Theatre As A Vehicle For Social Development And Reformation: A Parliament Of Vulture And Once Upon Four Robbers

Project and Seminar Material for Theatre Arts

Theatre As A Vehicle For Social Development And Reformation: A Parliament Of Vulture And Once Upon Four Robbers


The radical theatre movement in Nigeria has had to haggle with quite a myriad of limiting factors, including lack of theatre orientation, poverty, illiteracy, ethnic and religious fanaticism as well as excessive government influence. A trip down the history lane shows that the theatre has been successfully employed as a tool for social transformation both in Nigeria and in the diaspora. This research work is intended to provide a kind of guide for upcoming dramatists and theatre practitioners who may wish to focus their arts on the constructive reformation of a society yarning for a total metanoya.

Chapter One


1.1 Background To Study

The theatre is known to have been alive to the socio-political realities of its time; a kind of court where the economic, social, religious and political issues of the society are outlined, evaluated and judged to bring about a better society, the theatre, it’s practitioners, and in fact, all the fine artists, are all vanguards of social change in their respective capacities – keeping watchful eyes and attentive ears on the happenings in the society.

In Nigeria, for instance, virtually all the new generation playwrights are committed to issues of social and political concerns of our time. The relevance of any play is dependent upon how well it is able to address the pressing issues of the playwright’s society. Hence, the radical dramatist is merely a respondent to such issues of social essence.

It will only amount to man’s inhumanity to man, a sin against oneself and the nation, should a Nigerian playwright, writing for a Nigerian audience today, choose to merely play to the gallery in the face of the numerous perceivable injustices in our immediate society. This, perhaps, is why Achebe posits that “any writer who tries to avoid the big social and political questions of his time will end up being completely, irrelevant to his society” (3). He likens such a writer to the absurdist man in an Igbo proverb, who leaves his burning house to pursue the rodents fleeing from the flames (13).

The radical playwright believes that the level of injustice, corruption and other forms of malpractices and moral decadence in contemporary society have got to where the art of speaking with the ‘tongue in the cheek’ on the stage alone is no longer enough, but rather demands an urgent and more direct representation for an immediate social reform. Femi Osofisan, one of the pioneer proponents of radical theatre movement in Nigeria believes that “if we warned ourselves often and painfully enough with reality, with the reality around us, if we refused to bandage our sensitive spots way from the hurts of truth, then we can attain a new and positive awareness” (4).

The radical theatre in Nigeria, just like its prototypes around the world should, as a matter of necessity, be committed to issues that will provide direct, matter-of-fact evaluation on the stage and bring them to the consciousness of the audience who would then begin to do something to sensitize the entire society and initiate an attitudinal change.

A review of the developmental trends in Nigerian theatre practice shows that from the post independent era to the present day, there has been a noticeable change in the tone of Nigerian plays both in content and form. This, no doubt, is a result of the influence of radicalism in the practice. From the seventies, for instance, Nigerian playwrights no longer write to entertain alone, but also to express certain ideological positions or to condemn certain societal ills. To Saint Gbilekaa:

The contemporary Nigerian playwright bears a mark of ideological commitment and patriotism. The text of his play will invariably reflect the socio political situation under which he writes. His themes and subject matters naturally emerge from issues of topical within his domain (3).

The radical playwright either writes in favour or against existing political system, especially, when it is anti-social and dictatorial. Soyinka’s The Trial of Brother Jero, for instance, mirrors the misappropriation of the Christian religion by dubious Nigerians as morally opposed to the original intention of the early missionaries who brought it into the country. In the same manner, Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, satirizes the never-do-well Nigerian politicians of the second Republic in their political antics.

In face of the resurgence of ethnic and religious bigotry leading to untold violence, at the least provocation, which in turn is occasioned by the very harsh economic atmosphere in the country, the theatre is one of the tools with the capacity to assist in the restoration of sane, enduring democratic culture in our national polity. In any developing democracy such as in Nigeria, the theatre can really make a lot of difference in reworking, reinventing and re-branding the physical, metaphysical and even the mythical vacuum in our democratic process. Besides the instrumentation of the theatre as a tool for cultural renaissance and as an arm of the Black-African Consciousness Movement, Olu Obafemi observes that:

The theatre has equally proved to be very instrumental in other struggling nations of the world, where theatrical productions, companies and dramatists have openly confronted the ruling class, challenging them and sometimes dialoguing with the powers-that-be on the economic, social and political rejuvenation … (ix).

