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Contemporary Nigerian Drama: Where ‘Art’ Thou?

The whole attitude of accepting a belief unquestioningly on a basis of authority is contrary to the scientific spirit. Bertrand Russell       

The only person who behaves sensibly is my tailor. He makes new measurements every time he sees me. All the rest go on with the old measurements.George Bernard Shaw.

 

We are living in the most interesting and dramatic moments in our history. It seems everywhere we turn there is  an intrusion of drama into our lives: from the internet where friendships are constructed and exploited; from the proliferating Reality T.V. shows where reality is truly constructed and celebrities are made overnight; from the pulpits where the practical facts of business life-banking, commerce, high finance, etc. are impacted along with the narratives of a promised heaven; from a parliament where all that is irrelevant, selfish, false and absurd is discussed and debated to which we appear to be helpless spectators, and from numberless other places. So intermeshed has drama become with our existence that some theorists have appropriated a whole arsenal of vocabulary from the theatre and sport with which they attempt to interpret the way we live. They say we are actors and actresses in our own autobiographical plays; they say when we “do” scholarship, we are merely playing “language games” and when we do well in our professions, we are on top of our game when we are involved in a romantic relationship, we are simply players. Indeed they say when we pray to God, we are merely apostrophizing, soliloquizing and rhapsodizing. They say our realities are not realistic, our meanings are not meaningful, our truths are constructed and our lies plausible. They say our words and gestures are mere abstractions, signs always to be situated within theoretical and discursive contexts. They say we are thoroughly unstable, that our sense of being keeps changing as we interact with the world.

Parliament of VulturesAnd so to convince us completely, they provide us with charming examples that succinctly illustrate the kernel of their theory. They say the way we would act-mark that word-toward our boss is quite different from the way we would behave toward our spouse; they say the attitude we adopt-mark that word too-with our elders is quite different from the one we enact- another word to note- with our friends and cronies in bars or beauty salons respectively. They say we always act out something before the dying, assume something before the bereaved and dissimulate something before the judge. Indeed they say towards a pastor, a politician and a professor, we would act differently-we would simulate with the first, agitate with the second and cogitate with the third. In other words, our theorists appear to be saying that our lives on earth are merely a matter of responding to the various atmospheres of the different places we happen to be.  For instance a beer parlour’s atmosphere differs considerably from that of the place where there has been a death, and that of warfare from the parliament’s. It would be quite incongruous to import a hip hop concert’s atmosphere into a place of worship and an Owanbe party atmosphere into a solemn ambassadorial cocktail party. However these conventions are these days getting increasingly violated and so muddled up that we hardly know which is which.

Despite the ubiquity in our lives of the high drama I have clumsily sketched above, raised indeed to a category of virtues, it has yet to provide profound or outright hilarious theme for our contemporary dramatic literature. Our drama is still bogged down as our lives with “bread and butter issues” and that is why little seems to be happening in that genre. While Achebe can rest assured that novelists such as Adichie, Shoneyin, Habila and others will carry on with some part of his tradition, and Osundare is guaranteed of a generation of poets such as Remi Raji, Nduka otiono, Chiedu Ezeana, Akeem Lasisi, who will continue to pay him homage and honor, the duo of Soyinka and Osofisan must be quite disturbed that no apparent heir has emerged on the scene in which they have reigned for decades. The eventful flow of our drama seems to have after Ahmed Yerima, morphed into what amounts to the shallows which though have been swelling sporadically in content over the last few years, have scarcely been stirred by the eddy of fresh genius least of all roughly disturbed and set a-flowing again by the whirlpool of desirable revolt. Revolt? A much feared and hated act in politics, but in literature it remains as world’s literary history enlightens us, the truest means of enriching literature and signaling a new diversity. If there are writers in the present generation who believe revolt is neither called for nor useful, it can only mean they are less confident about their literary projects and have yet to examine closely what their sensibilities are. Our contemporary dramatists have seldom demonstrated much self-consciousness in their dramatic texts, and sometimes when they do, they have tended to exercise it on the grounds that have been well-colonized by their predecessors. Pride which the scriptures generally condemn is one of the holiest concepts in literature. It is responsible for the diversities and multi-voicedness we find in literature.

