Friday, July 18, 2014

Yourgrau's Song of Jacob Zulu measured against Aeschylus' Oresteia

Tug Yourgrau mentions Aeschylus’ Oresteia among the sources that influenced his 1992 stageplay The Song of Jacob Zulu.[1] Born a white South African, Yourgrau bases his first published drama upon the trial of Andrew Zondo, a young black man who confessed to killing four shoppers at a Durban mall by detonating a shrapnel bomb. Dozens of innocent people were also injured in the incident. Yourgrau’s courtroom drama engages issues of justice and atonement. It is called by some critics an oresteia.
Steppenwolf Theatre (Chicago), production of
The Song of Jacob Zulu (1992); from the Theatre's website.

Oresteias narrate the plight of the House of Atreus in its critical emergence from the Trojan War. The Rape of Helen precipitated the War; the murder of Agamemnon punctuated its conclusion. But closure could not come to the Atreidai until Orestes avenged his father’s homicide through matricide and endured humanity’s most gut-wrenching dilemma. One young man is obligated to atone for all the ills of all Tantalus’ posterity. It is the equivalent, in Greek mythological terms, of one individual’s reversal of the effects of Adam’s transgression.

Jacob Zulu is Yourgrau’s literary creation, a character whose crime parallels Andrew Zondo’s. According to his creator, Jacob’s name recalls the protagonist of Genesis. The character’s parents are portrayed as god-fearing Christians, the Rev. and Mrs. Zulu staunchly advocating the value of righteousness and confession. Aside from the Reverend’s advanced social status, the elder Zulus would scarcely bear any resemblance to Orestes’ notorious parents, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. The social circumstances of young Jacob’s upbringing, we learn during the dramatized trial, have created an environment where the murder of innocents effects somehow a bright day for ending the human stain of Apartheid.

Yourgrau’s narrative is conceived as a tragedy and constructed from tragic conventions, as well. A nine-man chorus is comprised of a vocal group complete with leader and choral responsion. Yourgrau overtly connects the play’s chorus to the iconic acapella ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The chorus participates at key moments throughout the play portraying the sentient activities of various groups throughout the action. They sing traditional South African songs as Jacob’s congregations, his high-school class, the guerillas of the African National Congress who indoctrinate him, and ultimately the courtroom spectators who must watch him hanged. Clearly Yourgrau heeds classical Greek tragic form. But two important external coincidences flow into the fictionalization of the drama:  Yourgrau had developed an emotional attachment to the music of Ladysmith before he wrote the play, and one of Ladysmith’s founders, Joseph Shabalala, had been murdered as a result of racial tensions connected to Apartheid.

Against this frightening social backdrop, Yourgrau casts the tragic narrative of Jacob Zulu as a young man who, though driven under the rigors of courtroom cross-examination, refuses to bear witness against the ANC who pressed him to his crime. Rather, Jacob puts his faith in Jesus. “If I could give part of my flesh to th[e survivors and their families], I would do it gladly.” But most importantly, he pleads for cessation of retaliation: “I hope that the South African Defense Forces do not retaliate for these deaths.” Jacob Zulu mounts the gallows expecting that his demeanor in the docket has warranted God’s full forgiveness.  “I am not sad, really, because my soul is going to glory. … And I hope that my life is a lesson to my brother Martin and to all the youth.”

Generous interpretations of The Song of Jacob Zulu conclude that “the Christ-like life and death of the Orestes figure brings about an end to violence.”[2] And the play’s choral epilogue articulates the same hope before the empty gallows. “This is the song of a young man called Jacob Zulu,” the Leader sings, “who suffered for the sins of South Africa. This is the song of those for whom the good news of the end of apartheid comes too late.” Chronologically seen, Andrew Zondo’s 1986 execution anteceded the negotiations by Frederik Willem de Klerk (1990) and Nelson Mandela’s eventual release and success in the 1994 elections. The Song’s 1992 premier announced the “end of apartheid” on the grounds of the 1991 official abolition of apartheid laws.

Further, Yourgrau’s intro, written June 1993 (in the weeks after the play closed on Broadway): “As I write this, news reports announce the setting of a date in early 1994 for free, democratic elections in South Africa. I wish deeply that this comes to pass — and with a minimal loss of life. Nine thousand people have died in political fighting in the three years since Nelson Mandela was freed. A new day may be dawning in South Africa, but the birth is traumatic, and it is still very possible that the labor pangs will kill the child. History, I am afraid, will claim many more victims before a free South Africa comes into being.”[3]

A confessed terrorist, Jacob Zulu’s “Christ-like” lifestyle may be questioned. And the assessment that Jacob’s confession and willing execution wrought “an end to violence” is the playwright’s narrative contrivance. Historical fact may not bear Yourgrau’s connection between cause and effect.

