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Saturday, January 10, 2009


Biographical novel makes for an interesting read but doesn’t quite capture the essence of an extraordinary woman. (Review by Caroline Smart)

The cover of the paperback, Drama Queen, features a photograph of an ever-elegant and redoubtable woman who dedicated her entire life to the development of drama and a high standard of vocal communication. A woman whose influence still resonates throughout the South African theatre industry.

Elizabeth Sneddon was one of seven daughters of a visionary engineer who originally intended emigrating from Scotland to Australia but ended up in Durban when plans went awry. This turned out to be a stroke of good luck for hundreds of theatre practitioners to come, as well as thousands of schoolchildren who benefited from Professor – as she was to become – Sneddon’s incredible energy and focus, coupled with the good commonsense inherited from her beloved father.

In her lifetime, she achieved many academic qualifications. She also created the Speech and Drama Association, started the Speech and Drama Department at the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal), founded the Durban Theatre Workshop Company, created ten theatres, and launched her precious brainchild, the National Creative Arts Youth Festival.

She was a resolute and determined fighter – housed in that seemingly fragile and small frame was a powerhouse of energy, stamina and sheer guts that reduced many high profile businessmen to nervousness.

With her red hair, merry eyes, and dynamic personality she attracted male attention throughout her life. However, she was highly intelligent, independent thinking and intolerant of foolishness. While not averse to flirtation, she was invariably highly disparaging about the male sex as a whole. Which is why, when any young man showed a welcome interest and a propensity to learn what she had to offer, she gave generously of her time and efforts.

One such fortunate gentleman is James Parker, a young Yorkshireman who came into Elizabeth Sneddon’s life in her latter years. By his own admission, he’d never read a book all the way through and his knowledge of theatre was very basic. However, his passion and eagerness to learn aroused her interest and she entered wholeheartedly into the undertaking of developing his communication and dramatic skills.

James was embraced into Elizabeth and her sister Nessie’s home and became part of the family, originally as a student and later as a companion and close friend. The threesome enjoyed each other’s company and even travelled the world together before James decided to continue his studies in America.

James is an excellent product of Elizabeth Sneddon’s teaching and nurture - he is articulate and writes a good story with snappy dialogue, capturing Elizabeth’s capacity for pithy comment. He calls his book a biographical novel so much is fictionalised but the facts remain. He has written about his relationship with her with love and humour and charted Elizabeth’s life with respect and admiration. While many of her philosophies and principles – as well as a lot of her teachings - sit uncomfortably as a narrative, Drama Queen gives a valuable insight into what made up the ethos of this indomitable personality.

While taken literally, the title is very apt. However, “drama queen” has adverse connotations in the theatre industry, referring to someone who “performs” rather than acts and turns insignificant issues into major dramas. This was certainly not Elizabeth Sneddon’s modus operandi. One could get the feeling from the book that she was a sentimental person – again this is misleading. She was sensitive, certainly, but not sentimental – this was an emotion she abhorred. She had the capacity to analyse a person, situation or theatre production with forensic clarity.

Elizabeth Sneddon died at the age of 98, to the end she held to her belief that every individual should have the opportunity to develop both the intellectual and physical aspects of their being. She was blessed with a strong support group. Treasured friend and confidant Storm Ferguson looked after her with loving care, ensuring that her final time on this earth was spent in dignity surrounded by luxury and elegant comfort, cared for by her loyal Cynthia Lindiwe and Jabuliswe Shandu, with her secretary Selma Botha making sure the wheels of the National Arts Festival continued to turn the way she wanted.

Hopefully, James Parker’s fictional tribute to the memory of Elizabeth Sneddon will awaken the human aspect of this generous and deeply-caring Professor. So many of her acquaintances and students did not have the opportunity to enjoy these deeply ingrained character traits, of this very private dedicated lady.

Elizabeth Sneddon's passion and mission was Education as a priority and - as a means of attaining the maximum benefit - she believed that it was an essentially through the source of speech and drama. Her unstinting mission was developing communication skills to enhance the confidence of every human being. Her ultimate goal was to have these subjects included in the curriculum from as early as pre-school enrolment.

It is also hoped that Drama Queen will generate a true biography charting Elizabeth Sneddon’s enormous academic contribution to the subject of communication in all its fields.

Drama Queen is published in paperback – ISBN 978 0 620 41041-0 – Caroline Smart