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'Unhappily, we are afraid of it': modernism as deracination on the Rhodesian/Zimbabwean stage.

Introduction (1)

The available evidence (Wortham 1969; Cary 1975) indicates that Rhodesians (2) were either unable or unwilling to produce and/or consume modernist theatre. Whereas the evidence produced by Wortham is valuable, it is important to return to it in light of recent reception theories such as those articulated by Fischer-Lichte (1992) and Pavis (2003). Writing in 1969 during the crisis of colonialism in Rhodesia, Wortham could have been inhibited by a number of factors from freely expressing the intricacies of Rhodesian policies on cultural production, and a number of liberal academics were ostracised for their views by the Ian Smith government (Godwin and Hancock 1993). A high degree of insiderism could have prevented Wortham from acquiring sufficient distance to articulate his views without offending his countrymen, who strongly believed in the Rhodesian way of life. This article problematises some of Wortham's earlier conceptions about Rhodesians' attitudes to modernist plays and goes on to argue that there was an over-determination of factors that inhibited Rhodesian artistic tastes and that the legacy of these factors was used by the Mugabe regime to prohibit new modernist works from being produced by Zimbabwean playwrights.

Modernism has come to mean different things to different scholars and it is sometimes conflated with avant-gardism and postmodernism (Whitemore 1994). However, in this article I am using modernism to refer to an artistic movement that began at the end of the nineteenth century in the West and extended into the second half of the twentieth century. This artistic movement, also referred to as the avant-garde, fetishised the notion of newness, originality and innovation in order to overhaul the formula-driven and consumption-oriented generic formats of playwriting associated with Western illusionistic theatre. The innovations and the attack on Western bourgeois theatre by mostly young playwrights such as Andre Breton, Tristan Tzara, Antonin Artaud and others was achieved in different ways in different countries and therefore took on different forms from the 1880s to the 1970s. The historical avant-garde (Hans-Thies 2006, p. 48) or early theatrical modernists (Stone-Peters 2006, p. 208) of the late nineteenth century, for instance, touched on thematically taboo topics such as sex in plays such as Ibsen's Ghosts, Strindberg's Miss Julie, Wedekind's Spring Awakening, the Lulu plays, Wilde's Salome, Schnitzler's La Ronde, Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession. For writing and performing against the grain, they were banned and/or fined in Europe and the United States, where censorship laws were still operational (Stone-Peters 2006). Some modernist plays attacked bourgeois tastes by expressing their revolt against God, when a messianic hero kills god and tries to take his place in, for example, Ibsen's Brand, Strindberg's To Damascus, Shaw's Man and Superman, among others. The presumed death of God became the source of creativity for the absurdist movement. During the late 1950s modernism developed another form that Lehmann (2006, p. 52) calls 'neoavant-garde,' which renounced Aristotelian dramatic action and plot, but still depended on speech as the dominant sign system. This became absurdist theatre, epitomised by luminaries such as Beckett, Ionesco, Adamov, Adrienne Kennedy and Pinter, among others. Modernism developed as Dadaism, surrealism, expressionism, constructivism, futurism, absurdism and symbolism in different parts of the West and Russia. Within each of these forms of modernism there were further divisions such as epic theatre, the geist performance, the schrei performance and the ich performance in German expressionist theatre (Kuhns 1997, p. 94). Modernism, as the term is used in this article, covers dramatic texts and performances that adopted these approaches to theatre-making or a combination of them. Whereas Rhodesians embraced and pushed for modernity and modernisation, (3) they denounced the moral pervasion and godlessness of modernism.

Connecting performance and reception

The term reception is used here to cover two processes: direct experience of live theatre by a live audience, and the indirect experience of either a dramatic text or a theatrical text through other processes (such as reading, press reviews, TV snippets, etc.) that do not involve a live experience of the theatrical event. Whereas the first process of direct experience is relatively familiar, I will dwell a little more on the second process. Hauptfleisch (2007) confirms that theatre can be experienced through secondary means and that secondary receivers may take action to ban and/or alter theatre without having watched it. Hauptfleisch argues that:
   ... each theatrical event is (potentially) a shock-inducing
   societal event which sets off a series of rippling shock-waves that
   pass throughout the larger theatrical sub-system and beyond to the
   various encompassing layers of the social system ... and (may) cause
   subsidiary shocks in various parts of that larger system (2007, pp.

Hauptfleisch goes on to suggest 34 (4) tentative aspects of the theatrical event or dramatic text that go beyond the immediate experience of the performer-audience interface. This suggests that the recipients of the dramatic text and theatrical event also have the potential to alter the identity and meaning of theatre just as a live audience may.

Theatrical production (writing, rehearsal, directing, designing) is a process of constituting meaning whereby artists select, develop and combine signs for the realisation of a theatrical text according to a prevailing theatrical convention. Accordingly, reception is not a passive act, but a process of attaching meaning to the signs provided by the producers of the text, also according to a particular artistic convention that prevails in a historical period. However, this attachment of meaning to the text by the audience is not without complications. The audience member or analyst doing the viewing or reading is a product of history, society and his/her personal biography; these aspects of the receiver's life 'determine the process of interpretation' (Fischer-Lichte 1992, p. 207). Fischer-Lichte relies on Gadamer in labelling these pre-receptive conditions the 'prejudice' which the receiver brings to the theatrical event. These 'prejudices' are also called 'competences' (Pavis 2003, p. 267); they depend on and are determined by the receiver's tradition and experience, which Patrice Pavis refers to as the 'structured complex of factors' comprised of cognitive, psychological, ideological, affective and material factors that, he argues, ' influence the behaviour, cognitive or otherwise, of the theatre spectator, providing him with specific competence' (2003, p. 267). It can be seen that the sum total of these 'prejudices' or 'competences' precipitate what Fischer-Lichte calls a 'fore-understanding,' or for the same concept what Pavis (with reference to Jauss) calls a 'horizon of expectation' (2003, p. 266) with which the audience or analyst approaches a theatrical text. There is a complication here in the sense that if the text does not lend itself to analysis by means of a theory or procedure which the analyst possesses through fore-understanding, there is a chance that the product is judged negatively and in the process altered.

