Postcolonial Theater Analysis

Reclaiming Identity and Culture

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Postcolonial theater is drama that focuses on issues surrounding oppressed peoples. A major current of mid- to late twentieth century history was the decolonization of English, French, Dutch, and British empires, and the emergence of talented and exciting playwrights from these cultures has been significant. Postcolonial literature and theater deal with the question of the “subaltern” finding his voice. A subaltern is a person in a subordinate position, and the term has come to refer to anyone who fights the process and results of colonialism. In examining many different postcolonial voices, one can see many of the difficult issues raised—including the intersections of nationalism, identity, and race—and discern the ways in which many of the leading postcolonial playwrights have chosen to deal with these issues.

One of the main actions of the colonial powers was the disruption and replacement of indigenous culture. Frantz Fanon, the great postcolonial theorist and “freedom fighter” in the Algerian independence movement in the 1950’s, felt that the goal of French colonization was the creation of “black Frenchmen” who were one step lower on the social scale than whites. For example, Fanon describes how, growing up in the French colony of Martinique (he later moved to Algeria), he never heard of writers such as Martinique’s poet and playwright Aimé Césaire but studied and learned all the French classics and spoke only French, thus...

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Reinventing Theatrical Conventions

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The emergence of playwrights from formerly colonized countries has introduced a host of issues to the theatrical world. For one thing, playwrights have been forced to choose whether or not they will write in their indigenous language or in the language of the colonizer. This has been a sensitive topic because some postcolonial playwrights insist that to write in the language of the colonizer is implicitly to endorse the actions of colonization. Others, having trained in the language of the colonizer, find its use revolutionary. They claim that writing in the language of the oppressors liberates the language and allows their message to spread beyond a localized audience.

These playwrights have also had to wrestle with issues of performance and style. Many postcolonial authors have chosen to reject the realistic or conventional play format of the colonizer and have instead turned to ancient or indigenous performance forms such as dance (either tribal or religious), religious ritual, song, puppetry, and mime. In addition, they avoid the dominant two- or three-act structure. Often, their plays can take the form of performance pieces with audience interaction or short staccato scenes depicting colonized life. Many postcolonial authors use the colonizer’s forms of drama to turn the work back on the oppressor. Many playwrights also use ancient myths of their people and incorporate them into drama, to comment on a current political situation. Still other playwrights, such as Césaire, use Western classics such as those by the Greeks or by William Shakespeare. They transform the plays or recast them in order to make direct political commentaries. In addition, the transformation of Western classics allows the playwright to show how his or her country has been transformed through Western acculturation.

Finally, one of the key issues that postcolonial playwrights have to deal with is the issue of audience. When the struggle for decolonization is going on, many playwrights write work that is directly political in nature, and many write agitprop dramas to rally support for the political cause. However, once liberation has been achieved, questions can arise regarding the playwright’s intended audience. Some have faced claims that they are too exclusionary, writing only for their own people, while other playwrights have faced charges that they have “sold out” their own culture for the consumption of the rest of the world.

The African Experience

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 carved up the African continent (with the notable exceptions of Ethiopia and Liberia) among the European powers. After World War II, independence swept the continent as colonizers relinquished their control. New nations emerged, albeit with the old colonial boundaries. These countries sometimes combined different mutually antagonizing societies under the control of one government, creating tremendous instability and violence. Out of these newly formed and struggling nations emerged several leading playwrights.

In South Africa, in particular, the birth of nationhood did not end the oppression of the indigenous peoples. The state system of apartheid disenfranchised the nonwhite majority in favor of a ruling white minority. Many white South Africans joined the black majority in protest of this system. Playwrights also joined in this effort. Among the best known is Athol Fugard, a white South African who was censored for working with the Circle Players, a mixed-race theater company, as well as with the black South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Fugard’s popularity grew until he was known worldwide, and many view him as the dominant anti-apartheid theatrical voice in South Africa. Some of his best-known plays include Sizwe Bansai Is Dead (pr. 1972), The Island (pr. 1973), “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys (pr. 1982), and My Children! My Africa! (pr. 1990).


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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Asia, as a vast continent, consists of many different cultures and countries. Despite the presence of Asian indigenous performance forms since classical times, many Asian cultures were nonetheless conquered and subsumed by Western colonialism. Although colonial experiences and circumstances vary widely in South and Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and China, these areas all share similar concerns regarding the influence of Western imperialism on Eastern culture.