Why we have not witnessed spectacular successes on our stage in recent times is because it has kept reverberating with the echoes and pantomimes of the sounds and gestures we have heard and seen on our stage before. Our predecessors have been so phenomenally successful that we have been led to believe that the ways they handled certain issues are the only ways to handle them. We have continued to pay them servile, unreflecting homage by our reluctance to strike out on our own, away from their well-trodden and well acknowledged paths which, however important and useful they have been, are beginning to obstruct our advance with years of veteran service. It’s not possible for us contemporary writers and critics to discover our own forms and practices without taking a second look at the ideologies, practices and politics of our predecessors-the whole edifice of ideas, feelings and attitudes that we have inherited from the previous generations in which, however, we have been living like dispossessed children. While we have not-thank heavens –made it a playground for all sorts of foreign fancies and distractions, we have neglected to see to it that its cobweb – gathering corners are given a periodic dash of our brooms and its bolts and hinges kept from rusting by fresh oils of new thought and ideas.

In order to be able to do the above, we must trace back the trajectories of all the major current thoughts, formulations and interpretations we find in African literary scholarship to their various sources; if not for anything at least to ruminate on how and why they have over the years constituted the staple cud on which scholars and critics chew.  Principal among these sources must be certain books that are generally regarded as classics in African literary criticism such as Chiweizu et al’s Toward Decolonization of African Literature (1980), Wole Soyinka’s Myth, literature and the African World (1976), Frank Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1969), Ngugi Wa Thiongi O’s “Decolonizing The Mind (1986), and Writers in Politics (1982) All these books together with their spin-offs have combined to constitute a veritable environment in which we have generated and interrogated  ideas for years, and have,  as environments always do, influenced our  habits  of thought without our being very conscious of it. Admittedly, there are certain ideas in these books that only could have been penned by a genius.  There are certain postulations in them that only a fool and an ignoramus will quarrel with. Yet there are certain things in them which the thinking part of one’s being accepts almost instinctively but which the feeling part balks at. As often happens before a change, when the affective begins to predominate over the cognitive, it is time one began, to use a corny phrase, to think outside the box.

I have noticed that while we have reacted to the above-mentioned books in different ways, we have scarcely bothered to take a sustained look at the society which served as the furnace in which the ideas in these books were forged to discover if this society was ever at any time static and if these books were not in fact reactionary at the time they were written. It is an insight that only the passage of years yields us. It was one that was variously glimpsed by different scholars in the past but which none could pursue without resorting to Marxist paradigms and rhetoric. For instance Chidi Amuta in his great book. The Theory of African literature: implication for practical criticism (1989), which I consider the most heroic attempt at applying Marxist dialectical traditions in the interpretation of the African condition, writes:

The issues that form the objects of criticism, its forms and functions as well as its specific ideological predilections are contingent upon current preoccupations of society itself. In other words, the series of critical acts in a society across time are in themselves structurally analyzable along a diachronic paradigm (p.13).

In the above extract, Amuta talks about ‘ideology’ being contingent on “current preoccupations of society itself’ and hints at how society transforms over time.  Yet he could not pursue throughout the book what exactly the preoccupations of society were, and how it was evolving without resorting to the fashionable theory of the time. The most successful of all the books I have mentioned above is perhaps Chinweizu et al’s because its ideas were not only debated by scholars, its prescribed poetic models were embraced by a generation of brilliant poets who proved to be phenomenally successful. All the other books, Amuta’s inclusive, have been the staple diets only for critics and scholars alike on the menu of what they consume and regurgitate.