Included in these prejudices/competencies are cognitive, psychological, ideological and affective factors that are the domain of theory and the various procedures for understanding a text. Reception is clearly a complex process that can be understood fully by way of reflecting on the pre-receptive conditions of the audience, including their horizon of expectation (5) and investigating the various theories/procedures of attributing meaning to the text.

The culture of diverse entertainments and skills shortage

It is commonly understood in theatre that a text is always received in tandem with a specific normative theatre practice, which is assumed to be binding within a geopolitical space where it is used and that measuring up to the expectations brings symbolic capital (prestige) and 'consecration' (6) to the playwright and director. Every production that appeared in colonial Zimbabwe was received within the context of the taste of the London West End, Broadway or Cape Town. The dominant theatrical style of these metropolitan centres was the theatre of illusionism, characterised by an obsession to present the illusion of everyday reality as accurately as possible. The notion of illusionism developed from the generalised settings of Renaissance facade designs, where plays were performed against the same background like a public square or front of a palace. This desire for illusionism increased with the staging of realist and naturalist plays in the late nineteenth century. At that time the theatre of illusionism incorporated all Greek and Roman classics, Shakespearean plays, melodrama, comedy, musicals, pantomime, realist, naturalist and well-made-plays. Even though the artistic tastes of other centres--Cape Town, New York and London--changed over time, (7) white Rhodesians seemed to find it difficult to embrace change; this was the consequence of a number of factors outlined below. The direct involvement of the Governor of colonial Zimbabwe imparted legitimacy to the type of theatre making the colony practised. By the end of the nineteenth century a modernist (anti-illusionist) type of theatre had also started taking definite shape in the West. This type of theatre could easily have been appropriated by white settlers, who continued to pour into colonial Zimbabwe until 1979. However, the dominant white elite established the standards of theatre through the involvement of Lady Rodwell, the wife of the Governor of Southern Rhodesia, Sir Cecil Rodwell.

Lady Rodwell preferred musicals, or what were called 'diverse entertainments'8 at that time, to dialogue theatre. When a society to form one of the first European theatre companies (the Salisbury Repertory Players) was formed, Sir Cecil and Lady Rodwell agreed to become patrons. A theatre aesthetic became established in Rhodesia with the blessing of the imperial office. Studies carried out by Wortham (1969), Plastow (1996) and Godwin and Hancock (1993) have found that this aesthetic had not shifted significantly from the pioneering days. In this case the Rhodesian bourgeoisie favoured an aesthetic that was the preserve of popular audiences in the United States, where 'high theatre' (9) consisted of 'serious drama.' There was also considerable opposition to Lady Rodwell's taste from, among others, Paul Anning, who wanted to form a society to satisfy an audience that required 'more than just an evening's entertainment' (Cary 1975, p. 34). Paul Anning wanted to respond to the demand of audiences who wanted plays that were 'thoughtful rather than merely popular, mentally stimulating rather than a means of passing an idle hour' (Cary 1975, p. 34). Anning would produce plays that were 'of literary and dramatic importance, that [would] appeal to the imagination and give food for thought' (1975, p. 34). He called this 'straight theatre.' This straight theatre, also called 'serious theatre,' was the equivalent of 'legitimate theatre,' the term that Savran uses to designate 'the body of plays, Shakespeare or others that have a recognised theatrical and literary merit' (2006, p. 190); it represents 'a relatively elite cultural practice linked to European forms and coded as text-based and literary' (2006, p. 190). In colonial Zimbabwe the term 'serious theatre' also included what Wortham calls 'high comedy' and modernist plays, as evidenced by Wortham's inclusion of modernist playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and others. Although Reps Theatre was formed in the same year (1931) that Paul Anning made his proposal, the audience and producers had developed a taste for diverse entertainments. This proved to be a barrier to the future development and appreciation of theatre in Rhodesia.

The sensibilities of the Rhodesian audience were such that they wanted to experience home away from home. As Jane Plastow observes, '[f]or whites, the whole purpose of drama was that it removed them from, rather than integrating them into, local realities' (1996, p. 81). When Reps was still using the Showground Theatre, its audiences symbolically walked away from Africa before the show and moved into a geographical space that resembled England. There was a dark road leading from the Showground (now Exhibition Park) to the theatre, which had two rows of gum trees that masked Africa from the sight of Europeans and, according to Cary, acted as 'silent sentinels' ushering them into ' a dark passage to another world--a world of romance and shared excitement' (1975, p. 101). In this world anything which contradicted the Victorian values and the artistic tastes of the theatre of illusionism was unacceptable. In this regard, not only were modernist plays resented, but also plays written by white Rhodesians. Plastow observes that two plays by white dramatists, Sikelele Afrika and Poison the Sun, 'were put on at Reps [but] they could not command large audiences' (1996, p. 80).

When trained directors took charge of productions on occasion, audiences and critics appreciated them. In 1943 (10) Salisbury Repertory Players engaged a visiting Russian producer, N. Levitsky, to direct Shaw's The Apple Cart,a high comedy' (11) (Cary 1975, p. 66). Despite being out of keeping with the taste of the time, this show, as serious theatre,' was highly acclaimed by both audiences and newspaper critics (Cary 1975, pp. 66-7) as it had been professionally produced by a trained director. Seen together with other examples of plays that performed successfully when trained and experienced producers were engaged, one comes to the conclusion that the limited appreciation of serious and modernist theatre was a consequence of a lack of education in drama amongst Rhodesian producers and audiences, a point confirmed by Wortham:
   Because of the lack of real education in the drama, or at least
   partly because of it, the public scarcely tolerates the playwrights
   of earlier centuries and is not used to--and does not
   understand--the work of the modern serious dramatists, who require
   intellectual rather than emotional involvement. Even though the
   playwrights of our times have undoubtedly injected new life into
   the drama overseas, very few of their works are performed here.
   (1969, p. 49)

In fact, until independence in 1980 there was not a single professional group operating in colonial Zimbabwe nor was there a training institution for theatre artists. All of them, without exception, operated as amateur theatre groups.