India has taken the lead in producing colonial and postcolonial drama that is critical of its colonizers. Before being colonized, India had numerous performance forms, including Sanskrit performance and kathkali dance drama. After the removal of British rule in the mid-twentieth century, Indians had to confront the way in which imperialism had blended a widely diverse population of the subcontinent into one single nation. One of the leading playwrights who deals with these issues is Girish Karnad . Karnad’s early work was derived from ancient stories in Indian classics such as the Mahbhrata (c. 400 b.c.e.-400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896; also known as The Mahabharata), which he transformed to comment on the modern political climate. His work continues to explore the intersections of ancient Indian culture and the modern world. One of his best-known plays is Hayavadana (pr. 1972), which incorporates an ancient Indian form of theater known as yakshagana and brings forth intertwined plots to comment on the nature of reality and questions of identity.

North America

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

North American postcolonial expression can be found in the work of the indigenous peoples displaced by European settlers moving across the continent. These writers address issues such as complete acculturation and the loss of land that they and their ancestors endured. Like many oppressed people, these writers face issues of assimilation versus acceptance of the dominant settler culture. In Canada, Tomson Highway has emerged as a strong voice for the First Peoples population with plays such as The Rez Sisters (pr. 1986) and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (pr. 1989). These plays explore the troubles and triumphs of life on government reservations and often use indigenous spirits as characters to further the plots.


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Like Highway, Jack Davis, a Western Australian-born Aborigine, was concerned with issues of assimilation among the Aborigines of Australia, whose story of land loss and cultural destruction mirrors those of the indigenous peoples of North America. Davis taught himself to read and write while growing up outside Perth, Australia, in the 1920’s. He was both a political and a literary figure and known for his poetry as well as his drama. His most famous work, No Sugar (pr. 1985), dramatizes his personal recollections of the forced movement of his Aboriginal community to the Moore River Native Settlement and how these resettlements contribute to the destruction of Aboriginal culture.

South America and the Caribbean

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Postcolonial work in South America is often written not only in response to conventional Western imperialism but also against repressive political regimes, often instituted with the help of Western countries, and as such, considered by some as “neocolonial” tools to propagate Western power. Writers such as Griselda Gambaro of Argentina chronicle South America’s unfortunate history of political repression and its effects. In her play Información para extranjeros (wr. 1971; Information for Foreigners, 1992), Gambaro uses environmental theater techniques to engage her audience members individually with the process and isolation of state terror.

Writers in the Caribbean had many of the same concerns as postcolonial writers in Africa and Asia. Specifically, writers such as Césaire and the West Indian playwright Derek Walcott have blended island culture with Western literature and stories.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although many would claim that Europe has been the colonizer and not the colonized, several oppressed cultures in Europe have developed their own playwrights with unique voices. Many scholars contend that the work of Irish and Eastern European playwrights can be examined under the lens of postcolonial theory.

The island of Ireland has a long history of oppression from its British neighbors. Although the differences and tensions between the British and Irish have been the subject of many plays, the mid- to late twentieth century explosion of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland led to a great deal of reactionary and revolutionary writing. Notable among these contributions are those of Brian Friel, who founded the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980 with writer Seamus Heaney and actor Stephen Rea, among others. Friel’s plays are concerned with the disruption and dissolution of Irish identity in the face of English acculturation and the transformation of that culture in the modern world. Among his best-known works are Translations (pr. 1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (pr. 1990).

As the Irish have been oppressed with the troubles in Northern Ireland, so too have the people of Eastern Europe suffered under the yoke of communist totalitarianism during the latter half of the twentieth century. Out of this situation emerged playwrights of resistance such as Czechoslovakia’s Václav Havel and Poland’s Sawomir Mroek. Although these writers emerged from different cultures and have different styles, their work reflects a shared concern over the effects of political domination on an individual’s psyche and identity.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995. Complete and thorough collection of essays dealing with a host of issues surrounding postcolonial theory. Essays by almost every major postcolonial literary theorist. The book has sections dealing with topics such as identity, hybridity, history, and language. Amazingly useful and complete, this is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the basic texts of postcolonial literary theory.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963. A seminal postcolonial text, this book applies concepts such as materialism, identity construction, colonialism, and racism to the decolonization of Africa. Fanon stresses the need to replace the false identities of colonialism with new structures of nationhood.

Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Broad overview of the structures, ideas, and contexts of postcolonial theory, with extensive discussions of such influential writers as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Frantz Fanon. The book has several sections on relationships between postcolonialism and other literary theories such as feminism, poststructuralism, and Marxism.

Gilbert, Helen, ed. Postcolonial Plays: An Anthology. London: Routledge, 2001. Excellent anthology containing several well- and lesser-known dramas, with selections from such playwrights as Femi Osofian, Derek Walcott, and Girish Karnad. Plays range from Argentinian to Canadian to South African, and each play is marked by a discussion of both the dramatic work and the political situation in the author’s homeland.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Another seminal text from the postcolonial canon, this book explores how the West has created and marketed a fictionalized “Orient” for its own consumption. Said illustrates how this desire to control the “Exotic East” has led to the political and cultural clashes facing the world today.