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Soyinka's Smoking Shotgun: The Later Satires Author(s): Derek Wright Reviewed work(s): Source: World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Winter, 1992), pp. 27-34 Published by: Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40147851 . Accessed: 25/01/2012 05:41
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Soyinka's Smoking Shotgun: The Later Satires
WRIGHT Wole Soyinka did not coin By DEREK the term shotgunwriting and disap"you discharge pear" until the 1970s.1 He had, however, produced occasional subversive satiric sketches throughout the previous decade, and his unpublished one-act Royal Court entertainment The Invention (1959),a caustic tour de force on universal racismset in a futuristicSouth Africa,had been written in the broad satirictraditionof the revue. During the deepening crisis of Nigeria's First Republic, as politicalmurdersbecame more frequent and blatant intimidation by power-addicted local chiefs escalated daily, Soyinka opted increasingly for the direct thrust and immediate correctiveimpact of the revue sketch performed hot on the heels of the event. In The New Republican (1964) and Before Blackout the (1965,published in selection in 1971) the targets were various acts of public cowardiceand sycophancy performedbefore both the new time-serving, opportunistic politicians and Nigeria's traditionalrulers, portrayed in the sketches either as lecherous rogues or as corrupt feudal chieftains who had betrayed their people throughout history. Soyinka, however, acknowledged in his preface the to Beforethe Blackout familiar paradox of the satirist:the acute topicalityof the materialmade it libelous in print and dangerously open to political reprisal, but once its targets were dead or dethroned and it ceased to be a threat, it also ceased to be topical. Thus those sketches have worn least well in which Soyinka, working on the assumption that wrongs are only correctableif identifiable, attackedthe individual villain rather than the villainy and took little trouble to camouflage his identity. Possible afterthoughtson the short life of close-range satire prompted him, in his prefatory comments, to leave loopholes for updating and contemporaryadaptation,and it is significantthat the most enduring and most frequentlyrevived of these sketches make no specific contemporaryreferences (notably, the perennially popular Childe Internationale which a traditionalYorubafather , in takes in hand his affected been-to wife and his obnoxious daughter, outrageously Americanized by one of the new international schools).2 The issues raised by this form of satire served as an example, and also as a warning, for Soyinka'slater work in the "shotgun" mold, to which he returned in the midseventies. The year 1975, which brought Death and the and Soyinka's return to Nigeria Kings Horseman afterfive years in exile, was something of a watershed in his dramatic career. About this time, whether in response to the exigencies of the worsening political situation or to the pressures of criticismleveled at his work by the Nigerian Left, the dramatist chose to strip from his drama its complex ritual and mythological idiom and informing Yorubaworld view in favor of the subversive, agitprop satiric revue, written for performance rather than for publication. This more popular form was adopted for the purpose of urgent political communicationwith a mass audience, and the works written in it, usually published some years after production and in some case not at all, are theatricalamphibianswith one foot in the textualworld of Western dramaand the other in the improvisationalcomic folk theater, or alawada,of the Yorubaworld. Whereas the 1960s revue sketches left occasionalloopholes for topical adaptation, this later work was much looser in structure and more openly experimental in approach. "The text of the play was never completely written as it was ever being rewritten and reshaped during rehearsals," Yemi Ogunbiyi has said of Soyinka's production of Opera Wonyosi (1977). "Nothing was finally arrived at until the play closed. . . . For him [Soyinka]the text, even his own text, was merely a map with many possible routes."3 This largely unscripted, hit-and-run kind of street theater, targeting specific political enormities, mounted with minimal publicity, and vanishing before the players could be rounded up by the police of the latest repressive regime, maintained a topical commentary which was best suited to the raw atmosphere of marketplaceand lorry park. "The cosy, escapist air of formal theatres tends to breed amnesia much too quickly," Soyinka had remarked of his earlier sketches of the 1960s.4 Over the next decade the links between Soyinka's theatrical and political involvements were to be particularlyclose, and the "shotgun" satires, running a constant caustic calypso on public affairs, were a frontline force in the responses to Nigeria's succession of political and economic crises and subsequent scandals and outrages: shrinking oil revenues, plunging foreign exchange, the chronic shortage of books and information, and multiplying ministerial embezzlements and politicalmurders. Sometimes pointedly Nigerian in reference, as in Beforethe Blowout (1983), and sometimes (1978) and PriorityProjects concerned with evils on the African continent at large, as in OperaWonyosi,the revue satires have in their favor the urgent relevance of their political
