Advance, Retreat

At first the mutterings were only amongst members of the cast but soon the whole of Retreat Senior Secondary School was talking about the autocratic way in which the principal was behaving. He was the one most responsible. How did one deal with such a man, who had had a questionable theatrical career yet insisted on playing Macbeth himself? And who had dragooned the rest of the school into playing all the other roles? Any staff member showing the slightest hint of talent or rebellion had been bullied into the play, to say nothing of senior pupils, who were forced to occupy menial parts such as courtiers, soldiers and Bimam Wood. There was a spirit of rebellion especially among the more radical pupils who were strongly influenced by Macduff, who taught them history. They put up notices about a darkie Shakespeare and a coon Macbeth. Macduff had only recently joined the staff, coming straight out of the University of the Western Cape, sporting a pronounced afro and spouting half-digested Black Identity ideas. He was convinced that it was his destined role to conscientise his pupils and those members of staff prepared to listen to him. He was unhappy about participating in such a play. He would have preferred Ngugi or Soyinka, or even Small or Fugard at a pinch, but Shakespeare! If it hadn’t been that this was his first year of teaching and that he had a bullying principal, he would have taken a firm stand. Macbeth ran counter to all he stood for. But give the principal enough rope and he would hang himself. Duncan was also not pleased. He was the most senior member of staff in years, having taught English to the principal himself when the latter was writing his Senior Certificate. He was always threatening to reveal the principal’s academic record. Now the pupils seemed to single Duncan out for criticism. During every lesson he had to face a barrage of questions from some of Macduff’s over-conscientised followers. He would reply with studied superiority.

“I suppose, dearest children, that the production could be seen, even by the likes of you, as a so-called coloured one. De facto it could be seen as such. De jure it is not. Do you understand the meanings of these subtleties? Don’t bother if you don’t. In simpler language, it is not our fault that we are seen as a coloured institution. I am using inverted commas. Our task is to prove that in spite of such ethnic labels Shakespeare belongs to all—all except muddle-headed radicals who are long on politics and short on linguistics. I can assure you that if I become convinced that this production of Macbeth is in any way a racial one, I shall raise my voice in the appropriate quarters. Now, dearest children, this is my advice to each of you in your hour of intellectual need, ‘Plyest thyself to thy books to the end that thou mayest acquire knowledge.’ Turn to the ‘Intimation Ode’ of Wordsworth.”

He ignored the catcalls that followed, but felt that the pupils’ reaction was not entirely unjustified. There was something wrong with the production. It might be something personal. He knew that he should have played Macbeth. He had the talent and experience necessary for the part. Instead he was saddled with Duncan, murdered in Act Two. Last year’s production had been even worse. The principal had cast him as Cinna. Not even Cinna the poet (who at least had more speaking lines) but Cinna the conspirator. Senior English teacher, three Unisa courses in English, twenty years of teaching experience in senior secondary schools; and cast as Cinna, the conspirator! At least the role of Duncan was an improvement. Showed that the principal was forced to recognise his talent.

The dress rehearsal was scheduled for six o’clock that night in the school hall. The whole of the morning the pupils seemed more restless than usual, which had given him a bad headache. He might be able to relax at home that afternoon before returning to the school at six. The period just before break he had sat in his office holding his head. There was a loud bang at his door. He looked up, straining through the dull ache, to see Lady Macbeth framed in the entrance, swinging a tennis racquet in her hand. His headache cleared slightly at the sight of her. She was the very ample gym mistress who insisted on wearing very tight tights especially when she knew that he would be around. He didn’t mind that. At rehearsals they had their little private game. He would slap her backside and say, “This castle hath a pleasant seat.” She loved it. The cast sniggered behind their backs. Now she bounced into his office, her fat face visibly upset.

“Heard the latest news?” she inquired, standing in front of his desk, her arms akimbo.

Duncan had not.

“We’re taking the play to another venue.”


