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A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF SELECTED PLAYS OF WOLE SOYINKA AND OLA ROTIMI

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 CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTION

 

            This study attempts to examine selected plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi comparatively.  The yardsticks adopted in this comparative synthesis are transgenerational perspectives and intertextuality.  Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi are playwrights of longevity and extensive productive life.  Their plays in terms of ideological frames and mechanics of composition seem to transcend the limit of the boundary set by any identified generation of Nigerian dramaturgy, and therefore cannot be pushed into any single periodic category with absolute fidelity.  An aspect of this study will explore how these playwrights handle transgenerational issues with respect to their points of convergence and divergence.

There appear to be reasons to believe that the selected plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi are amenable to intertextual analysis and interpretation.  The mechanics of their messages as well as the messages of their plays seem to have been explicitly and implicitly drawn from existing literary and extra literary materials, such as past dramatic texts, colonial and postcolonial history as well as the cultural ambience of the people.  The Bacchae of Euripides by Soyinka and The God are Not to Blame by Rotimi are adaptations of European plays, to give specific examples.  This study will attempt to analyze and evaluate the inter-textual appeal of our chosen texts, illuminating their points of similarities and differences. In terms of the organizing principles, the study will involve evaluation and definition of the nature, sources, influences and kinships as well as the limits between the intercourse of the playwrights’ dramatic sensibilities.  Attempt will be made to explore how the playwrights use whatever they obtained as loans from tribal, national and world cultures to create plays that are refreshing and unique; something that instigate new meanings as well as “enrich our understanding and appreciation of the complexity of the human condition which is the fundamental concern of all writers” (Asien viii).

 

1.1       Background of Study

The background of study examines the major influences on the dramaturgy of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi.  In What is Theatre?  Eric Bentley states that “Great art is universal but before it is universal, it has to be thoroughly local, it has to bear the signature of a people and a way of life” (18).  Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi are indigenes of Yoruba land.  Their origin made them quite naturally part of that culture.  These playwrights, especially Wole Soyinka, seem to have profound artistic and scholarly interest in the cultural ambience of their people especially as it relates to performance idioms and mythological world picture.  In discussing Soyinka’s interest in Yoruba traditional worldview and its impact on his dramaturgy, Eldred Durosimi Jones states:

His scholarly interest in this world is further demonstrated in his essay, “The Fourth Stage” in which he develops a theory of Yoruba tragedy by examining the ideas underlying the Yoruba concepts of being, and in particular, the idea underlying Yoruba theology.  The effect of this deep scholarly interest in Yoruba culture endows Soyinka with a base of ideas from which his works flow (4).

 

Soyinka’s artistic form appears to show his bias for traditional theatre in its eclectic formation of intermingling dance, song, mime, music and ritual display.  “In his search for universal and humanistic values, his exploration has taken him into the universe of Yoruba mythology for the purpose of confronting the profound meaning of existence” (Adedeji 105).  The rites of passage of the mythical hero which foreground his ambitious plays like Death and King’s the Horseman and The Bacchae of Euripides “evoke the numinous fourth level of existence in Yoruba cosmogony, the abyss of transition that is integral to the Yoruba psyche and is specifically associated with Ogun” (Akporji 173).  The duality of Ogun as both creative and destructive god makes him an enigmatic symbol of both Soyinka’s own creative work and his criticism” (Jones 5).  For Soyinka, “Man in his capacity both for creation and destruction is the reincarnation of this contradictory god of the forge” (5).  He, therefore, seems to have used Ogun to explore man’s hunger and capacity for violence.

In addition, Ogun stands for transcendence and rejuvenation.  The issue of  regeneration which coheres with the Yoruba belief that “Human life is part of a continuum of life stretching from the spirits of the unborn children through bodily existence to the spirits of departed ancestors which loom large in Death and King’s Horseman, seems to verge on the idea of cyclical history.  The idea of rejuvenation arises from Soyinka’s feeling that society is in constant need of salvation from itself.  But as Eldred Durosimi Jones observes, “This act of salvation is not a mass act: it comes about through the vision and dedication of individuals who doggedly pursue their vision in spite of the opposition of the very society they seek to save… the society which benefits from their vision” (11).  In fact, “In his theory of drama, Soyinka describes the activation of the communal psyche in the moment of transition: the individual daring the abyss on behalf of the whole community” (Etherton 35).  For him a ritual does not just impress the sense of communion with the supernatural, it “is a remedial activity which ensures the constant regenerative process of the universe” (Adedeji 106).  Because “the ritual framework reveals a message communicated subliminally and grasped intuitively” (Akporji 216), Yemi Ogunbiyi in an article entitled “Toast to our own W.S.”, suggests that the complexity in some of “Soyinka’s poetic drama is an inevitable response to an ethnocentric complex reality” (53).