This lack of theatre skills impacted negatively on the development of a taste for modernist theatre; a number of serious and modernist plays were produced by untrained directors with terrible results, which probably reinforced the myth that modernist theatre was no good. Wortham notes that serious plays such as Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot, O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms and Anouilh's Poor Bitos played to very disappointing audiences at the Reps' (1969, pp. 49-50). The same is true for other theatre groups outside Harare. Bulawayo Theatre Club's production of Bertolt Brecht's modernist play Mother Courage suggested that people were not yet ready to watch objectively, as Brecht intended' (1969, p. 49). In 1960 the same play was produced by Reps theatre and proved to be the least successful of the year in terms of attendance' (1969, p. 49). The only exceptions were productions of Shakespeare's plays, which were attended, according to Wortham, for sentimental and academic reasons. (12)

One of Wortham's respondents John Cobb, a Bulawayo producer, confirmed that Rhodesian directors were not sufficiently trained and placed the responsibility for the lack of appreciation of modernist theatre on them. He observed:
   The introduction of expressionistic theatre has been this century's
   greatest contribution to the Muse. Unhappily, we are afraid of it,
   or are insufficiently experienced to present it correctly to the
   audience and only succeed in embarrassing them (1969, p. 51).

With better theatre skills, as the evidence here has shown, there may have been a greater chance of influencing the taste of audiences and improving box office profits. The direction of Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart by Levitsky demonstrated the importance of having the appropriate skills.

Another shining example is Adrian Stanley, (13) who was hired by Reps in 1964. As late as 1964 producers and audiences were scared of producing the Greek classics, Shakespeare and modernist plays (Cary 1975). With the hiring of Adrian Stanley, things changed for the better. In 1964 he produced six plays covering modern drama, Shakespeare and the Greek classics. Although he did not bring audiences back overnight, his positive influence was seen in the box office profits. Cary observes that, whereas the society's productions in 1963 had shown a loss, in the following year there was a net profit of 5515' [pounds sterling] (1975, p. 174). In March 1968 Adrian Stanley produced a modernist play, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which was well received by both the Herald newspaper critics and the audience. Anthony Weare of Fort Victoria Drama Circle, himself a trained director, successfully produced a modernist play Rashomon, which won first prize at the 1967 Rhodesian Drama Festival (Wortham 1969). Weare concurs that directors must be skilled in order to carry the weight and depth of the work to the audience.

The public will any entertainment which has quality and is not sufficiently esoteric to be outside its capacity for understanding. In drama, a play which may be valuable intellectual exercise may not have a wide appeal...until a director comes along and makes it explicit by visual or other means (cited in Wortham 1969, p. 50).

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett was successfully produced by another skilled director, Eric Griffin, in 1959, but had only a short run at the Reps theatre (Cary 1975) because the audience found its subject matter obscure and the play lacked their preferred illusionistic structure and plot.

Even though the modernist plays, especially those produced at Reps, were of merit and attracted favourable criticism from the Herald and a small niche of the traditional audience, they did not attract the large crowds that diverse entertainments' did. When a talented and skilled director such as Eric Griffin was chosen to direct these modernist plays, they were relegated to a smaller experimental theatre upstairs--a division of the theatre under the leadership of Peter Brown. Several modernist productions, including The Lesson, The Dumb Waiter, Krapp's Last Tape, Waiting for Godot, were produced at Reps's Theatre Upstairs (TU) between 1959 and 1963. When Eric Griffin left for Nairobi in 1963, the quest to produce modernist plays ended and a fear of modernist theatre returned. Between 1931 and 6 May 2010 Reps theatre produced 659 plays, of which 16 were modernist; modernist plays represent 2.4% of the total cultural output at Reps theatre. Several factors might explain this phobia about modernist theatre.

White conservatism

Even though Wortham plays down the issue of conservatism, this seems to me to be one of the major factors that constrained the artistic taste of Rhodesian audiences. Conservatism in the second half of the nineteenth century was peculiar not only to colonial Zimbabwe, but to the whole of Europe and the British Commonwealth. However, the Rhodesian version was unique. It survived from a Victorian value system and changed to suit local conditions. Nudity and sexually suggestive movements were an affront to Victorian values. Exposure was not permitted in theatre in the early days of Rhodesia, as exemplified by an incident at Reps during a rehearsal of The Man from the Ministry. Cary recounts that a young lady playing the part of an office secretary was supposed to sit on the edge of a table in a flirtatious way to motivate an admiring comment from one of the characters. However:

As rehearsal succeeded rehearsal, and the young lady continued to cover her legs almost to the ankle, the producer became desperate.... The lady's husband had issued an edict that his wife was not to display her person on stage.... Messages were sent to the husband, and somewhat grudgingly he consented to attend the next rehearsal.... Under strict instructions from her husband, she raised and lowered the hem of her dress--an inch at a time. After fifteen minutes of serious experiment a compromise was agreed upon--5 inches below the knee. (Cary 1975, p. 93)

One needs to understand the unique conditions in Rhodesia that necessitated this level of conservatism. There were more males in Rhodesia than women across the races. By 1904, according to McCulloch, there were 12,596 white males compared to 3643 white women; 8953 white men were without wives. The Empire Settlement Act of 1922, which encouraged single women to settle in colonial Zimbabwe, failed by recruiting only 13 women between 1922 and 1928 (McCulloch 2000, p. 88). In Harare alone during this period there were 6300 black men compared to 271 black women (McCulloch 2000, p. 111). White men became protective of their women by sustaining the mythical fear of black men (the black peril'). To protect themselves from the power of black women's bodies, the white males publicly denounced those bodies and banned dances of a sexually suggestive nature. This represents a psychological condition theorised by John Houchin (2008) as the commodification of Otherness.' (14) Before 1967 the state relied on the 1911 Obscene Publications Ordinance (15) and the 1955 Customs and Excise Act to control undesirable literature and sound recordings that contained images that could be considered as harmful to morals.

