A Critique of Ebun Clark’s Hubert Ogunde—The Making of Nigerian Theatre | Ojo Olorunleke

A review of Prof. Ebun Clark’s seminal full-length study of one of the major practitioners of the Yoruba traveling theater is again crucial decades after its publication, if only to stress the need for Nigerian cultural theorists to have a firm theoretical perspective. The book is essentially a documentation of Ogunde’s theatrical activities from about 1944 to the early ’70s. It has four uneven Chapters, a Preface, three informative entries in its appendix, and a comprehensive bibliography which stresses the extensive research that went into its production.

Theatre scholarship in Nigeria from the days of colonialist anthropologists, Ulli Beier, Joel Adedeji, Oyin Ogunba, etc., has been saddled with documenting the theatrical and dramatic activities of various Nigerian communities while paying scant attention to theoretical issues. This theoretical lacuna is in dire need of being filled if theatrical scholarship is to be enriched. The publication of Prof. Ebun Clark’s book was therefore expected to help fill this hiatus. However, the most “theoretical” portion of this book is, a few paragraphs in the Preface. It is here that, Clark situates Ogunde’s theatre within the context of the quasi-theatrical fairs of A.B. David, Dawodu, A.A. Layeni and G. Onimole of the early 1940s (p.ix–x). She also presents Ogunde as a genius who did not merely receive influences from his inherited Alarinjo theatre, the Ilorin Acrobat theatre and the European variety theatre, but who steered Yoruba theatre along a new path. This he achieved by first, divesting the Native Air Operas and Service of Songs of his period of their visceral contents by introducing “realism and dramatic action” into them. Secondly, Ogunde, in a Promethean spirit, liberated theatre from the sedate confines of the Church and the nobility and took it to the rumbustious arena of the secular public. Clark also stresses a crucial point: Ogunde is not the founder of theatrical professionalism among the Yoruba, but that of the Modern Yoruba theatre. She also insists that the prevailing classification of contemporary Yoruba theatre as either “operatic or folkloric” is wrong as Ogunde had moved it from its “operatic form” by the mid-fifties to its “play form,” which is now the dominant form among its numerous practitioners.

In Chapter One, Clark documents the genesis of Ogunde’s theatre and highlights some historical facts in Yoruba theatre history. First, the Alarinjo theatre antedates Ogunde and this nullifies Dr. Oyekan Owomoyela’s thesis that Ogunde gave Nigeria her first professional theatre company. Clark puts it succinctly:

The greatest of Ogunde’s achievements therefore, is that he engaged the direction of Yoruba theatre and gave it new impetus and dimension. Almost single-handedly he established what is now loosely termed “Contemporary Yoruba Theatre,” of which there are many exponents but of which (Ogunde remains the supreme artist and father figure (5).

Also, Prof. Clark notes that Duro Ladipo’s utilization of folklore in his plays had been preceded by Ogunde, thus Ladipo did not introduce them in Yoruba theatre as claimed by some critics.

However, Clark’s examination of Ogunde’s early plays, like “Worse than Crime,” “Israel and Egypt,” etc., use a textualist approach with frequent recourse to newspaper reports and thus reveals little about the plays’ aesthetic qualities. This is more so since she does not take a contextualist approach to the plays before her forays into the plays and dailies.

Chapter Two chronicles Ogunde’s professional plays and his itinerary within and beyond Nigeria between 1945 and 1966. it also analyzes the themes and techniques of these plays but this exercise runs into a crisis as her methodological tools are under-equipped to interpret some structural changes is Ogunde’s dramaturgy. For instance, when Clark confronts some innovations in Ogunde’s theatre like the introduction of English and Yoruba dialogues she rationalizes this through a cumbersome “flashback” to the Bobby and Cassandra Modern Theatre Party of 1948. This rupture robs this chapter of a coherent historical perspective. Had Clark commenced her study by situating Ogunde’s theatre within the socio-historical subsoil of Yorubaland, the emergence of Bobby Benson as a rival cultural outfit in metropolitan 1948 Lagos would have been highlighted, thus Ogunde’s logical need to refurnish his theatrical arsenal in the wake of a Westernized competitor.

