Wole Soyinka on Alfred Jarry

Alfred Jarry viciously satirised the grossness and greed of the French bourgeoisie. Nobel winner Wole Soyinka explains why his play is perfect for modern Zimbabwe

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Tuesday August 12 2003

References to the King of Lesotho taking a "dainty morsel" as a wife, and coming under attack for buying a personal aircraft were mistaken. The monarch in question is the King of Swaziland, not Lesotho.

The Nigerian production of King Baabu was actually running in South Africa when we picked up the latest news from Zimbabwe, gleefully reported in the South African media. Mère Mugabe had just hit a jackpot in the Zimbabwe real estate lootery inaugurated by her husband, Le Roi Mugabe the First. She could not wait to collect. Surrounded by her private allocation of "war veterans", she invaded the mansion of the septua-to-octogenerian couple, harangued and menaced them, generously gave them 48 hours to pack their entire life out of the territory. Zimbabwe had come to redress settler-colonial history. Now, let us retain that active image in the theatrically receptive corner of our minds, with individual variations, while we make a digression in response to a familiar, easily anticipated political argument.

Indeed, our indignant interlocutor is quite right. An ancient wrong - land dispossession - had long cried out to be redressed. We shall concede even the plaint of the Zimbabwean government that the former colonial power, Great Britain, had arrogantly reneged on her promise to assist with compensation for the white farmers as part of an agreed orderly programme of land restitution. Land has remained an emotive issue ever since man began to hunt, graze or cultivate land, and survival, even in modern times, has meant access to the most basic commodity known for the survival of the species. Abdul Nasser in his time was compelled to tackle the land problem head-on, dispossessing the feudal oligarchy and reinvesting ownership among the fellahin. The struggle of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua against a landowning monopoly by a few select families is equally pertinent. Some of the greatest uprisings and consequent civil wars in Mexico have centred squarely on the ownership of land. Even in contemporary times, the revolt of the neo-Zapatistas three years ago was rooted in a history that goes back all the way to the Mexican experience of the ruthless appropriation of indigenous land by foreigners. Thus, there is nothing extraordinary or blameworthy in any moves to execute a policy that aims for a more egalitarian apportionment of land and its resources. Indeed, any half-intelligent leader remains conscious of the need to redress any glaring imbalance in ownership of such a resource as land, or court violent revolt.

All that conceded, the image of the First Lady of the Realm of a radical, revolutionary regime taking plum choice of occupied land, with its luxurious estate, did not quite square up to equitable re-distribution of this precious commodity. It was shameless opportunism. It was also pure theatre, the kind for which even Shakespeare had not quite succeeded in preparing us, no, not even in Lady Macbeth. The Zimbabwean episode, for contemporary times, belonged squarely in the theatre of Ultimate Cynism and the Grossness of Greed - the theatre of an Alfred Jarry, creator of Ubu Roi, the brutal 19th-century satire of the French bourgeoisie. I understood then why our theatre colleagues in Zimbabwe and Kenya had invited us to bring King Baabu to East Africa, and of course we were more than ready to oblige. I had begun to re-cast a scene or two in my head, to accommodate the latest eruption of the Baabu phenomenon in that part of the African continent.

We would not have lasted opening night, I am certain, certainly not in Harare, and we were hardly surprised when our would-be hosts decided that it would be more effective if they did a homegrown version, to avoid accusations of an externally sponsored campaign of subversion against their reigning King Baabu. We have of course been here before, not once, not twice, but perennially, and each tyrant had his impeccable logic to floor all detractors. Mobutu Sese Seko, the couturier of leopard-skin machismo in his heydays, flung the cult of the African authenticité in the face of his opponents whenever he ran out of productive ideas - which was all the time. Every act of Mobutu was trumpeted as being undertaken in the cause of the restoration of the African past, of African condemned values, a contestation of the European negation of an African authentic being and the dignity of the black race. Virtually single-handedly however, Mobutu methodically looted his nation's resources, pauperised the inordinately endowed nation of Congo/Zaire, turned himself into a multi-billionaire with holdings in Switzerland and Belgium in a rampage that beggared even the insatiable rapacity of his erstwhile colonial master, King Leopold of Belgium, proprietor of the obscenely named Congo Free State.

