Passionate Spaces : African Literature & the Hugh Webb
African Literature & the
The satirical play
During a lecture entitled "Drama and the Revolutionary Ideal", Wole Soyinka hazarded the opinion that the theatre "has been accurately described as the most social of art forms." He went on to describe the theatre as "perhaps the most revolutionary art form known to man."1 Any consideration of the formal possibilities of the satirical play (as a manifestation of that social and revolutionary potential) should include an acceptance of Soyinka's remarks. It should also include an acceptance of the fact that drama, with its added dimension of public performance, is uniquely placed for socio-political commentary. If we also accept the notion that works of literature are shot through with values, with values ordered and acted out,2 then the potential for 'acting out' must surely be most strongly present in the actor's (and playwright's) forum - the theatre.
The critic and author Ezekiel Mphahlele is only one amongst many who have come to the realisation that "the theatre is still the most direct, the most accommodating, and the most tolerant medium of the imagination for both instruction and entertainment."3 In Nigeria, Yoruba popular theatre groups (such as that led by Hubert Ogunde in Lagos) have staged plays that utilise, by the inclusion of satirically-handled topical references,4 both the entertainment and instructional possibilities of drama. Amongst the dramatists writing in English, the works of Wole Soyinka similarly evidence a recognition and acceptance of these potentialities while providing insights into the special function of satirical plays as value-debating forums. Four plays by Soyinka immediately spring to mind: The Trials of Brother Jero, Kongi's Harvest, Madmen and Specialists, and Jero's Metamorphosis.5 Before approaching these plays as plays, I want to consider both the concept of satire (as a literary mode) and the nature of the socio-political context from which Soyinka's works have emerged.
Granted that the theatre is the most social of art forms, then the use of satire in drama represents a logical union of correlated activities. For satire has been rightly described as "essentially a social mode" with little or no transcendentality.6 Thus satire never works to exalt; it deflates and derides. Satire as Arthur Pollard has pointed out, "is always acutely conscious of the difference between what things are and what they ought to be."7 The satirist considers that difference and then selects certain targets (butts) as representative focal points for his attack. I think it important to note that these targets, to the extent that they are models of reality, exist both inside and outside the literary work. Within the work, the satiric targets are set up and then bombarded by all the devices of the satiric spectrum: wit, ridicule, irony, sarcasm, invective, and so on. In satirical works, the identification of targets is clearly facilitated by the fact that satire proceeds from exaggeration and caricature. The function of characters within a satirical play, for instance, can be readily identified by the nature of their deployment vis-a-vis the general, textually-controlled satiric thrust. As to the relationship between the satirist and the society to which he or she belongs, it is clear that the author (as denouncer of vice) is often a minority figure. Yet, if society pays lip-service to certain ideals that the satirist upholds while denying them in practice, then the writer is situated in the position of being able to exploit the evident differences between appearance and reality through the medium of satirically-aimed literary texts. In such a situation, the satirical thrust posits a strong measure of socio-political indictment. As Ian Jack succintly puts it: "Satire is born of the instinct to protest; it is protest become art."8
Turning to Soyinka's work, it is quite clear that changes in the nature of selected targets (in the four plays) are indicative of changes in the Nigerian political situation since Independence. The plays can be seen as varying dramatic manifestations of a constant oppositional relationship between the playwright and what he sees as negative socio-political trends. To the extent that these plays range (in origin) from 1960 to 1973 - a period of rapid organisational change in Nigeria and, indeed, throughout most of Africa - one can discover certain relationships between the nature and direction of Soyinka's plays, on the one hand, and specific political shifts on the other. While Soyinka (through the medium of his satiric texts) is constantly on the attack, the pace and tone of that attack varies with the passing of time and with the shifting balance of factions within Nigeria. Both The Trials of Brother Jero and Kongi's Harvest belong to the early period of civilian rule (1960-1966)9 with the latter play anticipating, by its military overtones, the end of that period. Soyinka has described the years from 1963 to 1965 as a "hot political arena", a period "where elections were being rigged, and people were disappearing, and all opponents of the government could be taxed out of existence ... when armies of thugs literally reigned as roving pirates."10 In October 1965 Soyinka himself nearly'disappeared' when he was arrested in connection with a bogus broadcast made from the studios of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation during the period following the disputed Western Region elections. The year of his first arrest, and subsequent acquittal, was also the year of the first performance of Kongi's Harvest, and