In time of strife, none vies with Him
Of seven paths, Ogun, who to right a wrong
Emptied reservoirs of blood in heaven
Yet raged with thirst
Wole Soyinka, Ogun Abibimañ (1976)
I first understood a central issue in tragedy while eating a tiny piece of chicken on a remarkable evening in Cambridge fifteen years ago. The Nigerian–Irish playwright Gabriel Gbadamosi, then Judith E. Wilson Fellow in the Faculty of English, had assembled a distinguished group of theatre-makers (including Nigerian actor Peter Badejo and Beninois dancer Koffi Koko, with Tom Morris producing) to premiere his work Eshu’s Faust in the sublime setting of Jesus College Chapel. Despite the usual theatrical crises and animadversions, all seemed to be progressing well and the foundations of a memorable event were in place. Beneath the surface, however, a different, and – for Britons – quite unexpected, crisis was brewing.
Eshu is a powerful orisa, the spirit-deity within the Yoruban pantheon who protects travellers, controls crossroads and mis/ fortune, and personifies death. As a trickster-god, like Loki and Crow, his name was selected by early missionaries to be the Yoruban translation of ‘the Devil’ – a choice that must have caused converts great confusion, but which offered Gabriel a marvellous opportunity. His protagonist was a survivor of twin-infanticide, exposed to Eshu in the forest but saved by missionaries, sent to England, and now awaiting ordination – to the annoyance of this ‘devil’, who does not abandon his own. The orisa was therefore to appear in Jesus Chapel, and while aesthetic and ecumenical goodwill (boosted by the presence in the cast of a Catholic priest) had secured Christian permission, there was for Yoruban performers the reverse problem of dealing with Eshu’s manifestation in an alien sacred space.
As Gabriel tells it, the evening began, after a long rehearsal and harried retreat to his college rooms, with a knock at the door. One of the actors (who had better remain nameless) greeted him clutching a bag, with the words: “I’ve got the chicken”. Gabriel’s momentary hope that this might be a bird of the kind available frozen at supermarkets was dashed by a muffled squawk, and the actor’s entreaty: “We need a crossroads”. As Wikipedia observes, “Every magical ceremony or ritual begins with an offering to Eshu: failure to do so guarantees failure in the intent of the ceremony”; and as the actor flatly told a flustered Gabriel, no Yoruban actor would summon Eshu – especially to a church – without proprieties. Gabriel thus found himself driving round Cambridge with three actors and a chicken in search of a police-free crossroads where sacrifice might be conducted; and late in the evening, following a hasty summons, I found myself with the assembled cast at a party where it was critical to the Yorubans that all consume some morsel of the rapidly barbecued bird whose head had just been removed at the intersecting paths on Jesus Green.
I was reminded of this by a passage in Wole Soyinka’s recent memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn, describing events during a 1981 Chicago production of The Road which had been dogged by misfortune:
the entire company – black and white – plus the technical director, assembled under the stage, gathered around a white, outsize cockerel, smuggled in by one of the actors. Kolanut was offered, libation – moonshine, for lack of palm wine in its distilled form – ogogoro – was poured. The bird was put out of its misery. I improvised a ritual, sprinkled blood in hidden corners beneath the stage and smeared some more on the spots of the major near-accidents. The cockerel was then prepared in the apartment of one of the actors and consumed, each member of the cast eating a piece, however small.
Miraculously, the accidents ceased.
And there’s the rub; that, for Soyinka — famously a hunter-killer in the hectares of Nigerian bush he owns — as for Yoruban actors summoning Eshu in Jesus College Chapel, a sacrifice is no dead ritual necessity: it works, in life as in art. Soyinka wrote in Ogun Abibimañ that “the knife / Caresses well, the victim bleats / A final testament of its contentment”; and in his Yorubanised Bacchae (sharply distinguishing it from Euripides’s version), Pentheus’s blood so irrigates the land that “Moisture oozes up at every step” while the severed head spouts wine. Greek tragic performance was equally preceded by sacrifice, and tragedy – a term derived from the words tragos, a billy-goat, and aiode, a song – is probably named for the Dionysian animal that was killed, although within classical tragedic dramaturgy sacrifice cannot and does not so redeem either land or people.
In a profound sense, therefore, much as spiritual Christian and social Marxist notions of redemption inhibit tragedy, Soyinka’s seminal practice is at odds with something basic to the tragedic genre, and the catharsis that once solely purged audiences operates within his drama. It was some intimation of this that I ingested with my fragment of the unfortunate Cambridge chicken, but greater reflection prompted me to ask how, if Soyinka cannot altogether be thought of a tragedian, his extended and penetrating engagement with classical tragedy may be understood?
One possible answer comes through comparison with two curiously close contemporaries: Soyinka’s fellow Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott (b.1930), and Tony Harrison (b.1937); both, like Soyinka himself (b.1934), verse-dramatists and poets for whom classical literature are artistically central. The accent, in all senses, is in each case distinct – Soyinka trading in Euripidean tragedy, Walcott in Homeric epic, and Harrison in Catullan and other lyrics – but all deploy their knowledges both fiercely and in strongly regionalised tones. So great are the differences that the three may often seem incomparable, but in a political sense I have come to think their approaches far closer than they seem, and oddly like a central strategy of the EU – the paired, nation-dismantling tactics of federalisation and subsidiarity. The latter corresponds to Soyinka’s deployment of Yoruban language and myth, Walcott’s of creolised English, and Harrison’s of Yorkshire demotic, regional voices that draw power from local comprehensibility. The former corresponds to the trio’s deployment of the classics, a supranational inheritance reaching over and behind the self-aggrandizing claims of British imperial power to trump the Augustan inheritance. And the purpose, of course, in every case, is precisely to counter on behalf of a subject people the legacies of the overweening and culturally destructive imposition of an imperial and/or post-colonial state.
This analogy, I believe, has some genuine explanatory power, but like many such propositions raises at least as many questions as it answers. For all the sufferings of which Walcott and Harrison have sung (including, for Walcott, the grotesque horrors of the Middle Passage), neither is remotely a tragedian, for both celebrate their peoples’ achievements as much as they regret the oppressions that must be overcome, and both have lived largely in times of peace. But for Soyinka, constantly devoured by a self-mutilating Nigerian polity that has seen at least eight attempted (five successful) military coups since independence, as well as the extraordinary brutalities of the Biafran War, the necessity for his many sacrifices to be real generates an overwhelming desire for their efficacy. As You Must Set Forth at Dawn makes abundantly clear, he has operated politically both within Nigeria and in exile at a far higher political level than most artists can hope to attain, but the consequence is a visceral understanding of himself – and all living things – as “reservoirs of blood”, rightly emptied at need and as the orisas demand; not the gaze of Creon at Antigone, nor of Clytemnestra at Agamemnon, but of Agamemnon at Iphigenaia and his stranded fleet, wondering how long he dare wait for the wind to change and blow the epic forwards to a divine destiny.