By Robert Greig* (South Africa)

Author (and Actor): Stuart Taylor. Director: Heinrich Reisenhofer. Venue: Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, 2009.

The Coloured people, the majority population group of the Western Cape and 10 percent of the national population, have multiple origins. They are descendants of the native inhabitants; slaves imported from the Far East in the 17th and 18th centuries; and of miscegenation involving Whites, Blacks and Indians.
For decades, they have been in the double bind of being, in their words: “Too white to be treated as black and too brown to be treated as white.”
Before apartheid, especially in Cape Town, they were more integrated into white society that non-white[1] people elsewhere in the country. Apartheid in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, saw them forcibly removed from Cape Town and its suburbs to barren, distant wasteland townships.

This, inter alia, terminated their access and contribution to urban theatre-based performing arts, though their strong and varied performance tradition continued. In the late 1970s racial bars to racially mixed theatre audiences were lifted – replaced by a permit system. But only now in the Cape is the majority population becoming a majority theatre audience.

Though formal barriers had been removed, the barriers of distance, cost, education and ready access had remained. Democracy brought economic boom which has translated into greater access to education, jobs and more mobility. Descendants of those exiled to the townships are, as part of upward mobility, returning to the city and its suburbs: the logistical barriers to formal theatre-going are falling and now, in the Western Cape at least and at national festivals, Coloured attendances are rising. And the experiences and conventions they bring to theatre are changing it too.


Learner Husband is a one-person work about marriage created and staged by Stuart Taylor, a science graduate of the former icon of Afrikaner Nationalism, Stellenbosch University, some 50 kilometers from Cape Town.  Mainly Coloured Cape Town audiences have greeted it rapturously; it is now touring nationally; a “How to” Leaner Husband manual is extending the reach of the theatre work.

Learner Husband itself does not allude directly to any social contexts of gender relations; but the work’s very existence is, in a sense, an oblique allusion. One contextual element is a country with one of the highest rates of domestic violence[2] in the world. Marriages tend to be characterized by male absenteeism leaving women responsible for maintaining a family. Broadly, the violence is a symptom and effect of long-standing social dislocation. Alcohol and drugs contribute to the syndrome of abuse – the Cape is a wine-growing region with a high incidence of rape: one side-effect is a high rate of HIV-Aids infection. Precise national or regional figures of the violence are unavailable; official figures perforce show only reported cases.

The work was staged in the large theatre in a Baxter theatre complex, part of the University of Cape Town set on a mountain aside about the suburbs to which many Coloured people are now returning from the townships, their lights visible from outside the theatre.

This particular theatre tends to be used for concerts and dance: it has a proscenium arch and broad and deep stage.

The overall aim of the production is to empower married men and women through better understanding of the dynamics between them. The social purpose is to encourage men to assume responsibility – and assert authority.

Learner Husband exhibits many demotic and other performance conventions; it fuses those of formal Western theatre-based performance with the performance conventions  related to theatrical events in schools, churches and community halls and, of course, on TV. It includes elements of stand-up comedy; the lecture, the sermon, the seminar and the how-to guide. Finally it uses the convention of autobiographical testimony – a point of departure is Taylor’s testimony about his own marriage.

On the night I attended, the audience of some 700 seemed made up of male and female couples and was, I estimated, 95 percent Coloured. Taylor addressed the male members of the audience; female members “overheard”: their experience of performance included their partners’ reactions.  Anecdotes and jokes both surfaced gender differences and became binding mechanisms for the audience generally and individual partners specifically.

The set – a series of large, primary coloured building blocks, like a child’s enlarged – bisects the stage reducing depth. The blocks are storage facilities for props and form a screen behind which Taylor changes costume thus maintaining a continuous stage presence: his disappearances act as a phrasing to sustain expectancy. The building blocks also allude to one of his themes – the importance of balance and acceptance of difference in marriage. Their allusion to play parallels Taylor’s initial tone and the event itself.

His script begins with autobiographical descriptions of his adolescence in the densely populated townships of the Cape Flats. The description is suffused with references to the townships’ notorious gangster gangs; to patterns of lengthy commuting to work; to neighbourhood communities, their friendships and rivalries; and thence to adolescent dating rituals. Language and anecdotes – in a rich, jeering patois of mingled English and Afrikaans – encourage audience identification with the familiar and the typical; the language helps create acceptance and understanding between audience and performer of: a consensus. This is the basis for didacticism that follows.