Just as he was fading from memory, the one and only Alhaji Dr Field-Marshal Professor Emeritus Life-President recently sprung to life by threatening to take his leave of it. He has since survived his coma, however, and will undoubtedly die the peaceful death that he denied to thousands. Idi Amin Dada was also committed to restoring Africa to Africa and, more specifically, Uganda to Ugandans. An image of one of his diversionary exploits stays with me: that of the "genial giant" carried in a palanquin by some European settlers in a reversal of roles and multiple significances - Africa, the "white man's burden", was being given a literal representation. We were "tickled pink" by his sense of political humour and, certainly, it was a hilarious bit of play-acting with a sting at the end. Careful watchers knew, however, that Idi Amin was not exactly play-acting, and that the identity of the throne bearers was transitory. Outside that performance arena, it had already metamorphosed into that of the Ugandan people themselves. Idi Amin was already the black man's burden, the figure that was borne in that palanquin was that of the archetypal King Ubu, who weaves in and out of history, leaving behind a swathe of blood and devastation.

The repeated recourse to racial cant in the Baabu phenomenon is the most disheartening aspect, most predictable aspect of the greed for power. Which of us, participants, would ever forget the first post-colonial meeting, on African soil, of the 60s generation of writers, artistes, intellectuals etc. That place of history belonged to Makerere College, Kampala. That was where we first encountered our colleagues such as Okot pa m'bitek, David Rubadiri, Rajat Neogy, founder of the magazine Transition, and the francophonies such as Tamsir Niane, Mongo Beti etc. One reaction common to all as we encountered the stark face of social stratification in Uganda, and we were very vocal about it, was disbelief at the monopoly of businesses by the Asian minority - from the middle to even lower economic levels. Virtually every shop, hotel, restaurant, factory etc - was owned by Asians. The plantations belonged, of course, to the European settlers. When we were driven through the hillside residences, we found that the choicest parts of Kampala, the opulent mansions that straddled some of the most lushly serene parts, belonged to Asians. It struck us as downright anomalous, a three-tier internal colonialism that cast the native Ugandans in the role of third-class citizens.

The Asians thus provided the immediate scapegoats for Amin's consolidation of power.Before Idi Amin came in view, they did not remotely feature in the political equation. Having seized power - in time to escape being cashiered by Milton Obote for diamond smuggling - Idi Amin found himself obliged to look around for what to do with it. The Asians provided the perfect scapegoats, the restoration of economic rights to Ugandans the revolutionary goal.

Yes, indeed, we had felt that some kind of equity was required in the lop-sided attribution of resources in Uganda; what we had not envisaged was the sheer opportunism of stolen power, and the brutality that now accompanied it. The Asians were hounded out of East Africa under some of the most atrocious circumstances. And the beneficiaries of their confiscated properties? Naturally, Idi Amin's family members, lieutenants and cronies. Today, Zimbabwe is striving to outdo the Uganda of those times. The primary beneficiaries of Mugabe's land reform programme are close relations, his party cronies and strong-arm officials. Some will insist that Lady MacZim's personal foray into land-grab was shaming; I tend to believe that it has merely provoked its therapeutic solace: the theatre of Alfred Jarry.

Nothing would be further from reality, however, than to imagine that contemporary Baabuism is manifested only through such life and death issues. The absurd is an integral part of Baabu's theatricality, and nowhere was this better demonstrated than the visit of the production company to land-locked Lesotho, where the king had created a furore by taking -as tradition permitted - a dainty morsel from an annual vestals' passing-out parade. He saw, and gave orders, terminating that pupil's secondary school career for national service in the palace. We arrived just when it appeared that parental rage and public outcry were dying down, only for disaffection against the royal personage to be fanned alive again by the king's decision to purchase a royal aircraft at the cost of more than Lesotho's annual budget. Perhaps to take his mind off the general discontent, we were served notice from the royal palace that His Majesty intended to grace a performance of Baabu with his presence.

