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Author: T. J. Cribb
Date: Spring 2000
From: Research in African Literatures(Vol. 31, Issue 1)
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,358 words

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Oroonoko, by 'Biyi Bandele. Dir. Gregory Doran, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, from April 1999.

The title page of the RSC program, as of the text published by Amber Lane Press, runs somewhat misleadingly as follows: "Aphra Behn's Oroonoko in a new adaptation by Biyi Bandele." This suggests a straightforward dramatization of the original, but Bandele's version is a good deal more than that. For instance, part 2 of his version is also an adaptation of the first dramatization of Aphra Behn's novel, by Thomas Southerne, and Southerne himself made substantial changes to his source. Bandele's further changes can perhaps best be illuminated by disentangling the three.

To begin with part 1 and Behn: although there is no external evidence that she was ever in Surinam, her text betrays many signs of being taken from the life. I say "taken" advisedly, since although there seems no reason to doubt that she indeed met a slave from Africa and that he told her his story, the way she recounts it is within the stylistic system of heroic romance. That system is so loaded with the values of the class for and by whom it was written that Oroonoko (itself a name from the romance repertoire) becomes as much a value in the royalist politics of Jamesean England as a foreign other. Indeed, according to Behn's best biographer, Janet Todd, the novel was most likely written during the tense months of 1688 between the announcement of the queen's pregnancy and the birth of a male heir to the Catholic James. Behn was drawn to Oroonoko and motivated to tell his tale because to her it seemed that he was living proof that royalty is natural, that all countries have their aristocrats, born to rule accordingly. He thus justifies the elevated language and sentiments of heroic romance, which express the moral truth of this world, above the comprehension of the popular rabble. Oroonoko is nature's royal martyr, Rousseau re-written beforehand and according to the politics of Filmer.

Interestingly, Bandele shows an equivalent set of beliefs functioning in Coromantien (modern Ghana), here relocated to Yorubaland and, in the RSC production, signified by the regalia of the court of Benin. When the king's chief adviser seizes Oroonoko's wife for his master, he justifies this in terms of a tradition invented on the spot, and when that is challenged replies: "I lie, remember, on the King's behalf. / And the King does not lie. The King / Cannot lie. It is theologically impossible" (part 1, 2.7). Once he has mastered his indignation, Oroonoko agrees and employs the same syllogistic arguments. The phrasing is pointedly Western and the RSC production by Gregory Doran intelligently supports and extends these cultural parallelisms by lighting, sound effects, stage design and by calculated anachronisms of acting. For example, at one point Oroonoko barks at one of his men, who snaps to attention with a "Sah" like a marine in an American war-film. I shall return to the significance of these pointed parallels later.

The wedding of Oroonoko, which the chief adviser interrupts, is not described by Aphra Behn, and since royal ceremony had a special value for her, she apologizes for the omission: "There is a certain Ceremony in these Cases to be observ'd, which I forgot to ask how perform'd" (Behn 16). Bandele, in contrast, floods the text with the performance of ceremonies from his own Yorubaland. He used the same approach in his remarkable version of Achebe's Things Fall Apart for the Royal Court Theatre in 1997. For that he brought out the novel's cultural subtext of daily work, household activities, meetings, comings and goings, with the songs, dances, proverbs, and ceremonies that accompany them, so that Okonkwo breached a visibly enacted social fabric and a narrator was only occasionally needed to supply what could not be carried by pure performance.

For that production, the Royal Court drew on mainly Igbo actors. Strikingly, the RSC has been able to deploy mainly British actors, no doubt often with Nigerian connections, but typically born in London. This is a significant development in British theater. For the first time it becomes feasible to mount a production of one of Soyinka's, or even Ola Rotimi's plays, with local resources. When Phyllida Lloyd directed her wonderful production of Death and the King's Horseman at Manchester Royal Exchange in 1990, she wisely imported Yoruba actors and drummers to strengthen a Caribbean cast. The RSC production of Bandele's Oroonoko marks the moment when that may no longer be necessary, since a repertoire of skills in dance, drumming, gesture, and speech rhythms has now been built up among young black actors sufficient for the demands of Nigerian drama. Indeed, such was the understandable exuberance of their perfomance that the main thing they now have to learn is that dignity of relaxed restraint that is the hallmark of Nigerian classical acting.

