In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Lagos, a theatre tradition developed featuring well-known English and European musicals, concerts and operas. The actors, concert groups and clientele of the foreign tradition were the new, Westernised elite. The artists featured included Handel and Mozart. Similar concert groups were set up in lbadan and Abeokuta. Soon, there was a clamour for works based on indigenous Nigerian subject matter, and one D. O. Oyedele is said to have written a play entitled 'King Elejigbo' (1904) in response to the call.
The play cannot now be traced, but there are references to it in the Lagos theatre reviews of the period. This theatre tradition did not last beyond the first decade of the twentieth century. Politics was already in the airin Lagos and in other parts of Nigeria, and many of the leading spirits behind the Lagos Theatre Movement, like Herbert Macaulay, soon found politics more attractive than the theatre.
For about forty years after the play 'King Eiejigbo', there was no notable development, in the Nigerian Theatre until Hubert Ogunde came to the scene in 1944. Hubert Ogunde, who wrote both in English and in Yoruba, more than any one else, created the awareness of the modem theatre tradition in Nigeria. His was an operatic travelling theatre, and he took his plays to various parts of the country, and also to other West African countries, particularly Ghana and Sierra Leone, for about forty years.
Ogunde's plays have religious, social and political themes and titles such as Garden of Eden, Nebuchandnezar's Fieign, Herbert Macaulay, Journey to Heaven, Tiger's Empire, Strike and Hunger and Yoruba Ponu (Yoruba rethink). Occasionally, he came into confrontation with the political authorities and had his plays banned.
Hubert Ogunde was professionally remarkable in another sense. Early in his theatre career, he confronted the problem of the frequent resignation and departure of his actresses, especially as soon as they got married and their husbands objected to their wives continuing as actresses because of the stigma attached. Ogunde then solved this problem in a practical way by marrying virtually all his actresses. This stabilised his performing company such that he often had too many actresses and sometimes made some of the women to perform male roles. Ogunde was the first professional theatre man in Nigeria who lived entirely by the art and, indeed, for it.
Ogunde had many followers and imitators, and there is now a flourishing art of the popular theatre. Biodun Jeyifo (1984) listed over a hundred such theatres in Yorubaland alone. They are popular with the masses because they use the local lan- guage, and their operatic mode (a balance of speech and music) endears them to fhe people. Indeed, the ordinary Nigerian is hardly aware of any other modern theatre form.
The Liberal-Conservative Ethos:
Apart from the popular travelling theatre of Ogunde and his followers, there is also literary drama which is pre-dominantly anglophone, largely university-based and elitists. One of the first practitioners of this mode was James Ene Henshaw. He wrote several plays including This is Our Chance, Children of the Goddess, Medicine for Love, and Dinner for Promotion.
These plays are commentaries on social and political life in Nigeria in the years just before and after independence. They treat issues of culture contact and conflict, of the problems of building a coherent nation out of diverse ethnic groups, and of morality in social dealings.
The plays were popular in schools and other literate circles in the 1960s and early 1970s, and were the first diet of many budding Nigerian playwrights.
By far, the dominant personality in Nigerian literary drama has been the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, who has been in active theatre, both inside and outside Nigeria, since the late 1950s. He produced and published many plays.
Early in his artistic career, he established the Orisun Theatre Company and the 1960 Masks from which literally flowed a stream of truly remarkable plays. He has a background which includes the University of Leeds and the Royal Court Theatre in London, university jobs in Lagos, lbadan and lfe and reasonably well-equipped theatres in lbadan and lfe. Thus, Soyinka was well prepared for an outstanding career as a playwright and theatre-practitioner.
Soyinka has tended to write two types of plays; first, the relatively easily comprehensible play in which he is dealing with a single issue or a limited number of issues in plain language; and second, the more ambitious, full-length play in which he is dealing with a wide array of issues in complex lan- guage, often loaded with abstruse imagery and symbolism, and for which he has acquired the reputation of being a difficult writer. The easier plays include The Lion and the Jewel, The Jero Plays, Childe Internationale, Kongi's Harvest and A Play of Giants, while the more abstruse ones include The Road, The Strong Breed, Madmen and Specialists and Death and the King's Horseman.
In content also, Soyinka has tended to write two types of plays, viz; the political play and the social/inetaphysical play. In the political plays, Soyinka exposes the bizarre, insensitive and bestial nature of governance incontemporary Africa. Inthe social/metaphysical plays, he explores, often in a satirical vein, issues like prejudices, religious hypocrisy, and futurology, or he probes the nature of sacrifices, conflict, the transition from life to death, and the inscrutable supernatural forces which con- trol the universe.
