Language, Thought Process and Dramaturgy of Violence in Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forest and Ola Rotimi’s The gods are not to blame

 Ismaila Rasheed Adedoyin

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Violence is as old as human creation and opinions are divided on whether humans are innately violent or benign. Violence covers a wide range of activities from mere use of words to large scale terrorism. Violence has been studied from several perspectives ranging from its impact on cinema and television, sociological study of effects, the study of the psychological mechanisms involved, laboratory studies, economic perspective, and cultural studies. This paper focuses on language, thought process and dramaturgy of violence. It examines the processes of navigating through the tricky path of dramaturgy of violence without falling into the trap of promoting violence or teaching and leading the audience to embrace violence. Therefore, it examines the roles of language and thought process using the plays of Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi as reference points. The paper establishes the importance of language as not only a means of communication but also as communion which could be used denotatively or connotatively in the dramaturgy of violence. Different forms of diction, figurative and idiomatic expressions as well as proverbs are sifted from the two plays in order to highlight how language is creatively employed to present violence. Through the creative use of language in the selected plays, three modes (descriptive, enactment and mixed) of dramaturgy of violence are identified in Nigerian drama.

Key words: Language, Thought Process, Violence, Dramaturgy and Nigerian Drama


The selected plays are classics and written by two prominent dramatists among the first generation of playwrights in Nigeria. The plays reveal how the early playwrights navigate through the tricky path of the dramaturgy of violence and still avoid presenting physical violence to their audiences. While Wole Soyinka in A Dance of the Forests chooses a surrealistic approach, Ola Rotimi in The gods are not to Blame simply abides by the classical doctrines of Aristotle and Horace which frown at physical depiction of violence. This is made possible through creative crafting of the dramatic elements (plots, language, character, conflicts etc.) of the plays. The titles of the plays: A Dance of the Forests and The gods are not to Blame create euphemistic impression that could make ordinary people wonder why the selection of these plays for the analysis of dramaturgy of violence. Yet, different forms of violence from verbal and symbolic to eco-violence punctuate every aspect of the plays.

The socio-political and cultural milieus of the period influenced the dramaturgy of the plays. This is seen in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, a play commissioned by the government to mark the independence celebration of the new nation, Nigeria on the 1st October, 1960. It is expected to be a total theatre package with funfair, singing, dancing, heavy drumming, involvement of the audience and ending with happiness amidst merriment but the playwright presents a play that critically dissects the society and takes a critical and pessimistic attitude toward the celebration. This view is supported by Benedict Moboyade Ibitokun (2-3), when he states that, “Those who asked him to write a play on the occasion of the festival were expecting him to come up with a play which would spin the panegyric beads of their past, present and future. They got it wrong as he boldly flung at their faces the endemic slur of their own personality make-up”. How boldly Soyinka flung his views can be perfectly understood from the techniques employed in the dramaturgy of the play. His views are shrouded in symbolic imageries, highly metaphorical abstractions, myths, complex plot structure, multiple subject matters, rhetoric and a mix of allegorical characters like Aroni, Forest Head, Mata Kharibu, Madam Tortoise, Eshuoro, Murete and the Triplets. Violence dots the play from the Prologue when Aroni appears to introduce the Dead Ones to the epilogue and the Forest Head submits that he is worried at the configuration of humans but not interested in altering it. He decides to leave man with his universal trademarks; envy, greedy, power monger, violence and above all, destructive and constructive instincts (Soyinka 71). Soyinka seems to be in support of the group who is of the view that man is innately violent because almost all the characters in the play including Forest Head and Aroni employ violence.

The gods are not to Blame by Ola Rotimi is an adaptation of the classical Greek play, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. The play is a good example of the Aristotelian concept of tragedy and performance convention. It presents a conflict between god and man, between fate and human actions. The conflict eventually leads to violent resolution in favour of the gods. The plot of the play is arranged in chronological order though there are flashbacks. The progression of the events moves from complications to the climax and ends with a tragic resolution. From the beginning to the end, detailed stage directions are employed to convey the atmosphere of violence and traumatic conditions. Though this play is not as poetic as John Pepper Clark’s Song of a Goat but it is not lacking in proverbs laden with imageries and allusions to flora and fauna from Africa and Nigeria. The diction is simple, denotative and employed to navigate through the dramaturgy of violence. Rotimi uses the descriptive style of the classical Greek drama to relay the atmosphere of violence to his audience.

