While there is a rich history of South African protest theatre in the early 1970s and 80s, the presence of radical inclusive theatre has dwindled, and a massive divide between ‘community theatre’ and what’s considered ‘professional’ theatre prevails. The bitter irony is that the stories from the collective hearts and minds of everyday South Africans are equally enthralling, relevant and moving, yet are rarely made manifest on the South African stage. The story of Joe Langely in “Eulogy” reveals two significant oversights in contemporary South African theatre, one deeply contextual and the other universal. The first reveals Joe’s lifetime of exclusion from theatre, like the majority of South Africans, theatre is an ‘in-joke’, a black box of white privilege. If theatre could be re-imagined in South Africa, it would need to include lower class black communities, and should in some part stage locally relevant stories.
Furthermore, it is in Joe’s dying that we are witness to a larger, more universal, exclusion of the elderly, senile and dying, not from theatre per say, but from society at large. On the greater societal stage of life, getting old, falling terminally ill, or losing one’s grasp with memory slowly immerses the infirm person in a sterile and medicated liminal zone, a punitive purgatory. Here, living is overshadowed by the close approaching finality of death. JM Barrie’s Peter Pan notoriously proclaimed: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” Perhaps Peter is right, who knows? If Joe could speak from the other side of the curtain he might be able to enlighten us. What we do know is dying in the 21st century, however, is that the process of dying has become a pathological, medicated, sterile, and lonely domain of suffering. Death is a taboo that is quickly made invisible, much like the invisible life worlds of lower class South Africans that are excluded from theatre. Coppen’s remedy for theatre is one of cathartic inclusion; it is a curative place for the resurrection of the excluded to move through difficult and delightful memories together.
The death of heritage and the death of the individual are deeply intertwined in this piece, both figuratively and literally. Cultural death is profoundly highlighted in Joe’s living Eulogy. The biographic library that could potentially smoulder in the ashes of Joe’s death, is proactively preserved from the flames through theatrical witnessing and archiving of life. Coppen points to the dying of cultural heritage in South Africa through exclusionary theatre in the figurative death of Joe, while at the same time reveals the role theatre could play in society at large, particularly in palliative care. Coppen’s imagined theatre is one that archives life and challenges morality and mortality, for the omitted and for the dying citizens of South Africa the audience sees itself, and the mortal are made immortal between theatre’s velvet wings and under the warm glow of theatrical lights, not surgical ones.