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Fugard, Kani, Ntshona's The Island: Antigone as South African drama.

Despite the many features that ground Antigone in the particular political ideology of fifth-century Athens, Sophocles' Antigone has "spoken more to the modern imagination than any other Greek tragedy except perhaps his Oedipus the King." (1) It may not therefore seem surprising that of all Greek plays Antigone is the most often revived, revised, or rewritten for performance in African and Caribbean countries. (2) Clearly the play exposes the nexus of the personal and the political as a fault line, calling into question the conventional verity that places loyalty to the state above family relationships and private conscience. (3) The Island represents a new intercultural approach to writing South African performance, finding common ground between indigenous African modes of storytelling and ritual performance and European approaches to postdramatic performance in a hybrid theater piece that inscribes Sophocles' text within a South African context.

In 1973 the three leading members of Port Elizabeth's multiracial Serpent Players created a revolutionary piece of theater that, together with Sizwe Banzi is Dead (1972), ushered in a new era of South African political protest theater and constituted a new paradigm for postcolonial South African performance. By working together to Africanize the narrative content of Sophocles' tragedy as a subversive tribute to Nelson Mandela's endurance of what had then been a nine-year incarceration on Robben Island, the writers defied apartheid laws that prohibited blacks and whites from collaborating as theater artists; while by showing two black political prisoners playing the roles of Antigone and Creon as representatives, respectively, of the ANC martyrs and their apartheid oppressors, they exploded the conventions of the well-made drama that had previously colonized the theatrical imagination of black and white South African writers. The radical deconstruction of the Greek text made the play an overt symbol of the liberation movement, while the subtle and spare deployment of African storytelling conventions decolonized South African drama, providing a new form of "protest" theater that influenced South African dramatists for over thirty years.

Throughout the twentieth-century South African drama had been dominated by an English model of the well-made play whose late-Victorian form propagated British imperialist values in the colonies. Afrikaans theater was lively but, between 1948 and 1992, proscribed by the hegemony of National Party race ideology. The growth of English-language theater was stunted by a colonial subservience to the home culture typical of settler societies. British actors regularly toured South Africa in Shakespeare and modern plays, and local English-language productions slavishly mimicked dated styles of acting, production, and writing that were once considered appropriate for the Old Vic and London's West End, but which stunted the development of indigenous forms of performance and writing. (4) South Africa's first major black playwright, the Zulu writer Herbert Dhlomo (1903-1956), had written a series of plays in English based on the lives of the Zulu chiefs Dingane, Ceteswayo, Moshoeshwe, and the tribal prophet Mtsikane. But as adventurous as Dhlomo's plays were in their time they were also to a large extent constricted by the paradigm of the "well-made" West End play. In the fifties, English-language South African playwrights did make sporadic attempts to tackle local subjects, but their plays tended to be straitjacketed by the forms of West End dramas and could not compete with the more ambitious development of prose fiction in works such as Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country (1947) and Nadine Gordimer's The Lying Days (1953), (6) both reflecting the injustice of race discrimination immediately before and after the advent of apartheid. Perhaps the most innovative uses of theater forms were made by the musical King Kong (1959) and the revue Wait a Minim (1962), but these were subject to the typical constraints of commercial theater, so while they attempted to be authentic and topical could hardly be expected to exemplify radical changes in theatrical convention.

Having written a number of small-cast plays--The Blood Knot (1961), Hello and Goodbye (1965), People Are Living There (1968), Boesman and Lena (1969)--predicated on an Ibsenite structure whereby truth comes to light through a process that incrementally exposes the secrets of a concealed past and revealing the influence of Tennessee Williams's drama whose confessional/psychotherapeutic pattern motivates the accumulating emotional intensity of characters' confrontations with self and others to a point of crisis/catharsis, Fugard's dramaturgy had resolved itself into a typical structural pattern. His habitual deployment of a single set, small cast (two or three actors), and plain South African English reflected in material terms the lack of resources experienced by noncommercial, anti-Establishment theater in South Africa in the sixties, and in cultural terms the linguistic poverty of a social group marginalized and repressed by the hegemony of centuries of British imperialism. The characters in these plays speak haltingly in an impoverished language with a limited vocabulary because they are struggling to speak the official language of Empire, a language ill-suited to expressing the stark and sparsely populated mindscapes inhabited by a colonial class existing in outposts of the Empire. These people are descended from British settlers who had occasionally intermarried with Afrikaners or even people of mixed Malay and Hottentot descent to give birth to generations of native South Africans lacking the privileged education of the English public school and university and with little or no connection with the Holland, England, or Scotland from which their great grandparents had emigrated 140 or--in the case of the Afrikaners--250 years previously. The speech idioms that Fugard renders so effectively in these plays might in some ways be identified as a South African creole, a mixture of English with some Afrikaans words, that today constitutes the demotic form of South African English.

