Vol. 21 No. 1 Spring/ Printemps 2000

HELEN GILBERT. (Post)Colonial Stages: Critical and Creative Views on Drama, Theatre and Performance. West Yorkshire: Dangaroo Press, 1999. 279 pp. £14.95 paper.


(Post)Colonial Stages is a much-needed collection in a burgeoning field which is, as yet, under-published. Ambitious in its geographical coverage and eclectic in its objects of study and critical approaches, the collection gathers essays from many of the leading postcolonial theatre scholars and playwrights working in the anglophone world. Essay subjects range from nineteenth-century Bengali theatre to the welcoming ceremony of the 1994 Commonwealth Games, from New-Zealand dance-theatre to Nigerian drama. Excerpts from the hard to find performance texts of Jamaica's Sistren theatre collective, Singapore playwright Chin Woon Ping, and American-Indian playwright, William Yellow Robe, Jr., demonstrate a range of creative responses to varying postcolonial conditions including collective creation, episodic dramaturgy, and dramatic realism. Judiciously chosen and excerpted, each performance text develops its own critical language.

The volume follows a clear thematic organisational pattern. The first four essays focus on nationalist concerns in colonial theatre in India, South Africa, Australia, and Canada during the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. The second four consider the complications of "internal colonialism" in the cases of the Québécois, indigenous Canadians, and indigenous Australians; the excerpt from Yellow Robe's Sneaky and an interview with Maori playwright Hone Kouka round out this section. The third unit gathers essays on the theme of intercultural theatrical collaboration. The fourth grouping apply the theories of Bhabha, Mbembe, the Subaltern Studies Group, and Kristeva to dramatic work. The interrelationship of gender and postcolonialism takes centre stage in the last section; Sistren's Buss Out and Ping's From San Jose to San Jose are welcome dramatic commentaries on that link.

Each critical essay works from a particular performance text or texts; most conduct an historically inflected, site-specific deconstruction. The selection of essays of this kind has both merits and detractions. Among its merits are the richness and depth often achieved in close readings of performance texts in relation to the cultural discourses and economic necessities of postcoloniality. Exemplary in this regard is Loren Kruger's essay on the early twentieth-century pageants and treks that sought to naturalize Afrikaner presence in South Africa and to oppose English industrial capitalism. The breadth of the essays taken together complements the depth of individual essays and encourages equally detailed comparative analysis of postcolonial theatrical traditions. Many exemplify the insights and approaches that theatre studies has to offer postcolonial studies: attention to non-text-based signs (see Salter), the ability to read across disparate discourses without elision or conflation (see Kelly), and engagement with reception dynamics (see McNaughton). A very few fall prey to the turgid prose sometimes associated with postcolonial theory; Bill Dunstone's article on indigenous Australian playwright Mudrooroo is, alas, one of these.

The detractions of this editorial choice include a sometimes insufficient contextualization of the artistic practices discussed (the interview with Kouka in particular comes to mind). It is difficult to fault Gilbert or the contributors for this problem; this is the Achilles heel of many edited volumes, particularly those seeking an informed but not necessarily specialized audience, as this one seems to be. Moreover, this quibble highlights a central challenge for the postcolonial theatre scholar: balancing the historical/contextual information for non-local readers with the need to engage specific theatre practices in their local complexity. That said, I respect the decision to let the pieces speak for themselves, without extended introduction, as another instance of the book's organisation adhering to a postcolonial logic that eschews summary contextualisation and overly broad comparison. The analyses of intercultural theatre productions come closest to the most illuminating balance, as it is precisely the act of translation between local(e)s which is at issue for them. Neloufer de Mel's analysis of the Ceylon University Dramatic Society's adaptations of plays by Soyinka and Osofisan was particularly insightful.

In her introduction, Gilbert signals her hope that the book "bring into focus the ways in which we might engage with and reflect upon theatre as a specific kind of text" (2). The volume achieves this goal in the particular. In fact, the majority of the contributors do this with such dexterity and persuasiveness that I thought their use of postcolonial literary theorists almost an unnecessary distraction. Though aware that this was not the mandate for the book, I found myself hoping for a more sustained reflection on how theatre--as a practice, a conceptual system, and critical vocabulary--contributes to and confounds the largely literary tradition of postcolonial studies. Apart from Gilbert's introduction, the essays gathered do little of that kind of meta-commentary on the disciplinary formations of postcolonial studies. Without that reflection, the essays applying postcolonial theory to theatrical works can seem more derivative than contestatory of that formation.

Alan Filewod's piece "Table for Two" which, rightly, closes the book, opens this avenue of investigation for postcolonial theatre critics. In what he calls a "critical autoperformance," Filewod reflects on the role of the postcolonial critic as one that forges relationships between not-necessarily like phenomena--in this case, The Noam Chomsky Lectures and an Australian play called Tokyo Two.

(Post)Colonial Stages is a valuable compendium of largely insightful articles and exemplary, if truncated, performance texts. Designed for the initiated and conceptualised in accordance with the interests and aims of postcolonial studies, it will be a boon to teachers and students of postcolonial theatre and, indeed, of theatre history in each of the regions represented.