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Play Within a Play

"But what did Jaques le Francais want to put a thing like that for?" Gysbert van Tonder asked.

In those words he conveyed something of what we all felt about the latest play with which the famous Afrikaans actor, Jaques le Francais, was touring the platteland. A good number of us had gone over to Bekkersdal to attend the play. But - as always happens in such cases - those who hadn't actually seen the play knew just as much about it as those who had. More, even, sometimes.

"What I can't understand if how the kerksraad allowed Jaques le Francais to hire the church hall for a show like that," Chris Welman said. "Especially when you think that the church hall is little more than a stone's throw from the church itself."

Naturally, Jurie Steyn could not let that statement pass. Criticism of the church council implied also a certain measure of fault-finding with Deacon Kirstein, who was a first cousin of Jurie's wife.

"You can hardly call it a stone's throw," Jurie Steyn declared. "After all, the plein is on two morgen of ground and the church hall is at the furthest end from the church itself. And there is also a row of bluegums in between. Tall, well grown bluegums. No, you can hardly call it a stone's throw, Chris."

So At Naude said that what had no doubt happened was that Jaques le Francais with his insinuating play-actor ways had got round the members of the kerksraad, somehow. With lies, as likely as not. Maybe he had told the deacons and elders that he was going to put on the play "Ander Man se Kind" again, which everybody approved of, seeing it was so instructive, the relentless way in which it showed up the sinful life led in the great city of Johannesburg, and in which the girl in the play, Baba Haasbroek, got ensnared, because she was young and from the backveld, and didn't know any better.

"Although I don't know if that play did any good, really," At Naude added, thoughtfully. "I mean, it was shortly after that that Drieka Basson of Enzelsberg left for Johannesburg, wasn't it? Perhaps the play 'Ander man se Kind' was a bit too - well - relentless."

Thereupon Johnny Coen took a hand in the conversation. It seemed very long ago, the time Johnny Coen had gone to Johannesburg because of a girl that was alone there in that great city. And on his return to the Marico he had not spoken much of his visit, beyond mentioning that there were two men carved in stone holding up the doorway of a building near the station and that the pavements were so crowded that you could hardly walk on them. But for a good while after that he had looked more lonely in Jurie Steyn's voorkamer than any stranger could look in a great city.

"I don't know if you can say that the play of Jaques le Francais's about a girl that went to Johannesburg really is so very instructive, " Johnny Coen said, "There are certain things in it that are very true, of course. But there are also true things that could never go into one of Jaques le Francais's plays - or into any play, I think."

Gysbert van Tonder started to laugh, then. It was a short sort of a laugh.

"I remember what you said when you came back from Johannesburg, that time," Gysbert van Tonder said to Johnny Coen. "You said the pavements were so crowded that there was hardly room to walk. Well, in the play 'Ander man se Kind' it wasn't like that. The girl in the play, Baba Haasbroek, didn't seem to have trouble to walk about on the pavement. I mean, half the time, in the play, she was walking on the pavement. Or if she wasn't walking she was standing under a street lamp."

It was then that At Naude mentioned the girl in the new play of Jaques le Francais had put on at Bekkersdal. Her name was Truida Ziemers. It was a made-up name, of course, At Naude said. Just like Jaques le Francais was a made-up name. His real name was Poggenpoel, or something. But how any Afrikaans writer could write a thing like that:"

"It wasn't written by an Afrikaans dramatist," young Vermaak, the schoolmaster, explained. "It is a translation from:"

"To think that any Afrikaner should fall so low as to translate a think like that, then," Gysbert van Tonder interrupted him, "And what's more, Jaques le Francais or Jacobus Poggenpoel, or whatever his name is, is Coloured. I could see he was Coloured. No matter how he tried to make himself up, and all, to look White, it was a Coloured man walking about there on the stage. How I didn't notice it in the play 'Ander Man se Kind' I don't know. Maybe I sat too near the back, that time.

Young Vermaak did not know, of course, to what extent we were pulling his leg. He shook his head sadly. Then he started to explain, in a patient sort of a way, that Jaques le Francais was actually playing the role of a Coloured man. He wasn't supposed to be White. It was an important part in the unfolding of the drama that Jaques le Francais wasn't a White man. It told you all that in the title of the play, the schoolmaster said.

"What's he then, a Frenchman?" Jurie Steyn Asked. "Why didn't he say so, straight out?"

Several of us said after that, each in turn, that there was something you couldn't understand, now. That a pretty girl like Truida Ziemers, with a blue flower in her hat, should fall in love with a Coloured man, and even marry him. Because that was what happened in the play.

"And it wasn't as though she didn't know," Chris Welman remarked. "Meneer Vermaak has just told us that is says in it the title of the play, and all. Of course, I didn't see the play myself. I meant to go, but at the last moment one of my mules took sick. But I saw Truida Ziemers on the stage, once. And even now, as I am talking about her again, I can remember how pretty she was. And to think that she went and married the Coloured man when all the time she knew. And it wasn't as though he could tell her it was just sunburn, seeing that she could read it for herself on the posters. If the schoolmaster could read it, so could Truida."

Anyway, that was only to be expected, Gysbert van Tonder said. That Jaques le Francais would murder Truida Ziemers in the end, he meant. After all, what else could you expect from a marriage like that? Maybe from that point of view the play could be taken as a warning to every respectable White girl in the country.

"But that isn't the point of the play," young Vermaak insisted, once more. "Actually, it is a good play. And it is a play with real educational value. But not that kind of educational value. If I tell you this play is a translation (and a pretty poor translation, too: I wouldn't be surprised if Jaques le Francais translated it himself) of the work of the great:"

This time the interruption came from Johnny Coen.

"It's all very well talking like they have been doing about a girl going wrong," Johnny Coen said. "But a great deal depends on circumstances. That is something I have learnt, now. Take the case now of a girl, that:"

We all sat up to listen, then. And Gysbert van Tonder nudged Chris Welman in the ribs for coughing. We did not wish to miss a word.

"A girl that:?" At Naude repeated in a tone of deep understanding, to encourage Johnny Coen to continue.

"Well, take a girl like that girl Baba Haasbroek in the play 'Ander Man se Kind'," Johhny Coen said. Jurie Steyn groaned. We didn't want to hear all that, over again.

"Well, anyway, if that girl did go wrong," Johhny Coen proceeded - pretty diffidently, now, as though he could sense our feeling of being balked - "then there might be reasons for it. Reasons that didn't come out in the play, maybe. And reasons that we sitting here in Jurie Steyn's voorkamer would perhaps not have the right to judge about, either."

Gysbert van Tonder started cleaning his throat as though for another short laugh. But he seemed to change his mind half-way through.

"And in this last play, now," Johnny Coen added, "if Jaques le Francais had really loved the girl, he wouldn't have been so jealous."

"Yes, it's a pity that Truida Ziemers got murdered in the end, like that," At Naude remarked. "Her friends in the play should have seen what Jaques le Francais was up to, and have put the police on to him, in time."

He said that with a wink, to draw young Vermaak, of course.

Thereupon the schoolmaster explained with much seriousness that such an ending would defeat the whole purpose of the drama. But by that time we had lost all interest in the subject. And when Government lorry came soon afterwards and blew a lot of dust in at the door, we made haste to collect our letters and milk-cans.

Consequently, nobody took much notice of what young Vermaak went on to tell us about the man who wrote the play. Not the man who translated it into Afrikaans, but the man who wrote it in the first place. He was a writer who used to hold horses' heads in front of a theatre, the schoolmaster said, and when he died he left his second-best bed to his wife, or something,