Amateur Theatre in South Africa

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In this discussion of the general theme Amateur Theatre in South Africa, the period 1652-1947 is primarily based on an entry written for ESAT by the author and academic P.J. (Peet) du Toit, based on his own comprehensive thesis and subsequent book on amateur theatre in South Africa. For a more complete account of that particular period see: P.J. du Toit (1988). For some other aspects, see also South African Theatre/Overview.

Amateur and Amateur Theatre

In general terms, the word amateur derives from the French term amateur (derived from the verb aimer = to love, hence someone who loves something). Thus, used as a noun, an amateur is someone who undertakes something for the love of it, not for financial gain. This as opposed to a professional. As an adjective it can refer to a person or activity done without the aim of financial gain (amateur painter, amateur sport, amateur theatre, etc)

Amateur theatre thus, simply means theatre made by people who are not professionals, sinmply for the love of it. This encompasses a very wide range of performance activities of course, over the ages, cultures and geographical regions.

However, in this article the examples of "Amateur theatre" and "Theatricals" used merely to illustrate the general trend of the history and thus tends to refer largely to dramatic performances of high quality, or to influential organisations, which had taken place or worked in the absence of any, or of an adequate, Professional theatre organisation [which is managed according to business principles] or of a state-sponsored theatre body. During the period under discussion [1652 - 1947 and even later, till 1960] there were of course also numerous other dramatic organisations of a lesser quality, which formed part of leisure activities in various parts of the country. Many of these are listed in the main body of this encyclopaedia, this section is simply an attempt at giving some kind of framework within which amateur theatre (in all its guises) evolved and flourished in South Africa. Because of the specific origins of the notions Amateur and Professional, the following outline discussion focuses mainly on the performances by Afrikaans/Dutch and English speakers in South Africa, from what has come to be known as a Eurocentric perspective.

See also Professional.

Theatre before 1652

It is indeed so that the indigenous nations of South Africa, like the Khoi-Khoi and other African nations, also practised activities similar to Western plays, long before the first European settlers came to South Africa. The Khoi-Khoi have records of hunting expedition depictions with strong dramatic suspense. These examples, however, don’t fit into this article’s European perspective. They do however justify their own unique investigation because they are examples of drama as ritual.

Drama as ritual is also found in the traditional literature of the African (Black) nations of South Africa. Credo Mutwa shows that the original forms of black theatre included “simple but highly-skilled and highly organised story telling by an expert storyteller to actual enactment of stories by trained players of both sexes which was performed on sacred occasions in ties of peace.” These performances took place in the open air at a sacred place or a designated site. According to H.I.E. Dhlomo many of the praise songs and other poetic creations of the African nations were in fact traditional plays. The funeral of a deceased chief was an example of a drama in five acts: the death, the funeral, the mourning service, the purification and the spiritualisation.

In 1635 a group of stranded Portuguese soldiers on the Natal coast commemorated their patron saint’s day by performing a comedy. This was probably the first time a dramatic activity in the western tradition was performed in South Africa. A real theatre tradition however would only begin more than a century later.

The Birth of Amateur Theatre in South Africa, 1652 - 1899 [1902]

Before 1855

There is no indication that there were any public performances in the southern tip of Africa during the 17th century. The Cape was a halfway refreshment station between The Netherlands and Batavia [Indonesia] and the labour force probably had no need for theatre. It was mostly the affluent who went to the theatre. By the seventies of the 18th century there was still no public entertainment in Cape Town. However, a form of popular theatre did exist, because on the first day of each month little plays were performed to entertain the soldiers.

The American War of Independence [1776 - 1783] changed the Cape in terms of social and cultural life. France had an agreement with the Netherlands to send 2000 to 3000 soldiers to Cape Town to defend it in the event of an attack. The pleasure-seeking soldiers of the Garrison turned Cape Town into a ‘Little Paris’. They turned their casern into a theatre and performed plays with a great spirit of enterprise. These performances, which were whole-heartedly supported by local young society ladies, can be seen as the beginning of theatre in the Cape.

