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Fred Agbeyegbe: The beauty of a socio-cultural playwright (1)




A lead paper delivered at National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos during celebrations to mark Fred Agbeyegbe’s 80th birthday.

I WISH to announce, at the very outset, my disclaimer of the title I was assigned when I received, at an extremely short notice, the well-thought out invitation to do this enterprise: “The Socio-Cultural Relevance of Fred Agbeyegbe’s plays in Itsekiri World-View.” Clearly, and rightly so, because Fred Agbeyegbe and I are from the same, that is, homogeneous Itsekiri ethnic nationality, I am deemed to have special knowledge of the social and cultural background from which his plays originate, and descend to his fabulous imagination.

The organizers of this event were correct – and they are still correct – to assign me the title they have assigned me. But I am disclaiming my allotted title because I interpret it as a title that wishes me to judge Fred Agbeyegbe’s plays as essentially Itsekiri plays, which strictly they are not – pure and simple, even though quite a number of them, e.g. The King Must Dance Naked (1983), Woe Unto Death (1984) and My Grand-father’s Ghost (2011), and The Last Omen (1985) spring from the playwright’s Itsekiri socio-cultural milieu. I am judging the plays not as Itsekiri plays (or African plays) but as plays. To say what I have just said, however, does not – and should not mean – that I am bracketing off my assessment of the plays aspects of the socio-cultural milieu and temper that inspired them. I may be sounding ambivalent, but my seeming ambivalence should be blamed on the fabulous ambivalence of Fred Agbeyegbe whose aesthetic imagination created the plays which are enriched with ambivalent thoughts, perspectives, emotions, and themes all of which derive from the playwrights’ socio-cultural and historical context.

The beauty of Fred Agbeyegbe as a playwright derives from the core of his creative direction in which diverse senses crisscross prompting motions of ambivalent sensations arising from the cultural milieu or world-view being explored. The King Must Dance Naked, Woe Unto Death, My Grand-father’s Ghost and The Last Omen are four serious plays that validly enunciate the perspective(s) given here. They are fabulous plays which beautifully bring into being the beingness which the playwright fabulously brings into being in different sequences of subjects relating, in varying degrees, to Itsekiri world-view. I propose that my focus in this essay primarily lies here. Simply, I am evaluating Fred Agbeyegbe as a playwright from this perspective.

In her enlightening little but powerful book entitled On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry states thus:
Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable. (3)

The above quotation, on which I hinge my focus, in the examination of the plays, is relevant to Agbeyegbe’s fabulous intentions in his drama, our cited plays of interest. In them elements of reality, magic, fantasy and the supernatural are merged in the endeavour to give point to a moral arising from the playwright’s people’s world-view pertaining to straight, healthy, perfect or near-perfect living in a timocracy, that is, a kind of government in fact a monarchical or royalarchical system in which positive ambition or wish for honour, integrity and transparency is a guiding hallmark or principle. But the playwright does not dwell on this subject in a straightforward manner.

In the plays he creates, or, better stated, in line with Scarry’s affirmation, he recreates the beauty of actual historical events or happenings through the art that makes it impossible to recognize the original events, happenings and the exact sites where they took place. But more significant is the playwright’s offering that beauty continually renews our search for truth and presses us toward a greater concern for justice – politically, spiritually or metaphysically.

The different characters in the four plays, but especially in the first three, arguably receive in the end their desert. The witches, deities, ogres and other supernatural beings which inhabit the plays side-by-side actual or communal denizens – kings, queens, princes, princesses, nobles, diviners and the masses – of the environments in the plays are re-drawn, re-copied, re-photographed, re-described in order to underline Itsekiri idea of eternal, that is, perpetual replicating of an experience that is unceasing, but which the playwright’s people seem not to learn what they should or ought to learn from it. The playwright’s is a beautiful, aesthetic perception, but how many of his people, how many Itsekiri of the modern, contemporary time, within and outside the ruling oligarchic class, truly derive joy from, or appreciate, understand the lesson of the beauty of love of truth that will enrich their lives, collective community and kingdom everlastingly?

A correct answer to this question will lead us to a highly significant area of thematic interest in the plays, a thematic interest which can affect the development of the society the playwright envisages in the plays. This theme is that of attraction which should repel that of repulsion. It is allied to the question of what I wish to call a higher decency which Itsekiri can eternally give to themselves, to their neighbours and to the world through the decent and exemplary conduct of monarchy and nobility, which, unfortunately, is lacking in the plays where intrigues, jealousies, witch-hunting, and other acts devoid of those of rational royalarchy and nobility petrify the distinct senses of the “owners” of the people who follow and obey their every word that should or ought to be “law” that compels compliance – in the true spirit of what Itsekiri call aformasin (meaning that none disputes with the king or answers back in the negative to his word of law). (I call the monarch and nobles “owners” of the people for want of a better term which might adequately capture how the people, the subjects see themselves side-by-side their relationship with the former – their “lords” (oluwene – plural noun or oluwami – singular noun).

