A Century of South African Theatre

By Loren Kruger
273 pp. Methuen Drama

Reviewed by Temple Hauptfleisch*

In recent years, I have been having a great deal of fun delving into the recesses of numerous online archival sites, biographies, obituaries, blogs and other personal accounts of the ebb and flow of theatre and performance, in search of information for my own online encyclopedia project (ESAT).[1] In the course of this quest, I have increasingly become aware of a few uncomfortable yet fundamental problems with all so-called “histories” or “overviews”—not only of the arts, but really of everything in the domain of human endeavour.  Besides the fact that no such work can ever truly claim to be all encompassing or “complete” (at best it can only seek to be as comprehensive as possible—and then battle to keep up to date).

Furthermore, if published in book form, such works can seldom last as the authoritative source for more than a year or two before they begin to require correction and expansion. New things are constantly taking place and require to be taken into account, thus potentially affecting our interpretation not only of current history, but of past events as well. Similarly, the past is constantly being revised for various reasons, as we all know. This takes place not only in terms of new material that has been, or may yet be, uncovered, but is also affected by the way we look at things (theoretically as well as methodologically) at a particular time: nothing remains stable, and perspective has a great deal to do with it.  

Hence, perhaps understandably, the predominance of digital platforms and publications today, since such “publications” are far more easily kept up to date.

Such issues become even more complicated of course when one starts thinking systemically or, in the case of South Africa, polysystemically about the interpretation, role, impact and practical functioning of theatre and performance in society: the variants involved are absolutely mind-blowing.[2] These thoughts inevitably arose again while I was reading Loren Kruger’s new book. The title initially had me fooled, as it might many a reader, for it led me to expect some kind of encompassing overview of the ebb-and-flow of theatre and performance in the country since 1920. However, I soon perceived that, far from being a totally new publication, A Century of South African Theatre is in fact an updated version of Prof. Kruger’s impressive and widely known 1999 monograph, The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics since 1910 (Routledge).

Published by Methuen out of London in their series Cultural Histories of Theatre and Performance (edited by Claire Cochrane and Bruce McConachie), the new book was completed in 2018 and published in 2019 (though the final copy I received is dated 2020). So, the additional material contained in the book largely appears to derive from events that caught Kruger’s attention over the course of the past 20 years. Various new insights about and interpretations of previously discussed events are noted and discussed by the author and have been added at various points in the book.

The cover of the 1999 book refers to it as “the first comprehensive account of drama and performance in twentieth century South Africa.” In the amended version of 2020, this particular claim is not made in so many words, though the first sentence of Kruger’s “Acknowledgements” does suggest something similar with a statement that the book “documents more than a hundred years of theatre and performance” (this is repeated on page 16 of the Introduction). In addition, the cover blurb of 2020 quotes Mark Sanders as saying, “Loren Kruger’s grasp of the history of South African theatre is unparalleled.”

One realizes, of course, that the primary function of all cover material is to sell the book and flattering generalities are part of any marketing strategy—modesty has seldom sold books. However, such somewhat hyperbolic assumptions of primacy, comprehensiveness and uniqueness do raise a few questions about the general aim and scope of Kruger’s two books and, in particular, the nature and value of the new edition.

The 1999 Project

The initial study was based on the (then) latest theoretical models about drama, theatre and performance studies, aligned with a series of new insights, creative practices, facts and perceptions pertaining to events taking place in South Africa and its arts—most of which had surfaced in the preceding two decades, especially the volatile and creative period from the late 1970s to the beginning of the 1990s. This coincided with both a radicalizing of theatre and performance practice on many fronts and a remarkable burgeoning academic interest in drama, theatre and performance research in the country itself, for by the late 1970s and early 1980s a growing number of publications had appeared that emphasised the “re-discovery” of a whole spectrum of forgotten/previously ignored performance forms and traditions, and recorded the syncretic use made of such forms by a number of local theatre-makers and companies.[3]

So, though Kruger’s book was very much a key publication, one that skilfully summarised and interpreted a number of radical shifts in our view of the nature and range of theatre and theatrical systems in the country, it was certainly not the first—nor the only one—to do so. Nevertheless, by tapping into the “discovery/re-discovery” of a whole spectrum of forgotten/previously ignored performance forms and traditions by a number of pioneering studies in the 1970s, Kruger’s study became a significant contributor to the drive to revise and expand the general view of what constitutes “theatre” in Southern Africa.

