The one-person play as a (still emerging) sub-genre: an outline of its development and characteristics

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The contemporary theatre landscape finds itself, both locally and internationally, in a troubled position on account of restricting economic circumstances and competing forms of entertainment (television, internet, etc.). Accordingly, many dramatists, theatre production teams and actors turn to financially more viable formats of theatre creation – the one-person drama, for example. The smaller the ensemble, the better the chances of profit-gaining.

The flourishing condition of the subgenre may, however, also be ascribed to other factors. The broad, contemporary cultural focus on the "self", for example, has also played a part in this regard. According to Jo Bonney – in her anthology Extreme exposure: an anthology of solo performance texts from the twentieth century – actors, directors and playwrights have become products of "a hundred years of shifting from the nineteenth-century emphasis on the community to the late twentieth-century elevation and examination of the individual" (2000:xiv).

Mark Berninger (in Wallace 2006:3) correctly states that "one of the difficulties that dogs any discussion of theatre monologues is the very looseness of the term". The term een-persoondrama (one-person drama) is not mentioned in any of the various Afrikaans explanatory dictionaries, but eenman (one-person) is defined as follows in the multivolume WAT(Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse taal) (Dictionary of the Afrikaans Language): "van een man of een persoon; uit een man of een persoon bestaande; met slegs een man of een persoon daaraan verbonde" (of one man or one person; consisting of one man or one person; with only one man or one person involved in it) (Schoonees 1972). The term monodrama is explained in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED 2015b) as a "dramatic piece for a single performer, originally with spoken text and musical accompaniment. […] Also: the genre of drama of this type."

What further complicates the matter is that the term one-man drama is used alternately with synonyms such as one-man piece, one-woman piece, one-person performance, one-man showone-person show, one-woman show, monologue drama, monodrama, solo piece, solo performance – and more descriptions can be added to the list. Although these terms are employed varyingly, the implied meaning always boils down to the following: that in such theatre pieces an audience is watching and listening to a single actor and narrator.

In the past, studies of one-person dramas have included rather little focus on theorising about the genre, even though the way it has flourished within the theatre industry has been notable. The aim of the research reported on in this article has been to fill this gap – to study and describe the origins, the developmental history and the thus arising features of the one-person drama as a genre in the international theatre context, with specific reference to its manifestation in a number of Afrikaans plays. A growing number of financially and artistically successful Afrikaans one-person dramas are annually presented at various festivals and theatres, a fact which attests to the relevance of such a research undertaking.

For instance, in 2011 Nicola Hanekom appeared in her one-woman show, HOL, which was presented as a dramatised version of the stream of consciousness of a single character. In the following year Wessel Pretorius acted in his own one-man show, titled ONT-, which is about a young man and his coming-of-age experiences. Sandra Prinsloo, also in 2012, tackled a one-woman show called Oskar en die pienk tannie, originally a drama created by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt and 7subsequently converted into a short novel by him, which was then translated from the original French into Afrikaans by Naòmi Morgan, who then also translated the drama version into Afrikaans.

The very favourable reception of the three one-person dramas mentioned emphasises the relevance of our study. The said productions together won more than 12 awards in 2012 and 2013. For HOL, Hanekom received, among other prizes, a Standard Bank Ovation award as best actress in 2012. Pretorius’s ONT- (2012) was nominated for eight KykNET Fiesta awards in 2013, of which it won four: for best actor, best performance in a solo play, best new Afrikaans play and best upcoming artist. In 2013, Oskar en die pienk tannie received, in addition to prizes from other institutions, three kykNET Fiesta awards: for best actress (Sandra Prinsloo), best director (Lara Bye) and best production (see De Beer 2013).

Drawing from a variety of international secondary sources on the subject, the course of the development of the subgenre and its characteristics are described in relative detail in our article. From this it becomes apparent that, like some other public performance types, the one-person drama stems, in the international context, from 19th-century public poetry readings and performative interpretations of literary works, gradually developing into its manifestation as a refined theatre form.

Regarding the development of the one-person drama in the South African context it was found that the oral tradition that existed among the indigenous population groups can serve as a good starting point for discussion of the topic. Aspects of the nature of the earlier oral storytelling traditions are often similar to features of the contemporary one-person drama. This becomes apparent, for instance, when manifestations of the latter are compared with the iintomsi tradition, where the observance of a fourth-wall convention has not existed, or to other forms of oral literature that have been practised within various indigenous cultures. The poetry genre of the dramatic monologue as it was practised in different periods of 20th-century Afrikaans literature may also be regarded as a source of inspiration for the contemporary one-person drama genre in South Africa.

All this does not mean that the origin or progress of the Afrikaans one-person drama genre can be attributed exclusively to the legacy of the dramatic monologue or of the oral traditions of indigenous population groups. Afrikaans drama has also been continuously influenced by international, especially European, theatre trends. In our paper we argue that the influence that European cabaret practices, for example, have exerted on the development of the Afrikaans one-person drama genre, is of greater importance in this regard than the legacy of the indigenous oral traditions or the dramatic monologue as a poetic form. Other local factors enhancing the growth of the one-person drama genre in Afrikaans have been the staging of a string of South African English one-person dramas during the 1980s and the changing socio-political circumstances in the country during the past quarter-century.

We do not only track the original sources and the course of development of the subgenre, but also pay attention to its (emergent) distinctive theatrical features. From our analyses of various Afrikaans one-person dramas, it becomes apparent that the basic literary modes of the narrative, lyrical and dramatic are utilised interchangeably by playwrights when writing for this subgenre. It is, however, the (relatively) distinctive utilisation of (mainly) three core dramatic mode elements which characterises the one-person play as a theatrical form, viz. the roles assigned to the verbal text, the actor and the audience in a production. These three core aspects, it is argued and demonstrated in the article, are made manifest in characteristic applications of five means of theatre play creation: characterisation, the (participative role of the) audience, storytelling (as a dialogue component), (stream-of-consciousness-like and, therefore, often lyrical) language usage, and (stripped) stage decoration.

Keywords: Afrikaans theatre landscape; cabaret; drama; drama theory; drama-theoretical analysis; genre modes; lyrical genre; monologue; narrativity; one-person drama; storytelling

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die eenpersoondrama as (steeds ontluikende) subgenre: ’n skets van sy ontwikkelingsgang en kenmerke

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