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African Drama as a Critique of Social Systems

In: English and Literature

Submitted By nyangausamora
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Samora Nyamongo Nyangau-C50/CE/24046/2013
Dr.J.K.S Makokha
ALT811 Drama in Africa
Drama as a criticism of social systems with reference to selected plays of Efua Sutherland and Tewfik Al Hakims.
Criticism is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes and also the analysis and judgment based on the merits and demerits of a particular system .In this essay the first definition will be appropriate considering the plays under scrutiny. Therefore, criticism of social systems refers to the exposition of how various entities whether cultural or political in a society have flawed hence need restructuring to have morality and sanity prevail. Poor leadership systems and barbaric cultural systems will be dissected with ample illustrations from four African plays revealing social injustices and oppressive cultures. Social injustice is a relative concept concerning unfairness in a society in regard to the manner in which the leadership divides rewards and burdens .Tewfik Al Hakims’ plays The Sultans’ Dilemma and Song of Death will be used together with Mohammed Ben Abdallah’s The Verdict of the Cobra and Trial of Mallam Ilya.
At the beginning of Sultan’s dilemma we learn that a stake has been set up to which a man condemned to death is tied. The Condemned Man is eager to know the hour of his execution as he refers to his execution as a joyous event to the executioner. The executioner tells the Condemned Man when the Muezzin climbs to the minaret of the Mosque and gives a call to dawn prayer he will breathe his last. At that time the executioner will raise his sword and swipe the Condemned Man’s head because those are the orders. In other words, the executioner has no verdict of his own instead has to execute as instructed by the superiors. We learn that the Condemned Mans’ offence is to claim that he was the one who sold the Sultan to the palace. The Sultan was a young boy of six lost and abandoned in the Circassian village raided by Mongols. The execution however does not take place since the Muezzin does not call people for dawn prayers as expected. The condemned man asks the executioner why he should be executed without the trial before a judge. Ironically, the executioner says it is not his business whether the condemned man has been put on trial before a judge or not. To exacerbate the condition the executioner says he is furthering the Sultan’s orders. When the condemned man seeks to know his offence; the executioner reminds him he has been ordered to cut off his head on uttering a word about his crime. When the execution fails the Condemned man is accorded a chance to be heard in a trial attended by the Sultan himself. The Sultan is perplexed by the man’s confession hence reluctant to have him executed. This is because the Sultan learns that had it not been the Condemned Man he will not be a Sultan. A legal crisis arises presenting the Chief Cadi with the challenge they must face if they are to keep the law. The Cadi gives the Sultan two equally challenging choices given that he was to be auctioned and then manumitted before being reinstalled as the Sultan since he was an alien. The Cadi says,” Your Majesty, but choose between the sword that imposes and yet exposes you and the law which threatens and yet protects you”.(125)
The Sultan chooses the law hence he is subjected to auction as provided for in the constitution. A wealthy Lady through an Unknown Man wins the bid but is adamant to heed to the conditions given to her concerning her obligation to manumit the Sultan for reinstatement without reimbursement. She agrees on condition that the Sultan spends a night in her place. However, the agreement is broken as the Muezzin is coerced to call people for dawn prayer before the agreed time compelling her to release the Sultan. The Cadi while instructing the Muezzin to call people for prayers says he is the one to take responsibility for any eventuality. This among other incidents in the play portrays a wave of unjust and archaic systems that deserve lampoon as discussed below.
In this society execution of people is an art that calls for perfection. This is why the executioner tells the condemned man it was in his interest that he should enjoy quiet and peaceful sleep. Complete rest will put the executioner in excellent health, both in body and mind to perform his work perfectly. The work of the executioner has to do with cutting clean condemned people’s necks. Boisterously, the executioner brags of his masterful work by saying when he drinks he is very perfect but if sober his work goes all to hell. He says he was charged with the job of executing someone while sober. He gave the person under execution a blow that his head flew off into the air and landed far away. From the wine merchant we learn the condemned man is an old slave trader well known to everybody. He is no murderer or thief but his head was to fall at dawn just like that of any murderer or thief. The drunken executioner tells the maid to go away when she comes to shut him up. The executioner calls her ‘server of vice and obscenity’. There is an exchange that ensues until the maid reveals the mistress could have twenty sweepers like the executioner to sweep the dust from under her shoes. The Lady orders the maid to teach the executioner some manners. The maid hurls all sorts of demeaning abuses at the executioner.