Language, Thought Process and Dramaturgy of Violence

One of the elements of drama that play major role in the dramaturgy of violence is the language of the plays. According to Harcourt Brace, “Language is sounds we make with our mouth, it is more than that. Meaning is what language is all about. Meaning gives language life (21)”.  Language is the diction expressed through dialogue, monologue and soliloquy. Language is a means of communication and a means of communion. It can be a means of identification as well as means of appreciating the manner of reasoning of peoples. It can be an instrument of winning or distancing audience from getting engaged in the emotions and underlying messages of a play. It is vital to the success of a play. The language of the selected plays is easy to understand though it has some connotations, figurative and idiomatic expressions, proverbs and adages which hide the intended meanings and interpretations. This influences the thought process by reducing the atmosphere of violence created in the plays. Commenting on the relationships between language and thought, Gabriel Omotayo Onibonoje observes that:

Language…is not possible without thought. Language and thought are impossible without the world, the concrete-historical reality to which they refer. Therefore, language, thought and the world form one inseparable whole. Again, thought, as one of the ingredients of language, involves a conscious effort, a form of action, on the part of the speaker. It requires action in the form of interpreting, interacting and responder to the challenges which the world poses and which are involved in man’s confrontation or conflict with his existential reality (34).

 The exchanges of ideas, thoughts and conflicting opinions by the characters in the play are conveyed through what in drama is called, dialogue. According to Carl H. Klaus, “Dialogue is an extraordinary significant form of conversation because it is through it that every play implies the total make-up of its imaginative world. It is also important that dialogue imply the whole range of expressions, gestures, inflections, movements and sometimes information on the environment and the total atmosphere of the play (71)”. In Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, dialogue is employed in several ways, particularly through surrealist approach. This involves the use of imageries and symbols to convey meanings. It is employed as a way of representing reality through suggestive meanings, abstract characters and allusion. However, while the language of both Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests and Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame is simple, the thought process in the former is shrouded in metaphors invariably obscuring understanding and appreciation of the play. This technique helps to reduce the effects of the violence that pervades Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests.

By far, language is the most significant component of Ola Rotimi’s dramaturgy. He deliberately writes his plays (Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, Kurunmi, Ovonranwen Nogbaisi, Hopes of the Living Dead etc.) with a language and diction that makes for easy understanding and instant comprehension. His desire during the process of artistic creation is to give birth to a play with lucid and simple dictions that can easily be processed by his audiences regardless of their social and academic background. Corroborating this view, Rotimi says:

I write for audience who is knowledgeable in this language. However, in handling the English Language in my plays, I strive to temper the phraseology to the ear of both the dominant semi-illiterate classes, as well as the literate classes, ensuring that my dialogue reaches out to both groups with ease in assimilation and clarity identification (31).

In The gods are not to Blame, language plays important roles in the dramaturgy of violence. More so, concrete images of violence are created through the use of simple diction, denotative meanings, proverbs wrapped with words that create familiar tone, imageries and meanings, the use of universal and familiar gestures to enhance meanings, understanding and comprehension of his messages. This deliberate simplification and attempt by Rotimi to please his audiences attracted attention of critics like Akanji Nasiru who observes that, “The actual weakness of the play is that language sounds a discordant note in a play that attempts to arouse tragic feelings and emotions in its audience…(65)” and Dapo Adelugba who refers to Rotimi’s language as ‘Yorubanglish’, which he explains as “the many-sided attempt to catch the flavour, tones, rhythm, and emotional content of Yoruba language and thought in an adventurous brand of English (70)”. Interestingly, the same Adelugba has this to say about the play:              

The real worth of Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame is its adventurous creation of a new theatre language which borrows effective from the indigenous oral tradition and uses metaphors and proverbs from our common background, flora and fauna of our country; the birds, beasts and flowers of our native land (54).

Corroborating the above opinion, Olu Obafemi observes that:

Beyond this largely attempt to reach out to a wide audience through his use of an English which attains a certain fidelity with the Yoruba linguistic register in order to capture the Yoruba idiom in English. Rotimi strikingly uses a symbolic language to depict character, to give a powerful visual effect to the dramatic conflict reflected, and economize verbiage (54).

From the foregoing, one may assume that Rotimi writes with the Yoruba people in mind. However, his clear intention of reaching to the broad spectrum of his audience can be discerned from the simplicity of his diction, proverbs and imageries. The same can be seen and inferred in some of Soyinka’s plays classified as “minor plays” (Biodun Jeyifo, 91).

