Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008
23 Pages, Grade: 1,3
2. Brecht and South Africa
2.1. Brecht’s influence on (South) African theatre
2.2 The Junction Avenue Theatre Company and Brecht
3. In comparison
3.1. Plot and structure
3.2.1. Mack the Knife and Jimmy “Longlegs” Mangane
3.2.2. Polly Peachum and Lulu Levine
3.3. Delineation of society
3.3.1. The Threepenny Opera
3.3.2. Love, Crime and Johannesburg
“Own the banks, own the banks”1 – these words from “Lewis’s Song of Capital” in the musical “Love, Crime and Johannesburg” have a history: They refer directly to the question “What is the burgling of a bank to the founding of a bank?”2 posed by Mack the Knife in the “Threepenny Opera” by Bertolt Brecht.
At first glance, the connection between the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and the post-apartheid South Africa of the late 1990s is not easy to locate. Lines like the quoted, however, show by which means writers Malcom Purkey and Carol Steinberg of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company (JATC)3 used the Brechtian masterpiece to remodel it for their specific needs: Especially when Lewis Matome adds his rhetorical question “Do we want the whites to own them all?” (LCJ, 24), the reader gets an idea of how both plays seem to have the same themes.
Telling a South African story on the blueprint of a German 1920s sociocritical plot is an ambitious endeavour. The question must be legitimate if this endeavour has actually been successful – and even useful: Have Brecht, his themes and techniques enriched the presentation of this particular South African situation? Have they solely served as an empty shape, an exchangeable framework for the play? After all: Would Bertolt Brecht - whose work has been misinterpreted and misused frequently in the past4 – agree with this adaptation?
“The theories of Bertolt Brecht have played a very influential role in much of Junction Avenue Theatre Company’s work, delivering not only an attitude to content, but also a series of ideas about form and style” (LCJ, x), write Malcolm Purkey and Carol Steinberg in the introduction of “Love, Crime and Johannesburg”. If so – can their play be seen in a Brechtian tradition? Or will it stand aside, as some ‘exotic’ adaptation that is hardly ever going to have a proper place in the aftermath of Brecht’s oeuvre? What significance has Brecht for Black Africa, any way? And how has his work, have his ideas made an impression on African theatre makers? Have Brechtian themes ever been of any relevance for African people? These are questions that will come up in the wake of this investigation.
One issue that connects “Love, Crime and Johannesburg” with the original work by Brecht is the inhumanity of unleashed, uncontrolled capitalism. Literature theorist Loren Kruger, whose findings have provided a great deal of background information for this term paper, aptly points out that the play deals with “the transformation of the anti-apartheid struggle for liberation into a post-apartheid scramble for money and power”5. Thus, it will be of importance to compare the societies presented in both plays: Which values do the respective democracies stand for, how do they function, who has the power - and which idea of man is the reader confronted with? Are Brecht’s old arguments against capitalism still legitimate? Are injustice, crime and a lack of moral notorious in capitalist societies?
These are the most relevant questions I am going to answer in this term paper. One aspect that I will have to leave untouched in the course of my investigation is “The Beggar’s Opera”6 by John Gay. Even though the great, groundbreaking work published in 1728 is the basis for both plays compared in this term paper, the comparison with the social issues of the beginning 18th century would lead too far. Besides, playwrights Malcolm Purkey and Carol Steinberg refer directly to Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” which makes an additional analysis of Gay’s work inappropriate in this context.
