‘Not for themselves, but for the nation’: ‘The Island’, 1973-2003

By Mervyn McMurtry.

Published by The Arts Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s ‘The Island’, a workshop play based on Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’, was first performed in South Africa in 1973. Speaking of its 1999 revival with the original performers, Peter Brook said: “What is extraordinary... is that the performers are not playing for themselves. They really are the spokesmen for their nation.” This article engages with the 1973-1975 production and 1995-2003 revival of ‘The Island’ in South Africa, Europe and the United States of America, to discuss the production’s polyvalent meaning in the different contexts in which it was (and continues to be) performed. Did the significance of the production’s revival lie in its importance as a metaphor for the freedom struggle? Thirty years after it opened, can it still, to use Fugard’s phrase, “bear witness”? Why did it achieve international resonance to become, no longer only a protest play for and about “their nation” but, to reviewers in Europe and America, “universal”, a “landmark of modern political theatre”, “part of world history”? The article contends that the person who became more and more associated with the play and the above questions was Nelson Mandela. His presence in ‘The Island’, formerly deliberately vague to avoid censorship, has recently been foregrounded. While the act of defiance “for the nation” that led to Mandela’s imprisonment was linked to Antigone's stand during apartheid, in South Africa ‘The Island’ and Robben Island have been incorporated into nation building discourse to reinforce the ways in which arts and heritage can be a focus for both remembering the past and for the transformation of society. In Europe and America, the play has been seen to “bear witness” to the plight of political prisoners, no longer in South Africa, but anywhere.

Keywords: Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona, The Island, Nelson Mandela, Robben Island, Apartheid, South Africa

The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 1, Issue 6, pp.81-90. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.735MB).

Professor Mervyn McMurtry

Head of Programme, School of Literary Studies, Media and Creative Arts, Faculty of Humanities, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Mervyn McMurtry’s highest professional qualification is a four year teaching diploma; his highest academic qualification is a doctorate on the history and performance of political satire in South Africa. He has presented papers at conferences in South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Australia, and has been an External Examiner for many institutions, most recently for the University of Dar es Salaam. He has published twenty-four articles, in British, Canadian, American and South African journals, and established a theatre archive housed in the Drama programme that is constantly used by local and foreign researchers. He has won awards for a number of the thirty-five student and professional productions he has directed, the sixty he has designed, and for the thirteen art and stage design exhibitions he has participated in. Besides being active in a range of community projects and outreach programmes, he is involved in drama and theatre in education in various fields. Since his appointment as Head of the Drama and Performance Studies programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 1996, he has established a South African Theatre Archive which is consulted by researchers from around the world.

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