Post Colonial Drama Essay

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Post-Colonial Drama

Approaching the complexities of the colonial or post-colonial situation has been a major theme in drama for as long as colonialism has existed: Shakespeare wrote his Tempest on the heels of the very first English efforts to establish overseas colonies in the Americas and in Ireland. If we expand our definition of the colonial situation to comprise any ideologically-tinged cross-cultural encounter, we can even trace the roots of the theme all the way back to the earliest extant "Western" drama, the Persae of Aeschylus. To a certain extent, these well-established canonical examples may only represent a desire to place "otherness" onstage for the sake of spectacle -- the elements of masque and pageantry in each of those examples are most likely what spoke to their initial audiences, rather than any kind of analytical or critical stance regarding the colonial situation itself. But contemporary writers cannot approach the issue of cultural clash or colonization with a good conscience: the political movements and revolutions of the twentieth century which saw former colonies given their independence have ensured that no contemporary playwright could possibly dramatize the colonial spectacle purely for the sake of illustrating its picturesque difference from normative culture. But if we consider Timberlake Wertenbaker and Joan McLeod -- two contemporary playwrights who have, in very different ways, memorably and critically depicted the colonial situation -- we will see that, to a certain extent, the nature of drama requires a meta-theatrical approach if the audience is expected to maintain a critical distance from the depictions of otherness that are required for the subject. Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good and McLeod's Amigo's Blue Guitar would initially seem to have little in common in subject matter or procedure: McLeod writes a poetic but otherwise conventional family drama which permits an examination of larger political and social issues when Elias, a Salvadoran asylum seeker, becomes entangled with a Canadian family in the country to which he has come as a refugee; Wertenbaker's play is a period piece and costume drama, and is based on The Playmaker, an historical novel by the Australian Thomas Kenneally which takes as its subject the actual staging of amateur dramatic performances in the earliest years after the establishment of the British penal colony in Botany Bay, by both the wretched convicts who comprised the earliest European settlers in Australia and by the military officers who, in practice, served as prison guards over an entire continent. At first glance Wertenbaker and McLeod would seem to have little in common save the general atmosphere of cross-cultural encounter in two of the more remote reaches of the colonial enterprise. Yet the heart of each play is an actual performance. Wertenbaker's play is structured around the staging by convicts and officers of the frivolous Restoration-era comedy The Recruiting Officer, while the central symbolic moment of McLeod's drama is the one which gives her play its title -- Martha's singing of the kitsch ballad "My Blue Amigo" to the Salvadoran political exile Elias. Just as contemporary playwrights must necessarily be self-conscious about colonialism, to a certain extent it seems like plays which dramatize the colonial situation must necessarily be aware that the risk of viewing otherness as mere spectacle hovers over any such attempt. In both Wertenbaker and McLeod, it necessitates a sort of meta-theatrical approach in which audience and dramatist are both complicit in a sort of self-conscious examination of their own attitudes toward such otherness so that they can attain a critical distance from the colonial situation itself and offer a critique rather than a recapitulation of its most problematic inherent assumptions. I would like to examine McLeod's and Wertenbaker's dramas from the standpoint of their representation of colonization and sexual relationships in order to show that, despite broad differences in style and setting, both writers are engaged in a larger pattern of self-conscious criticism of the colonial enterprise: rather than recapitulating the colonial mistake of regarding otherness as a theatricalized spectacle, they turn the tables on the colonial mindset and make a spectacle out of it.

As a historical fact, colonization was different in the two geographical areas depicted by McLeod and Wertenbaker. The setting of Amigo's Blue Guitar by Joan McLeod is itself an artifact of the colonial enterprise -- the Gulf Islands which lie to the west of Vancouver and directly along Canada's American border, but which were first navigated by Spanish explorers in the late eighteenth century, and which in many cases still bear the Spanish names given to them at this time. Callie in the play treats these names as a kind of poetry, reciting their names for their sheer music: "Gabriola, Cortes, Galiano, Valdez…Saturna, Texada…the names of these islands. Like a piece of lace dropped over the same old rocks and trees." (McLeod 61). For Callie nothing could be less exotic than the "same old rocks and trees" of Canadian society -- the "piece of lace" is the exoticism of the atypical names, and the atypical relation of this particular part of Canada to colonialism: the Spanish never made any serious attempt to colonize this area beyond naming and claiming it. But we are meant to see Callie's romantic yearning for an exoticism in daily life that could match the exoticism of the place names as precisely the reason that draws her to Elias. To a certain degree Elias recognizes this, and meets Callie's fascinated queries with the obvious response, spoken in Spanish: "If you want to know my story, you can learn my language" (McLeod 36). Elias is a victim of the grotesque political violence which devastated El Salvador in the 1980s, and Callie's fascination with his history -- viewing it as heroic -- strikes Elias as a sentimental and touristic response to actual human suffering. Yet the larger irony in the piece is that Elias's own story differs in degree but not in kind from that of Owen, whom Callie is not similarly inclined to exoticize (or eroticize). Owen is, of course, a political refugee as well: he was one of the large number of young American men during the Vietnam War who fled to Canada to avoid the draft. The irony here cuts both ways, in that men like Owen are frequently stigmatized as cowardly "draft dodgers" -- the precise opposite of the kind of heroic victimhood that Callie identifies in Elias. From Callie's standpoint it might seem that there are two kinds of displaced persons. Of course, in Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good the difference between two kinds of displaced persons is made explicit: Botany Bay was founded as a penal colony to which Britain, in the early mercantilist period, could transport convicted criminals where they would be supervised by members of the British military. The gulf could not be broader between these two castes. For the highest ranking official onstage, Governor Philip, there is the official imprimatur of imperial authority: "you, Governor, you have His Majesty's commission to build castles, cities, raise armies, administer a military colony" (Wertenbaker 33). When we consider this alongside the depictions of those whom Philip actually governs -- such as the "very old and very smelly" Meg Long, who has readily adopted the nickname of "Shitty Meg" (Wertenbaker 17-8). The low comedy of Meg's wrangling for a part is surely an easy way to undercut the lofty meliorist rhetoric of Governor Philip's own view of the colonial enterprise that has brought both of them to Botany Bay, and his belief that the staging of The Recruiting Officer might transfigure the brutal reality of the situation: "for a few hours, we will no longer be despised prisoners and hated gaolers. We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little" (Wertenbaker 30). Wertenbaker is careful to offer a third possibility to the two castes within the colonial community, which serves a kind of chorus to observe and comment upon the action from a great (cultural if not geographic) distance: this is the solitary (and, we learn later, diseased) Aboriginal Australian who appears at four intervals to offer a sort of analysis of the proceedings: his first appearance is marked with the Brechtian heading "A lone Aboriginal Australian describes the arrival of the First Convict Fleet in Botany Bay on January 20, 1788," which jars harshly with the poetic but hardly friendly substance of the description he offers: "A giant canoe drifts onto the sea, clouds billowing from upright oars. This is a dream which has lost its way. Best to leave it alone" (Wertenbaker 8). The second sentence here is particularly pointed, when we consider that -- although it is a reference to the Aboriginal animist belief in a "dreamtime," it raises the possibility that "a dream which has lost its way" might, in fact, be a nightmare. Wertenbaker is interested in finding some redemptive possibility within the nightmare of colonialism -- and to some extent her portrait of the governor takes the inhuman and appalling nature of the colonial enterprise almost for granted (the…[continue]

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