Three Eritrean students working on their MA degree in Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds in 2001 and 2002, decided to go a bit further, and write and produce plays. Their objective was to use these plays in Eritrea’s educational institutions to support English teaching, as well as teaching drama in schools. They also wanted to help in the development of Eritrea’s theatre after the newly won independence, and to introduce Eritrean culture and theatre to the outside world.
The plays were first performed at the workshop theatre in Leeds in 2001 and 2002. They plays are: A Village Dream by Mesgun Zerai, The Snare by Solomon Dirar and Aster by Esaias Tseggai. In her introduction, the editor Jane Plaistow briefly introduces the three plays and sets the background of their writing together with the historical and literal context. The readers are also presented with a short biography of each of the three playwrights, who are veterans of the Eritrean independence struggle, who were in their forties at the time of writing. Although each of these plays is written about a different topic, they all depict aspects of the writers’ views of life during Eritrea’s struggle for independence. All are very short.
Zerai’s A Village Dream has women rights as its main theme. The setting is typical to most African villages, and the language used suggests the atmosphere of traditional African night story telling. The play tells of a rebellion by the women of the village against the status quo, abandoning their husbands and children and taking refuge in the mountains in an act of profound unity to teach the menfolk of the village a lesson. The men were totally useless at looking after the children, feeding them or doing the housework. The tight bond of sisterhood and rebellion was weakened with the discovery that Abita kept sneaking down to meet her lover.
The theme of the play is centred on a question raised by Dhabi, the dream interpreter, in her conversation with her father: ‘Why are we women suffering so much? What is our sin father?’ Later in the play, the use of the olive branch hints a possibility of peace between the two sexes, when women achieve their rights even in sex, which was regarded by the tired, overworked women as another chore.
In their unity, the women of the village feel somehow liberated of male domination and unfair treatment as they show power and determination, and this is the exact dream of the writer to see women liberated and achieving their rights. Reconciliation and accommodation follows.
Dirar's The Snare is a three-character play set during Eritrea’s war of independence from Ethiopia, and is full of suspense, betrayal and traps from beginning to end, in a typical reflection of the atmosphere of war. In the play, the powerful local leader, Sheka Haile, convinces his cousin to betray Demsas, the liberation fighter, and lure him from his hideout in order to receive the promised reward of 10,000 birr for handing over to the endmy. Demsas appears only near the closing moments, to end the suspense, revealing that the cousin had a completely opposite plan.
The third play in this collection, Tseggai's Aster, also focuses on the heroism of liberation fighters who put aside their personal needs and desires for the sake of the country. They sacrificed their happiness to defend it, with the conviction that one may fall, but the rest will ‘keep up’ to finish the struggle and achieve victory.
The Snare and Aster present Eritrean freedom fighters at different junctions of their struggle; both plays highlight the complexity of people’ decisions and actions when a war is taking place. In The Snare, Demsas uses ‘hit and run’ tactics, and is cunning and evasive, while Dawit in Aster prefers to fight the enemy face to face, fast and furious, and suffers the predictable consequences. He is now “thoroughly still”, in a wheelchair. The audience is made poignantly aware of this unfair state of affairs, as the stage light is kept focused on the paralysed hero in his lonely corner.
Aster presents a different kind of woman, who is miles apart from the women in A Village Dream. She is not just an equal to her male counterpart, but she possesses stronger qualities and resilience. She fought shoulder to shoulder with men on the front line and, willingly, denied herself the fulfilment of a woman’s instinctive desire of motherhood. Ironically, when she changes her mind, her husband Dawit has become a frustrated disabled ex-fighter, ‘empty and lost.’
Reading the three plays one could not help noticing the shared feeling of unfulfilled or interrupted dreams and betrayed hopes. The women’s dream of grateful and co-operative husbands was shattered by an innocent traitor from within; the plot which was supposed to make Sheka Haile a rich man was aborted by his cousin and reluctant partner; the freedom fighter’s hope of having a child and good future when the war is over, is cruelly crushed: ‘the war took it from us. It’s already the victim of war. It is gone with the thick smoke of shelling.’ The characters of the three Eritrean plays seem to have found that nothing is fair in love, or war.
Eiman Abbas El-Nour is Visiting Fellow for the Centre of African Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Solomon Dirar, Esaias Tseggai, and Mesgun Zerai (ed. Jane Plastow), Three Eritrean Plays, Asmara: Hdri Publishers, 2008, 68pp.