For example, the book sensibly tended to avoid the Eurocentric notions of drama and theatre (and most of the “imported” texts) to place an emphasis on a much wider interpretation of “theatre” and its occurrence in indigenous work, including such matters as ritualistic performances, dances and songs,  celebratory public events and pageants, and the gradual evolution of a number of new syncretic, urban and rural, performance forms—and, in particular, the rise of the notion of a radical theatre of protest and the use of the arts as a weapon in the struggle for emancipation and freedom.

What made Kruger’s work relatively unique and very useful at that time, especially for students, lecturers and serious researchers, was that she—unlike many other national and international commentators and writers then and since—really sought to be much less parochial and blinkered in her approach to the subject and the scope of her inquiry. For instance, she based her argument on a wider and more eclectic range of examples than was usual at the time, drawing them from the broader spectrum of eleven official South African languages and a variety of political and cultural groupings. This was at the time in strong contrast to the majority of the more parochial writers from the earlier parts of the century, who tended—for a variety of understandable historical and ideological reasons—to limit themselves to works created in a specific language, a specific region and/or a specific form of theatre.

Responding to and engaging with the writings of her predecessors and contemporaries, Kruger thus set out to creatively transform the sum total of new and alternative material she had collected, and produced an impressive and timely contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the way South African theatre and performance had evolved and contributed to the overall South African debate.

In view of the foregoing, like many other theatre researchers and critics at the time, I was greatly impressed by the quality of the work when it first appeared and for the past 20 years I have considered Kruger’s 1999 study as one of the more useful English surveys of key themes and events in the evolution of drama, theatre and performance in the country during the twentieth century. Hence, I have tended to refer international colleagues and all novices in the field to the book as essential reading for anyone hoping to understand the complexity of the greater theatrical system in the country.

However, my recommendation usually came with two important caveats to be borne in mind by readers: First, as reviewers such as Edwin Hees pointed out at the time, the book does not offer an easily accessible chronological history of the theatre, for it is, in the first place, an academic interpretation of certain events that took place in that long, complex and controversial cultural history. Second, the book has a clearly outlined and narrow focus on the socio-cultural and political impact of works written or created in South Africa, and more specifically works that actually make pertinent and positive suggestions for change.

In other words, it concerns itself with a small but vital sub-section of the total range of performed activities and events taking place in any country, and certainly in South Africa, during the twentieth century. So, virtually all forms of European traditional theatre (unless adapted), most of the commercial theatre, experimental student theatre or the vast untapped body of amateur and semi-professional theatre, are hardly touched upon. The latter mentioned forms are more often discussed in other, less literary and/or applied studies, such as F.C.L Bosman’s two epic histories (published in Afrikaans in 1928 and 1980 respectively) and Percy Tucker’s entertainingly informal but equally valuable 1997 study, Just the Ticket: My 50 Years in Show Business.

The New Version of 2020

In this volume, A Century of South African Theatre, Kruger largely maintains the general approach discussed above and utilizes the same basic structure. The titles of chapters and sub-sections do differ at times of course, allowing for the introduction of new material and insights, with each chapter dealing with a specific theme. However, the chapters also interact flexibly with one another, containing many useful cross-references to issues occurring elsewhere. What the work as a whole presents is therefore a coherent account of Kruger’s particular and outspoken analysis of a selection of key anti-colonial and anti-apartheid elements in the political theatre of the twentieth century and the nature of what Kruger herself labels “testimonial theatre.”

