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(4): A Sketchy Appraisal of Femi Osofisan’s Women of Owu

Muhammad Muhsin Ibrahim
Department of English and Literary Studies,
Bayero University, Kano

The Author’s Biographical Notes

Born in 1946 in Erunwon village in Ogun state, Nigeria, Femi Osofisan is a prolific critic, poet, novelist, and playwright, whose work mainly attacks political corruption and injustice. He was educated at the universities of Ibadan, Dakar, and Paris. A professor of Drama since 1985 at the University of Ibadan where he has spent most of his adult career, Osofisan was the General Manager and Chief Executive of the National Theatre Lagos. He has won prizes from the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) for both drama (1980) and poetry (1989) and in 2004 he was awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM), the highest academic prize in Nigeria.

An Introduction

As contained in the play’s blurb, it is an African re-reading (i.e. adapted version) of Euripides’ classic, The Trojan Women. It was first commissioned by the Chipping Norton Theatre, United Kingdom. Going by more notes by some reviewers on it, the play was well received, and extolled for its quality – materially and academically, if I may say – and the performance too was applauded.

            The play is among what is described as the literary drama product from Africa. It is so delineated because it is a play-text, and a reminiscence of European (read: Greek) theatre production. The story is domesticated in the sense the setting is localized to a Nigerian south-western city-state dubbed Owu; the characters’ names indigenized to Yoruba names; and so on.

The Issue of Originality in African drama

Being the text is an adaptation of a European play, it is pertinent, however briefly, to talk on the concept of originality in African drama. Losambe and Sarinjeive (2001:146) point out that the issue of originality, in an individuated fresh way, in drama in general is a delicate one. Many “classical” dramas produced in Africa and elsewhere were a re-reading of one or another European playwright. For example, Ola Rotimi’s magnum opus, The Gods Are Not To Blame, is a typical example based on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. As it is the case sometimes, other dramatists like J.P. Clark, Wole Soyinka, etc. identify the area of ritual as perhaps the richest source of material. Soyinka has done that in The Strong Breed, which is based on Yoruba ritual.
So, Osofisan’s Women of Owu is nothing new, or out of the tradition. The play, however,
marks a departure from the usual topics the playwright treated. First, it is one of his few adapted European dramas. Second, it is the first in which he treats the theme (of war; tragedy) other than the moral, social, econo-political ones he is known to have been treating.

The Concept of Tragedy

Tragedy is seen as the formal dramatic form, which began with a performance by an ancient Greek dramatist in the person of Thespis. Aristotle, in the most discussed sentence in the Poetics, said that tragedy by means of pity and fear brought about the purgation (catharsis) of such emotions.
            Women of Owu has not failed in eliciting that profound catharsis. Osofisan uses a mythical fact through retelling a Greek mythology to present ideas on war-mongering, and expose human predicament caused by another fellow human. It further clearly deals with topics such as the difference between a just and an unjustified war, the treatment of war victims, the principle of revenge, the fate of the defeated and, finally, the concept of sacrifice.

The Play

The play comprises five pertained scenes. Like almost all dramas, it has a beginning, middle and an end, though a fragment of flashbacks is used through a recount of some incidents that occurred before others.
            It opens with an aftermath of a tragic war that ravages a city-state called Owu with two aggrieved women sent to fetch water by the conquering Allied Forces of Ijebu, Ife and Oyo. The forces claim to have come for a rescue mission of the people of Owu from the bondage in the hands of their king, whom they refer to as a despot, and for the Maye, the leader of the Allied Forces, to re-claim his wife who was taken formerly as a captive along with others by the Owu soldiers after sacking the army of Ife in one of their previous battles. This second “reason” is in fact what causes the war.
            The two women meet Anlugbua, a deified god and the former Owu leader. After showing his ignorance to what happened to the village, the two women accuse him, as well as other so-called gods whose responsibility is to safeguard the village, of laxity, carelessness and lack of concern towards their affairs.
            Erelu, one of the women, and an ex-wife of the former king of Owu, recounts her ordeal in the second scene. She and other distressed women lengthily lament their experiences and sing dirges. Then another deified goddess, Lawumi, who is Anlugbua’s mother, comes onstage. She and Erulu, firstly, discuss how the village is ruined; Anlugbua later joins them. The two parties (of gods and humans) point accusing fingers at one another. The gods maintain that Owus err against a “higher” god, Sango (the Yoruba god of thunder), and hence they (the gods – Anglugbua and Lawumi) forewarn them of the war. The peoples’ arrogance and defiance become their hamartia.
            Gesinde, an officer and a herald of the Allied Forces, is sent by the generals to the women to tell them to prepare, as they would be shared among the senior military officers. The daughters of the royal house are the first; Orisaye is particularly chosen by Kusa, a top officer, while one other is murdered. She (Orisaye) tries to resist; further saying that she will smite the prospective husband if taken to him. Many take her as mad, and think that she can do no harm to him more especially since he is revered and regarded as a warrior by all and sundry.
            In the midst of this, all eyes turn to Erulu; the women and particularly Adumaadan, her daughter-in-law, blame her for all the destruction of the city and the hardship they are in. Dejumo, the slain prince, her son, is destined, as cautioned by the gods, the oracles, since birth as an ominous baby to bring misfortune to the city if not killed. Dejumo was not killed in infancy, but lived to destroy his village for the sake of his hateful marriage with Iyunloye, the wife of Maye, the leader of Ijebu. It is in trying to take revenge after that the war is waged on Owu, which lasted for seven years, and, which, as a result of, the whole village is torn to shreds and rubbles; the king killed, his people massacred, and their women shared like war spoils and assigned to servitude under the Allied Forces. Even the life of the last heir to the throne of Owu is not spared.
Iyunloye, looked at by all as the secondary cause of the war, is severely accused and condemned. She is called all names. When the Maye expresses his desire to take her back, Erulu cautions him to be wary of her deception, or best, not to take her in his entourage. Before he makes up his mind, a story reached them that their town is being attacked. So they abruptly leave.
            The summoning of the god, Anlugbua, by Erulu results to her death, an honourable death to save the future from eternal damnation. It is, again, an act like hara-kiri as she cannot withstand the predicament. This seems the ultimate resolution reached in the play, which is somewhat uncommon of a tragic drama. The misery of the people does not end by her “honourable” death; the death, simply, uplifts her stature, and shrinks that of the gods.
            As in the original play by Euripides, the reader is “lost in a forest of ambiguities” (Sewall, 1959; 83). If the gods are as useless as shown, then what is the essence of them being revered by the people? What is the fate of the women? Is Iyunloye taken by the Maye, left or killed?

Conclusion

The play is, more than obvious, about war; and the character ascribed to gods in it states that the making and ending of war is like any other decision, solely man’s responsibility. Divine powers indeed exist, as part of the mystery of the universe; but the only one of them that man claim to know is his Chance, which, unfortunately, is unreliable, elusive. The final conclusion reached is: trust no god, blame no god; look only at yourself.

Reference

Losambe, L. & Srinjeive, D. (2001). Pre-Colonial and Post-Colonial Drama and Theatre in Africa. Eritrea: Africa World Press.

Osofisan, F. (2006). Women of Owu. Ibaban: University Press PLC.

Sewall, R.B (1959). The Vision of Tragedy. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Vellacott, P. (1975). Ironic Drama; A Study of Euripides’ Method and Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Recommended Reading
(for handy notes and summary of the play)

J.O.J Nwachukwu-Agbada, et al. (2011). Exam Focus; Literature-in-English, 2011-2015 for WAEC (WASSCE) and NECO (SSCE). Ibadan: University Press PLC.

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