French-Language African Drama Analysis

Oral Tradition

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Without delving profoundly into early oral tradition of French West Africa, which is as varied and complex as the many ethnic groups that inhabit this region, it suffices to mention the important role of rites, ritual, and traditional ceremonies in the daily life of precolonial Africans. Although rites and rituals were generally connected with religious practices, they were often accompanied by music, dance, and, in many cases, formal expressions and gestures. The special masks and attire worn for such occasions were also reminiscent of drama. Although many of the traditional African ceremonies represented solemn occasions enacted to pay homage to the ancestral gods or to celebrate rites of passage, there were those that also served as a source of entertainment, such as the ceremonies associated with the celebration of the harvest, hunting, marriages, and births. In a less elaborate form, elements of drama were also present in traditional storytelling. The storyteller, often the village griot (musician-entertainer), brought to life numerous characters through his dramatic impersonation of the various personalities in folktales, legends, and epics.

Colonial Influence

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Africans were introduced to the European concept of theater for the most part during the colonial era, as a result of the establishment of the missionary schools. On one hand, the missionaries introduced drama to their young catechumens as a source of entertainment. On the other hand, the plays they performed were usually based on the lives of different saints and coincided with the celebration of certain religious holidays. One immediately recognizes the similarity between the African traditional ceremonies honoring the ancestors and the tribute paid to saints through dramatic productions, both of which underscored some religious practice or event. The missionaries succeeded in using this rather uninspiring form of drama to inculcate and reinforce Christian values among the would-be catechumens. Thus, this period represented a pseudo-beginning of African drama performed in French, albeit in a European context.

École Normale William Ponty

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Another important factor affecting the development of African drama written in French was the École Normale William Ponty in Senegal, which opened in 1913 as a training center for African teachers and officials. By the 1930’s, this school was taking the lead in the study of indigenous African traditions, and as such it became the catalyst that gave the greatest impetus to the growth of French African drama. It is not surprising that Senegal became the first country to enjoy a modest flourishing of dramatic art; it was a major academic and artistic center during the colonial era and, for some years thereafter, for all of French West Africa.

The amateur performances presented by the students at the École Normale William Ponty represented only a part of the institution’s contributions to the growth of francophone theater. The students were encouraged to research, translate, and stage a major theatrical production derived from their African folklore tradition. There was a coming together, therefore, of scholarly pursuits and artistic creativity. The various plays produced during the years when this dramatic activity flourished were inspired by the folklore of Senegal, Dahomey, and the Ivory Coast, to name only a few regions. Although the European influence still overshadowed both endeavors, it was nevertheless an important time, because now the students were drawing on their own cultural and literary heritage for intellectual and artistic inspiration....

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Performance and Publishing

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Following the decline of the École Normale William Ponty theater in the late 1940’s, African drama enjoyed varying degrees of popularity and success. For example, many playwrights did not get an opportunity to stage their dramatic works. Unlike other genres, which need only to bring together reader and written text, plays are written to be performed; performers, costumes, technical arrangements, and rehearsals must all be coordinated and financed. The problem is compounded further when one recognizes there were many plays that were performed but were never published. Thus, the task of how to increase the theatrical production of French African plays remained, in general, a difficult one for African playwrights. Moreover, the vast majority of plays that were performed did not open in theaters outside the continent, inhibiting worldwide recognition of African drama, playwrights, and actors.

Nevertheless, some progress was made. The creation of publishing companies interested in the publication of French African plays (for example, Présence Africaine, in Paris, and the African companies P. J. Oswald and the Cameroon-based CLE) helped to increase the number of dramatic works that appeared in print and to make them available to a larger African and foreign readership. Although there were fewer opportunities to see a theatrical production of an African play in French than to read one, plays were performed in African cities, villages, and, occasionally,...

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Integration of Genres

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The inclusion of music and dance in drama is one of the major features of francophone African plays. It is not uncommon for African playwrights to make use of the vast repertoire of traditional songs and dances. The African playwrights’ techniques in using song and dance in plays may be similar or differ significantly depending on the extent of their integration into the dramatic works. At the beginning of a performance, the playing of the tam-tam captured the audience’s attention and announced the start of the play. Song and dance were often used in the re-creation of a traditional African setting to highlight important moments as the action progressed or to bring the performance to a close. In Guillaume Oyono-Mbia ’s Trois prétendants . . . un mari (pr. 1960; Three Suitors One Husband Until Further Notice, 1968) , the action in the play culminates in a fanfare of music and dance in which both the actors and the spectators take part. Such a finale places emphasis on the role of the African play as a collective experience.

