Towards a philosophy of theatre inspired by Aristotle’s poetics and post-structuralist aesthetics in relation to three South African plays

  • Michael Picardie

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    I have attempted a reading of Aristotle in terms of mimesis, ethos, mythos, lexis, hamartia, anagnorisis, peripeteia, catharsis and anamnesis - as an existential “being there” (Dasein) of the characters’ freedom and actual historicity - in three of my plays in which I performed or witnessed in productions in England, Wales, three Scandinavian countries, the U.S. and South Africa. I have analysed other Southern African “womanist” performative drama and feminist theatre. I assume with the ancient Greeks that in serious theatre there is theoria, an educated, discursive looking, which involves a dialectics of logos in dianoia intertwined in the mythos – ethical truth in the discourse of the plot. Whilst aesthetics cannot be reduced to psychobiography, creative writing is motivated in part by the author’s and the dramatic subjects’ psychoanalytically understood personal and political unconscious placed in the ethos – the character on the stage. The aesthetics of tragedy relate to both peripeteia (reversals) and anagnorisis (recognition of responsibility) which occur within an arc of development, crisis and denouement of the vicissitudes of purported wisdom in understanding how performative drama and critical theatre have been presented in what has become known as The Struggle in a post-apartheid South Africa and post-colonial Zimbabwe by comparison with historical conditions in South America, India, even China. The values of nous, phronesis and sophia, intuitive, practical and interpretative wisdom are connected to the Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics with which the tragic-comic hero and his Other are imbued or violate. The post-structuralist aesthetic as developed in the literary theory of the twentieth century is essentially the interaction of synchronic and diachronic language emerging from the signifiance and the semiosis of the chora (the feminine or maternal unconscious) within the de-familarisation techniques of Russian and Czech Formalism. This provides a creative and meaningful limit to a consciousness of being-white and being black- in-the-world against disempowering Nothingness or perceived Otherness threatening moral beings. Nothingness and the Other are characterised magically and as witch-craft in oral-cultures which deny the unconscious and resort to paranoia and persecution of Otherness in the subject projected onto the other – the “colonial personality”. Shades of Brown has been re-written as Jannie Veldsman – A Film 8 Scenario and I have incorporated into a revised The Cape Orchard a retrospective anticipation of the coming of the new South Africa. I reflect on what tragic drama on the stage and in real life in South Africa means now that the new South Africa is over its honeymoon period and faces serious problems of failed governance. Within the dialectic of an enlightened rabbinical morality of Hillel the Elder (“What is hateful to you do not do to others….” and “If I am not for myself who will be for me…?”) and Kant’s categorical imperative of human beings as a priori ends, I follow the fortunes of an old Jewish veteran of The Struggle, dating back to the Defiance Campaign of 1952/3. Fugard’s work is exemplary in fostering a sense of Sartre’s Nothingness and nihilation which “haunts” Being and is the space of undecidability in relation to my condition of freedom allowing the transcendence of Being. Being asserts reparation and redemption in the face of the depressive and paranoid subject/object split in the subject’s being-in-the-world. Plays ideally submerge this existentialist, psychoanalytic and Aristotelian dramaturgy in the form of Kierkegaard’s faith and Nietzsche’s will which are part of the Encompassing in Karl Jasper’s metaphysics - the residue of a Judaeo-Christian ethics facing the anomie and aporia of the postmodern. The new South Africa was only ostensibly built on Greek and Judaeo- Christian secular ethics – “truth and reconciliation”. It inherited state, revolutionary and criminal violence, as well as a sophisticated economic infrastructure, mass poverty and a segregated educational, social and welfare system which in the milieu of ANC incompetence and corruption have for the very poor got worse but to the benefit of a new African oligarchy, the beneficiaries of a dysfunctional affirmative action policy. What is to be done? Irigaray’s striking metaphor “the speculum of the Other woman” suggests that we are reflected by the instrument we use for investigating what may be Other to us: “we” are westerners trying to live in Africa. “We” are Other – not as autochthonous as the African majority. But the autochthonous can also behave as Other and may even fail to recognise the Other in themselves. Franz Fanon’s “colonial personality”, like ex-president Thabo Mbeki, misunderstands the colonial Other in himself which, disastrously, he projects and attacks in the imaginary and persecutory Other, only to suffer the return of the Real, as do the dramatic fictions Van Tonder in Shades of Brown, Dianne Cupido in The Cape Orchard and Harry Grossman the old man’s son in The Zulu and the Zeide (inspired by a short story by Dan Jacobson). 9 The Russian and Czech Formalists and Structuralists show us how to foreground the Real through techniques of de-familiarisation which can be applied to modernist and post-modernist “womanist” performance drama and feminist theatre. Defamilarisation, especially in an Africa struggling between failed and successful colonialism and often ruled by more or less corrupt elites, sensitizes us to a moral nihilism which characterises the failed African state - described by Conrad as a “heart of darkness” transcended in aletheia – being oneself in the self-showing light of one’s ethos operating through a personal and political unconscious mystified in the rhetoric of oral-cultures. Playwrights such as Yael Farber, Fraser Grace, Aletta Bezuidenhout and Fatima Dike express a semiosis of the unconscious and the significance and “absurdity” of logos suggesting that all is not lost in post-apartheid Southern Africa as regards human values, whilst struggling with the political correctness demanded in The Struggle. A partially successful colonialism in parts of Africa could within a British education system, produce a Wole Soyinka who transcends the propaganda of agit-prop by showing the parabolic arc of tragedy afflicted with peripeteia. The weight of African backwardness is not only the negative heritage of colonialism and slavery but Africa’s immersion in traditional partially modernised, but still patriarchal, often tribally and religiously split oral-cultures. These enable the colonial personality to unconsciously or opportunistically exploit his paranoiac sense of his victimage at the expense of the writing-cultures of development which entail anamnesis and the redemption through anagnorisis.
    Date of AwardApr 2014
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorMichael Carklin (Supervisor) & Stephen Lacey (Supervisor)


    • theatre
    • South Africa
    • Artistotle

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