very nearly the end of the civilian-rule era. A Federal Military Government was established during January 1966 which was to last (with various heads of state) through the coups and massacres of the pre-civil war period and beyond. Soyinka, of course, was detained from 1967 to 1969: the years of his prison experience.11 Madmen and Specialists (arising out of that experience) and Jero's Metamorphosis belong, then, to the continuing period of military rule. While the four plays (as value-debating forums) certainly have significant relevance to other than Nigerian events, their temporal placing within the local situation determines, to a great extent, their varying identities as vehicles for satiric comment. Soyinka is clearly aware of the changing nature of their relevance. In a preface to a collection of satirical sketches, he has given some advice to performing groups:
The purpose of these sketches would be defeated if performing groups feel that they must be staged word for word and blow for blow. Producers should feel free to adapt them where necessary for the contemporary event and to alter entire sequences to relate the action closely to whatever is happening now.12
The fact that Soyinka chooses to give such advice serves to emphasise that his satirical plays, at the time of their original production existed in a close relationship to the particular socio-political context that provoked their creation and towards which they are pointedly addressed. Nevertheless, here is an artist less concerned with the preservation of textual features than with the potential satiric impact of the works on a contemporary environment.
Despite the differing, temporally-determined contexts of the plays, it is possible to detect a constant thematic strand that runs right through Soyinka's oppositional relationship to certain values and conditions. This strand is the continuing concern with the legitimacy (or otherwise) of leadership values. In his novelistic autobiography The Man Died, Soyinka (making comment on Yakubu Gowon's 'bygones is bygones' attitude following the civil war) stressed the point that:
If I, or the people of whom I form a part, accept this definition of national leadership, then it is time to consider deeply the question of what constitutes a nation... .13
More than anything else, Soyinka's satirical plays are concerned with the values that contribute to a definition of national leadership. The official discourse of Nigerian leadership - it can be summarised as liberty, equality, fraternity (with correlative attributes of honesty, integrity and collective sympathy) - is juxtaposed, by satiric implication, with what is claimed to be the real situation. The four texts that I have mentioned carry forward, each in its own way, the examination of leadership criteria. Each play has its leadership-figures and, in every case, a satiric assault is mounted against these figures and against the values that appear to legitimise their leadership.
The self-proclaimed holy man has always been a favourite figure for satirical attention. Brother Jero, in The Trials of Brother Jero is just such a figure. Jero is a charlatan preacher, a profit-minded prophet who plays on the gullibility of his erstwhile congregation. The Trials of Brother Jero is no dark satire, no gloomy collection of veiled satiric barbs. On the contrary, this play is an entertaining comedy or, if we note the broad verbal humour and physical horseplay, more correctly a farce. Brother Jero is the instigator of farcical claims to divine guidance and heavenly-sanctioned authority. By the witty use of the technique of naming, Soyinka places Jero firmly amongst his 'competitors':
The Brotherhood of Jehu, the Cherubims and Seraphims, the Sisters of Judgement Day, the Heavenly Cowboys, not to mention the Jehovah's Witnesses whom the French girls impersonated... . (p. 10)
To Jero, preaching is a trade; a trade to be worked with skill. He gets himself a velvet cape and begins to call himself "Velvet-hearted Jeroboam" and "Immaculate Jero, Articulate Hero of Christ's Crusade" (p. 19). The worshippers of this phony beach-prophet are, to him, customers; customers who must be baited by promises of material gain; customers who must be kept dissatisfied, as Jero realises:
Strange, dissatisfied people. I know they are dissatisfied because I keep them dissatisfied. Once they are full, they won't come again... Everything, in fact, is planned. (p. 20)
Perhaps the most memorable and humorous scene in the play is one where Brother Chume (a gull amongst gulls) leads the congregation in a pidgin-English version of Jero's stock ritual when the prophet's planning goes temporarily astray. What is of interest (in terms of values) here, is the ladder of expectations set up to feed the needs of the congregation. As Chume becomes more and more excited, with the 'Amens!' from the congregation coming thick and fast, greater and greater material rewards are required of God. One can easily identify the main 'rungs' in this ladder of expectations (pp. 28-29). Chume's first plea is to "Save us from trouble at home. Tell our wives not to give us trouble." The mention of domestic matters leads to " ... give us money to have a happy home" and "Give us money to satisfy our daily necessities." The next plea to God is "Make you no forget those of us who dey struggle daily." Turning to specifics, attention is then given to the question of job-status:
Those who be clerk today, make them Chief Clerk tomorrow. Those who are Messenger today, make them Senior Service tomorrow. Yes Father, those who are Messenger today, make them Senior Service tomorrow.