Other traditional elements that originated from the playwrights’ African heritage served to give francophone drama its African flavor. The overlapping of different genres, another identifiable characteristic of African creative writing, offered the playwrights an excellent opportunity to experiment with content and form. The importance of this particular aspect of African aesthetics was stressed by the Senegalese poet Léopold Senghor, who rightly noted that a fine line distinguishes the different genres, among which African artists move uninhibited.

Senegalese dramatist Abdou Anta Kâ, for example, combined drama and legend in La Fille des dieux (daughter of the gods) , first performed in 1957. The play is based on a popular song whose hero, Awa, reappears in the dramatic version. The setting is somewhat vague, perhaps a deliberate act on the part of the author to create a sense of remoteness in time. More interesting, the playwright has Awa narrate intermittently a creation story, the events of which parallel certain ones in the play. Like the moon and Massassi, the first man and woman who were sent away to earth, Awa and Madhi were forced to leave their native village to seek refuge in the forest. In a similar fashion,...

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Modern Innovations

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Given the modest, yet noteworthy, beginnings of literary drama in francophone Africa, the creative productivity continued to increase, confirming the important place of drama in modern African society. This growth compelled more critics of African literature, in general, to take a look at its content and form in order to reexamine issues of authenticity, traditional aesthetic influences, and artistic uniqueness (that is, as the features distinguishing French-language drama from its Western counterpart), and to study dramatic works conceived and performed exclusively in the African languages. Moreover, the search for verbal and cultural authenticity served again to catalyze other significant approaches to creating African plays.

Studies have revealed the inspiring efforts of acclaimed playwrights, amateur dramatists, and actors who have experimented with genres, the end result of which has been the diversification of dramatic form and content. This kind of innovative exploration has ranged from the use of pidgin French, to draw on local and popular language usage in an attempt to minimize immediate association with the parent language of France, to developing plays characterized by a more complex intermixing of traditional genres such as music, dance, mime, masks, and ritual.

One example of the appearance of new forms was the notion of “total theater,” which characterized the plays of the Cameroonian playwrights who promoted this type of drama. The emphasis was placed on the production of plays that had an aesthetic relevance to the modern African audience. There was a desire to creatively validate the existence of distinct dramatic forms in Africa. In particular, experimentation with space maximized the union between actors and audience. The plays incorporated moments when members of the audience were spontaneously sought out to take on a role in the performance, finding themselves therefore transformed from spectator to actor. In a very different mode, Were Liking’s “ritual theater,” which explores the manifestation of spirituality and religion in the context of drama, is regarded a significant literary contribution by a Cameroonian female dramatist.

Advancements and Detractions

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

It has already been noted that the presence of École Normale William Ponty was a historic milestone in the arts, its tenure designating the official period of the appearance of French-language drama. This era has been followed by the establishment of national theaters, the financial support of the French government as part of a campaign to promote its language in other French-speaking countries, the creation of theaters abroad interested in presenting the plays of African playwrights, and the organization of theater troupes and programs to provide avenues for increasing the number of professional actors.

Festivals, conferences, and radio broadcasts are some of the venues that have made it possible for African...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Banham, Martin, and Clive Wake. African Theater Today. London: Pitman, 1976. Provides history and criticism on African drama and theater. Good source for identifying important literary preoccupations before the 1980’s. Includes an extensive bibliography and index.

Bjornson, Richard. The African Quest for Freedom and Identity: Cameroonian Writing and the National Experience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Collection of articles focusing on critical discussion of literary developments in Cameroon. One article is devoted exclusively to major playwrights’ impact on Cameroonian theater and drama. Also has comprehensive end notes and index.

Conteh-Morgan, John. Theater and Drama in Francophone Africa: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. In-depth analytical study of French-language drama and its evolution. Provides a history and discussion of published and unpublished dramatic works. Includes significant bibliographical references and index listing playwrights, theaters, theater companies, groups, and festivals.

Kerr, David. African Popular Theatre: From Pre-Colonial Times to the Present. London: James Currey, 1995. Detailed discussion of the evolution of traditional drama, and anglophone and francophone drama. Bibliography and index included.

Owomoyela, Oyekan, ed. A History of Twentieth Century African Literatures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. Devotes a number of critical articles to the three dominant genres of English-language and French-language African writers: poetry, fiction, and drama. Other articles focus on issues related to African women writers, problems of language, and publishing. Also includes a lengthy index.

Rubin, Don, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. Vol. 3. London: Routledge, 1997. Contains brief profiles of all the nations of Africa followed by descriptive summaries of key moments in the historical development of their theater. Identifies important African theaters, playwrights, actors, and performances. Very useful bibliographies and cumulative index are also provided.

Traoré, Bakary. The Black African Theatre and Its Social Functions. Translated and with a preface by Dapo Adelugba. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1972. Historical perspective provided by one of the first important comprehensive studies of the emergence of francophone drama and its influences. Informative study of early criticism. Includes bibliography.