The Role Of Traditional African Theatre In The Development Of Modern African Drama: A Study Of Emeka Nwabueze’s When The Arrow Rebounds And John Iwuh’s The Village Lamb


Modern African literature especially drama, which is the focus of this study by all standards reflect African indigenous theatre aesthetics and values. Most modern African drama depends on traditional forms of African theatre. Unfortunately, some scholars argue that modern African drama is totally new to Africans. Therefore the focus of this study is to reveal that modern African drama is a syncretization of both traditional forms that existed before the period of colonial contact and Western forms of entertainment. There is need therefore, to restore the dignity of indigenous performances which are among the strong hold materials that form modern African literature. We must first appreciate and view our culture from an unbiased perspective because cultural revival is also achieved through cultural preservation. Objectives include ascertaining that themes of most modern African plays are dominated by indigenous culture. The researcher intends to interrogate Nwabueze’s. When the Arrow Rebounds and Iwu’s. The Village Lamb because they bridge the relationship between oral and written works of African literature. The theory of syncretism and qualitative research method are adopted. The study reveals that traditions and in particular between oral and modern written literatures is one great complexity and not a matter of simple evolution. Modern African literatures were born in the educational system imposed by colonization, a mixture of western language and African indigenous performances. The study recommends syncretism that does not subjugate African culture. Finally, attempts should be made in exploring themes that project African values: de-colonization, anti-slavery, postcolonial disappointments, love and modernization as materials for modern African drama



African traditional theatre has been in existence since the beginning of African societies; because it is the society that gives birth to the theatre of a region and period in history. African theatre is rooted in secular and sacred rites that exist as festivals, myths/legends, short stories and other artistic practices which Africans created for themselves. These creative activities are the live wire of drama and theatre in Africa. It is the struggle for existence that enabled the traditional people to create institutions and values that regulate conducts. As the level of social interaction increases, man communicated and expressed through movement perception, songs and ceremonies. These early forms of theatrical expressions evolved into rituals, festivals, myths, culture and other nuances that formed integral part of the communal society and its theatre.

  1. J. C. Echerou affirms that; “Festival is a celebrative drama, a re-enactment of life just as ritual is the translation of the faith into external action” (138).Festival, ritual and drama intermingle activities presented side by side in African societies Enekwe observes that: “There is a vibrant, dynamic and functioning theatre all over African though cities have generally either failed to recognize it because if does not fit theoretical method through which they hold their opinion.” (14).

African traditional theatre is an expression of the people, institutions and experience of the communal society. Therefore, African theatre like the Greek theatre is a creation of man’s social and historic experience that attempt to explain the relationship between man, the gods and the environment. The traditional people constructed meaning and gave interpretations from their daily interactions. Canice Chukwuma Nwosu states that: “Evolutionary trend of African theatre shows evolutionary indices, similar to that of the Western theatre. There is this similitude of a ritualistic beginning, precisely from religious worship and rituals.” (25).

The African traditional theatre is ambivalent as it expresses the traditional historic thought encased in the totality of the culture evolved in attempts to meet with challenges of the environment. African traditional theatre lifts the circumstances of existence in a conflitual environment into entertainment. Thus African theatre does not only mimetic Impulse but expresses a unified design that is perceivable by the people for whom it is meant.African traditional theatre expresses all aspects of the traditional society and gives meaning to the people and their institutions. It presents the culture which comprises of institutions, people and civilization. According to A.B.C Duruaku: “Traditional African drama refers to indigenous African performing art forms that have not been corrupted by modernization over the years. They include those found in festivals, which combine dance, songs, music, chants, speech/dialogue, spectacle etc. (16).

African’s pre-colonial history, the subsequent colonial experience and the complexities of her postcolonial realities exerts enormous influence on her theatre. African theatre is among the known theatres of the world like the western and the oriental theatre; however, uniqueness of African theatre stems from the colonial encounter and other African experimental issues. However, historical and politico-economic factors also affect the nature, theory and practice of African theatre. Meanwhile, one can say that African traditional theatre draws its origin from rituals. Like the Greeks, Canice Nwosu opinions that: “Traditional African theatre is the pre-colonial theatre. “nature theatre” which has its roots in African religious rituals and modeled after the Agrarian, egalitarian and communal African society.” (19).

African traditional theatre originated from secular and sacred rituals. The theory on the origin of African theatre has it that man gave interpretation to the environment based on is experience. Man saw the environment as filled with unpredictable and implacable forces. Therefore, Nwosu affirms that: “Traditional African theatre evolved out of the struggle by the African to gain mastery over nature and understand the phenomenon of the nebulous cosmos” (19).

