Alan Paton’s writing for the stage: towards a non-racial South African theatre

12 Oct 2013

Introduction: It would not be an exaggeration to assert that no South African playwright in the 1950s and 1960s received as much international attention and recognition as Alan Paton, until eclipsed by Athol Fugard’s emerging career. Paton’s own plays and musicals, and the stage adaptations of his novels, had some extensive and successful runs on Broadway in New York, and also played to packed houses in South Africa. Some highly acclaimed artists, ranging from the German avant-garde composer Kurt Weill to South Africa’s jazz musician Todd Matshikiza, helped to bring his work to the stage. Yet Paton’s theatrical work has received surprisingly scant attention from critics, which is all the more remarkable, given the author’s prominence as one of South Africa’s most well-known writers. Like his novels, Paton’s plays are not simply light human dramas or romantic comedies as much colonial theatre at the time, but serious works that were deeply concerned with the socio-political issues facing South Africa under apartheid. As Paton once put it, he was never interested in “writing a ‘jolly good fellow’ sort of play.” Three of his major plays were written and performed in a crucial period of South African history: the Sharpeville massacre, the implementation of the Group Areas and other cornerstone apartheid acts, the treason trials, and the declaration of the republic.