It is my pleasure and my honour to give the laudatory speech on the occasion of Femi Osofisan receiving the Thalia Prize. Let me begin on a personal note. I am all the more happy about his selection because of our longstanding friendship that goes back to the 1980s, when we first met in Bayreuth.
Back then, he was a slender young man, already full of great ideas. Today, Femi Osofisan ranks among a small number of globally renowned playwrights, directors and theatre scholars. His achievements have been honoured by various institutions and nations through a number of important awards and orders of merit. It is therefore not surprising that he should now be awarded the Thalia Prize—he more than deserves it. Femi Osofisan is its first African laureate. He represents the second generation of African playwrights since the end of colonialism.
Since it is impossible to consider his entire oeuvre of over seventy plays and their productions in this context, I shall focus on his adaptations of Greek tragedies in comparing him to the first generation.
Given the eminent position of Greek tragedies in the British educational system established in West Africa, it seems logical that after these countries gained independence many African playwrights turned to Greek tragedy in order to explicitly transfer it to an African context. Let me just mention John Pepper Clark’s Song of a Goat that draws on Agamemnon, first performed in 1962 and directed by Wole Soyinka. The same year, Kamau Brathwaite’s Odale’s Choice, a new version of Antigone, premiered at the Mfantisman Secondary School in Saltpond, Ghana. Efua Sutherland’s Edufa, featuring themes adapted from Euripides’ Alcestis, was performed at the Drama Studio, University of Ghana, in 1967. Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are not to Blame followed in 1968. It was performed by Rotimi’s own company, the Olakuin Acting Company, and draws on Oedipus the King. In all these cases, the Empire was writing back, as the now-famous phrase coined by Salman Rushdie goes. By adapting Greek tragedy, that epitome of “European culture,” and transplanting it into African soil, equality was claimed and manifested.
This no longer applies to the second generation and, in particular, to Femi Osofisan’s plays, specifically regarding his adaptations of Greek tragedies. To understand them within the framework of the Empire writing back, that is, in terms of post-colonial thought, would be deeply misleading. As Femi Osofisan puts it: “It is not so much that the wound of the old colonial empire is not uppermost in our mind; it is, rather, that the notion of that kind of ‘empire’ at all is no longer a current concern.” Therefore, he sharply criticizes post-colonialism for talking about the West as the “Centre”: “our own ‘Centre’ is on the contrary Africa itself.” Accordingly, he argues:
Post-colonialism will merely take us back to Négritude, whereas our identity crisis in Africa is of a different order entirely, relating to two urgent problems—first, the dilemma of creating a national identity out of our disparate ethnic communities, and secondly, that of creating committed, responsible, patriotic and compassionate individuals out of our civil populations.
Osofisan devotes his theatre work to this mission. In this respect, there is no difference between his two adaptations of Greek tragedies, Tègònni: An African Antigone (first performed in 1994) and The Women of Owu (premiered in 2004), and his other plays.
The adaptations of the first generation also were not, in fact, mere responses to the British educational system and its claim to superiority; they emphasized and revealed the striking kinship between the Greek pantheon and mythology and their West African equivalents. Yoruba gods also appear in many of Osofisan’s plays, such as Yemoya, the goddess of the river in Tègònni; Anlugbua, the ancestral founder of Owu Ipole, deified as orisa, and his grandmother Lawumi in The Women of Owu; Shango, the god of lighting and thunder in Many Colours Make the Thunder-King (1997); or Eshu, the trickster god of confusion, chance and contingency in Eshu and the Vagabond Ministrels (1991). Their inclusion is not a trait characteristic only of Osofisan’s adaptations of Greek tragedies.
However, while most of Osofisan’s plays are set today, the two adaptations are located in nineteenth century Yorubaland. Tègònni unfolds during colonial times, while the Women of Owu is situated in the pre-colonial era. Both pose questions about the past of the Yorubas. The first does so in order “to re-invent ourselves, as individuals and as peoples . . . for we are after all a people in urgent need of re-inventing—rather than ‘re-discovering’—ourselves,” as Osofisan put it in an interview with Biodun Jeyifo, in 1995. The second, adapted from The Trojan Women, not only deals with contemporary war atrocities, clearly alluding to the invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003, but also prominently addresses the problem of slavery as that of Africans selling other Africans as slaves. The journey into the past here serves to better understand and deal with contemporary problems.
The “Africanness” of the plays is further underlined by inserting oríkìs as well as laments and other songs in Yoruba. The productions added to that by having these passages sung and danced in the traditional manner. This way, the phenomenon of the Greek chorus was transformed into a Yoruba communal celebration. As far as I know, this happened in all the productions of the two plays. The productions were not so much received as adaptations of Greek tragedies—except by classicists, but as performances of African plays addressing Yoruban history in order to enable a better and sharper understanding of the contemporary socio-political situation.
The oft-noted kinship between Greek and Yoruba pantheons and mythologies here allowed for a morphing of Greek tragedy into a Yoruba play without necessarily calling to mind the “original.” This way, the appropriation of Greek tragedy served a very particular purpose: on the one hand, it allowed for the process of re-invention of one’s own identity, and, on the other, for the adoption of a new perspective on the past without escaping into idealizations. It opened up the possibility for a new access to and understanding of one’s history.
Deeply rooted in his own culture and knowing many others very well, Osofisan’s plays speak to audiences not only in Yorubaland but all over the world. As Heiner Müller put it: Only a play that is local can become truly international.
With Femi Osofisan the Thalia Prize honours one of the world’s leading playwrights and poets as well as a great humanist. The community of our International Research Centre on “Interweaving Performance Cultures” in Berlin is very proud to have had Femi Osofisan as a Distinguished Fellow and to now have him as a Member of the Advisory Board.
On behalf of this community—and as a former President of the International Federation of Theatre Research and in the name of theatre and performance scholars all over the world—I want to convey to you our warmest congratulations as well as my great personal pleasure on your receiving this award. It emphasizes once more your outstanding merits as a theatre artist and theatre scholar. Congratulations!
*Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. Erika Fischer-Lichte is director of the Institute for Advanced Studies on “Interweaving Performance Cultures” at Freie Universität, Berlin. She had guest professorships in China, India, Japan, Norway, Russia and the USA. She has published widely in the fields of aesthetics, history and theory of theatre, performativity, etc.