Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2965

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s drama explores the issues germane to the transition within Kenya from a colony to an independent nation. Often unabashedly didactic in his plays, Ngugi probes the challenges that young black intellectuals must overcome if they are to alleviate conflicts of tribe, race, and religion that threaten the unity of nationalism. Although his early plays of the 1960’s usually revolve around the qualities of leadership, they also initiate themes concerning the tension between traditional, rural life and modern, urban life; the role of African women in developing a strong nationalism; and resistance to the continuation of colonial practices that perpetuate exploitation in the new country. As these themes evolve in the plays of the next decade, Ngugi’s drama becomes even more decidedly didactic, using an idealized history of Mau Mau, straightforward calls to action, and realistic portrayals of the exploited that are interspersed with pageantry to evoke the grandeur of African culture and the tragedy of colonial history. From his earliest play The Black Hermit to his volatile I Will Marry When I Want, Ngugi gradually shifts his attention from the confusion of a central character beset by conflicts among his loyalties, to the community’s determination to achieve a democratic voice in the political and economic development of the nation.

The Black Hermit

In The Black Hermit, the protagonist, Remi, the only university-educated member of a small tribe, wavers between loyalty to his customs and desires for his own happiness. As the play opens, the villagers await Remi’s return from the city. He is, however, returning to a bewildering array of anxious expectations in the village. Before he left for the city, Remi had fallen in love with Thoni, but, by the time he had mustered courage enough to propose, he learned of his brother’s marriage to her. Six months later, his brother was killed in a car accident; custom required that Remi marry his dead brother’s wife, which he did, hesitantly, believing that Thoni did not love him. Just after the ceremony, he fled to the city. Thoni, however, does love him, and, having remained faithful, she is hopeful of their reconciliation on his return. His mother, Nyobi, expects him to comfort the abandoned Thoni and to start a family; the village priest wants Remi to reaffirm Christianity in the tribe; and the elders, having been convinced by Remi before his departure to support an African party in elections, hope that his return signals his willingness to lead them to power in the government.

Act 2 finds Remi still in the city and entangled in an affair with a white woman, Jane. While he must end the affair before returning, Remi realizes that Jane does not have similar experiences under colonialism and cannot ever understand him, despite her sincere affection. Remi’s belated admission that he has been married to Thoni while carrying on the affair provokes Jane’s anger, and she leaves him, calling into question Remi’s own sense of ethical standards. Meanwhile, Remi and his friend Omange debate the powers of the new black government. Both oppose tribalism and support the new nation, but Remi refuses to sanction the right of workers to strike, while Omange envisions a state based on black workers rather than foreign aid. Despite Remi’s support for the government, he refuses to enter politics when the elders visit the city to plead for his return. When the priest visits him, he sends word of his return, but his motives are confused.

Upon his return to the anxious village, Remi rants against tribalism. Yet he reveals himself as an obsessed, arrogant intellectual whose egotism renders him incapable of recognizing the strengths and appreciating the values in his own people. He renounces Christianity, but he has sacrificed his own spiritual awareness and interpersonal sensitivity to his rigid, nearly desperate, adherence to unquestioned principles of nationalism. When Remi renounces his marriage to Thoni, she flees and kills herself. Having asserted his individuality as more important than the complexities of traditional, communal society, Remi realizes, too late, that he has not thwarted tribalism and custom but profaned the mutual love and respect on which the traditions are founded. He recognizes, in short, that African traditions must inform the evolution of African nationalism. Although Omange, the priest, Jane, and Remi himself are type characters in The Black Hermit, the elders suggest a ceremonial dignity and ritual wisdom, represented by “Africa’s anthem” and sung in Kiswahili. The women Nyobi and Thoni provide models of genuine sensitivity in their mutual support to overcome the literal and figurative departure of Remi: Leaders, they assert, cannot take leave of compassion.

This Time Tomorrow

The critique of leadership extends from The Black Hermit to the three one-act dramas in This Time Tomorrow. In The Rebels, a young man returns home with a Ugandan fiancé, Mary, only to find that his father has chosen a local girl to be his bride. When he hesitates to accept the arrangement dictated by custom, the humiliated prospective bride kills herself, and he loses Mary as well. Implicitly, the play attacks the lack of black unity among the emerging nations of East Africa. By his use of a Ugandan for the character of Mary, Ngugi focuses on tribal prejudice rather than racial or colonial repression as the source of conflict. The Wound in My Heart portrays Ruhiu, a Mau Mau detainee, who eagerly returns to his village after his release only to find his wife with a child from an adulterous affair with a white man. Before she can hear Ruhiu’s reaction, his wife kills herself. The fatalism inherent in The Black Hermit and these two one-acts, despite their sympathy with the role of African women in the emerging nation, yields to the undeveloped social protest of This Time Tomorrow, a one-act attack on the affluent classes for their demolition of a slum in the interests of foreign investment and tourism. This play prefigures the social commitment of Ngugi’s next two plays.

