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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Book Reviews

Greek Drama, African Tragedies

The Athenian Sun in an African Sky: Modern African Adaptations of Classical Greek Tragedy by Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr. McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2002, 240 pages, $35 paperbound.

McFarland & Company

Kevin Wetmore has undertaken a heroic task in putting this book together. His subject is drama produced throughout the continent of Africa which, as he points out in his introduction, has “some 55 countries, hundreds of cultures, thousands of languages and dialects and millions of people.” He has wisely limited himself. His first chapters contain a discussion of theories of the relation between African tragic drama and its Greek prototype. He then describes seven plays that use themes or mechanisms of drama that their authors relate to ancient tragic practice. In his last chapter, he deals with a variety of treatments of the Antigone story, which he maintains is the most popular Greek tragic idea circulating throughout the various cultures of Africa.

African tragic drama based on ancient Greek tragic models or structures can be highly problematic for the intellectuals and critics of that continent, as Wetmore demonstrates at some length. First, since the experience of Greek tragedy first came to Africa through the theater produced by the Europeans who colonized the continent, there is the suspicion that the African perception of this drama is, so to speak, equally “colonized.” Conversely, there is the theory that Greek tragic drama reveals its primitive, collectivist, social roots so completely that it is “outside of the European experience” and therefore available to cultures that still maintain their integrity despite the pressures of colonization. Because Greek tragedy deals with a religious system that is pre-Christian, it also does not have the taint that later European theater brought to Africa. Its polytheism and emphasis on fate in particular provide a welcome relief from Christianity’s father-son, redemption paradigm. While hotly disputed, Martin Bernal’s argument that black Africa had prehistoric ties with the people of the Greek mainland—thus locating Africa as the major influence upon later Greek culture—is nonetheless an attractive position for playwrights wishing to get at ancient Greek models without the noxious, intermediate conduit of Europe. Still, as Wetmore points out, the theory of Afrocentric classicism is almost entirely an American invention, mostly enthusiastically endorsed and disseminated by Americans.

Naturally, there are problems with these various ways of theorizing. One that Wetmore never addresses is the subject of defining Greek tragedy. He talks of the Nietzschean Apollonian/Dionysian origin of tragedy without indicating that this is a philosophical esthetic abstraction rather than a historical account of the origins of tragedy. In response to Nietszche, the classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz said that tragedy might be defined as the various theatrical pieces put on in the theater of Dionysos at the festival in Athens in the fifth century BCE. These plays are, of course, so diverse that, taken together, they defy definition beyond the correspondences of form and occasion. We might add the problem of a paucity of samples, considering how many we know were produced for the festival, as well as others, in the fifth century alone, which means that, statistically speaking, we do not have enough examples to make secure generalizations. We can speak of Euripides’ Medea, for instance, for that is a text we confidently assume to bear a reasonable resemblance to the script used by the actors in 431 BCE. We know nothing about the physical fact of the performance, however, and very little of the other two plays that formed the conventional trilogy in which Athenians wanted their plays presented. We really don’t know very much at all, in fact. Ironically, African playwrights and critics who speak of “tragedy” or “Greek tragedy” are buying into a dubious abstraction of genuinely European origin.

Likewise, Wetmore’s discussion of Aristotle’s well-known theory of tragedy does not go far enough in distancing Aristotle’s words from the historical facts, which for the most part preceded Aristotle and for which we are always asked to take Aristotle’s word for it, another habit of mind distinctly European in the sense that a knowledge of the Greek past was first formulated by the Romans and then entered mainstream European thought via the Renaissance. And then there is the abstraction of genres, first suggested in ancient Greek literary practice and finally hardened into theoretical taxonomies by the Alexandrians in the third century BCE. These became central to the Renaissance understanding of literature, hence very much a European construct. Last but not least is the idea of the canon, again an Alexandrian notion, but central to the European idea of literature. One must ask oneself why African intellectuals and playwrights took up tragic drama so enthusiastically. It is not clear that they saw right away the colossal, tragic fact of their colonization and brutal use by Europeans. One cannot avoid considering that tragic drama has a certain cachet to it that other literary forms do not. Art Spiegelman’s Maus took some getting used to for persons deeply wedded to the hierarchy of genres.

There is an interesting historical perversion at work here. African playwrights look to ancient Greek tragic models, and read and discuss Aristotelian and later theories of tragedy. Although ancient tragedy antedated its theory, in other words, theory preceded tragedy in Africa. This produces an interesting perception of belatedness that cannot be dismissed when dealing with artifacts of these various African cultures. Two misleading theories of ancient tragedy—that it was a vehicle for political ideas and that it was a teaching device—are especially important for many African playwrights, who, as a result, have gotten themselves into serious trouble with the oppressive regimes under which they have produced their plays. Greek tragedy, by contrast, is theater produced by the city-state of Athens, the scripts chosen by an official who was more like a director of public works than a theater critic. The ideas these plays present are essentially commonplace if we generalize from the limited evidence: fate wins out; struggle with authority, divine or human, ends in trouble; life is so miserable it is better not to have been born; ambition is hazardous; living above the station into which one is born is dangerous; etc., etc. One can argue that tragic drama reinforces the status quo: as an anti-democratic call to quietism and resignation, its redeeming feature is the glorious if self-destructive act of a rebellious central figure, an object lesson rather than a role model. Needless to say, this is the cheapest and most misleading of generalizations on my part, but it is meant to suggest that the political activism of African playwrights may be based on false premises.