The book starts off with a brief but important discussion of the meaning of “theatre” in a (Southern) African context and the notion of a distinctive African mode of performance (citing such local practitioner-theorists as Herbert Dhlomo, Mafika Gwala, Credo Mutwa, Sipho Sepamla, and others), which leads on to a comparatively complex theoretical introduction on the nature of cultural products—and specifically theatre and performance—as a public space for debate and a weapon of protest and resistance in a fragmented country. In the chapters that follow, we find substantial discussions of a number of main themes, viewed from the forgoing point of view, the themes tending to revolve around the idea of theatre and performance as a form of public protest.

So, we have a chapter on “Commemorating and Contesting Emancipation,” which offers an extremely valuable discussion of public celebratory events as theatrical events, followed by chapters titled “New Africans, Neocolonial Theatre and ‘An African National Dramatic Movement’” and “City against Country,” both touching on the dramatic theories and texts of Herbert Dhlomo and the influence of the so-called “New Africans” on the various types of anti-apartheid protests that would follow. In a shift of emphasis, “Dry White Seasons” briefly describes the rise and fall of the Afrikaner and his/her cultural aspirations, as portrayed in a few examples of Afrikaans political theatre—rather interestingly without any reference to André P. Brink’s well-known novel of that name, his own informative study of the “New Afrikaans Drama,” nor his trenchant political plays.

The following chapter, “Dramas of Black Solidarity,” concerns the theatrical activities inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement and the pivotal role that this incentive would play later—an important new theme in theatre studies of the 1980s. “Spaces and Markets” comes next, exploring the concept of “theatre as testimony” and the rise of stable yet independent alternative theatre companies and venues in the country in the 1970s and 1980s.

In “Spring is Rebellious,” Kruger discusses the world that followed the stirring political events of 1994 and the period she—perhaps most fittingly—refers to as “Post-Anti-Apartheid Theatre” and follows this with her final chapter: “The Constitution of South African Theatre at the Present Time”—a somewhat misleading title in this case given the disappointingly narrow scope of the discussion that it contains.

To round it all off, Kruger chooses to replace the conventional practice of tying together the various strings of the overarching argument in a concluding chapter, with something much more tentative. Arguing that the previous chapter ends with the year 2018, that is, at the start of what may or may not be a new political dispensation in the country under President Cyril Ramaphosa, the book concludes with a simple, one-page and open-ended “Coda,” in which she names and outlines a slightly academic-cryptic list of four “nodes of inquiry” that she had found recurring throughout her work. They are: “Genres of performance,” “Languages and Legacies,” “Words and Music” and “Audiences and Advocates as Active Publics.”  

From the start, the 2020 book, once again, impresses as an ambitious undertaking. Like Kruger’s own claim that the book documents a century of theatrical events (noted above), the title and list of contents seem to suggest that A Century of South African Theatre is to be an attempt to write a relatively comprehensive overview of the history of drama, theatre and performance in South Africa. This notion is reinforced, rather than tempered, by the fact that it has been published in Cochrane and McConachie’s admirable Cultural Histories of Theatre and Performance series. However, a closer reading should soon convince the reader that—just as in the case of The Drama of South Africa—this impression may be a little misleading, for the book ultimately does not offer a really accessible or comprehensive introduction to and overview of the total history of drama, theatre and performance in the country, and most emphatically not a consistently chronological one.

Having said that, I might add that it equally soon becomes clear to any serious reader that—judged by internal evidence—this was, in fact, never the true intention of Kruger’s project. What the study clearly does offer is a book length and seriously academic attempt to discuss a number of stimulating and highly relevant themes in a critical and comparative way, from her specific theoretical perspective, which tends to lean towards the sociological and literary end of the theoretical spectrum. So, the book—like its predecessor—rather (and perhaps far more importantly) consists of a well-structured and incisive set of in-depth cultural-sociological and cultural-political analyses of key tipping points or themes (as outlined above), providing incisive, largely persuasive, academic interpretations of selected events from the past 100 years. In addition, the new material that has been incorporated is clearly intended to augment (or even adjust) the specifics of the arguments and—at least by implication—to support proposals for the correction of factual and interpretational errors made by other writers and critics.