This was a poor drama that aimed to find a poetics appropriate to the poverty of a bastardized settler culture, but its adherence to naturalism meant it could be neither a poor theater nor a genuinely South African form of drama. It was his deployment of workshop techniques as a member of the Serpent Players that influenced Fugard's sequence of experiments from The Coat to Orestes and culminated in his exploitation of the radical techniques of sixties avant-garde theater for a new kind of playmaking. Fugard's most immediate inspiration in the seventies was the poor theater of Jerzy Grotowski. The achievements of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, Statements after an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, and The Island were made possible by a laboratory process involving the actors Yvonne Bryceland, John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Val Dunlop, and Wilson Dunster. Fugard's averred desire to move beyond the confines of his own inflection of an essentially modern American drama of well-made realism, reveals not only a dissatisfaction with the inappropriate constrictions imposed by inherited models of scripted drama, but also a recognition that the postdramatic experiments of Grotowski could be directly relevant to the creation of a hybrid form of theater that would marry African traditions of oral literature and dance performance with the semiotic density of postmodern Western theater forms. It is likely that Fugard recognized he would need to collaborate closely with black South Africans in order to discover a genuinely intercultural South African form whose storytelling technique was fast-moving and economical, while displaying a phenomenological richness in the deployment of contemporary history and mythical narrative, representational gesture, authentically South African dialect, mime enactment, and psychophysical presence. To have attempted an authentic South African drama by means of a nostalgic revival of tribal forms of African performance would have been regressive and indeed colonialist. (7) Sizwe Bansi ls Dead and The Island transform the author-actors' own inherited kinaesthetic sense of African storytelling and tribal dance forms into township diction and a gestural poetry that immediately evokes urban South Africa. By devising the two plays in collaboration with Kani and Ntshona, Fugard was able to supply the structural frame and Western theatrical intertexts, while the black writers/performers made the authentic speech, mental attitude, and habitus of each character accessible in material terms. It is significant that both plays were initially dependent on the particular identity of the two black author-actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, thereby paralleling the process through which Grotowski had composed his laboratory theater productions on the bodies of his performers, accessing their own personal subjectivity through deep self-exploration in which private memories and images were grafted together with a physical performance score to form the kinaesthetic structure of the piece. (8)

Having directed the black actors of the Serpent Players in Antigone in 1965, Fugard began his dramaturgical exploration of Greek tragedy in a specifically South African context with the devising of a radically experimental workshop piece, Orestes. According to the playwright himself, the major provocation for the work he did with three actors in devising Orestes was Grotowski:
   For a long time I had wanted to try and make a valid theatrical
   experience using methods other than completed script, set rehearsal
   period, performance deadline, etc., etc.... The three actors and
   myself disappeared into a rehearsal room, and ten weeks later we
   gave our first "exposure".... We stayed working on and exposing the
   project for another six weeks. (117) (9)

The program note for the performance explicitly indicated to the audience the performance's reference to ancient Greek tragedy:
   From Greek mythology comes the story of Clytemnestra. Her husband
   was Agamemnon. She had two children, Electra and Orestes. Agamemnon
   sacrificed their third child, Iphigenia, so that the wind would
   turn and the Greek fleet could leave Aulis for the Trojan War.
   Agamemnon returned to Clytemnestra ten years later when she
   murdered him. Orestes and Electra avenged his death by killing
   their mother. From our history comes the image of a young man with
   a large brown suitcase on a bench in the Johannesburg station
   concourse. He was not travelling anywhere. (118)

The young man was in fact twenty-six-year-old John Harris, who had in 1964 exploded a suitcase filled with dynamite and petrol that he left beside a bench on a platform in the Johannesburg Railway Station; the homemade bomb injured a young child and killed an elderly woman, and Harris was apprehended, tried, and executed. The eighty-minute piece consisted chiefly of mime in which the young man (Orestes/Harris) plays with a matchbox while gradually becoming aware of a young woman (Electra) and then of an older woman (Clytemnestra), who first mimes giving birth to Iphigenia, then destroys a chair representing Agamemnon. According to Fugard,
   It was an awesome and chilling spectacle. You cannot destroy
   without being destroyed. As she went through the experience Y
   wrecked her soul.... You cannot witness destruction without being
   damaged. The boy and girl, who had seen everything, move quietly to
   the remnant of an identity, the older woman, collapsed among the
   remnants of a chair called Agamemnon.... They are terrified. Their
   metaphor of innocence has met a metaphor of evil. Nothing will ever
   be the same again.... Their abortive games escalate into a
   nightmare at the end of which she has caught him, confined him,
   taking away from him even the possibility of standing erect as a
   man.... [He], breaking a long silence, finally answered the
   following questions:

"Who are you?

What is your sex?

What is your colour?

What is your nationality?

Where are you?"