sweet revengeAll these great books were important intellectual tools that proved quite useful in understanding and interpreting our world at a certain period in our history, but whose edges are now becoming blunted by overuse. Our society in the present phase of its evolution requires a new set of intellectual tools for its interpretation. These new tools must be shaped by the passions, ideals, attitudes and motives that our contemporary society has actually embraced. In other words its worldviews, values and contradictions must be crystallized into something coherent and systematic without the slightest intellectual condescension (or celebration), without a recourse to some over wrought theory, foreign or indigenous, without pointing a crude indicting finger at some foreign source. Let’s have this society made clear and distinct to us through the eyes of society itself, not through the distorting lens of the scholar’s personal feelings and theoretical predilections. And if indeed we must employ some theory in doing so, let it be one that comes closest to capturing society in its evolutionary process without being unduly value-laden. When I say ‘society’ I refer to its most modern and progressive elements. To have a vague idea as to what I mean, let you and I try to practice sixty percent of what the great books above and their interpreters seem to enjoin us to embrace, we shall find ourselves psychologically, religiously and linguistically displaced in this century. In a word, my contention is not only about the importance of taking a second look at all our inherited attitudes in literature but more importantly also about the imperative of changing the plane on which we have to this day conducted our discussion by giving due attention to society itself to see what it has actually embraced and what rejected

I have indeed strayed far afield from my present purpose in this essay. I shall, God willing, continue my arguments sometime in future. It shall suffice for the moment to ask what exactly are the sounds and gesture we have heard and seen on our stage? These are a direct, declamatory rhetoric, a clear bias for the subalternized – be they the general masses or women and a certain cultural accent which entails a journey to and from the past. The inspiring success of the playwrights and the persistence of the issues they dealt with have led us into displaying theatrical pieties for certain public postures in our drama, nay, certain literary attitudinizings which time has made threadbare and false. Those playwrights who started out as radicals in the seventies /eighties have since in the natural course of things been made to settle into dignified and ossified orthodoxy either by old age, ease or resignation. For any young playwright to assume the roles they played will be like donning the paraphernalia of a masquerade hoping to sermonize in a Pentecostal church. At any rate adoption of the “the town crier role” in literature by crusading writers must begin to be viewed with suspicion. Our contemporary society has become acutely self-conscious, and has since fractured psychologically into a vast array of contending interests along ideological, ethnic, religious, social and gender lines. The idea of a writer attempting to speak for an entire continent or a nation or even that mass, problematic abstraction he calls “my people” is not only out dated, it is also an improbable ambition. There will always be people who find their history, worldviews and concerns not captured by the book that supposedly speaks for “all and sundry”.

When scholars discuss the decline of our theatre in recent years, they adduce several factors among which are the questions of security and the invasion of Holly/Nollywood into our lives. In the light of certain transformations we have witnessed in some sector of our entertainment industry, those reasons appear to be fast losing validity. And if at all some of the problems still persist, let us at least have well written plays first. The majority of the plays I have read in recent times cannot possibly have attracted large audiences by their performance. The robust language, the well-rounded characters and dramatic tension that we have always known have all disappeared.

Pick up four to five plays recently written and read them. The pattern immediately and abjectly leaps at you that you are for long moments stalled midway-immobilized by feelings of depression before bracing yourself to go through the sobering experience. The play while not opening with some ancient hamlet to rake up the ashes of a dead era, opens with a bunch of madmen, or street urchins or slave men and women filing past the stage. Some of them stop to interact with some part of the audience depending on the roles they are meant to play- whether in some horrifying writhings and gyrations, or in the practiced extortionate style of Area Boys or in the craven, lachrymose ululations of long-suffering martyrs. Realistic you might say, but then comes the next scene where we see some characters engage in activities that are ill contrived and are ascribed assertions that are anything but realistic. The playwright in his keenly felt and unregulated ire to cast “the oppressors of the people” in a clear, unmistakable relief, impacts to them a chronology of actions and utterances that is far removed from reality. For instance in Babafemi Babatope’s Tearful Laughters (2000) the politicians discuss how to solve the problems posed by the increasing number of mad men and women on the streets. One politician suggests they should be gathered together and shot; another suggests that they employ the services of a pastor who will “varnish” them from the streets through the Holy Ghost fire; still another suggests they procure the services of a herbalist who will magically make them dive into the sea-all without the slightest irony being implied. Among these characters, however, is a character, obviously the mouth piece of the playwright’s impassioned feelings whose wise counsels are rudely ignored until the consequences of their folly burst in their faces. Perhaps I have chosen the worst example to prove my point. Nonetheless we have several  watered down versions of this kind of depiction  in other plays written by other playwrights such as Emeka Nwabueze’s A Parliament of Vultures, Chris Anyokwu’s Stolen Future or Osita C. Ezenwane’s Giddy Festival, etc.

