By Sylvester Asoya
In 429 BC, Sophocles, one of the world’s greatest tragedians, staged Oedipus the King, a tragic play that centres on identity. This moving story of a powerful king, who falls from grace, continues to be told and retold by teachers, historians and playwrights. And the inimitable life of Sophocles, the well known dramatist still amazes; moreover, history also remembers his extraordinary character, Oedipus – his choices, his temper, his courage and his sacrifice. Apart from teaching life lessons and changing the course of Greek theatre, Oedipus the King also inspired many adaptations across the world.
It is interesting to note that several centuries after, Ola Rotimi, the great Nigerian playwright and theatre director brought home, this all-pervading question of identity with his adaptation, The gods Are Not to Blame. But Oedipus the King is a classic for many reasons; one of the most significant is the effective use of dramatic irony, a literary device that keeps the audience in a curious way, ahead of the characters. Usually, the playwright empowers the spectators in an extraordinary manner by making them aware of the things that the actors are unaware of.
For those who may not be familiar with the Athenian tragedy or the adaptation by Rotimi, it is a story about a tragic hero whose birth causes great anxiety to his parents and the people of Thebes, a kingdom near Athens. Upon his arrival on earth, the oracle of Delphi reveals that baby Oedipus will kill his father, Laius, King of Thebes, and marry his mother, Jocasta. To avoid a disaster waiting to happen, Oedipus’ father, the king, decrees death for the newborn. But the infant survives the death sentence, enters the world by a twist of fate and a journey of no return begins.
Nobody sees this heartbreaking drama on stage with its terrifying lines, the anguish, the shame, the unawareness, the confusion, the powerful stage movement and the spectacular costumes and colours without re-thinking life and existence. That is the power of drama.
In modern Nigeria, there are also lead actors in politics and business in limbo; “blind”, groping in the dark and acting ignorantly to an informed audience that is already aware of important issues that are still unknown to the actors. Like Oedipus the unaware tragic hero, these state actors are busy pacing the crowded stage, issuing threats and struggling desperately to make sense of the problems of citizenship and governance. These so-called leaders are wallowing in unpardonable ignorance, unaware and unconcerned about our common realities like feeble roads and failing power infrastructure, two critical public utilities that drive growth; hunger, unemployment, diseases, nepotism, mass migration, illegal roadblocks, extortion, insecurity and corruption in high places. And those who created today’s problems yesterday are still calling the shots and casting aspersions because no one remembers. Yet, nobody is paying attention to the fact that the uncontested absurdities of today, like rudderless leadership, thuggery, arson, ballot-box snatching, violence and rigging will become a way of life in our country tomorrow.
I am not sure many Nigerians still remember the crises and avoidable deaths during the general elections earlier in the year and the recent charade that took place in Kogi and Bayelsa States. I remember the threats, the impunity, the coercion, the questionable results and the absence of cohesion. I also remember that these elections had features of great tragic plays, loaded with dramatic irony and meant to teach important lessons to the living.
I love drama for many reasons but above all, because it is life. This love affair began during my secondary education at St. Pius Xth Grammar School, Onicha-Ugbo in Delta State. I remember Ebi Odeigah( a.k.a. Observer Bello), our scholarly and extremely creative senior prefect who was a major influence. Odeigah was exceptionally innovative by the standards of our secondary school days; he was a model prefect who was clearly ahead of his time. Odeigah did not only become a playwright in his teens; he was also a resource person who commanded respect among senior and junior students. In addition, he understood theatre practice at such a young age in an environment that was not even a major urban centre. At the time, he had written and directed The Menace of the Elites, a fascinating play that conferred on this extraordinary senior prefect, a star status. Back in the day, the drama was attention-grabbing, not just because our school was for boys only, but because the boys played female roles effectively with fitting costumes and mannerisms.
A few years after, The Menace of the Elites went on tour. We visited the famous Mary Mount College, Agbor at the time my uncle’s wife, the late Mrs. Mary Asoya was the principal and we made a remarkable impression. We were also at Ede Grammar School, Umunede; St. Augustine’s College, Ibusa; Martins College, Issele-Uku; Onicha-Ugbo Girls’ Grammar School and other schools in the then Bendel State.
Eventually, I ended up as a drama major at the University of Ilorin and this love affair deepened. I must confess, I was a very lousy actor as an undergraduate, I cannot remember playing any spectacular role during my days in the university. But I am sure I did not do too badly as a college actor, this obviously influenced my career choice.
However, our drama teachers were exceptional and dedicated. They taught us enduring lessons about drama and its links with life. They revealed to us, how politics and religion borrowed and even stole from drama. They also exposed us to many theories and the informed views of notable playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Zulu Sofola, Ola Rotimi and other dramatists who drew attention to social and political issues of their time.
But of all the lessons from drama school, dramatic irony remains the most fascinating for me. This literary contrivance, when effectively deployed in play writing, humbles the high and shows the limit of raw power and the transient life that we live. Unfortunately, those who should know are unyielding. These closed-minded people, who ought to drive progress by virtue of their positions and influence, do not want anyone to face up to their thoughts and narrow-minded positions even on issues of common good.
Those who understand Oedipus and his agonizing journey believe that no other lead character or theatre figure excites and inspires like this king of sorrow. For those still in the dark, it must be emphasized that the tragic hero’s travails in this classic work is noteworthy; it shows that man’s fate today or tomorrow, depends on a couple of things but knowledge certainly, remains critical. As they say, awareness determines perception and perception on the other hand, helps in solving problems. So, the search for knowledge must continue, not only on the political scene or on stage, but everywhere for the good of all.