This boom would only be continued in 1800 with the First British Occupation [1795 – 1802]. The British troops were very aware of the shortage of diversion in a Dutch community who was also antagonistic towards them. A group of enterprising officers were enthusiastic theatre players and they performed plays in a part of their hospital. The specially adapted part of the hospital became known as the Garrison Theatre. Soon this theatre was too small to accommodate all the interest and activities and building on South Africa’s first theatre started in 1800: the African Theatre or Afrikaansche Schouwburg. It was used as a theatre until 1839 and is now known as the St Stephen’s Church. The various language groups formed their own dramatic societies and performed in the theatre. The English groups were stimulated from time to time by visiting professional players on their way to the East.

After the Second British Occupation [1806] the Dutch population organised their own performances with permanent amateur members. The key societies from this period were: Tot Lering en Vermaak, later known as Tot Nut en Vermaak [1803 - 1847] under J.G. Tredoux; Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense [1803 - 1828] with the well-known C.E. Boniface as their leader; Vlyt en Kunst [1834 - 1838] and Het Privaat Hollandsch Toneellievend Geselschap [founded in 1849], which in the second half of the 19th century grew into the most important Dutch society.

The English community followed this pattern and founded the English Theatricals [1823 - 1830], which was revived as the British Amateur Company under the guidance of H Booth, a professional player, from 1834 to 1838.

Eventually dramatic societies were formed in other towns as well, like Stellenbosch, Paarl, Grahamstown, and King Williamstown. Later English dramatic societies were founded in Port Elizabeth, Durban and Bloemfontein. The Voortrekkers, who moved to the interior during this period, didn’t have a theatre tradition. They came from the rural and border areas of the Cape of Good Hope where theatre activities were unknown.

It is clear however that until 1855 there was no real amateur theatre tradition in the areas outside Cape Town. The only performances of note were given in Cape Town.

1856 - 1899 [1902]

In the period from 1856 until the eve of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, South Africa not only changed economically, socially and politically, but the nature of entertainment also changed. All these changes were caused by two events: firstly the discovery of diamonds in the Northern Cape and Orange Free State in 1867, 1870 and 1871, and secondly the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand in 1886. The latter brought about a great economic boom after a period of depression, which had started in 1881, mainly because of the serious smallpox epidemic in Cape Town and Kimberley.

The influx of adventurers to the diamond diggings and gold fields stimulated not only trade in the surrounding areas, but also provided an eager audience in need of any form of entertainment. This new desire greatly influenced South Africa’s entertainment industry.

Before the discovery of diamonds and gold, professional groups on their way to Australia usually stopped over in Cape Town and gave only a few performances. Now, however groups travelled specially to South Africa and visited the towns in the interior.

Since the public in Cape Town was exposed to quality performances by professional groups, the amateur groups had to live up to this standard in order to get support. The quality of the plays in the Garrison Theatre reached a high point between 1861 and 1871.

Dutch theatre on the other hand received no external influence and during this period there was no noteworthy progress in this regard in Cape Town. However, another form of theatre started to develop, namely Afrikaans theatre. This arose from an increasing awareness of Afrikaner identity.

The first Afrikaans theatrical performance probably took place in a house in Daljosefat in the Paarl district under the guidance of D.F. du Toit, better known as ‘Oom Lokomotief’ [Uncle Locomotive]. The performance took place in the early 1860s, and was later repeated in Montagu. Two pieces were performed, of which one was called De Jonge Kunstskilder (The Young Artist). They were translated from Dutch because no Afrikaans plays existed as yet.

There are records of theatrical activities in many towns like Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom and Pretoria from 1860, but their quality was not as good as those in Cape Town.

Nonetheless the boom in the Afrikaans community and the founding of the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners [GRA] (The Association of Real Afrikaners) in 1871 couldn’t prevent the domination of English Theatre. The English amateur groups followed the example of professional groups and performed sentimental and melodramatic plays.

Dramatics and Operatics, 1903 - 1925

The Anglo-Boer War [1899 - 1902] was at first a setback for South African Theatre. Fortunately, in cities like Pretoria and Johannesburg this was only temporarily, and the war situation brought about a new potential theatre audience.