“After we open in our school hall, then—wait for it—after that we move to grander climes. Macbeth goes to the Fish Hoek Civic Centre. From the housing schemes to white suburbia. It seems that Retreat is no longer good enough to contain our soaring aspirations.”

“Whose idea is this?”

“His. His idea. Old Current Affairs. A little bird told me that there will be an announcement after the dress rehearsal tonight. And we are expected to listen meekly and to comply.”

“And what if we don’t?”

“Then life can be very miserable at Retreat Senior Secondary School. A thwarted principal can be a very dangerous animal. You follow me?”

“But that means a permit must be applied for. By law there must be a permit to allow coloureds—I’m using inverted commas—to perform in a white area for white audiences. Hell, what happens when the pupils hear about this?”

She slapped her thigh meaningfully with the racquet and for a brief moment Duncan forgot his headache and the drama crisis. Then the interval bell rang.

He got hold of Lennox, Malcolm and the First Witch in a corner of the staffroom. He thought of calling in the Porter as well, but the Porter was suspected of carrying information to the principal. In any case it was known that he drank with his pupils. Macduff could be brought in. He was all right if he would stop beating his Black Identity drum. Given a chance he could become long-winded and ideologically boring to a state of tears. He was not in the staffroom. Malcolm was certain that Macduff was at a meeting of his History Society where, at his, Macduff’s, suggestion, they were debating ‘The Role of the Black Man in the Frontier Wars of Independence’. Most probably the Porter was also there taking mental notes for his superiors.

“Listen, people,” Duncan said conspiratorially, “I hear that old Current Affairs is taking Macbeth to the Fish Hoek Civic Centre. It’s supposed to be a great secret, but I have my sources. No, not the Porter. He’s on the other side. Know what it means going to Fish Hoek? We play under a racial permit.”

Lennox was visibly shocked. Duncan continued in a halfwhisper, glancing over his shoulder. Everyone else in the staffroom was ignoring them.

“It’s bad enough playing in a segregated cast, but playing to a segregated audience?”

“Whose idea is it?” Lennox asked.

“Old Current Affairs himself, and his vice-principal. Banquo’s as deeply involved in this as his master.”

“What can we do about it?”

“I suggest that we all march into the principal’s office right now. What do you say?”

They did not feel it was such a good idea. Macbeth was having his tea. It would serve no purpose their all going in at the same time. In feet it could prove counter-productive. Why not a test case? Duncan could go alone. If he got no satisfaction, then much bigger action. They would all stand together and resign from the play. Duncan did not quite agree but was persuaded to try it out.

Retreat Senior Secondary School was a wind-blown, prefabricated structure put up in the housing scheme. It had suffered heavily during the ’76 riots. There were rows of broken windows, peeling walls and plenty of smashed desks. The principal was oblivious to all this. His office had a carpet, heavy orange curtains and soft chairs. On the wall was mounted a giant reproduction of the school badge with its proud motto beneath, ‘Advance, Retreat.’ Once the final bell rang to end the day, he drove off in his BMW to Fairways and forgot about his ill-kempt, unruly and often malnourished charges. But although Retreat Senior Secondary School was deep in the housing scheme, it had a reputation in one particular field. Through the zeal of its principal it put on an annual Shakespeare, usually the Senior Certificate setwork for that year. The audience would consist of puzzled parents, gawping locals and worried Standard Ten pupils from surrounding schools. The production was also reviewed favourably in the Cape Times and pictures appeared in Rapport Extra. The principal always played the lead, no matter what the Shakespeare. Fortunately they only produced the Bard. There would have been havoc had the school presented Saint Joan or Major Barbara. He always involved as many people at the school as possible in the production - ‘Total Commitment’ as he called it. Teachers and pupils all had to display enthusiastic interest. The secretary usually played a minor part and the caretaker helped with the sets. The parents’ committee sold fudge during intervals while the principal signed autographs.