Then, with the 'Amens' growing more and more ecstatic, this parody of a prayer moves towards that ultimate Nigerian status symbol - the big car. Chume chants:
If we dey walka today, give us our own bicycle tomorrow. I say those who dey walka today, give them their own bicycle tomorrow ... I say those who dey push bicycle, give them big car tomorrow. Give them big car tomorrow ....
Soyinka's witty manipulation of the prayer-parody episode is indicative of his general satiric attack on the false gods of a narrowly materialistic society. The nature of the societal expectations that are released serves to focus the attack not only on the Jero's of modern Africa but on those people who, however pathetically, subscribe to this latter-day cargo cult and are thus duped into following a leader such as Jero.
Yet, within the play, there is a figure who stands constantly in opposition to Jero: Amope, Chume's wife. The presence of Amope as active opponent allows Soyinka to constantly undercut (through sarcasm) the inflated hypocrisy of the beach-prophet. Unlike the sycophantic Member of Parliament who turns into an instant believer as soon as Jero prophesies an important ministerial post14 for him (pp. 39-43), Amope never falls under the spell of the confidence trickster. After successive confrontations with Jero, another trader, and then a beggar-boy, the shrewish (but shrewd) Amope places the prophet in his correct company:
AMOPE: I don't know what the world is coming to. A thief of a prophet, a swindler of a fish-seller and now that thing with lice on his head comes begging for money. He and the prophet ought to get together with the fish-seller their mother. (p. 18)
Here, in terms of value-status projections, Soyinka is making use of the satirical device of 'guilt by association'. Amope, nevertheless, is also shown as a subscriber (in a more 'honest' way) to the grab-what-you-can ethos of the civilian rule era. She castigates Chume for not being, of all things, a Sanitary Inspector. The overall debate of values is carried a stage further by her complaints to Chume:
AMOPE: A Sanitary Inspector is a better job anyway. You can make something of yourself one way or another. They all do. A little here and a little there, call it bribery if you like, but see where you've got even though you don't drink or smoke or take bribes ... .(p. 34 - the first emphasis is mine)
Jero's philosophy of keeping the people dissatisfied is nothing more, of course, than the bribe-ethic ritualised and sanctified by an appearance of divine authority.
Any estimation of The Trials of Brother Jero as a light-hearted farce should not obscure the fact that serious questions of societal values are raised within the total context of the play. Nor should it obscure the fact that the Jero-figure, however much it partakes of caricature, represents a model of existing leadership patterns. While he is clearly presented satirically (as a false prophet), it is significant that the play ends with Brother Jero going triumphantly about his 'trade'. The rogue-leader has won the day. The ideological implications of Jero's victory can be seen by reference to some questions that the playwright asked of certain drama students following the presentation of scenes from the work. Soyinka asked the participants:
What of this society he (Jero) represents? Do you find him a creature of this society, a representative of that society? What feeling do you get about a society which has produced and nourished and maybe deserves Brother Jero?15
To the extent that Soyinka's satiric technique makes answers to these questions possible, the text clearly subscribes to a pattern of socio-political indictment that has, as its central target, the aberrations that pass for national leadership.
