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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
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KEURIS, Marisa. NP van Wyk Louw's Die pluimsaad waai ver, of Bitter begin revisited. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2020, vol.60, n.2, pp.463-476. ISSN 2224-7912.

The historical play Die pluimsaad waai ver, of Bitter begin ("The plume seeds are blown far, or Bitter beginning") by NP van Wyk Louw was commissioned for the Republic Festival of 1966 and holds a special place in the annals of Afrikaans theatre. Many who know the play and its history recall the polemical reception of the work when it was first performed on 25 May 1966 in Die Kleinteater ("The Little Theatre") in Pretoria and the then prime minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, criticised both Louw's portrayal of the Afrikaner and his representation of the Anglo-Boer War history in the play. In the following decades, the play elicited further controversy, especially after Gerrit Olivier's criticism of Louw's Afrikaner-nationalist beliefs and Luc Renders's negative evaluation of Louw's entire dramatic output. Against the backdrop of these polemics, I argue in this article for a new appraisal of the play based on contemporary drama and theatre approaches with regard to dramatic performance reception. The discussion stresses three notable points. The first pertains to the many forms the reception of iconic works within a specific theatre tradition can take. For example, in the Afrikaans theatre tradition there are few plays, if any, that generated such vociferous responses from such a wide range of interested persons, both in and outside the circle of theatregoers and theatre practitioners. These responses ranged from the highest political office in Afrikaner politics (Verwoerd), to established theatre practitioners and literary figures, to anonymous letters, supposedly from the public, to newspaper editors and the like. Reception of the play was characterised by conflicting opinions, emotional statements and varying critical evaluations, all of which is fertile ground for students of contemporary drama and for theatre studies concerned with the reception of plays in the wider context of their societies (see, for example, Susan Bennet's seminal study in this regard: Theatre audiences: A theory of production and reception, 1997). The second point addresses the relationship between history and its dramatic representation in a play, which in the case of Die pluimsaad waai ver also led to divergent opinions in the year of its first performance. A substantial part of the polemic generated by the play boiled down to how Louw portrayed the historical events and figures important to many Afrikaners. Today most people (including theatregoers) realise that it is not a simple matter to determine historical facts and/or truths. One's own beliefs and ideological points of view influence and determine how one interprets incidents, developments and events (for example battles or wars) in historical and fictional works. The third point deals with the fact that the play was a commissioned work, requested for an important Afrikaner-nationalist festival (1966 Republic Festival). The function and role of occasional plays during the rise and heyday of Afrikaner nationalism has yet to be investigated in depth. However, a number of theorists have indicated that the popular plays always presented Afrikaner history and the participants (for example, the generals during the Anglo-Boer War) in a highly positive fashion (see Van Heerden 2009). However, Louw stated on various occasions that he wanted to break with the tradition that deals only with the heroic and write a play that presented more realistically what actually happen in times of war, the Anglo-Boer War in particular. Although Afrikaner nationalism was at its apex (1966) when Louw wrote the play, he adopted a new perspective and seemed to have realised that the era of the heroic occasional play had passed. Although Die pluimsaad waai ver, of Bitter begin invited severe criticism on the grounds of both ideological belief and dramatic and performative shortcomings, the play provides the contemporary drama and theatre researcher with an arresting case study in Afrikaans (and South African) drama and theatre history. Revisiting the play more than fifty years after its publication becomes a more rewarding experience for the contemporary researcher when it is approached as a theatrical document rather than a play for performance. In this play, we find reflected one of the biggest polemics in respect of audience reception and one of the most detailed documentations of this reception in the Afrikaans theatre history - a rich case study for the student of theatre reception and for the Afrikaans theatre historian!

Keywords : NP van Wyk Louw; Die Pluimsaad waai ver; of Bitter begin; Afrikaner nationalism; theatre reception; historical drama; occasional drama.

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