Taylor’s comedy relaxes the audience and established his credentials. It also helps counteract the top-down performer-audience relationship of the theatre’s configuration.

Taylor’s character ages as the work moves from performance (Taylor performing Taylor as an adolescent) to lecture.  His use of the Cape Coloured argot diminishes – during, for example, the account of his wedding ceremony – as his character moves from adolescent male bonding to marriage.  Loss of argot becomes associated with gaining of maturity, marital responsibility and then upward social mobility. Being adult involves dispensing with the language and styles of the ghetto gang.

Taylor also alludes to marriage involving a geographical shift based on the formation of a new economic unit, independent of the family and community. This represents a break with the past where marriage did not alter existing family units.  In Taylor’s work, married children do not simply move away from their parents because they are married; they move because they can and because, being better educated and with greater access to opportunity and riches, they can.
At the same time, Taylor depicts marriage as replacing community networks with individual interdependence: the many voices of the extended family and community become the two of the couple. In this context, Taylor shows, outsiders tend to be female friends of the wife – regarded by the husband with some unease and suspicion.

In Taylor’s depiction, especially for the wife marriage involves isolation; he identifies reducing this as part of a husband’s responsibilities.  He urges sensitivity to the social effects of gender difference: women with children may be more isolated from the work than men.

Implicit in Taylor’s work is the suggestion that women, not men, understand and can cope with differences. Men have formal physical and economic power; women the power and influence of interpersonal sensitivity. Much of the humour – its jibes at male emotional myopia and male misconceptions – rests on this traditional gender stereotype. Taylor, as a man, uses ruefulness – the air of experience emerging from an acceptance of past mistakes. This tone positions him as a credible, honest and experienced veteran of struggle; a convert who has seen – and shares – the light; and as a trusted witness and guide. Jokiness extends the egalitarian relationship with the audience established earlier in narratives about adolescence.

For example, Taylor refers to the loaded silence of the wife. “What’s wrong?”

He enacts the heavy sigh of his wife followed by “Nothing!” – a defeated, dying but suggestive fall. The audience laughs. The advice: Hang in; stay with her; explore.

In early sections, anecdotes of typicality are stacked like bricks of laughter to build trust. Later the edifice becomes a platform for admonition and instruction. A performance of self-revelation – of witness (“This is what I do”) – leads to exhortations addressed to men: “When your wife does this, this is what you must do: keep in touch, don’t leave her, don’t back away into separate corners.” Stand by your woman.

As sermon and exhortation, tip or injunction predominate, so Taylor’s ranging movements settle and become fixed. Performer becomes witness becomes authority; movement becomes immobility. Authority over the audience replaces collegiality with.

The final section becomes interactive but in a context of command and common task. Men are asked to complete a questionnaire – a bureaucratic equivalent of religious call and response. The responses impel further direct appeals and instruction to men to participate in their marriages and attend to their wives.

This shift from the performance conventions and styles – from egalitarian to hierarchical – causes a rebellious interregnum among some men in the audience. They try to assert power with interjections, heckling and in one case with aggression and subversion.

One heckler referred to “sex from behind” as a marital problem solver: sex is absent from Taylor’s script. The interjection challenged the parameters of the stage discourse from the stage; it undermined Taylor’s performance and authority. It drew attention to sex as an arena of marital behaviour, and from the social roles in marriage.

The audience reaction was mixed. Some – mainly women – booed but full-throated laugher came from men and women alike. It is impossible to analyse audience response accurately: laughter may have indicated mature acknowledgement of common experience or covered embarrassment or at the private being made public. The laughter did not suggest outrage; there were no walk outs.

Nevertheless, at this point the audience seemed united in an experience of transgression which shifted their focus from performer to the commons of the auditorium. The shift was also of emphasis – to the private from the public; it highlighted the limitations of the performer’s authority and credibility. And the reference asserted the existence of male power and force that Taylor had only alluded to as a factor that should be ignored. Cumulatively, the interjection highlighted the gulf between artifice and life while also pointing at context issues of sexual abuse of women by men.

