Subversion versus inversion: the loss of the carnivalesque in Janet Suzman’s The Free State

24 August 2015

According to Gilbert and Thompkins (1996: 5), postcolonial drama is aimed at dismantling the hierarchies and determinants that create binary oppositions in postcolonial contexts and – according to Young (2001: 4) – also actively transforming the present “out of the clutches of the past”. This dismantling can, however, only occur when the inevitable ambivalence of postcolonial binaries are taken into account (Gilbert & Thompkins 1996: 6). In her text The Free State (2000a), Janet Suzman attempts to appropriate Chekhov’s dismantling of power structures in The Cherry Orchard (1904) within the South African context. However, although The Free State is written against the former apartheid regime, it fails to dismantle the hierarchies within its context because it negates the vital carnivalesque subversion of Chekhov’s text. Instead of subverting the hierarchies in her context, Suzman merely inverts them. In this article, the concept of the carnival as developed by Mikhail Bakhtin is used to investigate the significance of Suzman’s deviation in the treatment of the hierarchies within the South African context.