Sunday 11 May 2014

The Wretched of the Earth: On Caliban and Revolutionary Theatre

Fezokuhle Mthonti

Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth has been described, in part, as a prophetic entry into the inner workings of a decolonised and decolonising state.  Without being reductive or essentialist, one could argue that the first three chapters of this book typify and chart the complexities that come with a people who have been denied their socio-political subjectivities and their subsequent struggles to liberate themselves and in so doing, try to maintain the sentiments of their revolution. However, as Fanon shows quite consistently throughout the book, the transition into self-governance is an inherently difficult position to navigate, especially, when your personhood and political subjectivity has been eroded by the structural mechanisms of colonialism. I would argue that it demands from the state and its inhabitants, an ability to see the position which they have come to occupy through repression and a further ability to see beyond that subjugation.  It is an attempt to reclaim and to grieve over that which was worn out by the European colony and forge out of that, a political and social identity that is backward, forward and sideways-looking.

That being said, in the following essay, I will be shifting the focus somewhat. Instead of recounting the seemingly prophetic allusions to the nature of postcolonial politics, native bourgeoisies and the behaviours of liberation parties, in and out of government, I will take some time to unpack the concluding chapters that deal specifically with culture and the debilitating effects of violence to both colonised and coloniser. As a means of entry into the chapter On National Culture I will be discussing   the literary works of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest  (1611) and Aimè Cèsaire  1969’s postcolonial reimagining of the play, A Tempest. I will be particularly interested in the creation of the ‘colonised other’ which Fanon, Shakespeare and Cèsaire all speak to in their respective works.

In trying to contextualise the work of Fanon in my own life, I have to think quite seriously about what  socio-political implications there are for a theatre-makers in postcolonial and post-apartheid South Africa. In reading The Wretched of the Earth, I feel like I have to start to think through my artistic and political role in a world that may seek to reconcile itself with a new and emerging humanism. It will be my assertion that theatre in the colony, which can also be read as theatre within South Africa’s  current status quo, needs to premise itself on that which is political and pedagogical. In order for theatre makers to reclaim their position within the cultural and political struggles of their respective nations, we need to see a significant shift from that which is ‘art for arts’ sake’ to a kind of art which actively generates work that is mindful of the socio-histories of its’ people. The creation of art and culture is inherently the creation and the mirror of a new political identity borne out of struggle. Through a detailed discussion of Fanon’s chapter entitled On National Culture and a further discussion of Augusto Boal’s conception of Theatre of The Oppressed, I will discuss how and why it is important to establish a new kind of ‘archival canon’ which articulates the narrative of the colonised as a tangible and existing memory.

The Creation of Caliban

Providence must have been on Shakespeare’s side in 1610 bringing to his notice a letter from William Strachey in the New World of America. The vessel in which Strachey was sailing had been shipwrecked in the Bermudas, but by some clear near-miracle the crew and all the passengers with their lives and been able, eventually, to resume their voyage to Virginia. (1998: v)

English poet and playwright William Shakespeare is one of the most prolific writers in the European culture; his sonnets and his plays have been canonised by the English literary tradition and account for some of the most influential texts to date. The Tempest which was the final play that he had completed before his death, captured the imagination of European society on the cusp of their colonial entry into foreign lands. 
The play itself is about the Duke of Milan, Prospero who orchestrates an elaborate storm, through the use of magic, to maroon himself and his convoy on a deserted island. As is alluded throughout the play, the island seems either near to, or, in the Caribbean; the place of Cannibals.  For the purposes of this essay I will deal exclusively with the relationship between Prospero and Caliban. As indicated before, Prospero is both a wizard and the Duke of Milan. He is also the over-arching paternalistic figure within this play. In critical readings of the play, Prospero has often been  seen as a colonial figure. Caliban however, is described “as a barely human beast.” (1998:v) Although we are not clearly given an indication as to what Caliban looks like in the play, we are almost certain that he is black, deformed and a native to the island. We also know that he has been enslaved by Prospero and as a result has lost ownership to his land- the island.

Caliban is not only an ancillary character, but, he is also a character which is created in relation to Shakespeare’s white European characters. He does not seem to exist in and of himself; which is to say, his existence is contingent on the European imagination. Despite his attempt to tell his own histories as being the son of a witch called Sycorax, Caliban’s existence is systematically negated by Prospero. Although Fanon does not deal directly with the legacy of Shakespeare’s thought I would contend that he was able to respond to the creation of the ‘negro’ or the character of Caliban in saying that “the settler is right when he speaks of knowing ‘them’ well. For it is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence” (1965:36) Caliban and every other invocation of him is the product of an elaborate European thought experiment.

