Outstanding career: Prof Guy Butler, after being awarded his honorary doctorate in literature from Rhodes University in 1994. He was an academic and a playwright, memoirist and poet. Butler died in 2001. Picture: NATIONAL ENGLISH LITERACY MUSEUM
Outstanding career: Prof Guy Butler, after being awarded his honorary doctorate in literature from Rhodes University in 1994. He was an academic and a playwright, memoirist and poet. Butler died in 2001. Picture: NATIONAL ENGLISH LITERACY MUSEUM

It’s one hundred years since Guy Butler’s birth, a centenary he shares with Nelson Mandela. In Prof Laurence Wright’s recent tribute at the National Arts Festival he recalls a moment when Mandela met Butler in 1995, saying to him: "You have done very well. You have done your duty. Your ancestors will be proud of you."

Butler was a powerhouse of invention and founded numerous organisations, including the National Arts Festival. He also founded the National English Literary Museum, New Coin poetry journal, the Institute for the Study of English in Africa as well as three departments at Rhodes University: drama, journalism and linguistics.

Butler was a consummate administrator as well as an academic and a creative writer — a playwright and memoirist, but principally a poet.

When I moved to Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) over 10 years ago I remember hearing talk of "Butler’s boys", the last contingent of academics who’d been personally educated and elevated by Butler and who were now nearing retirement. They carried with them a special aura of their brush with greatness and belonged, it seemed to me, to a rather exclusive clique.

I was a little surprised in Wright’s lecture when he talked of how Butler (and what he stood for) had been railed against by "gangs", since the Butler group itself seemed to be a sort of club, albeit one that had lost a good deal of its former power. But this may simply have been my own projection onto them.

Famous scuffle

Those who reminisced about Butler recalled him fondly as a warm and generous teacher who left a lasting impression.

There were, however, low points in his life — for example, in the famous scuffle of 1974 when Mike Kirkwood called him out in a paper entitled The Coloniser as Poet, attacking Butler’s art and theory as not being politically conscious enough, not employing poetry as a weapon in the struggle. Butler was subsequently, unfortunately, enlisted by right-wing English-speaking groups who, according to Wright, remade Butler in their own image.

From an entirely different angle, Butler was also attacked by those who’d embraced the "linguistic turn", since he himself eschewed the rise of literary theories then sweeping over the study of the humanities.

He described himself as "old fashioned" meaning that he preferred to root his readings in the ancient classics and pursue his Leavisite inclinations.

And yet Butler was a champion of South African literature and was one of the first academics to fight for local works to be included in the curriculum.

Butler was undoubtedly on the side of the arts as promoting a common humanity, and yet there does seem to have been an unavoidable sense of elitism about him, possibly as a result of his sense of decorum and propriety. For all his good qualities, he seems to have been out of step with the changes taking place around him.

His favourite genre of theatre was "poetic theatre", a form that has almost entirely sunk into disuse. In my 26 years of coming to the festival, the closest thing I’ve seen to a verse play was Greig Coetzee’s Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny, which Butler might have found a little distasteful.

His poetry can seem somewhat ornate when compared with the more common blank verse and spoken word poetry popular today.

From what I know, he also resisted the development of physical theatre and preferred to hold on to an outdated model of an exclusively literary theatre, seeing drama as a branch of English literature rather than as related to physical forms, such as circus, games and sports.

And yet, it would be wrong to present Butler’s mindset as exclusively narrow.

Prof Malvern van Wyk Smith said Butler was a man of many contradictions and contrasts, and National English Literary Museum archivist Beth Wyrill spoke of his "deep-seated dread of certainty". He wrote often about his conviction that one needed to develop a rootedness in SA, and felt himself a Stranger to Europe (in the title of one of his most famous poems); and yet, he still maintained strong ties with England.

Butler was, without doubt, a remarkable influence on those around him and a great organiser. We who enjoy the festival and benefit from the institutions he created owe him a great debt, even if the names of the organisations he founded have changed. The 1820 Settlers Foundation is now the Grahamstown Foundation; the Institute for the Study of English in Africa has become the Institute for the Study of Englishes in Africa (not English in the singular) and the National English Literary Museum plans to include other languages as well.

The festival he founded is no longer a celebration only of English. Former artistic director, Ismail Mahomed was known for pushing internationalisation and in 2016 gathered artists from 50 countries to visit the Eastern Cape, one from each country that had signed the UN resolution supporting the cultural boycott. For Mahomed this was "a subtle way of demonstrating how interconnected SA had become post-1994 and how we had overcome once being the cultural pariah of the world".

This trend continues with new artistic director Ashraf Johaardien, who has actively pursued collaborations in 2018 with, among others, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Denmark and the Pro Helvetia organisation from Switzerland. The festival is becoming more indigenous and more European than ever, with productions far more likely to come from mainland Europe than England.

Besides numerous works in English, in just the past two days I’ve seen shows in isiXhosa (Seeing Red), German (Hamlet) and an Afrikaans translation of a French text about a Turk (Monsieur Ibrahim).

Butler left behind institutions of great value, even though the particular forms of aesthetic endeavour he championed have fallen into disuse.