Bandele introduces similarly ethnic scenes during the second, Surinam, part of his play, juxtaposed with tranches of text from Southerne's version. This dates from 1695 and by then only Jacobites could continue to read the story as that of a royal martyr. Filmer had been displaced by Locke. Southerne travels so far in accommodation of the new dispensation as to give Oroonoko a speech justifying slavery in terms of private property and civil contract, a speech that Bandele reproduces verbatim:

   They paid our Price for us, and we are now
   Their Property, a part of their Estate,
   To manage as they please. Mistake me not,
   I do not tamely say, that we should bear
   All they could lay upon us. (3.2.112-16)

However, Southerne had begun life as a royalist and his heart cannot be much in this, so it is in fact the heart to which he appeals as final value in his version of the story. Behn mentions two or three times that Oroonoko experienced some conflict of feeling between his devotion to his wife, Imoinda, and his inclination to rebel. This gives Southerne his opportunity and he builds Oroonoko's character definitively on this conflict and makes it the source of the play's action. At every juncture of debate between love and honor it is love that triumphs. Behn ends with the torture and execution of Oroonoko, "frightful Spectacles of a mangl'd King" (Behn 63). Southerne ends with a liebestod in which Oroonoko fulfils the pact he has made with his wife. (The scene, incidentally, has more echoes of the end of Romeo and Juliet than of Othello, with which the play is customarily compared.) This is the reason the play was reported at the time to be a favorite of the ladies, and it is a chorus of ladies from the much maligned subplot who in act 5 plead with the Governor: "`Tis Oroonoko's Cause, / A lover's Cause, a wretched Woman's cause" (5.2.12-13).

Bandele ruthlessly truncates these debates of love and honor, yet, as we have seen, preserves Locke's market philosophy, which consorts oddly with the royal absolutism we have seen he echoes from Behn. What is the logic of these fidelities and departures? I surmise that just as it was a minor passage in Behn that suggested Southerne's version of the story to him, so it was a minor passage by Southerne that fired Bandele's imagination with its own possibilities. After Oroonoko and Imoinda have been miraculously reunited in Surinam, she reflects on their fate:

   If we ghess
   The future by the past, our Fortune must
   Be wonderfull, above the common Size
   Of good or ill; it must be in extreams:
   Extreamly happy, or extreamly wretched. (3.2.17-21)

In Bandele's equivalent scene (part 2, 2.2), the words down to "wonderful" are given to Oroonoko, and Imoinda, after the stage direction "Unsure," comments:

   Good or bad, it must be in extremes.
   Extremely happy or--

The words remain Southerne's but their meaning is transformed by embedding them in a scene in which the two lovers tell stories of Eshu, the Yoruba god of fate, Oroonoko's personal deity. The idea of a fortune that transcends "the common Size" is subsumed in Eshu's attributes, first cited in part 2, 2.2 (taken, incidentally, from Ulli Beier's Yoruba Poetry):

   Eshu slept in the house--
   But the house was too
   Small for him.

   Eshu slept out in the open--
   But the open was too
   Small for him.

   Eshu slept in a nut--
   At last he could stretch himself!

What the paradoxes express is the impossibility of enclosing Eshu within a logic of whatever kind. Whereas other gods can be aligned as it were with human values, such as peace, war, and justice, or specific afflictions, such as smallpox or fever, Eshu is unpredictable, not to be defined by whatever state of affairs or beliefs happens to be current. He is the most unbiddable of the gods and in that sense a sort of degree zero of divinity. He is the god most shocking to the human belief in meaning. And he is the god who presides over this play.

This is the rationale, or antirationale, behind the pointedly Western phrasing given to expressions of Yoruba absolutism to which I drew attention earlier. What Behn projects as ideology, Bandele converts into anthropology, or rather, irony. The point of the parallels is not an empty cultural relativism but a vision of the arbitrariness of life, a vision articulated within a specific culture. It is that Yoruba culture which gives Bandele the confidence to handle both Behn's and Southerne's texts as he does. Just as he shortens and rearranges Southerne's pentameter lines to fit the speech rhythms of Nigerian English, so he frames and revalues both liberal and royalist values of the protagonists within a Yoruba cosmology. Thus Bandele uses Southerne's words to introduce us to the lottery market for slaves in Surinam at the beginning of part 2:

   BYAM: There's no resisting your fortune, Trefry. You draw all the prizes.

   TREFRY: I draw for our Lord Governor, you know; His fortune favours me.

