Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Tomaselli Summary<>

In “The Semiotics of Alternative Theatre in South Africa,” Keyan G. Tomaselli explores what he refers to as“committed” theatre and its pertinent relationship to class divisions in working class South Africa. Tomaselli argues that because working class theatre is organically contrived and performed by members of the working class, translating the message of a particular play to a wider (albeit white) audience is problematic, to say the least.

A central theme in Tomaselli’s paper, and one he mentions immediately, is the idea that the introduction of capitalism into a work of committed theatre only serves to dilute the original intent of the play; on the contrary, Tomaselli argues that the ability of authentic black theatre to resist the “bland homogenizing influences of capital” are precisely what leaves it to “stand almost alone in its consistent achievements as a medium of popular working class expression” (14). Tomaselli also believes that the integrity of black theatre is maintained by its tendency to reflect and mediate reality. This type of theater, with its emphasis on exposing and interpreting actual situations, is common among countries in which class divisions and social categories are marked and perpetually in conflict. Thus, Tomaselli points out that there will never be a shortage of material for political theatre productions so long as inequities, especially those of the class variety, stand.

Also unique to committed theatre is the deeply personal bond formed between audience and actors. Because this type of theatre is most often performed by members of the working class specifically for members of the working class, audience members are able to view the events acted out in front of them from a more informed standpoint, simply because they, themselves continually experience the injustices explored in such plays. As Tomaselli explains:

“This interaction with the actors is a cathartic experience which works to mitigate their lot in a performance which sees no separation or distinction between actor and spectator, stage and life or performance and reality: they are all part of the whole, inter-twined in a metonymic relationship which connects art with life. (15)”

Tomaselli’s notion of the world as a stage within the context of political theatre in South Africa is then later used to explain the problems that occur when black theatre is co-opted by the masses.

Tomaselli then explores what he sees as something of injustice: the phrase “black theatre.” As he states, “To argue that such theatre deals mainly with black experience is fraught with difficulties since the causation of that experience tends to be ignored” (15). Furthermore, Tomaselli argues that the term is used to differentiate between itself and “white” or “Afrikaans” theatre, which only serves to perpetuate the “idea of dualisms on in society.” Tomaselli instead prefers either “commited” or “working class theatre.”

Tomaselli goes on to discuss the various ways the notion of class plays into power structures on the “set,” and how class identities within the artists themselves constantly threaten the political veracity of the production. Tomaselli identifies three distinct, class-driven situations present in South African theatre. The first of which is the black director-author who is part of the petty bourgeois class. The financial success they gain from their plays “tends to push them towards greater aspirations for class mobility” (16). Eventually, these directors become alienated from the actors they have collaborated with and will no longer be able to identify with the issues and conflicts addressed by their plays.

The second type is the same petty bourgeois director-author who decides to resist the temptation of class mobility in favor of continuing with the struggle. These people grapple with internal conflict continually and may not be able to embrace the proletarian lifestyle fully.

The final case involves the “white petty bourgeois intellectual” who decides to use his or her advantage and empathy towards working-class issues to bring these issues to the forefront. Tomaselli notes, “Under these conditions, identification with the working class is a self-imposed deliberate action which suggests questioning of the ideology of his own class” (17).

Indeed, Tomaselli goes into great detail regarding the white influence and perspective and its implications within committed theatre. Although he acknowledges that the African actors who portray white officials cannot experience their character’s life, he asserts that because white audiences cannot possibly know the experience of their African counterparts, the meanings behind the various theatre productions will be reduced to mere metaphors that whites can somehow grasp. Because he believes that the viewer’s class position is the determining factor in the overall message one will take away from a play, Tomaselli especially worries about the mass production of committed theatre (20).

Implied in this piece is that with white audiences inevitably comes commercialism, something Tomaselli is whole-heartedly against. He states, “With this penetration of capital, art is transformed into a commodity and is consequently robbed of its critical, negating role in relation to capitalist society. As a commodity, mass art is tied to the ideological purposes of capitalism” (20). He references several working class productions that were performed for mass audiences with the effect that much of their content had to be censored. Tomaselli romantically expounds on the “organic” nature of the plays as they stand. That is, they do not require so much as a curtain or a spotlight and are able to incorporate elements from their surroundings (i.e., a barking dog, traffic noise) that serve to make the play all the more relevant. Tomaselli also appreciates the oral tradition of committed theatre, noting that because it is not written, it cannot be censored and can be modified at any stage to better suit the political atmosphere at any given time.

Tomaselli also faults the notion of mass art because once it is presented, it is not sufficiently analyzed in terms of political or socio-cultural aspects and is instead often analyzed in terms of playwrights and texts.

The end of the article is comprised of a question-and-answer interview with Halton Cheadle, who helped create the play entitled “Ilanga Le So Phonela Abasebenzi.” Cheadle explains how much of the content of the play came directly from the mouths of people involved in the incident it chronicles. In this sense, the actors in the play did not so much have to act as retell their stories to an audience. Tomaselli ends by noting that plays like “Ilanga” have the capacity to change with the times and the evolving needs of workers. In conclusion, Tomaselli states, “Worker theatre must, therefore, be conceptualized as alternative theatre for it strongly resists a content determined by capital, that is subject to the interests of capital and that is controlled by capital” (31).