His interest in theatre had stretched over many years. While at the University of Cape Town he had played Curio in Twelfth Night. Admittedly he spoke only two lines and could then go home, but he waited religiously for the final curtain call and took it with the rest. Later he graduated to speaking parts in Eoan Group productions. Now, with a school at his mercy, he produced, directed, organised and took the leading roles, a situation resented by staff members such as Duncan, Lennox and Lady Macbeth. There were rumours that if he could he would have played the tempest in The Tempest. He was usually so occupied with other matters during rehearsals that he never had any time to learn his own lines. But this did not upset him in the least, as he had, over the years, developed a healthy contempt for his audience. At a performance a few years before, he had become so confused that he had recited Lady Macbeth’s lines. It was a traumatic experience to hear his dark-brown bass thundering out, “I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.” Lady Macbeth had never forgiven him. And Duncan maliciously recalled that awful moment during the previous year’s production when, as Brutus, the principal had given the full Mark Antony oration with all stops pulled out, over the body of Caesar. Lennox, who played Antony, had no alternative but to repeat the oration at a much subdued level. The remains of Caesar were subjected twice to the same oration. Mark Antony had never forgiven him.

Long after the lunch break was over, Duncan was still kicking his heels outside the principal’s office. The secretary informed him that his headmaster was having tea, and when he was having his tea, no one, but no one, disturbed him. He had long teas. Thus by the time Duncan was told he could enter, he was fuming.

Macbeth looked up. “What can I do for you?” He wiped crumbs off his lip.

“I am indeed terribly sorry to disturb your tea” (he hoped it sounded sarcastic) “but I had to see you on an important matter. It pains me to state that I am not happy about the play. I have reserrations about it.”

“Well, I have none. What are yours?”

“The pupils, especially my Senior Certificate English class, describe it as an ethnic production."

“Ethnic or ethic?” He roared with laughter, then stopped abrubtly.

“Ethnic. They see it as a so-called coloured production.”

“No problem at all. Of course it’s ethnic. Or ethic if you like.”

“Please be serious, sir. Is it a Black production?”

“Brown to be precise.”

“All right, brown. Well, everyone, including myself, is unhappy about this.”

“I’m not. Anything else.”

“Yes, there is something else. Rumour has it that there will be a performance in the Fish Hoek Civic Centre.”

“Absolutely correct.”

“But Fish Hoek is a declared white area.”

“I am fully aware of that.”

“But we are not allowed to play there except under permit. With respect, sir, may I ask whether you have applied for a racial permit?”

“Of course not. I wouldn’t be so naive.”

“Then who did?”

“I got the vice-principal to do it. If you feel strongly about it, then speak to Banquo. But you need have no worries on that score. We already have the permit. We’ll show those whites what Retreat Senior Secondary can do, won’t we?”

“In that case, sir, I have no alternative but to hand in my resignation from the play.”

“Oh, for one moment I thought you were resigning from the profession. However, I’m not allowing you to resign from the play.”

Duncan arched his eyebrows expectantly. Macbeth rose from his seat.

“I’m sacking you from it.”

Duncan was too shocked to take his outstretched hand.

“Don’t take it too hard. You must realise that I have no alternative but to sack you. Besides your limitations as an actor, which we are both aware of, I cannot allow any member of my cast to mix politics with drama. You may go.”

Once Duncan had left, Macbeth stood at the window of his office, a slight grin on his face. Duncan’s discomfiture did not particularly disturb him. If Duncan must go, he must go. Theatre was like that. And it would not really be a problem finding a substitute. It was about time that the Porter was promoted. Failing that, the caretaker belonged to the Lavender Hill Gospel Singers so should be able to act. At a pinch he could make a dignified King of Scotland, as long as he kept his mouth shut as long as possible. He might be able to sing, but speaking was not his forte. Fortunately Duncan was stabbed to death in Act Two.

The deposed Duncan left his principal’s office shattered. He immediately sought out Lennox and Malcolm and broke the dismal news to them. Both felt that the time was now ripe for confrontation. No later than the dress rehearsal that very evening. Spread the word. Duncan is thrown out. No member of the cast must get into costume. No member of the cast must put on make-up. No rehearsal, but a mass meeting. Spell out our demands.

