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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: September ::
Re: Bushmen Don't Understand Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1954  Tuesday, 24 September 2002

From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Saturday, 21 Sep 2002 09:55:26 +0100
Subject: 13.1926 Re: Bushmen Don't Understand Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1926 Re: Bushmen Don't Understand Hamlet

Positively my last word on this topic ...

Between 1949 and 1953, Laura Bohannan, together with her husband Paul,
both anthropology graduates of Oxford University, worked with the Tiv in
Nigeria.

This resulted in a formal anthropological text which they co-authored,
_The Tiv of Central Nigeria_ (1953).

[Paul Bohannan went on to publish several other works on the Tiv, only
one of which was co-authored by his wife -- _Tiv Economy_ (1968).]

In 1954, "Elenore Smith Bowen" published 'an anthropological novel',
_Return to Laughter_, about her work among an (unnamed) African tribe.

[Laura Bohannan, for sensible professional reasons, originally published
this work under a slight transposition of her maiden name of Elizabeth
Bowen-Smith.  By the time the second edition appeared in 1964, she had
dropped this veil, and included an "Author's Note by Laura Bohannan".
Whether or not the distancing of "Elenore Smith Bowen" from "Laura
Bohannan" was ever +meant+ to stand up, it certainly lasted for less
than ten years.]

Finally, the third leg of this strange anthropological tripod, Laura
Bohannan, in her character as professional anthropologist, in 1954 or
1955, delivered a semi-humorous talk on BBC radio's Third Program:
"Miching Mallecho, That Means Witchcraft", describing how she attempted
to narrate _Hamlet_ to the Tiv, and the results thereof.

... to pause for stock at this point ...

Round about 1955, we have three distinct texts:

1) An orthodox anthropological study of the Tiv.
2) An 'anthropological novel' involving an unnamed African tribe.
3) A semi-facetious radio broadcast by an anthropologist describing an
incident while she was working with the Tiv.

So where, specifically, does "Shakespeare in the Bush" come from?

>From (3) and (3) alone.

_The Tiv of Central Nigeria_ is an "academic monograph", staying
strictly within the decorum of the discipline as it was understood in
the early fifties.

But there are radical differences even between the two 'non-orthodox'
texts, _Return to Laughter_  and what will end up as "Shakespeare in the
Bush".

Laura Bohannan (leaving the veil aside) presents [see below] the novel
as a deliberate fiction, doesn't name the tribe, doesn't try to
introduce them to Shakespeare, and not only strongly characterises but
specifically names the tribal figures in the novel.

Laura-Bohannan-the-facetious-anthropologist names the tribe but not the
characters, doesn't characterise the figures she meets, and implicitly
(whether truly or not) presents her work as "fact".  And, of course, the
centre of this text is the attempt by "Laura Bohannan" to introduce the
Tiv to the (universal [?]) _Hamlet_.

{As an aside, there is a curious equivocation in the original title of
"Shakespeare in the Bush" -- "Miching Mallecho, That Means Witchcraft".
While witchcraft +does+ occur as a concern of the Tiv in the radio
piece, it also figures as one of the central concerns of the unnamed
tribe in the 'novel' -- both through the narrator worrying about herself
being taken for a witch, and through other women being defined as
witches.  If LB was so concerned to distance herself from ESB, why pick
a title for her talk that makes one of the few major links between the
novel and the talk?  And then when the talk finally goes fully
anthropologically legit in 1966, it's given a more neutral and much less
resonant title.  A thought ... }

Then the status of the texts begins to change ...

[To get this out of the road: _Return to Laughter_ shifts from being, in
the fifties, something to which a "respectable" anthropologist daren't
admit, till today it is one of the classic texts often used to document
a major shift in the self-definition of anthropology.]

... and Miching Mallecho begins its journey towards canonical status in
Critical and Cultural Studies Courses ...

In order for a text to be easily teachable, it has to be available.
Laura Bohannan's "Miching Mallecho" first crystallized out of the
ephemeral aether not, as you might expect, in the pages of +The
Listener+ (the house-organ for BBC radio, which often printed broadcast
talks) but in _From the third programme: a ten years' anthology_ edited
by J. Morris for the Nonesuch press in 1956.

At this point, the printed version of the talk retains its original
Miching Mallecho title.

[There is a curious irony in that, while the name of Laura Bohannan
fails to appear in the pages of +The Listener+ between 1952 and 1956, in
1954 her husband Paul there publishes "Translation -- A Problem in
Anthropology", which names the Tiv and draws on his time there.]

With that 1956 printing, Hamlet and the Tiv (let's call it) has escaped
ephemerality but not yet achieved respectability.  This occurred ten
years later when "Miching Mallecho" (now retitled, but otherwise
unaltered) was (re)printed in the eminently-respectable academic journal
_Natural History_ (August/September 1966) as "Shakespeare in the Bush".

(Just two years after, let's note, the +very+ public acknowledgement of
the identity of Laura Bohannan and "Elenore Smith Bowen" in the second
edition of _Return to Laughter_.)

After that, as the clich

 

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