James Ene Henshaw Essay - Critical Essays


James Ene Henshaw’s influence, impact, and success as a dramatist in Nigeria stem from the fact that he is a very direct, matter-of-fact dramatic artist. Compared with such contemporary Nigerian writers as Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, Henshaw’s work is less intellectually oriented. His plays are straightforward, not bookishly philosophical, and are written in simple language. Most of the works are aimed both at the adult reader and at schoolchildren. The beguiling simplicity of plot and style facilitates the staging of his plays, making him one of the most frequently produced playwrights in West Africa. He is also adept at stagecraft (although some critics have complained of implausibility in this regard), giving precise, detailed directions and analysis as to how his work is to be produced at every stage, whether for a school production or for adults.

Henshaw’s dramatic philosophy contributes greatly to his popularity. His subject matter, which deals directly with African culture and traditions, focuses on major issues familiar to both his African and his Western audience. For this reason, Henshaw prefaces most of his plays, in the manner of George Bernard Shaw, with elaborate introductions that discuss thematic concerns and other ancillary matters connected with the work. Thus, both the foreign and African producer/reader are helped to see the proper perspective from which the work is to be approached, studied, analyzed, and evaluated. Henshaw himself views the function of his drama, in part, as providing a positive impact on his society. Joseph Bruchac believes that Henshaw’s cardinal aim in writing is to forge, through the dramatic medium, a unity and understanding among Africans, who share closely related traditions and heritage, rather than “explaining the African to the non-African.”

This Is Our Chance

Most of Henshaw’s early, short plays share two thematic threads: tradition and its conflict with modern life and the worldwide problems of corruption, crime, and materialism. This Is Our Chance, one of Henshaw’s most popular plays, revolves around Kudaro, the Crown Princess; her father, Chief Damba; her mother, Ansa; her suitor, Prince Ndamu; her tutor, Bambulu; and other village folk whose offices bring them into the story. Set in the royal household and village-kingdom of Koloro and in the rival village of Udura, the play addresses the typically Henshawian preoccupation with the conflict between tradition and modernity and the need to assimilate the best of both African and Western cultures.

From the outset of the play, Chief Damba’s obsession with tradition is clear: Tradition compels him to keep the fortune-teller at court, to forbid extravillage marriages, to opt for age-old customs instead of experimenting with new ideas. In Damba’s opinion, Koloro’s strict adherence to tradition is the key to the village’s superiority. He will declare war on any village that threatens traditional values. Yet when the conflict of interest compels him to take his daughter’s life—in eloping with Ndamu, the prince of the rival village, Udura, she has broken one of the most important tenets of Koloro tradition—Damba bends tradition to fit the circumstances, thereby opening new avenues for progress in his village.

Ajugo, Damba’s prime minister, is a diehard protector of tradition, convinced that the old ways must never succumb to new ideas, no matter what the cost. Ajugo states categorically that matrimonial links outside the village of Koloro are punishable, in the case of the commoner, by banishment, and, in the case of royalty, by death. Damba, faced with the options of war, his daughter’s death, or his own loss of life, must choose. Ajugo, ever faithful to tradition, prepares the hemlock for Damba’s punishment. Damba’s life is spared, however, by the sudden arrival of Princess Kudaro. Even though tradition now dictates Ajugo’s death, the prime minister is spared and a new prime minister, Enusi, appointed. Ajugo remains the uncompromising custodian of the indigenous culture.

There is a dichotomy between those characters who favor modernity (Enusi, Bambulu, Princess Kudaro, Ansa, Ayi the maid, Udura’s ambassador, and Prince Ndamu) and those who stand for tradition (Damba, Ajugo, and Chief Mboli of Udura). Princess Kudaro, having lived in the city while attending school, is at once sophisticated and down to earth. Although she is the Crown Princess, she frequently states how much she detests village life. Her elopement with Prince Ndamu is one of the greatest of village taboos. As a character, she represents progress. Princess Kudaro’s elopement and the subsequent events, especially her use of Bambulu’s antivenom serum, help to bring about peace between the perennially feuding villages.

The bombastic Bambulu, although a foreigner, wields great influence in the village. An accomplished scientist, educated in the Western tradition, and a good teacher, Bambulu the radical is always dressed in Western style. He refers to himself as the catalyst in the village. Under the cloak of teaching about vitamins, he succeeds in sowing the seeds of revolution, which undermine the traditional values of Koloro. He is opposed to the blind adherence to tradition that breeds ignorance, hatred, war, disease, bigotry, poverty, and backwardness. As an apostle of progress, good-neighborliness, and reconciliation, Bambulu is mainly responsible for introducing Western ideas and civilization to the village. With Chief Damba’s support, he opens more schools and is given full autonomy to teach basic scientific skills, reading, and writing, as well as agriculture.

Chief Damba thus rises out of adversity and seizes the chance to bring peace, progress, and prosperity to his village. Enusi’s metaphoric description of their tradition being a sword of Damocles ties in neatly with the problems raised by tradition in the village of Koloro.

A Man of Character

A Man of Character foreshadows in its thematic concerns many of the issues addressed in contemporary African writing. One of the most urgent of these is the problem of corruption. In the play, an honest, sincere, dedicated man—a man of character—who refuses to be corrupted in a corrupt society must suffer the consequences of his decision.

As in most Henshaw plays, with the exception of Magic in the Blood, when the protagonist runs into an intricate problem, he manages both to extricate and to vindicate himself. In this play, the serene, happy family life of Kobina and his wife, Ayodele, is disrupted by the negative influence of Ayodele’s mercenary, domineering sister, Serinya, and her venal husband, Anosse. Kobina, a God-fearing man, refuses to be influenced by Anosse’s offer of a bribe. His moral position is that West African society needs people of conscience and that appointments and promotions should be based on merit, not on nepotism or bribery. His refusal to enter into this system of institutionalized corruption breaks apart the family, since Serinya’s values have influenced the once content Ayodele. Ayodele now desires a house of her own, new clothes, money for trips abroad, and security for their child, Ibitam. Kobina obviously cannot afford all of these luxuries because his modest income is being used to educate his daughter. After a quarrel, Ayodele and Ibitam leave Kobina, whose misfortunes are compounded by the suspicious loss of five hundred pounds from his office safe. He becomes the prime suspect, and the onus of proof of innocence rests on him. In fact, Seboh, Kobina’s servant, together with Seboh’s crooked, vicious-looking brother, has engineered the...

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