On 5 June 1900, 24 432 British privates and 1088 officers entered Pretoria. In 1902, 4500 uitlanders (European foreigners, usually men from the working class) arrived in Johannesburg and another 31 026 in 1903. Because of these numbers, professional theatre soon took off again. Groups like the Wheeler Brothers and impresarios like Frank de Jong and Leonard Rayne were very active. Rayne eventually became South Africa’s most successful impresario and dominated local theatre for 20 years until his death in 1925.

Though professional groups dominated the first 20 years of the 20th century, there were also amateur groups who performed musicals and light opera, for example Johannesburg’s Hyde’s Amateur Opera Company and the Johannesburg Opera Company. In other cities, however, dramatic and musical groups were combined into one society. The two best-known groups were the Cape Town Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society and the Pretoria Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society, which were both founded shortly after the end of the Anglo-Boer War. The latter consisted of both English and Dutch-speaking players.

Because Milner repatriated 1400 Dutch people from Pretoria to Holland after the Anglo-Boer War, the Dutch societies eventually lost their livelihood. Thereafter the Afrikaans-speaking societies came to the fore.

In Cape Town Melt Brink and J.H.H. de Waal were the pioneers of the development of Afrikaans amateur theatre. This awakening was connected to the so-called Second Afrikaans Language Movement, which had been promoted by De Waal through his magazine De Goede Hoop (The Good Hope) since 1903. Because of this, by 1910 there were Afrikaans performances right across the country and even permanent theatrical groups in the cities. In the smaller towns plays were performed by well-organised debating societies, and theatre in the countryside was promoted by the Christelike Jongeliede-Verenigings [CJV] (Christian Youth Societies).

In Bloemfontein Onze Taal (Our Language) took the lead under the guidance of DF Malherbe, among others. The local Grey-Universiteitskollege Toneelvereniging (Grey University College Dramatic Society), founded in 1907, was very active with their Afrikaans performances.

In Pretoria the Afrikaans-Hollandse Toneelvereniging [AHTV] (Afrikaans-Dutch Dramatic Society), founded in 1907, took the lead. The society’s management included Gustav Preller, G. Wolmarans, Jan F.E. Celliers and Harm Oost. The plays Ou’ Daniel (Old Daniel) by Harm Oost and Piet s’n Tante (Piet’s Aunt), a translation of Charlie’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas, were the society’s most popular plays during these years. No other Afrikaans theatrical society consistently gave performances of such high quality during 1907 and 1918. Together with their leading actor, Stephanus Mare, Preller and Oost raised the awareness of theatre in the countryside. For 12 years Mare was constantly on stage and he can be seen as an important forerunner of the first professional Afrikaans actors.

Repertoires and ‘Volksteaters’ (Theatres for the Nation) 1926 - 1947

From 1926 to 1947 was a period of great change in the theatre world for professional as well as amateur societies. The twenties was the era of the silent film, which had a negative impact on the dramatic arts worldwide. But with the arrival of sound film in 1929 the cinema’s popularity increased even more. Many professional stage theatres were turned into movie theatres. In order to compete with the cinema, existing professional drama groups performed popular and melodramatic pieces, resulting in a superficialisation of quality.

In reaction to this popularisation, well-organised theatrical societies were formed in the big cities “with the holy ideal of holding the torch of drama aloft” as Thelma Gutsche put it. Were it not for these societies’ activities, interest in drama would have disappeared completely during the thirties and forties.

English-speaking drama societies, 1926 - 1947

At first the English-speaking societies took the lead, because when the first professional Afrikaans groups were established in 1925, all theatrical energy went into them. Only when professional theatre turned into an aimless competition between all the different splinter groups and quality dwindled, were Afrikaans societies, with an interest in quality, again formed.

Following the contemporary fashion from England, in most cities and big towns a Repertory society were formed, which performed popular dramas, in contrast to the Little Theatres. Of all the different societies, the Cape Town Repertory Theatre Society and the Johannesburg Repertory Players played decisive roles in South Africa’s theatre history.