around the highway robber Macheath. Lest the audience jump to the conclusion that the Nigerian militaryregime has exported all of its undesirable elements, however, it is made clear at the outset that the expatriatecliques of the Nigerian quarter are meant to serve as a satiric microcosm of the home country during the oil boom of the seventies. In a programnote Soyinka insisted that "the genius of race portrayed in this opera is entirely, indisputably and vibrantly Nigerian." PreferringGay's ebullient indictment of specific stantial targets (Requiemfor a Tuturologist, 1985); historical vices and corruptions to Brecht's and a linguistic flatness and general thinness of portrayalof universal human depravity, Soyinka texture (A Playof Giants,, 1984),the more noticeable uses the wisecracking cynicism of the expatriate after the verbal richness and somber grandeur of scoundrels to draw up a ghastly inventory of Death and the King's Horseman. The invasion of Nigerian outrages in the years of the oil dollar or : s Soyinka' stage drama by the styles and tech- "petro-naira" government-sponsored extortion niques of the opportunistic satiric revue has, I and assassination;arson and atrocitiesby a powersuspect, had much to do with the markeddilution drunk soldiery (notoriously, the burning down of of the substance and quality of his later dramatic Fela Kuti's "KalakutaRepublic");the public flogging of traffic offenders and execution of felons; writing. a OperaWonyosi/ ballad opera first performedin murderouslypunitive industrialconditionsin gov1977 but not published until 1981, is the most ernment cement works and levels of state responsubstantialand sustained of these satires. With the sibility so low that month-old corpses were left to aid of an eclectic medley of English ballads, Kurt decompose on public highways; and a general Weill songs, jazz and blues, and the tunes of the craze for wealth which was epitomized by the 1950s Ibo folk singer Israel Ijemanze, Soyinka wearing of the gaudy wonyosi,the absurdly ragtransposes the eighteenth-century London of ged-looking but fantastically expensive lace that Gay's Beggars'Operaand the Victorian Soho of was the rage of the tasteless Nigerian nouveaux Brecht's Threepenny Operato a bidonville of Ban- riches in the 1970s. (Ogunbiyi points out that, of the formerCentralAfricanRepublic, accented in a certain way, operain Yoruba can gui, capital on the eve of the imperialcoronationof Jean-Bedel mean "the fool buys.")5 Anikura' beggars are, of course, more than s Bokassa, who was to be overthrown two years later when his involvement in the murder of what they seem, and their feigned physical deforschoolchildren became widely known. The ob- mities are more than distant symbolic allusions to s scenely decadent extravaganzaof Bokassa' coro- the moral deformation of their country. Among nation in one of Africa's poorest countries, which the ragged band are lawyers, professors, doctors, took place in the same week as Soyinka' Ife and clergymen whose begging is used by Soyinka s production, substitutes for the royal jubilee that as a precise metaphorfor the shameless sycophanforms the backgroundto the action in the Gay and cy to "khaki and brass," the groveling in military Brecht originals and provides Macheath with his gutters by which the professional classes won royal reprieve at the climax. (Significantly, in preferment and promotion during the years of s Soyinka' Africanversion, the royal pardon which "nairomania" ("Khaki is a man's best friend," liberatesvicious criminalsis not extended to politi- runs the refrainof one song). Sycophancy,backed cal detainees.) The emperor "Boky," or "Folksy up by coercion, is the way to a slice of the national Boksy," a crazy caricature of feudal barbarism cake. In the words of the garrulousDee-Jay,who mixed with servile, sentimental Francophilia, replaces Gay's beggarly poet and Brecht's Morimakes one unforgettable appearance in the play, tatensanger, "That's what the whole nation is during which he drills and clubs senseless his doing- begging for a slice of the action. . . . Here goon squad before stomping off to "pulp the the beggars say, 'Give me a slice of action, orbrains" of the children who have refused to wear give me a slice off your throat.'"6 But Soyinka his uniforms. The motley collection of rogues and literalizes his metaphors, and labors them somethugs who make up the cast of OperaWonyosi, what, by having his mendicant professionals turn however, are Nigerian expatriates. These are the professional mendicants. Professor Bamgbapo, "beggarly" racketeers of Chief Anikura (the who has "bagged"the chairmanshipsof a number Peachum of the original); the venal police chief of industrialcorporationsas well as his university and security expert "Tiger"Brown, on loan to the chair by "sucking up to the army boys" ("To beg emperor; the psychopathic Colonel Moses, mili- is to bag," runs the beggars' anthem), has even tary adviser to the same; and the thieves, arson- come to Anikura for "a refresher course" in the ists, drug peddlers, and murderers gathered form of fieldwork with full-timebeggars!(65)Thus comment and the spontaneity of the theatrical "happening," with its capacityfor surprise, shock, and audience involvement. In their published form, however, they inevitably suffer from a limiting topicalityand ephemerality. Performancehere has priority, and when the works' virtuoso satiric techniques are allowed to interfere with the dramatic integrity of fully-crafted stage plays, the results are apt to be disappointing:a satiricmeaninstanced in the mechaniness of characterization, cal lining up and wheeling on of slight and unsub-
