Wole Soyinka arrived at Yale Repertory Theatre last month to direct his newest play, a grotesque comedy-drama—he calls it “a caricature”—on the subject of Third World dictatorships. He was pleased to have made it to New Haven right on schedule. The playwright’s last American production, staged at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, had been postponed for well over a year. The delay wasn’t for the usual administrative or play-scheduling problems: Soyinka was busy at home, deeply involved in Nigeria’s turbulent and bloody elections.
Africa’s most prolific playwright, Soyinka has long been a staunch activist, unflinchingly criticizing corruption and injustice in Nigeria. Imprisoned without a trial in 1967 after attempting to organize artists and intellectuals to call for a ban on weapons to both sides in the Biafran war, Soyinka spent two years in solitary confinement. His chronicle of the experience, The Man Died, was published in 1972. He wrote it on toilet paper.
Even after the so-called restoration of Nigerian democracy in 1979, Soyinka still got his share of harassment. Only last year, during Nigeria’s elections, which were, in Soyinka’s words, “very bloody, very close to the El Salvador situation,” he tried to produce a film to educate people about the circumstances. Unable to find the funding, he settled for making a recording. President Shagari’s government banned it as explosive and subversive. “They know how to take good care of people like me,” he explains. “They clamped down on the accessibility of technology. If art doesn’t communicate, that’s it. The government closed down the opposition press, the opposition radio and television stations. They shrunk our territory. So what are you going to do? Just sit down and write?”
Soyinka has a respite now, one that does allow him to sit down and write, and to resume his varied theatrical work. Last Dec. 31, General Mohammed Buhari led a coup against Shagari’s civilian government, claiming that the takeover was necessary to prevent economic collapse. Though American papers have lately reported that Nigerians’ original enthusiasm for the military government is diminishing, Soyinka maintains firm but realistic hopes. “There’s no doubt at all,” he says, “that when the coup came it was a relief for the majority of the country because we were encumbered with the most conscience-less bunch of robbers, murderers and thugs. Democracy has ceased to mean anything in Nigeria. We always laugh when we read of Nigeria as the Great African Democracy. Jesus Christ, they were thugs! And they looted the entire national treasury; all our oil money vanished. We’re entirely broke now.”
It’s hard to imagine the extent of the corruption that could gobble up the vast profits of Nigeria’s oil boom. In the mid-’70s, oil revenues accounted for 90 percent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange; the income doubled twice between 1973 and 1975. Once OPEC price controls were established, however, the economy collapsed. And a lot of money was gone—into personal Swiss bank accounts of Nigerian officials. An epidemic of arson spread across the country, destroying financial records of businessmen, banks and government institutions. Buhari’s government will clean up the mess and restore the economy, Soyinka believes, and they’ll be less corrupt “because they’ll be careful; they’ll know they’re being watched by the lower ranks. But as far as the political direction is concerned, I don’t think anyone is looking to them for improvement. They’ll go as far as they can to recover some of the looted money, but I don’t think they themselves make any claims that they have any clear political sights.”
In the meantime, last April Soyinka could take advantage of the breather to fulfill his plans at the Goodman, as he is doing again this winter at Yale Rep. Soyinka cares little about having his plays produced on Broadway, and chances are he is better known by Chicago theatregoers than by parochial New Yorkers. His Death and the King’s Horseman enjoyed a well-received premiere at the Goodman in 1979 under Soyinka’s direction and then had a successful short run at Washington’s Kennedy Center. “I have a very good relationship with Goodman,” he says. “They’re always open to any idea that comes from me, and I’m also open to ideas from them if the timing is right.” Last spring’s project was The Road, a 1965 play which had never been produced in America.
Like most of Soyinka’s work, The Road reflects his assimilation of a multi-cultural background. His father was the headmaster of a Christian grammar school, and his mother was so pious that she was nicknamed “Wild Christian.” Still, as Soyinka describes in his lovely childhood memoir, Ake, The Years of Childhood (Aventura, 1983), he was intrigued by local Yoruba practices and would sneak away from home to follow processions of masks, music and dancing to pursue the mysteries of the ancestral spirits. Educated in the details of killing snakes in the bush, he also studied Shakespeare with G. Wilson Knight.
I spoke with Soyinka between a rehearsal and a preview performance of The Road last April. A lean, soft-spoken man, Soyinka has eyes that contain the mischievous gleam that, reading Ake, one imagines in the young Wole who never stops asking questions. Though visibly exhausted, he talks about his work with infectious enthusiasm. “Everyone needs his moments of magic, of illusion. Theatre is illusion. So I come here, I work at my art a little bit. I mean, I’ve got to do some other things,” he says, laughing musically, “besides going in and out of courts and jails and so on.”