Developments in Europe with regards to obscenity also forced Rhodesians to forge a protective sense of their own identity. Peters (2006) argues that in Europe and America between the last part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century pornography and erotic performance became important commercial enterprises. She asserts that the philosophy of sexual modernism' (the notion that sex is not merely intended for reproduction but also for spiritual and physical pleasure) was entering the intellectual mainstream. What links obscenity and theatricality is the fact that both:

... shared an investment in the body as their primary agent of expression, exhibitionism as their central raison-d'etre, the play between concealment and revelation as one of their central techniques of producing pleasure. Both promiscuously transferred things normally private into the public realm (Peters 2006, p. 214).

Various Western countries including America responded with obscenity laws, leading to the banning of early modernist plays such as Ibsen's Ghosts, Strindberg's Miss Julie, Wedekind's Spring Awakening, Pandora Box, The Lulu Plays, Wilde's Salome, Schnitzler's La Ronde and Shaw's Mrs Warren s Profession, among others (Peters 2006, pp. 208-14). None of these great European plays, with the exception of Ghosts (which in fact played to a very disappointing audience in 1965), was produced in colonial Zimbabwe because of this conservatism.

Even Greek classics such as Lysistrata could not be produced without certain restrictions on nudity and obscenity. Adrian Stanley produced Lysistrata at Reps in 1964, but the publicists warned that it was not for persons under 18' (Maritz 2002, p. 205). The girls, who were supposed to be naked, appeared in The Sunday Mail preview photo of 14 June 1964 'wearing bikinis...under diaphanous see-through neck-to-toe cover-ups' (Maritz 2002, p. 205). In 1960 bikinis had been banned at public swimming baths and therefore could not be worn on their own without something to cover them. Jardine succinctly describing the conservative tastes of the Rhodesian audience:

I don't think that Pinter, Beckett, Brecht et al are going to get a much wider hearing than say Jackson Pollock and Salvador Dali or Alban Berg and Neilsen have had--yet. The average theatre-goer is little different from the gallery visitor who knows what he likes'--or who acknowledges Pollock and Picasso and Klee, but hangs Degas and Renoir. These things take time ... Brecht's plays and their authentic production require cold-blooded appraisal and some measure of intellectual least. The majority of theatre-goers still want to escape, and sit in the dark and eat popcorn and identify (cited in Wortham 1969, p. 49).

It is clear that it was not only the lack of training in theatre skills, but also the conservatism or even philistinism, which combined to regulate the competences or prejudices of the Rhodesian audiences.

Theatre spaces

Another reason for this limitation suggested by Wortham (1969, p. 50) was the unchanging and inflexible theatre spaces in colonial Zimbabwe. He argues that the proscenium theatres built over the period were not able to accommodate modernist plays as they were built to stage the illusionist theatre. He points out that some modernist plays required the use of experimental spaces not readily offered by the proscenium-arch stage, which was unfriendly to modernist staging styles. This view may be accepted if the enunciation of theatre is to be taken solely as a director's responsibility. However, theatre is a collaborative discipline that engages many professionals including designers, managers, technicians and set constructors. All these professionals, all things being equal, are gifted and would not necessarily be limited by the architectural design of the box frame. Some modernist plays seek to deconstruct or even explode this frame and this can be achieved by creative use of space. Robert McLaren, for instance, sat the audience on the proscenium stage and used the auditorium as an acting space for his 1985 production of Mavambo at the University of Zimbabwe Beit Hall. In fact, other modernist plays do not require the complete elimination of the proscenium-arch stage. The epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht, for instance, does not call for the elimination of the frame; it simply requires the exposition of the technical elements of the stage to compel the audience to become aware of the various technical devices at work. Where the box frame needs to be completely dispensed with, as in the theatre of Artaud, the space could be altered through creative means such as the use of thrust and arena staging.

The Cold War and protectionism

The other major reason for the lack of interest in modernist theatre was the political situation in colonial Zimbabwe. For Wortham, the end of the Second World War produced a structure of feeling (16) that engendered the need for emotional release by watching light entertainment. While this is perhaps plausible, Wortham's analysis of Zimbabwean politics ends by making this point, without including the politics of UDI and how this affected the taste of white Rhodesians. I contend that the Cold War contributed significantly to the regulation of artistic taste of Rhodesians.

In 1955 Eastern countries under the sphere of influence of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (17) signed the Warsaw Pact in terms of which each member state would intervene if that member was attacked by an external enemy. This was in response to a similar treaty concluded by Western Allies in 1949 under the North Atlantic Trade Organisation (NATO) pact. This phenomenon divided the world into the Free World' led by the USA and the Eastern Bloc' led by the USSR. The Eastern Bloc provided logistical support to the two liberation movements, ZANU and ZAPU, which were fighting the colonialists from the 1960s. The Free World had to demonstrate its good will by democratising its institutions to contrast them with the centralism and absolutism of the Eastern Bloc. The Free World adopted liberalism as a philosophy which in principle removed most of the strictures on theatre, media, religion, intellectual projects and other spheres of life. Liberalism is seen by Herm Gruber as being:
   ... intellectually independent, broadminded, magnanimous, frank,
   open, and genial. The most fundamental principle asserts an
   absolute and unrestrained freedom of thought, religion, conscience,
   creed, speech, press and politics...the relegation of religion from
   the public life into the private domain of one's individual
   conscience; the absolute ignoring of Christianity and the Church as
   public, legal, and social institutions; on the other hand, the
   putting into practice of the absolute autonomy of every man and
   citizen along all lines of human activity, and the concentration of
   all public authority in one sovereignty of the people.' (2010)