Being, in geographic terms, relatively far away from South Africa the work of Brecht found its way to the country only in the late 1950s when student theatre groups came to discover the author and his work and the first known performance was set up7. It was in those times when Brecht who died in 1956 became the victim of a strange misinterpretation. Trying to create an image of a “’young country’ representing ‘Western civilization’ on the African frontier” (Kruger 6), the Afrikaner Nationalist government saw Brecht as an “bourgeois artist” (238) that would fit into their “European aspirations” (6). Whereas the first amateur productions are known to have taken place at the end of the 1950s, the first professional production of a Brecht piece, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, in 1963 was state-subsidized by the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT)8. These early productions “set greater store by Brecht as a canonized European playwright than by anything the political theatre practitioner might have had to say to an institution sponsored by a state that had recently and brutally suppressed almost all non-violent opposition.” (LK, 216)
Since black people were widely excluded from higher education as well as public cultural institutions those productions were performed by and produced for white South Africans who appreciated Brecht as a famous European author, but obviously ignored his political points-of-view. This is remarkable especially as the Communist Party had been banned already in 1950. Thus “the officially anti-communist South Africa was looking to Brecht to guide its way into the exclusive club of Western European civilization.” (LK, 216) It is not known if the cultural institutions in charge were aware of the subversive impact of Brecht’s works, if they tried to misuse them for their purposes or if they solely oversaw the political positions of Brecht.
Other groups of people, however, were more likely to be interested in the positions of the German dramatist: Black Africans that suffered from apartheid and the oppression of the leading class. Among the black workers of South Africa communism had gained a widespread popularity since the 1920s. Before its abolishment, the Communist Party of South Africa had become a powerful organization that supported leftist movements in theatre (LK, 8) and brought together artists and activists. Before apartheid had been officially established, their criticism aimed primarily at colonialism and imperialism9 and – alongside with upcoming communism – focussed on social injustice and the exploitation of blacks. The Bantu Peoples’ Theatre founded in the late 1930s, for instance, explicitly propagated “international socialism” in an unpublished 1940 programme, criticising the “economic disintegration” of black South Africans and the “breakdown of tribal economy” (LK, 221) in the country. The African National Theatre postulated “class struggle” and “social justice” (LK, 232) in 1939. Oppositional, socialist tendencies had been growing already since the end of the 19th century and the founding of industrial unions in South Africa10.
Thus, the prerequisites for unambiguous Brecht reception had been present, before the dramatist was even known in South Africa. As Kruger points out, in the 1930s “the unions provided space (such as union halls) and personnel for anti-colonial performance. Local union activists, whether white (Guy Routh) or black (Gaur Radebe) contributed plots [...] on topics such as segregation and forced removals from the land” (LK, 220). Theatre makers who aimed at turning “passive spectators into social agents” (LK, 221) were already active in South Africa, before Brecht and his concept of the lehrstück were even known.
Through the rise of communism in the 1950s and 1960s on one hand, and growing socialist and anti-colonialist movements on the other, Brechts oeuvre made its way to the African continent: His position that a society can only be improved and rearranged by the suppressed and exploited11 gained the departed author certain popularity in Africa; high schools in some African countries included Brecht in their curricula (B80, 69), black theatre makers and intellectuals discussed form and structure of the assumptive anti-colonial theatre imports (vgl. B80, 69f). In 1965, South African writer Lewis Nkosi (who later worked with the JATC), described Brecht as the most important non-African model for a modern African theatre, distinguishing between Brecht’s structural innovations and his political philosophy (B80, 70).
As in “Love, Crime and Johannesburg” many African directors and playwrights realized quickly that the Brechtian material could be remodelled for the use in their culture. The “Threepenny Opera”, for example, was turned into a “Five-Kobo-Pera” in North Nigeria in 1977 (B80, 75). The amateur production was entirely rearranged for an illiterate peasant audience and represented their respective social conditions. Another example from sub-Sahara Africa is the Nigerian production “Opera Wonoysi” by Wole Soyinka (B80, 75) who, in 1977/78, adapted the “Threepenny Opera” alongside with Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” in order to create a specific Nigerian adaptation that dealt with the military junta and the industrialisation of the time.
In South Africa, one playwright adopted the Brechtian ideas of the lehrstück as well as the narrative theatre12 to produce political plays that criticised the conditions of apartheid: Athol Fugard started his career as a dramatist at the end of the 1950s and startet deploying Brechtian techniques with his highly controversial (LK, 241) staging of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” in 1964, in which he “highlighted South African conditions” (Kruger 241). The following productions of the group kept following the rules of the narrative theatre, with “The Coat” (1966) said to be South Africa’s “Most distinctive lehrstück” to date (LK, 217). During the 1970s and 1980s Fugard and “The Serpent Players” staged various sociocritical and politically provocative plays, such as “Sizwe Bansi is dead” (1972) and “The Island” (1973).