Even if The Road doesn’t overtly reflect Soyinka’s activism, he considers it “socio-political on a small theme.” The play focuses on a Nigerian subculture of lorry drivers and their “touts” who earn a living by transporting passengers and cargo. These “layabouts” spend most of their time hanging around the Professor’s “Acksident Store” where they can buy parts looted from highway wrecks as well as wine or forged documents. The Professor, a defrocked missionary, hovers between wise madness and ridiculous lucidity as he searches obsessively for the Word—on road signs, scraps of paper, ticket stubs, food wrappers. While the Professor diligently seeks the mystery behind everything, one of the drivers, Kotunu, abandons his work, afraid he has seen too much: He drove his lorry into a man who was dressed for a festival as the god Ogun. Soyinka’s humor weaves through the poetry and symbolic action characteristic of so many of his plays. The dialogue is baroque, almost Shakespearean in its overlapping imagery, cadences and range. Characters speak a variety of languages, from the Professor’s obscure proverbs to the layabouts’ jovial banter, and the thugs’ phrases borrowed from John Wayne and James Cagney movies.
The Road also contains Soyinka’s typical nonlinear arrangement of time, a dramatic approach he attaches to aspects of the Yoruba world-view. In his theoretical study Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge University Press, 1976), Soyinka explains that the Yoruba conception of time is cyclical; its continuity is not uni-directional. Flash-forwards and flashbacks, then, provide no conceptual difficulty for his intended audiences. Though the flashback sequence depicting the accident was beautifully staged at the Goodman, invoking Yoruba myths with throbbing drums, intense dancing and an exquisite mask, Soyinka worried that American audiences might not follow the theatrical convention of shifting time frames.
Soyinka tried to make The Road more accessible—program notes, for instance, identified Ogun as the deity presiding over the seemingly contradictory spheres of creativity and war; his specific domain is metallurgy, and therefore all technicians and mechanical workers, like the drivers, are his devotees. Soyinka insists that this information is all that’s necessary to clarify the play’s situation. “An African audience has coped successfully with theatrical forms from Europe and the Orient. In the same way, my plays can be adapted for a Western audience. Naturally, my political commentaries and sketches refer directly to specific situations, so taking them out of context is a waste of time.” Other plays, though, are more translatable. To “translate” The Road, Soyinka cut quite a lot of the script, reduced the number of Yoruba passages and rearranged scenes.
Soyinka removed one very funny scene in which a layabout impersonates a sergeant. “To a Nigerian, the social meaning of a person like Sgt. Burma in a colonial context would be immediately clear. The very mention of the names of the personalities who litter our motor parks would be a total evocation. It means nothing here. Of course this is all very sad for me—I’ve cut things out which really break my heart,” he complains. After a pause to banish the playwright in him, he adds, “but I’ve tried to be objective. When I’m directing I lock myself out as the author the same way as I do when I direct other authors. I don’t allow playwrights in any rehearsals except at certain stages. I’ve done certain things to this play which if anybody else had done, I’d have been at him with a hatchet.”
While Soyinka laughs uproariously, I wonder if our American imaginations have really become so conditioned by naturalism and psychology that we can’t enter works that aren’t linear and literal. “It’s not as desperate as it sounds, he replies, still chuckling. “But American audiences, generally speaking, are more at home in non-symbolic language. I got a clearer sense of this when I went to see David Rabe’s Hurlyburly,” which was playing at the Goodman while The Road was in rehearsal. “I think the phenomenon has to do with a whole language of television, of the soap opera, of advertisement, even of politics—what I call the Nixonian language of politics. There is bombardment and banalization of language on so many levels. Jingles, pop music, everything here has to be twice as loud in order for it to be absorbed. You notice it the moment you arrive in the United States.”
The plague is distinctly American. When The Road was produced in London in 1965, directed by David Thompson, it ran for weeks with hardly any cuts. In a London Observer review, Penelope Gilliatt wrote, “Every decade or so, it seems to fall to a non-English dramatist to belt new energy into the English tongue.”
“But here,” Soyinka goes on, “if you’re going to direct, you have to realize the language problem begins with the actors—they have to go out and convince an audience.” As with Shakespeare, the method training of most American actors can interfere with their relationship to Soyinka’s richly textured verse. His works compound the problem with their mythological wrapping; they inhabit an entirely unfamiliar world.
On the other hand, American actors have technical skills Soyinka does not often find at home. That’s one reason he chose to direct The Road last season. “I’d never directed it before, mostly because I’ve never found an actor who could play the Professor. I thought I might be able to find an American black actor who could carry the role.” But the demands may have been too great even for Bill Cobbs, who starred in the Goodman production. Often seated center stage to deliver his long, convoluted speeches, Cobbs conveyed grandeur, but lacked clarity and nuance. It didn’t help that the audience resisted the play’s abundant humor.
