On the Tragedy of the Commoner: Elektra, Orestes and Others in South Africa


Loren Kruger


South African theatre-makers under apartheid found in classical tragedy scenarios for representing the struggle against an authoritarian state but, with apartheid's demise, the darkness of tragedy appeared to fade in the light of prospective liberation. Invoking tragedy in this context may invite the argument that South Africa avoided full-blown civil war, and achieved instead a peaceful transfer of power in 1994 but the persistence in post-apartheid society of inequity and injustice perpetuated by new rulers prompts a sceptical revaluation of the official narrative in which the ruling ANC claims the moral high ground of national hero. As the wealth gap increases, poverty remains entrenched, and death stalks the country in the shape of AIDS, assaults on women and children, and apparently random criminal violence, the epic narrative of national liberation is cast into doubt by the evident failure of the promised transformation. The drama of failed revolution and of blocked historical progress casts a shadow on reconciliation. This shadow assumes tragic shape both in the experience of sacrifice, in the grievous harm suffered by thousands in the struggle, experienced as loss rather than as revolution, and in the struggle to see this loss as significant for the living. This tension between the experience of irredeemable loss and the desire to redeem it through representation is tragic because it both invites and eludes resolution, and provokes further struggle in its wake.

In Modern Tragedy, Williams insists that the contemporary power of tragedy resides precisely in the struggle to find significance where others find it easier to find insignificance, in the struggles of commoners; he suggests that the "tragedy of revolution" occurs not because revolution is disorderly, as the powerful claim, but because it enacts a tragically incomplete assault on the long-lasting violence of the powerful. Williams' suggestion that to see revolution in this tragic perspective is the only way to maintain it offers South Africans not only a realistic view of the limits of liberation but also a perspective that offers a view that may allow us to reimagine the revolution and its resolution in the future. Although classical Greek conceptions of action and fate may seem remote to modern sceptics, the tragic repertoire still provides illuminating points of departure for representing the present.

While Sophocles's Antigone offered material for re-imagining the tragic protagonist as the defiant militant in The Island, the engagement of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides with the Atreides saga has inspired critical re-enactments of revenge and resolution and their place in the history of nations Yael Farber's adaptation of Aeschylus's Oresteia stages the collision of national and intimate dramas of violence in post-apartheid South Africa. Molora attempts to tempers the tragedy of retribution with the ethical renewal of ubuntu (humanity) and its vocal expression in the overtone singing of the Ngqoko Cultural Group, whose women intervene as the chorus to stop Orestes and Elektra in the act of matricide. Although the miked testimony in the opening and closing, the reiteration of torture techniques by (white) Klytemnestra on (black) Elektra, and the chorus's appeal for healing recall the TRC hearings, the play and its title evoke not only global atrocities from the Nazi death camps in the 1940s to the exploded twin towers and the ash-covered survivors in New York in 2001, but also the color donned by Xhosa initiates on the path to manhood. Framing universal human rights, Xhosa practices, and Mycenaean legend with a Sotho title, Molora invites audiences both to ponder the tragedy of failed revolution and to reevaluate multiple histories of incomplete revolutions in South Africa and the world so as to reimagine the future.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.