Fred Agbeyegbe: The beauty of a socio-cultural playwright (2)
CONTINUED FROM LAST FRIDAY
THESE cosmic depths, these “cosmic mysteries” belong to the domain of magical realism, a significant characteristic of the literature of postcolonial culture which Agbeyegbe also espouses through his meaningful focus on the world of his Itsekiri people. Magical realism, as defined by Lydie Moudileno, is a genre in which “the real and the surreal, reality and hallucination, the quotidian and the extraordinary” (Qtd. in Isidore Diala 78) blend, with the ultimate result that a distinctive world is fore-grounded, carved out of the real world of culture and history. I will call it- I mean magical realism, an unrealistic realism which invites us to see the recreated, distinctive world from the complex prism of “double- consciousness” in which we see the fore-grounded world with contemporary questions in mind, while at the same time imagining it in its original state.
In this doubleness lies a significant dramatic rule enunciated by Agbeyegbe: his plays, with particular reference to the cited ones, speak to us as those espousing a distinctive communal (Itsekiri) view of life/existence but always showing us something of their contemporary relevance. As they speak to us in their mode of unrealistic realism in which they retain something of the original accents of the communal culture/world-view that inspired them, we still see aspects of the modern world of human experience they depict. Thus an aspect of their beauty as plays derives out of the playwright’s literary, dramatic skill employed consciously to invoke unrealistic realism and the Itsekiri worldview they typify to gauge contemporary questions.
Agbeyegbe likes mythology but dislikes conventional culture and the history that inspires it (even though, as already argued, he is squeamish about stating his dislike clearly, succinctly – without compunctions or without qualms). It is for this reason that in The King Must Dance Naked, for instance, he gives us an intriguing exploration of a female protagonist who violates the culture and history of her birth and royalarchy through circumstances sanctioned by the gods and through her actions equally sanctioned by the gods.
In the course of the play her course of action as “King Omajuwa” entwines with happenings, conditions and occurrences beyond her control in line with her fate as endorsed by the gods – Besiginwa in the Itsekiri worldview. Through the playwright’s deft handling of her creation, her true identity as a female king is concealed until the denouement when she is exposed. But then the reader cannot but fall in love with her as a “statesman” whose mythical or mythological violation of royalarchy becomes the keynote of a society or community that the playwright subtly enjoins to be in quest, so to say, for independence for its women who must attain equality with its men.
In the play, mythology and history – in terms of contemporary ideas in support of “King Omajuwa” – rub shoulders and enter into some illicit congress, which “King Omajuwa” makes not illicit with her “dancing naked,” an action that paves the way for her son Mejebi to succeed her. Her statement to the effect that she is “First in the line of my mother’s children” (16) foreshadows the accession of her son who will now succeed her mother as king – meaning that, historically, Mejebi’s lineage shall be traced to “King Omajuwa” – her mother-king!
What the reader may believe as historical truth or fact and what he may merely enjoy as fiction or myth, the play foregrounds in a compelling manner that illuminates and underlines its existentialist characteristic which the protagonist also endearingly typifies. Unlike the other protagonists, in Woe Unto Death, The Last Omen, and My Grand-father’s Ghost, “King Omajuwa” does not take a plunge into the cosmic depths of annihilation. She does not really experience the sobering ritual that is imperative, given her circumstances in the play. Her dynamism is that which is required in a community that must experience change and transition in the contemporary time. Despite the obvious flaws and contradictions in her character and creation, she possesses the kind of consciousness that befits Itsekiri matrilini. The illusions of her creation are in tandem with the realities she represents.
There is no other female character including the impatiently but positively subversive Ogbodu of Woe Unto Death, in any of Agbeyegbe’s plays that is quite like “King Omajuwa.” In fact, Princess Ogbodu and Queens Irorho and Egwaruna (also of Woe Unto Death) lack her dynamism, tact, intriguing mysteriousness and awesome ambition and unbridled courage, all of which enable her to damn anything and everyone, including her fate and the gods. In Itsekiri world-view a woman like her must highly be respected as a high person of worth, a “man,” a “king” without phallus – or, better, a possessor of a bosom bigger and greater than a phallus. She, to put it simply, is a woman worthy of emulation by every Itsekiri woman worthy of her woman-hood. And she must be celebrated as a woman who is greater than a man, than any man.
In the plays cited here there is no doubt that Agbeyegbe succeeds in creating “Beauty” that “brings copies of itself into being.” The Itsekiri worldview he captures in the plays enhances this beauty, and goes further to emphasize their socio-cultural relevance as Nigerian and African plays of distinction – despite the ambivalence and contradictions in them and in the playwright’s compositional perspective. Ultimately, Fred Agbeyegbe’s beauty is the beauty of dramatic art that fuses successfully sequences of subjects relating to the socio-cultural worldview of his Itsekiri people, a worldview that mirrors simultaneously as well the much bigger, expanded Nigerian compass. But despite the Itsekiri world-view and settings of the plays, we will not be in the wrong to rate him as a playwright of beauty writing for a universal audience. Agbeyegbe’s aesthetic vision outpaces and stretches beyond the culture he interrogates.
• Professor Afejuku, scholar, poet, activist and columnist is of the University of Benin, Benin City.