Instances abound in other nations of the world, where the governments have responded to the unflattering cautions of the theatre, by way of promulgating banning decrees, harassment, censorship, intimidation and in some extreme cases, total elimination ,as in the cases of Robert Semanga of Uganda, Athol Fugard of South Africa and Ken Saro Wiwa.

Wole Soyinka also demonstrated the radical powers of the theatre when he produced his Jamaican version of The Beautification of Area Boys which unarguably impacted so much on the people’s level of identification and commitment in the struggle for a reformed Jamaica.

The theatre can, and does make a difference in the context of the society and culture in which it operates. The theatre can mediate in our young and fragile democracy, especially now that the country is at cross-roads of political history and nationhood.

We therefore ought to proactively employ the theatre to interrogate and demystify the totalitarian ideologies of neo-scramble for geographical and territorial aggrandizement which constitute a major threat to our unity. In a country where all the political parties have selfishly grounded themselves in all practical purposes, where the legislators have become pathetic jokers and the National Assembly has been turned into a mere circus show, the theatre becomes a lone voice providing a glimpse of hope for redemption at the end of the dark tunnel.

The theatre needs to take the lead in the search for an alternative social economic status quo. It should share in the burden of national healing and recoperation. In playing the role of an interventionist, the theatre should attempt to draw a broad line between the good and the evil sides of the societal life for as Sam Ukala puts it:

The good is only recognized in relation to the bad courage in relation to cowardice, the holy against the unholy … it is only through these relationship that the theatre is able to imitate both sides and present them on stage for the people’s judgment (23).

In Nigeria, as in most other African countries the theatre imitates for the purpose of causing not only change in the moods of the people through entertainment, but also a change in their mindsets for the betterment of the socio-political and economic structure of the nation. In a more radical sense, theatre practitioners do not only advocate for change but also spur the people to do so. This is exemplified in the popular theatre process in which the practitioner only acts as a facilitator while the people do the actual advocation. Hence,Domba Asomba observes that “as a society changes, its political arrangement, theatrical performances and function also continue to change along the line of the new dictate or reality” (49).

In essence, as the theatre impacts on the society, the society in turn impacts on it. As there are ethnic and socio cultural institutions calling for the restructuring or dismemberment of the Nigerian nation, so are there others that can be employed to promote and advance the ideals of federalism and true democracy in the country. The theatre is one such institution. Here, the dramatist, as the lead – drummer, has a lot of responsibilities in this business of reformation. As Femi Osofisan puts it:

We must use the weapon we have – our pen, our zeal and our people, the song of liberation… with our writing we would wash away the stigma of inferiority, rouse our dominant energy, and unmask the pest and traitors among us… our work would be a weapon in the struggle to bring our country to the foremost rank of modern nation (6).

Our theatre needs to be a positive interventionist, since no other cultural activity has such power of engagement, of arrest, of mobilization and of conscientization like the theatre. Hegel notes that “the new theatre of raising consciousness is aimed at liberating the masses from the clutches of oppressive elite, which made them to lose hope in its ability to stand on its feet” (20).

However, the theatre can achieve this if only it is able to surmount the attendant problems embedded in the struggle.

This research work is therefore designed to present the theatre as a veritable instrument in the quest for a transformed society, while outlining the challenges and promises therein.

1.2 Statement Of Problem

The radical dramatist has always been a front-line soldier in the fight for a transformed society. This he does by rejecting in totality, all unacceptable standards. The political class therefore perceives the radical dramatist as a ‘thorn-in-the-flesh’.

