Ola Rotimi Essay - Critical Essays


It would not be much of an exaggeration to claim that almost everything in most traditional African societies is a form of theater. The community itself is the central actor, and the village is the stage. Wrestling matches, funerals, initiation rites, religious ceremonies—each of these rituals involves the entire community. It is not surprising, then, that in this modern time, a time that has witnessed the effulgence of written literature, African drama has been nourished by traditional sources. Contemporary writers have returned to the marketplace to be inspired by oral storytellers, whose dramatic tales are often accompanied by musicians and dancers, all of whom are engaged with the audience-community in a statement of social value. The actor and audience are both active participants in the affirmation of the community. One cannot appreciate African drama without recognizing the essence of ritual in the nature of traditional communal activity. The theatrical stage is the village meeting ground, and the dramatist cannot function apart from the society to which he or she belongs.

The theater of Ola Rotimi, like that of fellow African Soyinka and the Greeks Aristophanes and Sophocles, is rooted in ritual. Songs, chants, dance, and mime are as elemental as dialogue and monologue. In his plays, Rotimi, the contemporary artist-historian, taught his people of their past so they can better understand the present and build a constructive future.

Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again

Rotimi’s Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, written in 1965, foreshadows his career as a dramatist with a sense of social responsibility. The play’s protagonist, a former military major, Rahman Taslim Lejoka-Brown, takes to politics not out of feelings of patriotism but rather out of vanity. His political naïveté is matched by his marital ineptitude. When his American wife rejoins him unexpectedly to discover two other wives whom he has married without her knowledge, the major begins to suffer major symptoms of discomfort.

Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again is a drawing-room comedy of sorts. Most of the action takes place in Lejoka-Brown’s living room; his political ambition is paralleled in his private life. When the play begins, the audience learns that his sophisticated American-educated wife, Lisa, is due to arrive in Lagos. Lejoka-Brown has not told her about his two other wives, Mama Rashida and Sikira, both of whom are in the mold of market women. The play contains a very humorous scene in which Lisa, believing Sikira to be a housemaid, manages to antagonize the two other wives. They know that the newly arrived fowl needs to have her proud feathers plucked.

It is generally known in traditional Nigerian societies that if a man cannot handle his wives, he probably will not be able to handle political responsibility. Lejoka-Brown thinks that he is in control of his wives; he is not. Once the wives learn to accept one another and work together, the poor major has no chance. At the end of the play, Sikira, with the support of the market women, is to become the candidate of the National Liberation Party. Lejoka-Brown’s world is turned upside down. He laments that before he became caught up in the craziness of politics, he was doing very well running his cocoa business.

The political figure in Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again is a former military major. His National Liberation Party mouths slogans of freedom for the people of Nigeria, for Africa. In actuality, political freedom really means unlimited license for corruption.

From the beginning, Rotimi warned Nigeria of the dangers that threaten the stability of society in the modern world. In his dramas, which examine the fate of a people in need of sociopolitical hope, he looks at Nigerian democracy and shudders. Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, first staged at Yale University in 1966, was very popular in Nigeria during the hiatus from military rule that lasted from 1979 to 1983. Nigerian electioneering maneuvers seem to have changed not at all between 1966 and 1983. Party members in Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again are all thugs, and the politicians are nothing more than greedy charlatans interested only in instant wealth. The play has also been a critical success outside Africa.

The Gods Are Not to Blame

Rotimi’s next play, The Gods Are Not to Blame, was written in 1967, while the civil war was raging. The war took strength from long-standing tribal rivalries and was fostered by private political aspirations and corruption in high quarters. The Gods Are Not to Blame is an indictment of this Nigerian fratricide.

In The Gods Are Not to Blame, however, Rotimi warns Nigerians that the nation cannot excuse its own failure merely by blaming foreign powers. Written in 1967 as civil war was raging in Nigeria, The Gods Are Not to Blame reinterprets the Oedipus myth in the light of the Nigerian situation. Certainly the causes of the civil war are many and are rooted in the time of British colonialism. The military coup of January 15, 1966, in which the Hausa leaders of the north were killed, was followed by an orgy of slaughter of Igbo people living in the north. Those Igbo who could escaped to the safe confines of Igboland in eastern Nigeria, and on May 30, 1967, the Igbo declared that eastern Nigeria—now called Biafra—was an independent nation. Three years and millions of deaths later, Nigeria became reunited. The war inspired many works by Nigerian dramatists, poets, and novelists. Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame, however, was one of the first literary responses to the conflict.

The play’s protagonist, Odewale (Oedipus), the son of King Adetusa and Queen Oguola of Kutuji, grows up far from his native town. A man of an irascible nature, Odewale, like Oedipus, unwittingly slays his father, marries his mother, and in so doing pollutes the land. To save his people, he must be cleansed. There are, however, distinct differences between Odewale and Oedipus. Odewale’s tragic flaw is not primarily pride; it is tribal animosity. When he attacks the old man (his father, the king) who has intruded on his farmland, Odewale is determined not to be violent, but when the old man refers to Odewale’s tribe as a bush tribe, the protagonist loses all control and slays the intruder.

Throughout the play, the theme of tribalism reappears. When the village seer, Baba Fakunle, accuses Odewale of being the murderer of the former king, Odewale’s immediate instinct is to see tribal bias. Odewale believes himself to be an Ikejun man among the people of Kutuje. Although it is not uncommon among Nigerian people for a member of one tribe to become head of another, Odewale chooses to see tribal resentment as the basis of any criticism directed toward him.

Rotimi alters the Oedipus story when necessary. For example, in the Nigerian cultural setting there can be no justification for a young man to strike an elder in a dispute over a right-of-way, as happens in the Greek tale. A young man who resorts to violence against an elder is justified only in very specific circumstances, one of which is if the elder has stolen or intends to steal the young man’s property. This is the situation that initiates the conflict between father and son in The Gods Are Not to Blame.

There are, however, distinct cultural similarities between the Greek society of Sophocles and traditional Yoruba society. Like the Greeks, the Yoruba have their pantheon of gods: Ogun, Shango, Obatala. These hero-gods provide the framework for traditional Yoruba religious beliefs and moral codes and also are symbolic vehicles for aiding Yoruba men in facing the ambiguities of human tragedy. There is a sense of cosmic totality among the Yoruba as there was among the Greeks. What Soyinka calls the ritual archetype is the foundation on which Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame is built.

The title of the play refers...

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