NIGERIAN THEATRE AND DRAMA
EVOLUTION AND RELEVANCE IN A
Elo Ibagere (Ph.D)
Department of Thcatre Arts
Delta State University, Abraka.
When someone claims to be interested in studying theatre and drama, little would he know
what it actually entails. For one, the person might take it to mean a study of acting and dance. The
person may even be ignorant of basic concepts in theatre and drama. This is aptly noted by John
Russell Brown (19721: 1) when he states that the first response to some one who says he is
interested in a career in theatre will be, “do you want to be an actor?”
However, Theatre involves quite a number of professions fused in one. It involves such
aspects as creative writing, costume and make-up, management, design, media, as well as acting
which is the most visible to the public. Hence theatre and drama may mean just acting, to many
who may be ignorant of what theatre actually is.
The concept of theatre and drama is quite clear. But scholars may take it from different
perspectives. The word theatre according Omatsola, quoting from the Virtues English Dictionary
(1997 IO6), is taken from the Latin word “theatron,” meaning” I see,” or view. It is therefore taken
to represent a place where action is seen or viewed. In effect then, theatre is the building where
action takes place.
Drama, on the other hand, is rooted in the Greek word “drao” meaning, “I do” or “I act.”
Aristotle in his Poetics explains in practical terms that drama is the “imitation of an action. “This is
where acting comes in - that is, imitating an action that has taken place either in reality or in the
mind of one who has conceived the action. It is in the light of the foregoing explanation that one
agrees with Geoffrey Axworthy’s definition of drama and theatre as: “Theatre is the building and
drama is the doing” (cited inYerima, 2005: 11).
In view of the above brief conceptual analysis, Nigerian theatre and drama can be defined as the
totality of the Nigerian theatrical heritage ranging from the traditional to the modem as well as that
of the new millennium. It involves also the media system as epitomized in the broadcast media.
EVOLUTION AND DEVELOPMENT OF NIGERIAN
TIIEATRE AND DRAMA
The origin of theatre and drama is the focus of the book Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A
Critical Source Book, edited by Yemi Ogunbiyi (1981). This origin captures the fact that theatre
and drama are not separated from the dynamics of society. Thus the need to adapt to environmental
challenges compelled man to evolve division of labour along lines of specialization of tasks such
as strategic planning, food gathering war and celebration of victory over enemies and so on. These
led to rites involving dances which enhanced the achievement of desires through auto suggestion
induced by these rituals. It is this process which some refer to as magic that aided the pre-historic
Nigerian to exercise control over the natural forces that determined his existence. Regularity of
these rites resulted in their becoming rituals. Later modifications led to changes as there was better
understanding of certain mythical phenomena which now became isolated and acted out as drama.
Thus Nigerian drama origins can he situated in the various traditional, religious and functional
rituals found in virtually every Nigerian community.
However. the evolutionary transition from ritual to drama is difficult to ascertain. For
example, Adediji’s attempt at a historical development, through quite a milestone, does not fully
cluecidate the period of this transition. In his treatise, “Alarinjo: “The Traditional Yoruba
Travelling Theatre (1979), he opines that Sango as Alafin of Oyo in the 14th century brought about
ancestral worship which became a festival by the I6th century in which lineage groups presented
dances. According to him, the refinement of those entertainment aspects marked strictly for
entertainment, resulted in the birth of the Yoruba traveling theatre by 1700. However, interaction
with other cultures led to modification of style.
This resulted in further evolution into what can now be termed the modem dances which
enhanced the achievement of’ desires through auto suggestion induced by these rituals. It is this
process which some refer to as magic that aided the pre-historic Nigerian to exercise control over
the natural forces that determined his existence. Regularity of these rites resulted in their becoming
rituals. Later modifications led to changes as there was better understanding of certain mythical
phenomena which now became isolated and acted out as drama. Thus Nigerian drama origins can
be situated in the various traditional, religious and functional rituals found in virtually every
However, interaction with other cultures led to modification of style. This resulted in
further evolution into what can now be termed the modern era of Nigerian theatre and drama. The
modem era is characterized by influence of Western education, as well as the church.
MODERN THEATRE TRADITION
This tradition started with the return of freed slaves from the Americas. The return began in
1839. These freed slaves were joined by Brazilian emigrants to form the nucleus of the educated
middle class. They brought Western and European forms of concert. They settled mostly in Lagos
whose growing population was obviously in dire need of recreational facilities. This compelled
Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Robert Campbell and others to found “The Academy in 1866 - a
social and cultural centre for public enlightenment, dedicated to the promotion of the arts, science
and culture. Here, music and drama were performed. However, the audience was mostly an elite
audience. By 1890, a schism occurred in the church leading to the foundation of several other
churches. This resulted in the need for a truly African church that uses Nigerian language and
music. The competition for converts led to the adoption of masquerade songs which were
reworked into church songs and used to win converts. This was in addition to actual drama during
worship, known then as “native air,” and consisting of native songs and dances. The church also
started sponsoring drama from 1902. One such drama. “King Elejigho” became the prototype of Y
oruba traditional drama between 1902 and 1920. It was into this era of Nigerian drama and theatre
that Hubert Ogunde Was born.