It is in the Third chapter that Clark attempts to contextualize Ogunde’s theatre within the womb of Nigeria’s struggles for political independence. This in itself is commendable for a patently apolitical theatre scholar. Yet this would appear to be the weakest link in her book as it gives a superficial appraisal of the political developments in Nigeria between 1945 and 1960. In fact, her intellectual avatars, James S. Coleman and G.O. Olusanya and their respective books Backgrounds to Nationalism and The Second World War and Politics in Nigeria 1939–53, precipitate a literal analysis of the political structures in Nigeria.1

Nonetheless, Clark rightly links the cultural “renaissance” of this period to the political battles being waged then and describes is as “one face of the political phenomenon” in which Ogunde’s theatre was an active agent. Clark also recognizes Ogunde’s national rather than ethnic consciousness as evidenced in his refusal to align his theatre with either the AG or the NCNC—during the struggles for regional conquests—and his indictment of the Akintola regime in the “wetie” days with his play “Yoruba Ronu.” Rather sadly, however Clark falls into the ethno-chauvinist pit dug by Olu Olusanya, which sees the South as being “materially anti politically” superior to the North. Thus, in spite of Prof. Clark’s attempt to put a sociopolitical flesh on the skeleton of Ogunde’s plays, readers are hardly enlightened about the sociopolitical context that fired the pan-nationalistic imagination of our Hubert. Were Clark to have begun this study with this political chapter in the introductory section of the book, we would have appreciated the theatrical merits of this political warrior better.

Clark’s concluding Chapter traces the evolution of Ogunde’s dramaturgy and identifies three phases: the opera, concert party, and contemporary. These have a common or organic structure—the ijuba (opening), the dance, the drama, and the finale—which has been inherited from the traditional stories, iwi chants and the Alarinjo theatre. In the opera phase (1944-60), Ogunde’s performances are mainly without dialogues and are thus saturated with music laced with elaborate use of folkloristic elements; “folklore, proverbs chants and incantations” (p.110). But Clark has reservations about the use of some of these in theatre:

I am not sure that an extensive use of oral traditions, particularly those of the esoteric kind, has any immediate place in theatre. They hinder rather than promote communication although they do give aesthetic pleasure. (p.120)

This position reinforces the social function of theatre as an agent of communication if not demystification.

Though no hidebound boundaries separate the different dramaturgical phases, Clark identifies the Concert Party phase as having its genesis in 1950, when Ogunde introduced improvisation—which he borrowed from the Ghana Concert Party after his Ghana tours in 1948—in his performances. This phase also saw Ogunde embellishing his performances with European dance tunes in his glees. In the third phase, Ogunde returns to source, jettisons some of the Western influences in his performances and utilizes oral traditional elements in a revitalized form. “Yoruba Ronu,” “Onimoto,” “Aiye” are samples of this phase.

From this analysis, Clark concludes that other Yoruba dramatists like Moses Olaiya (Baba Sala) who ends his performance with a curtain fall and Duro Ladipo, who dispenses with the opening glee and whose cast takes a bow at the end of each performance are on a wrong-foot as they deviate from Ogunde’s “legitimate” format. Clark seems to underplay the fact that various performance-idioms are legitimate in this society, with its various theatrical schools. Nonetheless this book, in spite of its theoretical lacuna which deprives it of a coherent historical perspective, and its being over-weighted in several places with newspaper clippings, is still a very informative sourcebook on our theatrical colossus, Hubert Ogunde. It is a valuable historical document theatre enthusiasts cannot ignore.

  1. See Mokwugo Okoye’s Stories on the Niger (Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1980) and Letter to Zik (Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1979) for a radical documentation of Nigeria’s struggles for political independence.

Ojo Olorunleke, Associate Professor, Dept. of English, Lagos State University, Ojo. He is author of The Poet, State and Poetics: A Cultural Materialist Reading of the Poetry of Agostinho Neto, Okot p’Bitek and Tanure Ojaide (2014), among other scholarly publications. Ojo O. Olorunleke, Ph.D., Dept. of English, Lagos state University, Ojo, Lagos.