To appreciate how language is used to aid thought process in the dramaturgy of violence in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests and Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame, the following subheading is given critical attention: Dialogue, Thought Process and Violence in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests and Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame; Language, Proverbs and the Depiction of Violence in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests and Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame; and Language, Connotations and Violence in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests and Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame.

Dialogue, Thought Process and Violence in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests

Diction can be classified as formal, informal, standard, colloquial, slang, vernacular, dialect, jargon, obsolete, poetic, concrete and abstract diction (Martha Kolln 32). As stated earlier the diction in the plays is simple, denotative and easy to understand though, the dialogue is replete with connotative expressions. According to Martha Kolln, “the idea of comfort may seem out of place in connection with diction, words can sometimes cause the reader to feel uncomfortable (78)”. The construction of the words in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests is crafted in such a way that it gives a kind of discomfort to the audience which is why some readers find the play somewhat difficult. From the prologue, the dialogue establishes the thought process with simple diction. It stimulates the audience and sets the process of thinking. As observed from the two plays, the strength of the dramaturgy of violence rests in the dialogues and the choice of words employ in provoking the audience and readers. Like Benjamin Lee Whorf rightly observes:

Actually, thinking is most mysterious and by far the greatest light upon it that we have is shown by language. His thinking itself is in a language. The forms of a person’s thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws of patterns of which he is unconscious. These patterns are the unperceived intricate systemization of his own language (46).

From the prologue in both plays, the choice of words employ shows that the playwrights are interested in making the play easy to understand. To achieve this, they create words that are convertible in familiar images, imageries and symbols not only in the real eyes but also the mind eyes of the readers and audiences. These codes are decoded, and they guide the thought process. In the Prologue of Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, Aroni sets the ball rolling with simple dictions:

Aroni:   I know who the Dead Ones are. They are the guests of the          human Community who are neighbours to us of the Forest.       It is their Feast, the Gathering of the Tribes. Their councilors               met and said, Our forefathers must be present at this Feast.               They asked for ancestors, for illustrious ancestors, and…. I sent two spirits of the dead… (5).

The above monologue is simple and immediately establishes the thought process by providing the background information required to appreciate the developments of the play. The prologue by Aroni is simple and suspenceful as well as revealing the complex networks of violence linking the characters with the past, present and glimpses of the future. At the end of the prologue, readers and audience are left with no doubt that the Gathering of the Tribes is an account of violence, vendetta, revenge and counter revenge caused by envy, ambition, and beliefs. From the prologue, the tensed atmosphere of violence amidst celebration is immediately presented. This is first captured by Aroni when he states:

Aroni: …They asked us for ancestors, for illustrious ancestors, and I         said to Forest Head, let me answer their request. And I sent   two spirits of the restless dead… (5).

Aroni:   Their choice was no accident. In previous life they were                linked in violence and blood with four of the living             generation (5).

The selection of these two characters is deliberate and symbolic. They provide a link with the past, a past that is linked in violence and they also represent humanity, a being with instinctual violent nature. The remaining part of the prologue provides a glimpse into a world of the play, a world that is filled with treachery, vengeance, enmity and full of violent machinations. The prologue provides a mix of surrealist approach with the classical style of reporting violence rather than acting or performing violence.

Part One starts with the dramatic appearance of the two unwanted guests. The manner of their appearance is noteworthy. This is provided through the stage direction. It is important to note the choice of words used; “Suddenly the soil appears to be breaking and the head of the Dead Woman pushes its way up. Some distance from her, another head begins to appear, that of a woman. They both come up slowly… (7)”. It is like appearance of devilish ghosts in a horror movie. To add to the layers of meanings created by the appearance, the playwright again provides information which is meaningful and related to the discourse of dramaturgy of violence; “The man is fat and bloated, wears a dated warrior’s outfit, now mouldy. The woman is pregnant (7)”. It is important to note the contrast in the description of the two characters. One with a ‘warrior’s outfit’, the outfits relates to war which is the hallmark of violence, while the other character is ‘pregnant’. The appearance of a dead woman with pregnancy (the world of the unborn) creates symbolic violence and completes the connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

The dialogue starts with rejection and fear of the guests. Just as the guests are lamenting and blaming themselves for accepting the offer to be part of the celebration, “sound of bells, shouts, gunshots (8)” jolt them back to reality. This stage direction reinforces the atmosphere of violence in the play. The dialogues that follow show a change in the communal style of living of the African people.

