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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 2

Claudine Raynaud

African Voices

Cultural Imperative and Social Validity in Modern Nigerian Drama: the Plays of Saro-Wiwa, Nwabueze and Irobi1


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  • 1 The author is grateful to the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation and the University of Mainz.

1Nigeria as an African nation with multifarious cultural groups has produced innovative playwrights and significant works of drama. This manifestation of a vibrant dramatic culture has led to the crowning glory of one of its writers, Wole Soyinka, as a major writer in the world. One of the younger Nigerian writers acknowledges that "just as African novelists have learnt from Achebe, so have the new dramatists fed from Soyinka's copious kitchen. Before us, he found convincing solutions to most of the formidable problems involved in the experiment of presenting African theatre credibly in a European language and European-style theatre" (Osofisan: V). In effect the Nigerian writers Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka have become the icons for tracing the development of African fiction and drama respectively and their major creative strategies reside in a conscious use of culture in their literary works.

2However, this idea of cultural imperative and social validity in Nigerian drama is used in our essay to portray the enrichment of the plays through the utilisation of diverse cultural features that widen the communal vision and the creative horizon of the writers. Such works thus establish the African essence of drama since culture constitutes a people's way of life and its use charts the route of development possible in the genre. A researcher assures us that "the core of African drama is the performer-spectator interaction" and that "the influence of the cultural environment on this interaction can be observed in the dramatic techniques that have been derived from the society in which the performance occurs" (Okafor, 1991, 50). There is no doubt that drama as a genre is capable of yielding a rich harvest when it is moulded by capable African writers for there are other significant Nigerian playwrights such as Ola Rotimi, Femi Osofisan, Zulu Sofola, Kalu Uka, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, Bode Sowande, Wale Ogunyemi, Sonny Oti, Elechi Amadi and Tess Onwueme who have written both interesting and technically successful plays. However, the objective of this study is to portray that a much more recent group of Nigerian writers has utilised this tradition of exploring the cultural imperative in drama to make telling comments. These playwrights are numerous but their levels of creative competence vary. I have selected for analysis Ken Saro-Wiwa's Four Farcical Plays, Esiaba Irobi's The Colour of Rusting Gold and Emeka Nwabueze's A Dance of the Dead in order to justify that it is the cultural imperative with its social validity that has contributed towards making Nigerian drama noteworthy. It has to be noted that the selected playwrights have published other works of drama apart from these three plays.

3It is interesting to note that many years ago Oyin Ogunba identified a category of modern West African drama which he refers to as the plays that take up "a traditional African idea and explore it beyond the traditional boundary" (Ogunba, 1971, 87) and he concludes that the future of West African drama probably lies more with plays of that category. The three playwrights selected seem to be interested in this creative objective as they take up traditional ideas that are explored beyond the cultural boundaries of Nigeria through a range of references that relate to human interactions. Their subject matter concerns humanity and despite the differences in race, they show that human beings can exhibit similar desires, motivations and aspirations if the environment is not radically ruptured. But there is another dimension to this exploration of traditional African ideas which is that the playwrights could make conscious efforts to use an African world-view to perceive reality. Thus, I have remarked elsewhere with reference to tragedy in African drama that "the playwrights, while localising their setting, are gradually interpreting and modifying tragedy in African drama" (Ezenwa-Ohaeto, 1982, 14). This observation indicates the consequence of the cultural imperative and it has led to the effective adaptations of ancient Greek plays by Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi from Nigeria and Efua Sutherland from Ghana.

