The Crocodile’s Mouth

William Kentridge

I wanted to show a shredding machine on stage. But a real machine, noisily and slowly going through reams of paper, did not seem very remarkable. We thought of using a bread-slicer instead, as a metaphor, but were daunted by the thought of all that wasted bread each night. We thought of doing a drawing or animation of the shredding machine and projecting it onto a screen, but I baulked at the thought of those hours of drawing the spaghetti trails of shredded paper. Then we thought, ‘we already have three dogs onstage, so why not feed the evidence we want to shred to a dog?’ But their mouths were too small to swallow a videotape or a ream of documents. So we asked, ‘what has a wide enough mouth to swallow whatever we want to hide?’ Hence the crocodile’s mouth.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an enquiry established in 1995 following the settlement negotiated between the outgoing Nationalist Government and the incoming African National Congress (ANC) government of South Africa. The brief of the Commission is to examine human rights abuses that occurred in South Africa during the past thirty-five years. There are two parts to this process. Firstly, victims and survivors come to the Commission to recount their stories of what happened to them or members of their families (many of those involved did not survive, and it is left to mothers and brothers to give evidence). The second part of the process is the amnesty hearings, in which perpetrators of these abuses may give evidence for what they have done. The incentive to do so? A full confession would bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony of the Commission. As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done, they get closer and closer to amnesty, and it becomes more and more intolerable that these people should be given it.

The Commission itself is theatre, or at any rate, a kind of proto- or ur- -theatre. Its hearings are open to the public, as well as being televised and broadcast on the radio. Many of the hearings are presided over by Archbishop Tutu in full purple magnificence. The hearings move from town to town, setting up in a church halls and schools. In each venue the same stage set is created. A table for the witnesses (always at least as high as that of the Commissioners so the witnesses never have to look up to them) and two or three glass booths for the translators. A large banner hangs on the wall behind the commissioners: ‘TRUTH THROUGH RECONCILIATION’. One by one, witnesses come forward and have half an hour to tell their story, to pause, weep, be supported by professional comforters who sit at the table with them. The stories are harrowing, spellbinding. The audience members sit at the edge of their seats listening to every word. This is exemplary civic theatre: a public hearing of private griefs that are absorbed into the body politic as a part of a deeper understanding of how the society arrived at its present position.

The theatre rekindles each day the questions of the moment. How to deal with a guilt for the past, a memory of it? It awakens every day the conflict between the desire for retribution and a need for some sort of social reconciliation. Even those people (and there are a lot) who will have nothing to do with the Commission and who are in denial of the truths it is revealing are, in their very strident refusal of those truths, joining in the debate.

Both the process of the Commission and the material coming out of it have been a source of new theatre in South Africa. Three plays have run at The Market Theatre complex in Johannesburg that deal with our recent past and the Commission. But in the face of the strength of the Commission’s theatrical qualities, the question arises as to how any of us working in the theatre can compete with it. Of course we can’t, and don’t try to. The origin of our work is very different and even if in the end it links directly to the Commission, this is secondary. Our theatre is a reflection on the debate rather than being the debate itself. It tries to make sense of the memory rather than be the memory.

To go on a fast and brief digression into the origin of our play Ubu & the Truth Commission, I have for some years been working with the Handspring Puppet Company in Johannesburg, making pieces of theatre that combine animation, puppets and actors – not out of some deep aesthetic principle or programme, but rather out of the fact that I make animation, and Handspring makes puppet theatre, and we wanted to see what would happen if we combined the two. We had performed Woyzeck on the Highveld in 1993, and Faustus in Africa! in 1995. Faustus was a huge undertaking, and after it was done the Handspring Puppet Company and I decided to do a minimal production – two actors, maybe one fragment of animation. Something we could do and survive. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) threw itself up as an option. It would work very well with puppets, with perhaps only one fragment of animation in the middle, when Lucky and Pozzo ‘think’. But we reckoned that the Beckett fundamentalists would not give permission for us to leave out even a comma from the stage directions. We then wondered if we could find a neo-Beckettian text to work with. None of us had the courage or skill to write our own, but then we thought of working with a found text: this in the hope of finding the words that people use to describe extreme situations, a bedrock connection between human experience and the language we use to talk about it. We decided to start a project that would involve gathering oral testimonies from land mine victims waiting in rural orthopaedic hospitals in Angola and Mozambique, and this project was called The Waiting Room.