In Kongi's Harvest, the single leadership-figure of The Trials of Brother Jero is replaced by two rival authorities, with each of the rivals (Oba Danlola and Kongi) representing certain facets of alternative leadership value-systems. What is being presented is, in essence, the aftermath of a confrontation between a modern dictatorship and a traditional, hereditary-monarchical system. As the conflict between competing authorities is seen to be already effectively resolved (with the traditional authority of the Oba replaced, to all intents and purposes, by that of Kongi's political dictatorship), the satiric thrust of the play is predominantly aimed first at Kongi and then, by implication, at those contemporary leaders whose style of leadership provides the model for the Kongi figuration. In a consideration of the play's function as a value-debating forum, it is interesting to note that the playwright (in a 'Programme Note' to a 1969 performance of Kongi's Harvest) has directed attention towards the general nature of the play's didactic reference:
This play is not about Kongi, it is about Kongism. Therefore, while it has been suggested with some justification that there are some resemblances between the character of Kongi and that of ex-president Nkrumah ... it must be emphasized that Kongism has never been dethroned in Black Africa. There are a thousand and more forms of Kongism - from the crude and blasphemous to the subtle and sanctimonious. A current variety may be described as neo-Peronism, the cult of plaster-cast sanctity. All roads lead in the same direction, and down this hill, striking sparks from careless skulls, Kongi rides again.16
Thus Kongism is seen, by Soyinka, to be a representative African phenomenon. The projected nature of Kongism can best be defined by an examination of the twin figures of Kongi and his superseded opponent Oba Danlola. The manner in which these two figures are deployed within the text contributes to a process that defines Kongism and the system it has replaced. By contrasting the alternative leadership-models, Soyinka enables the play to operate as a dramatic forum; as a forum for consideration of the values that underlie actual (and, often by contrast, legitimate) temporal authority.
The figure of Kongi, as the title of the play suggests, looms above all others. Soyinka achieves a satiric definition of the figure by selecting key targets (as representative of the Leader's way) and then attacking them with wit, with parody, and with ridicule. The action of the play is hinged around the formal presentation of the New Yam, symbol of a leadership that has been authenticated. Kongi insists that the Oba, who normally would have the traditional prerogative of receiving the yam, should formally present the New Yam to him. The presentation has two functions: the new era of Kongi's Harvest would be opened, and, in the process, the new authority of Kongism would be legitimised. Kongi's concern that the ceremony should take place is indicative of his attempt to remove any suggestion that he is a usurper of collectively-sanctioned authority. Kongi, although shown to be in an obviously strong position, continues to see himself as constantly under threat, both from the traditional forces and from the relatively 'enlightened' faction led by young Daodu. Kongi's continuing attempts to legitimise his leadership provide the major satiric targets within the play.
Kongi replaces the Oba's traditional body of advisers with his own Reformed Aweri Fraternity who work, as latter-day public relations men, to enhance the image of their Leader. They speak of the Leader's vision of harmony and of the need to "replace the old superstitious festival by a state ceremony governed by the principle of Enlightened Ritualism" (p. 24). Ritualism, that is, at one remove from the meaning of the ritual. They see some sort of legitimising ceremony as essential to the proper consolidation of Kongi's power. The Fourth Aweri suggests that Oba Danlola should "appear in full antiquated splendour surrounded by his Aweri Conclave of Elders who, beyond the outward trappings of pomp and ceremony and a regular supply of snuff, have no other interest in the running of the state" (p. 24).17 Kongi also employs a rather pragmatic Organising Secretary who is often flanked by his own intelligence service (the Right and Left Ears of State.) All the panoply of one-man rule is at Kongi's call whenever the great man emerges from his meditative 'retreat' in the mountains.
Continuing the satiric attack, Soyinka has the Aweris decide to project a more modern style for Kongi, as opposed to the old ways of traditional leadership. They see themselves as a "conclave of modern patriarchs" and as "youthful elders of state" (p. 12). In contrast to the pronouncements of the Oba and his followers (always surrounded in the text with Yoruba songs and the wisdoms of proverbial language), the Aweris - from First to Sixth - speak in the language of what they call "positive scientificism". They quote from the Leader's last publication:
FIFTH: Ah yes. Nor proverbs nor verse, only ideograms in algebraic quantums. If the square of XQY(2bc) equals QA into the square root of X, then the progressive forces must prevail over the reactionary in the span of .32 of a single generation. (p. 13)