Kruger’s book is finely attuned to the times, of course, for the overall approach she uses is one that was not only highly relevant and popular during the so-called “Cultural Struggle” period of the late 1970s and 1980s, but one that appears to have gained new momentum in recent years. This is especially true for a younger generation of critics and researchers concerned with a new set of realities in the country.

The one inevitable downside of Kruger’s theoretical and structural decisions, for those wanting an accessible and relatively comprehensive introduction to South African theatre, is a problem it shares with many more academic publications locally in South Africa and elsewhere in the world. It quite simply cannot detail the full history, or the current shape of, the larger, more encompassing and wide-spread South African theatrical polysystem in the space allotted, nor can it map the broad and diverse sweep of all the performing arts in the country, or what is often referred to as the entertainment industry. So, inevitably, many superb, but apolitical, plays, events and performances are not mentioned, nor are most theatrical companies, especially not purely commercial enterprises and productions. Virtually all forms of light entertainment are eschewed, as are productions of international plays or visits by international companies (unless of course the work has been adapted to address contemporary issues of South Africa).

While all of this is understandable, it is still rather regrettable, for what seems to get lost by the wayside is not only some essential details about the plays, companies and persons (often only referred to in passing), but, more crucially perhaps, insight into the impact (both negative and positive) that a few keyshifts in the larger polysystem have had in the shaping of the total South African cultural scene. For example, in the earlier sections, the role of state-funded institutions, such as the National Theatre Organization (NTO) and the later Performing Arts Councils, are given rather short shrift in the narrative, while the later chapters seem to take little notice of the wide-ranging funding provided (if all goes well) by the National Arts Council, which had replaced the apartheid-era state theatres and funding systems at the start of the 1990s, as part of the transition to what was to be a more democratic and equitable dispensation in the “New South Africa.”

Equally bemusing is the fact that surprisingly little attention is given to the very significant role played by the festivalization of culture in the country, when over 40 widely dispersed and multi-cultural arts festivals have come to prominence since the mid-1990s. Often referred to as the “festival circuit” in the country, this phenomenon is probably one of the most significant changes to come about in the way theatre and performance operates in South Africa. Not only did the festivals provide a new kind of framework for opening up theatre to everyone and becoming significant and popular venues for the presentation of both old and new work, they also became another way of ensuring a livelihood for professional artists after the demise of the state-funded systems. More importantly perhaps, the festivals themselves have become meta-theatrical events in their own right, drawing diverse audiences from all parts of the country and often serving as agents for the eventification of crucial societal issues and, in many cases, providing a (temporary) public space for the kind of debate that the study itself seeks to address.[4] It would have been most interesting to have had Kruger’s take on this.

The foregoing comments inevitably bring me back to the potential reader and the way in which the choices made by Kruger could affect the achievement of her aims for the book. As already noted, the book is not an easy read, nor is it an accessible one for a novice in the field. It is unashamedly academic and erudite, written by a highly informed and diligent researcher and clearly intended to set up a provocative dialogue with the author’s peers, fellow university lecturers and post-graduate students, particularly those specializing in Southern African studies.  As a result, any true novice in the field (among which I would count a number of researchers and students in other countries, increasingly from the rest of Africa) would almost certainly have some trouble following the argument. Besides possibly being hampered by the dense academic writing and the range of theories and theoreticians brought into play, many a reader would be at something of a loss when faced with Kruger’s side-references to many plays, events and people that are not really discussed and may not necessarily be familiar to people outside the discipline.  The result of all this is that one could almost face a kind of “Catch 22” situation, especially where undergraduate students and non-academic theatre lovers are concerned. Simply stated: To really understand and appreciate the book, and use it as an introduction to the history of South African theatre, the reader should actually already have a relatively good idea about theatre and the contextual socio-political situation in the country.