I imagine that Shakespeare would have not travelled outside of Europe at this point, and so would argue that Caliban was the product of an inherently ignorant and racist European imagination. Caliban within European civilisation came to symbolise the fictive ‘other’; that which was strange and unfamiliar to a European civilisation. He was the epitome of that which was dark, backward and savage. He was the prelude to Manichean thinking which associated that which was light reasonable and civilised on side of the divide and that which was dark, backward and savage on the other. I would argue that Caliban was established as a 1611 trope for the Negro and all other oppressed and colonised people. Throughout the play we see that Caliban is consistently being acted upon by Shakespeare’s European characters. Fanon argues that “when we consider the efforts made to carry out the cultural estrangement so characteristic of the colonial epoch, we realise that nothing has been left to chance and that the total result looked for by the colonial domination was indeed to convince the natives that colonialism came to lighten their darkness.”(1965:211)

The name Caliban interestingly enough, has been evoked by sects of postcolonial Caribbean literature as a referent for those who have been classified as other or less than human as a result of colonisation. Further to that, Caliban has come to symbolise the ways in which the colonial project has pervasively eroded the humanity of subjugated black and brown people all over the world. Caliban, as the ‘half human’ is what Fanon would argue as being the kind of “Manicheism [that] goes to its logical conclusion and dehumanises the native, or to speak plainly, it turns him into an animal…when the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary” (1965:42).

However in Aimé Cèsaire’s reimagining of the play, A Tempest, we see a vastly different characterisation of Caliban.Caliban’s status as human is no longer ambigious but he still remains a slave. That being said however, the first line that Caliban says in the play is “Uhuru” which is the Swahili word for freedom (1969:12). In this version of events Caliban seems to embody Fanon’s description of native who I would argue is in the process of decolonising the mind:

 “The native know all of this and laughs to himself every time he spots an allusion to the animal world in the other’s words. For he knows that he is not an animal; and it is precisely at that moment he realises his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory.” (1965:43) This is made clear to us by the interventions made by Cesaire who argues, in the voice of Caliban, that Prospero did not civilise or educate him.  He argues that “You did not teach me a thing! Except to jabber in your own language that I could understand your orders; chop the wood, wash the dishes for food, plant vegetables, all because you are too lazy to do it yourself.” (1969:12)

What I think Cesaire is able to reveal here, is how European civilisations and economies are directly linked  to enslavement and the domination of their colonies. Fanon would argue that “the settler owes the fact of his very existence, that is to say his property, to the colonial system” (1965:36).

Having spoken quite extensively about the creation of the colonial subject, I would now like to shift my discussion to that of National Culture.  

“The problem is not as yet to secure a national culture, not as yet to lay hold of a movement differentiated by nations, but to assume an African or Arabic culture when confronted by the all-embracing condemnation pronounced by the dominating power.” (1965:213)

Having read the fourth chapter of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, one starts to think quite seriously about the ethical implications of the production of art and knowledge within the post colony. I was particularly interested in the role of art, and specifically that of theatre within the post colony.  How does one start to think ‘anew’ about the role of culture in a site of political struggle? How does art move from banal aesthetics to a kind of revolutionary humanism? How does one decolonise the stage?

Perhaps the mandate of the artistic and political subject of 2014 is to establish an archive which accounts for the production and reproduction of socio-histories of previously colonised subjects.  I will argue that this process should be about the remembering and the actual ‘re-memberment’  of histories and perceptions of self, which effectively, position the process of theatre  and art making as a site of power. In his book entitled Thinking Africa: A Report on Ubuntu Leonhard Praeg argues that “every act of recollection is an act of struggle that seeks to make a point; it is a way of asserting blackness, of power asserting itself as memory” (2014:xix).

In trying to understand the process in which one has to go through when liberating themselves, Fanon would argue that “decolonisation, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern from the movements which give it historical form and content.” (1965: 36) That being said, I would argue that part of the process of decolonisation is about an uncovering  of past socio-histories; it is effectively the resistance of the negated subject who rejects the fragmented, colourless story that has been presented to them by the coloniser.

Further to that, Fanon would contend that “it is not enough to try to get back to the people in that past out of which they have already emerged; rather we must join them in that fluctuating movement which they are just giving shape to, and which, as soon as it has started, will be the signal for everything to be called into question” (1965:227).
That is why art needs to operate as a pedagogical tool. In his chapter On National Culture, Fanon cites quite an elaborate poem written by Keita Fodeba. The poem moves in three spheres, the first being a recounting of the Naman’s lineage and his background, the second being a discussion on who he has come to be presently and then the third is an attempt to cast hope onto the future despite him being deployed to fight in a war. Fanon argues that “the understanding of the poem is not merely an intellectual advance, but a political advance. To understand this poem is to understand the part one has played, to recognise one’s advance and to furbish up one’s weapons.” (1965:231) It is effectively through this story which has been elegantly crafted with social political idiosyncrasies and detail, that one is able to identify with a real and tangible person, whose story although particular, transcends into the universal.

I would argue that this is an intellectual model for all post-colonial theatre-makers to 
take heed when producing work. In fact, Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal is an example of an artist who is trying to reconcile the tenets of culture and theatre with a revolutionary humanism. Through a theatre making process which he refers to as “Theatre of the Oppressed” Boal tries to humanise humanity. (2000:1) One of the guiding principles for this kind of theatre is the assertion that a) every human being is theatre and b) every human being is capable of seeing a situation and seeing themselves in that situation which means that the theatre is site of empathy and transformation.
I would argue that this kind of theatre is the beginnings of Fanon’s assertion that “a national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence” (1965:232).