WRIGHT the street beggars become synonymous with fawning bureaucrats,and the small crooks actually turn into big ones before our eyes. Anikura, the brainbehind the beggars' protectionracket(a "beneficent society for the relief of burdened consciences"), is "chairman of highly successful groups of companies," while Polly plays the stock market and, if we can believe it, amalgamates Macheath enterprises with a multinational corporation:"Let's go legitimate like the bigger crooks" (46, 62, 66). However, though the links between legal business practice and crime, and between capitalismand gangsterdom, are certainlypresent, Soyinka's play is not the assault on capitalism which Brecht meant his to be; instead it is essentially a satire on power. The culprit is the oilproduced wealth that promoted power and the target the criminal lengths to which people were prepared to go to get the money that would buy them power. OperaWonyosiis devastating, merciless satire, and the government's prompt intervention to prevent a Lagos production was proof that the play had struck powerfully home. There are odd moments of pure hilarity (Anikura' reference to the s American habit of "pleading the Fifth Commandment"), and the dialogue crackleswith verbal play ("While Mackie and Brown were ripping the insides of foes" in the civil war, the notorious corpse-stripping "attack traders" were "ripping off both sides"), but the sugar coating on the bitter satiricpill is usually very thin (71, 43). Sometimes the tone is brash, swaggering cynicism in the Brechtianmode, as in Macheath' remarkthat the s stupidity in a Nigerian can be only temporary or feigned because "the smell of money endows the dumbest Nigerian with instant intelligence," or Anikura' comment that fraud by one's fellow s countrymen is an infallible alibi for destitution, since everyone knows "that any Nigerian will rob his starving grandmother and push her in the swamp" (54, 4). The latter threatens to have an army of real beggars march on coronationday, not to embarrass tyranny with poverty but to blackmail it into arresting his personal enemy Macheath. At other times the satire is pure vitriolic rage, as in the Bangui equivalent of the BarBeach s Show at Mackie' execution, where schoolchildren are given a holiday to watch the spectacle on television and a deathbed patient from the hospital falls over his wheelchair in righteous bloodlust for a ringside seat and promptly bursts into a gruesome parody of Donald Swann's "Hippopotamus Song": "Blood, blood, glorious blood / Nothing quite like it for offering to God / Banish the gallows / So I can wallow / In the crimsonjuice of the criminal sod!" (78). Reality here seems always one step ahead of satiric invention, and the unspeakable needs little enhancement from the writer to provoke a sense of outrage.
The terrorizingof civilian populations by megalomaniacalmilitarybuffoons and the squalid compliance of the professional classes, cowed by a mendicant mentality, were the painful Nigerian and African realities of the 1970s, and satire targeted at them walks the fine edge between the real and the surreal. Soyinka stated in the playbill to the 1977Ife production that "the charactersin this opera are either strangersor fictitious, for Nigeria is stranger than fiction, and any resemblance to any Nigerian, living or dead, is purely accidental, unintentional and instructive."7The repellanthistoricaloriginals of characterslike Boky, more grotesque than any invention, have a way of parodying themselves, but even in the case of the more generalized Nigerian material the preposterous reality keeps breakingthrough at unexpected moments to dissolve the conventional safe divisions between the stage world and the "real" world. The very closeness of these two worlds made possible a number of surprise effects in performance: Soyinka had the "attack trade" women descend into the audience at the intervalto sell their grisly wares, and a coffin, ostensibly containing the real corpse scooped from the roadside the previous day by Tai Solarin, was carriedby pallbearers into the auditorium, thus implicating everyone in willful blindness to the daily public obscenity. In one performancethe shock tacticsof the Theater of the Real were even turned against s his own actors: on Soyinka' secret instructions, his orchestra halted the opening number so that