Rola:         The whole family business sickens me. Let everybody lead          their own lives…

Obaneji: It never used to be a problem.

Rola:         It is now (9).

The four humans (Rola, Adenebi, Obaneji and Demoke) show from their dialogue to be characters with multiple existence and callings. Through their dialogues, the playwright reveals their past experiences, relationships and connections between them. As they leave the scene, the playwright introduces another set of creatures who are neither human beings nor ghosts. They are Murete, “a tree-demon…. Aroni, the one-legged (12)”; Agboreko, “Elder of the Sealed Lips (14)”; and Ogun (14). The complex networks of violent interrelationship between Ogun and Eshuoro caused in the process of creating the totem or symbol to mark the re-union of the people is revealed. The diction remains simple and occasionally mixed with proverbs. The poetic style of confessing the crime by Demoke is equally made simple (26-27) in order to understand the play. From this stage, the complex plot structure develops with complications surrounding and connecting the various creatures with issues such as corruption, chauvinism, evils of capitalism, hatred, pride, envy, vengeance, vendetta and hypocrisy leading them to unabated circle of violence.   

In Part Two, the dialogue becomes more verbose and explanatory. However, despite the numerous allusions to historical events like the history of Troy, slavery, colonialism, accounts of creations and wars, the language is still largely denotative. It is craftily weaved around issues bothering on violence and threats of violence. Through his dialogue, the playwright directs the thought process to issues bothering on eco-violence;

Eshuoro: Have you seen how they celebrate the gathering of the tribes? In our own destruction. Today they even dared to chase out the forest spirits by poisoning the air with petrol fumes. Have you seen how much of the forest has been torn down for their petty decorations?

The play takes a new ideological turn and begins to examine some of the root cause of violence. Through the interplay of actions and dialogue, including the use of flashback (46) discourse on violence takes center stage. The diction becomes easy to understand. Like Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children and Osofisan’s Twingle-Twangle: A Twynning Tayle, the play starts to examine the sense in violence, war and the consistency of their appearance in all period of human’s history. As the plot moves towards the climax, the concept of justified violence is debated by the characters. The Warrior would not employ violence without a legitimate motive. He and his men would not go to war to fight ‘over nothing (55). For example, reacting to Warrior’s attitude towards war, Historian says:

Historian: It is unheard of. War is the only consistency that past ages afford us. It is the legacy which new nations seek to perpetuate. Patriots are grateful for wars. Soldiers have never questioned bloodshed. The cause is always the accident your Majesty, and war is the destiny (51).

The above dialogue is a defence of war and justification of war as a universal instrument of hegemony. It shows that man is innately violent and that violence has always been used as means of negotiation by all human communities and in all periods. In fact, according to the Forest Father, the deities that are expected to be good examples for human beings are not exempted from this instinctual drive towards the use of violence as a means of settling differences. He is shocked at the attitude of Eshuoro and Ogun. While settling the dispute between them, Forest Father say, “Soon, I will not tell you from the humans, so closely have their habits grown on you (59)”. The ‘habits’ refer to by the Forest Father include the use of different forms of violence as means of settling differences. The diction of the play remains simple but pregnant with meanings. The argument gets to a crescendo when the playwright uses the dialogue to show man as a violent animal:

Warrior: Unborn generations will be cannibals most worshipful Physician. Unborn generations will, as we have done, eat up one another. Perhaps you can devise a cure, you who know how to cure so many ills. I took up soldiering to defend my country, but those to whom I gave the power to command my life abuse my trust in turn… (49).

The dialogues make direct attack on man, violence and war as well as the use of strength and survival of the fittest tactics in solving issues by humans. As the play draws closer to the end, the dialogue becomes more poetic and riddled with connotative meanings and messages. This is a deliberate technique to reduce the effects of the violence accounts that abound in human historical development. The diction is deliberately constructed to ease the acceptance and confirmation of violence as inalterable instinct in human beings. It ends with pessimism indicating that the Creator represented by Forest Father is worried and unwilling to change man. This means the outcome of the Gathering of the tribes and the celebration will not yield any new fruits but will confirm man as same in all periods and with same dreams, aspirations and challenges. The final statement by Forest Head reveals that the Creator is worried at the configuration of humans and has accepted that there is nothing to be done to alter or change their violent nature. He has resolved to leave man with his universal trademarks; envious, greedy, power monger, violent and constructive:

Forest Head: Trouble me no further. The fooleries of beings whom I have fashioned closer to me weary and distress me. Yet I have persist, knowing that nothing is ever altered. My secret is my eternal burden….to pierce the encrustations of soul-deadening habit, and bare the mirror of original nakedness-knowing full well, it is futility…. (71).