The condemned man reveals how his quest to have a fair trial was rubbished. He says he was not taken to court and his complaint to the Sultan asking for the right to appear before the Chief Cadi was in vain. The Chief Cadi is portrayed as the most just of those who judge by conscience, the most scrupulous adherent to the canonical law and loyal defender of the law. It is unjust to violate one’s right to face a trial before being hanged like the condemned man waiting for dawn to decide his fate. The executioner confirms that he will not wait for the results of the complaint to be examined instead he shall await the Muezzin’s call for prayers. He stressed that those are the orders from the Sultan. When the executioner fails to execute the condemned man the Vizier is angry. He however heeds to the condemned man’s desire to be tried. The Vizier reveals that the Sultan granted the request and will attend the trial himself. What appears to be shocking is that the trial must take place in complete secrecy. This will cast aspersions on the outcome of the case.
It later emerges that the condemned man had not committed any serious crime as alleged. The Sultan learns that the man had said he is the one who had sold him to the former Sultan. This brings another controversy rather dilemma because according to the law then the Sultan is unfit to hold office without manumission. The Lady who manages to buy the Sultan has her rights violated since the conditions imposed on her are unlawful and just meant to manipulate her. She is directed to manumit the Sultan after buying him as if it was mandatory by law. When the Chief Cadi discovers that all may not go well he schemes to have the Sultan released from the Lady’s house before the agreed time. The Lady was instructed to release the Sultan when the Muezzin calls people for dawn prayer. The Cadi is impatient hence orders the Muezzin to call for dawn prayers at midnight. When the Muezzin seems hesitant the Chief Cadi is not happy. The Cadi assures the Muezzin of protection for any eventuality since he will be the one to handle any case as seen in this extract:
“Cadi: Leave to me the task of explaining your behavior at the appropriate time
Muezzin: but, my lord, by this action I expose myself to the ridicule of the masses and they’ll ask for that be punished.
Cadi: and whom will you appear before to be tried? Won’t it be before me the chief cadi?
Muezzin: And if you disown and abandon me?
Cadi: Do not be afraid that will never happen.”(166)
The above extract reveals pervasion of justice since the Muezzin is guaranteed state protection to break an agreement. This is unjust to the Lady who had bought the Sultan and was being compelled to manumit him. The agreement is not adhered to instead somebody is being coerced with an assurance to be acquitted of any charge.
