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Fagunwa, Osofisan and the imperative of intertextuality


The committed playwright usually burdens himself with the task of social engineering. From the shortest piece of expression to the compound-complex treatise, the playwright cannot but relate with the realities of his society. Either as method of criticism through satiric inputs or in mere slapstick engagements, he/she always identifies with the ‘social provenance of ideology’ (Freeden, 2003), which defines his/her purpose, root and critical enterprise. This appears in every work of creation, including works of translation and adaptation where a radical perspective is espoused.

Equally palpable in this regard is the examination of “source” as a guiding factor for stage adaptations by playwrights. It is a popular saying that no playwright writes in a vacuum. This premise is in all regard to the Julia Kristeva’s concept of “intertextuality”-“a permutation of text…in the space of a given text” (1980:36). It has been long established that Femi Osofisan is perhaps the most audacious intertextual author in Nigeria and Africa. (Obafemi, 2008). It is in his penchant for intertextuality that Osofisan’s engagement in The Forest of Promised Harm is worthy of critical reception and close re-reading.

The concept of intertextuality has not only enlarged the corpus of Nigerian literature, but it has also afforded writers and critics the opportunity to review the social cum historical experience which engendered earlier works vis a vis contemporary social imperative. To this end, the new works which can be read as re-writing can be held up as approximating the spirit of the age and reflecting a new ideological stance. Society is always in ferment and literature strives to come to terms with the nuance of every age. What holds for one age is not likely to hold for another. This is why the artistic sensibility of writers of one age differs from that of the preceding of succeeding era. Although, the historical condition can be read as a continuum there are defining indices which set one period apart from the other. Writers put their antenna to good use in deciphering what constitute the zeitgeist that will mediate the literary motifs that will in turn form the focus of works at a particular time.

Literary works of different genres and of different era usually have a connecting nexus which manifest in the human factor of social history. The social imperative of art inheres in its abiding connection with society which is represented by humanity and its environment. Literary history has shown the bias inherent in literature being the product of time and place. Yet, the circumstances of time and place are never static as they are in constant flux. This ever changing circumstance and the need for literature to be reflective of the social moment makes the idea of intertextuality more compelling.

A prose-fiction such as D. O. Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare is typically laden with ponderous manifestations of the supernatural/surreal in contact with natural/human realities. This fluid vertical and horizontal narrative continuum within the Yoruba cosmogony poses immense challenges for the translator in general and the theatre artist who dares embark on a course of adapting this novel for the stage. It is on this premise that I am at once intrigued and excited by Osofisan’s constant and perennial experimentation with the artistic/creative forms which is writ large in this new work of adaptation of The Forest of Promised Harm from the original Fagunwa classic, Igbo Olodumare. My main attraction here is the notable success of the dramatist in achieving his ideological reconstruction of a mystic-laden and afro-didactic mother text without losing its mystical contentual fibre and narrative thread.

Inevitably, this extended review will identify and discuss the motif of ascension in terms of the intertextual qualities of Osofisan’s adapted script The Forest of Promised Harm and the mother text Igbo Olodumare by D.O Fagunwa within the context of contemporary realities, problems of translation, the concept of orality and language use.

The first thrust of the ideological reconstruction of Fagunwa’s journey motif in Igbo Olodumare is the materialistic and ineffable quest for wealth and power that typifies the universal heroic ideal (including Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey in his A Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) espoused in his monomyth). The vaulting search for conquest for its own sake found in Olowoaiye (the novel’s hero) has been long fore-grounded in Osofisan’s own Many Colours Make the Thunder King where Sango, the thunder king, continues to dare—beyond the great rivers , Osun and Oba and the mountains for greater vertical exploits. Osofisan evokes a subtle counter-discourse of the neo-colonial, power structure (ownership of the capital) which pays no heed to the kind and nature of Olowoaiye’s material prosperity and well-being. Osofisan lifts the Olowoaiye narrative from the web of narratives woven by Fagunwa in order to give an ideological focus to the dysfunctionality of capitalist economic vision of society. What is constant in both texts is the wealth Olowoaiye boasts of. This is rendered in the text as a part of the revolutionist motivations that spur Olowoaiye to embark on a journey into ‘the forest of promised harm’ from where no man has ever returned. His inordinate ambition in his epic journey is to carve a niche for himself beyond known bounds and limits.