Lady Macbeth was shocked that Duncan could be treated like a common criminal. Lady Macduff pledged her unqualified support. The First and Second Witches were dependable in a crisis. Macduff would organise the pupils in the cast. It was important at this juncture to ask him to curb his Black enthusiasm. It was just the sort of thing Macbeth would look for. The opposition ranks would be thin. No one would really be loyal to the principal. There was an ineffectual, simpering vice-principal, Banquo. Donalbain was new on the staff, just out of Hewat, with pale knees and frightened to death of controversy. The Porter was an informer; but informers were notoriously unstable. If Macbeth had any information about what was happening, the Porter was the most likely source. If they could get a vote taken, Macbeth would be heavily defeated. But would the principal allow matters to go so far? To be defeated by the democratic processes?

Just before six that evening the cast gathered outside the school hall discussing the latest developments in animated groups. Quite a few pupils who were not in the play were also present. These afro-haired disciples of Macduff were there to give ideological body to the protest. Macbeth had not yet arrived, but then he was always fashionably late and kept everyone else waiting. At six exactly Lennox jumped on a bench and called for silence.

“Ladies and gentlemen. Could I have your attention please? We’ll all go inside and take seats. There are certain vital matters we have to discuss before we are prepared to continue with the dress rehearsal, if there is going to be any dress rehearsal this evening or any other evening. So, everyone inside, please!”

Once in the hall, he took his stand on the principal’s podium, reserved for assemblies. Next to him sat an aggrieved-looking Duncan. Facing them, to the left, sat most of the anti-Macbeth faction: Malcolm, Lady Macbeth (who kept glancing anxiously at Duncan), Lady Macduff, young Fleance and the First and Second Witches. Sitting uncomfortably opposite them were a nervous Banquo, who kept glancing at the entrance, Donalbain and the Third Witch. The latter was pointedly ignored by the two other witches. Near the door sat a noisy group of History Society members with Macduff in disorganised and vociferous control. The Porter sat amongst them, hiccoughing in an alarming manner and grinning at everybody. Lennox once again called for attention and then went into character.

“Ladies and gentlemen, or should I say fellow actors. I am sure that you are all aware of the latest developments, very serious developments in this play, developments that saw the sacking of a respected senior member of our staff and cast because he had the guts to question what he considered to be irregularities.” He pointed dramatically at Duncan next to him. “Here sits a man slaughtered by the vaulting ambition of Macbeth and his lackeys. I am speaking metaphorically. All this man did was to try to get answers to two pertinent questions. The first was whether this was a racial or non-racial Macbeth. He received an answer after a fashion. Secondly he wished to know whether the play was to be performed in a white area under a permit; a permit which is the symbol of our oppression and humiliation, which would allow us to caper and perform like coons in front of our oppressors. He received an answer after a fashion. He indicated his dissatisfaction, and because of that was arbitrarily sacked from the play. On behalf of all of us, I wish to say to our comrade, Duncan, we admire your gumption.”

Duncan spent the rest of the evening looking like an actor who had gumption. The meeting was opened for discussion. Banquo was forced into putting up a feeble, half-hearted defence. He reminded the meeting how much the principal had done to advance coloured theatre, how successful he had been in bringing Shakespeare to the masses, how the name of Retreat Senior Secondary School had become synonymous with that of the Bard. Then he told the meeting how at great personal risk the principal had invested all the school’s funds in the play. This was in spite of the fact that auditors could become sticky and that the authorities frowned on that sort of thing. Lennox was amazed at this revelation. Was Banquo extremely naive, or was he, in a subtle way, getting his own back on his boss? Was he giving the opposition the fuel they needed? For years he had suffered insult and humiliation at the hands of Macbeth. The Third Witch made a passionate plea for unity and drew an analogy from the play itself. Could one imagine Macbeth with only one witch? No, it needed all three. How could one witch be burdened with the responsibility of all the predictions? It was ridiculous. Ex unitate vires. The other two witches were not impressed. Lennox hinted that they might be left with only one witch if Macbeth continued on his autocratic way. The play might very well end up not only with a reduced number of witches, but without a Lady Macbeth, without a Fleance, without any dignity, without any integrity. Macbeth might be reduced to chopping off his own arrogant head. He was sure Macduff would refuse to do it. Maybe Banquo would oblige. After all he always obliged his masters. The only problem was that he might have to stand on his own two feet in order to do so. That took gumption.