And even when the jokes play and the basic plot is clear, there’s no guarantee that American audiences will take in Soyinka’s complexities. Though the exploration of theatrical idioms in the last 20 years has certainly broadened perceptual horizons, as have visiting productions of Noh, Kabuki and other non-Western forms, Americans may be watching from a great distance, surveying a cultural artifact without knowing how to engage it on its own imaginative terms. “It’s the Culture-with-a-capital-C syndrome,” as Soyinka puts it. The particular blind spot with his Yoruba-inspired works is seeing them as plays about the “clash of cultures.” Soyinka has explored that topic, but always with ambiguity and self-conscious humor, as in his farce, The Lion and the Jewel (1963), or even in passages of Ake in which he hilariously describes the appearance of light bulbs, gramophones and radios in his village.
During Death and the King’s Horseman Soyinka went out of his way in program notes and lectures to prevent people from reducing the play to the “clash of cultures” theme. Nonetheless, reviewers discussing the tragedy about the horseman who must follow his king to death, did just that. “They’ll probably do the same thing for this one,” he predicted about The Road. “They’ll probably find the Professor’s particular demeanor, attitude, language and expression a result of the Christian influence in Africa, his existing in two cultures. The professor is built on familiar figures, both in the traditional world and in the colonial, post-colonial world. I find that reviewers tend to not want to cope too much with that idea, because it asks serious questions about their own society, so there’s a shying away from it.” What kind of questions are American critics avoiding when they focus on such an over-simplification? Soyinka stroked his rough goatee and smiled. “Well, look at the Professor. Here’s a figure who is, relatively speaking, the intellectual among the layabouts. He gathers the community around himself, he explores their lives and exploits their lives. He’s in no position, even if he had the will, to help them. Their lives are fodder for his thinking process. Identify the Professor with the kind of relationship the artist has to his material, to his human material, and the intellectual too, the academic, the sociologist, who live off the misery of others and present it on stage or in sculpture or whatever, fascinated by the experience of life which they cannot affect.”
The position of the artist in Soyinka’s new work, A Play of Giants, offers an alternative view. Running through Dec. 22 at the Yale Repertory Theatre under Soyinka’s direction, A Play of Giants does not include ritualistic scenes like the dancing in The Road. The language is not formally poetic, the action is not metaphysical, and the setting is not Africa. Instead, it would seem to have more in common with the political sketches Soyinka refers to, or with his more overtly historical works like Opera Wonyosi, his adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera. He defines the new piece as “a caricature—you can’t call it a satire. I deals with some of the leadership masquerades we have on the continent, a commentary on the kind of political leaders we seem to be lumbered with. There’s a sort of vengeful wishful thinking toward those who insist on supporting the leaders, on holding them up as the genuine representatives of people.”
A central character in A Play of Giants is Kamini, based on Idi Amin, a grotesque despot wielding his power brutally, even from his United Nations mission in New York. As he and his cohorts, other dictators from neo-colonial African republics, pose for a statue, they discuss their methods of ruling and crushing rebellions; they handle crises with American and Soviet diplomats. While their combination of bombast and naivete is quite funny, the danger underlying it provides a frightening dramatic tension. Moreover, Soyinka gives the despots some good arguments against capitalism, colonialism and U.S. imperialism. A spectator ought to wonder what it means that the barbaric Kamini denounces South Africa while the U.S. does not. Yet the play is not doctrinaire even if its characters are.
When the sculptor, cynical about his Mt. Rushmore-like project, makes some anti-Kamini cracks, he is beaten soundly for them. Bandaged everywhere except his hands, he returns to work. Kamini hears of a coup back home in Bugara, declares war on the U.N. and opens fire. Everyone instinctively hits the deck—except the sculptor. He works on.
It’s hard to know which vision of the artist Soyinka most identifies with—the sculptor or The Road‘s Professor. Like the sculptor, he has continued to create under fire; unlike him, he has never compromised. He has compared himself to the Professor: “Even as artists are analyzing society, they are absolutely impotent to redress anything and therefore, in a sense, they are exploiting the rags and the sores of humanity.” Yet unlike the Professor, Soyinka gives something back through the communication of his art.
Perhaps Soyinka’s dilemma as a committed artist and a political man is no greater a contradiction than the character of Ogun, who figures so prominently into Soyinka’s drama and poetry, as the god of both war and creativity. Describing his work on a television program to encourage political mobilization, Soyinka spoke about the limits of his activism: “This [writing] would only take a particular struggle so far, and I knew there was no way I was going to avoid, when it came to the crunch, a far more direct confrontation. Knowing the nature of the opposition, and knowing very well that kind of enemy can never be toppled by the most direct polemical theatre—and we do have guerilla theatre running sketches all over the country to mobilize people—we realize that this is just playing for time. It’s a dual thing: You know you’re doing something useful, but you also know very well that that is not the end of the story. Mixed with this total involvement, this activism, dangerous as it is, is a substratum of impotence, a conscious wish that the pace would be accelerated so that there is left only one choice of weapons, where there’s no more ambiguity. Sides have to be chosen, the matter of the struggle defined so that you get away from that futility. All choices are limited to just two: Surrender, or absolute competition.”
Alisa Solomon writes frequently about the theatre for The Village Voice and other publications.
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