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Putsonderwater ("Well-without-Water") is a play by Bartho Smit (1924–1986).

The seldom used full title was: Putsonderwater. Variasies op 'n tema van Bernanos ("Putsonderwater. Variations on a theme from Bernanos")

The original text

While living in Paris in 1954 Bartho Smit had a friend, a beautiful, unmarried, young girl who fell pregnant and, not being able to face the shame, drowned herself in the Seine. This incident, together with the strong impression made on Smit by the novella Sous le soleil de Satan ("Under the Sun of Satan") by French author Georges Bernanos [1], was the inspiration for writing the play Putsonderwater (In a frontispiece to the published play, Smit provides a subtitle: "Variasies op 'n tema van Bernanos", i.e. "variations on a theme from Bernanos") .

On a note on the page following the title page of the published text, Smit describes the play as "an attempt to portray Western man's crisis of belief", adding that anyone who finds an attack on the church or on Christianity on this, is interpreting it wrongly. Set in a small South African village, the characters are representatives of religious, secular and political power, and the playwright’s exploration of their relationship with the young virgin, constitutes a virulent attack on social hypocrisy.

He submitted the play to NTO as possible opening piece for the newly built Johannesburg Civic Theatre, but it was rejected by the management because somebody had noted that the father of the illegitimate child carried by "Maria", the white teenage girl (daughter of "Jan Alleman"), was "Asgat", a young "Coloured" man. In view of this the play was afterwards also denied performance in other parts of South Africa for many years.

(For more on the actual town of "Putsonderwater", see for example the entry in Wikipedia[2].)

The text was published by Afrikaanse Pers-boekhandel in 1962 and the play first performed by Volksteater Vertikaal in Ghent in 1968.

Translations and adaptations

A Flemish translation/adaptation was done by and was to have been directed for Belgian television by Fred Engelen in 1967, under the title Putzonderwater. (A handwritten text of the script, headed "Putzonderwater", naar het toneelstuk van Bartho Smit voor de televisie bewerkt door Fred Engelen", was found among the possessions of Tine Balder by their daughter Bie in April 2021.) Unfortunately Engelen, who was meant to arrive in Belgium on 3 December 1967, after a visit to Germany, had to undergo emergency surgery for appendicitis in Stuttgart and died there from post operative complications on 1 December 1967.

Translated into English by Antony Dawes under the title Well-Without-Water, or The Virgin and the Vultures. Published as a typed playscript by DALRO, Johannesburg, in 1968.

Adapted as a radio drama and directed for Radiosondergrense by Eben Cruywagen with Frieda van den Heever, Marlo Minnaar, Petrus du Preez, Neels Coetzee, Johan Botha, Nic de Jager and Johann Nel. Broadcast on 24 June, 2021[3].

Performance history in South Africa

1961: Submitted in manuscript form to NTO as possible opening piece for the newly built Johannesburg Civic Theatre, but was rejected.

1967: A television version, to have been directed for Belgian television by Fred Engelen, is aborted because of Engelen's sudden demise.

1968: First performed to acclaim by Volksteater Vertikaal in Ghent in 1968, touring Belgium for a year.

1968: The first South African production was a student production directed by Abraham H. de Vries which opened at Rhodes University Theatre Complex, Grahamstown, in September. The cast consisted of Nelia Dryer, Hugh Forsyth, Wilfred Jonckheer, John Badenhorst, Tom Cloete, Noël Roos, Bill Sieberhagen. However, on the first night Nelia Dryer pulled a muscle and so the run was cancelled.

1969: Abraham H. de Vries's aborted 1968 student production was revived and performed at Rhodes University Theatre Complex with the same cast.

1969: A production by Johan Mocke opened on 27 February at the Port Elizabeth Opera House,

1969: The PACOFS experimental theatre group staged a brief and little publicised workshop production for an invited audience in the Ou Presidensie Teater (“Old Presidency Theatre”) in Bloemfontein, directed by Henk Hugo, with a cast including Neels Coetzee, George Barnes and Rina la Grange. This was the first professional production of Putsonderwater.

1970: The playwright was invited by Pieter Fourie of CAPAB to direct the first South African professional production of Putsonderwater in the Hofmeyr Theatre, Cape Town in January and February. A few days before rehearsals were scheduled to start the production was cancelled by the Administrator of the Cape Province, in his capacity as chairman of the board of CAPAB. The cast, already contracted, was to have been Cobus Rossouw ("Dominee"), Sandra Kotze ("Maria"), Danie Marais ("Asgat") and Pieter Hauptfleisch ("Polisiekaptein", i.e. "police captain").

1971: The Virgin and the Vultures, the English translation by Dawes was staged by the amateur dramatic society of the Johannesburg College of Education under the direction of Joey de Koker.

1980: Opened on Thursday 24 January at the Market Theatre. Johan Botha diected and also played the Dominee. The rest of the cast included Rina Nienaber (Maria), Dawie Malan (Koster), Elvis Daniels (Asgat), Willie Steyn (Sersant), Gert van Tonder (Alleman, father of Maria).

1981: Twenty years after it was written the first fully professional public production in South Africa was done during the opening season of the State Theatre in Pretoria. It was staged by PACT in The Arena at the State Theatre and directed by Louis van Niekerk, with Iza Trengove (Maria), Sam Marais (Asgat), Dan Welman (Jan Alleman), Don Lamprecht (Dominee), Louw Verwey (Sersant), Franz Marx (Dokter) and Jacques Loots (Koster). Decor by Johan Badenhorst and costumes by Bronwen Lovegrove and Paddy Norval.

1993: A University of Cape Town production presented at the Little Theatre from 1 to 4 September was directed by Sandra Temmingh.


Grütter, Wilhelm, CAPAB 25 Years, 1987. Unpublished research. p 447.

Teater SA, 1(2), 1968.

E-mail correspondence from Anthony Akerman, 16 August, 2022.(Rhodes production 1969)

Theatre programme held by NELM (Rhodes production 1969): [Collection: Rhodes University. Drama Department]: 2011. 370. 2. 10.

The Rand Daily Mail, 21 January 1980, p 7 (Market Theatre production 1980).

Review by Raeford Daniel, The Rand Daily Mail, 11 July 1981 (State Theatre production).

PACT theatre programme, 1981.

PACT pamphlet, July 1981

Erika Terblanche. 2018. "Bartho Smit (1924–1987)" LitNet-Skrywersalbum[4]

E-mail from Pieter Fourie to Temple Hauptfleisch, 20 February, 2021.


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