The playwright, however, in the course of his intervention, identifies that the root cause of socio-economic problems lies in the heart of every individual with its ramifying impact on society. The overriding quest for the fulfillment of the ineffable (want) over life essentialities (needs) is the cause of pervasive social inequality, corruption and social disparity, as manifest in the adapted script. Osofisan reconstructs the ideological perspective of D.O Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare and rapidly catapults his reader unto the plane of his ideological propulsion which he captures in his Preface/Introduction. Fagunwa has dedicated the mother text to the service of entertainment and educative moral order for the younger generations— a module for learning the typical/original Yoruba language and also as a template for students preparing for their First School Leaving Examination. For Osofisan, the play-text is an instrument of ideological engagement from a – dialectical perspective- “his radicalization of old and modern texts and imbuing them with fresh, alternative meanings and vision” (Obafemi, 2008).

Like in the mother text, the ascension motif is prominent. The entire plot of The Forest of Promised Harm centers on the journey motif; the themes and style are tailored to fit the journey of Olowo-aiye into the never-never forest. Sometimes the ascension motif can be used to capture a socio-spiritual redemption, such as when a character is designated a scapegoat, that has to bear the burdens of the community. We find this in Soyinka’a The Strong Breed, which Osofisan recreates, radically as No More the Wasted Breed. In this adaptation, Osofisan rather presents, through Olowoaiye, a character who engages on a quest to conquer himself by setting out on an almost impossible journey to rediscover himself and set a landmark that will forever be written in history. He intimately puts this purpose of his journey over the process of the journey. The subjects of his various encounters are not for mere mortals but Olowoaiye crosses all hurdles and challenges from witches, Ghomids, wild Animals and sprites.

These landscapes of encounters are vividly portrayed through the oral aesthetic interface which Osofisan deploys effortlessly in a unique way that engages the reader/audience in the dramaturgic tapestry, sending both the initiated and on-initiated audience back to the root to pick the aesthetic knowledge and experience and apply it to the dramatic and artistic enactments in the play. Mythology plays its part adequately in connecting Olowoaiye and his quest to the other worlds- of the dead/ancestor, his encounter with witchcraft, sorcerers and spirits- all of which revitalize and refresh the readers’ beliefs and memory, which is also a factor of oral aesthetics.

Similarly, Osofisan deploys songs and musical enactments generously, in ways that the songs become plot markers-the beginning of his journey, the rising conflict, the midpoint, the climax and the point of resolution—all of which are marked by musical patterns. Some songs are used to praise Olowoaiye as he begins his journey, some other songs are used to warn him of impeding danger, while others are used punctuate his encounters and battles with spirits, etc. the generous deployment of songs is connected to the character and the thematic construct of the play.

There is also the critical concern with the question of language use in the play. While The Forest of Thousand Harm is an adaptation, Osofisan has refined the story from its raw and original state in the mother text. In fact, this approach has its ideological and subjective portents to Osofisan as it manifests in many of his previously dramatic texts. For instance, Osofisan deploys Yoruba proverbs and idioms which he translates to pass instruction, to warn or simply to aid proper connection of dialogue between characters. Obviously to the delight of the reader, Osofisan carries his diction from simple to complex-at interval- to express his mastery in the art of language use and his ability to manipulate language to adapt to and serve different purposes as the plot builds up.

In sum, Osofisan’s Forest of Promised Harm is a good read for students-from secondary to tertiary institutions, and the general public. The play will familiarize these educational strata with the essential tenets of African literature as a product of the pre-colonial history of Africa and also as tool for gaining cognitive and epistemic access to contemporary social realities.

Osofian deserves commendation in his untiring effort at updating Nigeria’s literary representations through the intertextual mode. In doing this, he offers the reader another view as well as another handle in the evaluation of the relationship between history and literature on the one hand and that between social reality and literature on the other. What Osofisan has done for Nigerian literature via intertextuality remains unparalleled and it is likely going to be so for a long time. The ingenuity, rigour and creativity required for such an engagement as well as the courage to engender it is quite uncommon. The same can be said of his earlier intertextual engagement with the works of Wole Soyinka and J. P. Clark, which elicited a long and sustained body of literary criticism. It is expected that this new adaptation and rewriting of Fagunwa will inaugurate a new season of literary flourish for Osofisan and a commensurate critical attention for the anticipated new phase.
• Professor Obafemi is a playwright and eminent critic.

In this article:
D.O.FagunwaFemi Osofisan
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