WORLD LITERATURE TODAY faint gesture toward exploding the light opera's conventional happy ending. In accordance with the latter, he turns out to be a lovable rogue whom we feel, in some way, deserves to cheat his fatean impression quite at odds with that conveyed by the local satire that he is a vicious and evil force rotting society from top to bottom. Macheath, in this version as in the Gay and Brechtmodels, is a rather artificialvillain, something of a satiricdead s end, and Soyinka' use of the characterhas a free rein only when he departs from his originals or takes such libertieswith them as to make them say something entirely new. In his foreword to the play Soyinka envisages his task as "the turning up of the maggot-infested underside of the compost heap" as "a prerequisite of the land's transformation" (iv), and he has said elsewhere that if satire is to have any reformistor revolutionary purpose, the satirist must first situarouse "a certainnausea towards a particular ation, to arouse them [people] at all to accept a positive alternative when it is offered to them."9 For Soyinka, the satirist appears to be a kind of purifying carrierwho, through ridicule and disgust, clears away the junk of the existing order to make possible the construction of an alternative one; it is the role of another the reformer to discover that alternative. He does not take the negative view of satire as a social safety valve, having merely therapeutic or catharticvalue, but neither does he see it as offering solutions. Opera was criticized, somewhat unfairly,by the Wonyosi Nigerian Left for its failure "to lay bare unambiguously the causal historicaland socio-economic network of society" and for its lack of "a solid class perspective."10 Soyinka has replied to these critics that the satirist's business is not exposition but exposure- in this case of the "decadent, rotted underbelly of a society that has lost its direction" (iii) and that programsof reformand revolutionary alternatives are the province of the social analyst and ideologist, to whose roles the writer's own distinctivevocation is merely complementary (ii-iii). Still, there are varying depths and densities of exposure, and if there is in Wonyosisuprisingly little penetration, for such a long play, of the forces underlying the crimesand corruptionspassingly referred to, then the fault is not that exposure is unaccompanied by analysis but that too much is being exposed for anything to be focused very clearly. In the last third of the play the topical references to guilty parties crowd too thick and fast into the text- some speeches are mere lists of suppressed riots, arson, and lootings- and the result is satiric overkill. The opera takes on too many issues, is too thinly all-embracing,and the overall effect is a diffusion of intensity, a kind of satirictear-gassinginstead of a few carefullyaimed bullets, more smoke than shot.
Professor Bamgbapo (played by a real-life academic) could be dragged from the chorus and, in front of a university audience, thrashedby a figure looking very much like a real-life Nigerian army officer. Time has, inevitably, taken the sting from the satire in these topical allusions, which call for constant updating, but Soyinka has been equal to the task. One year on he reassembledhis beggarly crew on Nigerian soil to satirizepoliticalopportunism at the lifting of the ban on political activities and a contemporaneous national wave of car thefts: in the two sketches of Beforethe Blowout, "Home to Roost" and "Big Game Safari," Chief Anikura (now Onikura) returns home to pursue the careerof a popular philanthropicpoliticianand smuggles in new and stolen cars to sell at inflated prices or use in his electoralcampaign (the cars are the "big game," hidden in the jungle and hunted down with metal detectors). In a 1983 revival of the opera itself Soyinka dispensed with Colonel Moses altogether, replacinghim with a subtle and slippery academicadvisor more suited to the civilian government of the Second Republic.This ability to improvise modifications around basic structures of dialogue, song, and mime to suit changing venues and historical contexts is, along with the amount of audience participation,in the best traditions of the traveling mask theater, the which name originated, appropriately,as alarinjo, a term of abuse referring to "rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars."8 The published text of such works can give only slight indication of their effectiveness in performance, but few critics would single out Opera as s Wonyosi Soyinka' best work. The musical score has not been widely commended, and even within the loose and highly stylized form of the Brechtian play-with-songs, which attempts no naturalistic blend of lyric and action, the plot creaks with some ratherobvious devices. Chief among these is Macheath's invalidation of Anikura' charge s against him by having the begging fraternitydeclared a secret society of the kind banned by the Nigerian militaryregime: the point is simply to set up the satiric tour de force of the beggar-lawyer Alatako, who succeeds in proving that the government is itself a conspiratorial secret society, a cartel created for mass exploitation and terrorization, implemented always by "unknown soldiers." The extreme length of Wonyosidraws attention to its episodic, patchwork structure neither a full-length play nor a series of revue sketches- and the mechanical tying of the action back to the Gay and Brecht originals proves irksome at times. Mackie's sexual intrigues and betrayalsare poorly integratedinto the anti-Nigerian satire, and, though Macheath's largely allegorical connection with big business hints cynically at the "moral" of the big fish going free, this is but a