Dialogue, Thought Process and Violence in Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame

In The gods are not to Blame, Ola Rotimi employs the epic/narrative technique from the beginning. This technique allows the Narrator to guide the thought process by leading the audience into the world of the play. To make this easy for his target audiences, he uses simple diction laden with philosophical thoughts. This is exemplified in the first dialogue by Narrator:

Narrator: The struggles of man begin at birth. It is meet then that our play begin with birth of a child. The place is the land of Kutuje. A baby has just been born to King Adetusa and his wife Ojuola, the King and the Queen of this land of Kutuje (1).

The playwright lures his audience into the world of the play through philosophical statement, “The struggles of man begins at birth (1)” which is bothering on ‘existential reality’ as captured above by Onibonoje. Such a statement has universal appeal and truth which can easily trigger thought processes. Like Aroni in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, Narrator in Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame provides background information ranging from the birth of Odewale, to the declaration by Baba Fakunle that, “This boy, he will kill his own father and then marry his own mother! (3)” and that “the only way to stop it is to kill, kill the unlucky messenger of the gods, kill the boy (3)”. The dialogue leads the audience into the conflict areas through the use of denotative and connotative dictions. Imageries of violence are subtly introduced, “Narrator: It is their first baby, so they bring him for blessing to the shrine of Ogun, the God of War, of Iron(emphasis mine)… (2)”. After this, the dialogue further lures audience deeper into the cause of the conflicts, “Narrator: Then they call a Priest of Ifa, as is the custom, to divine the future that this boy has brought with him (2)”.

Note the clause, ‘as is the custom’ which is added to justify the actions and win the support of the audience. After this proviso, what follows is the bombshell. Again, it is important to note the diction and how the language stimulates thought and suspense. It is equally important to note that the actual bombshell is delivered not by Narrator but by another character, Baba Fakunle.

Narrator: Now Baba Fakunle tells Mother, tells Father, tells the Priest of Ogun and aged keeper of the King’s household and the land; He tells them what it is that the boy has brought as mission from the gods to carry out on earth.

Baba Fakunle: This boy, he will kill his own father and then marry his own mother! (2-3).

The dialogue above completes the introductory part and moves audience into another stage. This is the beginning of the conflicts between the gods and humans. The gods have spoken through Baba Fakunle. Narrator continues the dialogue leading the audience through the other stages of the play with a simple and easy to understand diction.  Of very important to the dramaturgy of violence is the stage when Odewale accuses Aderopo of plotting against him. The dialogue between Odewale and First Chief before the encounter dialogue is pregnant with meanings. It highlights causes of violence as including jealousy and suspicion while at the same time is paradoxical and imbued with dramatic irony. Below is the dialogue:

Odewale: …. Is Aderopo jealous that I am sharing a bed with his mother? Very well then, let him come and sleep with his mother.

First Chief: The gods forbid that such thoughts should enter the heads of the living.

Odewale: Oh, you wait, I have sent for him to come, Bedsharer. So, let him come and marry his own mother. And not stopping there, let him bear children by her (31).

Words alone are not employed as dialogue in the dramaturgy of violence. Another language and forms of dialogue employ in the play include silence, laughter and various forms of gesture. Gesture involves the use of any of the body parts in conveying a message. It is a form of dialogue. Gesture can be divided into three types; universal, social/communal and personal gestures. Most often, gesture is culture bound and must be well handled when used in drama. This is important in order to get the message to the readers and audience. A good example of gesture used in the dramaturgy of violence occurs between Odewale and Aderopo. Odewale, “Gestures at his head to imply madness in the other’s (32)”. This gesture is a universal gesture and it is understood by Aderopo as can be inferred from his response: “So be it, I shall greet you in like manner then… (Prostrating himself.) Your highness, if you think to have heavy suspicions is wisdom, then your head is not well (32)”.

