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 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
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,
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
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
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.