WRIGHT Soyinka has always been more of a crusader than a revolutionary, campaigning for selected causes rather than for the total transformationof society, and in the late seventies he advanced some of these causes by directing the Oyo State Road Safety Corps, bombarding the press with letters on police harassment, censorship, and political corruption, and, in 1980, affiliating himself with the short-lived People's Redemption Party. At the launching of his autobiographyAkein 1981 he protested that his "faithin an inevitablerevolution" had nothing to do with his own actions but was based squarely in the depredations of the s Shagari government.11 Nevertheless, Soyinka' use of his GuerillaTheaterUnit to mobilize opinion against the Shagari government and his attempts during the years of the Second Republic (1979-83) to reach a wider audience by experimenting with the more popular mediums of street theater, Gramophone records, and film have all the makings of revolutionary art. Rice Unlimited (1981), in which the actors piled sacks marked "rice" in front of a police-guarded House of Assembly, attacked the running down of food production during the years of oil mania and the subsequent government racketeering in the sale and resale of imported rice, which made staple foodstuffs unavailableor unaffordablefor most of the population. Another unpublished collection of sketches, Priority (1983),provocativelyperProjects formed under the nose of Shagari'spersonal security guards during a presidential visit to the University of Ife, targeted abortive agriculturaland building schemes designed to enrich a ruling party in open connivance with business tycoons, police commissioners, and traditional chiefs. In these sketches the nation which the civil war was fought to keep united is seen as really being two countries: "Mr Country Hide and his brother Seek." The big political brother hides millions of naira, pouring them down bottomless pits of extravagance and corruption(the futile digging and filling in of holes is a prevailingimage) while his brother on the street searches in vain for some visible return from the reckless spending. Some of the s appearon Soyinka' hit Projects songs from Priority record"UnlimitedLiabilityCompany" (1983).The scandals of the anarchicShagariadministration and heliillegal currencyexportation, private jets copters, criminalsappointed to company directorships, arson and massacre, deportationof political opponents, municipal breakdowns resulting in part-timeelectricityand mountains of uncollected refuse- are mercilessly exposed in their sharp, instantly graspable pidgin lyrics: "You tief one kobo, dey put you in prison / You tief ten million, na patriotism."12 This was candidly experimental theater, rehearsing and performing in the public view on street corners, in markets, and in open spaces on
university campuses and casually inviting audience participation. It was also dangerously confrontationalin its use of guerrillatactics to deliver bold and brave satire, and Soyinka himself came under some pressure over his record, which quickly made him a household name across the country (government action was taken against radio and television stations which played it). The writer's last word on the Shagarigovernment was the film Blues for a Prodigal (Ewuro Productions, 1984), about the politicalrecruitmentof scientists as demolition experts to blow up the opposition. Filming commenced in the dying days of the now thoroughly rotten republic but still had to be shot secretly, with minimal scripting and several switches of location to evade the authorities, and to be processed abroad. "We utilized the guerilla tactics of the travellingtheatre," Soyinka said in a recent interview.13Ironically, the Lagos print of the film was immediately impounded by the security forces of the new militaryregime, which thus identified itself with the repressions of its civilian predecessor. Perhaps as a result of overactivityin revue work and in other mediums, Soyinka published only two full-length dramatic works in the eighties, both, predictably,in the "shotgun" mold. Returnreligious charlatanismexplored in the two earlier Jero plays, he pokes fun at the astrologists and parapsychologistswho came to exercise considerable influence over public and political life during the Shagari years (the main target was one of Shagari's toadies, the powerful Dr. Godspower Oyewole). The specific model for the play, fully acknowledged by Soyinka in the introductorymaterial, is Swift's satiric prediction and later anof nouncement, in TheBicker Letters, the death staff of the astrologer John Partridge, who then had great difficulty convincing people that he was still alive. In Soyinka' vision the rogue-futurologist, s the Reverend Dr. Godspeak Igbehodan, is caught in the trap of his more cunning protege Eleazor Hosannah, who, with a view to superseding his master, predicts his death during a television program. As Eleazor has the Godspeak pedigree, everyone instantly believes the prophecy, and s when he publishes Godspeak' obituary, an impatient mob of the faithful lays siege to the master's house, determined to pay their last respects and refusing to be swayed in their resolve by any amount of live appearances. and master of disEleazor, the archmanipulator guise, tricks his way back into Godspeak's employment under the semblance of the metaphysician Dr. Semuwe, in which guise he causes the hapless Godspeak to doubt the reality of his own existence and to entertain the possibility that he may, after all, be dead. In this cause Eleazoreven bribes the local egungunto feign recognition of a
