by Oyewumi Olatoye Agunbiade*
Emeritus Professor Femi Osofisan is an outspoken critic, playwright, and spokesman for artistic freedom in Africa. He is of the generation that followed Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian dramatist Wole Soyinka and the anti-apartheid activist Athol Fugard. Osofisan thus ranks third among the most influential African playwrights of the 20th and 21st centuries. He has published over sixty plays, four prose works, five books of poetry, and several essays and papers, an achievement that may be unparalleled in Nigerian playwriting for a long time to come. Especially noteworthy is his 2016 award of the Thalia prize, which recognizes his contribution to theatre through outspoken criticism of artistic repression across the African continent. His work has also been staged at the Guthrie Theater and other major regional theatres in the United States, as well as in Germany, the U.K., Sri Lanka, Canada, and China.
Most of Femi Osofisan’s interviews have focused on his Marxian ideology, his indebtedness to the Brechtian tradition of the epic and alienation technique, and his indigenous African performance modes rather than his criticism of the masses. In this interview, however, Femi Osofisan has fielded specific questions about his purview of society as an objective playwright. He describes his guiding philosophy and attitude to art, which is to create an equitable society where everyone is happy; such an undertaking; however, requires an objectivity that spares neither the ruler nor the ruled. For instance, what is his objective conception of the postcolonial state, the traders, the working class, and the poor? Surprisingly, Osofisan rejects the Marxist label as he clarifies what motivates him. He shares exclusive details about his much-criticized play, Esu and the Vagabond Minstrels, focusing on the circumstances of its first performance. This interview, therefore, introduces us to a less explored side of Osofisan as he critically assesses the masses and the postcolonial state, and advises writers on objectivity in the creative process.
Agunbiade: Professor, allow me to express how happy I am to have this opportunity to talk with you on your ideology, your plays and the place of objectivity in theatre.
Osofisan: It’s my pleasure to have you.
A close look at research on your works reveals a general opinion that you write to fight for the rights of the masses. However, it is evident that in your works, you also chastise the masses in response to their increased moral decadence and fault lines. As critics seldom focus on this aspect of your writing, how would you characterize this element in your work?
I think it is pretty obvious that the goal is not just to free the masses, but also to create an equitable society where everybody is happy, and when you want to do that, it is obviously necessary to tell the story just as you see it, that the fault is not just with the rulers; clearly, the fault lies in all of us. And I think that the postcolonial state has also gone through the colonial experience, particularly British colonialism. It would be too much to expect that only one class of people needed reorientation. It is also obvious that with the kind of mental alienation that the British /colonialists usually impose on the colonized people, everybody will be affected, not just the rulers; workers and rulers will be affected equally. And therefore, due to the process of living under colonial power for example, you find that the people develop all kinds of attitudes to work, to government, and to government officials. This attitude often undermines development because citizens resist cooperation with the government and its projects. Government, in quotation marks here, is the enemy, you know! That is, of course, not something that cannot change, but it will change only if / when the future government takes a different attitude from that of its predecessor.
Unfortunately, what you find is that the new government follows the norms of the colonialists, and the policies they put in place are just the same as the policies of the whites who were there before. Therefore, since there is no fundamental change of attitude between the government that departed and the new one that takes over, the attitude of the workers remains the same. They see the government as the enemy, and so they do everything they can to sabotage the projects of that government. You can see how that has continued when you look at people in their individual lives, who, in their private works, are very committed, and then when you compare this to what they do when employed in civil service, you see the difference. I don’t know if the proverb still exists, but when we were growing up, there was a Yoruba proverb that said “You don’t do government work and sweat” (A kii se ise ijoba ka lagun).
Government means an enemy, and therefore if you don’t correct that way of thinking, you can’t have any development in any way, clearly not through government-sponsored programs alone. So, if you want change, your plans must be double-headed, looking both towards those who are leading and those who are led, but to assume that the masses are just innocent, I think, is wrong. So, this is what I try to highlight in those works. I may be pointing more at the rulers or the ruling class, but I have not idealized the working class just as I don’t deliberately criminalize them. Still, you have to show that the worker is not a good worker just because he is a worker, or a peasant farmer physically good just because he is a farmer. If you are subjected to these traumas, you end up differently from what you expect. It is a pity that so many years after independence, one is still talking of colonialism and all the like, but the mentality of the people is the problem. That mentality has not been addressed consciously, and a change in mentality is clearly needed.
