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That Brecht has been an iconic figure in much postcolonial drama and Theater--and nowhere more so than in Africa--is well known. When the Nigerian dramatist and director Bode Sowande hailed Brecht as "my brother," a German who "could have put on an'agbada in the Yoruba storytelling theatre"(Sowande 131), he was merely articulating the widespread creative and critical perception in Africa of the close affinities between Brechtian Epic Theater and indigenous performance traditions that have profoundly influenced modern African literary drama. (1) In her recent book on "postimperial" Brecht Loren Kruger explores and extends the theoretical perspective of this perceived affinity by offering a stimulating account of his impact and the debates around his work and influence within what she calls "a field of multilateral lines of force" in which the Cold War axis between West and East intersects with the postcolonial axis of North and South. Against the prevalent Western critical habit of treating Brecht's method as "a timeless set of tools" (Kruger 16), Kruger argues for the necessity of understanding the institutional and more broadly sociohistorical settings within which Brecht's ideas and practices were originally forged and later developed, as well as their subsequent modification in a variety of global contexts. More specifically, she investigates Brecht's impact on a variety of South African theater practices and practitioners during the apartheid period and after to give substance to her assertion that Brecht's influence in Africa is not just a peripheral supplement to his European after-life but can be seen as a genuine point of intersection between North-South and East West political and cultural axes.
As well as helping to establish in greater detail Brecht's global--and specifically African--significance, Kruger's study is part of a wider exploration and reassessment of this most complex and resonant theatre theorist and practitioner in the light of ongoing research based on writings that have only recently been made available, first in German and subsequently, at least in part, in English translation. (2) A feature of the more recent scholarly and critical commentary has been a reconsideration of the rather stark earlier formulations of Brecht's dramaturgy, stage-audience relationships, and so forth (pioneered notably by John Willett's seminal Brecht on Theatre) that have characterized our understanding of Epic Theater. The main outlines of Brecht's conception of Epic spectatorship have long been clear: an intellectually (and even emotionally) alert audience, which is enabled through the dramas formal devices or techniques to see anew by a process of "estranging" what has become familiar and taken for granted, thus provoking audience awareness that character and action is always embedded in, and in large measure produced by, causal socioeconomic structures. While this established understanding of Epic Theater remains basically undisturbed, there has nevertheless been a growing sense in recent commentary of the complexity involved in the development of his conception of Epic Theater during his career and, with it, his changing, increasingly layered ideas about spectatorship and audience behaviour. The Mahagonny schema, as presented by Willet, has been hugely influential, at least in the English-speaking world, in establishing a clear and perhaps exaggerated contrast between "dramatic" or "Aristotelean" theater and Brecht's rival conception of Epic Theater and, with it, the polarized representation of audience response--empathy on the one hand, critical distance on the other. From the mid-1930s onwards, as for instance John J. White argues in his recent scholarly account of the development of Brecht's dramatic theory, Brecht's theoretical formulations became less fixed, his writings tending to complicate this polarization as his view of desirable audience response increasingly emphasizes the idea of enjoyable audience "productivity" (Produktivitdt) and the role of feelings as well as thought in Epic Theater (White 206-09, 231-34).
My particular reflections here take up Susan Bennett's invitation, in her seminal study of Western audiences, to see Brecht as a theorist and practitioner whose work "sets up a number of starting points for the study of audiences in theatres" (Bennett 30) and makes manifest "the productive role of theatre audiences and positions that role ideologically" (33). More particularly, I want to argue that the common critical and creative assumption that African spectatorship and much of the dramaturgy associated with it is intrinsically "Brechtian"--unquestioned even by Kruger in her discussion of South African theater-is problematic and at least requires more rigorous critical scrutiny. The gist of my argument, illustrated both by personal experience as a director and audience member of some Brecht productions in Nigeria and by reference to several published African adaptations of Brecht, is that a broadly "Brechtian" impulse in the characteristic activity of African audiences of popular and literary theater is typically in complex and uneasy tension with other characteristic features of their responses and behavior. Apparent affinities, in short, conceal quite deep-seated differences in characteristic expectation and response. This, I will argue, is also true of the dramaturgy of at least two of the three Brecht adaptations I will refer to in my discussion--the Ghanaian Mohammed ben Abdallah's Land of a Million Magicians (first produced in 1991), based on The Good Person of Szechwan; and two versions of The Threepenny Opera--the Nigerian Wole Soyinka's Opera Wonyosi (first performed in 1977) and the South African Junction Avenue Theatre Company's Love, Crime and Johannesburg, which premiered in 1999. My conclusion will suggest why it may be that Love, Crime and Johannesburg differs from the other two adaptations in its absorption of Brecht's influence and the kind of spectatorship it seems to invite, and proposes the need to reassess the Brechtian legacy in Africa.
While Susan Bennett's work helped to inaugurate a burgeoning interest in audiences and theatrical reception in English-language scholarship in recent years, attention to African spectatorship has been largely limited to the study of popular theater in West Africa. The available scholarship certainly suggests that popular audiences in Africa have been in certain respects Brechtian avant la lettre, even if it is in ways that Brecht himself might not have envisaged. Take Karin Barber's description of the typical audience behaviour of West African popular theater:
The concert party audiences weep, jeer, sing, and mount the stage to give presents to the characters they sympathize with or to the performers they admire. Yoruba popular theatre audiences are frequently so rowdily responsive that they have to be quelled with microphones attached to a powerful sound system. Their participation in the creation of the play--intervening to make suggestions, complete proverbs, pass comments, shout warnings--is hard to miss. (Barber et al. xv)
At least in relation to his desire for a theater audience that does not sit silently in the dark, transfixed by illusion, but behaves more like a crowd at a football or boxing match--relaxed but alert, able and willing to participate actively as they watch--the audience behavior Barber describes seems to fulfil Brecht's prescription. Though more "middle class," generally more educated African audiences in "art theaters" may be somewhat less volatile in their responses than the "popular" audiences described by Barber, there is normally no less a sense of continuous and lively participation in the performance, of an audience almost rapacious in its hunger for stimulation and response. As much in a theater on a university campus as in the kind of large open space that, in its heyday, was often the venue of Yoruba traveling theater, the audience members are likely at crucial moments to directly address the characters on the stage (and sometimes, quite specifically, the actors), to give advice or offer warnings or condemnation and to maintain a steady flow of comment between themselves based on their perceptions and judgments of what they are witnessing.
In other respects too theater spectators in Africa seem instinctively to fulfill some of Brecht's aspirations towards a new kind of audience. In his time, the German dramatist was concerned not only to revolutionize the consciousness and behavior of European audiences but the fundamental relationship between them and the performances they witnessed. Historically, this had to do with his desire to create a new kind of proletarian audience in Germany and was intimately tied up with his development in the early 1930s of the Lehrstuck as a form and his work with amateur working-class performers belonging to or affiliated with the Communist Party. In short, he wished to alter radically the nature of property relations in the theater, as in society at large, so that the working class audience would own the theater as a means of …