Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 2,965 words.)