English-Language African Drama Summary

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English-Language African Drama Summary

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

English-language countries in sub-Saharan Africa include Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Liberia in the west; Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania in the east; Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe in the center; and Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana, and Lesotho in the south. Several of these countries have produced a considerable body of drama and can serve as representatives of the activity that is taking place in Anglophone countries throughout Africa.

In all these countries, scripted drama in English developed even later than other written forms, perhaps because, as Cosmo Pieterse—one of the most prominent figures in the African theater—and others have suggested, traditional community life still satisfied the dramatic instinct through rituals involving music and dance and through oral narrative—both forms in which the audience was not only spectator but also participant. The potential of African drama, once established, stemmed from its ritual character and became evident soon after independence (mostly around 1960). African plays, in capitalizing on the ritual element, usually go beyond the need for mere entertainment in the search for cultural identity and social cohesion.

African plays fall generally into two categories: those that are immediately accessible to Western audiences because they rely primarily on dialogue and a tightly knit structure, with personal conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement, and those that show the influence of such structures but return to forms of community ritual. The first group seems intended partially for audiences beyond Africa, with an eye on publication by foreign presses. One effect, if not motive, of such drama is to make Africa a part of the international community. The other group often disparages such concerns and focuses attention solely on an African audience, on the education, self-awareness, and cohesion of the African community. Many such plays therefore use the local idiom and unless translated are inaccessible not only to the outside world but also to other Africans. Still, a large body of drama, even in the second group, relies on English—with only scattered uses of local language for song or intimate dialogue—because dramatists need English to reach beyond their own ethnic groups. One must insist, however, that no English-language play has the integrative quality of traditional drama, religious or secular. Cut off from the ceremonial, ritual life of the people, it is not “African” in that fundamental sense.

Some permanent theater sites exist, most notably at large universities in urban areas, but traveling companies attempt to reach the...

(The entire section is 616 words.)