ing, in Requiemfor a ¥uturologistfu to the theme of
TODAY WORLDLITERATURE the life-death inversion carriedon perhaps a little is too long. If Requiem really, as Soyinka has bemusingly claimed, part of a "trilogyof transition,"
following The Road and Death and the King's Horse-
fellow spirit in Godspeak' figure at the window s (no religion is sacred in this play). As the furious mob prepares to storm the house, the bewildered master reluctantly agrees to play dead and lie in state, and the play ends with Semuwe revealing that "everything is under control," becoming Eleazor again and proclaiming himself the reincarnated Nostradamus, a figure who is the source of much comic disquisition in the course of the play. There is a limited amount of political satire in in Requiem the form of parallelsbetween religious and political opportunism. Regimes, like the prophets they refer to and rely upon, promise what they fail to deliver, and cling to power long after their authority has outrun its legitimacy. It was no accident that in the 1985published version Godspeak's demise is predicted for New Year's Eve 1983, the date of Shagari'sdownfall. Though the play was written for the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the University of Ife, Soyinkawithdrew it because even its limited political content had drawn the threat of government interference and censorship, and when the play went on a tour of the university campuses, he made a point of opening each performancewith a procession of political parties and different religious faiths. There are also a few sideswipes at favorite local abominations, such as "the highly original driving habits" that provide a roaring trade for the play's undertaker,and some satire at the expense of the death industry itself, notably the Ghanaian"MasterCarpenter"who allows his clients' vulgar fantasies of wealth and status to carry over into the grave in the form of designer coffins shaped like their Cadillacs and television sets. The bulk of the satire, however, is reserved for the human gullibilitythat invests superstitious faith in the pseudoscience of charlatans. Because of their automatic and absolute belief in astrological predictions, the prophet's followers, who know a walking corpse when they see one, are unable to accept the idea that Eleazor has merely pretended that Godspeak is dead: they therefore believe that the master is really dead and pretending to be alive. Thus is Godspeakboxed, farcically, into a corner from which every protest that he is alive is taken to be one more proof that he is dead. Underlying the verbal and visual humor of this situation, and the fantastically credulous newspaper cuttings cited in the introductoryparaphernalia, there is the disturbing picture of a society caught in a spiritualmalaise, thirstingafterillusion and virtually begging to be deceived. (The play, with its multiple disguises and costume changes, is itself a kind of conjuringtrick, depicting a world where all is trickery.) Still, whatever its darker implications, Requiemis essentially lighthearted and acutely local satiric comedy, disappointingly slight as a stage play (it evolved out of a much shorter radio play) and with the elaboratejoke on
then it relates to these two towering achieveman,, ments as the satyr play related to the tragedy in the Greek festival: as satiric postscript and light counterweight. A Play of Giants, written for a fully equipped theater and with at least one eye on international audiences, is more substantialfare and represents the author's political satire at its most ferocious. Soyinka gathers under the roof of the Bugaran (meaning Ugandan) embassy in New York, and under the transparentanagrams"Kamini,""Kasco," "Gunema," and "Tuboum," a gruesome quartet of real-life African dictators: Amin, Bokassa, Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, and Mobutu of the Congo. In the first part of the play, while ostensibly sitting for a sculpture for a Madame Tussaud's exhibition, these strutting, gibbering psychopaths explain with sadistic relish how their appetites for power are satisfied, their people terrorized, and their barbaricdespotisms maintained: by voodoo (Gunema), cannibalism (Tuboum), and an imperium of "pure power" (Kasco). Kamini, who has no talent for analysis, does not have to speak of power: he is power, in its most fearsome and ridiculous embodiment, and never .ceases to exercise it. The play is a succession of Kamini's psychopathic explosions, which, like those of the real Amin, arise from willful misconceptions, the paranoid twisting of trivialoffenses, and pure, groundless delusions, such as his bizarrenotion that the Tussaud statuettes are really life-size statues intended for the United Nations Building across the road from