It must he noted that up till the emergence of Ogunde, the drama was largely for an elitist
audience mainly constituted by those who had Western education.
The entry of Ogunde into the scene in 1944 changed the landscape. His earliest documented effort
was his play “Worse than Crime” (1945) which presented colonialism as a system that is worse
than crime. According to Akinwale, (1993: 19), he produced “Strike and Hunger”which expressed
the hopeless condition of labour in colonial Nigeria at the time. Other popular dramatists who
emulated Ogunde include Kola Ogunnola, Duro Ladipo, Ojo Ladipo. Moses Olaiya Adejumo and
several other travelling theatre troupes. Ogunde’s influence spanned over four decades until his
demise in 1989. It was while Ogunde and fellow traveling theatres where bestriding the Nigerian
landscape that the era of literary drama was born.
The era of literary drama is traced from the first play to be published.
This refers to scripted plays and the first is, “This is our Chance’ written in 1956 by James
Ene Henshaw. This dovetailed into the introduction of drama course, at the Premier
University of Ibadan in 1957 as part of the educational Theatre of the English
Department. It was the same year that some expatriates, mostly university lecturers and
civil servants got together with their Nigerian friends to form the Arts Theatre production
group. Another group, formed by graduates, largely resident in Ibadan in 1959 adopted
the name Players of the Dawn. However, most of the plays they performed were ancient
Impetus for development came through Wole Soyinka who returned from his study at Leeds
University in 1960 and formed the 1960 Marks, which absorbed the members of the
Players of the Dawn. From then, plays by Soyinka such as “The Trials of brother Jero”,
“The Swamp Dwellers” and “A Dance the Forest” premiered. These gave a new cultural
consciousness to the Nigerian theatre
With the establishment of a theatre programme at the University of Ibadan in 1962 by
Geoffrey Axworthy, more plays were written and performed. The students later took these plays
from the confines of the university of Ibadan to secondary schools and other halls. By the 1970s
theatre and drama had become popular university programmes and today, they are part of the
curriculum in the various colleges of education.
It must be noted that theatre and drama are not limited to stage plays. The study of
theatre and drama include media arts. It is pertinent to now discuss the evolution and
development of the Nigerian mass media.
THE NIGERIAN MEDIA
Although the mass media includes radio, television, cinema, newspapers and
magazines only radio, television and cinema (film) are of significance to the study of theatre arts.
The first of these three to evolve is film which was shown in the world for the first time in
1895 in Paris. Film was first shown in Nigeria in 1903 at the Glover Hall, Lagos (Opubor,
etal.1979:2).The British colonialists established the colonial film unit when it was
discovered that film could be used to mobilize support for the allied forces during the
Second World War. This became the Federal film unit in 1947 which produced films. Most
films made at this time were documentaries which sought to show the supposedly good
works of the colonialist towards developing the African. Some of such films are “Empire Day
Celebrations” (1948) and “Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Nigeria in 1956”. By the l960s feature
films started to be produced. But the first feature film by Nigerians and written by a Nigerian is
“Kongi’ s Harvest” by Wole Soyinka which was produced in 1970.
Radio came next. Although radio had been in existence since the first decade of the 20th
century. It only became part of our life in 1951 However, radio drama first hit the Nigerian
airwaves in 1959 (Umukoro 1993: 123). It was after the first drama, a pidgin English drama titled
“Save Journey” that other radio stations started drama on radio. Today, virtually all radio stations
in the country have their own productions both in English and other Nigerian languages.
Television was established in Nigeria by the then Western Region Government, led by the
Action Group Political leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo in October, 1959. However drama started
on television in 1960. The first play was, “My father’s Burden” written by V/ole Soyinka. Since
then, Nigerian television has played host to a lot of plays, especially between the 1970s and the
I 990s when each station had a drama programme by which it was identified. There were serials,
such as “village Headmaster”, “Masquerade”, “Hotel de Jordan”, “Koko Close” and so on. Today
television with satellite broadcasting is more popular than the cinema which it has equally
Theatre and drama have been performing a lot of functions in the world. The same holds
for Nigeria. First, drama educates. The plays performed on stage, radio and television tell the
people about themselves.
The information passed on could be used to aid development. So in effect, theatre and
drama contribute to national development. Again, comedies entertain the people who watch or
listen to them, while at the same time they receive valuable information they need for their social
development. Theatre and drama can be used for historical documentation. History plays, such as
“Ovonranmwen Nogbaisi” and “Kurunmi,” both by Ola Rotimi are important documents of Bini
and Yoruba history. Thus, theatre and drama help to transmit elements of culture from generation
It has also been proved that drama is therapeutic. Drama, apart from being used for
physical and mental development, has been used to cure neurotic and psychotic ailments.
Finally, drama can be used to unify the people. One of the ways the Warri crisis was settled
was the use of a unifying concert which took place at the Warri stadium in 2004.
Theatre and drama are part and parcel of the Nigerian society. They have contributed and
will continue to contribute to the development of the society through their various functions.
Hence their relevance is not in doubt. Their development will continue to be according to the
dictates and dynamics of the society. Nigeria will continue to evolve the kind of theatre and drama
it deserves because theatre and drama, being part of the society cannot operate outside the confines
of the society.
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