At about this time I was working on a series of etchings based on Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (for an exhibition marking the centenary of the first production of the play in Paris in 1896). These etchings showed a naked man in front of a blackboard. On the blackboard were chalk drawings of Jarry’s Ubu with his pointed head and spiralled belly. After the etchings were done, I wanted to animate the Jarry-esque chalk drawings and then thought that if these were animated, so should the figure in front be. I then asked a choreographer friend if she wanted to do a piece using a dancer in front of a screen, in which a schematic line drawing of Ubu would be moving. Thus the Ubu project was begun. Panic mounted. I realised I could not do both the Ubu and The Waiting Room projects. There were not enough weeks for the animation work. In desperation, I combined the two. At this time, too, the first hearing of the Truth Commission began, and it rapidly became clear that if we were looking for found texts then we had an avalanche of remarkable material arriving every day. Even as I started the process of convincing the participants in the different projects that it made sense to combine them, it became clear that in some ways the contradictory projects – sober documentary material and wild burlesque – could make sense together. The material from the Truth Commission could give a gravitas and grounding to Ubu (which was always in danger of becoming merely amusing). At the same time the wildness and openness of Jarry’s conception could give us a way of approaching the documentary material in a new manner, and so enable us all to hear the evidence afresh.

This was the central challenge with which we started. Only now, with the production completed and on the stage, can we get any feeling as to whether the inauthenticity of the origins of the piece had damned it ineluctably or whether in spite of, or (as I believe) because of, this strange, only half-coherent beginning, we were able to find pieces of the play – images, literary conceits, changing metaphors – that we would never have arrived at if we had started from a sober beginning. How can we do justice to this material from the Truth Commission? In so far as I have a polemic it is this: to trust in the inauthentic, the contingent, the practical as a way of arriving at meaning, and I will elaborate on this later.

A question that arose was how to deal with the witnesses’ stories on the stage – these formed the found text of the original project. Quite early on we knew that the witnesses would all be performed by puppets (with their speaking manipulators visible next to them – our usual way of working) and that Ma and Pa Ubu would be played by actors. There were two routes to this decision. The first was in answer to the ethical question, ‘What is our responsibility to the people whose stories we are using as raw fodder for the play?’ There was an awkwardness in having actors play the witnesses – the audience being caught halfway between having to believe in the actor’s representation of the witness for the sake of hearing their story, and knowing that the actual witness existed out there. Using a puppet made this contradiction palpable, thus solving the problem. There is no attempt to make the audience think the wooden puppet or its manipulator is the actual witness. The puppet becomes a medium through which the testimony can be heard. But it would be false to say that our route to the decision to use puppets for these parts came about this way. Rather, we knew from the beginning that Pa and Ma Ubu would be human actors as that had been the premise for the first dance–animation conception, and by the same token, we knew that the witnesses would be puppets because that had been the premise of the Waiting Room project. The more honourable route to the decision about performance style – the ‘ethical’ route – is a justification after the event.

But the decision brought a whole series of meanings and opportunities in its wake, the most important of which was that witnesses could appear in different corners of Ubu’s life, not only at the witness stand as we had originally anticipated. The puppets were also able to generate a whole series of unexpected meanings that became central to the play. For example, we experimented with a scene in which Ubu is lying on a table while above him a puppet witness gives evidence on the death of his child. We tried it first with the witness standing behind Ubu’s hips. The body of Ubu became an undulating landscape, a small rise in the ground, behind which the witness spoke. We then tried the same scene with the witness behind Ubu’s head. Immediately the testimony of the witness became a mere dream of Ubu’s: the story was taken from the witness and became Ubu’s confession. We put him behind Ubu’s legs, and again the witness was back in the landscape. We then tried to see how close the puppet could get to touching Ubu without breaking the double image. Extremely close, we found. And then we tried it with the witness touching Ubu’s hip with its wooden hand. An extraordinary thing happened. What we saw was an act of absolution. The witness forgave Ubu, even comforted him over his actions. This was a series of wholly unexpected meanings, generated not through clarity of thought, or brilliance of invention, but through experimental theatre work. This is the second polemic I would make: a faith in practical epistemology in the theatre – trusting in, and using, the artifices and techniques of theatre to generate meaning. It also works in reverse. With the animated dance scene, I had the clear idea of creating a character made up of the live actor in front of the screen and a schematic representation or cartoon of the same character on the screen. Both would be seen together, and together they would form a richly complex person. Confidence in the ideas gave me the strength to begin the project. However, it became clear within twenty minutes of starting this that it would not work. Due to problems with synchronisation, differing viewpoints, lighting and stilted performance, it became impossible and had to be thrown out. Next polemic: the Mistrust of Good Ideas in the Abstract. The mistrust of starting with a knowledge of the meaning of an image and thinking it can then be executed. There is, for me, a more than accidental linguistic connection between executing an idea and killing it.

But to go back to the question of the witnesses and their testimonies, which is the central question we grappled with in the heart of our play. As I have said, our solution was to use puppets. (Even here it was not quite so simple. At first we realised how brilliant was our conception of using puppets because, at the Commission, not only did one have witnesses giving evidence, but one also had a translator of that evidence. Two speakers for the same story and our puppets need two manipulators! One manipulator could tell the story in Zulu and the other could translate. But it did not work. The stories could not be heard. In the end we banished our translators to a glass booth – Ubu’s shower – and differentiated between the natural voice of the witness and the artificial, public-address voice of the translator.)