the embassy. When the Chairman of the BugaraBank informs him of the WorldBank's refusal of further loans and explains that he cannot print any more banknotesbecause the national currency is worth no more than toilet paper, Kamini has his head flushed repeatedly in the toilet bowl; and when the Britishsculptor, revealingthe true destination of his work, utters the unguarded aside that its subject properly belongs in the Chamber of Horrors, Kamini has him beaten up and maimed. The sculptorrepresents symbolically the obsolete, lame Westernview of Amin- that he was not a dangerous threat but a circus freak whose savagery could be contained like a waxworks horrorin a museum- and it is ironicallyapt that when the sculptor next appears, he is a museum piece, gagged and "mummified"in bandages from head to foot. Kamini'sanxiety complexes are not entirely gratuitous, however, for defections of Bugarandiplomats are constantly reported and the mounting crises culminate in the news of a coup in his absence. Instantly assuming that the coup has
WRIGHT been engineered by the superpowers, Kamini reacts by taking hostage a group of visiting Russian and American delegates and threatening to unleash rocketsand grenades from his embassy arsenal upon the United Nations Building unless an internationalforce is sent to Bugara to crush the uprising. In the fantastic apocalyptic finale the rockets go off and the last light fades on the sculptor, quietly working away at what is now a living chamber of horrors. Kamini, who in Soyinka's prefatorywords "would rather preside over a necropolis than not preside at all,"15turns his embassy into a fortressand then into a tomb, a pyramidalmonument to his own barbaricexcesses and the sycophantic self-interestof the West. The final sculpted work is, in fact, Soyinka's play, which catches in their frozen manic gestures the most monstrous manifestations of power ever spawned by the African continent. Soyinka was one of the first to see through Amin's buffoonery, and from 1975 onward he waged a determined campaign in the African press against the dictator's reign of terror, lambasting Western and African governments and intellectualswho either supported Amin or cultivated a convenient deafness to the horror stories that were emerging from Uganda. In the play the latter forces are represented by the Scandinavian journalistGudrun, mindlessly devoted to the dictator out of some romanticallytwisted concept of racialpurity, and by the black Americanacademic ProfessorBatey, who, out of misplaced loyalty to notions of blackbrotherhoodand pan-Africanism, holds up to the black peoples of the world a mass murdereras a model for emulation. Both play and preface make clear that Kamini and his cronies, like their historicalcounterparts,are originallythe postcolonial products of the Western superpowers. Kasco is a Gaullist, Gunema a Francoworshiper, and Tubouma Belgianpuppet given to fake Africanizationschemes. Kamini is placed in power by the British, financed by the Americans, armed by the Russians (until they refuse him an atom bomb to drop on his socialist neighbor), eulogized by the Westernpress which had unseated his predecessor, and finally deserted by all of them when support for insane Africandictatorsis no longer in their interest. A Play of Giantsis a surreal fantasia of international poetic justice in which Western support systems catastrophically backfireand the monster runs out of his maker's control: the Russian-supplied weapons are now trained on their own delegations, and the horror comes home to roost in the American sponsor's own back yard. "I'd rather kill them, but I acknowledge my impotence," Soyinka said of his power-grotesques in an interview at the time of the play's New York production. "All I can do is make fun of them."16 It is, inevitably, a horrifickind of fun, and they are
the more terrifyingprecisely because their historical originalswere once thought to be merely ridiculous comic figures. Soyinka commented in the same 1984 interview that the work was not intended to be "a realistic play," that his "giants" are artificial,composite constructs, endowed with more intelligence, introspection, and eloquence than their originals could muster. Nevertheless, many of their mouthings are reportage material based on original speeches and press statements, and the fantastic virtuoso satirizing of Amin, enough to burst the bounds of any "well-made play," infuses the historicalfigure's own devilish, manic hysteria into the mood of the play. Soyinka claimed in the interview that the entire rogues' gallery of A Play of Giantsare "excellent theatrical personalities."17 History plus Burlesque does not quite equal Drama, however, and if, as Soyinka remarked, Amin was "the supreme actor," he was a rather obvious, unsubtle one, best suited to broad farce and the 1970s television sketches which made him the constant butt of their satire. The theaters of politics and art are very different. If dramaticeffigies of Hitler and Mussolini were put on stage and their mouths stuffed with their speeches and press releases, they would not be much more interesting or authentic as dramaticcreations than Soyinka's gruesome foursome. There are odd quirky moments when one of them may spring to life, as in Gunema's