ARTS AS POLITICS AND POLITICS AS ARTS- ADEWOYIN OLAWUNMI.M
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Visual arts and politics have been of tremendous impact on each other because they are considered as the voice and conscience of any given society. Through the visual arts, we see and hear reflections of everyday life through music, dance, drama or film created and compiled by various individuals who are the true custodians of every society.
Political dramas are dramas that focus on fulfilling the yearnings and aspirations of the general public. While some audiences focus on being entertained, others want the theatre to provide insight and understanding about political and social issues. In many repressive and authoritarian regimes, drama and theatre provide entertainment to distract audiences from the brutal conditions under which they live or to serve as lessons in the virtues of the ruling powers. For example, in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, theatre and motion pictures were used to extol the virtues of Adolf Hitler’s regime.
Russian actor, director and dramatic theorist, Konstantin Stanislavski could not separate the theatre from its social context because he viewed theatre as a medium with great social and educational significance. During the civil unrest leading up to the first Russian revolution in 1905, Stanislavski courageously reflected social issues on the stage. In the violence of revolution, Lenin’s personal protection saved Stanislavski from being eliminated along with the Czardom. The USSR maintained allegiance to Stanislavski and his socially conscious method of production and his theatre began to produce plays containing Soviet propaganda.
Political drama/theatre can be categorized into:
AGITPROP: They are productions designed to by people to agitate or fight for their rights. Agitprop is a contraction of “agitation” and “propaganda”. The term originated in Bolshevist Russia (the future Soviet Union), where the term was a shortened form of otdel agitatsiei i propagandy ie Department of Agitation and Propaganda, which was part of the central and regional committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The term propaganda in the Russian language didn’t bear any negative connotation at that time; it simply meant “dissemination of ideas”. In other contexts, propaganda was supposed to act on the mind, while agitation acts on the emotions, although both usually went together, thus giving rise to the cliché “propaganda and agitation”.
The term “agitprop” gave rise to agitprop theatre, a highly-politicized leftist theatre originated in Europe of 1920s and 1930s and spread to America as well, with plays of Bertolt Brecht being a notable example. In the western world, agitprop has a negative connotation. In the United Kingdom during the 1980s for example, socialist elements of the political scene were often accused of using agitprop to convey an extreme left-wing message via television programs or theatre. After the Bolshevik revolution, an agitprop train toured the country with artists and actors performing simple plays and broadcasting propaganda. It had a printing press on board the train to allow posters to be reproduced and thrown out of the windows if it passed through villages.
GUERRILLA THEATRE: Guerrilla theatre is also known as Theatre of the Oppressed. Like the agitprop, they are plays used to instigate strikes, boycotts, and protests or artistically incite exploited masses to join hands, rise up and overthrow any government or regime seen as exploitative and reactionary.
In defining guerrilla theatre, Kenyan poet, playwright and novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o made the now famous statement that ‘Every writer is a writer in politics,’ and that there is nothing like political neutrality in literature (Ngugi: 1981 Preface). According to him, the main struggle on the African continent today is the confrontation between local and foreign capitalists on one hand and the masses of the people on the other. He believes that in this struggle, the creative writers cannot afford to stand by idly but must get involved because the basic subject matter of literature are the broad social, political, economic and cultural struggles going on in our societies; that imaginative writers and intellectuals must be fully committed in helping the masses to bring about a new social order.
Spoken drama in China developed during the early 20th century, as the country increasingly came into contact with foreign cultures. Playwrights Tian Han and Cao Yu were among the first to write original Chinese drama, addressing such issues as class struggle and political oppression. After Japan invaded China in 1937, the theatre in China was increasingly used to voice anti-Japanese sentiments. In 1949, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, government control over theatre increased; plays were based upon officially approved models that dealt with problems of the new society under Communism.
Russian actor, director and theorist, Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold inspired revolutionary artists whose films employed actors who worked in Meyerhold’s tradition. An example of his style of acting can be found in the films of Sergei Eisenstein, who cast actors based on what they looked like and their expression and who followed Meyerhold’s stylized acting methods. In Strike, which portrays the beginnings of the Bolshevik revolution, the oppressive bourgeois were always obese, eating, drinking and smoking, whereas the workers were athletic and chiselled.
The souring political atmosphere in the African continent had a profound impact on drama as on other genres. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976) written in collaboration with Micere Mugo and Tanzanian playwright, Ebrahim Hussein’s Kinjeketile (1970) have received wide acclaim as masterpieces meant to motivate responsible socio-political action. The former deals with the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya while the latter was set during the Maji Maji uprising from 1905 to 1907 against the German colonialists in Tanzania; among the major themes treated in both plays are exemplary heroism and the relentless struggle for political freedom. The didactic nature of both plays testify to the authors’ commitment to the cause of the exploited masses, ‘We believe that good theatre is that which without making mistakes and weaknesses, gives people courage and urges them to higher resolves in their struggle for liberation” (Ngugi and Mugo: 1976 Preface).