From Odewale’s response, it is obvious that gesture is an effective means of communication. The same can be said of silence and laughter. Baba Fakunle employs silence and this triggers the crises between him and Odewale. Also, King Adetusa uses laughter as a means of communication in the encounter between him and Odewale. In that instance, Odewale interprets the laughter as derogatory, insulting and an invitation to war. Through the dialogue, the causes of violence are revealed. These include uncontrolled temper, fear, injustice, betrayal and suspicion. Examples of uncontrolled temper or hot temperedness combined with fear as the causes of violence can be deduced from the following dialogues:

Priest: (going to Aderopo). Son, you go away; when tempers calm, we shall talk… (35).

Alaka…’Scorpion’ I used to call your King because of his temper… (42).

Odewale: (losing his temper)… (61).

Alaka: … I am glad to see that your youthful, hot temper is still with you… (61)

Odewale: ….The blood is hot. The blood is hot because fear now grips the heart of Odewale… (39).

Fear can easily trigger violent reaction. This can be inferred from the reaction of Odewale below:

Odewale: ….If Adetusa, a son of Kutuje, could be killed in violence, and the murderer be hidden from vengeance in this land, what will the people of Kutuje not do to me of Ijekun tribe?

Who can I trust? Ogun, who can I … (Bodyguard Akilapa bursts in, spear in hand. Odewale springs defensively to his feet, wide-eyed with fright)….40.

From the reaction of Odewale as stated above, If Odewale is with a gun, he probably might have shot Akilapa out of fear. Many violent actions are caused not out of bravery but fear. A good example is the killing of Ikemefuna by Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart. Other causes of violence as revealed through the play include lack of trust, tribalism, shame, corruption and abuse of power. Tribalism, egoism and paranoiac attitude can trigger violence as revealed in the account by Odewale, “That is the end. I can bear insults to myself, brother, but to call my tribe bush, and then summon riff-raff to mock my mother tongue! I will die first… (46)” The strength of the play is in the denotative use of words. However, a lot can be deduced from the last utterance by Odewale, “When the wood insect gathers sticks, on its own head it carries it (72)”. This statement completes the rules of classical tragedy. It confirms that the tragic hero is the cause of his predicament and must bear the brunt alone. It gives the picture of suffering, pain and acceptance of misfortune.

Language, Proverbs and the Depiction of Violence in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests

According to Halstead Albright et al:

Understanding the language of other people is essential to understanding the culture of that people. It is hard to understand the beliefs, attitudes, values, and world view of a people without understanding their language and the nuances of how that language is used (41).

The statement above is of immense relevance toward appreciating proverb, its uses, significance and application in the dramaturgy of violence. As far as the dramaturgy of violence is concerned, proverbs help to shield the direct effects and weights of the intended meanings from the receiver. It provides graphic images of intended meanings by appealing to thought process and logic. And like Whorf rightly observes, “The reason behind the efficacy of proverb is that it is an aphorism, a wise saying, bases upon people’s experience and is a reflection of the social values and sensibility of the people (45)”. Examples in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests include:

Agboreko: Oro cried last night and Bashiru vanished from his bed. Do you still wonder what became of your friend? Proverb to bones and silence (33).

Agboreko: If the wind can get lost in the rainstorm it is useless to send him an umbrella (35).

Agboreko: The eye that looks downwards will certainly see the nose. The hand that dips to the bottom of the pot will eat the

biggest snail. The sky grows no grass but if the earth called her barren, it will drink no more milk. The foot of the snake is not split in two like a man’s or in hundreds like the snake, he will uncoil the chain that leads into the dead… (36).

Physician: A man cannot take a wife without a dowry (49).

Questioner: When the fattened calf complains of hunger, may we not fear his brain is seized with fever? (61).

Forest Head: …The priest was burnt, and do you ask what became of his beard? (62).

The proverb is an integral part of a people’s world view and can be of immense help toward appreciating their culture. Whorf notes that:  “A collection of the proverbs of a community or a nation is in a real sense an ethnography of the people which if systematised can give a penetrating picture of the people’s way of life, their philosophy, their criticism of life, moral truths and social values (46)”. This line of thought is equally supported when F. B. O. Akporobaro posits that, “Of the varied oral literature forms, proverb is the form which has proved to be of great continuing relevance to modern man. It has been and remains a most powerful and effective instrument for the transmission of culture, social morality, manners and ideas of a people from one generation to another (44)”.

