Battlers of the pen and stage

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and renowned playwright Ariel Dorfman chat to Greg Homann about speaking truth to power

There is a Yoruba saying that “as one approaches an elder’s status, one ceases to indulge in battles”. Whether that holds true for Wole Soyinka (76) and Ariel Dorfman (68) is moot. Both continue to make trenchant use of the pen and the stage — as Soyinka puts it in his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (Ayebia Clarke Publishers and Bookcraft) — in ways that have long served them as activists, essayists, poets and playwrights.

Both these internationally renowned literary figures recently completed whirlwind tours of South Africa, bouncing from one media interview to the next. When I arrive to meet Dorfman at 7.30am on a cold Jo’burg morning, he has already completed a live television interview and has back-to-back meetings scheduled throughout the day. I mention to him that I will be meeting Soyinka in a few days and he smiles and says that he suspects his friend will have quite different thoughts to his on theatre and the role of language and literature.

Dorfman, currently working on the second volume to his memoir, Heading South, Looking North (Penguin), was here to deliver the eighth annual Mandela Lecture organised by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Soyinka’s visit was to open the Cape Town Book Fair and promote the Southern African edition of his memoir, a rare collaboration between publishing houses from Africa and the United Kingdom.

Dorfman says: “The way you live your life is different from the way you tell your life, and in some sense you’re always telling your life.” He adds: “Our lives are the constant retelling of the past.” His writing reflects his own identity crisis, in which he has been able to play out a kind of linguistic fundamentalism — or cultural fundamentalism, as he calls it.


He says that for a long time he didn’t want to be bilingual and was torn between Spanish and English. “I wanted to belong to one culture. I wanted to belong to one country.” He is no longer that person. This rethinking of his identity, he says, makes him the ideal person to speak about why it is necessary to embrace the many selves you have inside you and the many lands and communities to which you belong.

The reflective exercise of writing the story of one’s life is where my conversations with Soyinka and Dorfman begin, although in both these interviews the temptation to turn quickly to theatre appears to please the Nobel laureate and the Chilean-American writer.

Dorfman’s impressive body of work, like Soyinka’s, includes novels, essays, poetry and plays. He is perhaps best known for the Olivier Award-winning Death and the Maiden (1991), which ran on the West End for a year, was a Broadway hit and was turned into a film by Roman Polanski starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.

Dorfman rightly calls this play a model of what a writer does in the early transition from an oppressive government to a democratic one. “You stage the different conflicting strands of the identity of the country and of the people and you let them go at one another. You don’t hold your punches.” He considers that when you live under stressful (including dictatorial) circumstances, the problem of identity becomes even more complicated because you tend to hide yourself — so those masks you put on, one after the other, have to do with the historical circumstances in which you find yourself.

Although Death and the Maiden served him and his audience as a kind of allegorical Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in a way placing Pinochet and Chile on a metaphorical trial a year after that country regained democracy, it is a play that still resonates with South Africa as we continue to negotiate our identity as a people and a nation. We have seen stagings of similarly premised and themed plays in John Kani’s Nothing but the Truth, Craig Higginson’s Dream of the Dog and Mike van Graan’s Brothers in Blood.

In this instance theatre is, as Dorman articulates, “a challenge to the audience, to say, if you don’t like the fact that the truth is so fragmented in this land or in this world of ours, well, then it is up to you to integrate it and find out how you can make one truth out of conflicting narratives”.

Soyinka grew up with the strong tradition of Yoruba theatre — the masquerades in the street, the secular and the sacred masquerades equivalent of miracle plays. He fondly remembers his leading role as “the magician” in the operetta of the same name at the age of nine and feels that theatre for him has in its result “a kind of palpable human immediacy”, which is why he prefers it to other modes of writing. He says that although he didn’t set out to use theatre in the way he has, he has always been “fascinated by the medium of theatre and the way you can actually reenact reality or fantasy on stage”.

Less well known is that his earliest professional production, The Invention (1959, The Royal Court), was a play created to tackle his dismay and utter disbelief that an apartheid system could take hold in South Africa. This work had never been in print until it was recently exhumed by a South African scholar.

Today Soyinka acknowledges the uniqueness of South Africa’s success in Africa, but he says that “South Africa acts as though she has a chip on her shoulder”. His critique is that “there is an element of paranoia sometimes in the conduct of South Africans, in some of her leaders towards the outside world, towards other African nations and Africans”.

He finds this perplexing because he feels that if there was some tangible negative act towards South Africa by other Africans, then this tension might be easier to explain or even to resolve. But as there is none, he sees it as an amorphous and indefinite kind of hostility. He states firmly that he knows it is there and that it exists. He suspects that it is our purist conception of our struggle that makes us want to look down on the liberation struggles of other African nations.

To remedy this, he argues that more interaction is needed, especially on the cultural field. He suggests that this must comprise projects of mutual assistance in the form of touring dance companies, musicians and theatre troupes. I suppose the cynic in me immediately wonders where the funding for such a necessary indulgence will come from.

The lives of Soyinka and Dorfman share many similarities — as exiles, as playwrights, as activists and as academics. (I should add, though, that Soyinka jests that he considers himself more an intellectual than an academic for the simple reason that he does not write footnotes that are longer than the actual essay.)

They have witnessed some of humanity’s most deplorable acts and their work has formed so much of our idea of exile, memory, home, identity and language. Their successes are surely part and parcel of the way they have managed to assimilate their personal traumas into the creativity of their art.

Dorfman believes that if it was his fate to witness the terrors of our time, it was also his fate to tell the story of that terror. He says that, of course, he would rather not have lived through the sorrows he has — “I would not want to go through the first years of exile that I went through; I do not desire that to my worst enemy” — but he feels he has embraced the life he was given. Through his writing he has been offered the gift of inspiring others, encouraging them and disturbing them, so that after the reading and the watching we are all a little more human.

Soyinka shares similar views, preferring to describe his life as a search for peace of mind rather than “a tough life”. For him there is “always a kind of revitalisation in confronting all these ogres”. He says, jokingly, that secretly, somewhere, there might actually be a masochist enjoyment to having to deal with the different characters that have caused so much strife. Soyinka admits that he sometimes asks himself why. “Why do I have no peace of mind unless I have responded to an unacceptable situation when I could walk away?” His answer is simple. “What option do you have but to put some attention to this in a creative way?” Writing has always been his battlefield.

So, then, as these giants of the literary world approach status as elders, do they cease to indulge in battles? I suspect not — at least not yet.

Greg Homann is a lecturer in the Wits school of arts, a theatre director, producer, actor and playwright

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