On the other hand the Song of Death is arguably a tragic play .It recounts the life of a widow Asakir who had lost her husband through murder by Suweilam Tahawi.The play begins with the characters Mabrouka and Asakir in a state of expectation .We learn they expect the return of Asakirs’ son Alwan from Cairo by train. Asakir is anxious to have her son back to come and take revenge on the killer of his father .Villagers think Alwan was drowned in the well at the water –wheel when he was two years old .Therefore, villagers are comfortable nobody there to take revenge unless Sumeida who is Alwan’s cousin .In an apostrophe we learn the mother is over expectant to see her son return to retaliate the murder of his father .She says:
“Bring him quickly; train, for I have waited so long! Seventeen years! I have counted them hour by hour. Seventeen years! I have milked them from Times udders drop by drop just as the milk drops out from the udder of an old cow” (78)
Mabrouka recalls how she had hidden Alwan at the age of two. When Alwan eventually arrives the mother is in hurry to have him execute Suweilam Tahawi.To her amazement Alwan who is now elite is hesitant to heed to her mother’s irrational calls. She is annoyed with him hence disowns him and excommunicates him from the house .It emerges that Alwan’s main agenda is to sensitize his the villagers regarding how to lead a better life like other people elsewhere. He is an erudite who sees things from a different perspective. When he picks his bag and leaves the mother sends Sumeida to go after him and stab him before he catches his train back to Cairo to save her embarrassment. She cannot stand what she considers being a betrayal .Asakir it was a waste of time having borne Alwan as she feels people will scorn at her and says:
“…What a failure of a belly that brought forth such a child” (89)
Sumeida who does not want to disappoint his aunt goes after Alwan before he catches up a train to stab him. He tells Asakir he will sing on his way back on reaching the district office after executing Alwan. The play exposes strong belief in revenge as can be seen from Asakir’s behavior .We learn that there has been a series of killings as they keep taking on revenge in retaliation. It becomes an abstract rather bizarre happening when Alwan is reluctant to keep the trend going .She finds it unusual for her so to be untouched with her long time of waiting and instead has a different agenda all the same .Alwan explains to his mother that the issue would have been well resolved by the authorities not him. He goes ahead to expound much about is whole plan of having left the city for the village .He aptly says he had come purposely to share his knowledge about development as learnt in college. The extremist nature of Asakir is worth scorn in modern societies where revenge is not the way to so as to solve a conflict. Tribal animosity due to cattle rustling and boundary disputes are a good example. Lasting solutions in these conflicts have been largely hampered by a strong urge to take revenge hence exacerbating the already atrocious antagonism in various societies .Alwan with his education could epitomize rational people who do not agree to be swayed by emotions to do the wrong thing in quest for a solution .The desire of Asakir to have Alwan executed by Sumeida symbolizes the setbacks towards shaping a community that values pacifism and tranquility. There is need to have an awakening to have people learn to compromise their stands if peaceful co-existence is to be realized in society.
The Trial of Mallam Illya starts with Malwal the leader of warrior’s revolt together with his men breaking into Ilya’s home. They manhandle him together with his wife. Malwal orders his men to bundle and roll up Ilya in the mat. Ilya’s wife tries to fight for him to be set free to no avail. It is during this time that she meets her tragic demise after being stabbed. This happens despite Malwal’s insistence that no one should be killed. The play just like The Sultans’ Dilemma exposes an unfair system of governance that mistreats innocent citizens.
It is unjust for the second man to say that killer of Mallam Ilya’s wife did so justifiably. He says the killer’s life is more important to their struggle than the woman. The question of value is whether some people’s lives are precious than others to guarantee murder. From a male chauvinist’s eye the third man is unjust to the women fraternity. He says ‘the life of a man who is not strong to free himself from the grip of a woman is not important for our struggle. The above assertion portrays two dimensions of injustice. The first as alluded earlier is the degradation of women. It is unjust to use women as a parameter to measure a man’s strength. What emerges from the statement is that women are weak either; the claim that life of the killer is insignificant is an exposition of the blood- thirsty nature of revolutionaries who take radical decisions.
The fourth man brings into light bizarre incidents touching on women that are worth mentioning. He claims Mallam Ilya has helped the people who have for years raped women and enslaved men. While we may no ascertain the authenticity of his allegation against Ilya the mentioned atrocities are unjust .Whether the inhuman and barbaric acts of rape and enslavement were perpetrated by Ilya or any other person they deserve lampoon. Men and women have a right to live peacefully without being subjected to any form of torture. Either, the fourth man is judgmental in respect to his over expectancy. He claims a leader elevated by the people by all means should deliver irrespective of the circumstances. From their exchange with the second man he condemns and blames Ilya and others. He calls them traitors who turn their back with Ilya being the worst. The second man intensifies the claim saying “You are right, brother; and Ilya is not alone! He is one amongst many a generation of ageless butterflies that have sucked from high places from one generation of rulers to another with amazing agility. Like a runner in the relay of time he has sat in council after council without break. But like a renegade and a traitor. He has failed to let the lessons of history shine through him. Ilya is a traitor! What does it matter if one of his wives is killed by one of us?”(82)
The critical assertion of the second man in regard to the murder of Ilya’s wife is unjust. In light of his last question one can conclude that to this people taking somebody’s one life is not a big deal. How can society be sustained with elements who consider annihilations of others’ less important?