The politics and beliefs of Rhodesians at the time were at variance with the liberal stance adopted by the Free World. According to the official version of history that pervaded Rhodesian thinking of the 1960s and 1970s, Rhodesia existed in order to defend Western civilisation' (Godwin and Hancock 1993, p. 3). For that reason moral crusaders and defenders of the Rhodesian way of life believed:

that their lifestyles were at once an advertisement and a fortress for the values which other Western societies had forsaken or neglected. The British exemplified the moral decline of the West...they had lost faith in democracy and in themselves, and they had given up the fight against communism, atheism and permissiveness. In contrast, the Rhodesians had preserved the finest of the traditional personal values; restraint, honesty, morality, and respect for the family. (Godwin and Hancock 1993, p. 36)

Colonial Zimbabwe unilaterally declared its independence from Britain in 1965 and created structures that would act as a bulwark against the permissiveness of the Free World and the Red menace of the Eastern Bloc. White liberals within colonial Zimbabwe were dealt with decisively (Godwin and Hancock 1993, p. 16) and were sometimes categorised as communists (18) as a means to justify punishment.

While the nations of the Free World were abolishing censorship laws (for example, France in 1905, Germany in 1918, Britain in 1968), colonial Zimbabwe enacted the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act (1967). John Gaunt, chairman of the Censorship Board, was particularly outspoken about any material that showed signs of pornography, which he equated with a communist conspiracy' even when he had no proof (Godwin and Hancock 1993). The Board also looked askance at any cultural production that seemed to promote drugs and perversion, and denigrated social and parental authority as well as religion and God. Colonial Zimbabwe viewed both the Free World and the Eastern Bloc as tolerating such things. The 1969 constitution dealt decisively with the subject of denigrating God and atheism by declaring colonial Zimbabwe a Christian nation. In fact, the Catholic Church had issued numerous edicts and decrees since 1864 condemning liberalism, as it relegated God to the margins.

The expulsion of colonial Zimbabwe from the Munich Olympic Games in August 1972, starting an eight year period of an international cultural boycott, further isolated Rhodesian theatre and created a laager mentality. Colonial Zimbabwe could not send theatre groups abroad nor could it host any Western cultural groups. Some rights to produce Western plays were withdrawn and some were given rights conditionally, if a certain number of black performers were involved, as in the case of Godspell (Cary 1975). Because of this loss of international exposure, Rhodesians were forced to consume products that were already in the library of the Association of Rhodesian Theatrical Societies (ARTS). Rhodesians nevertheless thought that they constituted one of the best-educated societies in the world ... [they] liked to say that they could not, and would not, be pushed around' (Godwin and Hancock 1993, p. 8). After inviting some guest actors from Europe and discovering that the Rhodesian actors seemed to fare well compared to their guests, they had the pleasure of finding that Salisbury could hold its own' and that Rhodesia had nothing to learn from the outside world' (Cary 1975, p. 191). This laager mentality prevented Rhodesians from learning new ways of creating, producing and appreciating theatre.

Marxism and residual culture in post-independence theatre reception

After independence in 1980 the taste of Zimbabwean audiences was significantly altered by a new 'structure of feeling' (Williams 1973, p. 10). However, a combination of Marxism, traditionalism and what Raymond Williams calls residual culture' significantly restricted Zimbabwean audiences' appreciation of modernist theatre. According to Raymond Williams (1977), residual culture affects dominant culture in two ways. First, certain values and standards from the past (colonial) culture are used to evaluate the new work or any other work that is visualised during the theatrical event. The Association of Rhodesian Theatrical Societies (ARTS), which became National Theatre Organisation (NTO) in 1977, for example, continued to run CABS Play of the Year competition and theatre workshops utilising works from the Western canon. Secondly, the residual (colonial) culture affected the dominant new culture through the latter's appropriation of elements of the residual into its theatre practice. The lack of appreciation of modernist theatre characteristic of white Rhodesian audiences was absorbed by the new multiracial audience.

In 1987, for example, Robert McLaren (also known as Robert Mshengu Kavanagh) produced Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechuan in the Shona language at the University of Zimbabwe as The Good Person of Gondokoro. McLaren recalls that the Beit Hall theatre was packed to capacity, but the intellectual audience, though supportive, did not quite get what the play was attempting to achieve. He recalls with some surprise:

The Good Person of Gondokoro was well attended and enjoyed, but quite a lot of people confessed themselves a little confused as to what it was getting at, if I remember correctly. I think it is true to say that audiences here do prefer a realist or narrative theatre where meanings to a large extent are stated or apparent.... All this is very strange and unfortunate ... and clearly part of the maiming effect of colonial education and the modern media. African art everywhere and always was very seldom realist, with a powerful symbolic tradition. Where has all that gone--soaps, Shakespeare at school, Hollywood films? (McLaren 2010)

In the case of alternative theatre in Zimbabwe during the post-independence period, there was a higher degree of aesthetic congruence between playwrights, directors and audiences. The socialist realism and traditionalism which affected playwrights, producers and directors of the time also had the same impact on consumers. They had a great deal in common based on their lived historical experience, notwithstanding the fact that they may have belonged to different generations and social classes. Whereas socialist realism was a creative method used by playwrights and directors of the time to change the consciousness of society to create a socialist society, Marxism was a theory used in Zimbabwe by analysts to critique society--especially capitalist society. Moreover, Marxist theory was used to analyse not only economic relations in a capitalist society, but those ideologies and discourses generated by capitalism that impact on non-political endeavours such as theatre and other arts.