Cape Town Repertory Theatre Society

The Cape Town Repertory Theatre Society [Reps] was founded in 1920. The main aim of this society was to perform pieces of literary, artistic and educational value for the public. The group’s first performance was The Merchant of Venice, which was performed on 6 August and was hugely successful. For many years the Reps in Cape Town delivered performances of a very high standard. During the 30s and 40s it was their policy to perform six plays per year. Their performances were of a high quality because they could often make use of professional directors and players. In 1939, in collaboration with the Johannesburg Repertory Players, Leontine Sagan was invited to work as their director. From 1931 the Reps could also use the University of Cape Town’s Little Theatre, with the result that they could use professional technicians.

The Cape Town Repertory Theatre Society was without a doubt the leading English theatrical society in Cape Town during this time.

Johannesburg Repertory Players

The Johannesburg Repertory Players [Reps] was founded on 15 November 1927 by Muriel Alexander. She studied in London under the well-known Beerbohm Tree and moved permanently to South Africa in 1916 where she founded the Alexander School of Drama and Elocution. She had a thorough professional background. However, nobody would have guessed that when she and her fifteen students founded the Reps in 1927, the society would grow to 4000 members in 1955. This Reps was also founded with the aim to perform pieces the public would not otherwise get to see.

Muriel Alexander managed to inspire a passion for theatre in her followers and the Reps’ performances were always of an excellent quality. Their first performance was R.U.R. [Rossum’s Universals Robots]. This performance is the reason that traffic lights in South Africa are called ‘robots’. The play was performed when the Johannesburg city council was busy installing the city’s first traffic lights.

Acclaim for the Reps’ high standard of work soon followed. In 1932 African Consolidated Theatres [a purely commercial group] asked them to perform Dangerous Corner under its guidance in His Majesty’s Theatre. In 1933 they also performed Arms and the Man there.

During their first ten years they performed 66 plays, of which Muriel Alexander directed 35. In the early forties the Reps used other directors, like Joan Heymann, Gwen ffrangcon-Davies, Marda Vanne, Nan Munro, Margaret Inglis and André Huguenet.

The Standard Theatre was always seen as the actual home of Theatre in Johannesburg. The fact that the Reps was asked to perform there during the Second World War contributed to their already high standard of quality. During these years their membership number was limited to 1400 - the number of seats available in the Standard Theatre - and there was even a waiting list.

In 1951 the society opened its own Reps Theatre, which was renamed the Alexander Theatre in 1960, in honour of its founder. Hereafter the group became professional with Anthony Farmer as director and manager. Amateur performances continued through the Reps Associate Players, which was later known under the name Repertory Amateur Players [Raps].

The development of an amateur theatre organisation into a group with professional status with its own theatre is something unique in South Africa’s theatre history. The influence of the Johannesburg Repertory Players during the 30s and 40s can never be underestimated.

At a time when Johannesburg was preoccupied with thinking about the gold in the ground, the Reps supplied a different kind of gold. Not only did they provide entertainment but they also gave intellectual stimulation. They pointed the way, and others followed. They trained and contributed excellent talent to the English-speaking stage.

Theatre activities by the Afrikaners, 1926 - 1947

In the Afrikaans-speaking community the practice of dramatic art for its own sake took place in the circles of the university colleges during the 20s. These activities were usually in the hands of very capable people. In Stellenbosch they were under the guidance of J.F.W. Grosskopf, in Bloemfontein Rose Ehrlich, an elocution teacher from Grey College, was the inspiration and in Pretoria Stephanie Faure performed plays with students from the Transvaalse Universiteitskollege (Transvaal University College, later the University of Pretoria).

Theatrical organisations like those in the English-speaking community were only established in the thirties. There were two reasons for this. As mentioned before, the first Afrikaans professional groups were only established in 1925 and most actors devoted their time and energy to these groups.

Political development also played a role. After the Statute of Westminster in 1931 and with General Hertzog’s motto ‘South Africa first’ in everyone’s mind, there existed a new spirit in the cultural life of the Afrikaner. Their aspiration was to create a culture on par with other western culture groups. This aspiration was most evident in Cape Town and Pretoria, with Cape Town leading the way.