Like Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi assimilated elements of Yoruba traditional artistic idioms like dance, ritual, music, song, etc. in his plays.  His work as a Research Fellow in Ife introduced him to “the world of traditional oral literature which he relied heavily as basis for his creative innovations” (Playwriting and Directing 32).  In an interview with David Moore, Rotimi states:

The richness of traditional orality became one of my research staples as a Senior Research Fellow.  My ten years of research from 1966-76 got me into the nitty-gritty of traditional ways which had escaped me before I left home to study in America. Don’t forget when I left, in 1959, Nigeria was still a British colony.  Educated people of my generation had been more or less indoctrinated into Western thinking, which followed Christianity in presuming that anything traditional was pagan. So we shied away from our traditional culture.  We appreciated cultural displays and dances from a distance (161).

 

The above suggests that Rotimi does not seem to have a stronghold on Yoruba culture like Soyinka.  Apart from a deep Christian influence, he was bred in the cities, spending his childhood and adolescence traveling from city to city due to his father’s transfer as a civil servant.  Besides, Rotimi has bi-ethnic parents – a Yoruba father and a Nembe mother.  This does not allow him to gain proficiency in Yoruba language.  Rotimi makes this obvious in an interview with Bernth Lindfors:

 

My knowledge of the vernacular is miserable because I grew up in ethnically heterogeneous family. My dad hails from Yoruba land, my late mother hailed from Ijo in the Rivers State.  My mother was not literate, so she spoke to us in Ijo, and we responded in that medium or occasionally in the Nigerian Pidgin English which she also understood soundly…  The result was a smattering attempt on my part at the four lingual medium form which I graduated, you might say, cum laude “a jack of two vernacular languages, Master of none!” (21),

 

The above may seem to make Rotimi, unlike Soyinka, to lack deep knowledge of Yoruba cosmology.  Though like Soyinka, “His conceptual and creative approaches are informed by the characteristics of the traditional festival theatre, like music, song, dance, mime, ritual symbolism, the spectacle of large crowds and the use of open-space for performance purposes” (Theatre of Feast 9), Rotimi does not seem to use his plays to elaborate any traditional mythopoesis or philosophy.  In his plays, he explores latent theatrical possibilities of ritual, using it either to emphasize the point being made or heighten dramatic effect. However, Rotimi’s dual parentage is advantageous because it gives him a panoramic and cosmopolitan mindset about Nigeria and exposes him to pidgin, which may be considered a nascent proletarian language. The language is used well in Hopes and if…

It has been debated for centuries that artistic sensibility reflects fundamentally the artist’s consciousness of the environment of his existence.  Chi Akporji is of the view that this sensibility is “a third eye which pierces deep into the matrix of society, and channels that consciousness to creative purposes”.  Commitment to the problematic of the postcolonial politics appears to be a major concern for Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi as playwrights.  Soyinka has been an outstanding political activist and “politics for him has always consisted of fighting institutionalized injustice and inhumanity”.  (Awe 83).  He displayed his artistic talent during the political crisis that rocked Western Nigeria a few years after independence.  Elaborating on this, Olumuyiwa Awe in an article, “Before My Very Eyes”, notes:

 

Sometime in 1965, the “Gunman Episode” took place in the studios of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) at Ibadan. Apparently, a masked man with a gun had entered the studio where a live programme was on, and has forced the announcer, at gun point, to play a pre-recorded tape condemning in strong language, the Akintola’s government which was then in power in the Western Region.  Allegations were made that Wole was the gunman, and he was charged to court… Wole was by then the most outspoken critic of the Akintola regime (75).