4The three Nigerian playwrights Saro-Wiwa, Irobi and Nwabueze address themselves to the problem of finding imaginative landscapes that can encompass many of the multiple contradictions that plague modern Nigerian society. The cultural issues are thus contemporary and the playwrights capture the essence of their debilitating effects. It is also part of the social commitment in African drama that what these writers have done is to show that the cultural imperatives extend beyond the use of oral traditions to serve only "as source material or inspiration", the provision of the "details of the narrative" or the addition of "local Nigerian flavour" (Aboyade, 1987, 139) in language. The issue is that each playwright anywhere in the world who seeks to make the cultural imperative paramount selects those ideas and subject matter that best reflect the society's culture. Thus a Caribbean playwright like Derek Walcott for instance is identified as writing in order to exorcise the demon of alienation and homelessness "because the enactment of self as heterogeneous entity upon the landscape of home should be done with a realisation of the problems which constantly emerge to address those who live in a 'mixed' milieu like the West Indies" (Samad, 1991, 8). However, the African reality differs as we can notice in this drama.

5In the three plays selected, the struggle to acquire wealth and its subsequent effect when it is acquired is the major cultural issue which the playwrights explore. Ken Saro-Wiwa in the four plays in Four Farcical Plays entitled "The Transistor Radio", "Bride by Return", "The Wheel" and "Madam No Go Quench Again" uses contemporary issues as the raw material for his artistic statements. The cultural concern in "The Transistor Radio" is the high degree of dishonesty among city dwellers. The author shows that there is a web of dishonesty which in its profuse nature affects even the originators of those acts. The city is fully explored in this play as the character known as Basi comments: "Lagos is the place for you, man. With a job, without a job this is the place of hope. The future lies here, man. I tell you, we'll make it here suddenly transformed. This room will become a palace, we'll own planes... To be a millionaire think like a millionaire!" (Saro-Wiwa, 1989, 31). Part of this desire to think and act like a millionaire lies in the attempt by a fake licensing Officer from the Posts and Telecommunications Department to get money from Basi. However, the man is exposed by a fake policeman and he offers a fake currency note in order to escape. This play is actually the precursor of the television series "Basi and Company" created by Saro-Wiwa. The playwright succeeds in presenting through farce the degenerate nature of many of those who people the cities through their inordinate desire to acquire wealth.

6From another perspective the second play "Bride by Return" suggests that wealth without commensurate knowledge amounts to waste. The major character in this play is Nubari who wins a contract and finds himself suddenly in possession of too much money. He embarks on a spending spree culminating in his request for a white woman as a bride through the mail service but he fails to realise that it is the night-gown that is advertised in the catalogue of fashion designs and not the woman. The earthy wisdom of the servant Nicodemus encapsulates the tragedy which Nubari exemplifies when he comments: "my master is proper money-miss-road. He was good man before but since 'e win contract and get plenty money, I think he have gone gone mad" (34). This slangy, ungrammatically informal language mixed with Pidgin is also part of the conscious manipulation of cultural ideas for the language captures not just the cultural background of the speaker but also his educational background. The experimentation here is part of what has been perceived as the attempt to satisfy:

the urge to express the specific experiences and values of the writer's African culture through an alien medium; and these solutions lead to the injection of new forms into the genres adopted from non-African traditions. Various attempts are being made on the semantic, syntactic and stylistic levels to meet the requirements of the English expression of African mores, sensibility and vision. (Galle, 1991, 16)

7Saro-Wiwa successfully evokes the cultural atmosphere in this play through language and the satirization of Nubari highlights the confusion of priorities and confusion of culture in the wider society which leads to socio-economic cleavages.

8The third play in Saro-Wiwa's Four Farcical Plays, entitled "The Wheel: A Farce in Six Situations", is a work whose artistry comes through not only in the manipulation of subject matter but also through the effective use of two actors playing varied roles. In the first situation we see a Chief Minister and a Parliamentarian; in the second we encounter a Minister and a Company Director; in the third a Company Director and a Chief Clerk; in the fourth a General Manager and a Chief Clerk, in the fifth a Personnel Officer and an Applicant while the sixth situation has a Security Guard and the Chief Minister. "The Wheel" is a play which explores the debilitating corruption in the society; in each of the situations an individual in an inferior position offers a bribe to the senior officer in order to be promoted. The irony in the play emerges at the end where the chain of bribes offered and accepted culminates in the Security Guard forcing the Chief Minister to offer a bribe before he could be admitted into the office of the Chairman of the Corporation. The juxtaposition of these scenes coalesce into an uncomfortable vision of a society gradually developing an abnormal culture of exploitation and corruption. The play confirms the view that Saro-Wiwa created this work in the tradition of much Nigerian drama this is underlined by a critic who comments that "socio-political theatre has had a vibrant existence in Nigeria" and that it "has always found ways of responding to the changes and challenges of a newly independent nation" (Ukpokodu, 1992, 200).