Kaapstadse Afrikaanse Toneelvereniging [KAT] (Cape Town Afrikaans Theatre Society)

As a result of the initial work done by the Oranjeklub (Orange Club) since 1915, there was by 1934 a big interest in Afrikaans Theatre in Cape Town. After Anna Neethling-Pohl performed P.W.S. Schuman’s Hantie kom Huistoe (Hantie comes home) enthusiasm was so great that the Kaapstadse Afrikaanse Toneelvereniging [KAT] (Cape Town Afrikaans Theatre Society) was founded on 13 May 1934, with H.A. Fagan as chairman.

The KAT began promisingly by performing unpublished as well as translated plays. After the establishment of KAT there existed for the first time a real indication of an Afrikaans theatrical life in Cape Town in so far as a single amateur organisation could create one. Several new dramas were performed for the first time by KAT. The society’s continuation over 21 years proved that there was a need for a professional Afrikaans company in Cape Town.

Ons Teatertjie (Our Little Theatre) and Volksteater (Theatre for the nation) in Pretoria

Through a fortunate coincidence, in 1935 there were quite a number of trained drama enthusiasts in Pretoria: Leonie Pienaar, dr W.H. van der Merwe, P.J. du Toit and Hélène Güldenpfennig. Under the guidance of Anna Neethling-Pohl, who shortly before was involved with the founding of KAT in Cape Town, these talents joined forces to form Ons Teatertjie-toneelgroep (Our Little Theatre Drama Group). By the end of 1936 its name was changed to Volksteater-vereniging (Theatre Society for the Nation)

Already with its first performance, Ibsen’s Boumeester Solness (The Master Builder), it was evident that this group would deliver quality work. It approached new writers like J.F.W. Grosskopf, F.W.S. Schumann, Fritz Steyn, Van Wyk Louw, H.A. Fagan, Gerhard Beukes and W.A. de Klerk and performed their new dramas. Although not all the plays were of equal standard, it was evident that Volksteater was a kind of experimental theatre organisation.

The writer W.E.G .Louw said the following about the society’s first ten years: “This one society did more than any other in our country to uplift the standard of Afrikaans Theatre to a phase where it was not only good, but also in many ways positively comparable to the work of older, more established and above all wealthier English dramatic societies in the big cities.”

During the first ten years Anna Neethling-Pohl was the heart and soul of Volksteater. After 1945 she joined the South African Broadcast Corporation [SABC]. When the National Theatre Organisation [NTO] was established in 1947, Volksteater was no longer the only torchbearer of the Afrikaans dramatic arts in the Transvaal province. Though the society existed until the seventies, it never again reached the heights attained in its first ten years.

The Krugersdorp Municipal Dramatic and Operatic Society - a society with a difference

The societies discussed until now, were either exclusively English or Afrikaans. In the same period, however, there was also a dynamic society in Krugersdorp that in many ways differed from other societies, but eventually played a significant role in South Africa’s theatre history.

The Krugersdorp Dramatic Society was founded on 1 November 1928 on the initiative of Buster Harrison. Harrison became the treasurer and a local school principal, E. Gitsham, the chairman. Because of all the different interests of its members, its name was quickly changed to the Krugersdorp Dramatic and Operatic Society. On 27 July 1931 the Krugersdorp Council gave official recognition to the society and from then on the name was bilingual: Krugersdorp Municipal Dramatic and Operatic Society [KMDOS] / Krugersdorpse Munisipale Vereniging vir Drama en Opera. On 12 January 1930 P.P.B. Breytenbach, better known as Breytie, became part of the committee. He actively campaigned for the performing of Afrikaans plays. From 1935 KMDOS annually performed at least two Afrikaans and two English public plays, but often more.

Breytenbach was a supporter of General Hertzog’s political ideas and he thought that theatre was a way to unite English and Afrikaans communities.

KMDOS’s tenth birthday took place concurrently with the Simboliese Ossewatrek (a symbolic ox wagon trek to commemorate the Voortrekkers) which was an emotional experience for many Afrikaners. In Krugersdorp both language groups were involved in the festivities. The winning pieces of a bilingual playwright competition with the theme The Great Trek were performed in December 1938. They were Magdalena Retief by Uys Krige and Sword of the Wilderness by Winifred Dashwood.