chilling, shocking anecdote about his attempt to "taste" the distilled elixir of power by sleeping with the wife of a condemned man and then having them both garrotted. For the rest, they are the vaudeville freaks anticipated by Soyinka's opening circus flourish: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we present ... a parade of miracle men . . . Giants, Dwarfs, Zombies, the Incredible Anthropophogai, the Original Genus Survivanticus (alive and well in defiance of all scientific explanations)"(PG, x). Cartoonpuppets that they are, they burble nonsense and twitch at the behest of every passing sadistic whim and crack of the satiricwhip, and the fact that their real-lifemodels were much the same does not make them theatricallyviable. Though having just enough distance from contemporaryhistory to work as convincing satiriccreations, they are too close to it to succeed as autonomous dramaticones. The result is that A Playof Giants,like so much politicallyengaged art, is dramaticallyunengaging. It is also curiously unpenetrating. In the interview Soyinka expressed the hope that the play would "raise certainintellectualand philosophical questions about power,"18and the text tosses a few ideas about. It is suggested that power calls to power, that "vicarious power responds obsequiously to the real thing," and that the "conspiratorial craving for the phenomenon of 'success' . . . cuts across all human occupations," which
WORLD LITERATURE TODAY
1JamesGibbs, "Soyinkain Zimbabwe:A Question and Answer Session/' Literary -Yearly,28:2 (1987), p. 63. Half 2 This sketch was originallypublished in Soyinka'sBefore the Ibadan,OrisunActing Editions, 1971.It is now availBlackout, able separatelyas Childe Ibadan, FountainPubInternationale, lications, 1987. 3 Yemi Ogunbiyi, "A Study of Soyinka's OperaWonyosi," NigeriaMagazine,128-29 (1979), p. 13. 4 Soyinka, preface to Before Blackout, 4. the p. 5 Ogunbiyi, p. 3. 6 Wole Soyinka, Opera London, Rex Collings, 1981, Wonyosi, in p. 1. Furtherpage referencesare given parenthetically the OW text, using the abbreviation where needed for clarity.Fora review, see WLT55:4 (Autumn 1981), p. 718. 7 Quoted in Bernth Lindfors, "Begging Questions in Wole Ariel, 12:3 (1981), p. 31. Wonyosi," Soyinka's Opera" 8 JoelAdedeji, 'Alarinjo': Traditional YorubaTravelling The in Theatre,"in Theatre Africa,Oyin Ogunba and Abiole Irele, eds., Ibadan, Ibadan University Press, 1978, p. 34. 9 Wole Soyinka, "Dramaand the Revolutionary Ideal, in In and at Awoonor Soyinka theUniversity WashingPerson: Achebe, of ton, KarenL. Morell, ed., Seattle, Institute of Comparative& ForeignArea Studies/ Universityof Washington,1975,p. 127. 10Ogunbiyi, p. 12; Bidun Jeyifo, Drama and the bocial Order:Two Reviews," PositiveReview(Ile-Ife),1 (1977),p. 22. 11Quoted in JamesGibbs,"Tearthe PaintedMasks,Jointhe Poison Stains:A Preliminary Study of Wole Soyinka'sWritings 14:1 in for the Nigerian Press," Research AfricanLiteratures, (1983), p. 40. 12Unlimited teatunng 1unji Uyelana and Company, Liability His Benders with music and lyrics by Wole Soyinka, Ewuro Productions, EWP 001, side 2. 13Wole Soyinka,interviewwith JeremyHarding,New Statesman, 27 February1987, p. 22. 14Wole Soyinka, Requiem a Futurologist, London, Rex for Collings, 1985. 15Wole Soyinka,A Playof Giants, London,Methuen, 1984,p. vii. Furtherpage references are given parentheticallyin the text, using the abbreviationPG where needed for clarity. 16 Art Borreca, " 'Idi Amin Was the Supreme Actor : An Interview with Wole Soyinka," Theater, 16:2 (1985), p. 32. 17Ibid., p. 34. 18Ibid., p. 36.
would explain the professor's admiration of the idiot-tyrant (vi-vii). There is also a hint that the African dictator'spower mania is the pathological product of colonialism'slong suppression of traditional male authority and the continued taunting of Africanmanhood in the postcolonial world (the Russian diplomat describes Kamini as an "overgrown child"). These suggestions, however, are more in the preface than in the play, which is concerned to deride and debunk, not to analyze. A Playof Giantsis unflaggingly savage burlesque, but it does not add a great deal to the knowledge of the nature of dictatorship already gleaned from Soyinka's earlier Kongi's Harvest (1965) or from OperaWonyosi,and it retains all the usual limitations of its medium. Its claustrophobic set and nervous constricted laughter are, of all these later satires, at the furthest cry from the expansive metaphysical universe of the dramatist's middle period, and for the first time in a Soyinka play there is no music, dance, or mime, indeed not a hint of the visual and aural spectacle of festival theater. In the late seventies and eighties satire came to constitute Soyinka's characteristic response to Nigeria's and Africa's worsening political crises, and as the bitter-satiricelement of his dramatic writing deepened, there was a thinning out of its once rich texture which has not, to date, been repaired. It is perhaps unreasonableat the present time to hope that, aftermore than a decade's work in this vein, he will return to subjects which, though not necessarily more worthwhile, at least have a greater dramaticviability.
Northern Territory University, Darwin
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