9The fourth play in the collection also portrays the abnormality manifest in the culture through the activities of Kopol. This play entitled "Madam No Go Quench Again" is written in Pidgin and it explores the hypocrisy in human nature. A cantankerous woman known as Waale, the first wife to a dead man called Dona, succumbs to the amorous overtures of Kopol although she is in mourning. Dona's second wife, known as Bedu, is equally enticed by Kopol who abandons his duty to engage in prurient activities. The play assumes a tinge of sombre humour when Kopol discovers that one of the dead bodies he is asked to guard while on duty is missing but Waale offers the body of her dead husband in replacement so that Kopol will not be shot for negligence of duty. There is no doubt that this play satirises abnormal rules and the culture because it uses exaggerated incidents as part of the dramatic technique. For instance the authorities threaten that, if Kopol fails to find the missing corpse, he will be used to replace it and Waale inquires: "How dem go take person wey dey alive go replace person wey don die. Dat na stupid rule" (94). The play thereby turns into a metaphor for the indictment of those who fashion senseless rules and cultural norms that do not advance the cause of humanity.

10The language used by Saro-Wiwa, Esiaba Irobi and Emeka Nwabueze to which they belong clearly exhibits the influences of the cultural traditions in their works. This influence illustrates the view that the "richness and subtlety of their native tongues are at the disposal of these writers and the advantage exists of being able to communicate with their audiences exploiting the deep relationship between indigenous language and indigenous culture" (Crow, 1983, 64). This relationship between language and culture emerges interestingly in Esiaba Irobi's The Colour of Rusting Gold. The playwright explores the deep recesses of the human mind through the story of the herbalist Otagburuagu, reputed to be the best hand in the business, but who breaks one of the rules governing his trade through kindness. The play gradually moves towards a tragic dénouement as Otagburuagu becomes mad and kills his apprentice for attempting to steal the money which he had refused from a client. It is significant that this play hinges on the fact that kindness can be tragic for it is Otagburuagu's kindness in saving a life that makes him prone to the personal tragedy which overwhelms him.

11However, within the scope of this play, Irobi examines the flaws in society through the character known as Nanimgebi, the member of Parliament who insists that Otagburuagu should make rain fall in order to ruin the campaign of his political opponent. Nanimgebi, like most politicians depicted in Nigerian drama, is untrustworthy but he blackmails Otagburuagu into aiding his political progress because once, in the past, the famous medicine man had compromised one of the principles of his trade which is the stipulation that he must never shed blood. Although the blood shed is in good faith since it is to save the life of an expectant mother (Nanimgebi's girlfriend) who had tried to abort unsuccessfully, it is nevertheless a scratch on his escutcheon. It is interesting that Esioba Irobi's dramatisation of that unintended tragedy appears to offer grounds in support of the view that "it seems more useful to discuss the discourse offered by these (drama) texts in the broader context of social information" (Dunton, 1992, 2).

12The subject matter of this play revolving around the desire to acquire wealth a cultural and social reality of modern times exposes the deceit, hypocrisy, falsehood and abnormality of contemporary Nigerian political culture. It is by getting involved in the activities of the politician that the highly respected herbalist is ruined. The politician requests that his political opponent be killed and the herbalist asks him to swear that that opponent had sought his life too. The consequence is predictable for Nanimgebi dies because he sought the life of an innocent man. One of his kinsmen captures it succinctly when he thus accuses the herbalist: "but Otagburuagu, you should have known that this game they play is a game of lies. All of them tell lies... to their voters lies, to their supporters lies... Even to their mothers they would tell lies" (41).

