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Review of Wole Soyinka - The Invention and The Detainee


By James Gibbs

Wole Soyinka. The Invention and The Detainee. ed. Zodwa Motsa. Pretoria: University of South Africa, 2005. ISBN 1-86888-329-9, (pb). £10.99. (Distributed by the African Books Collective, Oxford)

Zodwa Mtosa brings together two plays by Wole Soyinka that she describes as ‘early,’ indeed the back cover asserts that The Invention is ‘widely regarded as Soyinka's first play.’ The only response to this is that literary history, or the chronology of a writer's corpus, is not decided by what is ‘widely regarded.’ Soyinka has sometimes been on the defensive regarding his early work, and has made difficulties for those looking into his beginnings as a writer. In the course of describing the destruction of a copy of a radio play from the early fifties, he has provided information about what may be his ‘first play’, and it isn’t The Invention. In an article for The Listener published in November 1972, he described how, ‘the year after leaving school,’ he became the first Nigerian to have a play recorded in Lagos for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. He continued:
''A few years ago I sat in the office of a Nigerian producer friend who handed me a script across the desk, grinning madly. When I glanced at it, I recognised a script, not that first play but of a second a far more pun-demented play. I asked if l could borrow it - just to make a copy for my private records. And he foolishly agreed. I next asked if he could find me a copy of the famous first, and he promised to do his best. I think he reported back his failure to unearth the pioneer effort in any of their files. Whatever was the case I remember that certain mothy pages went up in flames after that painful resurrection, and that I soon began to sleep better.''
It is relevant to recall this episode while celebrating the appearance of The Invention and the republication of a radio play, The Detainee. The Invention was first put on in the Theatre Upstairs of the Royal Court Theatre on 1st November 1959, and The Detainee was broadcast on the African Service of the BBC, with Soyinka in the role of Konu and Banjo Solaru as Zimole, during 1965. Since the first play is set in South Africa, it is appropriate that it should appear under Unisa's imprint, and encouraging that the launching, at the Soyinka Conference in South Africa during 2005 was accompanied by a production, only the second ever.

Motosa's edition appeared in August 2005, and thus came into the world at about the same time as another book containing the play set in South Africa - the fifth of the annual series African Theatre (published by James Currey, Oxford), Soyinka: Blackout, Blowout and Beyond, edited by Martin Banham, with Judith Greenwood and Chuck Mike. I suppose that is typical. You wait a quarter of a century for a publication and then two editions come along at the same time. The approaches adopted by the editors are different. Both worked from copies of the script passed to me by the Royal Court Theatre, but while Motsa is by turns obtrusive and absent, Banham is quietly interventionist, prepared to amend silently what was clearly a hastily prepared typescript.

Different approaches are also apparent in the introductions to the play. Motsa has nine pages in which she draws on research undertaken for her PhD thesis on 'Soyinka at the Royal Court 1956-1966’. At one point, she summarises the critical reception of the 1959 performance of The Invention as being characterised by ‘scepticism and, at best, mild tolerance’, and then quotes, selectively I think, from the reviews that appeared in The Times and The Spectator. The danger of her approach is illustrated by Abiola Irele's Foreword that includes a reference to ‘... the largely hostile reception that Dr Motsa reports the play as having met with in the English press’. In contrast, and in an introduction covering only two-thirds of a page. Banham manages to reveal far more about the range and tone of critical responses Soyinka encountered by quoting the playwright's reaction to the reviews. In a letter to Molly Mahood at University College, Ibadan, dated 9 November 1959, Soyinka wrote: ‘That I'm afraid is that! Lukewarm, cautious. but quite honourable discharges by The Times, News Chronicle, Daily Mail and The Stage, culminated in a lengthy ferocious onslaught by The Spectator and worse silence by the New Statesman, and now also the Sunday papers’.

I shared my opinion of The Invention with Motsa in March 1996 when she was doing research for her thesis, and she makes use of some of what I said as well as of some of my comments about the play in published and unpublished work. Without going into an extended discussion, it is clear that our assessments differ. For example, while appreciating Swiftian touches and some accurate observation. I find The Invention heavy-handed, the wit thinly spread, and the movement uncertain. I do not give weight to her view that ‘the play's merits lie in its content, embodying Soyinka's prophetic power as a playwright’. This ‘prophetic’ point is taken further in the blurb on the back of the book where much is made of the fact that Soyinka set his play in 1976, ‘the year in which the apartheid system would begin to crumble’. I do not regard the vision of the playwright as being of an order that can predict the year in which certain events will take place. I do not accept that such coincidence endows the play with particular merit.

The second text in Motsa's collection of what she and Irele describe as ‘early’ plays is from 1965. In the creative life of the septuagenarian Soyinka, a play broadcast when he was thirty-one may, by some standards, be considered ‘early’, but in this case, the script has to he placed beside other plays and a novel from 1965. That is to say, The Detainee was first produced in the year some of Soyinka's most accomplished work — The Road, Kongi’s Harvest and The Interpreters — appeared. By 1965, Soyinka, who had produced his ‘famous first’ some thirteen years earlier and who had already written the challenging radio play Camwood on the Leaves, had gone far beyond ‘early work’ and it is not helpful to consider The Detainee as such. In terms of political analysis and deftness of touch, this play makes a particularly effective companion piece to Kongi's Harvest.

Thanks to the research skills and generosity of Bernth Lindfors, who furnished me with a copy of the BBC script, I was able to make The Detainee available to Motsa when she visited me in 1996. I have since become better informed about the play, about its opening and about its ‘lost/ found’ status, and I would like to share some of this information. In her Introduction, Motsa refers to ‘An inscription by James Gibbs on the manuscript (which) states that there is no page one’. This puts me on the spot. I used to think the opening, ‘You are fat, Zimole’, was rather abrupt. For a variety of reasons, including the pagination of the MSS, I concluded that a page was missing and made the note referred to on my copy. I revised my opinion in 2001 after a visit to the Janheinz Jahn Library, Mainz, where I saw a 1980 edition of the play that had been published, under the title Der Nciftling / The Detainee, by Jack Werth and Welker Verlag of Bonn with Nyakon Publishers of Freetown. I am grateful for Anja Oed and Christine Matzke for making a copy of that text available to me. On reading it. I revised my opinion about the opening. There is no page missing. The play begins: ‘You are fat, Zimole’.

I have an Internet search to thank for the next piece of information I want to share. Googling with ‘Soyinka “The Detainee”’, I discovered that the play was well known to some interested theatre people in South Africa in the early seventies. In Crossing Boundaries (1993), Dennis Walder reported that John Kani had told him how, with Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard, he had ‘toyed with the idea of putting on The Detainee’. Apparently, the idea was dropped when the group encountered a photograph of a smiling black man that provided the mandate for Sizwe Bansi. Kani’s information prompts the thought that, if they hadn't found the photo, The Detainee might have become well known in South Africa.

The account Motsa gives of the origin of the Unisa volume she has edited takes the reader to ‘the Soyinka Festival at the University of Central Florida in February 2003’. She describes Soyinka's interest in having The Invention published and continues: ‘Because he did not have a personal copy of it, and I was the only person in that audience who did, (he) granted me the rights to have it published’. Soyinka's support for this ‘resurrection’ makes a striking contrast with the conflagration of the mothy pages recounted above. I hope copies circulate widely and prompt productions of both it and The Detainee. I hope, too, that they stimulate discussion about neglected parts of Soyinka's oeuvre.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 103-106]

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