In all the plays royalty and nobility are tainted. Even the gods and other supernatural beings are not spared from the foibles of the lesser beings all of whom they have dominion over. They are as guilty as the humans in the plays. Even when a sense of order seems to be restored, in the end in each play, there is always the hidden and un-hidden inferences that man will always be man, he will aided by the gods, always attract chaos to his world because he lacks the capacity to repel that which always invites repulsion to him and his environment. In this wise this aspect of Itsekiri world-view which the plays tend to mirror can be seen as a subtle attempt by Agbeyegbe to teach mankind a lesson on the need to eschew faults of irresponsibility, selfishness, cruelty and political gluttony.

Perhaps I am misreading the afore-mentioned plays and perhaps also I am misreading and misjudging the playwright. But his fabulous imagination that enables him to give plausibility to implausible incidents, actions and characters in the plays illustrates to me the myth of decent or rational royalarchy and nobility which the plays underline. This is one aspect in the plays that will give them an appeal that will be so widespread beyond our shores (in the years ahead), I dare say.

Now, what will rescue the society, I mean the playwright’s community and develop it? The playwright does not sound really revolutionary – in a very acute sense – in any of the first three plays mentioned here for obvious reasons. In his people’s world-view it is both an unforgivable taboo and heresy to go against the monarchy, against royalarchy in heard words or actions – seen and unseen. It seems to me that it is for this reason that Agbeyegbe tends, at the end of each of the plays, to enact the writ of succession to tainted royalty through the means of invocation of harmless supernatural instruments, that is, spiritual transformations, that fetch a decent succession and give oye (crown of power and of wealth) to whom the gods or Almighty God Himself endorsed from Heaven in accordance with the spirit, the fate, the esi or ukpen of the lucky inheritor of power that the new possessor and his (or her) lineage may not decently utilize in the long run to the benefit of his (or her) people and subjects.

Agbeyegbe’s resolutions at the end of the plays seem to me to be too decidedly conventional. Arguments between those who share and cherish this point of view and those who do not are bound to vary. Whatever the case my perspective is cutely and clinically apt for the point in each play where the transformations of succession occur, is indebted to received and popular tradition of Itsekiri – which each play initially set out to quell. Simply, the politics, crises and luck of succession which can only favour the Heavenly-ordained belong in the realm of barren traditional religious logic and phenomenon that is anti-communal progress.

In a really forward-looking community, persons of worth should be in charge of affairs. In the first three cited plays, Agbeyegbe the famous activist and radical sheathes his sword of activism and radicalism. As already said, he does not want to be seen as going against the grain of thought of Itsekiri conventional world-view regarding the current Itsekiri monarchical system. He does not, in the simplest of contemporary terms, pay heed to cultural changes and “relaxation of attitudes,” to borrow Wole Soyinka’s words (“Drama and the African World-View” 181), to the monarchical system of the Warri Kingdom which is the setting of his highly socio-cultural plays such as the ones in focus here.

Obviously, so far, I am critical of the playwright for the politically conservative posture of the plays, but I am not condemning him. Also, my criticism does not vitiate my study of Agbeyegbe as a playwright of dramatic beauty. The King Must Dance Naked, Woe Unto Death and My Grand- father’s Ghost at least attest to this. Even The Last Omen, an interestingly radical play, which promotes the theme of the “Republic of Ideas” (63), is pertinent in this wise. Plainly, the play tends to point out the “lie” in my submission and criticism that Agbeyegbe is not open to communal or cultural changes.

In the play, the impostor-king, a first class tyrant and despot, dies heirless as we witness, for example, in My Grand-father’s Ghost and Woe Unto Death where intrigues finish off princes and princesses angling for the thrones of their fathers and ancestors. What is gripping, beautifully gripping, in The Last Omen as well as in the other plays is the denouement.

In each case, reality and fiction, or magic or myth merge and de-merge and merge – finally. Are we witnessing dream-states in obvious states of reality, signifying the duality of existence in which the beautiful boundary between a known reality and an unknown one is thin or (almost) non-existent? Whatever it is, the plays enact a significant collective socio-cultural experience, even if it is quaintly mysterious, of the Itsekiri people and their world-view of cherished cosmic depths, or “cosmic mysteries,” to borrow Soyinka’s words again (189).

• Professor Afejuku, scholar, poet, activist and columnist is of the University of Benin, Benin City.

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