13Furthermore, the money the politician abandons in Otagburuagu's house turns into an "albatross" for the herbalist can not dispose of it without arousing suspicion. The young apprentice, Ogidi, attempts to steal the money but he is caught by Otagburuagu who strangles him. It is this last infringement that precipitates the tragedy of The Colour of Rusting Gold for it is a taboo to shed blood in the vicinity of the shrine. The play moves to a shuddering climax as the famous herbalist becomes mad and is manacled by some of his fellow herbalists in a mysterious ritual in order to prevent an exposure of the secret of their trade. The tragedy of Otagburuagu is the destruction of excellence through a flaw created by social circumstances which even threatens to overwhelm the cultural integrity of the community. Otagburuagu's reply to the prodding question of Nanimgebi in the play reveals part of that cultural integrity:

I am a medicine man. A man called to the service of the gods; a man who lives in the spirit world; a man who bridges the gap between the shrine of spirits and the mud-walled world of men. A man whom the spirits he serves have decreed that he must not marry. There are many men who have children but will never have names. I have a name — Go into the houses of the rich and the poor in this land and mention Otagburuagu. They will say yes he is our father. He stands at the seven cross-roads and ferries the spirits of troubled men over the other world. With bare fingers I bring out the yolk of the moon before it hardens in the throat of men. (35)

14The play effectively demonstrates the manner in which circumstances destroy the cultural icon Otagburuagu represents. Thus, the thematic thrust of this cultural issue extends beyond the cultural boundary reflected in the play for it comments on the fallibility of man.

15Apart form the cultural imperative and the social validity of the subject matter, the technique adopted by Irobi makes The Colour of Rusting Gold an aesthetically pleasing drama. The names of the characters in the play are symbolic for they indicate characteristics that explain their nature as human beings or their profession. Irobi exploits the onomastic implications of his cultural nomenclatures, especially in the fashioning and utilisation of those characters' names. The herbalist is known as Otagburuagu which literally means "One capable of biting a lion to death." It is thus not surprising that he constantly refers to himself as a tiger for he warns: "avoid the tiger's tail whether dead or alive" (42). The other characters also possess either symbolic or allegorical names for Nanimgebi, the politician's name, means either "one who insists on being the only one alive" or "one who wishes to reside, eat or enjoy alone"; and, either way, it is not a name that connotes altruistic motives in a politician; Oriakanjonuchichi which is the name of the mad boy taken to Otagburuagu for healing means that "sickness is worse at night" and the name apparently refers to the penchant of mad people, especially in the cultural environment in which the play is set, to walk along the village streets talking at the top of their voices. One of the herbalists who overpowers Otagburuagu is known as Okaaomee which means, "one who does as he says", obviously referring to his prowess as a herbalist. These names are given with the idea that in Nigerian cultures names possess identifiable meaning and ideas.

16The language of The Colour of Rusting Gold is equally indicative of the cultural imperative in modern Nigerian drama. Femi Euba states that there are two ways of utilizing language in drama. "One way is to follow a form of Yourobo dialogue as used by Rotimi, which tries to translate the Yoruba nuances of expression into literal English. Another is to attempt transposing these nuances into rich, poetic expression in English language" (Euba, 1981, 395). This second way of using language has been widely followed in modern Nigerian Literature, especially drama for it has been confirmed that "thanks to its polyphonic nature, a play, in theory, should accommodate a wide selection of registers and voices" (Bardolph, 1989, 49). The use of proverbs in The Colour of Rusting Gold illustrates Irobi's capability of breathing fresh life into what Chinua Achebe, the distinguished writer, has turned into high art in his fiction. For instance, Otagburuagu, in his final warning to Ogidi his apprentice before strangling him says: "the fly that forsakes advice is buried with the corpse. The fish that nibbles at the baited hook sleeps in the belly of the fisherman... the tiger did not eat the goat, the goat went and ate the yam... Now, what will the tiger do?" (50). The implication of these proverbs is that they foreshadow the murder of Ogidi and the eventual tragedy of Otagburuagu. However, the proverbial language refers to the immediate concrete context of the culture with references that could be identified in other cultures, for example the nibbling fish settling in the stomach of the fisherman.

