Stephen William Black

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Stephen Black

Synopsis:

Novelist, prize-fighter, journalist, actor and South Africa’s first professional playwright.

First name: 
Stephen
Last name: 
Black
Date of birth: 
September 1879
Location of birth: 
Claremont, UK
Date of death: 
8 August 1931
Location of death: 
Johannesburg, South Africa

Stephen Black was the son of Henry and Sarah Black. He was born in September 1879 in Claremont, Cape Town and was brought up and educated under extremely poor circumstances.

In 1902, Black was engaged by George Kingswell who was owner and editor of The Owl. He wrote articles on boxing for the weekly paper. After working as sports editor for some time, he left The Owl and joined The Cape Argus in 1904 as a sports writer. Black’s series of articles in that newspaper about the plight of the Cape Coloureds appeared from 1904 to 1905. Through his work as reporter, Black became fully aware of the different levels of Cape Town society, about which he wrote humorously but sympathetically. He earned a reputation as a reporter of colourful low-life in the Cape Town Magistrate's Courts, from which he derived much of his zestful, tangy style of dialogue writing. During a visit to the Cape in 1908, the doyen of the Empire school of writing, Rudyard Kipling, commended Black on his use of `local colour.'

When the commercial entertainment circuits of South Africa were suffering a depression in 1908, and many overseas artists were stranded here, Black, together with some of the regular performers of the Tivoli Music Hall in Cape Town, scratched together a play called Love and the Hyphen. This was devised to celebrate and to send-up the topical event of the day, the National Convention, which was then sitting in Cape Town to determine the unification of the colonies of South Africa. The play opened on 16 November and had a record long run. Certainly, fanfare was given to the fact that together with the birth of a new nation, a new national drama had been launched. Between 1908 and 1929, Black revived Love and the Hyphen for six distinct seasons.

With his second play, Helena's Hope (1910), which was performed over 600 times, Black formed the nucleus of a repertory company of some twelve professional players who toured Southern Africa with himself as playwright, manager and leading man. For them he wrote another dozen scripts over the years. The annual season, which ran from October to June, started either in Cape Town or Johannesburg, and toured all stops in between and up to the Victoria Falls.

In 1911, he took his wife to Que Que (now Kwekwe) in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he invested and lost his money in the gold-mining venture he called Helena’s Hope Ltd. He also spent three months in a kraal in Rhodesia, where he studied the manners and customs of the indigenous people, on which he then wrote articles in British and South African newspapers.

Black was discredited when he presented  The Flapper (a play from the French farce La Gamine) in 1912-13 as his own work and was forced to admit that he had done a translation of someone else’s work.

He arrived in London in 1914 to join The Daily Mail and wrote articles on boxing. During the same year, in August as the First World War began, he was sent to Rotterdam as war correspondent for the paper. He returned to South Africa in 1915 and continued to write and present plays. Black re-established himself in the theatrical world and spent 1917 touring the country with the South African Dramatic Company and presenting inter alia, Damaged Goods  a popular moral drama by Brieux about White slave traffic.

Black then became editor of a weekly newspaper L.S.D (Life, Sport, Drama) which was started after the end of the First World War (1914-18). He also began writing novels during this period. Published novels that he wrote included The Dorp and The golden calf. Limelight, a later novel remained in manuscript form. Plays he wrote and presented included, apart from Helena’s Hope (1910), also I.D.B (1913), The Uitlanders (1913), Van Kalabas does his bit (1916) and A Boer’s honour (1916).

During his career, he fearlessly championed the downtrodden, castigated social excesses and abuses, and encouraged local expression in the arts.

The style of Black's theatre was pre-naturalist, belonging to the popular Edwardian revue-type of comedy and farce rather than to the modern ‘problem play' or ‘psychological drama' categories. His technique was broad, and each script was always keyed to topical events, therefore dated for us, but in their day Black's company of satirists and clowns served a function as the purveyors of news and laughter through a divided and isolated sub-continent. Radio and then movies superseded the function of that type of theatre in the late 1920s.

Black moved to Nice, France, with his wife Andree Judin and their two daughters in 1923. For a short time, he was involved in farming with olives and vines and breeding pigs and poultry. He was confronted with serious financial difficulties as he was never assured of regular income and returned to South Africa at a time of increasing economic depression. During 1928-9, he was employed by African Theatres in a dramatic company that toured the Union. In 1929, edged off the boards by the cinema, he resorted to founding a satirical broadsheet, The Sjambok, which once a week exposed bribery and corruption in high places, notably in the corridors of the Johannesburg City Council. These matters rendered Black unpopular and, because of libel suits, bankrupt. He died of liver cancer, a ruined man, in Johannesburg on 8 August 1931. Leading actors, artists and journalists attended his funeral.


References:
• P Howcroft (Online unpublished encyclopaedia)
•  Beyers, C.J. et al.(eds).(1981). Dictionary of South African Biography, Butterworth: Durban, v. 4, p. 31.
• Potgieter, D.J. et al. (eds)(1970). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, Cape Town: NASOU, v. 2, p. 350.

Last updated : 01-Sep-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011