It has to be conceded that contemporary writers, especially those at home, face enormous challenges and obstacles which hinder and retard the flowering of their talent. The environment has been so hostile that not only has it slowed down the maturation of their gifts; it has also prevented them from exploring their true authentic selves, partly because of the challenges of survival in a disadvantaging society, and partly because they have been socialized into a set of assumptions and attitudes invented by the previous generations and valourized and championed by literary critics and historians as appropriate for writers to imbibe. It is no wonder then that the thematics of cultural problematics and social engagement have remained the only principal defining characteristics of our dramatic literature despite the fact that our world has become much more complex and multi-faceted than it was several years ago. While it may still be important to grapple with cultural and leadership issues, our dramatic literature will be further enriched if we begin to treat fully and frontally many other themes that are at the moment hovering around at the margins of our literary imaginations.

However, with the freight of existential problems and challenges with which the contemporary playwright is burdened, he can scarcely be expected to lift himself with one great heave above the order of orthodoxies, yet he can at least begin to roll it in another direction. I have noticed that as the number of plays that get written over the years increases so also are the ages of playwright who make their debut on our stage. Soyinka and his generation began attracting public attention in their twenties, Osofisan and his group of playwrights became widely known in their early thirties.  To discuss contemporary playwrights is to talk about playwrights who are already in their forties and fifties. In fact some of them are already professors. And this makes one a little bit disinclined to expect any serious change in their practice considering the fact that they have been lecturing in Theatre Arts for decades. But the issue here is hardly one of knowledge but of sensibility. There are few exceptions whose dramatic practices are becoming increasingly sharpened by long practice, studious training and hard work. Principal among these are Irene Salami – Agunloye who consistently mines history (Benin’s), shaping it for strong feminist ends; Osita C. Ezenwanebe is less radical than Agunloye but more prolific. Her dramaturgy directly addresses and engages in the broad concerns of contemporary Nigerian life with a strong sense of moral and ethical values. Bakare Ojo Rasaki’s dramaturgy is accomplished and reminiscent of the protest / Marxist traditions of Osofisan, and Chukwuma Anyanwu whose play Another Weekend Gone! (2010), I find particularly intelligent and entertaining. My hope for complete departures from the present theatrical conventions resides principally, though not exclusively, in the up and coming playwrights some of whom are in fact already gravitating towards the destination I shall at the end of this essay arrive at. If you are looking for the gayest, liveliest and the most experimental impulses in contemporary Nigerian drama you shall find them in recent anthology of plays written by different playwrights and badly edited by Leo Butler through sponsorship of the British-council.

Giddy FestivalSome of the playwrights in the anthology already have several plays to their name. Lekan Balogun for instance has about twelve published and unpublished plays, the best of which are Wole Soyinka in the Eyes of Shakespeare and Farewell. The two plays are not only experimental; they bear all the hallmarks of an emerging great talent. Ayodele Arigbabu’s One fifty Barz is a first rate satire, comparable in fact to any that has been written by Soyinka or Osofisan. For me the play epitomizes an approach to drama that is very slowly coming to bloom in contemporary Nigerian drama. For it to come into full efflorescence, there are some things that must be done. For us to begin to record great successes in a genre that thrives particularly on the immediacy of a live audience, we must study the spirit of the present age, and reflect on the changes that have taken place in Nigerian life over the years.

