Chicken pox. That’s what had kept the Johannesburg Market Theatre players from coming down to Cardigan Bay to perform in Athol Fugard’s The Island. Last night, the two (Mpho Osei-Tutu as Winston and Thami Mngqolo as John) made up for it, even though their audience (students at the local university) had taken off by then for some holiday destination. It was worthwhile hanging on to the ticket, though. And since I enjoy debating myself, I dug up an old college paper I had written on The Island for a graduate course in drama back in the mid-1990s. Aside from its title “Carrion Antigone,” that essay, while not outright dismissed by its academic audience, is rather too slight a performance to warrant reproduction here. It told me more about myself than the play, which I argued to be less concerned with historical facts than with cultural universals.
That statement is in serious need of revision. In its stead, I will only raise the questions that came to mind when I watched the play last night. While staging Sophocles’s Antigone—or re-staging the famous staging of it—on Robben Island, the notorious prison where Nelson Mandela once took on the role of Creon, Fugard does not so much follow than confront the Aristotelean maxim that poetry is a “more philosophical and higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.”
Winston and John, like Mandela, are the prisoners of an oppressive state. They are doing time as a direct consequence of the times in which they live. Indeed, Winston is doing more than time—he is in it for life. Yet even though he, like the defiant Antigone, has been robbed of a chance to count his days—to plan for and look forward to a tomorrow of his own shaping), he resents being asked to play the title role in Sophocles’s drama, which John wants to perform for fellow inmates and prison staff.
Aside from being uncomfortable playing a female character inside the homosocial confines of a prison, Winston dismisses the very idea of staging Sophocles as “child’s play.” Make-believe like Antigone seems remote and irrelevant to him: “I live my life. I’m here, and it’s history, not legends.” John tries to remind him that “child’s play” is what their warden calls their “convictions” and “ideals”—the beliefs for which they, like Antigone, were condemned.
Ideals are not removed from history—they are born of and beget it. To think of “history” and “ideals,” of “reality” and “play” as opposites may mean surrendering life to the system of binaries according to which Winston and John were cast as criminals.
When Winston learns that John’s sentence has been shortened and that his cellmate is to be released in a few months, his attitude toward performing changes. He is, after all, living quite outside what he thought of as history, on Robben Island, where even time in its relativity has lost its meaning: “My life? How do I count it, John? One . . . one . . . another day comes . . . one.”
Now “lost between life and death,” he has to meet the challenge of making his days matter. Playing Antigone—and playing it for those like him, right before the guards—may be just the thing. The latter may shrug off the trial and death sentence of Antigone as harmless “legend”; but to the former it will be the living history of their convictions.
The Island confronted me with my own remoteness from what I often thought of as the world before I entered the blogosphere—a world of ideas presented on the stage that is a journal such as this. Is this stage as much a new world as it is an old prison? Is that sphere a Robben Island on which inmates circulate, exchange, and recycle thought, as the guards watch on and let it pass, for now? How do you meet the challenge of making life matter when it does not seem to count or add up to much?