The 1973 play “The Island” was written and performed in South Africa, notably during the country’s era of apartheid. As a 2003 NYT theater article reveals further, the play was loosely based off of the lived experiences of actors whom the playwright Athol Fugard and actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona knew, who were sent to the Robben Island, the play’s titular island. Readers learn further from the play’s endnotes about the infamous maximum-security prison on Robben Island that once held political prisoners like Nelson Mandela. The endnotes situate this fictional play within the brutal experiences Robben Island prisoners faced during the 1960s: “frequent acts of brutality against prisoners,” along with harsh occupational assignments for prisoners, made Robben Island “a symbol of white South African tyranny, and indeed a theme in modern South African literature” (231-232).
It is that point about tyranny which gives significant weight to “The Island” and its message. This two-character play centers around two Robben Island prisoners, Winston and John. With the harsh prison conditions and forced labor, and John’s fortunate shortened sentence serving as the backdrop, audiences behold Winston and John’s cellblock bond as they prepare for their upcoming “performance” of Antigone for the other prisoners.
First, important passages for the backdrop to the central action (the play preparations) is worth attending to:
– How John describes the oppressive State at the time through personification and use of a satirical tone, which stands as the play’s daring commentary on apartheid at the time: “News bulletin and weather forecast! Black Domination was chased by White Domination. Black Domination lost its shoes and collected a few bruises. Black Domination will run barefoot to the quarry tomorrow. Conditions locally remain unchanged…” (196) The last part of about the quarry is a reference to Robben Island prisoners’ forced labor in the nearby lime quarry.
– The toll that imprisonment has had on John and Winston, and their families, as reflected by their performative calls to home to update loved ones that they are okay (205-206). This becomes even more powerful when only John’s sentence is shortened to three months, and both men revaluate what their futures, one imprisoned for life and the other free in a matter of weeks. For John, who originally faced 10 years, drives this point home in his reflection on when he was sentenced, saying, “I watched ten years of my life drift away like smoke from a cigarette…” (213). Then, John notes how “Time passes slowly when you’ve got something … to wait for ….” (215). Here, then, imprisonment and hope are inversely weighed.
– Both men’s reflections on the night they were transferred to Robben Island, the harsh conditions they faced in custody—packed into vans, lack of rest and restroom breaks, packed tight, forced onto the boats, saying “‘Farewell Africa!’” (214-215).
– Finally, the tension that erupts between the two men in light of John’s shortened sentence, as Winston (with a life sentence) cruelly muses for John what/who he will soon have upon freedom, but with the purpose of exacerbating his steadied anticipation of release (218-221). Winston wails, “I’m jealous of your freedom, John. I also want to count. God also gave me ten fingers, but what do I count? My life? How do I count it, John?” (221). This then transforms into a crisis of memory, as Winston realizes his weight of his sentence and how he’ll most likely forget John as he serves the rest of his time—“And then one day, it will all be over,” Winston concludes (221). It is all a very somber and unjust situation for Winston, and these declarations drive that point home.
As for the central action to the play:
The choice to perform Antigone, which John insists to Winston is an “important” Greek “legend,” is a powerful one (210). As Fugard reflected on for his interview with the NYT, “’Antigone’ is the most powerful political play ever written … It is the first play that raised the issue of standing up and being counted in a situation that involved oppression and injustice. The entire time we were working on [“The Island”], the government was harassing us, barging into rehearsals and confiscating manuscripts.” Oppression and injustice as both internally and externally constraining the “The Island” is worth recognizing. So, Winton and John’s performance of Antigone in the prison is a clear form of protest. John, playing the role of Creon in the Greek tragedy, declares, “The law states or maintains nothing, good people. The law defends!” (224). Yet, statements like this and others serve the dual purpose of protesting the internal conflict that is both John and Winston’s imprisonment, as well as the external historical context for “The Island,” the injustice of South African apartheid. There is slippage later in John’s ad-libbed speech for Creon, where he sentences Antigone to “the Island” so the State can “wall her up in a cell for life, with enough food to acquit ourselves of the taint of her blood” (227). Winston’s reply as Antigone is crucially important as well, given his own life sentence and standing as the final line in the play, where he declares, “I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honour belongs” (227).
“The Island” most definitely serves as an indictment of South African apartheid, but it is masterfully constructed through this internal narrative around the seemingly innocuous prison performance of Antigone. As we mentioned last class, it’s useful to think how the exam might ask about literature as reflective of/forming conceptions of “good citizens,” as well as the role which literature could/should/does play in negotiating that State-citizen relationship. How do we see “The Island” challenging South African apartheid? What message does it give about political dissidents / law breakers / prisoners? What about oppressive governments?
To end this long note, I think the NYT theater writer, Ron Jenkins, offers one great answer:
“The artists who created ”The Island” and the prisoners who inspired it understood that theater alone was not going to change their world. But Mr. Kani, Mr. Ntshona and Mr. Fugard built a haven in the theater for freedom that could not yet be achieved in the society at large. In jails, in theaters and on the streets, black South Africans expressed their opposition to tyranny with a sense of inevitability that transformed their collective performances into a self-fulfilling prophecy of freedom, willing their liberation into existence by performing as if it had never been in doubt.”
For more, the NYT article referenced above: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/30/theater/theater-antigone-as-a-protest-tactic.html
The Island is a one-act play written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona. Based on South Africa’s infamous Robben Island, this apartheid-era drama presents two cellmates and their experience within jail, just as one of the men has his sentence reduced.
As a play, the text is performed for an audience; its first performance being in Cape Town, South Africa during July 1973. Despite being primarily in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa words are also spoken throughout the play. Considering that the play discusses harsh prison conditions, in order to avoid censorship, it was performed under multiple titles. During its initial run, it was titled as Die Hodoshe Span, and for its London premiere, it was titled Sizwe Banzi Is Dead. Surprisingly, both Kani and Ntshona won a Tony award as co-winners for best actor in both the Island and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead.
The themes of the play surround racial segregation, obedience, brotherhood, and freedom. In his final lines (which double as the closing moments of the play), Winston states, “I go on my last journey. I must leave the light of day forever, for the Island, strange and cold, to be lost between life and death. So, to my grave, my everlasting prison, condemned alive to solitary death” (77). Understanding that his cellmate and friend will be released, Winston is coming to terms with his upcoming desertion, and revaluates his imprisonment. The fact that Winston is performing this monologue as Antigone (while she faces judgment for her actions) provides a deeper insight on his feelings and how he processes his time in prison. He is “condemned alive to solitary death”, leaving him in stasis, not dead but not truly living as well.
Considering the fact that it is a crucial part of the play, I think that for the exam it would be interesting to connect Sophocles Antigone to the events in The Island; examining how the events within the Antigone effect The island and its meaning.
Additionally, one could write about the Island in connection to Bartleby, looking at John and Winston’s actions vs. Bartleby choosing not to act. Or continuing with this notion of inaction, you could compare The Island to Hamlet to examine action and consequences. John and Winston fought against discrimination and unfortunately faced imprisonment for standing for their beliefs; Hamlet’s inability to act or maintain a stance on the events in his life is what ultimately led to his downfall. This action vs. inaction could be an interesting notion to explore.
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