J. P. Clark, Ola Rotimi and Others:
John Pepper Clark is another important Mi gen an playwright. He has published seven plays, namely, (Songs of a Goat, The Masquerade, The Raft, Ozidi, The Boat, The Return Home, and Fuil Circle. The first four belong to the 1960s, and the last three to the 1980s. As in his poetry, Cl ark's setting is the ljaw Delta environment, and his universe is one of storm and tide, of sandbars, boat capsize and drawning, and the human tragedy enacted therein. The plays, with the exception of Ozidi which is Shakespearean, have Greek models and seem organised into two sets of trilogies.
Ola Rotimi, who started his writing career in 1966, has been a well-rounded theatre man and a first rate play director. He has published about six plays, namely, The Gods Are not to Blame, Kurunmi, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, Our Husband has Gone Again, if, and Hoiding Talks. Roll mi's major pre-occupation in his plays is with history conceived as tragedy either in metaphoric or in plain expository terms. The Gods are not to Blame, for example, is a Nigerian adaptation of the 'Oedipus theme' in which Rotirni uses the metaphor of communal dispute, self-love and ethnic pride to symbolise the problems that culminated in the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70. Thus, it Is not the gods who are to blame for Nigeria's national tragedy, but the people themselves who led their nation to disaster through their incautious actions and aggressive self-interest. In Jurunmi and Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, the message is even less ambiguous: it is the case of a people who plunge themselves into tragedy either because of the excesses of their leader or the limited vision of the people themselves. There are several other playwrights who belong to this liberal-conservative ethos, notably Wale Ogunyemi and two women playwrights, Zulu Sofola ond, and Tess Onwueme. Ogunyemi's landscape is similar to that of Ola Rotimi. His ljaiye War, for examlple, is earlier than and uses basically the same and material as Rotimi draws on for his Kurunmi. Ogunyemi has published many other plays, including g Eshu Elegbara, and Obaluaye.
Zulu Sofola, the first Nigerian woman playwright, has been writing plays for over twenty years. Her titles include Wedlock of the Gods (1972), King Emene (1974) and The Disturbed 'Peace of Christmas. Her forte is tragedy put in domestic or two ritual setting with human error, insensitivity or crime the as the tragic flaw.
By contrast, Tess Onwueme started writing in the early 1980s. Her plays include A Hen Too Soon (1983), The Broken Calabash (1984), The Desert Encroaches (1985), The Reign of Wasobia (1988) and Legacies (1989). Unlike Sofola, her vision is not predominantly about the past; rather she moves across temporal and cultural frontiers with relative ease.
The Socialist Alternative:
In the late 1970s and the 1980s, a group of young people started expressing unease about the prevailing liberal-conservative ethos in the Nigerian theatre. They were mostly erstwhile disciples or admirers of Soyinka, but who were no longer fully satisfied with his vision of society. While still paying respect to his great artistic skill, they suggested that he was not giving the adequate leadership in his plays about what the people ought to do to alleviate their social and political problems. With varying degrees of sophistication, they expressed their desire to see the theatre in the vanguard of the search for solutions to society's problems and as a propaganda machine designed to achieve this purpose.
Some of the prominent names in this socialist alternative are Femi Osofisan, Bode Sowande, Tunde Fatunde, Olu Obafemi and Kola Ornotoso.
Osofisan has published more than eleven plays, the most important of which are The Chattering and the Song (1977), Who is Afraid of Solarin? (1978), Once Upon Four Robbers (1980) and Morountodun (1982). Bode Sowande's plays include The Night Before, Farewell to Babylon and A Sanctus for Women (1979). Fatunde has No More Oil Boom (1985), Blood and Sweat (1985), No Food, No Country, (1985) and Oga Na Tief Man (1986).
Obafemi's publications include three short plays: re to Night of the Mystical Beast (1986), The New Dawn (1986), and Suicide Syndrome (1988). And Omotosho has the play The Curse (1976).
All the plays in various ways protect the socialist vision of the Nigerian society. At its most competent, for example in Osofisan's plays, the vision is realised through carefully woven plots mediated by limit- credible characters and situations. Some of the playwrights, however, give the impression that their works have been hurriedly put together to catch the moment. Such plays are little more than topical social and political tracts with only a thin veneer of fiction.