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Tragicosmogony, metatheatre in Eghagha’s The Oily Marriage

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Title: The Oily Marriage
Author: Hope Eghagha
Stage Production: Department of English, University of Lagos & Art-O-Ten.
Director: Art Osagie Okedigun
Date: November 25, 2017
Venue: Arts Theatre, Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, Akoka, Yaba
Reviewer: McNezer Fasehun

The word tragedy originates from two Greek words, tragos (goat) and oide (song, ode). The reason why ‘goat’ is implicated in the etymology of tragedy might be elliptical, but scholars of African Literature would recall the title of John Pepper Clark’s classic, Song of a Goat, the tragedy of its central character, Ebiere and our musing on same in the poem titled Song of a Boat.

Viewing Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex through the lenses of aesthetics, Aristotle, in his Poetics, rubber-stamps the play with what would later be known as the mimetic theory.

He defines tragedy as “the imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude, in language embellished with different types of artistic ornaments, the various kinds being found in the different parts of the play, through pity and fear, effecting the proper purgation of those emotions.”

Various tragedians have, through the ages, defined and re-defined their own idea of the tragic protagonist. For William Shakespeare, he is “either born great, or has attained greatness, or has greatness thrust upon him.”

For Chinua Achebe, the tragic protagonist, Okonkwo, in his African classic, Things Fall Apart, might not have been born great, being the offspring of an efulefu, who “was incapable of thinking about tomorrow”, and therefore, had no greatness thrust upon him, he has however attained greatness by climbing the social ladder, through self-actualization, to become an Ozo titleholder.

For Wole Soyinka, the idea of the tragic protagonist is many and diverse. Sometimes he is the man who dies having been too pulverized to redress injustice whenever he sees one: “the man dies in all who keeps quiet in the face of tyranny” (The Man Died); the society who shies away from playing with his best in the field of development therefore having itself retarded “the society who cannot produce its carrier contains no men” (The Strong Breed); the individual or society who or which is too obsessed with ideological dogma to relate ideas to the world of practice, “the dog in dogma… the zero in the hole of nothing” (Madmen and Specialists); the individual who would rather eat leftovers than dare to plunge into the gulf of regenerative hoard: “life is honour, and it ends when honour ends” (Death and the King’s Horseman), etc.

In his idea of “metatheatre” and how to create the tragic hero, Lionel Abel says the writer takes three steps, namely: a) imbue the protagonist with either hubris (the kind of pride or arrogance that would occasion his downfall) or arête (the overconfidence in the positive side of his selfhood, which would also cause him to fall); b) destroy the protagonist with the hubris or arête, and then c) make the hero to become divine or a daemon, (not demon, from which Soyinka tries to make a distinction in the title of his translation of Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa’s work, The Forest of A Thousand Daemons), by making him more of a philosopher of some sort, as he lives out his destruction.

From the African mythology of how cosmic forces are implicated in the fall of the tragic hero, for example, when, as Achebe would say, in Igbo cosmology, “a man cannot challenge his chi in a wrestling match”, and Okonkwo was drowned in his own hubris; the ill fate that befell the Elesin not to be able to draw a line between honour and a mess of left-over; and the metaphysical forces that goaded Oedipus and Odewale in Oedipus Rex and The Gods Are Not to Blame, respectively, to ruin, we have coined such words as “tragicosmogony” and “comicosmogony” when tragedy and comedy are implicated in the collision course of man with cosmic forces his life as a protagonist.

Ori, in Yoruba cosmogony, like Chi in Igbo cosmology, is a personal deity, which is responsible for whether good or ill fortune befalls a man. In the production of Hope Eghagha’s The Oily Marriage by Art-O-Ten and the Department of English of the University of Lagos, the play opens with the song of ori, which signals from the outset that man and forces “more than man” would collide, and he may have to “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers” and, if not the rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places, but at least with forces greater than him.

With its “core-and-penumbra” plot, The Oily Marriage is the story of a nation of diverse people who has oil as a major natural resource, and whose people have been fated to live together and enjoy the splendor of a commonwealth. Each of the groups comes – Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Urhobo, Isoko, Itshekiri, and other Niger Delta people, (symbolized by in its traditional dress), to scoop from an imaginary booty, not with a bucket or basin that could suggest foreign or colonial influence or sustainable development in the narrative, but with basket, a totem of African cultural materialism, and suggesting, in the play, leakages and wastages in a manner that reminds us of the famous poem by one of the fathers of Modernism, T. S. Eliot, titled The Waste Land.