The meeting was really enjoying itself. At the back the pupils were chanting the school motto of ‘Advance, Retreat’ over and over again. Macduff rose, his fist in the air, to begin a long dissertation on the role of meaningful Blackness in meaningful theatre. He was warming up to the introduction when there was a commotion at the door. All heads turned. There stood Macbeth himself, baleful, majestic, defiant, in full costume. His entrance almost seemed stage-managed. There was a deadly silence as he walked down the centre aisle. He indicated to Lennox to leave the podium. This Lennox did almost automatically. Macbeth took up his position. His eyes swept the meeting arrogantly, then he spoke.

“Why are you all not in costume?” he demanded. “That is, all except Duncan?” The latter felt his gumption fast deserting him.

“Will someone say something? If there is nothing to say, then go and get into your costumes. You’ve wasted enough time as it is.”

Banquo rose to go but Lennox stopped him. He had to do something, even if it meant his job as a teacher. Addressing the principal while facing the meeting, Lennox began:

“With respect to you, sir, we are not prepared to continue with any rehearsal unless certain matters are cleared up to our satisfaction. There are questions to which only you can give us the answers.”

“Well, then, ask them and get done. We can’t waste any time. The caretaker has to leave by ten.”

“I will be as brief as possible. Firstly, we wish to know, sir, why our worthy friend, colleague and most talented member of the cast, Duncan, was sacked by you.”

“He can’t act.”

“Is that your only reason?”

“It is reason enough.”

“We’ll leave it at that for the time being.” This did not satisfy Duncan. Lennox continued nevertheless, “Secondly, we are unhappy about this being seen as a so-called coloured show.”

“What do you people want, a white show?’’

“We want a non-racial show.”

“Then bring your own whites, blacks and Indians. I’ll be quite happy to replace most of you on grounds of lack of talent. Duncan isn’t the only one who can’t act.”

This was too much. Duncan had to say something or burst. “You speak as if you’re the only person with any talent. May I remind you, sir, that when you played Brutus last year, people stopped coming after the third night.”

“And if you play Duncan the way you have in rehearsals, people won’t come after the opening night. Next objection.”

Duncan sat down thoroughly deflated. There was an uncomfortable silence.

“No further objections? Then I suggest that you all get into your costumes.”

Banquo rose again to move, trying to egg on Donalbain. Lennox stopped both. “There is one further point,” he said, “the question of permits. We object to playing under racial permits.”

“So do I. It’s not your monopoly to object. I did not apply for one.”

“Someone must have. Who did?”

“Him.” Macbeth pointed to Banquo, who was too dumbfounded to reply.

“I see” Lennox said lamely. He made a further attempt. “One last question, Mr Principal: where did the money for the production come from?”

For the first time it seemed as if Macbeth had lost his composure. He hesitated for a brief moment, then decided to brazen it out.

“That’s not your business.”

“It might be the school committee’s business. Since you won’t tell us, we might ask Banquo. Unless he’s responsible for that as well.”

“He might very well be.”

Banquo was not prepared to take the blame a second time. He was still smarting under the unfair permit accusation. Throwing caution to the wind, he jumped up. His hair was dishevelled and his eyes looked wild. He was breathing rapidly.

“I will tell you. If you wish to know, I will tell you. The principal forced me to apply for a permit. He forced me to do his dirty work. He took money from the school funds to use for the play. All the money. And I hope the committee gets to hear about it. I’m sick and tired of having to take the blame for his machinations.”