POLITICAL DRAMA/THEATRE IN THE AFRICAN CONTEXT
In recent decades, traditional performances have been used as a means of self-expression and empowerment by people facing hostile political or social circumstances. For example, the Tiv (Nigeria) used traditional Kwagh-Hir puppetry and masquerade theatre to voice opposition to political victimization during the 1960s. Colonialism led to the suppression of indigenous art forms such as drumming and dancing; while the Western missionaries sought to instil Christian values through Biblical dramas and pageants (for instance, the Roman Catholic Church’s vast medieval passion plays in Rwanda and DRC), Africans often adapted European dramatic forms to their own satirical or political purposes. In 1915, the Ghanaian playwright, Kobina Sekyi wrote The Blinkards, a full-length play that ridiculed the Fante noveau riche of Cape Coast who “abjured the magic of being themselves” in favour of uncritical acceptance of European norms and values.
Known as the “father of Nigerian theatre”, “father of Nigerian traditional drama” or in some other quarters, “father of contemporary Yoruba theatre”, Hubert Ogunde founded the first Yoruba traveling theatre troupe in 1944. It performed both biblical and later satires that dealt with topical events in Nigerian politics in urban areas. In Strike and Hunger, there is a fictional setting of feudalism where a foreign king (Yejide) usurps the throne and supresses the rights of the citizens and drives them into working for very miserable pay. Yoruba Ronu (Yoruba think) is about the challenges facing the Western region in the 1960s and Nigeria’s slide towards the civil war. The play viciously attacked the disunity, rigging of elections, allegations/counter-allegations of tribalism and bickering among the Yoruba political leaders as it mirrored the intrigues within Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group and his conflict with Chief S.L. Akintola. The play which also blasted the regional government for their corruption and repression proved to be very revolutionary that its production in Western Nigeria was prohibited but was very successful in other regions of the country.
African plays were produced in indigenous and European language from the 1880s onward. Playwrights such as Esau Mthethwa wrote social satires about local life in the Zulu and Xhosa languages. The epoch-making era of nationalism produced a number of African playwrights who merged African theatrical forms with European norms. In some countries, independence spawned efforts towards radical social forms into which playwrights were (still are) sometimes co-opted while in some others, the new regimes soon inspired playwrights to use theatre as a vehicle for political opposition and in some cases mobilization. Ghanaian playwright, Efua Sutherland was associated with the socially reformist government of Kwame Nkrumah; Raymond Sarif Easmon of Sierra Leone scathingly attacked ethnic prejudice and power mongering in his play The New Patriots (1966) while Ugandan playwrights Robert Serumaga and Byron Kawadwa sought symbolic, mythical and abstract forms in which to express their opposition to the regimes of Milton Obote and Idi-Amin Dada.
Apart from the popular travelling theatre of Ogunde and his followers, there is also the literary drama which was predominantly Anglophone, university-based and elitist in nature. One of the first practitioners, James Ene Henshaw wrote several plays such as This is Our Chance, Children of the goddess, Medicine for Love and Dinner for Promotion which were commentaries on social and political life in Nigeria during the pre and post-independent years. They also treat issues of culture contact and conflict of the problems of building a coherent nation out of diverse ethnic groups and of morality in social dealings.
Nigerian playwright and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka has tended to write two types of plays; the political plays and the social/metaphysical plays. The former exposes the bizarre, insensitive and bestial nature of governance in contemporary Africa. In 1978, he founded the UNIFE Guerrilla Theatre which presented plays and sketches in motor parks, market places and street corners attacking corruption and political oppression. A Dance of the Forests (1957) was written for the Independence Day celebrations but at the same time banned for its veiled prophecy of internecine conflict. A Play of Giants (1984) parades and ridicules four flamboyant African despots (Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now DRC), Marcias Nguema of Equitorial Guinea and Sani Abacha of Nigeria) as they display their buffoonery at the United Nations headquarters in New York, King Baabu (2002) premiered at the National Theatre savagely attacked the dark days of the Abacha despotic rule in Nigeria.
Ola Rotimi entered the Nigerian dramatic and theatrical scene after “the dust of the first renaissance had settled down with people like J.P. Clark, Wole Soyinka, Ulli Beier and others contributing to the emergence of the Nigerian dramatic culture. In the gods are not to blame which is an adaptation of King Oedipus, Rotimi uses the metaphor of communal dispute, self-love and ethnic pride to symbolize the problems that culminated in the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970. The play is a sharp warning to Nigerians to accept responsibility for what is happening to them rather than blaming everything on forces beyond their control. Our husband has gone mad again (1977) is a grotesque revelation of happenings within Africa’s political landscape after the post-independence years. Lejoka-Brown, a retired military man ventures into politics with the sole aim of embezzling the nation’s treasury but as a result of his authoritarian, old-fashioned and myopic point of view, he is voted out of office, leaving the masses to appoint whoever they wanted as leader. The play goes a long way in explaining that anyone vying for any political office must have the general masses in mind.
