Vol. 21 No. 1 Spring/ Printemps 2000

HELEN GILBERT and JOANNE TOMPKINS. Post-colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics. London: Routledge, 1996. 344 pp. $90.00 hardcopy. $27.99 paper.


Helen Gilbert's and Joanne Tompkins's Post-colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics is a welcome addition to postcolonial studies. Written with enviable clarity, the volume offers a range of complex theoretical issues which inform considerations of plays as "postcolonial," and applies theory in succinct analyses of a number of plays. Given that postcolonial studies is marked by contentious debates, beginning with what the very term "postcolonial" means, Gilbert and Tompkins are to be commended for not eliding thorny issues. Instead, they engage with them, producing a study which develops a set of frames for approaching postcolonial drama.

Post-colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics begins with a discussion of the history of postcolonial studies as emerging from Commonwealth studies, a sub-set of English studies. The introduction also includes a useful reminder of the varying and not always compatible understandings of the term "postcolonial." That most of their definitions come from literary scholars signals the location of this book as a study of drama; that is, of plays which are considered as scripts intended to be staged. This leads Gilbert and Tompkins to arrive at a four-point definition of postcolonial "performance" which involves: the response to imperialism, whether direct or indirect; the continuation and/or regeneration of colonized communities; the recognition that the history of a postcolonial state does not begin with the arrival of the colonizer and so, and insistence on the importance of pre-contact communities; and "acts which interrogate the hegemony that underlies imperial representation." Given my sense that Gilbert and Tompkins engage with "performance" mainly as it is inscribed in scripts as the "blue prints" for performance, their deployment of "performance" is problematic because they don't consider the material conditions under which scripts are written, and importantly, performed.

Further, the four defining elements which inform postcolonial performance suggest that the study assumes a binary of the colonizer and the colonized, valenced as the culture of the colonizer being coherent and "hegemonic," while that of the colonized is complex and variant, marked by difference which is celebrated in contemporary theory that is engaged politically. The problem of assuming that the culture of the colonized is hegemonic is signaled for me by a discussion Wole Soyninka's The Bacchae of Euripides which, the authors note, was written on commission from Britain's National Theatre in 1973. The question, not raised by Gilbert and Tompkins, is if Britain is a colonizer, surely the status of The Bacchae of Eurpides as a postcolonial text is problematic? "National," in the context of Britain's National Theatre, is a fraught term: whose "nation" is represented on its stages? In this context, the commission to Soyninka raises a host of questions. Was the commission a sign of Britain's recognition of its history as a colonizer as part of its national identity? What are the implications of a Nigerian playwright adapting The Bacchae for the National and thereby drawing the colonized within the classical traditions of the West? Is the commission a recognition of Britain's cultural diversity which includes among its citizens those who trace their heritage to Britain's former colonies? The binary of colonizer and colonized often renders the former as monolithic and the latter as diverse and polyvalent.

The schema of the binary of colonizer and colonized, with the former as culturally hegemonic and the latter as diverse and polyvalent, is a characteristic not just of this book, but of much postcolonial studies. Not only is such a schema a bit simple, but there is a sentimental idealization of the culture of the colonized which comes close to valuing diversity for its own sake. Consequently, this study, like many others in the field, dismisses the literatures of the United States because as a state, it has emerged from a colonial history to become a colonizing power in its own right. From one perspective, this exclusion might be seen as a consequence of the culture of the United States understood (perhaps misunderstood) as hegemonic, thus suggesting that postcolonial studies celebrates the diversity of cultural identities which are read as having been oppressed under the force of colonization.

