Future Images of Drama and the Performing Arts
Future Images of Drama and the Performing Arts
(A paper presented at the University of Zululand 15. 09. 1982)
Thank you for inviting me to speak at this conference. I consider it a great honour.
When I was asked to speak on Future Images in Drama and the Performing Arts, I realised that I would have to take a huge imaginative leap out of the present and into a totally new society. Professor Vilakazi sent me some questions to consider, but I am not sure that I have answered them though that is what I set out to do. Once I began thinking about the questions, I realised that I would have to take a very careful look at the present in order to find a direction for the future.
I have begun my paper with a consideration of culture in South Africa. My reason for this is that in the Performing Arts, we deal chiefly with human images because playwrights and choreographers present their ideas mainly through living human beings. So it is necessary to understand the culture that gives rise to these images.
Next, I consider the limitations that our culture imposes upon us and suggest ways we could try to overcome these limitations.
Finally, I turn to a consideration of dance and drama.
I want to thank Professor Vilakazi for sending me some excerpts from the writings of R Bundy and NC Manganyi to guide me in the direction I am to take in speaking on ‘Future Images of Drama and the Performing Arts.’ I would like to pursue some of the ideas contained in the excerpts and the following quotation from Bundy, which relates the past to the future, is where I would like to begin.
Images of the future have their roots in the shared memories of a
culture. The images are born and redefined in the light of specific interpretations of the past.
What I want to deal with specifically from this quotation are the references to ‘shared memories of a culture’ and ‘specific interpretations of the past.’ Notice that Bundy does not simply speak of the past but of ‘specific interpretations’ of the past. If we look at South African history books, we find that they are filled with the bravery and fortitude of the Trekkers and the enterprising gallantry of the British. That is a specific interpretation that has led to control of South Africa by the descendants of the Trekkers and the British. In this interpretation of the past, Black people are shown to be defeated time and again and defeat has become the condition of our lives. We still fight even now, but with the history of defeat at the backs of our minds, our fighting lacks conviction and we ultimately succumb. Consequently, Black people are a voteless majority, subject to stringent and restrictive laws. This specific interpretation of the past reduces Black people dependents and subjects them to paternalism. It is obviously not an interpretation that we must continue to accept.
This specific view of the past coerced us into accepting the institution of apartheid. It is very important for us to understand the extent to which we accept apartheid. If we do not, we will not be able to change things. We will continue to demand changes from those in whose interests such change cannot be. In demanding, we demonstrate that we are a subject people who cannot determine our own destiny; that we want self-determination as a gift from others. This, to my mind, is the biggest handout for which we are asking; and it is absurd. How can self-determination be granted to us – it is a determination that comes from the self? We are the only ones who can grant it to ourselves. What we have to do is to start realising that we must act, that we do not need permission to conduct our lives as independent human beings.
But we have been socialised into believing that we are not independent human beings. This brings me now to a consideration of the other phrase from the quotation by Bundy, ‘shared memories of a culture.’ I am going to view culture in the way that the sociologists do and that is, as a way of life that includes customs and institutions into which the individual is socialised. I am not looking at the arts as culture. For me, the arts are an expression of our culture, of the way in which we conduct our lives, the values we espouse, and our attitudes. So what is our culture in South Africa? Do we have ‘shared memories of a culture’? How can that be when we are socialised into believing that we do not share a common culture; that we are all different. Nevertheless, I believe that all of us living in this country do share a common culture. It is true that when we first met, we were all different. There was an African way of life, a European way of life and an Indian way of life. Each group still maintains its own tribal customs but these are simply vestiges of past cultures. We have a new culture in South Africa, a common culture.
Out culture, as I see it, is based on the belief that some people are superior and others, inferior. The people who believe that they are superior have power, status and wealth. They control the lives of the people believed to be inferior. The subject people live under conditions of oppression, poverty and humiliation. In order that the ‘superior’ group maintain its position of power, it must remain aloof, it must preserve its air of ignorance about conditions surrounding the lives of those considered inferior. Such a situation breeds an atmosphere of fear and hatred. The ‘superior’ group fear the loss of power and wealth, while the ‘inferior’ group fear brute force and hate oppression. In prehistoric times, when men came together to form societies, they did so for the protection of all their members. But our society functions to protect only the most ruthless and predatory element. It is, in effect, a contradiction of the notion of society.