There have been other solutions to the question of how to deal with the raw material thrown up by the Truth Commission. As I said earlier, there were two other plays running at The Market Theatre that dealt with the Truth Commission. The first, The Dead Wait, is a conventional play. It is a fictional reconstruction of an event from the war in Angola, recounting a soldier’s return to South Africa and his attempt to make his confession for a crime that he committed. Although this play comes out of the context of the Truth Commission, it is not directly about the Commission and its processes. The other play, The Story I Am About To Tell, was made by a support group for survivors who have given evidence before the Commission. It is a play designed to travel around various communities to spread awareness of the Commission and engage people in debate around the questions raised by it. Their solution was to have three of the witnesses play themselves. That is, three people who were giving evidence before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission returned each night and gave evidence again onstage. The mother of a lawyer whose head was blown up by a booby-trapped Walkman describes crawling on her knees into the room where the shattered head and body lay. A man describes three years on death row, waiting to be hanged for a crime he did not commit. A woman describes being arrested, interrogated and raped by security police. Their evidence is the central, but not the only, element of the play, most of which is set in a taxi full of people going to a Truth Commission hearing. Three professional actors play the bit parts, provide comic interludes, and lead the scripted debates about the Commission, and the three ‘real’ people give their testimony.

And yet it is only a partial solution to the questions raised by the Commission. Because what the ‘real’ people give is not the evidence itself but performances of the evidence. There is a huge gap between the testimony at the Commission and its re-performance on stage. And these are not actors. In fact, it is their very awkwardness that makes the performance work. One is constantly thrown back, through their awkwardness, into realising that these are the actual people who underwent the terrible thing they are describing. The most moving moment for me was when the survivor of three years on death row had a lapse of memory during the production. How could he forget his own story? But of course he was in that moment a performer, at a loss for his place in the script. I have no clear solution to the paradoxes that this half-testimony, half-performance raised, but describe it as one of many possible ways of dealing with the material.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was faced with a similar problem of doing justice to the testimonies. There was a divergence between the emotions expressed by the witnesses telling their stories and the version given by the translators. It was felt that much of the heart of the testimony was lost when it was recounted by the translators. So for a short while the Commission had the disastrous idea of encouraging the translators to copy and perform the emotions of the witnesses when giving their translations. This was soon stopped.

The question of how to do justice to the stories bedevils all of us trying to work in this terrain. With Ubu & the Truth Commission, the task is to get a balance between the burlesque of Pa and Ma Ubu and the quietness of the witnesses. When the play is working at its best, Pa Ubu does not hold back. He tries to colonise the stage and be the sole focus of the audience. And it is the task of the actors and manipulators of the puppets to wrest that attention back. This battle is extremely delicate. If pushed too hard, there is the danger of the witnesses becoming strident, pathetic, self-pitying. If they retreat too far, they are swamped by Ubu. But sometimes, in a good performance, and with a willing audience, we do make the witnesses’ stories clearly heard and also throw them into a wider set of questions that Ubu engenders around them.

It sounds obscure, but again I will say that it is only on the stage, in the moment, that one can judge how the material is given its weight. This changes both from performance to performance and from audience to audience.

Purely in the context of my own work, I would repeat my trust in the contingent, the inauthentic, the whim, the practical, as strategies for finding meaning. I would repeat my mistrust in the worth of Good Ideas, and state a belief that somewhere between relying on pure chance on the one hand, and the execution of a programme on the other, lies the most uncertain but the most fertile ground for the work we do. But I have no fixed opinion on which of the three plays I have discussed here is the best way to go. I think I have shown that it is not the clear light of reason or even aesthetic sensibility that determines how one works, but a constellation of factors, only some of which we can change at will. Each of the different pieces of theatre I have described can, and has, had enormous impact on their respective audiences. After one performance of The Story I Am About To Tell, a spectator was inconsolable. Her tears were for the stories, but she said that they were also for anger and her regret that never in her life in Munich had there been a similar theatre of testimony. A friend was deeply moved by The Dead Wait, the play about the war in Angola. He had served as a soldier in that war. And after a performance of Ubu & the Truth Commission, a woman came up to us, obviously moved by what she had seen. She said she was from Romania. We expressed surprise that the play had been accessible to her, as it was so local in its content. ‘That’s it,’ she said, ‘it is so local. So local. This play is written about Romania.’

Originally given as a lecture at Het Theatre Festival, Antwerp, September 1997. Published in Taylor, Jane. Ubu and the Truth Commission, University of Cape Town Press, 1998, pp. viii-xv. Republished in Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn. William Kentridge. Brussels: Palais des Beaux Arts, 1998, pp. 124-30. Exhibition catalogue.