We are living in the Post military / democratic dispensation. Whatever name we give to it, we must concede that the period in which we are living is but transitional. Something has long hatched and is pecking its way through the ossified shell of long years of misrule and corruption. Whatever reservations we may have about the present dispensation – I for one have many – there can be no doubt that a certain buoyant, liberating tone has insinuated itself into our lives. In this new order of things, ethnic and religious bigotry, hypocrisy and corruption are still the norms. Nonetheless we have been experiencing in the last few years certain transformations in both our public and private spaces: The ubiquity of the internet and all the media related to it in our lives; The telecommunications and reality T.V. shows, the dance and hip hop concerts, the commercial advertising, the political propagandas and rallies, etc., are all producing new perceptions, values and attitudes, and so should transform the way we write and perform plays. Moreover there has been this quiet hysteria, and it has coincided with the present democratic experiment in the country, perceptible to those who reflect, impossible not to intuit by those who feel that has not as yet led to anything further than a quiet outbreak of certain character types hitherto unknown in our social space. While the country has been quietly donning all the trappings of a postmodern jester, it has produced a cast of characters who strut to and fro on our national stage, who glide through the aisles of our gilded auditoriums, who sit with pomp and pageantry at glittering high tables, uttering meaningless sounds; whom we must heckle with our outraged catcalls and at whom we must hurl satiric missiles.

I consider satire the fittest dramatic genre for confronting the manifold distortions with which our postcolonial nation is rife. Apart from its principal function from time immemorial of castigating deviance with ridicule, it also holds the potential of casting in a clear relief and making endurable the fundamental absurdity of the human existence in the twenty-first century (Fredrick Jameson). In no other era has the playwright been provided with more material for robust satire as at the present moment: the radio presenter who not only seeks to double as our love therapist cum counselor but also deliberately muddles our names with a distinct American accent acquired somewhere in Benin Republic. The commercials  that  aggressively urge us to talk more and think less, and so we are talking – while driving along or crossing the highway, while at a meeting  or a fellowship, while receiving a lecture or delivering one, while dressing up or undressing  at God knows where; the strange professional types whose professions demand a sharp suit and a glib tongue, sprouting like mushrooms all over the place with double – barreled nomenclatures – motivational speakers, event planners, fashion- stylists, marketing executive, hygiene officers and so on. The young upwardly mobile gentleman or lady, confident and determined, ready to sell fire in hell if it is possible,  who has  a nice smile for everyone and whose library boasts a large collection of books with impressive titles such as How to Fire  your Boss in Six Months, How to Talk your way to Sales Success, Think and Grow Rich, Fifty  Golden  Rules of Branding, Twenty-five Golden Techniques of Dating and Sex and so on. The young graduate still unemployed but with the fortune of too much idle leisure and distractions, staying glued to the TV or Laptop screen all day, watching  Reality TV shows, rap videos and  pornography, and doing what  people generally do in front of the screen – munching, sipping gossiping, running commentaries, dozing, masturbating, etc.

Some of the characters I have sketched above are, whether we like it or not, shapers of our contemporary consciousness. Our contemporary playwrights must realize that our taste and sensibility have changed. People no longer want to be preached at; they want to be poked fun at. Even the Pastor whose profession it is to preach has managed to devise a means of making us feel good with ourselves while doing so. People do not want to see anything that will depress them; they want something that will at the end of the day send them home in a catharsis of loud laughter, and in the hope that “things are not so bad after all. They can still be remedied. We still retain our faith in the possibilities of the human character. So successfully have the clergy and motivational speakers tuned our sensibilities at such a high pitch that any catastrophe, however awesome it is, hardly strikes a deep chord in us. To have some string in our being touched lightly by the crude paw of misfortune and set into long silent vibration is hardly a part of our national psyche.  Everything tends to be quickly rounded off with a deep pious sigh “it is well!” People are hardly interested in large abstract ideas such as Marxism or postcolonialism. Nor are they tickled by characters who explain themselves in long speeches, as though they are delivering recitations. They are interested in characters whose inner lives and tensions resonate with theirs.  The prevailing suspicion of any totalizing concept together with our pluralistic values will continue to prove this assertion true. People do not want to be taken on a long  retrospective flight to some very distant past such as Kutanga Kindgom or Ajagbiri empire  where they can instinctively intuit that the playwright will unwittingly shepherd them like cattle to graze through the withered foliage of village legends, stare dully at some crumbling shrine, rub their rears on some  abandoned  homesteads and fall asleep on a long oration on customs and  traditions that neither their faith will accept nor their pretentions not scorn. They want something that has an immediate and vivid appeal to them – bright city scenes, interesting characters and a language in which they can perceive the lilt and inflection of their own voices. And talking about language, see how it has over the years mutated – from the very complex and literary language of Soyinka to the lucid and direct diction of Osofisan to the extreme colloquialisms of Lekan Balogun and Ayodele Arigbabu. How grossly has our dramatic language deteriorated; how flawlessly it has become more and more realistic!