Stuart Taylor, in Learner Husband, by Stuart Taylor, Cape Town, 2009 © Baxter Theatre
Stuart Taylor, in Learner Husband, by Stuart Taylor, Cape Town, 2009
© Baxter Theatre

Taylor’s show does not directly allude to social context or sexuality; the interjection thus revealed the show’s limitations. It thus also indicated the complicity of “just entertainment” by paying customers with social silences  about abuse.

The interjection also has the effect of suggesting the inelasticity of the Taylor’s theatrical conventions and the degree to which they cue the audience to expect the familiar. At the same time, the audience member’s profanity recalled Lovburg’s double entendre to Hedda in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler about “using the back entrance”. The echo suggests that a conventional stage play may have the scope and latitude to at least touch on issues and contexts that Taylor’s demotic forms exclude.

Taylor faced the interjection with an indrawn breath, a helpless shrug, laugh and with lifted eyebrows and arms appealing to the audience.  His physical mechanisms acknowledged interruption but he remained outside the terrain revealed.  He neither used performance styles nor stepped out of them to accommodate experience excluded from a crafted performance about marital relations. His silence was consistent with the wider society’s.
The production remained rooted in the familiar and polite.  Still, what distinguished it was that it had taken a step towards making public the private marital experience. Taylor “creates the possibilities for others”[3].

In a context where the civil institution of marriage is also considered by a society to be private and thus exempt from social scrutiny – except after the commission of a criminal offence involving assault – Taylor’s theatre breaks ground.

Learner Husband would have been unlikely during or immediately after apartheid. In a sense, it represents a process of post-apartheid normalization. It represents a shift of theatrical focus from the “big issues” of racial discrimination and political power to the domestic realm and to personal choice, responsibility and accountability. Learner Husband’s treats social and political change as givens; the terra incognita that it enters is individual relationships, formerly considered incidental in times of dramatic change, and the topic regarded as an evasion of political responsibility.Learner Husband asserts the primacy and power of the individual, rather than the community, the party, the movement, history or government.


[1] “Non-white” was used extensively and pejoratively under early apartheid to describe all who were not Caucasian. In the “new” South Africa the old racial designations (“White”. “Coloured”, “Asian” and “Black”) continue to be used, reflecting continued inequalities. These terms are sometimes portrayed as administrative tools to identifying and thus eliminate the effects of past injustice. In this context the term “Coloured” is used non-pejoratively to refer to a specific group of marginalised Creole people living in the Western Cape, the people featured in the play under discussion.
[2] 2008 Human Rights Report: South Africa by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the United States State department “Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal but remained a serious problem. According to the 2007 08 SAPS annual report, the reported incidence of rape from April to December 2007 decreased 8.8 percent from the comparable nine-month period in 2006. However, over 4,000 rapes were reported on average each month, alongside 750 additional cases per month of assault.
Further, the Medical Research Council estimated that only one in nine rapes was reported to SAPS, as in most cases the attackers were friends or family members of the victims, who therefore were afraid or reluctant to press charges. This estimate implies that half a million women suffered sexual violence. The NGO Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) reported that one in three South African women would be raped in her lifetime.”
“According to a 2008 study by SAPS and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, only 4.1 percent of reported cases resulted in convictions. One in every eight suspects was under the age of 17. In rape cases involving victims under the age of 16, one of every 10 cases resulted in a conviction.
“Domestic violence was pervasive and included physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, as well as harassment and stalking by former partners.
“According to NGOs, about one in four women were in abusive relationships, but few reported it. TAC counselors also alleged that doctors, police officers, and judges often treated abused women poorly.”
[3] On Lies, Secrets and Silences: Selected Prose 1966-1978 by Adrienne Rich (WW Norton, New York 1979)

*Robert Greig is one of South Africa’s most highly regarded arts journalists and theatre critics, having twice been the recipient of the Thomas Pringle Award for Drama Criticism. He taught drama theory, criticism and history at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1970s, before he moved into corporate business communications for a while, though continuing to write for a range of newspapers on financial matters as well and the arts, documenting the growth of South African theatre in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1996 he was appointed the arts editor of the prestigious weeklyThe Sunday Independent, a position he held till his retirement in 2007. He is also a published poet and winner of the Olive Schreiner Prize. He is currently part-time lecturer in theatre history at the University of Stellenbosch.

Copyright © 2009 Robert Greig
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Domestic silences exposed: Learner Husband