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Reimagining Tragedy from Africa and the Global South

Professor Mark Fleishman, Centre for Theatre, Dance & Performance Studies, University of Cape Town and TBL Webster Fellow at the ICS in 2024

Since 2019 I have been leading a research project on Reimagining Tragedy from Africa and the Global South (ReTAGS). The project takes a concept – tragedy - from the very beginnings of theatre in its European manifestation and and sets out to reimagine it from a perspective in Africa that is at once directed at the complex challenges of our global postcolonial present and towards our possible futures.

The project has involved three workstreams: first, research and study of the archive of postcolonial tragedies produced by an earlier generation in the immediate aftermath of direct colonial rule with a specific focus on theatricality; second, performance analysis of instances of ‘excessive’ revolt outside of the theatre, mostly enacted by a younger generation in the neo-colonial aftermath within the collective realm of popular protest and within the individual realm of postcolonial self-fashioning and characterized by transgressive, often violent, behaviours with potentially tragic and ruinous outcomes; third, artistic research investigations of tragedy/the tragic using anthropologist Tim Ingold’s “art as inquiry” model in which thinking arises in the course of making.

Before the project began, as part of my ongoing research on African theatre practice and its relationship to the contemporary (South) African context, I had created two significant works based on tragic sources. The first was a version of Medea (1994) at the point at which South Africa was moving from the system of apartheid into a new dispensation, and the second, a version of the Orestes myth, titled In the City of Paradise (1998), in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process a few years later. The latter work was re-staged in 2015 with a new generation of young performers responding to the consequences of the policy of reconciliation proposed by the Mandela government post-1994. I have since, as part of the ReTAGS project, created two more productions that reimagine tragic sources: Antigone (Not Quite/Quiet) (2019) and Oedipus at Colonus #aftersophocles (2023), and my colleague and co-investigator, Mandla Mbothwe, created iKrele le Chiza (2022) based on a fragment of the Odyssey reimagined in African tragic mode.

Photo of production of Antigone (Not Quite/Quiet)
Photograph by Mark Wessels
Photo of production of Oedipus at Colonus #aftersophocles
Photograph by Mark Wessels
Photo of production of iKrele le Chiza
Photograph by Rob Keith

We have also developed a digital archive platform with capacity to document the entire process of making the productions which can be searched to uncover the moments in which ideas and conceptual themes are raised and enaged with in the rehearsal room and linking them to their actual realisation in the productions. This archival work is being done in conversation with colleagues at the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD) in Oxford.

In 2024 I was the grateful recipient of the TBL Webster Fellowship at the Institute for Classical Studies which gave me the opportunity to spend three months, first at Senate house in London and then at the APGRD in Oxford. During the time I spent in London and Oxford I had the opportunity to work on a monograph which forms the summative outcome of the ReTAGS project. The monograph focuses on forms of tragedy manifesting in a particular place, South Africa, and in a specific time, the colonial aftermath. This place-time is an aftermath with an afterlife, suffused with coloniality but in which possibilities for a better future exist, but not yet. This place-time doesn’t only have an afterlife, it has a pre-history in the writing of figures like Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Frantz Fanon, a pre-history that is saturated with futurity despite the colonial conception that “the disposition towards the future and the capacity for futurity was the monopoly of Europe”1. As Achille Mbembe writes with reference to Fanon, the time of decolonization reflects “the permanent possibility of the emergence of the not-yet. […] [T]he possibility of a different type of being, a different type of time, a different type of creation, different forms of life, a different humanity, the possibility of reconstituting the human after humanism’s complicity with colonial racism”2. The problem though is that there is no indication of when or how this future possibility will arrive. In fact, it seems that we are caught in a perpetual present overwhelmed by a past that will not pass, struggling to imagine any future at all that is not more of the same.

In the monograph I examine two approaches to tragedy in the South African theatre., one based on the reworking of extant tragedies for particular political purposes, and one that abandons the plays themselves and reimagines tragedy from an African perspective to engage more metaphysical concerns. I use the guiding conceptual metaphors of The Ruin and The Cave, to explore the genealogies of two works that came out of the ReTAGS project: my own 2019 reworking of Antigone - Antigone (Not Quite/Quiet) - and Mandla Mbothwe’s 2021/2022 reworking of a fragment of the Odyssey, iKrele le Chiza [Sword of the Herb]. In this respect, my approach to the book is archaeological in line with the idea of digging in the (theatrical) past to find a way into the future. I understand archaeological in the Agambian sense in which the movement back is not to locate a point of origin but to identify the moment/s in which something unconscious/subterranean emerges into consciousness and then to follow that emergence forward to the present with an eye on the future to come3.