17In addition, the imagery in the play is striking for almost all issues, all ideas and most acts are concretised through words to arouse appropriate reactions in the reader/audience. Otagburuagu for instance refers to Nanimgebi's death: "the insatiable red earth will have a delicious dinner" (40); he cautions Ogidi: "the rat that cannot recognise the claws of a cat can never recognise its own corpse" (5) and he praises himself: "I am the human tiger with four eyes" (12). The imagery of those descriptions thus enables the playwright to explore the psychological implications emanating from the actions and activities of the characters. The imagery sometimes opens up what Dapo Adelugba calls "avenues of comic expressiveness" (Adelugba, 1978, 211) as when Alika describes Ogidi as a "tombo fly that has fallen into my cup of wine" (19), while Oriakanjonuchichi calls the politician "this historical monstrosity, this anthropological specimen, this political groundnut, sorry juggernaut, called Nanimgebi" (31). The language in the play clearly shows an effective use of materials from Nigerian cultural traditions to create a drama of complex human interactions.

18The same human interactions are woven into a different social fabric in Emeka Nwabueze's Dance of the Dead but reflecting the same cultural structures. The play examines the effects of materialism, dishonesty and injustice in the society. There is also the inevitable clash when two contradictory attitudes and perceptions are brought together in either the mind of the characters or in their associations. The subject matter of this play is contemporary and it lends credence to the view that "the cultural concerns which dominated work at the Universities of Ibadan and Ife (Nigeria) during the sixties have given way to an interest in plays that confront the issues facing the country" (Gibbs, 1990, 134). One of the current issues facing the country is the question of the family, placed in a position of dilemma between traditional and modern culture.

19In A Dance of the Dead, the playwright seeks to problematize this cultural dilemma. Ojogwu is the uncompromising father of Ngozi a young girl who abandons her fiancé in order to acquire a Sugar Daddy known as Chief Nwoye. The callous and wicked Nwoye who could not procure an abortion for Ngozi gives her some poison which kills her. However, before Ngozi is taken home to her father's house where she dies, she refuses the advice of her friend Ada. In a tragic climax it is discovered that Dr. Chike, the friend of Okey Ngozi's fiancé, is the same medical officer at Bokina who refused to abort the baby claiming this was both a violation of medical ethics and morally reprehensible.

20A Dance of the Dead seeks to prove that the blame for immorality should be apportioned to all segments of the community. Mba the teacher explains this aptly when he tells OJogwu:

We are not the only people to blame in this matter. We have our blames, but we are not totally to blame. Use your tongue to count your teeth. The parents have some blame too. Their daughters come home with all sorts of costly dresses, expensive perfumes and jewellery and they don't ask them how they got them. How many times have you checked up from where your daughter gets her beautiful and expensive dresses and cosmetics? This is a doomed society where people are revered even when they are thieves, a profligate society where materialism blinds even the virtuous, where some parents go blind when their daughters abandon purity on the alta of materialism. (24)

21This statement is at the core of the problem which the playwright examines and he shows through the conflicts in the play that the society needs to reassess its sense of priorities, otherwise its culture will be negativized. Thus the cultural imperative in A Dance of the Dead portrays an example of the utilisation of the "idioms of their particular culture" by Nigerian playwrights in order to provide "a liberating force, providing both the playwright and his community the need for each others vitality and vision", (Asanga, 1985, 12).

