The Life and Times of Johnny Cockroach

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A controversial and highly symbolic English language play by Breyten Breytenbach (1999). First published in the South African Theatre Journal in 2002.


In 1999 Breytenbach wrote and Basson directed The Life and Times of Johnny Cockroach (variously subtitled by the playwright as “A Lament for our Times” and “A Mortality Play”). It premièred at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in a large, expensive production, sponsored by the Standard Bank, the National Arts Council, Cape Town's Artscape and the Flemish Community. Staged at the turn of the millennium, in the last days of the century, Johnny Cockroach looked at the history of humanity in the 20th century, the wars, the holocausts, the bloodbaths, the ethnic cleansing, the ideologies, the technologies, ranging from the Boer War at the start of the century, through Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Vietnam to the atrocities and mass murders in Rwanda and Bosnia a 100 years later. Two hundred minutes of part drama, part performance art and part contemporary African miracle play, Johnny Cockroach was a surrealist multimedia production incorporating singers, dancers, musicians, spirits, gods and actors speaking complexly rich, dense, poetic language and making music that ranged from operatic and orchestral to Afrikaner rock. The various representative characters recall the principles, passions and dreams that led to upheavals, wars and revolutions during the century. They testify before three women seated on a judicial bench and who represent the mothers, sisters, wives and lovers of those who reshaped the world. The bisexual, immortal Johnny Cockroach, the oldest life form, that will also survive the rest (played by a man and a woman as one character), is doomed to eternal life and also to witness these testimonies and make sense of all the horrors of the past 100 years. Eventually Johnny Cockroach pleads with the goddess to let him/her become human so that s/he can die and stop witnessing human behaviour century after century. [Van Heerden (2008)][1]. p. 122.

Performance history in South Africa

1999: First produced at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in 1999, directed by Marthinus Basson. The cast included Dawid Minnaar, Lanon Prigge, Samantha Pienaar, Sibongile Mngoma (voice), Zoliswa Kawe, Beatrice Joubert, Riana Alfreds, Johannes Kerkorrel, Samson Khumalo, Anton Smuts, Charlton George, Chris Vorster, Gert Kruiper, Sean Kruiper and Jaco Bouwer. Staged at the Artscape in January 2000, directed and designed by Marthinus Basson The cast included Dawid Minnaar, Aletta Bezuidenhout and Sibongile Mngoma.

Translations and adaptations


Go to ESAT Bibliography

[Van Heerden (2008)][2].

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