In A Dance of the Forest, Soyinka uses proverb to serve various purposes which include but not limited to identification of culture, reduces impacts of intention, to highlight characterization, to stimulate thought process and provide comic relief in order to ease the atmosphere of violence that pervades the play. Some of the proverbs help to unveil the inner thoughts in the minds of the characters. For example, Demoke uses proverb as a means of revealing his identity and the inner worries or guilty thoughts in his mind when Obaneji asks if he is the carver. Demoke responds, “As the saying goes, if the red monkey only tumbled in his parlour, no one would know he had any sons (10)”. Again when asked how he made the totem or whether he was the only one that made it, he responds with another proverb, “Demoke: The knife doesn’t carve its own handle…. (10)”. The essence of this is to discourage the other characters from probing into the mysteries that surround the making of the totem, particularly the violent death of Oremole which is caused by Demoke. Through the last proverb, he confirms that there are few others who support him in the making of the totem and that one of them died in the process but he did not own up.

Agboreko is another character that spices almost all his dialogues with proverbs and ends them with the statement, “Proverb to bones and silence”. The numerous proverbs help to reveal his character as ‘Elder of the Sealed Lips’. Among others for example, When Murete, the tree-imp refuses to attend to him, Agboreko uses proverbs to remind him of the importance attached to his visit and get his attention. He says, “Agboreko: If the hunter loses his quarry, he looks up to see where the vultures are circling (14)”. When he is asked by Old Man whether he is aware of where Aroni intends to hold court concerning Demoke and Oremole, his answer again is through proverb. He says, “If the flea had a home of his own, he wouldn’t be out on a dog’s back (32)”. This implies that Aroni cannot decide the venue of the court because his role is to go wherever he is sent to by Forest Head.

Throughout the play, the characters employ proverbs to convey messages ranging from sarcastic, derogatory, cynicism to threats of violence. Proverbs are used to ease the tensed atmosphere of violence as well as to depict the different forms of violence from verbal to systemic violence. And as the play draws closer to the end, the graphic imageries of violence are clearly spelt out through proverbs like the one by The Questioner and Forest Head below:

Questioner: When the fattened calf complains of hunger, may we not fear his brain is seized with fever? (61).

Forest Head: …The priest was burnt, and do you ask what became of his beard? (62).

Language, Proverbs and the Depiction of Violence in Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame

Proverb provides logical thoughts that make dialogue more meaningful. It serves as a means of advice and a tool for solving difficult explanations. In Rotimi’s The gods are not to Blame more than fifty proverbs are used and they dot every page of the play. Some of the characters hardly speak without enriching their dialogues with proverbs. They serve as figures of speech. They acts as metaphor, simile, paradox, oxymoron, irony and provide imageries of violence. Akporobaro observes that, “In terms of form, a proverb is a figure of speech like simile, metaphor, hyperbole or zeugma characterised by its graphic, pictured or allusive form…(5)”. Examples of proverbs used as figures of speech in the play include:

Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question is asked to produce an effect, stir insightful thought or make statement rather than to get an answer. Examples in the play are:

What use are greetings to a dying body? (9)

When rain falls on the leopard, does it wash off its spot? (10)

How long must feverish bird tremble in silence before their keeper? (10)

When the crocodiles eat their own eggs, what will they not do to the flesh of a frog? (23)

All lizards lie prostrate: who can a man know which lizard suffers from bellyache? (23)

Simile: A simile is a comparison of one thing with another mostly involving words like eg. Like, and as, as…as. Many similes abounds in the play, for instance:

Sickness is like rain (10)

Like a bat fully aware of the way the birds fly. (26)

Like a parrot that has eaten too much pepper? (28)

Metaphor: This is a direct comparison. It is an imaginative use of a word or phrase to describe somebody or something as another object in order to show that they have the same qualities and to make the description more forceful. Most proverbs have metaphorical qualities. Examples in the play include:

We have left our pot unwashed and our bird… (59).

The butterfly thinks himself a bird (59).

Life is a struggle (61).

Personification: Personification is the act of ascribing animate qualities or characteristics to inanimate things. It is the representation of abstract qualities as human. Examples include:

Joy has a slender body that breaks too soon (8).

The noon moves slowly but by daybreak it crosses the sky (14).

The touch of palm oil is cool to the body (39).