Since theories are not neutral or impartial, but are products of a particular society which that society circulates in order to further its interests, the Marxism of the time seemed to speak convincingly to groups of people that had experienced Western capitalism and colonialism. During this period a great deal of cultural production was seen through what Maurice Vambe calls the jaundiced eye and views of the ideology of the ruling class which the authors seem to have shared at the time of writing' (2010, p. 98). This refers to the 'pre-receptive conditions' of most analysts at the moment of encounter with the dramatic text. Any playwrights and directors who could not quite fit the preferred nationalist programme were controlled and regulated at the moment of performance and reception. The works that did not quite fit the national programme included Marechera's collection Mindblast (1984), containing three plays: The Coup,' The Gap' and The Toilet,' and Mhlanga's Workshop Negative (1992). All of the plays attacked the government of the day thematically and therefore did not respect the officially admired socialist realist approach. In fact, Workshop Negative (1992) and Mindblast (1984) employed modernist techniques by deviating from Aristotelian structures to create nonlinear structures. While Mindblast (1984) still relies on dialogue as the dominant feature, Workshop Negative (1992) uses a combination of dialogue, song, dance and mime, while expressing an anti-socialist stance in content. Marechera dwells on sordid and obscene motifs, especially in the play The Toilet (1984). The main visual feature on stage is a toilet with several people queuing to get into it. Lydia, the wife of Minister Njuzu, fondles Drake's penis by pushing her hand through his trousers pocket in full view of the audience. Occasionally the audience hears a sordid mind-jamming flushing sound from the toilet. While most of the characters are queuing outside the toilet, Lydia's daughter Raven and Drake's cousin Dick sneak into the toilet and have sex; at one point the door opens revealing the two youngsters on top of each other in full view of the audience. This kind of obscenity' was characteristic of the early Western modernist plays I have referred to above.

Marechera was the first artist to experience the brunt of the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act (1967). On 7 August 1981 the Censorship Board banned Marechera's internationally acclaimed novel Black Sunlight (1980). On 23 October 1981 it was gazetted as an undesirable publication' under the same Act. This was condemned locally and internationally (Veit-Wild 2004). In order to discourage writers from producing similar works, they became enemies of the state. The state stopped invoking the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act, but instead resorted to harassment and detention. After Mindblast (1984) was published the secret service and the police took time to read it and found that it presents government officials in bad light. Drake, the white manager, sleeps with Minister Njuzu's wife Lydia, who in turn uses her influence to talk her husband into offering more business contracts to Drake's company. Minister Njuzu is also paid by Drake for covering up corrupt deals. This touched a raw nerve in Robert Mugabe's cabinet, which was to lose a significant number of its ministers in 1987, when the Sandura Commission implicated them in corruption involving car deals in what became known as the Willowgate scandal (Nyarota 2006). Marechera was arrested the very day Mindblast was published (29 August 1984), during the second Zimbabwe International Book Fair, after giving an interview to two Dutch journalists. Veit-Wild (2004) recounts that in this interview he criticised Prime Minister (19) Robert Mugabe and his government; the police thought he had gone too far and arrested him together with two journalists who were questioned and released the same day. Marechera was detained for a further four days under emergency powers that Zimbabwe had inherited from the previous government, but was later released. The police started visiting Marechera at his work place at the People's College, asking students What does Marechera tell you when he is teaching, does he talk politics ... does he insult the government?' (Veit-Wild 2004, p. 35).

The secret service and the army had to do their part after Marechera's detention by police. It was as if they were competing to please the Prime Minister by taking turns to deal with dissenting voices epitomised in Marechera. While showing the first review of Mindblast (1984) to people who were having a drink with him, he was followed by a man, who was later identified as an army colonel, when he went to the toilet. There he was physically assaulted, verbally abused and warned that he should stop publishing his filthy writings' which defamed his country and his government (Veit-Wild 1992, p. 335). As a playwright and performer, Marechera occasionally suffered threats and insults from strangers, would come and challenge him to prove his sanity and to attack his writing. Marechera defended his work intelligently and often lost his temper when strangers told him how he should write (see interview in Veit-Wild 2004, pp. 322-26).

In all the three plays in Mindblast (1984) the major characters are white who talk about the black silent majority.' The black minister is corrupt and demands bribes from white business people. Alfie is the black state agent who, even if he realises that things are terrible for the silent majority, works hard in order to stifle any attempt to express their concerns. Marechera was seen by his Marxist contemporaries as a man who betrayed Africa' (Chennells and Veit-Wild 1999, pp. xi-xix). Zimunya censures Marechera for his modernist approach:

... masochistic artistic engagement overwhelms the social and moral intent. Pleading for admission into the neurotic twentieth century is the worst way to go about revitalizing a culture depleted by the self-same Europe.... The eclectic babble' does not, as a rule, enrich one's own culture, and it certainly chokes the artist himself! (cited in Shaw 1999, p. 7)

In 1986 Cont Mhlanga attracted attention for his play Workshop Negative. The play criticised post-revolution racial and ethnic tensions and the hypocrisy of socialist politicians, epitomised by Mkhize, who is a member of parliament and the politburo, and a political commissar for socialism. Mkhize addresses rallies explaining and advocating socialism to the general populace, yet he runs his private company on purely capitalist lines. He is described by Zulu: ... with his stinking mouth, he is for socialism, yet in this workshop he is just the opposite ... dangerous daytime socialist and night-time capitalist' (Mhlanga 1992, p. 30). Cont Mhlanga's play denounces socialism by seeking to create a new plan which repudiates the East. Everybody must become a new person through a ritual crossing of the stage line and uttering a performative statement invoking the wrath of God if ever the new person goes back to the old order of fighting and ideological bankruptcy. Mkhize, Ray and Zulu must craft a new plan' which is neither like the East (socialism) nor like the West (capitalism). The die-hards like Mkhize must be eliminated and he in fact shoots himself. But he rises supernaturally from the dead as a new person symbolically washing away the sins of the past, like the ritual baptism of Christian converts. In this way unity' reconciliation' and peace' are achieved, but the characters ask Is it easy?' (1992, p. 64). ZANU (PF) cannot afford to forget its history for it depends on that history for its survival (Ravengai 2010, pp. 163-73). This was a direct attack on the government that promoted its history and socialism.

The Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture asked for the script and, according to Mhlanga (2008), he wanted to pass it on to the secret service. Curbing writers now became a matter of political control rather than legislative control, as required by the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act (1967). According to Cont Mhlanga (2008)Mhlanga (2008a) secret service agent called Munyaradzi was assigned to follow the events at Amakhosi Theatre. After the chairman of the board of the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe (NACZ), John Mapondera, and some of his staff members saw the last performance of Workshop Negative at Reps Theatre on a Saturday, they reached a decision the following Monday to declare it unsuitable.' According to The Herald, this decision was endorsed by the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture. The reason for Workshop Negative's classification as unsuitable was the Ministry's concern that 'the depiction of corruption in Zimbabwe [was done] through characters regard[ed] as being far-fetched and therefore render[ed] the play implausible and thus an attack on socialism itself' (The Herald 1987, p. 2).

Although Cont Mhlanga was not physically abused in the same way that Dambudzo Marechera had been, he was threatened with unspecified action by two state agents if he didn't bring Workshop Negative to the University of Zimbabwe, where a panel of assessors would help him to write responsibly. The drama section, then headed by Robert McLaren, prepared for the show and kept calling Cont Mhlanga to know if he would make it to Harare. Soon Stephen Chifunyise, of the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture and later Ngugi wa Mirii of the Zimbabwe Association of Community Theatre (ZACT), became involved by calling Cont Mhlanga about a possible performance of Workshop Negative (1992) at the University of Zimbabwe (Mhlanga 2008). When Mhlanga agreed to perform the play, other stakeholders were invited to give the panel a semblance of democracy Susan Hains of NTO, students and arts editors of The Herald, The Sunday Mail and The Chronicle. The Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) also attended the performance. Cont Mhlanga recounts how the performance was received:

You could tell it was a day of judgement. But kind of no one knew how it was organised because there has never been a show like it and there will never be another ... I said to the guys 'This is not a play.' They said 'Yes Cont! From here we're all going to prison.' And I said It looks like it. So you just have to make a choice. We perform or we don't perform' ... so there was a 'performance' backstage.... Eventually we agreed.... And it was like a heavy show.... We realised that everything had been set up ... the panel just stood up one after another and we didn't even know they were panellists. Everyone in the panel was against us. They had like eight people. But funny enough, the whole student body stood alongside us as well as Susan Hains of NTO. And the debate was hot. It went on till 12 midnight and it went out of the theatre to the streets. And we left the streets at about quarter to one. (Mhlanga 2008)

The students expressed solidarity with Amakhosi Theatre and they raised their concerns about why the play had been stopped from touring Zambia and Botswana (Chifunyise and Kavanagh 1988, p. 17). Although the audience across the racial divide wrote reviews and letters to state newspaper editors supporting the play, The Herald editorial attacked Workshop Negative (1992) by describing its sponsorship by the British Council as revenge by the British. Querying British interests in Workshop Negative, The Herald editorial quickly linked the play to British capitalist interests:
   It will also be interesting to know why a department of a foreign
   mission [British Council] in Harare which protested to our
   Government when its leader was portrayed in the anti-imperialist
   play Katshaa20 during the NAM Summit last year [1986] found it
   necessary to support the promotion of Workshop Negative which
   carries, one may say, a message favourable to capitalists and
   imperialists. We find it hard not to believe that the idea was to
   use the play, no doubt unbeknown to Amakhosi Productions, to avenge
   the Katshaa performance at NAM Summit. (1987, p. 2)

The Chronicle, a Bulawayo-based newspaper, then edited by Geoffrey Nyarota, was the only one that supported the play. Nyarota was later forced out of The Chronicle for his role in supporting dissenting voices and reporting on cabinet ministers' corrupt dealings in the Willowgate scandal (Nyarota 2006).


In this discussion I hope to have demonstrated that a performance is received by an audience in accordance with pre-receptive conditions which inculcate in the audience prejudices or competences which they use to judge a performance. I have looked at how modernist theatre was received by different audiences in colonial Zimbabwe and argued that the pre-independence audience was affected by the scarcity of theatre skills and a slavish adherence to the culture of Western illusionistic theatre, as well as an ingrained conservatism, a defensive laager mentality and the impact of the Cold War. All these factors combined to establish a structure of feeling that resisted modernist theatre. I also looked at the post-independence audience and observed that the residual values of Western theatre and Marxism also combined to limit the artistic taste of political authorities who continued to view modernist theatre with repugnance, although the general public was beginning to appreciate modernist plays. The question, then, is: can external structures successfully inscribe a consciousness in the audience? The theatre of Zimbabwe has been undergoing significant change and in the process has developed a reflexive idiom which, while struggling against Western theatrical frameworks, has liberated itself by introducing new tastes and new creative methods. The dramatic text or the theatrical text is not something to be consumed without its having an effect on the taste of the consumer. The text is clearly capable of modifying the fore-understanding' in the audience and therefore contributes to new meanings for the performance. A new syncretic theatre has evolved over the years that combines indigenous texts and Western theatrical forms and has also altered the taste of its target audiences. Judging by the level of participation and critical engagement at the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA), Zimbabwean audiences at the moment seem to be able to appreciate any kind of play that is professionally produced.


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(1.) A version of this article was first presented at the 2010 world congress, International Federation of Theatre Research in Munich which was held under the theme 'cultures of modernity.'