In If… A Tragedy of the Ruled (1983), Rotimi takes his first stride towards collectivism as a means for social change. The play focuses on the socio-economical fatal consequences of fake electioneering in a society that lacks direction and purpose. In this play, Rotimi’s envisioned therapy for the socio-economic malaise of Nigeria is a complete national socio-political and moral re-orientation.
The collective struggle for social evolution which was aborted in If… due to massive electoral fraud was achieved in Hopes of the Living Dead (1988). The Orwellian dictum, “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others” rears its ugly head wherever oppressive elements lord their influence over a helpless few in the society. Under the purposeful leadership of Ikoli Harcourt Whyte, the lepers who were faced with the threat of being flushed out of the Port Harcourt General Hospital put up stiff resistance after which they eventually got decently resettled in Uzuakoli. It happens in Nigeria today with people in government awarding themselves obscene mega salaries and allowances, embezzling money in billions and in James Bond-like manner, slipping through the hole-infested nets of ‘decorative anti-fraud bodies’. On the other side, we have the governed having to make do with slave wages, the poor foray the dustbins of the rich, wear discarded clothing while they wait in vain for electricity that never comes, watch in vain for water from dry taps that never run. The play is also a story of hope. If the lepers could mobilize and stand up for their rights, then Nigerians can also do the same. The lepers stood their ground and got their reward- a place/hospital of their own. Will Nigerians be able to get a place of their own with lights that come on at a flick (without being deafened by power generating sets), water flowing when taps are turned (without first digging private boreholes) roads devoid of portholes, honest wealth acquired unthreatened by armed robbers, a place designed to be inhabited by human beings and worthy of the name ‘home’? The responsibility is not for the government alone but in the collective hands of the masses.
Rotimi’s avant-gardist, absurdist experimental play, Holding Talks (1979) is an indictment on present world that engages in so much talk but little positive action. According to Rotimi, it is an act of betrayal to society for individuals to sit round tables talking endlessly about problems without any thought of translating their ideas into action. The play is also a commentary on contemporary happenings where the Third World is perpetually at the mercy of the welfare of the more industrialized and advanced nations.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, a group of young people started expressing unease about the prevailing liberal-conservative ethos in the Nigerian theatre. They were mostly erstwhile admirers of Soyinka but were no longer interested with his vision of society; while paying homage to his artistic skill, they argued that he was giving adequate leadership in his plays about what the masses ought to do to alleviate their social and political problems. With varying degrees of sophistication, they expressed their desire to see the theatre in the vanguard of the search to society’s problems and as a propaganda machine designed to achieve this purpose.
A folklorist and dramatist, Femi Osofisan approaches the diverse problems that confront man in his society, in parables and song. Once upon four robbers (1980) bases its political commentary on the government’s practice of publicly executing armed robbers. The government of General Yakubu Gowon had at that time responded to the development unimaginatively by promulgating a decree prescribing death by the firing squad for people convicted for drug trafficking. In no time, the public execution of criminals at the Atlantic waterfront in Lagos soon became a big spectacle watched by the high and mighty as well as the lowly placed in the society. Osofisan treats this sadistic response with great revulsion in the play.
Midnight Hotel (1986) captures the Nigerian society during the Sheu Shagari regime (1979-1983). In spite of his promises during his campaign to transform Nigeria, his administration became increasingly debased and visionless; federal and state governments went on a spending spree given the generous five billion oil earnings. The country soon became a sprawling market for that was vile and insane. Other vices associated with ‘midnight’ are the bourgeois smuggling contraband into the country while people in charge of customs and immigration whose duty is to check against such vices turn away their probing eyes and members of parliament using sex as a yardstick for awarding contracts.
Tegonni (An African Antigone) is an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, a classical tragedy. Set in the late 19th century Oke-Osun, a fictitious town in Yoruba land, this play questions the issue of military dictatorship as it exposes the colonial interference in the indigenous socio-political structure and also dramatizes the greatest assault upon democracy in Nigeria when General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the freest and fairest election in June 12, 1993. Consequently, many lives were lost, houses were burnt and some people claimed that it was a tribal war was fought based on tribal sentiments. The truth is that no war was fought on the basis of ethnic groups but the so-called capitalists desiring to loot the national treasury; however, the solution is the collective effort of the general masses to liberate themselves from the shackles of oppression.
Bode Sowande one of Nigeria’s political playwrights was given one of France’s most distinguished honours to men of letters, the “chevalier des arts et des letters” in June 1991 by the then French Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr Jacques Laureau for the totality of his dramas. With plays such as The Night Before, Farewell to Babylon and Flamingo, Sowande’s themes transcend the social and domestic; they are immensely political and radically so. The significance of the plays lies in the call for the mass protest against oppression.