Imagery: This is the imaginative language that produces pictures in the minds of people, reading or listening. Sometimes, it acts as metaphor, simile and other figurative expressions. Examples include:

He who pelts another with pebbles asks for rocks in return (7).

Until the rotten tooth is pulled out, the mouth must chew with caution (21).

When the frog in front falls in a pit, others behind take caution (23)

The hyena flirts with the hen, the hen is happy not knowing that her      death has come (30)

When the wood-insect gathers sticks, on its own head it carries it (72).

Proverbs are used in the play to provide parallel imageries between violence and peace and to warn of the consequence of using violence as an option. Examples include the following proverbs:

He who pelts another with pebbles asks for rocks in return (7).

Joy has a slender body that breaks too soon… (8).

When crocodiles eat their own eggs, what will they not do to the flesh of a frog? (23)

The hyena flirts with the hen, the hen is happy, not knowing that her death has come (30).


A thorough appreciation of the dramaturgy of violence depends largely on the choice of words and a crafty manipulation of same. Language can help to heighten the implications of verbal violence. This in turn can stimulate suspense and reduce the challenges of applying the enactment method of displaying violent acts before the audience. Through a mastery of language, the descriptive method of dramaturgy of violence which began in the extant classical Greek plays can be achieved. This will reduce the impact of the violent acts on the audience.

While the researcher supports the view that drama should be for instant comprehension, both denotative and connotative uses of language are required in the dramaturgy of violence. While the denotative form helps to bring the meanings of the words closer to the audience, the connotative form provides the audience with images and imageries that complement the dictionary meanings of the words. The connotative use of words can equally help in reducing the challenges of cultural interpretations and assist playwrights to navigate the tricky paths of portraying violence without falling into the trap of promoting or teaching and leading the audience towards embracing violence as the only means to an end.

Violence is not an innate instinct in man; it is captured during the process of interactions with fellow human beings and realisation of societal norms. It includes all actions or inactions whether verbal or non-verbal, offensive or defensive, physical or non-physical which cause injury, pain, trauma or fear. In drama, it includes threats and oppressive acts, from silence to terrorism and war perpetrated by an individual, a group or a nation.

Violence is attractive to dramatists because it is a significant action which attracts attention. Depictions of acts of violence in drama have always attracted some forms of conventions, rules, laws and punitive actions in every society and in all period. In Nigeria, there are rules which guide permissible actions and conducts by traditional performers during the pre-colonial period. Dramaturgically, employing imageries, connotations and poetic dictions rather than prosaic or narrative technique involving physical performance of violence may reduce the impact of the violent incidents on the audience.

The dramaturgy of violence in Nigeria draws its influence from the classical Greek dramatic principles found in the works of Plato, Aristotle and Horace. It is also inspired by the traditional African total theatre, Marxian, psychoanalytical and feminist aesthetics. From observation and analysis of the selected plays, three techniques of depicting acts of violence are identified. They are; descriptive or reportage technique, presentation or enactment technique; and the mixed technique. All these techniques of depicting acts of violence are evidenced in Nigerian drama.

In terms of style, the first generation of playwrights in Nigeria employs mainly indirect approach by using figurative expressions, connotations, imageries and poetic expressions in depicting violence while the second generation employs a more direct approach aimed at externalising violence by using simple dictions, denotative expressions, prosaic and narrative techniques including the use of Pidgin English. The third generation of playwrights share similarities with the second generation, although they are more courteous and crafty in their dramaturgy of violence.  

The first generation of playwrights are more influenced by philosophical ideologies like classicism, mysticism, spiritualism, and surrealism, while the second generation are more influenced by socio-economic and political ideologies like capitalism, socialism, Marxism, imperialism, and tribalism. The third generation derives their influences from contemporary challenges like corruption, exploitation, leadership, gender issues, terrorism and injustice. The socio-economic and political ideologies are broken into parts and each part becomes the focus of attention by the third generation.

The growing film industry in Nigeria requires the input of dramaturgs, therefore, the Guild of Nigerian Dramaturgs should be formed to determine and regulate the profession. The Nigerian Institute of Dramaturgs with statutory power should be created to give professional training and certificates to aspiring dramaturgs and professionals who want to improve their skills. Government should establish institutes for the study of violence in order to help the nation produce policies and studies that are of immense benefits to the country. The Nigerian Broadcasting Commission should direct attention to the violent contents of some cartoons and children films (films by children or films for children) being aired on most television stations in the country.


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