The dramatist, who writes about the dark sides of the socio political life of the society, has often met stiff opposition from the ruling class. This is because the radical playwright is never in the same camp with the ruling class; especially under an undemocratic atmosphere. Here, the radical dramatist is considered a threat- an impending time bomb ready to explode any time with a very dangerous outcome. This is why any government with an authoritarian poise would fight theatre radicalism to extinction.

Unfortunately, theatre and politics have proved to be an inseparable pair, since politics is part of the social life of every society, and the theatre mirrors life. The radical dramatist therefore sticks out his neck to play his role as a social commentator; else, he would not be doing his part as the watch-dog of the society.

The unending war of ideology between the radical dramatist and the ruling class has resulted in several sad tales on the part of the dramatist. Many of them have resorted to self exiles, while very many others have at one time or the other, been condemned to varying jail terms. Nikolai Gogol of Russia, Ngugi Wa Thiongo of Kenya and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria are some examples of playwrights who have suffered one form of persecution or the other from the government, for attempting to correct the ills of the society, using drama as a tool.

It will not be out of place to say that any radical dramatist, who operates in an autocratic atmosphere, unarguably constitutes himself into ‘endangered specie’. This does not however suggest that radicalism in theatre practice should give in to political intimidation; that would be more dangerous because it will open a flood-gate of political excesses, which in turn is very unhealthy to social existence.

On the other hand, some of the radicalists take their criticisms to the extreme, so much so that they also constitute themselves into problems without knowing it. Any critic, who does not exercise restrains and objectivity, would ultimately become part of the problem he otherwise ought to solve.

There is therefore, an urgent need for a point of convergence between the dramatist and the ruling class; wherein the ruling class should begin to see the dramatist, not as a rival, but as a social commentator, whose comments should be analyzed and put to good use. On the other hand, the dramatist should play his role with utmost objectivity, eschewing all forms of personal sentiments. Only then can there be peaceful coexistence between theatre and politics.

1.3 Scope Of Study

Drama and theatre speak universal language which is understood by all tribes and races. Theatre practice is therefore a universal art. In order to avoid the fugitiveness of arts, however, this work shall be limited to the Nigerian situation, but not without some quick references to the socio political possibilities in some other parts of the world, especially in Africa.

1.4 Significance Of Study

This research work shall serve as a reference document, providing a kind of guide for upcoming dramatists and theatre practitioners who may wish to focus their arts on the constructive reformation of a society yarning for a total metanoya.

It shall provide a step-by-step approach to a logical and critical evaluation of the social and political malfunctioning of the society while at the same time suggesting the way forward to solving the society’s problem. The research work shall serve to expose the ills of the society, especially those emanating from bad leadership and political insincerity; opening the worm cans of the oppressors and giving the oppressed the courage to stand up to the challenge of fighting oppression to a stand-still in a class conscious society such as ours. It will also serve as a research material for student and other researchers who may wish to carry out research in similar areas.

1.5 Limitations Of Study

This research was executed with the effort of a single individual whose financial means is limited. The researcher therefore encountered the problem of inadequate finance, especially in the search for materials.

Time constraint is also another factor that will militate against this research, as the researcher had to work against time in order to complete the work as and when due

1.6 Research Methodology

This research shall employ both the primary and secondary sources of data collection. The MLA parenthetical style is adopted to provide written acknowledgement for the sources of information.

Chapter Four

Conclusion and Recommendation

4.1 Summary / Conclusion

In summary, this work has attempted to explore the advent of the radical theatre movement in Nigeria in the light of the problems it has encountered over time and the promises it holds as a functional tool for socio political transformation. The radical theatre in Nigeria has had to haggle with quite a myriad of limiting factors, including lack of theatre orientation, poverty, illiteracy, ethnic and religious fanaticism as well as excessive government influence. However, despite all these limitations, the Theatre has undoubtedly proved to be a dynamic art form whose developmental trend is dependent upon the dictates of the society.