And contradictions abound in our culture. Although Black people are treated as inferior, as different, they are made to conform to the values and way of life of the superior group. The white way of life is presented to us as the ‘norm’ and black ways, as deviations from the ‘norm.’ Black people, therefore, feel the necessity to bring their way of life into line with the norm and in effect, are turned into reflections of the superior group. They have adopted the dress, language, customs and religion of the white group. Yet black people are forced to believe that they are different because provisions for them are separate and inferior. So though we are all pursuing a way of life that is similar, we are socialised into believing that we are different. The effect of such a belief is to make black people all the more eager to wipe out differences between themselves and the superior group. They neglect and sometimes even repudiate the old way of life.
At the same time as they are trying to erase differences between themselves and the White group, Blacks spend a good deal of time looking for differences amongst themselves – not only ethnic differences, but tribal and individual differences as well. Some of us try to find differences amongst ourselves so that we can push others away from the ‘norm’ as we bring ourselves closer to it. So we indulge in a good deal of infighting about petty issues while big issues remain unresolved.
Now we can look at these attempts to achieve the ‘norm’ both negatively and positively. Such attempts have had the effect of unifying us and giving us a common culture but at the same time in accepting this ‘norm’ we have accepted inferior status for ourselves. That is because we can never achieve the ‘norm’; black ways of life can only approximate to a white way of life since black people can never be white people. Thus we suffer endless frustration, humiliation and crises of identity.
Perhaps the worst effect of trying to achieve the ‘norm’ is the sense of hopelessness with which it fills us. We begin to believe that we are trapped; that there is nothing we can do; that we are, in effect, victims. Some of us say, ‘Well, that’s that, so let’s make the best of it.’ We may become opportunists, allying ourselves with the ruling class in their oppression of the Black majority; or we may become apathetic, leading mechanical existences, steering clear of problems and pretending that all is well. There are still others who wage active campaigns against oppression.
So the culture into we are socialised is a very confusing one. Not only because it demands conformity on the one hand while reinforcing difference on the other, but also because our way of life creates a divorce between our words and our actions. We are socialised into a culture which teaches us we are inferior and we accept inferior status but not one of us believes that we are inferior; that our living conditions, education, conditions of work and the positions that we aspire to should be inferior. We criticise and even strike out against such things – yet we live by them. So we are haunted all the time by double standards, by a sense of hypocrisy. We must conform in order to survive but the conditions of our survival are abhorrent to us.
Furthermore, we have been taught Christian principles of love and brotherhood yet our whole way of life negates these teachings. We live in separate areas and learn to fear and hate those living in other areas. The ruling class, which preaches these principles of love and brotherhood, practices them only within the confines of its own community and expects us to do the same. They have reduced the Christian religion and every other religion, to a ghettoised value system. Religion has become a set of social gestures applicable only within narrow ethnic limits. Therefore, appeals that Blacks make to Whites based on Christian principles either fall on deaf ears or are regarded as militancy.
So confusion abounds in our society. The worst confusion of all, I believe, is what we understand by the term culture. When we use the term, we do not use it to refer to our way of life, we use it rather to refer to our cultural heritage. Let me illustrate what I mean with reference to the ‘Indian’ community. Most ‘Indians’ no longer speak an Indian language and language is, according to sociologists, the most important means through which cultural values, concepts and attitudes are transmitted from one generation to another. If we no longer speak an Indian language that means that the cultural values, concepts and attitudes that we now possess, are not Indian. Since most of us speak English, the values etc. that we now have are chiefly Western. Despite the fact that our way of life in South Africa does not require a knowledge of Indian languages, attempts are now being made to introduce our languages in schools so that we will not lose our cultural identity. This is absurd. The cultural identity that derived from an Indian language and culture has been lost for some considerable time now.
