Parliament’s theatre of thrills offers some mean competition to the professionals
MPs ARE FOLLOWING THE DRAMATISTS OF THE THEATRE OF THE ABSURD AND THEATRE OF CRUELTY, FOR WHOM LANGUAGE ULTIMATELY FAILS
Some art forms are better suited than others to reflect particular historical moments. In this column a few weeks ago I suggested that photographs capture the horrors of King
Leopold’s Congo in a way that even lauded SA actors such as John Kani and Robert Whitehead cannot.
But then last week I celebrated Matilda: The Musical as a piece of theatre that speaks to “our time”.
If readers are hankering for a return to the visual arts scene, I apologise; there will probably be more theatre next week. Performing artists could do with greater coverage in this country’s mediascape. After all, they have to contend with what must be an instinctive thought among their fellow citizens: why pay money and leave home to see a show when there is plenty of “reality drama” on the screen? It’s local, it’s packed with infighting and intrigue, and it’s free.
I am talking, of course, about footage from the National Assembly. We have come a long way from the dull and drowsy days when the parliamentary TV channel was launched in the 1990s.
Now you get fistfights, swearing, snide comments and raised fingers aplenty. Our parliamentarians are a regular bunch of entertainers.
It’s almost too obvious to describe MPs’ antics as “theatrics”. But if you tease out the implications of the metaphor, some intriguing questions emerge. Are these actors merely following a predictable script — even when their actions seem most spontaneous? Who is doing the directing and stage-managing behind the scenes? Moreover, what kind of theatre are we watching? Is this theatre of the absurd? Theatre of cruelty? Baroque theatre? Poor theatre? Such terms may be invoked loosely, and their casual meanings can indeed be appropriate. Yet a more substantial engagement with the genres yields other insights.
By resorting to violence, chanting or derogatory gestures, MPs are following the trajectory delineated by dramatists and theorists of “the absurd” and of “cruelty”, for whom language ultimately fails to make meaning out of the insignificance of human life and the perpetual conflict it entails.
This is philosophically interesting, but not a worldview likely to spur progressive legislative activity by one’s appointed representatives (they are not elected by the people, note, but deployed by political parties).
Then there is poor theatre. The red regalia adopted by the EFF is supposed to evince the party’s support for impoverished South Africans, but their performance is the opposite of what Jerzy Grotowski intended when he coined “poor theatre ”— they depend on costumes, pageantry and melodrama. In the hallowed halls of the National Assembly they are as far removed from the reality of those they claim to represent as actors behind the artificial frame of a grand Baroque proscenium arch.
Politics is never really about dialogue or authenticity. It is all about spectacle.
The tragicomic parliamentary episodes that have been circulating for a few days — the EFF starting a scuffle, Malusi Gigaba waving his pinky finger — may call to mind bad memories of Jacob Zuma’s visits to parliament when he was president. But we dare not be lulled by Cyril Ramaphosa ’ s civility and respect for parliamentary protocols into forgetting how low the ANC members of the National Assembly had sunk by this time in 2017.
And while the DA may paint itself as the only party that has consistently “acted well” in parliament, its members have hardly been exemplary following this week’s fracas. One can condemn the racial crassness of Julius Malema’s snipe at John Steenhuisen without altogether dismissing critiques of “whiteness”, as various prominent DA figures have done. Just because Malema misuses the word, it doesn’t mean it loses its credibility.
The concept has been used as an analytical tool since the early 1990s. You know, back when Dan Plato, whom the DA has endorsed for a second stint as mayor of Cape Town, was a card-carrying member of the National Party. To quote the title of Melissa Steyn’s 2001 book: Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be.
There are any number of books and articles that DA MPs could use as “whiteness studies” primers. We don’t want our parliamentarians to read from a script — but they could at least read.