The society sets certain standards by which the individuals expected to abide, but when such standards are not acceptable, there is need for a resistant measure. The theatre is therefore duty bound to react to the situation at such times of need. The Theatre has an enviable potential for creating awareness amongst the people by inculcating in them the spirit of responsibility of nationalism, of patriotism and of oneness. It exposes the individual to self examination. The individual is a constituent part of the larger society. A change in the attitude of the individual will invariably result in a change in the overall attitude of the larger society. Here the relevance of the radical. Theatre in bringing about this much needed change cannot be over-emphasized. No wonder Domba Asomba opines that “the theatre has the persuasive power to evoke, to rejuvenate, reconstruct and redirect the mind for positive thinking” (318).

A trip down the history lane shows that the theatre has been successfully employed as a tool for social transformation both in Nigeria and in the diaspora. Radical dramatists such as Ngugi Wa Thiong’O of Kenya, Athol Fugard of South Africa, Kweku Wattenberg of Ghana, Robert Crueze of Zimbabwe, Esiaba Irobi of Nigeria amongst very many others have written and produced plays with biting criticisms on the questionable values of their various societies. Writing on the potency of the theatre in bringing about change Diana Delvin observed that “at various times in history, groups with particular messages to teach, sermons to preach…. have used the theatre as an immediate, effective and entertaining medium of communication …” (29).

The theatre imitates for the sake of initiating change. Arts cannot be divorced from politics, as both are about life. Theatrical performances entertain. They develop and keep the minds of the people at rest. Drama does not only educate, it also enlightens, informs and entertains.

The theatre creates an enabling environment for mutual understanding. However, the theatre is not the change in itself but serves as a catalyst for achieving the desired change. Ngugi Wa Thiong’O supports this assertion when he said that “the theatre is not the revolution, but a rehearsal for the actual revolution” (64).

The society creates the materials for its arts and arts are for the service of man. For the arts of the theatre to succeed, the dramatist has the responsibility of making his works relevant in the society and its concerns. This is what the radical theatre movement in Nigeria strive to achieve through a marriage of the theatre aesthetics and the genre of popular and community theatre, which takes the theatre to the people Alfonso Gumucio argues that:

The only strategy possible for reaching the poorest of the poor and the most isolated communities is interpersonal communication activities and one communication activity that could contribute to social mobilization efforts at the grassroots level is the popular theatre (97).

The radical dramatist therefore uses this platform to address the multi-dimensional problems threatening the very existence of the Nigerian nation. The radical theatre movement leads the present crusade for national rebirth. The Theatre may not be the only (or) the most important factor in the conduct of a successful cultural diplomacy in Nigeria, but it is an important contributor and can do a lot of positive things to enhance and improve the cultural dialogue between Nigeria and other countries. Segun Oyeleke puts it better when he said that:

The theatre cannot provide a stable policy by fiat, cannot serve as alternative to good governance, cannot eradicate war… cannot catapult Nigeria to the league of developed nations overnight … but can at least reduce ignorance among the people, minimize wars and can assist in getting rid of prejudices of all types (112).

It is the belief of the radical Marxist that man should not resign to fate and accept oppression as his lot, but that he should realize that the ability to liberate himself from the strong grips of his oppressor rests on him. The radical dramatist rejects the unacceptable standards. Here, rejection goes beyond open rebellion. It does not necessarily demand much of the physical strength, but the will power to say ‘No’. Even the physically weak, the poor and the helpless have his own way of opposing unacceptable authorities. This according to Stanford Lyman “could be by way of holding the society to ransom by a single word ‘No’. The weak and poor could dare the society operating in a bad order, no matter how weak; he would have registered his protest” (31).

Theatre practice is not an undertaking that brings material benefits alone. Drama for instance, does not only appeal to our senses of humour but also serves to organize, incite and influence the audience. The dramatist is therefore not only a teacher of morality, but also a political adviser.

Drama unlike most other art forms is not just arts for arts sake. Bertolt Brecht therefore advised that “Drama should be an affair for the philosopher, not for all philosophers though, but for such philosophers who wish not only to explain the world but also to change it” (46).

4.2 Recommendations and Projections

In order to succeed in this enormous task of transforming the society, the Nigerian radical dramatist needs to understand and appreciate the points of convergence and divergence between Nigerian indigenous cultural values and those of the colonial masters. This will obviously help achieve an enduring international relation and a functional interdependence between Nigeria and the western World. Cultural imbibitions and eclecticism should be done objectively, such that the natives can only import certain aspects of the Western culture that will improve the indigenous ones, instead of perceiving the former as superior over the later.