We prepared to welcome him, only to learn that it was also the tradition for the king to attend such performances free of charge - and with his entire court! Although I had nothing to do with the tour's finances, I felt that this was one aspect of Baabuism that the theatre could do without. I instructed our producer to inform the royal messenger that the king was more than welcome to take all the seats in his theatre, but that, in my part of the world, the arts survived through royal patronage. Would he kindly send some sovereigns in advance - no cheques accepted - so the company could cover its expenses and also toast the recent bridal couple? It occurs to me only now, since I had to leave Lesotho directly after mounting the production, that I remain ignorant of the financial outcome of the royal visitation.

Where I feel deprived, however, is my absence at the encounter between the real life Baabu, albeit scaled down, and his hyperbolic brother on stage. The reports I received, however, is that he appeared to have thoroughly enjoyed his evening. Would Robert Mugabe, I wonder? Alas, one of theatre's lost chances.

© Wole Soyinka. King Baabu is at Augustine's, Edinburgh, August 12-17 and 19-24. Details: 0131-225 6575.

Wole Soyinka

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Profile: Wole Soyinka

For 40 years the Nobel prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka has been an outspoken opponent of brutal regimes. While his stance is admired, some critics have accused him of grandiloquence

Maya Jaggi

02, Nov, 2002 @5:59 PM

Article image
Making a drama

Cinderella and King Lear, Jaws and An Enemy of the People, David Brent and Dogberry - they might seem to have nothing in common. Look closer, argues playwright David Edgar, and you'll find they all obey the same rules

David Edgar

10, Jul, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Andrew Upton on Maxim Gorky

Maxim Gorky's first play, The Philistines, provoked riots by bringing everyday people and props to the stage. Playwright Andrew Upton hails a revolution in Russian theatre.

Andrew Upton

18, May, 2007 @11:10 PM

Article image
Gillian Slovo transfers her Guantánamo detainees play to NYC

We don't always speak the same language, Gillian Slovo found, when transferring her controversial play about Guantánamo detainees to New York from London.

Gillian Slovo

11, Sep, 2004 @12:48 AM

Article image
Michael Bogdanov on updating Shakespeare

Thirty years ago, Michael Bogdanov updated the final scene of Romeo and Juliet. The reaction proved one thing: that if we do not adapt Shakespeare for our times, the richness of his work will be lost

Michael Bogdanov

22, Nov, 2003 @1:57 AM

Article image
Mark Ravenhill remembers playwright Sarah Kane

In 1995, Sarah Kane rocked the theatrical world with her play, Blasted; less than five years later, she took her own life. As the Barbican prepares to stage a German-language version, Mark Ravenhill remembers a rare talent.

Mark Ravenhill

28, Oct, 2006 @10:45 PM

Article image
Profile: David Storey

David Storey juggled art school, writing and playing rugby professionally until his first published book, This Sporting Life, brought success. He trawled his own mining family and their Yorkshire roots for the misfits who appeared in his novels and the plays that stirred audiences at the Royal Court. Although recently out of fashion he is now, at 70, publishing a new novel. James Campbell reports

James Campbell

31, Jan, 2004 @1:57 AM

James Fenton on Spanish drama of the Golden Age

Spanish classics would suit any one of our small theatres, writes James Fenton

James Fenton

05, Apr, 2003 @1:58 AM

Article image
David Hare remebers Joe Papp

Visionary, irascible and charismatic, Joe Papp was one of the most exciting producers in New York. As his radical Public Theater marks its 50th anniversary, David Hare pays tribute to a maverick showman, fierce adversary and loyal friend.

David Hare

11, Feb, 2006 @12:00 AM

Article image
As If by Chance by David Lan review – a glowing memoir
From guerrilla warfare in Zimbabwe to drama at the Young Vic, the playwright and stage director captures a varied life well lived

Oliver Soden

26, Mar, 2020 @9:00 AM