The semantic sterility of this passage enforces, at the linguistic level, the negative quality of abstraction that pervades Kongi's leadership position.18 The actions of the Aweris, because they are presented as being sycophantic (if not totally committed) followers of the Leader, work to define the Kongi figure. Attempting to overcome what they see as the "long-winded proverbs and senile pronouncements" of the Oba's group, the Aweris create a pose of authority, a pose that will elevate Kongi to the god-like status that befits the all-knowing autocrat with the power of life and death in the palm of his hand. While the Aweris strive for elevation, the text (with dramatically-enacted sarcasm) moves towards the deflation that is at the heart of satire. The playwright stresses the posing nature of Kongi's leadership in a scene of great satiric effectiveness. Having decided to control even the passing of time - by renaming the previous years as, for example, 100 K.H. and B.K.H. (Before Kongi's Harvest) - Kongi begins to strike poses for a press photographer (pp. 38-39). These are, the stage direction informs us, "a series of 'Last Supper' poses - iyan (pounded yam) serving variation": "A Leader's Temptation", "Agony on the Mountains", "The loneliness of the Pure", "The Uneasy Head", "The Face of Benevolence", "The Giver of Life", and "A Saint at Twilight".19 Continuing the process of satire-by-naming, Soyinka later has Kongi's Carpenters' Brigade marching in front of a huge cyclorama upon which is projected pictures of various buildings
... all clearly titled Kongi Terminus, Kongi University, Kongi Dam, Kongi Refineries, Kongi Airport, etc. Finally, of course, a monster photo of the great man himself. (Soyinka's stage-direction, p. 64)
Kongi, the figure who has silenced the royal drum, is presented as an epileptic who "exhorts, declaims, reviles, cajoles, damns, curses, vilifies, excommunicates, execrates until he is a demonic mass of sweat and foam at the lips" (p. 83). The aberrant physical nature of Kongi enforces the view, carefully sustained throughout the play, that Kongism is a socio-political aberration, an unnatural and loathsome canker on the African body politic. Kongi and Kongism are the recipients of a full frontal satiric attack.
By contrast, Oba Donlola (precisely because he is not in a position to emerge as a credible alternative leader) is not subjected to the same degree of satiric attack. Indeed, since he is a figure projected as being close to the traditional roots of practical politics and commonsense - the possessor, unlike Kongi, of a degree of self-knowledge - the Oba operates within an authorially-controlled scheme of limited affirmation. The Oba's position within the text's satiric framework is more ambivalent than that of Kongi. For, although the Oba and his values are shown to be increasingly irrelevant in a state dominated by Kongism and are, therefore, targets for satire, the Oba-figure (to the extent that Kongi's men react to him) operates as a logical avenue of assault upon those who have replaced him. The play begins, in fact, with Oba's group rendering a sardonic anthem to Kongi's "new race" (pp. 1-2).20 Throughout the play, the Oba and his group snipe at Kongism while manoeuvring to avoid the symbolic subjugation that is implicit in the ceremony of the New Yam. Unlike Kongi, the Oba is associated with certain life-affirming forces. In conversation with Kongi's Superintendent, the Oba remarks: "Your man knows I love to have my hairs/Ruffled well below the navel" (p. 5). Oba Danlola is projected as a figure full of life and colour. But it becomes clear that, because of their distance from the real seat of power, these positive values have been divorced from any possibility of enactment. The text makes it plain that the Oba is aware of the true situation. In a typical passage of mocking self-deprecation, the Oba asks for more colanut:
Some colanut. Playing a clown's part
For the Eye and Ear of his Immortality
Has turned my blood to water. I need
The stain of cola to revive
It's royal stain. (p. 58)
He knows that real power has left him. All that is left are the trappings. He quotes, sarcastically, from the "Chieftaincy Succession Legislation Section II, nineteen-twenty-one" (p. 57), while rebuking the excesses of his praise-singer with "You'll be more at home performing/At the Festival of Traditional Arts" (p. 58). In terms of the leadership value-systems that are set up in Kongi's Harvest, it is crucial to recognise the fact that Donlola does finally bear the New Yam to Kongi. Despite the strong satiric thrust aimed at Kongism, the rogue (as in The Trials of Brother Jero) has triumphed. The play ends with the clang of an iron grating as Kongi's rule continues.
Kongi's Harvest, arguably Soyinka's most achieved drama (to date), is evidence both of his skill as a playwright and of his continuing commitment to a search for values that are not to be found in the court of Kongi. Emerging as it does near the end of the period of civilian rule in Nigeria, the play can be placed within a setting of rigged elections, corruption, and political chaos that constituted the prelude to civil war.21 The play proceeds from that experience. As James Gibbs has pointed out, "Kongi's Harvest draws attention to the trend and comments on it."22 The satirically-motivated design of the text works towards a rejection of the forms of leadership that it presents. Two forms of civilian power-structures are specifically negated: one (the traditional) as being outdated, the other (Kongism) as being morally and socially abhorrent. These negations are indicative of the precise relationship between Soyinka the playwright and Soyinka the socio-political observer. From January 1966, civilian rule was, in fact, negated. With the first of the military coups, civilian politicians became redundant and henceforth the leadership-targets for the satirist were all in uniform.