Theatre and drama have been integral parts of the Nigerian indigenous cultures. Theatre practitioners should therefore strive to project all the elements of this art form in line with its indigenous values.

The dramatist should employ the people’s familiar cultures and traditions in their works. The use of the people’s own arena theatre, market places, village squares etc. in theatrical performances will not be out of place. Dramatic performances should draw heavily from the people’s myths, legendary stories, histories of the people’s collective fight against colonialism, neocolonialism and the struggle to enthrone a lasting democracy.

There is also an urgent need for a review of the language medium used in dramatic performances given the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual nature of Nigeria, and the fact that not very many of the citizens are literate in the English language (which has come to be the lingua franca).

Domba Asomba contends that “it would be inappropriate to use the English language or any other foreign one for that matter in addressing the peculiar societal ills entrenched in the socio cultural propensities of the Nigerian society” (323).

The messages of theatrical performances are better perceived when presented in the local dialects. This gives the playwright the extra duty of translating his scripts into as many local dialects as possible for maximum impacts. Better still, plays could be produced in pidgin English which is a more generalized language medium understood by a wider range of the people in our culturally heterogeneous country. The usefulness of any work of arts lies on its ability to communicate. When the artist unconsciously creates a lacuna between his idea and his audience by the use of alien language, the message in his work would be lost in transit.Musa and Anyagu therefore suggests that:

If plays like Hopes of the Living Dead, If ….A tragedy of the Ruled, Morontondum etc. are translated into different Nigerian languages with the people’s own myths and legends the result will be tremendous and will therefore satisfy the author’s need to have their works received in the best way intended, creating the required impact on the people (92).

Nigerian Theatre practitioners should begin to appreciate their roles as interventionists in a corruption-battered society. As such, they must strive to maximize the potentials of the theatre in repositioning the nation. There should be a radical shift from ethnic to national identity which is an antedote for national unity. In his works, the playwright must discourage unequivocally, the activities of some ethnic organizations such as the Odua People’s Congress (OPC), The Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), The Arewa People’s Congress (APC), Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) etc, all of which try to lay claims to one form of marginalization or the other, as this could spring up disunity among the people.

Again, the dramatist does not operate in a vacuum. His works are meant for people’s consumption. Unfortunately, theatre orientation among Nigerians is still very pathetic. There is an urgent need for the governments to intervene by providing the dramatist with the financial muscle needed to take the theatre to the poverty stricken inhabitants of the hinterlands.

Policy makers in the education sector should consider making drama an integral part of the school curriculum. According to Adeoti “the emphasis should be on the perception of drama as a social praxis and a made of discourse that should stimulate critical thinking and problem solving attitude among the teachers and learners alike” (61).

Drama should be presented to students not as a spiritless mechanical enterprise, but as a vivacious communal activity which promotes cooperation and touches all issue affecting man and his society.

As a partner in the quest for a progressive society, the playwright should identify fully with other human right activist to release the masses from the clutches of bad governance. The era of political intimidation is over. The up-coming playwright should borrow a leaf from the radical writers in handling certain political issues aimed at achieving a progressive and politically stable society. The dramatist must understand that the fight for an oppression free society is a noble cause. They should therefore entertain no fears in baring their minds and bringing the political malpractices onto the stage. To achieve this, the dramatist should see the arts of drama from the realist’s view point as a truthful depiction of life. The playwrights should do away with those idealized pictures of life as that will amount to the elevation of falsehood over truth. The time is overdue for the dramatist to put up a fearless exposition of the corruption- battered Nigerian political system, tear off the masks from the faces of the corrupt political gladiators for the masses to see the real persons behind them.

In doing this however, the artist must strive to be as objective and democratic as possible. Excessive destructive criticism is not very healthy for the arts, and as Asomba puts it, “it is clear that autocratic and magisterial ideas and approaches tend to work against the set goals” (322).

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