22The cultural vitality and social vision in A Dance of the Dead emerges through Ngozi's tragedy, a result of his obstinacy. In violation of her society's cultural norms, Ngozi refuses to listen to her mother who pleads, cajoles and bluntly refuses to give her blessing to her intention to travel to Bokina. Her reason is that she needs to be "up-to-date" and buy more clothes; possess "a beautiful home", and "a nice car" (15). In addition, Ngozi rejects the advice of her friend Ada whose behaviour optimistically indicates that among the younger generation it is possible to find some people who are ideal in terms of behaviour and thoughts. Dr. Okey, who refuses to abandon his medical ethics despite the large amount of money he is offered, also confirms that the debilitating immorality has not affected all the people.

23The language of the play portrays linguistic elements that enhance the cultural imperative and social validity of A Dance of the Dead. Although the playwright does not exhibit the same nuances of language as we find in The Colour of Rusting Gold, he manages to invest his language with the jewellery of cultural lore. The idiomatic expressions voiced by the diviner, Diokpa, at the beginning of the play set the scene for he says:

The anus is good for a flute
But where do you bury your fingers?
The serpent is good for a string
But how do you manage its head?
The Efulefu has sold his matchet.
He now wears the empty sheath.
Do not be the eagle;
He is king of birds, but he eats toads
The pretty eagle makes a meal of toads!
The kite is also King.
Be not its type
For it steals. (2)

24The meaning embedded in those expressions prepares the reader/audience for the eventual tragedy but, more significantly, it illustrates the nature of the threat to the cultural world-view of the community.

25Moreover, Ojogwu is given linguistic features that differenciate him for he uses proverbs and evocative imagery reminiscent of traditional elders. Thus, the use of imagery by other characters such as Nweke, who describes Ngozi as "running from one man to another, from one car to another, like a bird without a nest" (10) and praises Ojogwu as "dry meat that fills the mouth, he that throws the tiger in wresting match" (9), portrays the cultural voice of the playwright and enhances his thematic objective.

26The linguistic features of the play and even those apparent in the modernity of Ngozi's speech embodying her supposed sophistication, work towards the final tragic scene which is similar to the one in The Colour of Rusting Gold or the pessimistic scenes in Saro-Wiwa's Four Farcical Plays. In effect one of the abiding qualities of the cultural imperative in modern Nigerian drama lies in the artistic use of language to enhance the theatrical qualities of the plays.

27It is remarkable that even in this use of language steeped in the culture of the communities depicted, the playwrights skirt around the pitfalls of folklore without stumbling into it. In addition, in extending the frontiers of the ideas examined in the plays beyond their Nigerian localities, the playwrights successfully establish a set of beliefs that synthesise imagination and reality. Their works also counter Michael Etherton's conclusion that "it is only when the drama moves away from the particularised African references that it becomes more internationally acceptable on the African continent" (Etherton, 1979, 60). It is also not surprising that Wole Soyinka, whose Nigerian drama has won recognition universally despite the cultural imperative in the works, argues, contrary to Etherton, that the art of the various artists he mentions in a major essay "finds a ready response in most audiences since their themes are rooted in everyday experience, fleshed out in shared idioms of cultural adjustment" (Soyinka, 1988, 203). In effect the organic relationship of the three plays lies in the cultural reality depicted for, with their ethical sense, the playwrights present an admirable vision fashioned out of the conflicts and contradictions of life.

28The cultural imperative in Modern Nigerian Drama, worked out through the social validity in the content and form of the creative works, realistically portray the impediments to social development and underline the sensitivity of the playwrights to both the static and changing aspects of the cultural landscape of a dynamic society. Ken Saro-Wiwa, Esiaba Irobi and Emeka Nwabueze, in their varying degrees of creative competence, capture the essence of this regenerating, reshaping and rejuvenating culture in order to project appropriate nuggets of experience with wider implications for humanity.



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1 The author is grateful to the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation and the University of Mainz.


Nigerian poet, short story writer, critic and scholar. His publications include a biography of Chinua Achebe, four poetry collections, and two critical studies of African Literature. He is currently a Guest Professor at the University of Bayreuth. He is also a Humboldt research fellow. His over sixty articles have been published in journals all over the world

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1996

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