|Friday, 10 August 2007 05:41|
Witness staffer Stephen Coan has helped to unearth another facet to Henry Rider Haggard. SHARON DELL reports.
"Good idea ... but what about the others?", was Stephen Coan's response to American economist and Haggard aficionado Alfred Tella when the latter suggested they collaborate on the publication of Star of Egypt, a play by Henry Rider Haggard based on his Ancient Egyptian romance novel Morning Star. From his own research, Coan knew that Haggard had produced three full-length plays, although only one, Mameena, had ever been performed - in London in 1914, during the early days of World War 1.
Mameena was based on Child of Storm, the second volume of Haggard's Zulu
trilogy, which deals with the 1856 succession battle between Cetshwayo and
his brother Mbuyazi - a conflict that historian John Laband describes as
"one of the greatest battles ever fought on the soil of Zululand".
But all of Haggard's plays, including Mameena, were largely forgotten and
one - known only as "the Irish Play" - was long believed to be lost.
But Tella's idea was a good one and the search for the missing plays was on.
Coan's first port of call was the Cheyne Collection at the Ditchingham home
of Haggard descendants Mark and Nada Cheyne. In 1997, the collection had
yielded Haggard's handwritten 1914 diary of his tour to South Africa, which
Coan published in 2000 as Diary of an African Journey: the return of H.
In 2005, luck was still on Coan's side. During his visit to the UK in that
year, Nada produced the script of the elusive "Irish Play", which turned out
to be titled To Hell or Connaught.
Coan unearthed the staged version of Mameena in the British Library, and in
the Norfolk Records Office in Norwich he found the handwritten manuscript of
Mameena, the version Haggard offered to Oscar Asche after the renowned
actor-manager-producer, fresh from his success with the oriental spectacle
Kismet, told Haggard he was interested in putting on a "Zulu play".
With all the missing pieces in place, Tella and Coan, who have never met,
but share a mutual interest in Haggard, were able to proceed with Mameena
and other Plays.
The co-authored introduction contains fascinating details about how and why
the plays came to be written. Short introductions place the plays in their
historical context - as Coan says, "All the plays are melodrama but all have
historical underpinnings" - and there are extensive footnotes.
The book also brings to light, for the first time, correspondence between
Irish writer W. B. Yeats and Haggard over the scripts of two of Haggard's
plays - Star of Egypt and To Hell or Connaught, the latter taking as its
subject the bloody 17th century colonisation of Ireland under Oliver
South African connections
In the case of Mameena, the book teases out some of the forgotten history
around its London staging and its South African connections.
According to Coan, the staging of Mameena marks an important episode in the
history of black theatrical performance, which up until now has gone largely
unremarked. "Most of the cast of Mameena would have been black, drawn from
the large population of people of African birth or descent living in London
at the time, although speaking parts were always given to white actors
disguised as blacks," says Coan.
For Coan, one of the best things to come out of the publication is the
window it opens on the two Zulu advisers - Mandhlakazi kaNgini and Kwili
kaSitshidi - who were taken to London by Asche to teach the cast how to
"wear a top knot, to do war dances, perform marriage ceremonies and sing".
That the testimony of Mandhlakazi exists is thanks to the efforts of Natal
civil servant and Zulu cultural expert James Stuart, under whose care the
two Zulus travelled by ship to London. Stuart had been contracted by Asche
to ensure the authenticity of the play.
Stuart recorded the experiences of the two advisers in 1916 and Coan found
the interview with Mandhlakazi, along with his photograph, in the James
Stuart archives at the Campbell Collections in Durban. The full transcript
of Mandhlakazi's impressions of England, ranging from his observations about
the "continual haze in the city centre" to his satisfaction at seeing the
British royal family, are reproduced as the book's first appendix.
A chance to make some money
Haggard's decision in 1910 to try his hand at writing plays was founded on
the hope that it would earn him money to supplement his unpaid work on
British government commissions.
As Tella and Coan note, Haggard's hopes were not entirely misplaced: in
1910, theatre was very popular. But by 1914, when Mameena was staged,
"cinema's star was rising" and war-time conditions had a dampening effect on
entertainment in London. But the play was not a complete failure. Although
he eventually lost money on it, Asche described the opening night as "a
Contemporary reviews of the play, published in full as an appendix, show
that all critics were enthusiastic about the play's "scenic qualities", but
most shared Haggard's disappointment at the handling of the story.
"Asche was going for spectacle," explains Coan, "which fits into the strong
Edwardian and Victorian interest in the exotic, the orient and in Africa."
Mameena and Other Plays: the complete dramatic works of H. Rider Haggard,
edited with an introduction and notes by Stephen Coan and Alfred Tella, is
published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
First published in The Witness, 1 August 2007.