Inevitably, the civil war period (from 1967 to 1970) led to radical changes in Nigerian expectations regarding leadership. Indeed, questions of leadership-values appear to have been overshadowed by the basic dichotomies of life-death, sanity-madness. Wole Soyinka's next play (Madmen and Specialists), because it belongs essentially to this period, deals with these dichotomies. Unlike the pre-war plays, this is a work characterised by an apparent illogicality of plot-action and a deliberately confused (and confusing) accumulation of impressionistic dialogue, disordered tirades, and macabre tableaux of suffering humanity personified. Madmen and Specialists is a play of beggars, cripples, blindmen, madmen and specialists. All the debris of war is presented here: specialists who are mad, and madmen who appear to specialise in the methods of madness. The play opens with a scene that is, in the fullest sense of the word, typical of the play as a whole. The Mendicants enact a grim, sardonic tableau that revolves around a dice game. These figures of misshapen humanity have a triple function within the text: as paradigmatic casualties of a bloody war 'out there';23 as spies for Bero, doctor turned intelligence 'specialist' and avid experimenter in the field of human suffering (both physical and psychological); and as a chorus that constantly stresses the absurdity, yet actuality, of all that takes place. These Mendicants, during the dice game, use parts of their already crippled bodies as stakes. Goyi, having lost his arms, now gambles with the stumps while using his mouth to throw the dice. This opening tableau, "man in a pantomime of perpetual self-destructive folly"24 as it has been described, fits exactly into a pattern of satiric presentation that persists throughout the play.
The notion that war, being an abnormal state, enforces an acceptance of abnormal behavioural values is the concept that lies at the heart of Soyinka's dramatic statement in Madmen and Specialists. In this play, the whole pattern of reasoned value-systems (always implicitly present in the earlier plays) is turned on its ear.25 Thus the Mendicants, normally objects of sympathy, are targets for abuse. Bero, complete with swagger-stick and gun, certifies his own father as insane and then acts as a sadistic goaler. Bero rants about his father's sins:
... Father's assignment was to help the wounded readjust to the pieces and remnants of their bodies. Physically. Teach them to make baskets if they still had fingers ... Teach them to amuse themselves, make something of themselves. Instead, he began to teach them to think, think, THINK! Can you picture a more treacherous deed than to place a working mind in a mangled body? (p. 37)
Bero talks about the delights of cannibalism - "The balls, to be exact" (p. 36) - and of the power that comes from bending Nature to your will. The Soyinkan technique of indictment by linguistic definition, noted in Kongi's Harvest, is foregrounded in Madmen and Specialists. As befits the chaotic presented world of the later play, various figures converse through a process of seemingly disconnected exchanges, with the free association of phrases and ideas apparently existing in a parodic state of linguistic anarchy. Yet the central satiric thrust is nevertheless maintained:
OLD MAN: (reflectively). A lamp has its uses.
AAFAA: So, electricity.
GOYI: Bleeah! Election promises.
CRIPPLE: What we want is individual manifestos.
AAFAA: Manifesto for every freak?
OLD MAN: Electrocutes. Electric chair.
Electrodes on the nerve-centres -
your favourite pastime, I believe?
Tell me something new. What hasn't been
abused? (p. 66)
We can see a similar process at work, this time in the form of invective, in the Old Man's punning tirade that attacks those who would make sense out of a murderously nonsensical situation. His frenzied speech begins "Practise, Practise, Practise ... on the cyst in the system ... you cyst, you cyst, you splint in the arrow of arrogance, the dog in dogma, tick of a heretic" and ends with a furious denunciation:
... oh how dare you raise your hindquarters you dog of dogma and cast the scent of your existence on the lamp-post of Destiny you HOLE IN THE ZERO of NOTHING! (p. 76)
People have been reduced to this: holes in the zero of nothing, mongrel dogs who insolently cast their water over the pages of historical necessity. The language, appropriately, is that of the curse.