Let us now look at what is meant by the term culture in reference to the ‘Indian’ community. It means unrelated items such as the sari, curry and rice, Indian music and dance and religion. As far as I am concerned, the only items on that list that are still part of our way of life are curry and rice and religious rituals. Since we have shared our curry and rice with every other group, it has become part of a South African culture and is no longer exclusively Indian. As far as Indian music and dance are concerned, people have to go to India to study these so how can we think of these arts as part of our present culture. The only thing left then is religion and even that is losing its hold.
These items that have come to represent an ‘Indian’ culture, are part of our cultural heritage, they must not be confused with our present culture. They are not a natural part of our lives today. They are exotic because they are extraneous to the way of life to which we have adapted in South Africa. They are, in my opinion, a manifestation of syncretism.
The way of life, the culture of the ‘Indian’ in this society, is the way of life of all South Africans. It is the way of life based on the superiority/inferiority credo.
What I have tried to stress with my little excursion into the ‘Indian’ community is that our cultural heritage is not our culture. Why then do we parade our traditions of the past as our present culture? I believe it is because we have accepted the idea of difference. Our present culture is a common culture and it is only by reference to past cultural traditions that we can reinforce difference and endorse separation.
I am not saying that we should reject our cultural backgrounds but we should not allow past traditions to blind us to our present mode of life. I do believe that we do a disservice to our past cultural traditions in trying to preserve them in their original forms. Our present way of life cannot support them with conviction, so they are doomed to decay and death unless we change and adapt them to express our present way of life. If we could do that we would perhaps develop an ethos which generates creativity and leads to a flowering of the arts in this artistically impoverished society. We would perhaps develop new forms in which African, Western and Asian elements merge harmoniously to give us a new sense of identity, a new history and the impulse to move forward imaginatively and optimistically into the future. As long as we cling mechanically to past traditions, we will not be able to think imaginatively about the present and the future.
It is not only the Black population that clings to the past and denies present reality, the White population does so too. Theirs is a highly imitative way of life. They imitate a European, and now even an American way of life. I draw this conclusion from what I see of their work in theatre and from the fact that they try to live a life of exclusivity in which African influences play little or no part.
We are all blind to our own culture because we insist on looking at the word ‘culture’ in its narrow sense, that is, as synonymous with the arts. As long as we remain blind to our culture, that is, our way of life, we can never give expression to it through the arts.
Now why do we cling to cultural traditions that are not really a reflection of our own lives? For the dominant group, I see it as a form of escapism as well as a way of emphasising difference. For the subject groups, it is a way of keeping us tied to separate cultural identities, preventing us from becoming a South African people.
The pictures I have drawn thus far of our culture are pictures of disparities: disparities between our act of conforming and our belief in difference; between what we believe
is our culture and what actually is our culture; between what we do and what we say. Now the individuals who emerge from such a culture must exhibit the confusion in it. We come out of it, fragmented beings. We are uncertain of ourselves; our capacity to make choices and decisions is weak. We are filled with a sense of powerlessness because we cannot make good our words with our actions. As a result many of us drift along, victims of our own and other people’s whims and fancies.
The only way we can function in this society is if one is a racist; the whole society is set up to support the racist. But even the racist is in a trap because the society demands the greatest conformity from him and he becomes a dehumanised being. The moment a racist tries to break out of the mould, he finds himself a victim as well. He too discovers that he no longer has the ability to act, and worse he is regarded as a hypocrite because he retains, at the same time as he repudiates, the privileges of this society.
This is not an inspiring picture of our culture, and I have drawn it chiefly for myself because I need to have a clear view of our present culture before I can speculate about the future. Since the future is built upon the present, what we must try to do is to discover the foundations that we are laying for the years ahead. These foundations are hidden from our view because of the garbage we have laid over them. We have to begin by clearing away the garbage.
