Sizwe Banzi Is Dead

by Athol Fugard

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Critical Overview

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The initial audiences of Sizwe Bansi is Dead were the black audiences who saw the production at the Space in Cape Town, South Africa. Although the play was popular, many audience members left during the opening monologue when they discovered the subject matter—they feared the police would raid the theater.

When Sizwe Bansi made its American debut on Broadway in 1974, critics generally praised the play and its exploration of controversial topics. For example, Jack Kroll of Newsweek contended: ‘‘What Fugard, 42, and his astonishing collaborators have created is theater of unique dramatic impact and crucial significance in its relationship to reality— the Kafkaesque reality of South Africa.’’

On Broadway, the play was performed with another Fugard one-act piece, The Island. Many reviewers compared the two plays. Harold Clurman of The Nation maintained that ‘‘Athol Fugard’s two one-act plays Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island are important—not simply because they provide an insight into the life of blacks in South Africa but because in the writing and in acting they are examples of original theatre.’’

Brendan Gill of The New Yorker provided another perspective on the play. He asserted: ‘‘Sizwe Bansi is, in formal terms, scarcely a play at all; rather, it is an explanation and an indictment. It renders with impassioned eloquence the feelings engendered by the social injustice practiced under law in South Africa.’’

Other critics agreed that the unconventional aspects and profound political statements were quite powerful. Gerald Weales of Commonweal maintained, ‘‘These two plays are the most exciting things that I have seen in any theater for a long time.’’ Weales contended that the play’s ‘‘triumph lies not in any social or political message, but in the fact that they have imposed life on the stage at the Edison. It is not plot, nor situation, nor even character in the conventional sense that is communicated by these plays, but a quality of being.’’

Another critic, Catharine Hughes, concurred: ‘‘I doubt very much that most people would consider Sizwe Bansi and The Island ‘good plays.’ They are not. But they are powerful, moving, compassionate theatrical experiences.’’

Many of the critics who liked the play commented on the power of the lengthy opening monologue. Clurman praised the stream-of-consciousness technique: ‘‘It conveys a vivid impression of what it means for a black man to be working in such a place as a South African factory.’’

Kroll of Newsweek saw something more. He stated: ‘‘It opens with an amazing monologue by John Kani in which he becomes all by himself the protean black man of South Africa, the most omnipresent invisible man in the world, the 15-millionfaced disinherited man who has been debriefed of his humanity by a total bureaucracy that shrinks him down to a rogues-gallery head in a passbook.’’

There were some dissenters among American critics. Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic believed that was potential in the production, but that it ultimately failed: ‘‘Both plays are drawn from the innermost feelings of three gifted and committed men. So it’s something more than sad to report that, for me, both plays are disappointing.’’ Regarding the play’s premise, Kauffmann asserted: ‘‘Now this might make a good ironic short play of 30 minutes or so. But it begins with a very long monologue, about two-fifths of the play. Buried in this ramble are a few glints of relevance, but mostly it seems a consciously theatrical attempt by addressing the audience and bringing members of it up on the stage briefly—devices by now so familiar that their triteness works against the freshness that it’s aimed at.’’

Russell Vandenbroucke in his book on Fugard, Truths the Hand Can Touch, concurred that Sizwe Bansi was problematic. He maintained: ‘‘Despite this process of refinement, the major inadequacy of the text remains its repetitiveness. Consequently, a fairly short play ‘feels’ rather bulky. The drunk scene and Bansi’s disorientation last too long . . . [S]o much factual information is imparted that the text becomes overburdened and briefly threatens to become a general survey of living conditions for blacks in South Africa.’’

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