Madmen and Specialists is Soyinka's foray into the theatre of the absurd, played with black armbands. Faced with the insanities of civil war, he perpetrates a deliberate abuse of conventional dramatic form (where 'conventional' can be taken to indicate a primary concern with plot and with the portrayal of fixed characters). The play stands as a significant example of an homology - a coincidence of form - in terms of socio-political events and the literary response to those events. The formal nature of the play is, in itself, Soyinka's definitive satiric statement.
Jero's Metamorphosis, Soyinka's second post-war play, heralds a return in his work to fixed characterisation (or more accurately, fixed caricature) and to the farcical manoeuvrings of the rogue-leader Jero. The play is clearly intended as a sequel to the early satiric farce. In the stage-direction at the head of the text, this point is deliberately emphasised: "BROTHER JERO's office. It is no longer his rent-troubled shack of The Trials ..." (p. 47).
Yet there is a temporally-defined difference here; a difference that has everything to do with the emergence, in Nigeria, of military leadership in the post-war period. The early stage-directions continue:
On the wall, a large framed picture of a uniformed figure at a battery of microphones indicates that JERO's diocese is no longer governed by his old friends the civilian politicians.
It soon becomes clear that Jero, a master of survival techniques, has changed with the times. His new masters (the military) provide him with an opportunity and a model for further advancement. Sensing that a new era of law and order has arrived, Jero determines to exploit the financial advantages that the change of leadership presents. He is shown plotting to gain the religious 'franchise' at the Bar Beach Show (scene of Nigeria's public executions of offenders against law and order).26 He unites his brother prophets, puts them in uniform, and creates the first Church of the Apostolic Salvation Army of the Lord. Never one to miss the main chance, Jero promotes himself to General (a new image in a new leadership-situation) and begins a holy war against the forces of spiritual corruption. A similar satiric framework to that of The Trials has been created. Satiric thrusts against Jero's hypocrisy are extended to hit the uniformed targets of a ruling group. What is not at all similar is the extent to which the Jero-figure, after his metamorphosis, is closely identified with those socio-political targets.
Two speeches by Jero make the satiric thrust of the later play a great deal more pointed in terms of target-identification. Jero directs what amounts to a proposal of collaboration towards the military regime. Jero intends to inform them that
... the Lord is so pleased with their er ... spectacular efforts to stamp out armed robbery, with the speed of the trials, the refusal of the right to appeal, the rejection of silly legal technicalities and the high rate of executions, that all these things are so pleasing to the Lord that he has granted eternal life to their regime ... .(p. 81)
A mass of satirical commentary is packed into this notion of the Lord's approval, together with that phrase "silly legal technicalities." Soyinka maintains a strong sense of common identity between Jero and the military rulers.27 He shows Jero choosing his new image. It is to be, significantly, an image of reflection. "Let the actuality of power see itself reflected in that image, reflected and complemented," Jero says (p. 80). With the author pressing home his attack, Jero declares:
... we shall recreate ourselves in the required image. We shall manifest our united spiritual essence in the very form and shape of the rulers of the land. Nothing, you will agree could be more respectable than that.
(p. 82 - my emphasis)
Charlatans of the nation unite! That is General Jero's implicit call. Considering the playwright's constant oppositional relationship to existing leadership values, it becomes apparent that this is also Soyinka's satiric call. For the leadership-figures of all four plays are just that - charlatans. The satirical play, by definition, is concerned with negations. In terms of projected socio-political values, it is possible to arrive at conclusions that would stress a high degree of authorial pessimism. In Wole Soyinka's case, this would be a major critical error. For, as the playwright has remarked:
Expressions of pessimism where they crop up are simply a statement of truth which grows from a particular situation, but they do not mean acceptance of that situation. They do not preclude challenge.28
The element of challenge in his plays is a strong one. The play's a thing to catch more than the conscience of a king.
1. Soyinka's remarks are recorded in In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka, ed. Karen L. Morell (Seattle: Institute for Comparative and Foreign Area Studies, University of Washington, 1975), pp. 64-65.
2. This concept has been outlined by Richard Hoggart in "Contemporary Cultural Studies: An Approach to the Study of Literature and Society", in Contemporary Criticism.