"Me. Male. White. South African. Here." (123-25)

Some moments later the bombs go off and the old woman mimes her reaction to the explosion in slow motion, then drags herself on her backside across the floor of the stage. The young man speaks a few lines from the testimony of John Harris, ending with "I knew that what I was doing was right. Later I heard that people had been hurt, but this did not make sense because I had known that people were not going to be hurt" (126), after which the young woman speaks a short section from R. D. Laing's The Divided Self, and the old woman speaks a few lines from Laing's The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. (10)

In addition to Grotowski an important influence on Fugard's thinking at this time was Bertolt Brecht. (11) It seems unlikely that Fugard was not aware that one of Brecht's productions in Zurich soon after the end of the war had been his adaptation of Holderlin's translation of Sophocles' Antigone. In order to historicize the Greek text, Brecht had written framing scenes set in the contemporary world of postwar Europe, thereby insisting that the audience confront the political and historical gulf between his production and Sophocles' text through a deliberately complicated process of "conscious historicization" in which the ancient text is defamiliarized, partly by the framing device and partly by the lyrical late nineteenth-century German of Holderlin with its overtones of fin de siecle religiosity deliberately set at odds with the terse, materialist idiom of Brecht's German, the clash of styles enabling the audience to watch Sophocles' play being "quoted" by Brecht rather than simply absorbing it within the contemporary horizon of experience as "universally" valid. Something of this effect of historicization is created in the contrast between the enactment of John Harris's action in the Johannesburg railway station and the mythic reality of the ancient Greek characters.

By moving beyond the paradigm of the singly authored, prescripted playtext of the classic European tradition, Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona's postdramatic experiment in Sizwe Bansi is Dead not only achieved an intensity of performance that may be unequaled in the history of South African theater, but also modeled a method of intercultural performance writing that made the unique process of producing such a performance text hugely influential in the development of antiapartheid "township theater." (12) In creating a uniquely South African form of theater capable of expressing the crisis in township life experienced on a daily basis by black South Africans, Sizwe Bansi is Dead represented a major advance in South African theater. The visual motif of the passport photograph produced in the play motivates a theatrical metaphor in which the crisis of identity experienced by black people forced to carry pass books reduced them to strangers in their own hometowns. The questioning of identity emblematizes the existential interrogation of what it means to be human. The Island builds on the artistic breakthrough of the earlier play and complicates it in its deliberately eclectic implication of contradictory intertexts: the reference to specific historical circumstances--the trial and imprisonment in 1964 of Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders on Robben Island (13)--and the metatheatrical device of the Antigone performance-within-the-play. Notwithstanding the semiotic density of the play, the insistent poverty of its means constitutes a key to its poetic composition:
   After Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, we decided to explore the subject of
   Robben Island. To start off with, we put a blanket on the ground.
   We stood on it and began to move with Athol watching. We began to
   halve the blanket, halve the blanket, until there was just enough
   space for four feet to stand. We realised the restriction of space,
   and there it was--confinement. And there it was--prison. (14)

The idea for the play came from a true story about inmates of South Africa's notorious Robben Island prison, where Mandela was held for twenty-seven years. During Fugard's production of Antigone in the New Brighton township of Port Elizabeth, the actor who played Haemon was arrested and eventually sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island. On his release a few months later, he spoke of a two-man version of Antigone performed as part of the prison concert:
   When I heard my friend describe that prison concert ... with the
   first few rows consisting of prison warders ... and then with the
   other prisoners ... seated behind them ... who caught what the play
   was about ... I suddenly realised that South Africa had served up
   an exact parallel to the situation with Anouilh's Antigone ... in
   Paris where when that play was first staged during the Occupation,
   the first rows of the stalls were occupied by German officers ...
   and behind them, Parisians. (15)

The extended mime sequence that opens the play is a theatrical representation of Camus' existentialist essay on the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, (16) covertly introducing the first reference to Greek mythology. In one sense, The Island enacts Camus' retelling of Sisyphus's story as a myth of the absurd, the pointless daily labor of the prisoners presenting a kinaesthetic image of the prison warder's attempt to destroy any possible meaning the life of prisoners on Robben Island might have; conversely, the metadramatic staging of Antigone as myth and drama represents John's attempt to assert the meaning of resistance, involving a transfiguration of the Sisyphean absurd into the heroic myth of martyrdom in the struggle to destroy tyranny. (17) In their radical redaction of Sophocles' Antigone, Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona follow Grotowski by stripping the source play of all its "literary" features, testing it to discover the archetypal essence of its affective power in a particular historical context. Grotowski had edited artistic masterpieces such as Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Calderon's Il Principe Constante, removing their sophisticated literary aspects to focus the performance exclusively on a psychic substratum that in Grotowski's view formed a constituent myth of the surrounding culture. A poor theater performance therefore involved a testing of the psychic material at the work's core in order to lay bare those parts of the narrative that still live in the collective unconscious of the audience, and those that continue to animate the unconscious of individual spectators: each performance consists of a kind of dialogical process among spectators in which a ritual experience of shared psychic experience is in tension with the private responses that are unique to each individual and may conflict with those of other spectators. The cultural memory of the audience with its connection to a collective unconscious is tested against each spectator's unique personal memory with its substratum of an individual unconscious. In The Island, Sophocles' Antigone is deliberately addressed at one and the same time to the imagined onstage audience of warders and prisoners and the actual theater audience to produce precisely such a fracturing of communal response that activates a dialectical play of private and group reactions. Although no words of Sophocles' text are recited in the play, and the precise details of its structure are barely apparent, the play's imagery, together with its cultural and historical resonances as a myth of Enlightenment values, is so deeply imbricated in the theatrical language of The Island as to render it a South African Antigone.