Man sought various means of explaining these feared phenomena. The processes which appeared to have the desired result were accepted and repeated as the role of the behavioror ritual. Eventually, stories arose which severed mysteries of these rites and occurrence of nature. These rites were performed in their places of origin or taken to other places depending on the purpose. Thus, the place of occurrence became the shrine. It is germane to state that all types of rites draw audience in traditional societies. The audience may be participants or observes the rites. Therefore such rites compel active involvement as they arouse emotions and the community spirit. For example, the audience will always be found in such rites as circumcision ceremonies, marriages, burials and chieftaincy installations. These are all sources of ritual which traditional African theatre adopts. The passage of time and the increasing socialinteraction may necessitate the performance of certain rites out of the context of origin which might compel moderation to suit the purpose. Again such rites may be abundant but the stories around such ritual harden into myths which provide another source of the theatre. So, African dramatic performances are total or ensemble in nature. They are theatric and communal in character; hence, festivals are seen as drama in Africa. However, the Eurocentric theorists in their evolution approach to theory and criticism of African theatre has a different view.   Ruth Finnegan who pioneered this evolutionist view insists that: “Drama in Africa is not typically a wide spread or developed from, what African have is certain dramatic and quasi-dramatic phenomena” (147).

However, Yemi Ogunbiyi maintains that the problem of differentiating and distinguishing between ritual, drama and festival; “Is compounded by the fact the distinction often made between ritual and drama in a society where the sacred is so inextricably linked with the profane, the popular so interwoven with the religions could well be tedious one” (5).

Thus, festival is the drama in Africa but one thing they fail to understand is that Africans are not interested in partitioning actions like Aristotelian action that is whole and complete, with a beginning, middle and an end. In African worldview, there is no dividing line between drama, ritual and festival. African traditional theatre and drama express the relationship between men and the environment, man and man as well as the unseen forces of nature. The environment may include the humans, the forces of nature; however, it is still necessary to distinguish the various aspects for proper understanding of the role of African theatre. The traditional theatre is an institution graphically reaches the individual through his senses in order to reveal the organic relationship between man, the environment and the forces of nature. Thus, African theatre and drama define general situation with an emphasis that maybe religious, economic, political and plentitude of other human situations. Much of traditional theatre and drama present a conflict between man, ritual tradition and forces. Man’s priority and survival in such defined situation is to sustain his masculinity. Thus, the characters of traditional theatre and drama often posses traits that draw them into conflict either with the individual, the environment and forces of nature. Out of the symbiotic relationship grew the traditional theatre. Hence, traditional African theatre manifests in the seasonal festivals, ritualistic dances (for earth and man) that define the existential essence of the African. Ogunbiyi affirms this theory on the origin of African traditional theatre from ritual and states that:

In the course of history, man learned to make nature work according to his needs. The need to meet the requirements of all, motivated efficiency, a certain degree of planning, a strategy and a methodology. Thus, man played at fighting in preparation for victory in real battle over anticipated adversaries. Similarly, hurt devices were initiated to imitate the movement and pacing of the games interacted. The ritual of this expiratory dance for a slaughtered enemy became as it has been arguedthe archetypal African drama. (53).

These imitations of nature and man developed into rituals for the propitiation of the unpredictable nature. Some rites hardened into religious worships while some became secular activities. This is a clear indication that the mimetic impulse is not absent in African traditional theatre. Some of these rites also metamorphosed into secular and legends from initial parts of both secular and sacred aspects of African traditional theatre. David Ker in his study of African theatre affirms that: “Pre-colonial African theatre must include a wide group of performing arts like ancestral rituals, funerary ritual initiation ceremonies, spirit-possession dances, entertainment dance, tragic and comic masquerade, praise songs and oral narratives” (3).

These performances are communal outlets for the expression of communal events. Thus, the practice of traditional African theatre is commonocratic. It shows a deep religiosity, socialization that has been able to distinguish African art from western art.

1.1     Statement of the Problem

It has been noticed over the years, that the first difficulty with which African artists have to grapple with is the subjugation of African indigenous theatre by the West. African traditional theatre is structure generic and must be understood in its historical role and the context of origin. How can people outside Africa be made to understand these facts? Who will make this fact known to them? These and other allied questions constitute the problem of this study.

1.3     Scope of the Study

The focus of the study is to reveal the place of traditional African theatre in the thematic fixations of modern African drama. However, the study is further scopedto analytical study of Emeka Nwabueze’s When the Arrow Rebounds and John Iwuh’s The Village Lamb.  The traditional contents of these plays are shown as clearly as possible to achieve better understanding and appreciation of the role of African traditional theatre to modern African literature. The study analyses the importance of African Traditional theatre to modern Africa drama by drawing from the rich treasure of ancient myth, history and folklore. Nevertheless, a general idea of traditional African theatre is not left out.

1.4     Significance of the Study

This work is significant because it discusses the role and importance of traditional African theatre to modern playwrights. It also contributes a lot in helping other students who will carry out research in the area of traditional African theatre and modern African drama with reference to When the Arrow Rebounds and Village Lamb.

  • Aim and objectives of the study

This work is an attempt to restore the dignity of traditional African theatre to its pristine status and importance. Because in recent years, the traditions of Africa have been suffering from cultural coma in the hands of some Europeanized people. And this created an untidy environment in African. The researcher tries to remind other scholars on their social fact, moral values, social institutions and myths. It could also make us appreciate fullyboth traditional and modern theatre.

  • Research Methodology

Due to the nature of this research work, the researcher adopted qualitative research method which involves visits to libraries and most especially the internet. Therefore, the library, online computer and content analysis research approaches are combined.

Pages:  70

Category: Project

Format:  Word & PDF              

Chapters: 1-5                                 

Material contains Table of Content, Abstract and References.


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