I argue that the archive of classical antiquity is both a remainder in the landscape as a consequence of the colonial incursion – a ruin – and an agent of disintegration/obfuscation – something that causes ruin by masking other possible claims to tradition and devaluing them in the process. If it is in fact a ruin in the landscape, it has a temporal dimension too, it is in a state of slow decay and disintegration so what later generations encounter is not fully formed but fragmented emerging out of what I refer to as a ruinous production principle. Tim Edensor, reflecting on industrial ruins, suggests that ruins are like discarded refuse, a form of waste. But as Jane Bennett argues, waste is a vital materiality that can never really be thrown ‘away,’ because it continues its activities even as a discarded or unwanted commodity”4. In this sense, the colonial ruin continues to have an effect way after it has seemingly lost its functionality and meaning in the landscape of the colonial aftermath. This aligns with Derek Walcott’s sense in which imperial effects are never done with- “the rot remains”5

This rot is what Fanon describes as “tinctures of decay” left in imperialism’s wake6. But following Edensor, ruins also have “a transgressive force” they release energy and creativity, they are sites “in which the becoming of new forms, orderings and aesthetics can emerge”7. In other words, “Ruins contain excess, waste with which people can construct meaning, stories and practices […]”8. Or as Anne Laura Stoler suggests: “To think with ruins of empire is to emphasize less the artifacts of empire as dead matter or remnants of a defunct regime than to attend to their reappropriations, neglect, and strategic and active positioning within the politics of the present”9

On the other hand, the cave represents a place of entrapment and enclosure that requires exit strategies. We find this in Plato’s allegory of the cave of course10, but as Hans Blumenberg has shown11, it develops in the works of Cicero and then neo-platonic thinkers thereafter. But this idea of the exit from the cave seems to me to be akin to the idea of disenclosure that is discussed by Achille Mbembe in relation to the decolonial process too.12 Alternatively, a cave is also a place of refuge, a place in which to hide from danger or to which to retire from the world in order to engage with deep thinking, unhindered by quotidian realities. This image of the cave as a refuge occurs in various forms and is central to the Talmudic version of the cave story that Blumenberg inserts at the end of his book, Höhlenausgänge [Cave Exits]13. But it is also to be found in the narrative surrounding the figure of Zera Yacob, the 17th century Ethiopian rationalist thinker understood to be one of the founders of African philosophy. Zera Yacob escapes the demand to convert to Catholicism from his Ethiopian Christianity by hiding out in a cave for two years and it is during his time of solitude in the cave that he produced his key text, the Hatata [Inquiry] written in the Ge’ez language. Zera Yacob is said to have commented: "I have learnt more while living alone in a cave than when I was living with scholars”14

In this respect the trajectory of the cave metaphor is reversed and the initial desire to exit is replaced by a movement/journey of return. However, in this view, the cave can be understood not only as a place to hide-out but, I believe, as a portal, an entrance to another temporality – in Wole Soyinka’s terms a stage of transition15. As David Lewis-Williams suggests, the cave wall is a surface that opens to a vast world beyond and the ancient rock paintings found on many cave walls in Southern Africa are not simply representations of everyday activities and events but are parts of ritual processes that involve journeying from this world into other co-existent domains of being16. In this regard, caves and the ancient paintings found therein are spaces in which pre-history and post-history, the very ancient and the very contemporary meet. I believe this to be productive in understanding the approach to tragedy within an African context where the world of ancestral tradition/experience comes into contact with the contemporary realities of the colonial aftermath. But this stage of transition that the cave opens up to is disturbed, interrupted, blocked and those who journey into the cave in search of redemption often become stuck, unable to move on.

1 Mbembe, A. 2021. Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization. New York: Columbia University Press. 53.  
2 Ibid, 54.  
3 Agamben, G. 2009. The Signature of All Things: On Method. Translated from the Italian by Luca D'isanto with Kevin Attell. New York: Zone Books.  
4 Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham & London: Duke University Press. 6.  
5 Walcott, D. 1987. Collected Poems 1948–1984. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  
6 Fanon, F. 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press. 249.  
7 Edensor, T. 2005. Industrial Ruins: Spaces, Aesthetics, Materiality. Oxford & New York: Berg. 15.  
8 Ibid, 108.  
9 Stoler, A (ed.). 2013. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham & London: Duke University Press. 11.  
10 The Republic, Book VII.  
11 Blumenberg, H. 2020. History, Metaphors, Fables. Edited and translated from the German by Hannes Bajhor, Florian Fuchs and Joe Paul Kroll. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.  
12 Mbembe, A. 2021. Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization. New York: Columbia University Press.  
13 Blumenberg, Hans. 1989. Höhlenausgänge [Cave Exits]. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.  
14 (Sumner, Ethiopian philosophy)  
15 Soyinka, W. 1976. The Fourth Stage: Through the Mysteries of Ogun to the Origin of Yoruba Tragedy. In Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.140-60, (144-5).  
16 Lewis-Williams, D. 2002. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. London: Thames & Hudson. 528-9.