3. Mphahlele, Voices in the Whirlwind (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), p. 120.
4. The topicality of reference can be gauged by the fact that (at the height of the political crisis in Nigeria in 1964) Ogunde's group was banned from the Western Region.
5. Wole Soyinka, The Trials of Brother Jero (1964; rpt. in The Jero Plays, London: Eyre Methuen, 1973); Kongi's Harvest (London: Oxford University Press, 1967); Madmen and Specialists (London: Methuen, 1971); and Jero's Metamorphosis, in The Jero Plays (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973).
6. Arthur Pollard, Satire, The Critical Idiom series, No. 7 (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 7.
7. Ibid., p. 3.
8. Jack, Pope, Writers and Their Work series (London: Longmans, Green, 1954), p. 17.
9. Kongi's Harvest, although first published in 1967, was first performed (in Lagos) in August, 1965.
10. Soyinka, Penthouse Theatre discussion, In Person, pp. 105-6.
11. It is significant to note that Soyinka was arrested after he had made attempts to halt the movement towards internecine confrontation.
12. Soyinka, Before the Blackout (Ibadan, n.d.), preface. Cited in James Gibbs, Study Aid to "Kongi's Harvest" (London: Rex Collings, 1973), p. 6. Emphasis in the original.
13. Soyinka, The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972; rpt. London: Rex Collings, 1974), p. 310.
14. The post is that of Minister of War. Jero's prophecy, in the light of subsequent events in Nigeria, is ominously accurate:
"I saw this country plunged into strife.
I saw the mustering of men, gathered
in the name of peace through strength"
(The Trials, p. 40).
15. Soyinka's questions are recorded in In Person, p. 90.
16. The note is cited in Cultural Events in Africa, No. 62 (1970).
17. With Oba Donlola having acknowledged the supremacy of the State over "his former areas of authority spiritual or secular," the Aweris then suggest that the State "will adopt towards him and to all similar institutions the policy of glamourised fossilism" (Kongi's Harvest, p. 24).
18. This passage, quite apart from the forceful element of ridicule, is a distinctive example of Soyinka's indictment by linguistic definition. It is a process that reaches an advanced stage of development in Madmen and Specialists.
19. While a process of exaggeration is undoubtedly present, Ali Mazrui has drawn attention to a praise-passage from Tawia Adamafio who was, at one stage, chairman of Nkrumah's Convention People's Party in Ghana: "To us, his people, Kwame Nkrumah is our father, teacher, our brother, our friend, indeed our lives, for without him we would no doubt have existed, but we would not have lived; there would have been no hope of a cure for our sick souls ... What we owe him is greater even than the air we breathe" [Cited in Mazrui, "Monarchical Tendency in African Political Culture", Violence and Thought (London: Longmans, 1969), p. 224].
20. Soyinka achieves a coup de theatre here. As James Gibbs has described it: "The drums roll and the audience, well trained to respond to the emblems of national sovereignty, rises to its feet. As the music continues and the curtain goes up, the members of the audience realize ... that they have been deceived" (Gibbs, Study Aid, pp. 39-40).
21. See Okoi Arikpo, The Development of Modern Nigeria, Penguin African Library (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967).
22. Gibbs, Study Aid, p. 31.
23. Although the war is never explicitly named, certain details lead to an identification (at least, in the first instance) of the Nigerian Civil War as the model: (i) the playwright is Nigerian and was himself subjected to the attentions of 'specialists' during the war period; (ii) a first version of the play was performed in 1970, the year the civil war ended; (iii) the names of two old women in the play, Iya Agba and Iya Mate (Iya is Yoruba for Mother), represent a specific reference to Nigeria.
24. Eldred Jones, The Writing of Wole Soyinka (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973), p. 91.
25. In terms of reception, the reader's (or audience's) concepts of 'normal' human activity are also under attack. Thus, in contrast to the earlier plays, an additional satiric dimension is present.
26. Jero defines Bar Beach as "the single execution arena, the sole amphitheatre of death in the entire nation," while maintaining that his group "must acquire the spiritual monopoly of such a captive congregation" (Jero's Metamorphosis, pp. 79-80).
27. The play ends, for example, with Jero substituting a portrait of himself (in uniform) for that of his military mentor. "After all, it is the fashion these days to be a desk General" (p. 92) is Jero's sardonic concluding line.
28. Interview in Transition, 8 (v), No. 42 (1973), 63.