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.

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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 play opens with a depiction of physical violence and capital punishment so routinized that they shock no-one) but to discover, within the horror, an element of humanity. As the governor puts it: “I want to rule over responsible human beings, not tyrannise over a group of animals. I want there to be a contract between us, not a whip on my side” (Wertenbaker 72). Yet Wertenbaker must take care to avoid the trap of sentimentality into which McLeod depicts Callie falling — and her success in so doing is by no means assured.

If the two plays present different colonial situations (and attitudes toward colonization) it is only natural that they should present very different views of the concept of sexual relationships within their differing colonial contexts. For McLeod, the erotic attachment of Callie to Elias really does lie at the heart of the drama, and yet all his worthiness as a victim of political persecution does not make him an appropriate partner, or even a good person within the context of human relationships. Elias ultimately manipulates Callie — and her love for him — in order to hoodwink her into sponsoring his own Salvadoran lover for refugee status in Canada. Yet in keeping with the parallels that McLeod suggests between Owen and Elias, we are meant to view the relationship between Callie and Elias within the context of a sort of eroticism involved in the very act of cross-cultural contact. Owen’s description of his emigration is flatly sensual, and indeed sexualized:

There was just this time, this time between getting my draft notice and coming to Canada. Everything was very sharp, defined. Instant overview. Made the food taste better and women . . . man. You put all that on top of really getting to know women for the first time and it was incredible. (McLeod 46)

Elias would never use a word like “incredible” to describe his own traumatic past history or his political asylum in Canada. Instead he uses outright the word “colonialism” to describe what he sees as the exploitative eroticism of the American or Canadian attitude towards Central America: in a rather repulsive extended comparison, he likens the political relationship to a sexual one, in which Central America corresponds to the “asshole” and in which “Everyone very happy to screw Central America” (40). The use of the word “asshole” is particularly shocking when we realize that, essentially, Elias is depicting himself as the victim of a kind of political or metaphorical rape — and to a certain degree painting Callie as his rapist here. But his final monologue will temper the more distasteful aspects of this harangue, when an erotic encounter is invoked to hint at the trauma of his own displacement. His own lover had been one of the “disappeared” persons of the Salvadoran conflict, who were most likely shot and hastily left in remote mass graves, but whose fate is, crucially, unknown:

What I sleep is my own.

I am in my bed, in my room and there are no countries.

There is no language to sleep.

This is a true thing to all peoples.

Do you see the girl in my bed?

It is too dark. You must touch her to see her.

Her arms break, her eyes close.

She is gone. Desaperecido, disappeared.

Do you want it?

Do you have a place to put her story? (McLeod 63)

The logic of this leaps quickly from asking “do you see the girl in my bed?” To insisting that seeing entails touching (“you must touch her to see her”) to defining all such touching as violence, even lethal violence: “Her arms break, her eyes close.” Wertenbaker puts a similar love triangle at the center of her drama, but the differences among the characters involved are not the broad cultural differences between the Salvadoran Elias and the Canadian Callie, they are differences of status and hierarchy within the British class system which separate the officers from the convicts. Mary Brenham, in acting out the scenes from The Recruiting Officer, finds herself mimicking its love plot by falling for Ralph, a second lieutenant who is, essentially, her gaoler: her fellow convict Wisehammer warns her against it, then kisses her in a rehearsal while Ralph watches, which leads to a discussion of actual rules within the slightly sublimated context of a dramatic rehearsal:

WISEHAMMER: I thought Brazen would kiss her immediately.

RALPH: It’s completely wrong.

WISEHAMMER: It’s right for the character of Brazen.

RALPH: No it’s not. (Wertenbaker 87)

The discussion of “wrong and right” here is not only a discussion about the criminality which separates Wisehammer from Ralph and also a discussion of the permissibility of sexual license in the late eighteenth century, but it has been elevated to a discussion in essence about aesthetics, and the art of acting. Hovering over this is the allegorical name “Brazen” from The Recruiting Officer, which indicates a kind of impertinent boldness that might allow for outright criminality or forceful expression of sexual desire: Wisehammer is not wrong in what he says, but it is unlikely that the social organization here will ever permit him to be “right.” But from Ralph’s standpoint, it is intriguing that his interest in Mary follows from the transfiguring quality of the aesthetic experience as he sees it: when rehearsing with Mary and another female convict, he relates to a fellow officer earlier in the play, he thought that the women palpably “seemed to acquire a dignity … And to lose some of their corruption” through the civilizing effect of the drama (Wertenbaker 31).