Fortunately, given what seem to be the specific aims of Kruger’s publication, this latter issue is not a particularly problematic matter, for one of the aims is surely the traditional academic one of questioning prevalent beliefs and assumptions held by the readers themselves—and in that sense the book is basically on target.

A Concluding Word

Perhaps not everyone would go as far as Mark Sanders and rate Loren Kruger’s grasp of the history of South African theatre as “unparalleled,” for she is but one of quite a number of prolific and often very impressive authors active in the field. Nevertheless, few of her peers would really deny that Kruger has certainly established herself as one of the foremost figures on that roll. Always a formidable commentator, she also has an interesting personal perspective on the role of theatre and performance matters in the country and a stimulating and challenging approach to addressing the issues. The views as expressed in this book should undoubtedly be taken seriously in any (re)evaluation of the role played by theatre and performance over the course of the past 100 years.

In summary, though this new version does not ultimately provide that encompassing general overview and analysis of the broader history a reader may have hoped for, A Century of South African Theatre, like its predecessor, does constitute a rather timely and important contribution to our ongoing debate. It is well-presented and provocative, and it is one, I believe, which should be in the library of any serious theatre researcher, theatre maker or student.

Works Cited

Cremona, Vicky Ann, et al. Theatrical Events: Borders Dynamics Frames. Rodopi, 2004.

ESAT Bibliography. Accessed 7 Feb. 2020.

ESAT. Entry on “Loren Kruger.” Accessed 7 Feb. 2020.

Even-Zohar, Itamar. “Polysystem Theory.” Poetics Today, vol. 1, no. 1–2, 1979, pp. 287–310.

Hauptfleisch, Temple. “Critical Responses: The Evolution of the Theatre Critic in South Africa.” Syncretic Arenas: Essays in Postcolonial African Drama and Theatre for Esiaba Irobi, edited by Isidore Diala, vol. 177, Rodopi, 2014, Cross/Cultures.

—. “From Trance Dance to PaR: Theatre and Performance Studies in South Africa.” Trends in Twenty-First Century African Theatre and Performance, edited by Kene Igweonu, Rodopi, 2011.

—. Theatre and Society in South Africa: Reflections in a Fractured Mirror. Van Schaik, 1997.

Hees, Edwin. 2001. “Loren Kruger: The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics Since 1910.” South African Theatre Journal, vol. 15, 2001, pp. 192–4.

Kruger, Loren. A Century of South African Theatre. Methuen Drama, 2020.

—. The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics Since 1910. Routledge, 1999.

Lewis, Simon. “Lewis on Kruger: ‘The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics Since 1910.’” H-AfrLitCine, 2001.

Tucker, Percy. Just the Ticket: My 50 Years in Show Business. Witwatersrand University Press, 1997.


[1]The Encyclopaedia of South African Theatre, Film, Media and Performance (Website)

[2]See Even-Zohar on the notion of polysystem theory and Hauptfleisch on its relevance for the South African theatrical system.

[3]For more on the evolution of research and criticism in South Africa, see, for example, two overview-articles by Hauptfleisch (2011, 2014). For other substantive publications on theatre in South Africa, towards the end of the twentieth century, see the Bibliography of the Encyclopaedia of South African Theatre, Film, Media and Performance (ESAT).

[4]For a discussion of the concepts theatrical events, festivalization and eventification, and an outline of the festival circuit in South Africa, see Cremona et al. 


*Temple Hauptfleisch was founder of the Centre for Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Stellenbosch and was a long-time Chair of the University’s Theatre Department. He retired in 2010 to devote his time to the online Encyclopedia of South African Theatre, Film, Media and Performance (ESAT). Co-founder and Editor for many years of the South African Theatre Journal, he has also been a member of the editorial boards of the journals Critical ArtsAfrican Performance Review, Critical Perspectives, and Critical Stages.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email