The extant corpus of ancient Athenian drama has guaranteed the circulation of key Greek myths for the past two hundred years, forming since the eighteenth century the chief repository of what has come to represent an ur-narrative of Western colonialist discourse. Classical scholars since the Enlightenment have constructed ancient Athenian society as the paradigm of democracy whose drama celebrates the triumph of Western rationalism over the dark unreason of barbarian culture. Liberal ideology conveniently masks the reality that the ancient Athenian economy was based on the labor of so-called barbarians as chattel slaves while Athenian women were not merely confined to the domestic sphere, but, like slaves, belonged to a male kurios, (18) and were thereby denied individual rights within the very limited franchise of a democracy that would be unrecognizable as such today. So ancient Athenian drama has in fact been deployed as one cornerstone of a colonial ideology, valorizing Western patriarchal hierarchies and their projection as the psychological underpinning and ethical justification of colonial conquest in the name of Western democracy, the colonized being constructed as irrational savages (barbarians) in need of paternalistic European government in an epistemological maneuver that represses the violence and commercial self-interest that is the originary rationale for colonization of the non-European world. This episteme counterpoises colonial rationality in binary opposition with barbarian unreason; the male is situated on the side of reason, with the female constituting, by contrast, the irrational, just as the (white) European represents the superiority of colonial democracy in contradistinction to the (black) non-European position as an inferior tribalism in need of civilizing through the process of colonization.

In this epistemological perspective, Antigone becomes paradigmatic of the conflict between personal rights and political necessity, the tragedy being the result of a peculiar crisis consequent on the inappropriate conflation of the personal and the political within a single family. In the aftermath of a civil war between a--supposedly loyal--brother Eteocles, and a--supposedly traitorous--brother Polynices, Creon stands for the manmade laws of the state (albeit sanctioned by the gods) in opposition to Antigone's claim to stand for the laws governing family and private life, which she claims are directly ordained by the gods and therefore self-evidently higher than any state law. Between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, Antigone was viewed as either the tragic hero of a conflict between moral right and wrong or--with Creon--one of a pair of tragic heroes in a conflict of equally just moral imperatives. In the more orthodox nineteenth-century perspective of the German philosopher Schlegel, Antigone is right and Creon wrong because her disregard of a decree of the state not to bury her brother Polynices is in obedience to the divine law concerning family burial rites that Creon has flouted. Hegel had earlier maintained that each of the protagonists, Antigone and Creon, is at the same time both wrong and right: Antigone champions the values of family, love, blood, and the chthonic gods (below the ground) while Creon values the rule of the state and the Olympian gods (of the sky). So although each is right to defend a just principle, they are both wrong in ignoring a conflicting law that has an equal claim to be obeyed; the tragedy therefore enacts an irresolvable conflict between two "rights." Schlegel's view has had the most influence in forming modern approaches to the play, Antigone being conceived within a predominantly liberal tradition of modern hermeneutic understanding as defending the rights of the individual--or even the rights of women.

Twentieth-century research on the political ideology and social norms of ancient Greece suggests, however, that the Athenians may have taken a more ambivalent view of the refusal to bury Polynices, thereby challenging the popular modern view of Antigone as a martyr who dies for a just principle and accounting for the fact that traitors were often denied burial. (19) Furthermore, Bernard Knox argues that ancient Athenians would not automatically assume that private duties were more important than those owed to the polis, and would therefore not have believed Antigone to be self-evidently right as do post-Enlightenment liberals. (20) Lardinois points out that Demosthenes cited with approval Creon's speech on the duties owed to the polis, a speech that Jean Anouilh transformed in 1944 into a veritable apologia for the Vichy government's policy of collaboration with the Nazis in occupied France. (21) Furthermore, although Antigone is noble and therefore has the status and, possibly, power that women in the fifth-century Athenian democracy did not possess, her sister Ismene claims that women cannot and should not challenge men in the political sphere. Creon himself attacks Antigone in misogynistic terms for being a woman, and therefore irrational, thereby emphasizing the question of gender as an element of the conflict. (22)

Critics of the view that the play presents Antigone's martyrdom note that if she was intended to be the hero, the tragedy should be complete at her final exit just over halfway through the action (Antigone has only half the number of lines that Creon does). But if Creon is the tragic hero, what kind of tragedy is this? Knox and others believe the Greek audience would have viewed the conflict as that between two equals, with Creon also having right on his side, but seeing Antigone as motivated by love, Creon by hate. Such multiple ironies typical of Sophoclean drama have not gone unnoticed, and Antigone certainly anticipates the dramatist's later Oedipus the King in representing the Darwinian process by means of which genetic predisposition determines behavior, as in the words of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, "man's character is his daimon [fate]." (23) Those who see Antigone as the hero observe that Creon may begin the play with a reasonable view but that he becomes a tyrant who equates himself and his feelings with the state; a few notice, in addition, the irony that Antigone's championship of the family does not extend to her treatment of her sister Ismene, her uncle Creon, or even her betrothed Haemon, about whom she is silent. According to Andre Lardinois, this "ambiguity goes deeper. Creon, defending the city, is destroying the city. Antigone, championing the dead, wrongs them because, by dying and not marrying, she is extinguishing the family." (24) Following from this is the tragic history of Oedipus's offspring. Most post-Enlightenment criticism conveniently ignores a key element of the original myth motivating all three of Sophocles' Theban plays--that Antigone is the daughter of an incestuous relationship between Oedipus and his mother Jocasta, so she is both sister and aunt to her two brothers. On one level, therefore, her early death ensures the end of the cycle of incestuous relationships, the ultimate undoing of Oedipus's inadvertent crime against nature.