The fact that the erotic is here mediated by the actual staging of an erotic comedy is central to Wertenbaker’s purpose, and permits the ambiguity of her ending, in which the actual performance of The Recruiting Officer takes over the stage and presumably allows the audience to laugh along with the onstage characters who watch. We do not witness the aftermath: Wertenbaker’s play ends with the beginning of Farquahr’s. But the chief issue here, I would suggest, is performativity. Performance has become an important concept in the understanding of gender in the work of Judith Butler most notably, but it is also intimately related to the colonial situation as well: Frantz Fanon’s discussion of “black faces” and “white masks” is one of the better-known uses of the imagery of dramatis personae to describe the sort of double-consciousness that goes on with the kind of cross-cultural exchange permitted within the colonial situation. It is enough for Wertenbaker that the organized performance of The Recruiting Officer happens at all — what happens afterward is not really her story. Yet McLeod includes a bathetic contrast to the triumphant close of Wertenbaker’s play in the episode that gives her the title of Amigo’s Blue Guitar, in which the grandmother Martha sings a song called “Amigo’s Blue Guitar” to Elias when he first arrives:

Tonight they’re singing in the village

Tomorrow you’ll be gone so far,

Hold me close and say you love me,

While Amigo plays his blue guitar.

Aye yi, Aye yi the moon is so lonely,

Tomorrow you’ll be gone so far . . . (McLeod 24)

Martha has rather clumsily identified the song as being “Spanish. Or some sort of it anyway, Mexican…it’s from south of the border” (McLeod 23). Yet it depicts a sentimentalized version of cross-cultural contact: “Amigo” is of course the Spanish word for “friend” and as such it is meant to hint at the larger context of, say, the U.S. government’s mendaciously-named “Good Neighbor Policy” towards Central America generally. Yet the song portrays a scene of sexual “slumming,” a quick love-and-leave type scenario in which one may participate erotically in a foreign culture without having to engage with any of its darker realities. Although Martha does not intend it to be offensive, it certainly registers as a kind of shock to the audience, although it is merely one of the many strange and complicated responses that all the members of her family have towards Elias: and in a sense, the little sentimental drama depicted in the Kitty Wells song that Martha sings here is a representation, in miniature, of the sentimental nature of Callie’s attraction to Elias. It corresponds precisely to the similarity in performed eroticism and genuine eroticism that become indistinguishable in Wertenbaker’s play. Yet McLeod deflates the lofty claims that Wertenbaker seems to be making for the powers of art to combat trauma and societal injustice and inequality here. Although we would make no great claims for the great artistic seriousness of The Recruiting Officer, that is part of Wertenbaker’s point overall: it doesn’t have to be a great script, the mere fact is that the shared communal activity of playmaking is, in some way, a force for good. McLeod instead sees cultural artifacts as repositories of stereotypes which persist despite our best intentions: the existence of a song like “My Blue Amigo” is a good part of the reason why Elias will remain so distant from Callie and her family, and will ultimately (in the opinion of the family members) betray all of them. He is not a “sad friend” but rather a person who has come to a potentially hostile country out of brutal necessity. This is true, of course, of the convicts that Wertenbaker depicts: her own title refers to the epilogue that will be spoken after the performance of The Recruiting Officer, in which the cast will reveal that they “left our country for our country’s good.” This is, of course, a lie papering over the brutal reality of the Botany Bay penal colony — and it seems to paint the convicts as unregenerate despite the evidence Wertenbaker offers that the amateur dramatics have actually bettered them as persons. But in both Wertenbaker and McLeod it seems that performance is the concept that links cross-cultural interaction to gender, sexuality, and indeed the complicated construction of identity in a post-colonial situation.

Works Cited

MacLeod, Joan. Amigo’s Blue Guitar. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1992.

Wertenbaker, Timberlake. Our Country’s Good. London: Methuen, 1991.