There is a great deal that we have to reject and we must begin by rejecting fragmentation both at the individual and societal levels. This is not easy because our present society is based upon the belief in irreconcilable difference. It is a trap from which we must free ourselves. The effort required of us, though tremendous, is not superhuman. We need the kind of courage and faith of the early Christian martyrs who were thrown to the lions because their beliefs ran counter to the tenets of the Roman Empire.
If we are trying to create images for the future we must begin by discarding the idea of cultural difference. Instead we must begin to see our culture as rich and varied, a fusion of elements from all our past traditions. We must create for ourselves a new cultural norm, one that is inclusive, not exclusive. If we can do this, we will begin to be South Africans and we will be proud of asserting a South African identity. We will free ourselves from the fragmentation of personality that the various contradictions in our culture imposes upon us. We will stop being victims and become self-determining human beings.
We will realise that the changes that we want will never come from the present architects of our society; that they must come from us. We will stop thinking of ourselves as a powerless people. If we discard the idea that we are victims, we can become self-determined human beings right now. And we cannot put it off any longer. Suffering, humiliation, sacrifice are not new to us. We have endured them a long time and achieved little. We will continue to endure them but why go on doing it for nothing. Let us be, right now, self-determined human beings. Like Lady Macbeth, I say: I see now the future in the instant.
We must be like her and bring the future into now, into the present. I know that patience is a virtue and that in Lady Macbeth’s case she would have benefited by being patient, but our trouble is that we have waited too long. I am tired of hearing people say, ‘I may not see change in my lifetime.’ My grandfather and father must have said the same thing. Well I have no children, so as far as I am concerned change must come now, in my lifetime and I must make it happen. What I am saying to you is that we must individually take the initiative to make change happen. We cannot sit around waiting for the charismatic leader to appear. We have to act now and put into motion the processes that will lead to the achievement of our ambitions.
And we can begin by educating ourselves. By that I do not mean accumulating degrees. I mean that we must take a good look at ourselves so that we can understand the meaning of our lives. I am a Hindu by birth and the religion tells me that my entire life must be a journey towards enlightenment. That means that I cannot simply accept the routine into which my life has fallen. I must understand why that routine is necessary and if I find that the routine is simply a performance of perfunctory actions which merely simulate living, then I must abandon it and find that which gives real meaning to my existence. If I cannot make an immediate change, I must be alive to opportunities for change. I cannot simply accept that I have no choice. I must be a person who makes choices and decides my own future. In other words, I must take control of my destiny and not wait for any external agency to set my course for me.
The first thing I must do, is recognise that all the social processes of this society inculcate difference, foster a fragmentation of personality and attempt to keep me firmly concentrated on past cultural traditions. I am brought up to accept a confused and dehumanised role. What I have to do is free myself from this trap. I have to go through a process of unlearning everything I have learned to accept about myself as different and inferior. I ought to be aware that if I fit easily into the society as it is, I may be giving my complete co-operation to the processes which dehumanise me.
I must learn to see myself as a whole human being, not one in whom cultures are at war with one another. If I have been socialised into a western way of life and I still retain the vestiges of an eastern way of life, I must accept that these two ways of life have become one in my life, that they are not in conflict with one another; that I need not be ashamed of having succumbed to the one or of belonging to the other. I must recognise that both ways of life have fused in me to give me a new identity. I must recognise that I am a new cultural identity and as such I forecast the future. For this symposium, Professor Vilakazi asks us to consider whether a ‘synthesis and reconciliation of the various cultural and political strands that exist within the society’ is possible. I say with regard to culture that it is not only possible but it has already happened.
Just look at us. We are people of a mixed culture. We in ourselves represent a fusion of cultures – Western and African and Indian. It is only because we think of ourselves in terms of past cultural traditions that we do not see that a fusion of cultures has already taken place. As I see it then, the future is here, in the instant. All that we have to do is recognise that it is.
What I am arguing for, in this rather laborious fashion, is a new cultural consciousness on our parts, and it is this new consciousness that must pervade our arts. I quite agree with NC Manganyi who says:
Literature and art do not, like poor journalism,
tell people what they know so well in the ordinary
circumstances of their lives. Any great South African
literature, while recognising this anguish, should help
us to move beyond it. It must provide a vision beyond
our cultural and political crisis.