The Island assumes the popular twentieth-century reading of Antigone as liberationist martyr. In many respects, the most powerful echo of Sophocles' play is that of Antigone's incarceration in a cave walled up by Creon and left to die of starvation. In South Africa at the time of the play's premiere, history's Antigone was Nelson Mandela, while the cave in which the prisoner was immured could only be interpreted by South Africans as Robben Island. Although there is no specific reference to Mandela in The Island, the terrible injustice of his life imprisonment on Robben Island for perpetrating what a majority of South Africans would have viewed as an act of justice and liberation, provides the underlying frame of historical reality that gives the play such power to move and disturb. (25) Mandela's incarceration on Robben Island and his release in 1991 eventually became a parable of the triumph and subsequent defeat of the apartheid regime, and it echoes the Enlightenment interpretation of Antigone as freedom fighter. There is no hint in The Island of the possibility that Antigone may actually be wrong in her defiance of Creon; as played by Winston, she can only be viewed as a victim of state oppression, while in performance it is virtually impossible to respond sympathetically to John's portrayal of Creon. By retelling the conflict between Antigone and Creon in a highly selective way, The Island revises Sophocles in accordance with the modern liberationist tradition of interpretation, achieving what might be impossible in a production that used actual excerpts from Sophocles as a script for the performance-within-the-play.

There are a number of other elements of Antigone in Fugard/Kani/ Ntshona's play, and these are subtly wrought. The story of Antigone's brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, motivates the theme of brotherhood emblematized in the relationship between John and Winston, brothers united in the struggle against apartheid oppression:

John: Struesgod! I'm a man, brother. A man! But if Hodoshe had kept us at those wheelbarrows five minutes longer ...! There would have been a baby on the Island tonight. I nearly cried ... when he pointed to the wheelbarrows, and I saw his idea ... Then I hated you. You looked so stupid, broer!. (49) (26)

Here the motif of the dignity and brotherhood of man (27) is expressed, an idea that is given concrete form in the care manifested by the men who tend to each other's injuries as intimately as lovers. Eventually, however, their situation comes ironically to parallel that of Antigone's opposed brothers, in that John's promised release in the face of Winston's consignment to anonymity and oblivion is ultimately experienced as a betrayal of the concept of their political solidarity as comrades and their existential brotherhood. When John learns that he will be freed in three months, he experiences a kind of survivor guilt toward Winston who, like Antigone, must stay in prison until he dies:

John: Then we saw this place for the first time. It almost looked pretty, hey, with all the mist around it ... Remember your words when we jumped off onto the jetty? [Pause. The two men look at each other.] Heavy words, Winston. You looked back at the mountains ... 'Farewell Africa!' I've never forgotten them. That was three years ago.

Winston: And now, for you, it's three months to go. [Pause. The mood of innocent celebration has passed. John realises what his good news means to the other man.]

To hell with everything. Let's go to bed.... Look, in this cell we're going to forget those three months. The whole bloody thing is probably a trick anyway. So let's just forget about it. (67)

Underlying every moment of the play is the sense of hierarchy produced by the inhuman apartheid system that relegated tribal Africans (Bantu) to the lowest level, with Indians (28) above them, then Cape Coloureds and Whites at the top. The subtle and arbitrary system of racial classifications infiltrated the consciousness of all South African citizens, determining relations between ideologically defined racial groups in elaborately ritualized patterns of arrogance, noblesse oblige, respect, cringing politeness, or abject sullenness. In essence, the labyrinthine order of racial distinctions rationalized as "separate development" was a cynical method of justifying institutionalized inequality. South African law ensured that whites in South Africa were free citizens, while all nonwhite people were not. The legalized system of difference is reenacted in existential terms in the contrast between John's and Winston's situations at the end: being a prisoner on Robben Island with no hope of release renders Winston a nonperson; the promise of freedom gives John back his (limited) humanity:

John: Winston? What's happening? Why are you punishing me?

Winston: (quietly) You stink, John. You stink of beer, of company, of poes, of freedom ... Your freedom stinks, John, and it's driving me mad ... God also gave me ten fingers, but what do I count? My life? How do I count it, John? One ... one ... another day comes ... one ... Help me, John! ... Another day ... one ... one ... Help me, brother! ... one.... Nyana we Sizwe ... it's all over now. All over. [He moves over to John.] Forget me.... (71-72)

Once again The Island sets Camus' Sisyphean absurd against the heroic meaning of resistance--here embodied in the subversive presentation of their Antigone play. It is ironic that the racist hierarchy produced by colonialism is echoed in the rigidity of tribal African patriarchy, manifest throughout the play in the sexist assumptions of the two prisoners. In the first scene in their cell, Winston chides John for treating him as a housewife who looks after their shared cleaning rag: "Haai, man! You got no wife here. Look for the rag yourself!" (50). While they romanticize their wives and families, they nevertheless regard wives as servants, and their crude sexual fantasies reduce women throughout the play to "poes" (South African slang for "vagina"). (29) The two men's sexist attitudes are represented as much in Winston's resentment at having to play the female role of Antigone as in their unconsciously misogynistic attitudes to women as wives or whores:

Winston: No! You get this, brother ... I am not doing your Antigone! I would rather run the whole day for Hodoshe. At least I know where I stand with him. All he wants is to make me a 'boy' ... not a bloody woman.... Here's Antigone ... take these titties and hair and play Antigone. I'm going to play Creon.... I'll have my balls and play Creon. (60-61)

Even being reduced by white authority figures to the humiliating position of "boy" is not as undignified as being treated like a woman. The female occupies the lowest level in the patriarchal hierarchy of Empire--women being represented by John and Winston as servants of a servant class. Paradoxically, it is only when Winston accepts his position of total abjection as a prisoner serving a life sentence that he does finally accept the role of Antigone, one of the most powerful in the cultural history of political resistance. In the play's very brief version of Antigone, Winston/Antigone's use of the word "man" implies an ironic attack on the patriarchal assumptions of apartheid rule:

Winston: Who made the law forbidding the burial of my brother?

John: The State.

Winston: Who is the State?

John: As King I am its manifest symbol.

Winston: So you made the law.

John: Yes, for the State.

Winston: Are you God?

John: Watch your words, little girl!


Winston: You are only a man, Creon. Even as there are laws made by men, so too there are others that come from God.... [I]f I had let my mother's son, a Son of the Land, lie there as food for the carrion fly, Hodoshe, my soul would never have known peace. (75-76)

The play-within-the-play becomes a ritual enactment of political martyrdom, a ceremony in honor of those like Mandela who share the mythical fate of Antigone, and an enactment of the power of the feminine to resist unjust authority. At its end, sisterhood is for the first time invoked in the same terms as the brotherhood that has been depicted in John and Winston's relationship: "Brothers and Sisters of the Land! I go now on my last journey ... condemned alive to solitary death" (77). Unusually, Polynices is viewed by Antigone as her "mother's son" so "man's law" is revealed as hostile to women.

John addresses the theater audience as if they were the audience at the prison concert: "Captain Prinsloo, Hodoshe, Warders ... and Gentlemen! Two brothers of the House of Labdacus found themselves on opposite sides in battle, the one defending the State, the other attacking it" (73). The choice of words is significant, "the State" in 1973 having virtually become a journalistic euphemism for the apartheid regime, with overtones for most South Africans of police violence, torture, and detention without trial. Throughout John's introductory address ancient Thebes appears to stand in for apartheid South Africa, the reference to Antigone assumed by John to have direct relevance to Robben Island:

John: [Polynices] was to lie on the open fields to rot, or at most to be food for the jackals. It was a law. But Antigone, their sister, defied the law.... She was caught and arrested. That is why tonight the Hodoshe Span, Cell Forty-two, presents for your entertainment: "The Trial and Punishment of Antigone" (73)

One may safely assume that in the view of the progressive audience for whom The Island was initially intended, the glib yoking of "trial" with "punishment" would constitute an obvious irony. There is a further irony in the surprising representation of Creon as a black servant of apartheid masters. The idea derives as much from Anouilh's Antigone as from Sophocles, (30) and in The Island it becomes an effective strategy for unsettling the audience. White liberals and black citizens in the theater audience are oppressed by the same laws that condemned Mandela and his compatriots to incarceration on the island. In a society based on injustice and inequality all people are potentially criminals, and the insecurity or guilty conscience of the privileged is the necessary price for supporting or failing to oppose such a system. As a black prisoner, John is a servant of white authority, and even when he plays the role of a king, he is still only a servant. His smiling subservience toward both the spectators at the prison concert and by implication the theater audience represents the passive-aggressive truth-telling of the licensed court jester:

John: Did I hear "Hail the King"? My good people, I am your servant ... a happy one, but still your servant.... Creon's crown is as simple and I hope as clean, as the apron Nanny wears. And even as Nanny smiles and is your happy servant because she sees her charge ... your child! ... waxing fat in that little cradle, so too does Creon--our obedient servant!--stand here and smile. For what does he see? Fatness and happiness! How else does one measure the success of a state? By the sumptuousness of the palaces built for its king and princes? ... No! These count for nothing beside the fatness and happiness of its people. (73-74)

The everyday experience of white theater audiences is directly confronted by John: the vast majority of white people would have been raised by black nannies, and the contrast between the fat and healthy white babies and the millions of malnourished black children in the so-called "Bantustans" (black reservations) could not have gone unnoticed, even by the most politically insensitive spectator. As Creon, John rehearses the rationale of the South African state for the brutal oppression necessitated by apartheid:
   The law states or maintains nothing, good people. The law defends.
   The law is no more or less than a shield in your faithful servant's
   hand to protect YOU! But even a shield would be useless in one hand
   to defend, without a sword in the other, to strike.... I am sure it
   is needless for me to remind you of the constant troubles on our
   borders.... But unfortunately there are still at large some
   subversive elements.... There are still amongst us a few rats that
   are not satisfied and to them I must show this face of Creon....
   Let what follows be a living lesson for those among you misguided
   enough still to harbour sympathy for rats! The shield has defended.
   Now the sword must strike! (74)