In Fires Burn and Die Hard, we see the suffering of the masses due to the destructive actions of Alhaja, who burned down her shop along with the entire market when her son Leke alerted the police of her involvement in contraband goods. Professor, in this instance are you trying to deploy the Yoruba proverb “Kòkòrò tó ń j’ẹ̀fọ́ ara èfọ́ ló wà” (human beings are enemies of themselves)? And in this case, could it be that the people themselves are the cause of their woes, contrary to the view that their leaders are responsible for their problems?
First, I am not writing to prove any proverb right or wrong; I am not very concerned about proverbs. And I think I am a bit uncomfortable with the word, the masses. That is a very big and general term. Let’s just say the market women, and are suffering. First, before going to your question, I’d like to say that you don’t need to go to the market, you see what has happened with the fuel shortage. I have sold in the market before and close to market women. It’s a principle of our market here that you create shortages to make a profit. And once there is a shortage, people will fix their prices. It seems to be a general law in the market and has not been questioned, so, I just write. Traders do this as they don’t care about who suffers or who doesn’t. It’s good for the individual trader, but what of those who are buying? Everybody seems to accept it anyway; generally, that is what happens with traders as they try to create artificial scarcity where there is none. They withdraw the goods, hide them, and make their money.
This is what I am revealing in the market, not that Alhaja wants to destroy the market, but that there is a crude application of the principle of making vulgar profit, not from the supply but from a deliberate restriction of supply. And to be more specific here regarding your question, contraband today is widespread in the market. A lot of the wealthy people in the country are involved in this. You know how we say it, “ìsàlẹ̀ ọrọ̀, ó lẹ́gbin” (the dregs of wealth are filthy); we seem to have accepted it. This is what has happened. She sells contraband, and in most cases, the police will know it but as long as she gives them their cash, no one is going to care. Unfortunately, now she is going to be caught and discovered and in an attempt to cover up, she burns the entire market. You must also know that the play belongs to a detective series where I wrote about all kinds of criminal activities in society that are still happening to date. These are ongoing stories.
What is your view of people who were initially poor, from humble backgrounds, and although promising they eventually behaved with a lack of integrity when they gained power, as we see in The Inspector and the Hero and Altine’s Wrath? And how can you relate this to the high expectations of the people from former President Good luck Jonathan?
I think nothing is unusual about that because becoming rich doesn’t mean becoming morally right. In fact, I would say that most of the process of becoming rich is enacted through performing immoral acts: those who can act fast on the stock exchange, and steal other people’s investments. And relating your question to the campaign slogan of former president Good luck Jonathan, yes, you know when you are looking for votes, you adopt any approach to get them. He grew up poor, and some voted for him because of that, but I don’t think the majority voted for him. We are not even sure if the majority voted for him. That he came from a poor background is not a guarantee of moral uprightness. It is wrong to associate poverty and morality. This is what I am trying to say, that if somebody is poor, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will be righteous, or that he will know how to use power.
No doubt, the central theme in One Legend Many Seasons is wickedness among human beings. Are you trying to show how inevitable this has become, even among the led, the ruled and the working class, with the characters of Alowolodun and Makon?
Human beings are still individuals, whether they are poor or rich, as they each have defining characteristics. This question of the ruling class is not mathematical. There are some people among the ruling class with whom you will be happy to associate; they are extremely good and better than some of the people you know among the lower classes, who, because of their poverty, have been mentally affected and warped. People are still individuals, and you still have to observe their behavior before you know who is who. And specifically, the characters are not government workers. As you can see, once people make money, their god or priority, Jesus Christ, will fly away, whether or not they are public servants. They lose their moral balance.