What better scene for the display of Eshu's powers than a market, be it of commodities, or of men as commodities? Hence the even-handedness of Bandele's portrayal of slavery, which defers neither to historical accuracy nor to political correctness. When Trefry asks Byam how Oroonoko, being a prince, became a slave, the answer of the Captain who transported him is: "By the treachery of one of his father's own / Ministers" (part 2, 1.1), which is not the case in Behn or Southerne, where the treachery is entirely that of the British captain. This alteration is not because Bandele seeks to exculpate the British--far from it: immediately after this exchange the Captain explains that he himself tricked Oroonoko into breaking his fast to death by promising him freedom on arrival, adding to his interlocutor: "Ah, sir, he was not to know it-- / But I kept my fingers crossed." This is Bandele's detailing, a calculated disproportion between the childishness of the subterfuge and the enormity of its consequence. We are apt to overlook that enormity, because we naturally assume that, however deceitfully, it was a good thing to keep Oroonoko alive. That of course is exactly what makes Eshu laugh, for the pit he digs for us is life itself.

A similar vision, I think, informs Happy Birthday, Mister Deka D, a short play, written for a white company, and set in an abandoned pub, doubtless in London. Interestingly, during rehearsals Bandele was at pains to prune away any topographical references that were over-specific. This is a locationless London, like the Lagos-London of some of Ben Okri's stories, a London whose map was drawn by Kafka, strikingly different from the abundant ethnicity of Oroonoko. But the presiding deity is the same. At the heart of the play a character relates a creation myth that works more like an anti-creation myth, for in it Time is a fish, simultaneously vast and tiny, incredibly fast and slow, just like Eshu, and Time creates all the things of the world out of boredom. Boredom is also why the prophet in Bandele's earlier play, Death Catches the Hunter, tries his last and fatal miracle. Similarly for the writer, a vision of the world according to Eshu is a difficult vision to sustain and this not only because of the strenuously mind-defeating nature of the vision. The danger is that for a generation raised on Beckett, Catch 22, Monty Python, and Wired, blackly tragic comedy can slide all too easily into the irresponsibly flip. This doesn't happen in Mister Deka D, where the actors uncover a curious tenderness in the maimed rite of the birthday party. However, in the less concentrated medium of Bandele's novel, The Street, the tenderness becomes somewhat too full-blown, sliding towards the sentimental. Bandele's novel seems intended to do for Nigerian settlers in Brixton what Sam Selvon did for his Caribbean generation in The Lonely Londoners, but whereas Selvon's simplicity of address lends subtle moral support to the humanity of his characters, Bandele's narrative pyrotechnics deprive him of this aid and he has to compensate by laying on the style. In his Oroonoko, too, there are some lines that sound smart or slack rather than truly motivated.

Nonetheless, Bandele is emerging as a major talent. I have suggested that the RSC production of Oroonoko is likely to prove a benchmark in the performance values of British theater. Bandele's work as a whole may likewise prove to be a turning point for Nigerian literature in English. If Behn's politics were royalist and Southerne's reluctantly liberal, Bandele's issue from the vacuum of legitimacy created by the kleptocratic civilian and military regimes of post-independence Nigeria, flourishing as they do under the obtusely dogmatic regimes of the IMF. An earlier generation had a sense of direction, of meaning, of values to be won and defended; there was a road and a god of the road. Bandele was at the University of Ife in the second half of the 1980s, so it is not surprising that when his protagonists in this and others of his plays pray to Shango for justice, or Ogun for the wild justice of revenge, their prayers are trumped by the sharper Eshu, the god for the new times. And beyond these political circumstances and the responses to them, the powerful figure of Oroonoko, that singular individual who three hundred years ago moved Aphra Behn to tell his story, speaks to us again.


Bandele, 'Biyi. Aphra Behn's `Oroonoko' in a New Adaptation. Oxford: Amber Lane, 1999.

--. Death Catches the Hunter. Oxford: Amber Lane, 1995.

--. Happy Birthday, Mister Deka D. Unpublished.

--. The Street. London: Picador, 1999.

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave. A True History. Ed. Joanna Lipking. New York: Norton, 1997.

Beier, Ulli. Yoruba Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1970.

Southerne, Thomas. Oroonoko. The Works of Thomas Southerne. 2 vols. Ed. Robert Jordan and Harold Love. Oxford: 1988. 2: 85-179.

Todd, Janet. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. London: Andre Deutsch, 1966.

T. J. Cribb is a Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, England.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A59410546