Macbeth attempted to treat Banquo’s outburst with indifference, but there was a nervous twitch around his mouth. Lennox smelt blood.

“Well, then,” he began, “having heard that, I will move that we all resign from the play. I also suggest that we list our grievances, especially about the source of money for the production, and send it to the school committee. No performance, no admission takings. No takings, no money to put back into the school funds. No school funds, very awkward questions. Very awkward inquiries. Inspectors’ inquiries. School committee’s inquiries. Possible demotions. Very possible dismissals. All those in favour that we resign, please show.”

Before a vote could be taken, Macbeth stepped off the podium, raising his hands for silence. He seemed a trifle smaller, a little older, a bit less dignified. He seemed to have lost much of his control. There was a tremor in his voice when he began speaking.

“Colleagues, fellow actors and pupils. I have listened very attentively to all that you had to say. Let me state at once that I do appreciate how you feel. Were I in your position I would possibly feel the same way. I speak now not as your head, not as your principal, but as your equal and friend. Of course I am not inflexible. No man is. I, too, can change. I admit that we used money from the school funds for the production, but it was for your sakes that we did so, for our sakes, for the sake of Retreat Senior Secondary School. If it is not possible to replace the money used in so worthy a cause, there could very well be an inquiry. I am convinced that I can defend my own position, but can I defend Banquo’s? Should I defend the vice-principal’s? For his sake, then, let us carefully reconsider the position.”

Banquo was once again left speechless. His last statements had left him exhausted. He realised that he was party to the money’s being used, but it had been at Macbeth’s insistence.

The principal himself was now near to tears and kept dabbing at the corner of his eyes with a tissue obtained from Lady Macduff. “I must confess to you now,” he continued, “that I was never really serious about Duncan’s dismissal. A mature and experienced actor like himself should have known that what I did I did under tremendous stress. As a Christian I know that I must be humble and make allowances, even for his limited talent, but then, are we not all limited in some way or another? If his love of theatre is such that he insists on acting, then who am I to deny him that pleasure?”

Duncan was not at all pleased at the way Macbeth’s address was going.

“And about the permit issue. If we cannot play under permit then we will not play under permit. If Fish Hoek means compromising our principles, we’ll play right here in Retreat where as coloureds in a coloured area we need apply for no permit. And if any whites or blacks wish to come and see our play, let them bring their own permit.”

Macduff also had a suspicion that the address was not going in the right direction. How would he explain this away to his friends in Langa and Guguletu? The Porter attempted a weak cheer but was jabbed in the ribs by pupils on both sides of him. Tears were now coursing down Macbeth’s cheeks. Lady Macbeth was crying in sympathy.

“Forgive me when I break down like this. It is only because I feel so strongly for you, my people. To those who accuse Retreat Senior Secondary of racialism, I say, this is not a coloured Macbeth, nor a white Macbeth,” he stared pointedly at Macduff, “nor a black Macbeth, but a non-racial Macbeth, a non-ethnic Macbeth. And a pox on him who says otherwise!”

This climax had a grand ringing tone about it. There was now sustained cheering and the History Society chanted the school motto.

“Finally let me appeal directly to you. Not in order to save myself, not in order to save Banquo, not to save Retreat Senior Secondary School, but in order to save Shakespeare!”

His cheeks were wet. Those in the meeting who were not crying with him were clapping furiously. Many were doing both at the same time. Malcolm jumped up immediately to make his rejuvenation speech. Hoarse with emotion Lennox shouted above the applause:

“I speak for all of us. We stand united behind you. The show must go on. Forward to a non-racial Macbeth!”

Macduff wanted the meeting to discuss the role of the Black actor in Black theatre, but his plea was drowned in the general euphoria. Lady Macbeth sat blubbering with emotion in spite of angry glares from Duncan. Lennox had his arms around Macbeth. Then the latter pulled himself up to his full height as his voice boomed out:

“Colleagues, forward to the dressing-room and the castle of Inverness in the spirit of our school motto. Advance, Retreat, Advance!”