Moreover, I would contend that this kind of theatre is reminiscent of what Fanon calls a culture of combat. It would be my suggestion that “it is a [theatre] of combat, because it moulds the national consciousness, giving it form and contours and flinging open before it new and boundless horizons; it is a [theatre] of combat because it assume responsibility, and because it is the will to liberty expressed in time and space”(1965:240).

Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed is a theatre which is derived off games, contact and movement. It is a kind of theatre which has been borne out of political struggle and negotiations between the theatre maker and the audience. Both parties can lay claim to the outcome.

I would contend that it is through this kind of art, culture and theatre that “the contact of the people with the new movement gives rise to a new rhythm of life and to forgotten muscular tensions, and develops the imagination. Every time the storyteller relates a fresh episode to his public, he preside over a real invocation. The existence of a new type of man is revealed to the public. The present is no longer turned in upon itself but spread out for all to see” (1965: 241).

Finally, In Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders, Fanon was able to articulate the devastating psychological effects that both the nature of colonisation and war had on the Algerian populace.  I would argue that the incessant exposure to an increasingly dehumanising violence broke down the psychological capacities of all of those were part, or subject, to the effects of the war. The Algerian war bred a wounded collective consciousness which “became a favourable feeding ground for mental disorders” (1965:251). When we are introduced to a number of patients who are suffering from varying levels of “revolutionary psychoses” we are met with the horrific intimacies of war. Although Fanon would argue that “the Algerians, the veiled women , the palm trees and the camels make up the landscape, the natural background to the human presence of the French”(1965:250), in this chapter we are compelled to respond humanely to those who have had their personhood  distressed and  fragmented by both a physical and psychological violence.

I would argue that the kind of responses that we see from Fanon’s patients draw a very uncomfortable parallel to the stories of our own South African people under apartheid. This is particularly true of the testimonies that were given to the Truth And Reconciliation Commission by both the victims and perpetrators’ of gross human right violations. In both the Algerian and South African examples, we see “the events giving rise to the disorder are chiefly the bloodthirsty and pitiless atmosphere, the generalisation of inhuman practices, and the firm impression that people have of being caught up in a veritable Apocalypse” (1965:251).

I would argue that the logic of this apocalypse corrupts conceptions of justice and that which is morally admissible. For example, in Series B: Case number 1, Fanon cites the “murder of two young Algerians thirteen and fourteen years old respectively, of the European playmate” (1965:270). In this example we are made privy to the kind of societal distrust and angst that both the French and Algerians were up against. This case is particularly horrific because it is the story of three young boys who have not only been affected by the consequence  of war and death,  but  have also perpetuated the act of murder and violence in their own lives so as to protect themselves from a perceived threat.

One day we decided to kill him, because the Europeans want to kill all the Arabs. We can’t kill big people. But we could kill ones like him, because he was the same age as us. We didn’t know how to kill him. We wanted to throw him into a ditch, but he’d only have been hurt. So we got the knife from home and we killed him” (1965:271).

These chilling words from a thirteen year old boy seem to speak to a convoluted form of retributive justice; an attempt to make right an impossible system.

The testimony of ex Umkhonto WeSizwe (MK) soldier, Mr Olefile Samuel Mnqibisa at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, reveal a similarly disturbing account of a distorted sense of justice and a silencing of soldiers by from MK leaders; who were initially deployed to lead the revolutionary struggle against the apartheid government. In his testimony Mnqibisa tells the court that joined Umkhonto WeSizwe in June of 1976 after the Soweto school uprisings.

Mnqibisa says that: “When we underwent political training in Angola we were repeatedly told by our political instructors to air our views or criticise any wrongs we saw in the ANC. This became tradition in the ANC and we held monthly meetings, termed criticism and self-criticism, where the rank and file were allowed to speak about everything that they felt was wrong. However, these meetings were later banned as rank and file criticisms were interpreted as the work of the enemy” (1996: 3).
Later on in his testimony, Mnqiba describes how he was locked up in heinous conditions because he chose to criticise and make recommendations to the ANC. Solise Melani interpreted his comments as a mark of arrogance and Mnqiba was subsequently locked up.  I would contend that this level of silencing of MK soldiers speaks to the fear and paranoia that was generated within the camps. Again a perceived threat subverted that which was justifiable and morally permissible to that which was inherently oppressive.

In closing, I would argue that The Wretched of the Earth is a call to collective action; collective consciousness and a collective revolution. It is an attempt to humanise Caliban and all his predecessors, it is an intervention into art and reflection on the collective suffering that we experience under repressive forms of power.


Boal. A. 2000. Theatre of the Oppressed. Pluto Press
Cèsaire, A. 1969. A Tempest. New York: Ubu Repertory Theatre Publications
Fanon, F. 1965. The Wretched of the Earth. New York. Grove Press
Praeg, L. 2014. A Report on Ubuntu. UKZN Press: Scottsville
Shakespeare, W. 2008. The Tempest. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Mnqibisi. O. 1996. Truth and Reconciliation Commission Human Right Violations- Submissions- Questions and Answers. Day 4: Soweto