After, Malwal orders the killer of Malla Ilya’s wife to be executed. The two executioners killed him and report “it is done, brothers. He is dead” Malwal says they had done their duty the body will be taken care of afterwards. We learn that it is obvious Malwal even blames the “execution” on Mallam Ilya. He struggles with difficulty to restrain himself as he reacts to Mallam Ilya’s age. He illegitimately accuses Mallam Ilya.
“Brothers, the prisoner before us is an extraordinary man; the epitome of the nauseating characteristics of a generation of vultures…..a filthy generation that must die”
He addressed Mallam Ilya telling him “Mallam, you were a young man in the days of glory; an eye witness to pillage and rape…”
Mallam Ilya is charged with conspiracy to commit treason and treason something that cannot be substantiated. From Ilya’s reaction to Dikko’s acceptance that Halima ha conceived “the black one’s child” we learn of the moral decay of Kumrahn, Ilya says for Kumrahn to satisfy the needs of his human soul he should marry Halima. On the other hand, in pursuit of his great ambition, he will sacrifice his love and marry a woman who is only a pawn in a game of power; this is despite Halima giving him a child. It is evident that the people very foundation of their dreams is under threat. When quick decisive actions are taken very important pillars of the “inner council” question. El-Fasi says very important pillars “inner council” does not like seeing judgments of the set up by people themselves overruled. He says that something wrong is there when law courts cannot disagree with the influential leaders.
Samburu calls Mallam Muhammad Ilya an Assassin who does not pretend to hide the fact he disapproves Mwake Kumrahn’s reforms. Ilya could preach against them if granted chance one perturbing remark from Samburu is “I tell you brothers, that “ jigger” needs to be crushed” he is proposing to have Ilya executed Abdul Karim says there is no need to beat around the bush arguing whether Ilya was a threat. He terms it as being like ‘farting and shifting” to show how unjust this system is Elfasi says the “ inner council” had issued definite instructions that “all the conspirators were to be found guilty’ this declaration Is a clear portrayal of unfairness in this society. The technocrats’ decisions are not subject to criticism and should be implemented without question. This is what leads to mistreatment of those standing and advocating for truth in society like Mallam Ilya.
Kumrahn stresses himself that people should not be stupid. He says “why in the name of heaven and the hells are people so stupid? It was made very clear that they were all to be found guilty, was it not, El- Fasi?’
Kumrahn is furious no sentence had been passed and tells El- Fasi to cut off the flattery and explain what could have happened. El–Fasi says it’s the judges who acquitted the accused Kumrahn is shocked and orders the judges dismissed calling them “ triple-chimed zombies” Kumrahn assuages Abbas to talk to Mallam Ilya and make him make a public confession even if it means baiting him. However, Mallam Ilya remains adamant to admit committing purported crimes. He tells Abbas the Mosque is “a worship avenue to ask Allah to alleviate misfortunes and not forum where voices must keep rising against wrongs and injustices. We learn that Ilya had spoken out from the top of the minaret against ‘palm- greasing’ and corruption in high places. He had also condemned forced labor without compensation and arbitrary arrests and imprisonment without trial. This is not what Ilya is accused of but conspiracy to commit murder.
It emerges that Halima has been appointed as the head of the household and chambermaid to the princess of nil. This is an antic of concealing the truth by ensuring Abbas seals his lies forever. In other words, Halima is held hostage and the father does not stand up against this atrocious act. Ilya challenges Abbas as follows:
“….is it right to arrest and put people away simply because they have the courage to look you in the face and tell you to put your house in order? What kind of freedom is this when those who free us from one form of slavery turn around and cast us away to rot in dark dungeons where they lash at our bare backs with whips left over by our former oppressors?”