One of your most criticized plays is Esu and the Vagabond Minstrels. What really inspired your writing of the play?
First and foremost, of course, is the level of theatricality. There are debates on why theatre in English was not flourishing while Yoruba theatre was flourishing. This was the time Ogunde was still very much a presence. We noticed that anytime those traveling theatres came around the whole place would be filled, yet we performed our English plays with fewer people in the audience. So, the question was whether or not we had a smaller audience because we were presenting our plays in English. I was arguing against that, that it is not the language that makes the theatre popular or unpopular; rather, it’s the kind of theatre you do. You know this kind of argument, you can only prove it by doing it. And I decided to write a play that would prove that. My reason for this, among others, was that before Hollywood came to us, the most popular cultural activity was watching Indian films. Everybody loved Indian films, and yet the films were not in Yoruba either. They were in Hindi and some other Indian languages, yet people loved them. Of course, they had subtitles but the subtitles were in English.
Whenever you went to the cinema, there would be somebody sitting beside you who had probably watched the film twenty times, who didn’t really speak English at all but could tell you the entire story. Why? The audience didn’t speak either English or Hindi, yet they watched the film and enjoyed it. This was my starting point, to write another play that would be popular, so that was the point of theatricality, which is to write a play in English that would also be popular. I just looked at what made the Indian films popular, you know, music, songs, dancing, and a simple plot, and I put them all together on stage. There was also the question of Esu that generated a lot of discussions. You know Esu in Yoruba Pantheon has been wrongly translated as Satan in the Bible, but Esu is not Satan. In the Yoruba Pantheon, we don’t have a god as evil as that, which was why many people even bore the name Esubiyi, Esugbami etc, but when the Christians began to translate it as Satan, everybody wanted to avoid it. So, this was one of the points I wanted to show.
If you would allow me to interrupt at this point, Professor, may I ask what is the real meaning of Esu in a Yoruba context?
Well, Yoruba is Yoruba and Hebrew is Hebrew. We don’t have exactly the same concept in the two cultures. But I think they just had to find equivalents for the Hebrew words while translating the Bible. In a Yoruba context, Esu can be very benevolent. In fact, when the script was being typed, the typist had about four Christian fellows with their Bibles praying for him. Then a rumor began circulating around the campus that no one should go to watch it. This was a huge challenge for us because the head of the department got a bit worried, and came to me to ask why we wouldn’t change the title. But I said no, we wouldn’t change it; we preferred to wait to see how it would go. Remarkably, we staged our performance three nights in a row, nonstop.
The old man in the play eventually described Omele, who used his power kindly on the pregnant woman and leper, as “the only one worthy to be called a human being?” Do you mean a critical mass of Nigerians have lost that spirit of humanity?
That is your subjective view anyway, but certainly, you can see without much proof that quite a lot of them have lost it, but don’t forget that the others challenged him, and even though it’s a parable, a folktale, there is an important lesson for everybody. As we see with Omele, he becomes a hero, but if you are the one, would you do as Omele did? If somebody gave you one chance to make it in your life, would you give it to anybody? So, it is easy to make a decision when you are sitting on the fence and just watching, but suppose you are the one actively involved. Definitely, there are still some kind people in the world. For example, we have recently seen the case of a woman who found close to ten million dollars at an airport and returned it to the owner.
In Farewell to a Cannibal Rage, are you saying that our traditional rulers also contribute to the nation’s problems? I’m referring to the role the traditional rulers played in the play to cause rancor between two friends, bringing about their eventual death, all in the name of giving over their land to the white men who requested for the land for farming.
They are traditional rulers, yet we shouldn’t mandate that they mustn’t have their political preferences. Clearly, traditional rulers do have their preferences, and I am one of those who will support that. But if you make a certain decision, you must prepare for the consequences. You can’t make a blanket statement that the traditional rulers are the ones responsible for all our problems. Some of them certainly are, but I haven’t generalized to that extent. And about the two friends, the piece is basically trying to show that many of our laws are not working because the infrastructure is bad, which it clearly is, but also because our insights, our beliefs, and our legacies to pass on are all different.