Another important event took place during these festivities, namely the founding of the Federation of Amateur Theatrical Societies of Southern Africa [FATSA]. Though no Afrikaans societies attended its foundation meeting, many Afrikaans groups later affiliated with them and FATSA then became a bilingual organisation

Though FATSA was an autonomous organisation, it was an inextricable extension of KMDOS. P.P.B. Breytenbach was the chairman of both societies. FATSA gave Breytenbach a second mouthpiece with which he could introduce his ideals outside the borders of Krugersdorp.

The start of the Second World War generated unplanned advantages for KMDOS and other theatrical groups. Because of changes in the entertainment industry many professional actors were available as directors: Lydia Lindeque, Hermien Dommisse, Leontine Sagan, Siegfried Mynhardt and Anna Neethling-Pohl. The latter endorsed Breytenbach’s ideals and realised that they had a common goal: the creation of a national theatre.

The KMDOS contributed greatly to South African theatre. The playwrighting competitions of 1932, 1938 and 1949 made an important contribution to South African drama.

Another distinction of KMDOS was that it combined all the facets of the theatre into one society and involved both the Afrikaans and English communities. The West Rand Symphony Orchestra was incorporated in 1948, with the well-known Anton Hartman as conductor. The society was then known as the Krugersdorp Municipal Theatrical and Orchestral Society [KMTOS] / Krugersdorpse Munisipale Teater- en Orkesvereniging. Its 21st anniversary was celebrated in 1949 with the performance of the winning pieces of a third playwrighting competition: Kleurskema (Colour Scheme) by Anton de Waal and Vivian Styger and None but the bold by Don F Corbett.

The role Krugersdorp played in South Africa’s theatre history is directly linked to P.P.B. Breytenbach. At a time when professional theatre, and Afrikaans professional theatre in particular, was in a chaotic state, he recognized how amateur theatre could contribute to a nation’s cultural development. Through his personal and energetic endeavours the National Theatre Organisation [NTO] was established in 1947 and FATSA was asked to launch the project. Breytenbach left Krugersdorp in 1952 in order to be the full time manager of the NTO in Pretoria.

When keeping in mind that these performing arts councils included all Afrikaans and English theatre, ballet, music and opera, it is not so farfetched to see the Krugersdorp society as a prototype of the councils and their predecessor, the NTO. After the African National Congress [ANC] came to power in 1994, the provincial performing arts councils were disbanded.

Organising the Amateurs: FATSA (1938-1960)

Another important event took place in 1938, during the KMDOS celebrations, namely the founding of the Federation of Amateur Theatrical Societies of Southern Africa [FATSA]. Though no Afrikaans societies attended its foundation meeting, many Afrikaans groups later affiliated with them and so FATSA became a bilingual organisation. It was the first umbrella society to combine all the amateur theatre societies nationally. FATSA celebrated its 21st anniversary in 1959, but was disbanded in 1960 when state-sponsored performing arts councils were established in each of the then four provinces.

Amateur theatre in the time of the professionals (1948-1994)

Amateur theatre in the time of the festivals (1995-2010)


1. Bosman, F.C.L. Drama en Toneel, Deel I: 1652–1855 JH de Bussy, Amsterdam, 1928

2. Bosman, F.C.L. Drama en Toneel, Deel II: 1856–1912 JL van Schaik, Pretoria, 1980

3. Dhlomo, H.I.E. “Nature and variety of tribal drama” in Bantu Studies 13, 1939

4. Hoffman, Athur and Romein-Hoffman, Anna They built a Theatre. The history of the Johannesburg Repertory Players Ad Jonker, Johannesburg,1980

5. Laidler, P.W. The Annals of the Cape Stage William Bryce, Edinburg, 1926

6. Mutwa, Credo Vusamazulu “On the theatre of Africa” in S’ketsh, Summer 1973

7. Racster, Olga Curtain up! The story of Cape Theatre Juta, Cape Town, 1951

P.J. du Toit 1988 Amateurtoneel in Suid-Afrika (Amateur theatre in South Africa). Pretoria: Academica, .

See also: South African Theatre/Overview and Professional theatre

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