My critical sensibilities — whatever they are worth — resist too blithe connection between this narrative and the great Oresteia of Aeschylus. Yourgrau set out “to tell the story of a young man such as Andrew [Zondo] in the form of a Greek drama, but with an African twist: Aeschylus set in Zululand.” That intent notwithstanding, Stefan Tilg’s assessment goes too far when he refers to “Tug Yourgrau’s South African version [of the Orestes myth], The Song of Jacob Zulu (1993, a success on Broadway), in which the Christ-like life and death of the O[restes] figure brings about an end to violence.”

Orestes’ plight is thrust upon him by circumstances well outside his own actions. Fate has destined him for the role of avenger who must sully himself with matricide. Jacob Zulu was raised in a respectable family amidst circumstances that brought him into contact with murderous creatures. Peers of Jacob, as is true of Andrew Zondo, endured unthinkable oppression and hardship because of the color of their skin. In Yourgrau’s overarching assessment the bomber was “an innocent, bright boy whom the fates — in this case, the apartheid system — ground up and destroyed.” The tales, however, end differently: Jacob Zulu’s brilliant resolution comes about at some future time; Orestes’ absolution from blood-guilt is effected with great suffering and decisively in the lawcourts of Athens. That is the story of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, that critical third element in the great dramatic trilogy.

As conceived by Aeschylus, the tale of Orestes is not a tragedy, in that modern sense — a narrative of a protagonist who is ground up and destroyed. Rather, the classical Oresteia is a dramatic production that leads toward a remarkable sea-change, an end to primal vengeance. Within the narrative confines of Orestes’ dramatic experience, as it is played out for the audience in the theatre, Orestes endures a three-phase survival from catastrophic ruin. The cycle of human revenge persists while the savior is helpless to stop it in Agamemnon. That cycle brings him into active perpetration in Choephori. And finally, the tragic hero’s needful “suffrance into truth” snatches Orestes from the brink of personal catastrophe even as Athena’s ascendancy over Apollo rescues all mankind from the brink of cosmic annihilation.

Yourgrau’s play emerges hopefully from darkness and moves forward with an expression of hope, a prayer. Aeschylus instructs the audience that emergence from that darkness will necessitate cooperation of human endurance and extreme divine ingenuity.

The structure of Aeschylus affects Yourgrau’s play far more than the comparison of Orestes to Jacob allows.  Because of the disconnect, I do not think one can really call The Song of Jacob Zulu a “version” of the Oresteia. Stefan Tilg seems to be following the lead offered by Kevin Wetmore, whose book The Athenian Sun in an African Sky (2002) presented Yourgrau’s play as such.  Yourgrau admits that his play is structurally related to “the great Greek dramas, especially Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle” whence inspiration and guidance came. And the playwright does observation that his tale of the Zondo trial is “Aeschylus set in Zululand.” Yet, if the cosmic magnitude of Jacob’s trial can be compared to Orestes’ trail at the Areopagus, that is if the critical impasse of Jacob’s guilty innocence is equivalent to Orestes’, then we must submit to the playwrights’ conclusions and forgive Yougrau for obliging his audience to connect the dots between his play and Aeschylus’.

Tug Yourgrau’s Song of Jacob Zulu is not a great play in the magnitude of Aeschylus in Argos. The end of apartheid, however, may be as glorious a human event as the judicial intervention that ended the cyclic violence of the Tantalids. But, structurally, the glimmering optimism that races through the epilogue of The Song is a pale representative of the rigorous conclusion worked out by Aeschylus for his 5th-century audience. Had Yourgrau striven to the same end, I might be inclined to celebrate his literary accomplishment more energetically. As it is, The Song of Jacob Zulu resonates more as a version of Choephori than as a version of the grand collective, The Oresteia. In that sense, the play ends with a promise of hope rather than with a celebration of resolution achieved.

[1] Tug Yourgrau, The Song of Jacob Zulu (New York: Arcade, 1993), viii-xi. The play premiered in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in April 1992, and ran a peculiar course for seven weeks on Broadway in late Winter 1993. Bruce Weber, “Case of the Vanished Audience,” NYT 7May1993, C4. Weber attributes the play’s early closure not to artistic problems but to economic factors: discounted tickets to less affluent clientele undermined word-of-mouth publicity. Cf. B. Weber, “Author of Jacob Zulu faces unpleasant choice,” NYT 19 Feb 1993, C2.
[2] (S. Tilg), s.v. “Orestes” in Reception of Myth and Mythology, ed. by M. Moog-Grünewald.
[3] Yourgrau, Song of Jacob, introduction xii.