 

During that first republic, political crises all over the country left everyone gasping.  Soyinka was deeply disturbed by the civil commotion and this is the reason for him, “The news of the first coup on 15th January, 1966 was like a magic balm on a body racked all over by pain” (76).  However, the counter coup of July the same year that ushered in General Gowon as Head of State and the subsequent killing of Ndi Igbo and other ethnic nationalities in the Northern Nigeria, which led Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu to push for the secession of Eastern Nigeria, brought Soyinka into collision with the federal government.  In those days when to speak out was branded an act of sabotage, Soyinka in a newspaper article entitled “Let’s Think Again”, openly condemned any use of brute force against Biafra.  He cautioned for restraint, reminding everyone, especially the federal government that an option of war could lead to irremediable mistakes.  In “Toast for our own W.S.”, Yemi Ogunbiyi observes that: The spate of attacks which greeted Soyinka’s public call for caution and reason indicated the sorry mood of the country.  He was promptly arrested and detained for two years without trial (54). Although Nigerian civil war is not an issue here, it is important to note that Nigerian Marxists see the war as a consequence of contradictions in the ruling class, in its struggle to control the nascent Niger Delta oil.

 

Soyinka speaks and uses plays to illuminate his feelings when it matters most, when government’s banalities and gruesome actions seem to benumb people and keep the majority afraid.  Ogunbiyi recalls his roles in the murder of Adepoju at the University of Ibadan in 1971; the Ali – Must – Go crisis during Obasanjo’s military regime that resulted in the death of many students; the Bakalori massacre in Sokoto and the maladministration of Shehu Shagari.  Soyinka stiffly opposed the annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election by Babangida – an election in which the late M.K.O.  Abiola was generally believed to have won.  He went on self-imposed exile and while on exile established Radio Kudirat to challenge and attack the extremely repressive government of the late General Sani Abacha.  In fact, Soyinka champions human rights and condemns political villainy all over Africa.  His uncompromising stance against political repression appears in familiar configurations in plays like Kongi’s Harvest, A Play of Giants and The Beatification of the Area Boy, among others.  On the political issues of his environment, Biodun Jeyifo states that:

Soyinka has in nearly all his major works approached these challenges and dilemmas through the imaginative prism of what he deems inextricable dualities in nature and human existence in general, but with particular regard to the phenomenon of violence: destruction and creation, reactionary terror and restorative cleansing bloodletting (283).

 

Although Ola Rotimi admired Obafemi Awolowo and once served as a member of Unity Party of Nigeria, Think Tank in Rivers State then ruled by Melford Okilo of National Party of Nigeria, he did not seem to be a political activist like Soyinka, in terms of directly confronting the evil tendencies of the power that be.  However, he appeared hypertensive to the country’s political problems.  Rotimi did not believe that a writer should sequestrate himself from the political realities of his society.  In fact, the problem of poor leadership appears to be a major string that binds up most, if not all his plays.  Rotimi’s plays explain the strains of leadership in the country in order to raise political consciousness among the people.  Before providing a paradigm for good leadership through the character Harcourt Whyte in Hopes of the Living Dead, the playwright had illuminated such strains of leadership, like opportunism in Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, parochial and self-centredness in Kurunmi, as well as ethno-politics in The Gods Are Not to Blame.  The issue of socio-political and moral conscientization occupies the centre-stage in if…a tragedy of the ruled and Hopes of the Living Dead.  He emphasizes discipline, self-sacrifice and solidarity as the sine qua non for good leadership in the plays.  Effiok B. Uwatt expresses the opinion that:

In both plays, Rotimi recommends complete social, political and moral orientation as a way out of the Nigerian leadership problem.  The theatre, he recognizes is an effective medium for achieving this.  The three concurrent scenes in if, featuring the Akpan-Hamidu dictation class (P.13), Papa – Children lesson (PP. 33-34), and Chinwe-Betty Bible classes (PP. 31-32) illustrate Rotimi’s use of the theatre for social, political and moral re-orientation of the Nigerian peoples (Theatre of Feast 103).

 

The above suggests that Rotimi’s idea of deploying his plays for political ends, is not ambiguous.  His belief in the progressive notion of history seems to compel him to posit that good leadership in the country is not something intractable.

Soyinka and Rotimi’s university education in Britain and the United States of America respectively, as well as their career in theatre exposed them to various techniques and theories of dramatic composition and practice, and these have tremendous impact on their dramaturgy.  James Gibbs posits that “Soyinka emerged from his drama studies in Leeds … intimately acquainted with European dramatic traditions” (28).  Commedia del’arte, naturalism, Brechtian tradition and avant-gardism seem to strike a responsive chord in the playwright, enabling him to adopt eclecticism as a dramatic form.  According to Gibbs:

At Stratford-on-Avon during 1983, Soyinka acknowledged that he had been influenced by everything he read … He is a writer who is convinced of the validity of re-employing existing material.  Like European playwrights from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Brecht, he regards eclecticism as a right, maintaining that it is what an artist does with borrowed material that is important; what or how much he takes is not significant” (28).

