An ear for the music of words
Janet van Eeden
Kobus Moolman and I are sheltering under large, leafy trees, trying escape the angry heat of another Maritzburg summer day. We are in the garden of Mac's coffee shop and I am drinking iced litchi juice to cool me down. Kobus is braver, and has opted for coffee. We talk about the past holidays and family Christmases and then finally get down to what we are really here to discuss: playwriting in general, and Kobus's new play, the Pansa Award-winning Full Circle, in particular.
I ask Kobus how he writes. Does he do a white-hot first draft, written in one creative burst? Or does he take the time to plan his way carefully?
He answers after a moment. "I say aloud every word I write as dialogue," he says, laughing. "So that means I talk aloud while I write. I sort of split myself down the middle to listen as well as write the words. I think this comes from my years of writing poetry. Poetry, like music, is about rhythm. There is also a rhythm in dialogue and that is what I listen for. And that is also why I don't like my words being changed in the play once they have been written."
Kobus says he revised Full Circle about fifteen times before he was happy with it. "Each time you revise, you add more nuances, give little touches to the words to make them more real," he explains. It's not a surprise that every word of dialogue crackles with meaning.
The revisions have definitely paid off. I saw the play at its premiere last year at the Grahamstown Festival. It was a remarkable marriage of dialogue, acting, direction and design. After seeing the play I was in no doubt that Kobus Moolman is definitely one of the finest playwrights in our country right now.
We talk more about the writing process. Kobus describes the need to be present with the writing of each word, and yet not totally present either. "Part of you is actually observing," he says. "You have to have a gap between you and the page, to allow for those things to happen which make you say: 'Where the hell did that come from?' Those are the moments which take you by surprise, and which are part of the process we usually call inspiration, I suppose. But that is a long way from the initial dread of facing the first blank page. Francis Bacon, the British artist who painted for more than forty years, said near the end of his life that he never overcame the fear of that blank canvas. But he also said that he needed that fear. It isn't good to overcome that fear, he believed, because that would mean that an artist is complacent."
I ask Kobus to comment on a quotation I've found recently by TS Eliot about playwrights. Eliot said that the creation of a stage character consists of the "transfusion of the personality, or, in a deeper sense, the life, of the author into the character". Eliot is, in fact, saying that everything we write as playwrights reflects our own character in some way. Does Kobus agree with this?
"Do you know," he answers, "this is one of the few pieces I've written that I've managed to keep myself out of? Some of Meisie's [the chief protagonist] visions are expressed in metaphors which I like to use a lot as a poet myself. Images of fire and stone, for example. I think it is a progression when a writer's work ceases to be autobiographical, but I do feel that I need to come back in my next work and say something about the things I feel and think."
It's almost a question of maturity as a writer, I suggest, that one doesn't have to be in every story. Kobus agrees. "I think it is a maturity that allows a writer to bring himself into his work without being emotionally connected to it."
Kobus started off writing poetry, but found that his love of creating characters needed the medium of theatre to express itself more fully. "I actually see the characters," he says. "I also just love something about words in someone's mouth. I don't think I'm particularly good at creating plot - I have to work harder at that - but I just love creating a character. Even though I am sometimes shocked by some of the things I end up doing to these characters. It's interesting to mention that the violence in the play did surprise me. I had to think very hard about it. But in the end I couldn't afford to hold back on it. Although I am a moral person, I have to make a distinction between the characters' moral code and mine. I have to think carefully not to censor myself, but also not allow myself to sensationalise. But being mature as a writer means we have to allow our characters to go places we wouldn't allow ourselves to go. It's quite tricky, but we have to realise that we are not creating ourselves in a play."
Something else which has interested me for a number of years, ever since a friend and I discussed the issue before seeing one of Greig Coetzee's plays, is that many white South Africans use the lower class register when creating their characters. I am thinking of Athol Fugard, PG du Plessis and Coetzee in particular. I wonder why this is such a comfortable class in which white South Africans can express themselves and put the question to Kobus.
His reply is illuminating. "I am so much more drawn to people confronting life's realities at the coalface of life," he says. "People who have no credit card, no fancy car, no cushioning to protect them from the harsh realities. They can be undone at the click of a finger. Perhaps people who are underprivileged live with a greater level of physical violence too. I find people on the fringes of life quite attractive to write about - I like to hear what they have to say. And one can use people with occupations such as a car guard, a long-distance truck driver or a road sweeper as metaphors in the play."
I mention that I am touched by people who are on the breadline - the pathos of the insurmountable odds they face moves me. Kobus agrees. "One has to find the love for one's characters - to write with love. Even though the people in Full Circle are not nice people, I have to present them with respect."
If there is no respect, one's characters could become figures of fun, I say. And that is not acceptable to me. Nor is it in Kobus's eyes.
We talk about the lead character in the play - Meisie, a young Afrikaans girl who is blind. She has visions, and the small right-wing community she is part of relies on her to show them the way out of a South Africa which has become hostile towards them. I wondered if this character, with her disability, mirrored in any way characters such as the blind oracle Tiresias in Oedipus Rex. Is it possible that Kobus is saying in his play that characters with disabilities have compensatory gifts? Like the one Tjokkie has in PG du Plessis's Siener in die Suburbs - he is epileptic but has prophetic visions.
"No, it is not the same," says Kobus. "In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus eventually gouges out his eyes when he has his first moment of insight. And Gloucester in King Lear is also blinded and reaches true understanding about which of his children love him only once he can't see. Lear himself is another example. He has to lose his mind to find understanding. Meisie is not like that. Her visions might be prophetic in a way, but she never attains true self-knowledge. She remains, like the rest of the people in the play, close-minded. In fact, the characters need to be seen as examples of close-mindedness. That's what the play really is about. You can't just say that these rightwing extremists are terrible and the rest of us are okay. It's their type of thought patterns - the type that sees only black and white and which has dwindled into fundamentals - that has made these characters ineffectual in society. And that type of thought pattern can be found in all walks of society. That is what the play is saying: it's showing the futility of close-minded patterns and attitudes that inhabit all types of people."
So for those with open minds, Full Circle has to be seen. The play is beautifully written, and has been hailed by critic Robert Greig as an important new work. It is also essential viewing for anyone interested in South African theatre. It is directed by Charmaine Weir-Smith, and features Michael Richards as Oom, Anriette van Rooyen as Meisie, Kobus Venter as Boetie and Samson Khumalo as the enigmatic inspector.
Full Circle will be performed at the Hilton College Theatre from 30th January until 5th February. To book tickets email Doreen Stanley on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 033-3830126.
The play will have a run at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg shortly.