The introduction moves to a consideration of the frames: "Re-citing the Classics: Canonical Counter-Disourse"; "Traditional Enactments: Ritual and Carnival"; "Post-colonial Histories"; "The Languages of Resistance"; "Body Politics"; and "Neo Imperialisms." In terms of Post-colonial Drama's usefulness as a text for teaching, these categories complement those outlined by Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin in The Empire Writes Back, a point raised by Alan Filewod in his review of the book which appeared in Theatre Journal (49:3 Oct. 1997). And, given that the latter book is concerned with post-colonial literatures, Gilbert's and Tompkins's book seems to start with drama as its point of departure and move to considerations of performance. I offer this as an observation rather than as a criticism of the Gilbert's and Tompkins's work which, rather importantly, insists on performativity inscribed by playscripts as having an important place in postcolonial studies. Strategically, Post-colonial Drama neatly complements The Empire Writes Back, making the case for the relevance of drama within the domain of postcolonial literary studies which have often been inattentive to playscripts, save consideration of canonical writers like Shakespeare.

Strategy inevitably involves limitations. The limitations of Post-colonial Drama, which focuses on performance as coded within the script, and not reaching past to consider the conditions of performance, are throughout the book but became pronounced to me in the chapter "Body Politics."

"Body Politics" assumes that scripts are to be performed by actors, and so the actor's body is a site for the production of meaning in the theatre. We read bodies as marked by race (the hue of skin) and (by gender) the social meanings assigned to bodies which are biologically sexed. Gilbert and Tompkins offer perspectives on the body which are clear, beginning with a pointed reminder of the problem of Olivier's use of black face to play Othello in the early 1960s. Following that, there is a discussion of how race is deployed so that non-white characters become exotic in ways that both heighten their appeal to an audience and simultaneously diminish them precisely because they are exotic and "other." The implicit point is that the assumption that the audience for this spectacle of race is white, and the construction of race depends on notions of "otherness." As Diana Fuss outlines in her introduction to the anthology Inside/out, the construction of otherness is ideological; the dominant in this case, the affluent audience attending the theatrical performance reads the other in relation to itself as the norm against which "otherness" is constructed.

Clearly, given Gilbert's and Tompkins's reading of plays by non-white writers, the fundamentals of this point are understood. What seems missing from the discussion is the ways in which ideologies of "whiteness" clearly are implicated in the project of empire which crucially depend on alterity as a way of a white colonizer ascribing to non-white, colonized subjects anxieties which are, finally, about the colonizer's relation to whiteness.

When gender is engaged, the metaphoric value of bodies on stage, circulating as producers of meaning, is explored to a degree. The focus of the discussion on gender, clearly informed by feminist theory, is women. Gilbert and Tompkins readily address the ways that the female body, with its procreative potential, is read in varying ways within postcolonial drama. Sometimes, women writers refuse the romance of maternity, and like Judith Thompson, explore the terror of motherhood. Some writers, notably men, deploy the fecund female body as a metaphor for the rejuvenation of the colonized, a problematic troping which relies on the reduction of woman to her body. Represented as such, women are defined by their reproductive capacity as if they are devoid of the intellect which would allow them to engage in the sphere of political debate in terms of the state, the site of legislative which marks some level of the actualization of the politics of postcolonialism. Gilbert and Tompkins do address the implications of turning the female body into a metaphor, but their own project is so located in the context of textual analysis that the force of metaphor isn't articulated fully. The bodies of actors are not neutral media which are shaped into characters; rather actors arrive at rehearsal with bodies which are formed by the material conditions of the world in which they live.

For students of theatre, Post-colonial Drama is important because it insists that plays are part of the culture of postcolonial countries, and critics discussing them have important contributions to make to discussions of postcolonial studies. The limitation of this study, like many others in the field, is the failure to acknowledge that the relationship between the colonized and colonizer is defined by an economic relation: countries colonize other countries in order to exploit them.

The exclusion of the material as an axis defining postcolonialism risks postcoloniality being an aesthetic. Postcolonialism must engage questions of power; questions of power and colonial relations are never far removed from considerations of the material. In the context of studying drama and theatre, postcolonial studies need to engage with the material conditions of production and their implications.

None of these comments are meant to detract from the usefulness of Post-colonial Drama in opening ways of reading postcolonial drama; nor to detract from book's strategies which locate the study of postcolonial drama as a legitimate and important sphere of literary study. The book is a point of departure and invites scholars to take up considerations of the elided concern of the material.