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Apartheid Acting Out: Trauma, Confession and the Melancholy of Theatre in Yaël Farber's He Left Quietly


In 1984, Duma Kumalo was sentenced to death under the apartheid law of common purpose. He was only spared by the transitional negotiations that led to South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994. However, his suffering did not end with his release. Nor did his appearance alongside many other victims of human rights abuse at the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission provide any measure of therapeutic relief. Instead, he continued to confess, as part of his performance in Yaël Farber's He Left Quietly (2002), to a trauma so overwhelming as to undo, it seems, any such a claim to healing. It has now been ten years since Kumalo passed away and this article returns to Farber's play in order to examine the theatrical form this melancholy takes, the challenge it poses to confessional orthodoxy and the ethical ends towards which such a melancholy performance might potentially drive, even still.

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1 Kumalo in, Duma, He Left Quietly , in Farber, Yaël, Theatre as Witness (London: Oberon Books, 2008), pp. 180238 , here p. 218.

2 Breuer, Josef and Freud, Sigmund, Studies on Hysteria (London: Vintage, 2001), p. 211 .

3 Brooks, Peter, Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 2 .

4 Farber, He Left Quietly, p. 188.

5 Ibid.

6 Brooks, Troubling Confessions, p. 11.

7 Foucault, Michel, History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 60 .

8 He Left Quietly toured extensively following its initial run in 2002 at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, playing to audiences in Pretoria as well as Berlin, Amsterdam and Dublin.

9 Posel, Deborah, ‘History as Confession: The Case of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission’, Public Culture, 20, 1 (2008), pp. 119–41, here p. 120.

10 Cole, Catherine, Performing South Africa's Truth Commission: Stages of Transition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 6 .

11 Ibid., pp. xii, xv.

12 Cole recalls Victor Turner's theory of the four phases of social drama. ‘Placed within Turner's structure’, she argues, ‘South Africa's truth commission attempted redressive action’. For more see Cole, Performing South Africa's Truth Commission, p. 15. See also Turner, Victor, The Anthropology of Performance (New York: PAJ Books, 1986).

13 See Wilson, Richard A., The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-apartheid State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

14 Cole, Performing South Africa's Truth Commission, p. xvi. As part of her analysis, Cole examines the layers of performance at work in the Truth Commission, paying particular to the repetitious, or rehearsed, nature of the testimony eventually heard at its public hearings. For more see ibid., pp. 11–18.

15 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Volume 1 (Cape Town: Juta and Company, 1998), p. 367 .

16 Borneman, John, ‘Reconciliation after Ethnic Cleansing: Listening, Retribution, Affiliation’, Public Culture, 14, 2 (2002), pp. 281304, here p. 283.

17 For more on the internal, often violent, constitution of state sovereignty see Hansen, Thomas Blom and Stepputat, Finn, eds., Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants, and States in the Postcolonial World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005). Here the editors suggest that the notion of state sovereignty can no longer be legitimated externally by territorial control but must be internally constituted though the exercise of violence against its own people. From this perspective, the Truth Commission might be understood in relatively censorious terms as a form of moral violence deployed, in part, to help constitute the sovereignty of the incipient South African state.

18 For a particularly uncompromising review see Peterson, Bhekizizwe, ‘Dignity, Memory and the Future under Siege: Reconciliation and Nation-Building in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, in Opondo, Sam Okoth and Shapiro, Michael J., eds., The New Violent Cartography: Geo-analysis after the Aesthetic Turn (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp. 214–33.

19 Notable productions that emerged following the conclusion of the Truth Commission's public hearings include John Kani's Nothing but the Truth (2002), Yaël Farber's Molora (2004), Philip Miller's Rewind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony (2006), and Michael Lessac's collaborative Truth in Translation (2006). There were also a number of critical productions staged while the Commission's hearings were ongoing, including Pieter Dirk-Uys's Truth Omissions (1996) and Jane Taylor and the Handspring Puppet Company's Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997).

20 Barker, Howard, Arguments for a Theatre, 3rd edn (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 162 .

21 A particularly draconian item of colonial British legalisation, the law of common purpose had become an increasingly popular tool amongst apartheid prosecutors during the 1980s to indict those taking part in siege revolts against the local township administrators of apartheid.

22 Farber, He Left Quietly, p. 183.

23 Ibid., p. 25.

24 Freud, Sigmund, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), pp. 243–58, here p. 247.

25 LaCapra, Dominck, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), p. 22 .

26 Ibid., p. 20.

27 Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, p. 243.

28 Ibid., p. 244.

29 LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, p. 21.

30 Duggan, Patrick and Wallis, Mick, ‘Trauma and Performance: Maps, Narratives and Folds’, Performance Research, 16, 1 (2011), pp. 417, here p. 8.

31 Ibid., p. 16.

32 Ibid., p. 6.

33 LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, p. 152.

34 Farber, He Left Quietly, p. 191. All translations are provided in the published playtext.

35 Farber, He Left Quietly, p. 187, suggests that it is ‘likely that within the pile of uniforms and shoes, were those once worn by Duma Kumalo and his co-accused’.

36 LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, p. 21.

37 Schechner, Richard, Between Theatre and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), p. 36 .

38 Ibid., p. 37.

39 Farber, He Left Quietly, p. 196.

40 Grehan, Helena, Performance, Ethics and Spectatorship in a Global Age (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 22 .

41 Ibid.

42 Darryl Accone, ‘The Truth That Sets Us Free’, Cue, 5 July 2002, p. 3.

43 Felman, Shoshana and Laub, Dori, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 38 .

44 Farber, He Left Quietly, p. 193.

45 Ibid., p. 194.

46 Ibid., p. 189.

47 Ibid., p. 205.

48 Sanders, Mark, Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 19 .

49 Ibid., p. 8. Emphasis in the original.

50 Ibid., p. 11.

51 For more see McCormack, Donna, Queer Postcolonial Narratives and the Ethics of Witnessing (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), pp. 140 .

52 Accone, ‘The Truth That Sets Us Free’, p. 3.

53 Turner, Richard, The Eye of the Needle: Toward Participatory Democracy in South Africa (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1975), pp. 12 , quoted in Sanders, Complicities, p. 172.

54 Farber, He Left Quietly, p. 210.

55 Ibid., p. 238.

56 LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, pp. 22–3.

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Theatre Research International
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