyr, R. H. Kaschula, Jeff Opland, Leroy Vail and Landeg White, M. I. P. Mokitimi, Duncan Brown, Liz Gunner and others; and the research on traditional dances among the Xhosa, Zulu, Venda and other indigenous peoples by Edith Katzenellenbogen and her students at the University of Stellenbosch in the 1980s.

29 Three other resources from the 1980s are the Centre for Cultural and Media Studies (CCMS) at the University of Natal in Durban, the Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA) at Rhodes University and the Centre for the Study of African Language and Literature (CESALL) at the University of Durban Westville. The Mayibuye Centre for History and Culture in South Africa at the University of the Western Cape was founded in the 1990s and in 2001 became part of the Robben Island Museum, its archives being called the UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives, but still housed in the Centre on the campus.

30 SATJ was originally founded in 1987 by Temple Hauptfleisch and Ian Steadman as the first academic theatre journal which complied with the demands of the state's publication reward system. Shakespeare in South Africa, edited by Laurence Wright for the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa and published by the Institute for the Study of English in Africa, began in 1988.

31 For example, Walter Greyvenstein, ‘The History and Development of Children's Theatre in English in South Africa’, unpublished D.Litt. et Phil. thesis, Johannesburg, Rand Afrikaans University, 1988; du Toit, P. J., Amateurtoneel in Suid-Afrika (Amateur Theatre in South Africa) (Pretoria: Academica, 1988); Julian Smith, Toneel en Politiek: 'n Voorlopige dokumentering en ideologiese verrekening van kontemporêre swart Afrikaanse toneelaktiwiteit in die Kaapse Skiereiland (Theatre and Politics: A Provisional Documentation and Ideological Exploration of Contemporary Black Theatre Activity in the Cape Peninsula) (Bellville, Universiteit van Wes-Kaapland, 1990); and Mda, Zakes, When People Play People: Development Communication through Theatre (Johannesburg: Zed Books, Witwatersrand University Books, 1993).

32 Orkin, Martin, Drama and the South African State (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1991), Kannemeyer, J. C., Die Afrikaanse Literatuur 1652–1987 (Afrikaans Literature 1652–1987) (Pretoria: Human en Rousseau, 1988); von Kotze, Astrid, Organise and Act: The Natal Workers’ Theatre Movement 1983–1987 (Durban: Culture and Working Life Publications, 1988); and Gunner, Liz, ed., Politics and Performance: Theatre, Poetry and Song in South Africa (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994).

33 See, for example, articles in Hauptfleisch, Temple, Lev-Aladgem, Shulamith, Martin, Jacqueline, Sauter, Willmar and Schoenmakers, Henri, eds., Festivalising! Theatrical Events, Politics and Culture (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007); and Solberg, Rolf, ed., South African Theatre in the Melting Pot: Trends and Developments at the Turn of the Millennium (Interviews by Rolf Solberg) (Grahamstown: ISEA, 2003).

34 This data derived from the Nexus database of registered research of the National Research Foundation (NRF) in April 2010.

35 Kruger, Loren, The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics since 1910 (London: Routledge, 1999); and Brown, Duncan, ed., Oral Literature and Performance in Southern Africa (Cape Town: David Philip, 1999).

36 Lindfors, Bernth, Africans on Stage (Cape Town: David Philip, 1999); Solberg, Rolf, ed., Alternative Theatre in South Africa: Talks with Prime Movers since the 1970’s (Pietermaritzburg: Hadeda Books, University of Natal Press, 1999), Goodman, Lizbeth, ed., Women, Politics and Performance in South African Theatre Today 1, Contemporary Theatre Review: An International Journal, 9, 1 (1999); Graver, D., ed., Plays for a New South Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); Perkins, Kathy A., ed., Black South African Women: An Anthology of Plays (Cape Town: Cape Town University Press, Routledge, 1999); and Hauptfleisch, Temple, Theatre and Society in South Africa: Reflections in a Fractured Mirror (Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1997).

37 See ‘Crossover Theatre: Performance in a Multi-cultural Society’, in Hauptfleisch, Theatre and Society, pp. 66–84.

38 The field is also referred to as – inter alia – ‘research-into-practice’, ‘practice-based research’, or ‘performance-as-research’, where variants may be linked to a particular perspective or methodological approach.

39 Besides a number of working groups and centres devoted to it today, see three recent publications: Allegue, Ludivine, Jones, Simon, Kershaw, Baz and Piccini, Angela, eds., Practice-as-Research in Performance and Screen (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Riley, Shannon Rose and Hunter, Lynette, eds., Mapping Landscapes for Performance as Research Scholarly Acts and Creative Cartographies (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and Barrett, Estelle and Bolt, Barbara, eds., Practice as Research: Context, Method, Knowledge (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010).

40 Notable recent examples include Mark Fleishman and Jenny Reznik's Magnet Theatre, Gary Gordon's The First Physical Theatre Company, Brett Bailey's Third World Bunfight, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler's The Handspring Puppet Company, and Eric Abraham and Mark Dornford-May's Isango Portobello company.

41 Mark Fleishman, Veronica Baxter, Temple Hauptfleisch and Alex Sutherland, ‘Testing Criteria for Recognising Practice as Research in the Performing Arts in South Africa, with Particular Reference to the Case of Drama and Theatre’, a report on a national research project commissioned by the NRF, 2009.

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