9 Dec 2014

Is theatre really a white invention?

From oral traditions to engaging with audiences, ‘theatre’ has existed for thousands of years. So is actor Janet Suzman wrong to say it is a white European invention?


One of Britain’s most distinguished performers sparked controversy on Monday after claiming that it is in the DNA of white people to be interested in the theatre.

Dame Janet Suzman suggested that non-white people rarely attended the theatre because it is “not in their culture”.

“Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare,” she said.

The Shakespearean actor was responding to comments by writer and actor, Meera Syal, who called for the theatre industry to cater more for Asian audiences.

It’s not in their culture, that’s why. Just as their stuff is not in white culture. Dame Janet Suzman

According to the Guardian, South African-born Suzman said: “I’ve just done a South African play. My co-star is a young black man from the slums of Cape Town. Totally brilliant actor. I saw one black face in the room, at the Print Room. I rail against that and say why don’t black people come to see a play about one of the most powerful African states?

“And they don’t bloody come. They’re not interested. It’s not in their culture, that’s why. Just as their stuff is not in white culture.”

Dame Janet Suzman

Suzman, whose aunt was the anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman, added: “Fair’s fair. Theatre is a totally European invention, as is tragedy. Other countries don’t do tragedy. It’s an invention by the Greeks.”

Syal responded: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard any single race or culture claim theatre as their invention before.”

But is it a fair point?

Some historians suggest that dramas were high fashion long before ancient Greece. In ancient Egypt, re-enactments of mythical narratives and role-playing were part-and-parcel of religious festivals.


The earliest recorded dramatic production dates back to 2000 BC with the “passion plays” of ancient Egypt. This story of the god Osiris was said to be performed annually at festivals throughout the civilisation.

The Ikhernofret stela, one of the most renowned Egyptian texts concerning the Osiris Festival of ancient Egypt, was referred to by some scholars as “one of the most elaborate dramatic spectacles ever staged”.

So what is defined as theatre?

The beginning of the western tradition of theatre is traditionally dated from the Athenian festivals of Dionysus in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Dr Sameh Hanna, professor in Arabic literature and translation at Leeds University, told Channel 4 News that the “commonly agreed definition [of theatre] started in Greece”.

However, while Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle said the key in theatre is imitation, 2,000 years later, British anthropologist Victor Turner said it allowed features that were “sacred, mythic, numinous, even ‘supernatural’ character of religious action”.


Dr Hanna, who has seen experiments of these kinds during the medieval Arab world, said: “There have been theatrical elements in Egyptian worship”. But he said this did not “fit in” with the common definition of theatre.

Syal reflected this notion today, saying: “The sharing of stories between performers and audience stretches across every single civilisation beginning with the oral tradition of re-enacting folk tales or religious myths, graduating into more formalised forms of structured staging.”

Dr Richard Bussman, professor of Egyptology at University College London, argues that without narrow definitions, however, “almost anything could be theatrical”.

Indication of this terminology is rooted in supremacy of the west over the south. Dr Richard Bussman, UCL

Speaking to Channel 4 News, he said: “There were no theatres [in ancient Egypt] because they had no understanding of the public-private sphere. That is a European concept.

“But indication of this terminology is rooted in supremacy of the west over the south.”

Are ethnic minorities interested in the theatre?

It may not be as far back as ancient Greece, but performance theatre has thrived across the world.

Fragments of the earliest known plays in India have been traced back to the 1st century AD, although the earliest reference to events which may have been the seeds of Sanskrit drama is in 140 BC by Patanjani in his works entitled Mahabhashya (Great Language). In order to make a point, Patanjali indicated that action could be determined through pantomime, recitation, song or dance.

Peking Opera

While many are familiar with China’s renowned Peking Opera, an earlier form called Zaju or ‘mixed drama’ was established in the Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127). The popular plays spread across China and diversified into numerous regional forms.

Should theatres cater to different tastes?

Suzman said that theatres were already catering to audiences to a certain degree: “Stuff’s going on at the National [Theatre], which is an adaptation of that brilliant novel written by a white woman about the slums of [Mumbai]. If that’s catering, then it’s brilliantly catered for. East is East, which is bloody well thought through. But it’s up to writers to do it.”

However, Syal said that this was a discussion about the relevance of the stories told and “for whom we tell them”.

Our work should reflect and engage with all our talent and communities. Arts Council

The Arts Council announced yesterday that there would be a “fundamental shift” in its approach to diversity in the arts. The council’s chair, Sir Peter Bazalgette, said: “Britain’s got many, many talents. And our work should reflect and engage with all our talent and communities. That’s how we will ensure work of true ambition and enduring quality.”