Wetmore points out that the theory of ritual origin of ancient Greek tragedy is especially potent for African playwrights because the various religious experiences of Africans are so closely bound to ritual. Introducing ritual into their dramas makes them African while at the same time reaffirming their Greek connection. Wetmore describes (pp. 71f.) the horrific moment in the premier of a play by Wole Soyinka when the stage directions called for the slaughter of a live goat. The scene of the startled audience at the Mbasi Club who had no experience of such a thing combined with the horror of the cast, which could not expertly dispatch the animal (a gory detail no doubt omitted in rehearsals), would be entirely funny if it were not so awful for the reader to imagine. Ritual is one thing; theater is another. As Wetmore notes at another point (p. 100), theater that addresses contemporary African problems—such as the dramatic spread of AIDS and the reasons for it—and is designed to be shown to a rural population, is not structured on Greek dramatic models. Rather, as he says, political plays based on Greek models are rooted in urban culture, and written by those connected with the universities. That fact alone suggests that any real independence from Europe—after all, what are universities?—is just not going to happen. Producers of subsequent performances of the plays discussed in this book from other parts of the world should take this fact very seriously indeed.

There are potent historical truths that are natural material for tragic drama. One is the clash between the artificial political boundaries drawn by the Europeans across the African continent and the natural boundaries created by tribal identities: the hatreds such oppositions can produce are all too well-known in the contemporary world. Wetmore describes in some detail the conception of Ola Rotimi, who, at a time of tribal civil war in Nigeria, used this truth to produce a version of Sophocles’ Oedipus called The Gods Are Not To Blame in which the Oedipus character, as the newcomer in town, assumes his innocence because he is from a different tribe from the slain king, only to learn at the end not so much the taboo of their consanguinity but of their tribal affiliation. Another ingredient much used in African tragic drama is the Yoruba idea of destiny and fate called iwa. Before a human is born, the fetus is confronted with a choice of fates. That which it picks must be lived, and only through ritual can whatever evil that particular fate has in store be averted. Every culture, of course, contends in its own way with the conflict between fate and free will; think, for instance, of what Yahweh knows when he warns Adam and Eve away from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. With their iwa, Yorubans have achieved an irrational fusion between the two that is a potent element of their theater. Wetmore makes the observation (p. 117) that, in the Yoruban view of things, Oedipus was mistaken not to have made sacrifice to the gods so as to try to avoid his fate when he learned back in Corinth that he was doomed to kill his father. For the Greeks, on the other hand, there was no way to change what was going to happen between the old man setting out from Thebes and the young traveler on his way from Corinth when they met at the crossroads. Fate, however, is finally beside the point in Sophocles’ play. The Sophoclean drama does not teach us that we are fated to act in a certain fashion; rather, it reveals a human being caught in an act that he both desperately tries to deny and equally valiantly determines to understand. That, rather than the Oedipus complex, is why the play meant so much to Sigmund Freud.

One can criticize Wetmore’s penchant for introducing theoretical interpretation when it serves no purpose. For instance, he prefaces his discussion of Edufa, a version of the Alcestis created by the Ghanaian playwright, Efua Sutherland, with certain critical opinions and interpretations of Euripides’ play by the classical establishment, none of which has the slightest relevance to Sutherland’s version. It is only what the Euripidean play means to Sutherland that is relevant; the rest is theory and vaporizing and simply gets in the way. One senses a dissertation lurking in the background of the exposition. The play is interesting as an exploration of how tragedy for an African can result from the failure to observe religious ritual; in this case, the reliance of Edufa (Admetus) on modern medicine, rather than the old ways of the community and his family, to save his wife. Tied up with this is Edufa’s estrangement from his father, another major flaw viewed tragically in this play.

The chapter on Antigone in African drama is especially valuable; its lengthy and detailed account of productions allows the reader to make valuable comparisons. Most readers will know The Island by Athol Fugard, a white South African who wrote tirelessly during the days of apartheid, exposing it as a devastatingly tragic situation for both blacks and whites. The moment of truth, as it were, is when the two black political prisoners who are rehearsing the Sophoclean play for a prison performance reach the moment when the Antigone character recites the speech in which she declares that there is no law of Zeus that can compel her to act as Creon wants her to. It is such a powerful indictment of the rule that imprisoned these two men that they are reduced to tears, something that indeed invariably befalls the audience. Fugard is a dramatist who perhaps defeats the notion of using ancient Athenian models for modern African theater. He perhaps understands better that great theater comes out of a dramatic situation that is made by the society of which his audience is part. Nothing could be more heart-wrenching and desperate in his Master Harold and the Boys than that moment when the white boy must humiliate the adult black male in order to keep the balance of racial relations that his love for the black man threatens to upend. Again, the conversations between the white couple and their black male friend in Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes reveal nothing so much as the fundamental deformation of humanity and human relations as life was played out in South Africa in the days of apartheid. It is a world far removed from ancient Athens, but because we ourselves participated in it—even if remotely—it is far more devastating as drama.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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