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HOW SOCIETY AFFECTED SOUTH AFRICAN THEATRE

Even a cursory knowledge of the history of the South African nation ensures that it comes as no surprise to readers that its arts, and theatre in particular, have been shaped and guided over the centuries by many hands and minds, often with minimal regard for or interest in the local culture. The home-grown stories told to young and old around the fire that form the origins of South African drama may never have died, but these indigenous tales have evolved into today's theatre via a complex route, through difficult times. Over the years, many and varied dominant forces in society have imposed their views and demands on South African theatre, satisfying their own political and cultural needs. This affected the development and artistic growth of black theatre, shaping its form and messages, and forcing it underground. But it ultimately meant that theatre was taken directly to the people, in townships and streets. It was here that it began to rebut what white society was imposing on it. Increasingly, black theatre was re-establishing the dignity and validity of the suppressed African culture. It gave the poor and uneducated, as well as the frustrated intellectual, the opportunity to rediscover and share in an art form that came to mean so much more than just entertainment. As a means of expression, the theatre rarely played a more important role than in the darkest days of South African apartheid.

Ultimately, then, we shall see that whilst society has had a major affect on South African theatre, particularly during the time the apartheid state, theatre has also played a big part not only in affecting society, but effecting changes within that society.  This is not a new concept, indeed Robert Kavanagh (1985) highlights that the "Founders of Marxism emphasised art was an important weapon in the ideological struggle between the classes."  To understand the effect society has had on South African theatre, let us first take a look at the society itself, and how the black nation came to find itself alienated from its own culture and, disaffected by its rulers, strangers within its own country.

The remit of today's theatre in South Africa is now far broader than protest. Entertainment is no longer a dirty word and the experiences, challenges, and humour as well as issues that continue to threaten the lives, the well-being and the happiness of all South Africans, are being played out in front of multi-racial, multi-ethnic audiences. Now issues that were considered subordinate to the bigger struggle can be explored and aired, with writers seeking out new ways to draw in the audiences who had become weary of the old protest messages. Plays that tackle the role of women in South Africa's new society. Plays involving gays and lesbians, Aids, crime, love; they all now mingle on the schedule with what were the 'innovative' plays of the seventies that continue to play to old and new audiences alike, but are now seen as classics.

After years of evolving along separate paths, segregated by ideology or the State, cross-fertilisation of ideas and talent from numerous groups means that joint ventures can now be brought to fruition. Suddenly there was no need to 'justify' theatrical performances. What the theatre produced succeeded or failed purely on its own merits, not the validity of a cause or dissention. The nation's culture was being redefined on a day-to-day basis as life - and the theatre - reflected the huge spectrum of people that made up the 'rainbow nation' and its activities. The imperative used by many, including Biko, and quoted by Hauptfleisch, that writers should forget the aesthetic and other aims of literature in favour of  "a moral obligation to join the fight against the current evil and help to conscientise and mobilise the people" has passed.  Previously excluded voices can now be heard, and their words are moving forward with the times, not just reflecting on the past. It is not only a new order that has been created, but also a new and more cohesive society.

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