John's speech as Creon is a parodic version of the typical solecism used to justify the detention of people such as those found guilty at the infamous Rivonia Trial in 1964. The bogey of "national security" against terrorist attacks was part of a campaign that aimed to motivate the white population to accept repressive policing as a way of defending South Africa against Communism, and in 1973 these words would have resonated with the immediacy of the latest newspaper report. They are of course a fair translation of the rationale of Sophocles' Creon in protecting the state of Thebes from traitors:
   ... This destroys the state; This drives men from their homes; this
   wicked teacher drives solid citizens to acts of shame. It shows men
   how to practice infamy and know the deeds of all unholiness. (191)

By emphasizing the resemblances between the neofascist South African state and Creon's tyranny in Thebes, Fugard/Kani/Ntshona draw attention both to the parallel situations in Antigone and The Island, and to the 2,500 years of history that separate them. Such a Brechtian approach paradoxically historicizes Sophodes while it invokes the universality of Antigone's martyrdom as symbol of a transhistorical struggle to liberate the individual from state tyranny. The framing of the "Antigone" play by the Sisyphean drama of John and Winston's prison story activates a series of intertexts that include the knowledge that John and Winston themselves could easily have ended up imprisoned on Robben Island, that Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona had in fact all been deprived of their passports for some years, that it was Nelson Mandela who, like Antigone, had for ten years been suffering a living death on Robben Island, and that the repression characteristic of the contemporary South African political regime had an analogue in the mythical Theban conflict represented by Sophocles, between Creon as representative of the state and Antigone as representative of natural law. The hermeneutic history of the play's Enlightenment significance as paradigm of the dialectical progress of the liberationist struggle for freedom of the individual (women, blacks, Jews, gay people, the working class) against oppression is activated in this play of intertexts.

The deliberate mismatch between audience expectations of the decorum of Sophocles' texts and the vernacular of urban African speech parallels the clash between the hermeneutic history of the ancient Greek text and the topical meaning of the Antigone narrative in the explosive context of the South African political situation. The Island is at pains to stress the gulf between the contemporary reality of the prisoner's degraded situation and the legendary status of the ancient Greek myth. The devaluation of the local Africa of the present in deference to the aura of the mythical past precisely parallels the experience of the colonial subject, cut off from the real language of the imperial capital and consigned to inauthentic expression on the margins of historical and cultural existence. Startlingly, Sophocles' Antigone is given "a local habitation and a name," while the injustice perpetrated in respect of Mandela and his compatriots is located within a 2,500-year struggle for human rights. Artistically, this play reinforced and elaborated the major postcolonial innovation in South African theater constituted by Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, adding the hermeneutic complexity of two hundred years of Antigone interpretations to the originality of the latter play's invention of a "poor" theater aesthetic expressive of an authentic South African milieu.

When the play was revived with its original cast after the election of the first democratic government in South Africa in 1995, I questioned the relevance of producing a play so rooted in the particular history of the apartheid struggle, but was surprised by its startling freshness in the new context. Like Shakespeare's tetralogy of medieval history plays, The Island had become a history play, warning South African audiences of the dangers of legalized injustice and authoritarian government. I was struck by the new appropriateness of John's lines,
      When you get in front of them, sure they'll laugh ... Nyah! nyah!
   ... they'll laugh. But just remember this brother, nobody laughs
   forever! There'll come a time when they'll stop laughing, and that
   will be the time when our Antigone hits them with her words. (61)

Goldsmiths College, University of London


(1) Andre Lardinois, "Beyond Hegel and Schlegel: An Ambiguous Reading of Sophocles' Antigone," lecture at Interdisciplinary Center for Hdlenic Studies, Richard Stockton College, New Jersey, 1994.

(2) Kamau Braithwaite, Odale's Choice (1967), Sylvain Bemba, Black Wedding Candles for Blessed Antigone (1988), Femi Osofisan, Tegonni: an African Antigone (1999), the Serpent Players production in 1965 with John Kani as Haemon.

(3) E. M. Forster: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." ("What I Believe'--Living Philosophies-l: Two Cheers for Democacy," first published in The Nation, 16 July 1938), 66.

(4) The most illustrious of these were Fred Benson and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, who in partnership with the South African actress, Marda Vanne, toured South Africa extensively between 1940 and 1947.

(5) E.g., Lewis Sowden's The Kimberley Train (1958), Basil Warner's Try for White (1959).

(6) Black writers such as Can Themba began to develop indigenous approaches to fiction in English in the fifties, and Afrikaans novelists such as Andre Brink, Etienne Leroux, and Breyten Breytenbach were significant in the sixties.

(7) This was exactly what "separate development," the English translation of apartheid, was designed to do.

(8) See Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre (New York: Routledge, 2002), for an account of the creation by Ryszard Cieslak and Grotowski of the performance score of The Constant Prince.