In Aringindin and the Night Watchmen, Ayinde, the school teacher, did not sympathize with the traders, whose goods were carted away by the robbers, but scolded them instead, saying, “the traders created scarcity and inflation, so that swelling bank notes may continuously glut their bloated stomachs” (142). Are you saying here that some traders are vultures, feeding on their fellow human beings?
Just because one trader is like that doesn’t mean that other traders are like that; it just shows that some traders are greedy. Each person’s integrity is what you have to really consider. So, as I stated earlier, I have not tried to generalize in any way.
Still, in Aringindin and the Night Watchmen, we see Aringindin, the respected ex-soldier, eventually being discovered as the root of the village’s problem. What message are you trying to convey to your audience here, and is there still hope for a good leader in Nigeria?
Yes, I think that shows how careful we have to be. What I am saying is this: titles and appearances do not always tell the truth. So, Professor so-and-so is well known and just because of that, naively you give him everything, assuming that because he has reached a certain level of scholarship, he, therefore, has reached the same level of morality or wisdom. I think this is what we have been doing. We don’t screen well or look at the credentials of the people. We just automatically put them in key positions as saviors, just because they have been complaining. We don’t ask, why are they complaining? Perhaps they are complaining because they are not among those enjoying the ilabe (benefitting from corruption) or their spouses are not there or some other reason, and then as soon as they are given the power they then show their true colors.
Again, I am saying that appearances are deceptive, even sometimes when they are genuine. When people are genuine in their speech or attitudes, they may not take the right steps, and it is important in this case because we have had so many problematic instances since gaining independence: they have been radicals or Marxists, and then when they get into government, they turn around and become the opposite of what they were before. So, we really need to examine these kinds of situations carefully.
In No More the Wasted Breed, the docility of the people and their reluctance to question their leaders and authority is examined. Nowadays, forty-two years after you wrote this text, do you still see the Nigerian masses in this light? That is, are you questioning their inability to question their leaders, just as Saluga did by urging Biokun to challenge the gods who had brought evil on them?
I won’t call it docility; they are indoctrinated to be this way. They just don’t ask enough questions. I have made this point again and again; people tend not to ask questions and just take things for granted, so they end up badly. This is why we have not made so much progress.
In Love’s Unlike Lading, which of the Shakespearean plays did you adapt? The message of love is an inevitable theme in the play. How would you describe the place of love in our country, Nigeria, especially among the ordinary people?
We have blended elements of Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice, so it’s not just one play that we used; the two are mixed. And regarding the theme of love, these are Shakespeare’s plays that deal with love, you know, but I wasn’t really trying to focus on love as such. I will say, though, that there is love in the country; otherwise, how do we sustain ourselves? Just like anywhere else, some of this love is hypocritical. Some of it is just for business, to win contracts. But love should be eternal.
Thank you very much for answering these questions.
Osofisan: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, too.
Acknowledgement: I am very grateful to Emeritus Professor Femi Osofisan for finding the time to answer these questions in my quest to document a paradigm shift in the research on his works.
Osofisan, Femi. One Legend, Many Seasons. Concept Publications Ltd, 2001.
——— . Major Plays 2: Esu and the Vagabond Minstrels, Aringindin and the Night Watchmen, Red is the Freedom Road. Opon Ifa Readers, 2002.
——— . Major Plays 1: Many Colours Make the Thunder King, Farewell to a Cannibal Rage, The Oriki of a Grasshopper. Ibadan: Opon Ifa Readers, 2003.
*Oyewumi Olatoye Agunbiade holds a PhD from the University of Ibadan. He has worked as Principal Editor/ Reporter with the foremost federal broadcast agency in Nigeria, Radio Nigeria. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Walter Sisulu University, South Africa. His research interests focus on African literature and culture, followership studies, post-independence disillusionment, literature and news media (literary journalism). He has worked extensively on researching the drama of Femi Osofisan. His current research proposes the concept of inverted disillusionment as an alternative engagement paradigm in reading African literature of the postcolonial era.
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