(2.) Rhodesian was a term used to describe black and white citizens of Rhodesia between 1890 and 1979. However, Rhodesian is used in this article as a descriptor for any white person who had Rhodesian citizenship. Rhodesian is also used to describe a white person who lived in Rhodesia during the colonial period and still believes in a discourse that sustained Rhodesia (i.e. an unrepentant white person). The colloquialism 'Rhodie' still has currency for the same purpose.

(3.) Modernity, according to Balme, Friedenberger, and Huber (2010, p. 7), refers to the intellectual, technological and economic revolution that enabled Europe and North America to dominate most of the world, while modernisation refers to a mid-twentieth century ideological process by means of which underdeveloped countries were 'assisted' into the industrial age.

(4.) These include the playwright, the theme, the published text, the publishing system, prepublicity, the publicist, the production company, the venue, the director/producer, the performer, the secondary creators such as directors, designers and choreographers, the technical staff, second and later productions, translations, adaptations, intertextual referencing, rip-offs, satires, plagiarised versions, the film, TV and radio version, the box office, censorship and public protest, the live audience member, the critic, the journalist (commentator), the newspaper and electronic media, the arts and culture journals, the popular celebrity magazines, satiric commentaries/cartoons, theatre historian, the teacher, the education system, the prescribed play, posters, photographs, legal proceedings and court cases. For detailed notes on each of these categories see Hauptfleisch (2007, pp. 264-68).

(5.) Pavis uses this term to describe expectations of an audience at a particular moment in history, including the audience's knowledge of the theatrical genre, its interests at the time of enunciation and the influence that all these factors exert on what is being analysed at that moment (2003, p. 266).

(6.) 'Consecration' is a term used by Pierre Bourdieu (1993) to refer to the affirmation and recognition conferred on artists by an established and recognised body with powers to legitimate, recognise, honour, award and anoint agents in the field of cultural production.

(7.) In the United States, for instance, the theatre of illusionism faced stiff competition from Hollywood, which created the illusion of reality better than theatre could. By 1928 the number of theatre productions in New York fell as Hollywood succeeded in stealing working-class and middle-class audiences from what was then called the 'legitimate' theatre (Savran 2006, pp. 189-91).

(8.) Entertainments during the period included thrillers, comedies, musicals or variety shows, or in America vaudeville, which consisted of a series of sketches. Each performance was made up of separate, unrelated acts grouped together, one-act plays, or scenes from plays, literary burlesque and so on. Reps theatre had to recommend a reduction in the number of sketches in its entertainments during a meeting in 1937 (Cary 1975, p. 56).

(9.) 'High theatre' is a dated term to describe what was then called 'legitimate' theatre or serious theatre. This category was created by the British Licensing Act (1737) which restricted serious theatre to two theatres licensed to perform 'spoken drama' (legitimate theatre). Other theatres, called 'illegitimate theatre', were permitted to perform low comedy, pantomime or melodrama (see

(10.) The show is catalogued as having been performed in 1942 in the Reps electronic database, although the Reps historian Robert Cary records the date as 1943.

(11.) This is an old category of a type of sophisticated comedy for the elite class featuring high-class characters speaking witty dialogue and usually satirising genteel society. This is opposed to 'low comedy,' which depended on slapstick and physical action and was normally meant for lower-class audiences.

(12.) Audiences attended the shows as there was a cultural obligation to show allegiance to a British playwright projected by colonial discourse as an exceptional genius with a rare talent. But audiences also attended Shakespeare productions as in most cases the plays were set texts for O, M or A level examinations.

(13.) Adrian Stanley's carrier in drama began in England at Rock Ferry High School, where he joined a school drama club. This was followed by his training at the London School of Dramatic Art. He acted in West End productions and worked with Watford Repertory Company, moving to Avon Players in 1947 and then worked as a freelance producer between 1953 and 1957. When he moved to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), he was invited to adjudicate the Southern Rhodesia Drama Festival plays in 1959. In 1964 he joined Reps (Cary 1975, pp. 164-70).

(14.) John Houchin borrows this term from the feminist critic bell hooks, who uses it to refer to the white fear of being seduced, tempted, overcome and overpowered by black bodies, which then in the colonial context threaten the power of the colonial master (see Houchin 2008, p. 12).

(15.) This ordinance was passed after the Sam Lewis and Titus incident. Sam Lewis shot and killed a black Chronicle newspaper messenger who was allegedly stalking Sam Lewis's daughters wanting sex. Police discovered that Titus possessed a photograph of a naked white woman, which he had bought from a certain Louis Hendelman. Four months after a scathing Rhodesian Herald editorial, this legislation came into place (see McCulloch 2000, p. 48).

(16.) This is a way of responding to the world which in theatre or art manifests in the form of techniques and artistic tastes that are embodied and related. These qualities are historically distinct and become markers of a generation or a period (see Williams 1973, p. 10; 1977, pp. 131-2).

(17.) Russia, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

(18.) The Minister of Internal Affairs Harper during the second reading of the Censorship and Entertainment Control Bill in 1997 said 'liberals are [a] portion of the communist force, wittingly or unwittingly ...' (O'Callaghan 1977, p. 262)

(19.) Robert Mugabe was elected as Prime Minister in 1980, but changed the Constitution after the Unity Accord in 1987 to create the position of President, which he currently occupies.

(20.) Robert McLaren and Zambuko/Izibuko had performed Katshaa (1988) at the 1986 Non-Aligned Movement summit in Harare, which according to McLaren (1992), pp. 99-100), mocked Thatcher, Reagan and Kohl's imperialistic exploitation of South African blacks. The British High Commissioner to Zimbabwe wrote a letter of protest to the Zimbabwean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Samuel Ravengai *

Drama Department, University of Cape Town, South Africa

* Email:
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Author:Ravengai, Samuel
Publication:South African Theatre Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6ZIMB
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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