The groups clash. There is stalemate symbolized by the frozen scene. The Niger Delta traditional ruler, his wife and crown prince are shown as the aristocratic representation of the oppressive ruling class. There is the suitor with aristocratic pedigree contesting with the professional but poor academic to marry the chief’s daughter. Although the latter came in a blazer suit, he is sneered at as “walking naked” to propose to a rich man’s daughter, he is excoriated for being a member of the (failed) intellectual class. Another fellow chief comes to announce his child’s wedding. Marriage contract and celebration are status symbols in the play.

The aluta scene shows students demonstrating with ‘Give-Us-Our-Oil’ placards. Such a Hegelian revolutionary scenes and Marxian dialectics are, in African Literature, often associated with names of such writers and critics as Ngugi wa Thiong ‘O, Biodun Jeyifo, Femi Osofisan, Tunde Fatunde, Micere Mugo, Godini Darah, etc. The exploitative aristocrat tries to identify with the mass movement by claiming to be on the side of the people. Chief’s wife says it is always good to be on the side of the people. But there is a veiled line between social commitment and mere sloganeering. Alhaji brings money to settle the Niger Delta aristocrat. Matchmaking and marriage are used in the play as extended metaphor to comment on corruption in the larger society. They are also used as negotiable instruments and open sesame to climbing the social ladder. Whereas there is true love between the academic suitor and the lady, “there is more to life than true love”, we are told in the play.

For Eghagha in The Oily Marriage, tragicosmogony is when tragedy is entwined with cosmogonic design of “ori”(goddess of fate), as a people destined to live together are yet fated to be sundered by the very means of living and survival they are endowed with.

The society itself, being the tragic hero in The Oily Marriage, is imbued with both hubris and arête in the natural resource of petrodollars that would occasion its tragic fall.

And having attained the status of a socio-economic daemon, ‘he’ lives out his tragicosmogonic life to become the thinker and philosopher creation from who great works of literature would emerge!

As dramatic literature and stagecraft, both the playwright and the director were successful in delivering a play-within-a-play in which family marriage is employed as metaphor and anecdote to illustrate the larger superficial amalgamation of diverse ethnic nations into one modern state. As prescribed by Abel in his idea of the metatheatre, the same way Sophocles and Ola Rotimi imbued Oedipus and Odewale with arête in Oedipus Rex and The Gods Are Not to Blame, respectively, Eghagha soaks Odion, the human symbol of the larger society, in arête as he tries to establish his true biological identity through a DNA test. Then, comes the confessions: a) “Here am I, a product of irresponsible passion”; b) “the culture of silence that gave birth to the present”; and c) “the sins of our father brought us together”, etc. The ethnic groups may be strange bedfellows, yet they remain kith and kin.

Notwithstanding the suffused political message in The Oily Marriage, it comes as a masterpiece of stagecraft the night it was delivered by Art-O-Ten. It was indeed a thought-provoking, but entertaining night for theatre-goers.

Not impervious to the socio-economic determinants of his turbulent national milieu, Eghagha, as a dramatist or poet, remains one of the very few Nigeria’s contemporary writers who has shown deeper commitment to literary practice as opposed to many others who, in rushing to employ literature as weapon of social crusade, tend, in their narratives, to blur the Aristotelian distinction between particular facts of history and the universal truths of poetry! Whereas you have such names of people, events and places like Dele Giwa, M.K.O. Abiola, the annulment of June 12, 1993 election, Lagos, Obalende, etc., categorically mentioned in such works as Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel and Teju Cole’s Everyday is for the Thief, and from the very titles of works, one can readily know what their books are about, Eghagha’s works, from title to thematic preoccupation, characterization, setting, language, symbolism, etc., the reader is engaged in the narration to untie literary knots, discover and uncover meanings, as major attributes that makes the messages of literature resonate for a much longer time than the way any other form of writing would.

In teaching the course, European Classics, Prose and Drama, we have defined Classics as ‘works of enduring value and lasting importance’. This is particularly so when a work transcends the pedestrian particular facts of history to rank on the plateau of the universal truths of literature. Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet and essayist, in his essay, ‘The Functions of Criticism in the Present Time’, says, “If a poet is a dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him; but if he is a true classic, let us applaud him, for that is the meaning of a classic”. With such titles as Rhythms of the Last Testament, Death, Not the Redeemer, Your Death Time is Ten O’clock, and now The Oily Marriage, Eghagha easily reminds his generation of the literary conceits of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th Century. And if as Wole Soyinka would be described in the 60s by literary critics as “…he has taken our napping language, booted it awake, riffled its pockets and scattered the loot into the middle of next week…”, Eghagha may be the answer of the 21st Century to the classical literary riddles of the 17th Century; a “presence not to be put by”, the poet-dramatist laureate waiting to happen, and a nation’s much-needed voice for its literary existentialism.

• Fasehun is of the College of Social and Management Science, Wesley University Ondo.


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