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi

In The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, Ngugi shifts his concern from confused though well-intentioned leading characters to the strength of group commitment in reforming colonial practices that continue in independent Kenya. The play shapes the historical Dedan Kimathi into a heroic figure who embodies the idealistic principles of Mau Mau resistance. By idealizing a myth of Mau Mau, Ngugi and Micere Githae-Mugo, his collaborator, hoped to create a call to action, extolling Mau Mau glory and criticizing the neocolonial betrayal of the Mau Mau goals for social justice. An appeal to popular audiences, the play eulogizes Kimathi while celebrating his resistance to colonial enemies and staging re-creations of his tribulations, both in the courtroom and in private confrontations in his cell. Using an extremely loose structure—by Western standards—of three “Movements” rather than formally designed acts, each of which includes “Trials” and randomly juxtaposed rather than tightly meshed scenes, Ngugi creates an atmosphere of sad, undefined urgency in which characters, events, time, place, and conflict “flow into one another” until the play feels like and appears to be “a single movement.”

As the play opens, the audience views a crowded courtroom and hears the charges against Kimathi for possessing a revolver. Although the date of this trial is 1956, Kimathi’s refusal to plead guilty or not guilty gives way to a mimed pageant of “the Black Man’s History,” showing Kimathi’s silence to be a gesture of disdain for repressive colonial law. As “phases” of the pageant progress, gunshots, voices, whiplashes, and drumbeats fade to a mime of mourning that evokes slavery, orphaned children, forced labor on Kenyan plantations, and black betrayals of the Mau Mau resistance, concluding with defiant shouts of “anti-imperialist slogans.”

With the unfolding of the First Movement, the audience is witness to a number of rapidly shifting scenes; they see the inhabitants of a village harassed and arrested for supporting Mau Mau fighters, intimidating interrogation of peasants that is abetted by a black informer, and an important discussion between a Woman and a Boy (a Girl later appears) who are symbolic of the birth of freedom and its hope for the future. Implicit in this First Movement is the African urban, colonial city as an archetype of corruption; the Boy is an orphan, who, with the Girl, hustles tourists in Nairobi and who himself eventually seeks to exploit the Girl for small sums of money. Confronting the Boy’s sexist behavior toward the Girl, the Woman redefines manhood as possessing a socialist, ethical awareness of the country’s needs and conflicts. When the Boy agrees to deliver a loaf of bread containing a gun to the scene of Kimathi’s trial, he does so out of a vivid clarity about his choice of political ideals. The threat to the Woman and the Boy in this Movement is not only from the colonial soldiers but also from the black soldiers, informers, and collaborators, the “black masters” who hope to profit by preserving colonial rule. While Ngugi keeps the play set safely in the 1950’s, the premise is obvious to the audience: Present neocolonial corruption in land reform and court decisions began in the Mau Mau period and has continued to thrive in postcolonial Kenya. To attack that corruption will require the courage and dedication of the Mau Mau.

In the Second Movement, scenes move rapidly between the street outside the jail where Kimathi is imprisoned, the courtroom, and Kimathi’s cell, in which his four Trials take place. (The cell becomes, in a sense the courtroom, and the courtroom, in turn becomes a cell.) Meanwhile, the historical pageant continues to be mimed in the dimly lit background onstage. In costuming, demeanor, and dialogue, the contrast between the peasants and the elite is pronounced. Kimathi, in his trial, repudiates the double standard of colonial law, favoring, in the Judge’s words, “Civilization . . . Investment . . . Christianity . . . [and] Order,” and condemns colonially inspired individual betrayals and tribalism. He rejects an offer to spare his life in return for naming fellow Mau Mau, and he refuses a banker’s offer to make him wealthy. In rejecting colonial claims of progress and paternalistic benevolence, Kimathi, clearly a spokesman for Ngugi, espouses an anticapitalistic, classless society of laborers who draw on their own customs for values rather than those of Christianity. In the Movement’s closing, Kimathi, suffering from torture and beatings, refuses to surrender or to betray his compatriots.

The Third Movement begins with the Woman clarifying the plan to rescue Kimathi with the Boy and the Girl. She tells them stories that contribute to Kimathi’s legendary status, honoring the qualities of his leadership. Thus, the Woman links respect for the oral tradition to qualities necessary for the people’s support of a revolutionary leader. The major portion of the Movement consists of a flashback to Kimathi’s command in a guerrilla camp in the Nyandarua forest. In long, didactic monologues, Kimathi, in the midst of directing the executions of British and African soldiers, justifies the Mau Mau war with minilectures on the pan-African arms supply to revolutionary movements, preaching self-sufficiency in weaponry, production, and education; the study of the lives of heroes as necessary training to comprehend history; and black pride as the basis for African self-determination. Calling for “unity and discipline in struggle,” Kimathi touches on a number of issues, calling for the subordination of the individual’s desires to the community’s needs and calling explicitly for the implementation of an African socialist philosophy. As the flashback closes, Kimathi, in a demonstrative act of compassion, spares the lives of several collaborators, among them his younger brother. They escape, however, and flee to the British, to betray the Mau Mau again with their testimony against Kimathi in the closing courtroom scene. When the Woman, having failed in the rescue attempt, is detained, Kimathi is sentenced to hang, and the Boy and the Girl fire their gun as darkness falls on the stage. A moment later, the stage erupts with the Boy and the Girl—the potential of the uneducated masses now having attained a vision of their own wisdom and power from the Woman—leading a crowd of workers and peasants in a freedom song in which the audience is encouraged to participate. The ambiguous end of Kimathi’s life is thus downplayed, despite the construction of his legend throughout the play. Instead of merely celebrating a heroic revolutionary leader, the play’s conclusion emphasizes a revolutionary spirit that remains potent long after Dedan Kimathi and the Mau Mau resistance have passed away.