 

Although Rotimi deploys avantgarde technique in Holding Talks, unlike Soyinka, he appears to have predilection for the Aristotelian system of dramatic composition.  In most of his plays, he adopts linear plot in which complications push events into climax; characters give us the full process of life; change of fortune occurs through reversal or recognition or both and is foreshadowed early in the play; opposing forces meet in the obligatory scene, not in ignorance but in full awareness of the truth, thus satisfying the expectation of the audience” (The Essence of Drama 49 -50).  To achieve all this, Rotimi seems to rely heavily on clear story-line.

1.2       Statement of Problem

Many scholars such as Eldred Durosimi Jones, Gerald Moore, Emeka Nwabueze, Obi Maduako, Biodun Jeyifo, Joel Adedeji, Oyin Ogunba, Bernth Lindfors, Saint Gbilekaa, Vincent Ola, Effiok B. Uwatt, among others, have studied the plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi as they engage traditional aesthetics of the theatre, colonial and postcoloniality.  These studies approach the plays of these playwrights independently.  While Nwabueze compared Soyinka’s plays with the Noh drama of Japan, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa and Maduike who were deeply engrossed in decolonizing African literature, compared Soyinka and some Western writers like Joyce. Presently, there seems to be no sustained effort in criticism to study the plays of Wole Soyinka and those of Ola Rotimi comparatively, especially as they engage transegenerational perspectives and intertextuality.  This study may help us in understanding the explicit and subtle similarities and differences that characterize the dramaturgy of these great playwrights.  Besides, Soyinka has sustained dramatic writing for over fifty years.  His outputs according to Biodun Jeyifo have tended generally to outstrip the scope of each successive study of his plays and, therefore, needs critical reconsideration.

1.3       Research Questions

An authentic research addresses significant questions concerning the problem(s) that necessitate the study. This study therefore strives to address the following questions:

 

  1. What is the relevance of transgenerational perspectives to the interpretation of the selected plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi?

 

  1. How do the selected plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi relate as well as differ in handling transgenerational issues?

 

  1. What past textual and extra-textual materials influence the selected plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi and how do they compare?

 

1.4       Objective of Study

            This study is driven by certain objectives. This aspect of the study is classified into general and specific objectives, in order to ensure that the researcher does not drail from the road map or essence of the study.

 

1.4.1    General Objective

The main objective of this study is to investigate selected plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi in comparative terms, using transgenerational perspectives and intertextuality as the yardsticks for the study.

1.4.2    Specific Objectives

The specific objectives of the study are to:

  1. Explore how the plays of Wole of Soyinka and Ola Rotimi can be amendable to transgenerational interpretation;
  2. Examine how the selected plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi relate as well as differ in handling transgenerational issues;
  3. Investigate the past textual and extra-textual materials that influenced the selected plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi, pointing out the areas of similarities and differences.

 

1.5       Significance of Study

In seeking to compare the plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi, an astute researcher is faced with embarrassing variety of choice to the point that lack of systematized thought may get one flying off in all directions.  However, transgenerational perspectives and intertextuality which are used in this study as yardsticks, amalgamated various issues to assist us to read the selected texts in their full and varied contexts –national, international as well as the differing artistic visions that frame them.  The major significance of this study is that it may assist us to have a wider and deeper understanding and appreciation of the nature of the playwrights’ consciousness and the way they articulate such consciousness in their plays in terms of the areas of common bond and differentiation.

Again, the allusive nature of Soyinka’s early plays and Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame, enable them to generate diverse views.  This seems to make them inexhaustibly minefield for criticism and disposed them to yield new works of interpretation.  This study, therefore, provides a new springboard for fresher appreciation of their dramatic texts produced within intercultural experience.  Even if someone has engaged the plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi comparatively, criticism involves intuition, and intuitive knowledge is unique to individuals.

Clearly, by demonstrating that the plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi are amenable to transgenerational and intertextual interpretation

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