If some of us want proof for all the above assertions, we do not have far to seek. Let us try to find out all the reasons why standup comedy has been so phenomenally successful in Nigeria in recent years, we shall have our answer. I have often wondered why a Nigerian will pay ten or twenty thousand naira or even sometimes a hundred thousand to watch somebody abuse him and the audience, but will balk at paying five thousand naira to watch a play at the National Theatre. I guess he reckons he is very likely to be served the same stale diet of politics and wriggling of waists. Perhaps in a desperate bid to attract more Nigerians to the theatre; perhaps in the name of African total theatre, our directors have almost reduced the performance of plays to ‘a raffia and dance affair”. Scarcely these days does one watch the performance of a play without the director injecting some prolonged dance scene in to it. I do not think dance can do the magic because it is what we encounter  everywhere in our national life- at coronation / chieftaincy ceremonies, at festivals, at school inter house sports, at political campaigns, Reality TV shows, etc. what is needed right now is robust satire as a vehicle of social analysis and criticism of our contemporary society. What greater authority can I invoke in support of my arguments than the greatest of our playwrights – Wole Soyinka. The great genius appears to have read our times very accurately. The two plays we have had from him in recent years are outright satires – The Beautification of Area Boy (1995) and King Baabu (2002)

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WORKS CITED

Amuta Chidi. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London Routledge, 1981.

Anyanwu, Chukwuma Another Weekend Gone: Ibadan: Kraft Books limited, 2010.

Anyokwu, Chris. Stolen Future. Lagos: Learnrite Publishers Service 2006.

Arigbabu, Ayodele  One Fifty Barz in new in drama project (An Anthology) Butter, Leo (Ed.) London. Royal Court Theatre 2009.

Babatope, Femi Tearful Laughters. Ilorin, Nigeria: Mariba  publications. 2000.

Balogun Lekan. Soyinka in the Eye of Shakespeare 2009 not yet published.

Balogun, Lekan Farewell in new in drama project (An Anthology) Butter, Leo (Ed.) London. Royal Court Theatre 2009.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture, London Rutledge 1994.

Chinweizu, et al. Toward the Decolonization of African literature: Enugu fourth dimension 1980.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. The history of manners. New York Urizeni,1978.

Ezenwanebe, C. Osita. Giddy Festival. Ibadan: Kraft books Limited.

Jameson, Fredrick The Politics of Theory: ideological position in the postmodernism debate In The Theory of Essays,            V012. London: Routledge 1992.

Lyotard, Jean F. The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press 1986.

Nwabueze, Emeka A Parliament of Vultures. Enugu, Nigeria: ABK books and equip limited 2011.

Olaniyan, Tejumola Postmordernity, Postcoloniality and African studies. African literature: An Anthology of criticism and theory.  637-645.

Soyinka, Wole. Myth, literature and the African world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1976.

Wa Thiong O, Ngugi, Home coming: Essays: London, 1972.

Wa Thiong O, Ngugi. Writers in politics London: Heinemann, 1982.

Wa Thiong’O Ngugi. Decolonizing The mind: the politics of language in African literature. London: James Currey/Heinemann 1986.

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2 Comments

  • Obakanse has really commented on the need for the contemporary Nigerian dramatists to focus on the current challenges the society is facing both from the individual and collective perspectives. I strongly agree with him, that satire as a form of drama should be used to interrogate these challenges.

  • This is fantastic. I strongly agree with you. The contemporary Nigerian dramatists have to seriously explore satire to interrogate the current challenges we face both as a nation and individuals.