Witness staffer Stephen Coan has helped to unearth another facet to Henry Rider Haggard. SHARON DELL reports.
"Good idea ... but what about the others?", was Stephen Coan's response to American economist and Haggard aficionado Alfred Tella when the latter suggested they collaborate on the publication of Star of Egypt, a play by Henry Rider Haggard based on his Ancient Egyptian romance novel Morning Star.
From his own research, Coan knew that Haggard had produced three full-length plays, although only one, Mameena, had ever been performed - in London in 1914, during the early days of World War 1.
Mameena was based on Child of Storm, the second volume of Haggard's Zulu trilogy, which deals with the 1856 succession battle between Cetshwayo and his brother Mbuyazi - a conflict that historian John Laband describes as "one of the greatest battles ever fought on the soil of Zululand".
But all of Haggard's plays, including Mameena, were largely forgotten and one - known only as "the Irish Play" - was long believed to be lost.
But Tella's idea was a good one and the search for the missing plays was on.
Coan's first port of call was the Cheyne Collection at the Ditchingham home of Haggard descendants Mark and Nada Cheyne. In 1997, the collection had yielded Haggard's handwritten 1914 diary of his tour to South Africa, which Coan published in 2000 as Diary of an African Journey: the return of H. Rider Haggard.
In 2005, luck was still on Coan's side. During his visit to the UK in that year, Nada produced the script of the elusive "Irish Play", which turned out to be titled To Hell or Connaught.
Coan unearthed the staged version of Mameena in the British Library, and in the Norfolk Records Office in Norwich he found the handwritten manuscript of Mameena, the version Haggard offered to Oscar Asche after the renowned actor-manager-producer, fresh from his success with the oriental spectacle Kismet, told Haggard he was interested in putting on a "Zulu play".
With all the missing pieces in place, Tella and Coan, who have never met, but share a mutual interest in Haggard, were able to proceed with Mameena and other Plays.
The co-authored introduction contains fascinating details about how and why plays came to be written. Short introductions place the plays in their historical context - as Coan says, "All the plays are melodrama but all have historical underpinnings" - and there are extensive footnotes.
The book also brings to light, for the first time, correspondence between Irish writer W. B. Yeats and Haggard over the scripts of two of Haggard's plays - Star of Egypt and To Hell or Connaught, the latter taking as its subject the bloody 17th century colonisation of Ireland under Oliver Cromwell.
South African connections
In the case of Mameena, the book teases out some of the forgotten history around its London staging and its South African connections.
According to Coan, the staging of Mameena marks an important episode in the history of black theatrical performance, which up until now has gone largely unremarked. "Most of the cast of Mameena would have been black, drawn from the large population of people of African birth or descent living in London at the time, although speaking parts were always given to white actors disguised as blacks," says Coan.
For Coan, one of the best things to come out of the publication is the window it opens on the two Zulu advisers - Mandhlakazi kaNgini and Kwili kaSitshidi - who were taken to London by Asche to teach the cast how to "wear a top knot, to do war dances, perform marriage ceremonies and sing".
That the testimony of Mandhlakazi exists is thanks to the efforts of Natal civil servant and Zulu cultural expert James Stuart, under whose care the two Zulus travelled by ship to London. Stuart had been contracted by Asche to ensure the authenticity of the play.
Stuart recorded the experiences of the two advisers in 1916 and Coan found the interview with Mandhlakazi, along with his photograph, in the James Stuart archives at the Campbell Collections in Durban. The full transcript of Mandhlakazi's impressions of England, ranging from his observations about the "continual haze in the city centre" to his satisfaction at seeing the British royal family, are reproduced as the book's first appendix.
A chance to make some money
Haggard's decision in 1910 to try his hand at writing plays was founded on the hope that it would earn him money to supplement his unpaid work on British government commissions.
As Tella and Coan note, Haggard's hopes were not entirely misplaced: in 1910, theatre was very popular. But by 1914, when Mameena was staged, "cinema's star was rising" and war-time conditions had a dampening effect on entertainment in London. But the play was not a complete failure. Although he eventually lost money on it, Asche described the opening night as "a tremendous success".
Contemporary reviews of the play, published in full as an appendix, show that all critics were enthusiastic about the play's "scenic qualities", but most shared Haggard's disappointment at the handling of the story.
"Asche was going for spectacle," explains Coan, "which fits into the strong Edwardian and Victorian interest in the exotic, the orient and in Africa."
Mameena and Other Plays: the complete dramatic works of H. Rider Haggard, edited with an introduction and notes by Stephen Coan and Alfred Tella, is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
First published in The Witness, 1 August 2007.