Founded in 1976, as a response to the Soweto Uprising, The Junction Avenue Theatre Company (JATC) has been a politically conscious and sociocritical theatre group right form the start. Their first play, “The Fantastical History of a useless Man” from 1976 already hinted at their intense influence of Brecht – a fact that Malcolm Purkey later derived from the “productive misreading” of Brecht’s works and the “appropriation of Brecht for local stages and audience” (LK, 257). The debut play as well as the second one called “Randlords and Rotgut” (1978) both deployed the use of satire to reflect the conditions of apartheid. And, as Purkey explains, they referred to Brecht using “song, dance, humour, wit [and] crudity” as “tools” (LCJ, viii).
From the very beginning, the members of the JATC have had the ambition to move people in a lehrstück manner to become active against suppression and injustice. “We have been influenced by many playwrights and theatre theorists on the question of the relationship between language, politics and power. The name ‘Brecht’ has been invoked many times” (LCJ, xiii), says Purkey about the specific use of language in the productions of the JATC. By focussing on the exploitation of the black working class, they addressed that ‘peer group’ more directly, and with the production of the lehrstück “The Sun Shall Rise For The Workers”13 (1980, original title: “Ilanga lizophumela abasebenzi) they abolished “the gap between actors and audience” and managed to “through performance [turn] spectators into social actors” (LK, 263).
These efforts to use Brechtian “tools” in order to create an activist, intensely political stage productions has earned the JATC the reputation of having “undertaken the most sustained engagement with Brecht in South Africa” (LK, 257). Despite this, the Company has never been as popular as groups like the Market Theatre Company which did not perform in a Brechtian manner. Nonetheless, the JATC has inflicted quite a remarkable impact on the anti-apartheid movement in 1986 with their production “The Long March” (1985/86) which today is credited as one of the most influential political plays of the time (LK, 266). In 1986, the JATC also staged their highly acclaimed play “Sophiatown”14 which was written by Lewis Nkosi and deals with the very suburb of Johannesburg that used to be a tolerant and colourful meeting point in the 1950s, and thus functions as a kind of utopia for the apartheid state of the mid-80s.
Featuring this background, it is not amazing that in 1999 writers Malcolm Purkey and Carol Steinberg of the JATC chose the Classic Brechtian musical “The Threepenny Opera” as their basis for a new play that deals with the complicated present of post apartheid South Africa: “Love, Crime and Johannesburg”. Brecht’s storyline was “a perfect model of almost mystic proportion for the narrative we were trying to create” (LCJ, xi), the writers remember. The “narrative arc of Mack the Knife”(LCJ, xi) was to provide the basis for their own work. All the characteristic techniques of the “Threepenny Opera” were adapted for the new play, too.
1 Junction Avenue Theatre Company, Love, Crime and Johannesburg, p. 24. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as LCJ, <page number>
2 Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera, p. 92. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as TPO, <page number>
3 The Junction Avenue Theatre Company will from now on be referred to as JATC
5 Loren Kruger, Post-Imperial Brecht, p. 272f. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as LK, <page number>
6 John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera
7 1958 (LK, 238) the “Threepenny Opera” was first performed at the Library Theatre, Johannesburg
8 LK, p. 6
9 LK, p. 220
11 Hecht, Hahn, Paffrath (Ed.), Brecht 80, Brecht in Afrika, Asien und Lateinamerika, p. 9. Quotes from this book will from now on be referred to as B80, <page number>. As this was a scientific publication probably censored by institutions of the former German Democratic Republic only quotes have been chosen which are obviously not subject to communist policy
12 Term suggested by LK
13 LK, 263
14 LK, 267
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