(9) Page references to Orestes are taken from Athol Fugard, My Children! My Afrika! and Selected Shorter Plays, ed. Stephen Gray (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1990).

(10) R. D. Laing's anti-psychiatry exerted a considerable influence on many writers in the sixties and seventies. See R. D. Laing, The Divided Self (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), and R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967).

(11) Fugard's The Coat (1966) was in many respects a textbook exploration of Brechtian theater techniques, employing direct address to the audience, actors as onstage spectators who watch other actors performing roles as required by the story, and at times interrupt the enactment to comment on the narrative as in a rehearsal, or to improvise scenes--and a character called Haemon.

(12) Gibson Kente (1932-2004) is usually credited with the development and popularizing of the "township musical" in Soweto between 1963 and 1992. In the seventies, a number of his plays expressed overtly political ideas, but the majority were not political. The form popularized by Kente influenced later "protest" theater by Sowetan writers such as Mbongeni Ngema.

(13) This infamous trial of a number of ANC leaders was known as the Rivonia Trial.

(14) John Kani, interview (1991), in The Island: An Historic Piece?, BBC2 Open University, dir. Tony Coe.

(15) Athol Fugard, interview (1991), in The Island: An Historic Piece?, BBC2 Open University, dir. Tony Coe.

(16) Camus' essay is one of a number of intertexts that animate the play's discourse on Greek tragedy. These include the Serpent Players' 1965 production of Antigone, in which John Kani played Haemon, Anouilh's Antigone (1944), performed in Paris with covert references to the Nazi Occupation, the devised play The Coat, in which one of the characters is seemingly arbitrarily referred to as Haemon, Aeschylus's Oresteia and--presumably--the Electra plays of both Sophocles and Euripides that underpin Fugard's experiment in focusing contemporary South African history through the lens of Greek tragedy in his devised play, Orestes; in 1971, John Kani appeared as a passive-aggressive Dionysus in a gold lame jacket in the Serpent Players' production of The Bacchae, a characterization that clearly anticipated his attitude toward the audience in the role-play of Creon in The Island.

(17) John Kani refers to the myth of Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a mountain as an inspiration for the extended mime sequence at the opening of The Island.

(18) See Tina Chanter, Whose Antigone?: the Tragic Marginalization of Slavery (Albany: SUNY Press, 2011).

(19) R. C. Jebb, Sophocles' Antigone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): "Creon represents the duty of obeying the State's laws and Antigone the duty of listening to the private conscience" (xviii).

(20) Bernard M. Knox, The Heroic Temper (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), 84-86.

(21) Creon: I am not going to let politics be the cause of your death. For it is a fact that this whole business is nothing but politics: the mournful shade of Polynices, the decomposing corpse, the sentimental weeping, and the hysteria that you mistake for heroism--nothing but politics [...]

Antigone: [turns to him] You are a loathsome man!

Creon: I agree. My trade forces me to be. We could argue whether I ought or ought not to follow my trade; but once I take on the job, I must do it properly.

Antigone: I am here to say no to you, and die.

Creon: It is easy to say no.

Antigone: Not always.

Creon: It is easy to say no. To say yes, you have to sweat and roll up your sleeves and plunge both hands into life up to the elbows. It is easy to say no ... No is one of your man-made words. Can you imagine a world in which trees say no to the sap? In which beasts say no to hunger or to propagation? Animals are good, simple, tough. (Jean Anouilh, Antigone, trans. Lewis Galantiere [London: Methuen, 1965], 48-51).


Creon: This girl was expert in her insolence When she broke bounds beyond established law. Once she had done it, insolence the second, To boast her doing, and to laugh in it. I am no man and she the man instead If she can have this conquest without pain. ... No woman rules me while I live. (197-99)

Creon: So I must guard the men who yield to order, Not let myself be beaten by a woman. Better, if it must happen, that a man Should overset me. I won't be called weaker than womankind. (204)

Antigone's more conventional sister, Ismene, expresses what might well be interpreted as the traditional view of women within the Athenian patriarchy: "Ismene: We must remember that we two are women / So not to fight with men" (183). Page references to Sophocles' Antigone are taken from Sophocles, Antigone, trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff, in Greek Tragedies, Volume 1, ed. David Grene and Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).

(23) For a description of Heraclitus, see The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, ed. G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 213.

(24) Andre Lardinois, "Beyond Hegel and Schlegel: An Ambiguous Reading of Sophocles' Antigone" (1994 lecture, see note 1 above).

(25) In 1995, when Mandela saw a revival of the play with its original actors at the annual Grahamstown Festival soon after he had been elected President, he was moved to tears.

(26) References to The Island indicate Athol Fugard, Statements (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).

(27) "Broer" is Afrikaans slang for "brother."

(28) Laborers from India first arrive in South Africa in the 1860s to work on sugar farms in Natal, constituting a comparatively small but distinct ethnic group.

(29) In scene 4 (70-71), for example, Winston's fantasized depiction of John's visit to a prostitute on his return to New Brighton exemplifies the two men's archetypally sexist attitudes.

(30) Note how Anouilh's Creon is a representative of the Vichy government, servant of Nazi masters.
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Author:Gordon, Robert
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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