The masqueraders who go about performing obscene masques that made fun of Kumrahn and some of his corrupt political elders are detained. They had managed to evade arrest by Kumrahn’s men but this time informants were exceptional in reporting hence they were arrested. Kouyate tells Ilya theirs is a crucible where the horror of the past are smelted with violence of today to be forged into the monster of tomorrow. Kouyate is also concerned how long they will be squeezed through the finger of one generation of leeches right into the open palms of another. Samburu says to princess he preferred to live in exile with some dignity. This is because if he went back he was to be caged like a wild beast for the benefit of hungry crowds. Lastly, The Verdict of the Cobra is a play about identical twins who share a wife contrary to custom. The play is more of a narrative focusing on its mode of narration and performance. It is derived from the Childs’ claim that he has a dream about the story of his mother, father and uncle. He persuades the grandmother who is reluctant to retell the story though she had told it several times .The grandmother heeds to the grandchild’s’ call and starts to tell story. She says she gave birth to six children who died at birth .She however conceives in twelve months and delivered twins .The twins resembled each other in every aspect to an extent of not being told apart. The grandmother is only able to recognize based on instinct by virtue of her being the seventh child. The elder twin who is the child’s father had gone to Eweland and the younger went to Asanteland .The elder twin fell in love with a beautiful Ewe girl a neophyte and initiate at one of the many shrines in Eweland who he puts the family way. They elope to the north to escape execution since the girl was meant to be dedicated to the gods but was snatched before the rite. In the meantime the young twin returned from Asanteland .Due their similarity in every aspect the young twin fell in love with the brother’s wife and failed to suppress the feelings. One day when his elder twin brother was away in the farm he makes love to the wife. They are caught on the act by the mother and a fight ensued when the elder twin came back. The fight intensifies until the palace guards intervene. The Chief who is also the father to the twin calls for the High Priest to solve the crisis. From the High Priests words we learn that sharing of a wife amounts to sacrilege that ancestors do not smile upon. He says justice must be done to appease the ancestors by having one of the twins slain. None is able to tell not even the wife can choose from the twins who slept with her as all are brought in the same loin clothes. The mother this time says she cannot tell them apart and they themselves fail to agree. The woman offers to die but the priest says it is one of the twins to die. They are summoned into a secret room and the woman is dressed like a Cobra to give a verdict which she does. To her amazement the one who survives and is supposed to be her husband is mad therefore she faints. The play portrays a very strong subscription rather adherence to tradition regardless of how unfair they are. The woman now shared is a victim of circumstance in the play. First, she was not meant to be married but to be offered as a sacrifice to the gods. When she gets married and runs away she gets another challenge by being shared by two brothers an act that amounts to sacrilege. This strict adherence to culture is a sort of cultism that subject people to harsh punishment where an amicable solution can be found instead of a death sentence. The High Priest insists that the land shall remain barren, sheep and goat will die until the right price is paid. While we should espouse and retain positive cultural system oppressive and retrogressive ones should be discarded to bring sanity to our society. This is a moral that one learn from the story which is more of a narrative in content and style of delivery. The four plays expose major social issues evident in our diverse societies and therefore need to address them .It is paramount that for a society to move forward various institutions unless transformed will cripple any quest to move forward. Oppressive and exploitative leadership systems have no place rather will not positively impact on our society. Blood thirst which is a precursor to revenge missions in our communities is an archaic way of resolving conflict. People should embrace dialogue wherever there is a disagreement to reach a lasting solution not taking arms and passing over the habit from generation to generation. In the same spirit, strong extremist cultures should retrogressive in nature must be abandoned and only benevolent ones upheld. If the above issues are addressed we will realize an invincible society whose philosophy of pacifism and tranquility is worth emulation.

References
Abdallah, ben Mohammed . The Trial of Mallam Ilya and Other Plays. Accra: Woeli Publishing
Services,1987.
Al Hakim, Tewfik. Fate of a Cockroach and Other Plays, London. Heinemann, 1980.

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