I Will Marry When I Want

Like The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, Ngugi’s Gikuyu I Will Marry When I Want rejected the proscriptions for well-made drama in favor of an indigenous combination of mimed dance, historical realism, social vision, and heroic symbolism. Although the former play is passionate in rhetoric and plain in diction, it was accessible only to those who comprehend English, and it was written by playwrights for an audience. I Will Marry When I Want, on the contrary, grew not only from Ngugi’s collaboration with Ngugi wa Mirii but also from the collective contributions of the Kamiriithu community center. Changes by actors and crew were incorporated into the play in both its script and its performance, as there was much opportunity for improvisation. Consequently, the play includes a greater number of Mau Mau songs and Christian hymns, a much more extensive use of ritual and dance, and many more proverbs and striking images than the earlier play of the same period. Unlike The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, I Will Marry When I Want is set in contemporary neocolonial Kenya. Further, to a greater extent than does the earlier play, it embraces the entire history of the country—from before the coming of white settlers to a vision of a just, compassionate society of the future—centering on the village marriage ceremony as the symbol of a united, classless society. Ironically, Ngugi’s dramas in the 1960’s often presented marriage as an emblem of conflict and constraint. In I Will Marry When I Want, marriage is transformed from a deceptive scheme to swindle a poor family out of its land into an ideal that has the capacity to renew the strength of traditional family life in contemporary times.

The plot of I Will Marry When I Want pits the hypocritical piety of a Christian elite against the dignity and desperation of traditional Gikuyu, who are forced to work factory shifts or as farm laborers. The elite Ahab Kioi wa Kanoru and his wife Jezebel wa Kanoru conspire with foreign investors and Kenyan middlemen to swindle the poor Kiguunda and his wife, Wangeci, out of their last acre of land by coercing him to use his property as collateral for a loan to cover the costs of a Christian wedding between Kiguunda’s daughter Gathoni and Kioi’s son John Muhuuni. Kiguunda’s land, on which stands his one-room house, has been selected for the site of an insecticide factory, thus keeping it at an agreeable distance from the homes of the wealthy and near the exploited laborers who will work there. Believing that Kioi plans a union of the two households, Wangeci condones the wedding, only to learn that John has abandoned the pregnant Gathoni. When Kiguunda insists on the marriage, Kioi dismisses them with contempt. When Kiguunda cannot meet the payments on the loan, he loses his furniture and, presumably, will eventually lose his house and his land as well. The play closes with Kiguunda drunk, Gathoni working as a prostitute in a local bar, and Wangeci crushed by hopelessness.

Both of Ngugi’s plays of the 1970’s call for adherence to traditional values in an egalitarian society. Those values, however anchored in the past, must be adaptable to changing conditions and responsive to the needs of the exploited, or they become only faint memories. Kiguunda’s mimicry of Kioi’s hollow Christian piety and his aspirations to the elite’s ruthless materialism are as much responsible for his downfall as is Kioi’s merciless conspiracy. Wangeci, for example, blinded by her own materialism, believes against all reason that Kioi actually wants to unite their two households. Kiguunda believes in neither a coherent social vision of freedom and justice nor a committed lifestyle of traditional values. Like the earlier betrayal of the Mau Mau, Kiguunda’s betrayal of his own origins and values is a failure of leadership; Gicaamba, a factory worker and neighbor, provides the contrasting model. He opposes Kiguunda’s flirtation with the elite Kioi and, throughout the play, portrays a leader who converts struggle and despair into pride in human dignity and protest against the elite. Echoed in the communal pageantry of song and dance, these attributes of leadership reverberate in speech rhythms of free verse, permitting easy identification and empathy by the audience. The audience, then, views a play wherein they themselves are the heroic force of social change, a dynamic relationship between stage and audience that evokes the drama of communal commitment overcoming the greedy whims of egocentric power brokers.

Entirely African in its design, I Will Marry When I Want represents the enactment of Dedan Kimathi’s teaching: “unite, drive out the enemy and control your own riches, enjoy the fruit of your sweat.” Ngugi’s success as a dramatist is exemplified by the enthusiastic but violent reactions of audiences attending the first few performances before the government banned the play and detained Ngugi. Mother, Sing for Me, a musical that explores Kenya’s past, was also suppressed. Few playwrights in the history of drama have suffered so for their power to move an audience to action.

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