If we have concentrated too much on anguish, it is because we have had a negative view of ourselves. Once we assert a positive view, nothing will stop us from celebrating.
I know that the steps I propose may seem idealistic and unpractical given the realities of the anguishing circumstances of our existence, but since we are talking of the arts, I believe that everything I advocate is possible.
People involved in the arts have skills and talents which are not channelled through industry and government institutions so they have a measure of independence denied to people in other fields. Furthermore, people in the arts can fly ‘on the viewless wings of poesy’, art, music, drama and dance because there are no pass laws to hold our imaginations back. We do not have to shackle ourselves to the unpleasant realities of the present, we have the freedom to fly off into the future for a foretaste of a new and dynamic society. By sharing our endeavours in our various artistic fields with spectators and audience, we can provide others with a glimpse into the future.
And this brings me, after my long digression, to my topic for today, ‘Future Images of Drama and the Performing Arts.’ I will confine myself to drama and dance. What I am going to do is apply what I have already said about our culture and the way in which we should orientate ourselves to the future through these two art forms. In so doing, I shall at the same time be summing up the main ideas that I have presented in this paper.
As I know nothing about dance, I shall deal with it first and very briefly. As I have explained, in order for us to walk tall into the future, we have to embrace a new cultural consciousness that must inform all our arts, if we are to create images and bring to life truly South African art forms. I look at traditional forms of dance and I see that they lack the vibrant spirit that once informed them. Dance in South Africa has not developed into an art form as it has in countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, India, Europe and America. Our dance as an art form is yet to be.
That it is the most underdeveloped of our arts is quite remarkable considering that there is such a rich and varied tradition available to us. We persist in pursuing the forms of our cultural past at the expense of developing vitally new forms that are an expression of our times. Our lack of imagination is made most apparent in our neglect of dance. If we had imaginative choreographers, they would become euphoric at the opportunities there are for creating a great South African art of the dance.
It is because we are not whole human beings that we fail to recognise the riches in our midst. If our cultural traditions were not in conflict, we would not be blind to our opportunities. In order to create an art of the dance, we have to recognise that we, as members of this society, embody in our own persons, a marriage of cultures. That should free us from the prejudice which prevents the development of a South African art of the dance. What the different traditional forms need is cross fertilisation from one another.
In America, Katherine Dunham and Martha Graham, both introduced new techniques of dance after studying different forms of African dance. Katherine Dunham, being a black American, created balletic forms, whose strongly African theme and style were contained within Western time structures and discipline. Martha Graham developed new methods of modern dance which incorporated the African orientation to the ground and greater flexibility of movement but maintained Western themes and styles. They went abroad to find ways of revitalising the art of the dance in their country, but we, in the midst of a wealth of traditional dance forms, lack the initiative to use what we have. Instead we try to fossilize past traditions and in so doing display the sterility of our thinking.
Theatre, unlike dance, has not been so dreadfully neglected, nevertheless one can hardly consider it to be flourishing. There is a great deal of theatre activity in our country but very little is indigenous. In fact, the term indigenous when applied to theatre, carries connotations of inferiority because original work in this field comes, in the main, from the Black communities. What I find extraordinary is that original work is treated as exotic and is given a place outside the mainstream of theatre in this country. Of course, it is not really extraordinary, it simply demonstrates our cultural preoccupation with difference, and with the ‘norm’ that is Western and exclusive.
In theatre, just as in the dance, we will not be able to create images of the future until we have freed ourselves from the stultifying attitudes into which we have been socialised.
Theatre is said to hold the mirror up to life – it reflects as well as reflects upon life. Of course, all the arts do this but plays are presented through the living human being who is seen in human situations so theatre seems to be more directly connected with living experience than the other more abstract arts. Though theatre does provide audiences with situations with which they can identify, a play is not an exact representation of life. One of the chief differences between life and the reflection of life is in the element of time. In a play, time is compressed to bring events stretching over a lifetime into a short period of a couple of hours. As a result only those events pertinent to the action are included in the play. Contracting time in this way, makes it possible to create plays of great impact. People involved in the theatre, therefore, have at their disposal a very powerful means of communication.
