Emmanuel S. Dandaura*

I stand here today on behalf of the body of African theatre scholars and critics to salute you, Professor Hans-Thies Lehmann, for your contributions to the advancement of theatre and performance scholarship. Your enduring ideas are couched in your two groundbreaking publications: Postdramatic Theatre (1999), and Tragedy and Dramatic Theatre (2016), both of which are fundamental to a balanced understanding of the dramatic arts. You have, through these works, awakened humanity to the proper appreciation of the diversity of dramatic traditions and approaches across cultures.

As an African scholar, I recall that, in the 1950s, the few European critics and anthropologists who studied African theatre concluded that such indigenous performances were anything but drama because they lack “linguistic contents, plot, represented interaction of several characters, specialised scenery. . . .”[1] African performances were then described as “quasi-dramatic phenomena,” “pre-drama” or performances with mere “dramatic elements” or “particles of drama.” The crux of their argument was that Greek Dionysian drama developed from ritual, mimesis, suspense and the like. Thus, African performances do not qualify as drama until they are made to render their stories in line with the Aristotelian dictates on the well-made play. I must mention that few African scholars also shared this subjective assessment.

From left to right: Peng Tao, Deepa Punjani, Margareta Sörenson, Hans-Thies Lehmann, and Emmanuel Dandaura. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

However, by the late 1960s, there emerged an alternative ideological construct that since “function determines the nature of theatre and drama in every culture,” African performances should not be expected to develop along Western dramatic precepts. Coming over four decades after the above debates,[2] your book, Postdramatic Theatre, offered a fresh prism. The ideas contained therein seek to liberate suppressed traditions from what you rightly termed “a model of theatre (of art, of politics) which has produced great works from Shakespeare to Ibsen, but is now mainly a problematic ideology which I call dramatisation and which especially in politics hides reality.”[3] You opted for the term “postdramatic theatre” because you saw the need to break the hegemony of the dramatic tradition, which was suppressing and fast supplanting alternative theatre traditions.

As one of the beneficiaries of your revolutionary thought, African theatre, which was hitherto considered “not dramatic,” took on prominence as a body of unique and authentic theatre traditions. Interestingly, what crystalised in your well-crafted writings as characteristics of the “postdramatic theatre” comes through to the objective minded as a re-appraisal of the core values and techniques of indigenous African theatre. Your “postdramatic theatre” emphasizes the ultimate impact of theatre performances on the audience over fidelity to the playwright’s text and centrality of dialogue, diction, syllogism and suspense as drivers of drama. It does not pay particular attention to being dramatic, but, instead, focuses on performativity and celebrates individual impulses.

Thus, the hitherto thin line separating theatre, reality and performance was removed. Rather than serve as “willful suspension of disbelief,” theatre functions as a continuum of day-to-day existence. In your “postdramatic theatre,” the performer is liberated as his engagement with the audience now transcends dialogue. It is intriguing that these are features of most African theatre performances as well. Like most African theatre forms, “postdramatic theatre” is eclectic. It embraces heterogeneous styles in its conception and performance. Also, like your “postdramatic theatre,” the typical African sees the ceremonial aspect of theatre as important. This is because theatre in Africa is more about shared than communicated experiences. Similarly, the ordinary African sees life as fragmentary; therefore, the structure and content of his theatre often reflects this non-hierarchy in life. This again, is a central feature of your “postdramatic theatre.”

From left to right: Peng Tao, Deepa Punjani, Emmanuel Dandaura, Margareta Sörenson, and Hans-Thies Lehmann (reading). Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

The above are not mere coincidences. They indicate the depth of research and extra efforts you have taken to synthesizing your remarkable contributions from various cultures and theatre traditions, including those very remote from your immediate base in Germany. This, to me, is part of the character of great scholars. I see a complimentary duality here. Your well-thought-out submissions validate most African theatre traditions, in the same way that African indigenous theatre forms validate your widely acclaimed “postdramatic” thought. It is in this duality that your contributions resonate among African theatre scholars. Apart from your ideas being studied in most theatre schools in Africa today, an analysis of some of the contemporary performances in African demonstrate conscious (in some cases, even unconscious) experiments with the ideas you have articulated in your book.

Besides Postdramatic Theatre, your other book, Tragedy and Dramatic Theatre, is in my estimation, one of the most authoritative and thorough discourses on tragedy. It is gratifying to note that, in mid December 2018, scholars from over twenty African countries and parts of the Arab world will participate in an international scientific symposium dedicated to examining the impact of “postdramatic theatre” in Africa.

It is axiomatic to state that this is a rare honour reserved only for scholars whose ideas have either disrupted existing knowledge, or have the potential to significantly impact future theories and practice in their fields. Your message is apt:

“Postdramatic theatre” means also: finding back those traditions of theatre that have been superseded and suppressed by the dramatic tradition. I am certain that already in the near future the rediscovery and a new high esteem of these traditions will lead to an unheard of outburst of creativity which may enter into unexpected liaisons with the dramatic.[4]

Your expectations are already manifest in the growing recognition of indigenous African performances as authentic theatre traditions in their own right. This explains why, on behalf of my colleagues in Africa, I join the global body of theatre critics and scholars to celebrate you this day as an eminent and internationally recognised theatre scholar of the twenty-first century. That your book Postdramatic Theatre has been translated into more than twenty languages in less than two decades of its release further justifies your recognition as a worthy winner of the 2018 edition of the coveted Thalia Prize.

Congratulations!


[1] Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa, Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1970, 500.

[2] Most of the debate by European and African scholars on this matter are reproduced in Yemi Ogunbiyi (ed.) Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Source Book, Lagos: Nigeria Magazine, 1980.

[3] Hans-Thies Lehmann’s comments on postdramatic theatre quoted here is contained in a goodwill message he sent to the 2018 International Scientific symposium hosted December 11-12, 2018, as part of the 2018 International Carthage Theatre Festival held in Tunis, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Tunisia.

[4] The same as 3 above. 


*Emmanuel S. Dandaura is a Festival Director and Professor of Participatory Communication and Performance Aesthetics with the Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria. He is President of the Nigerian section of the International Association of Theatre Critics and member of the International Executive Committee of the IATC. Dandaura has over 86 published articles in highly rated international academic journals and currently serves as editor of Nzeh Magazine, Nigeria’s flagship magazine dedicated to exposing Africa’s Culture and Tourism destinations.

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Tribute to Professor Hans-Thies Lehmann on the Occasion of His Investiture as the 2018 IATC Thalia Laureate