But in the theatre we are always treading a delicate balance. We present a very contrived form of life on the stage, yet it must be plausible. We want our audiences to identify with the life on the stage, yet we do not want them to become vicariously involved and treat the theatre as a form of escapism. So we cannot allow them to forget about present realities. But we cannot be wholly limited to the present either because audiences do not want a faithful reproduction of their own experiences. They are looking for something beyond themselves, something that enlightens. Since audiences look to us for new visions, we must be careful that we do not turn our theatres into schools for propaganda.
In theatre, because we communicate directly with an audience, we have to be very careful about how we present our images for the future. We have the greatest need to free ourselves from the attitudes and values into which we have been socialised. In the theatre world, we believe ourselves to be free of prejudice yet our practices fall into line with the dictates of our culture. In other words, we work in separate areas, in separate groups and we write plays that we limit to our own groups in the mistaken belief that other people are different and our plays cannot have any meaning for them.
As theatre people we should be the last people to fall victim to the idea of difference and separateness because the field in which we work, presents in every facet the idea of wholeness, of harmonious co-operation.
Firstly, the art of the theatre is a blend of all the arts. Music, dance, art and literature are unified into a new form, drama, and are so integrated that it is impossible to isolate them and view them as separate elements.
Then, in working on a production, one works with other human beings, craftsmen, technicians, actors, directors etc., who are all united in working towards a common goal. Though some of the work may seem tedious, all those involved in a production have before them a vision of the finished product which inspires and they understand and take pride in their contribution.
Next, the artefact that is created has to be sold to the public. So theatre also represents a marriage between art and business. A performance is like any product that has to be marketed; it has to be brought to the notice of the public to encourage people to support it.
Finally, there is the union of the people who have created the performance with those who have come to see it. In the theatre, the actors and audience interact with each other as they explore together the human experience that is being portrayed.
To be involved in theatre, therefore, is to become involved in a form and processes which keep constantly before our eyes the ideas of wholeness, of co-operation, of reaching out beyond ourselves. Our work in theatre should be a way of healing ourselves of the fragmentation that we experience in our daily lives, but unfortunately we bring fragmented perceptions to our work and cannot avail ourselves of the healing properties inherent in a theatre performance.
We see that it is easier to work with people in our own separate areas because we can get in touch easily and transport does not become a big problem. So we tend to take the line of least resistance.
But we have to break down this kind of insulation. We must stop allowing the situation to get the better of us. If we are to create images for the future, we have to start working together now. We really can make the most valuable contribution to a future society by showing people working together on our stages. That would be enough to challenge the assumptions we have about differences between people.
In showing people working together on our stages, we must project whole human beings, people who are in control of their actions because they know who they are. Since the prevailing ethos in our society is one of fear and hatred, we must show compassionate human beings overcoming fear and hatred.
We must begin to portray a society in which human beings are not the victims of the warring cultures in their beings, but people in whom various cultural strands blend harmoniously together. And there are no models for this kind of behaviour in our society. We all know people who have, in their individual capacities, overcome the stresses of this situation and remained whole human beings. We know people who fight courageously against oppression. We must portray them on stage rather than the victims who cannot give hope and direction because they cannot act, only suffer and complain.
We can learn a lesson from the Afrikaners in this regard. In Afrikaans literature, the Afrikaners are shown to be a people who endure the most dreadful hardships but they never give up. They are shown to be people who have the courage and fortitude to overcome their problems. They do not portray themselves as helpless victims and their arts have inspired them to a supreme position of power in the land.
The views I have expressed today are based on a future image of South Africa as a harmonious society in which people do not despise one another for things as accidental as race. Laws made to ensure justice for all and culture that is a unifying factor, leads to the flowering of the arts. This is the future to towards which the Performing Arts must be directed.
Fortunately, processes are already in motion to this possible.