- Barbs: A Study of Satire in the Plays of Wole Soyinka
Patrick Ebewo's Barbs: A Study of Satire in the Plays of Wole Soyinka is a literary introduction to Soyinka's work as an exceptional and committed satirist bent on torturing some form of awareness about the responsibilities of leadership from his immediate humanity. The book shows how Soyinka indicts not only the behemoths at the helm of political affairs but also the acquiescing civilian citizenry in the culture of corruption that has come to characterize many modern African nation-states today. Ebewo ploughs the field rigorously taking us through the entire oeuvre of Soyinka's plays. He avoids the usual chronological play-after-play structure of critical analysis and, instead, creates subheadings that focus on: definitions of satire, influence of traditional satire on Soyinka, the sociopolitical scene, religion and superstition, tyrants and military dictators, women and sex. This allows him to plumb each play several times in the bid to establish how Soyinka uses the scaffold of satire to return again and again to his pet themes: transition, the momentum of modernity and its devastating impact on traditional morality, the generation gap, Western interests in African political and economic affairs, corruption, the human potential for cannibalism, the different disguises that African tyranny wears, i.e., civilian and military, ritual mechanic and redemption, spirituality, festivity and the need for seasonal regeneration of the society, and finally, the revolutionary and conservative roles that women play in the history of most African societies.
In this predominantly literary rereading of Soyinka's plays, Ebewo succeeds in introducing the reader to the historical and political backdrop to the satires, sandwiching a lot of quotes from Soyinka to clarify the key sociological issues that shaped or provoked the works. The strength of the book is its interest in extrapolation. Ebewo succeeds in explaining each satiric scene in the plays with a teacherly relish. He does not question or interrogate form or content, he merely explains. The inclusion and analyses of Madmen and Specialists, To Zia, with Love, and The Beatification of Area Boys are entertaining and refreshing, but Ebewo does not problematize Soyinka's readings of society by juxtaposing his own "follow-follow" interpretations of Soyinka's texts with, let's say, Biodun Jeyifo's dialectical and deconstructive rereadings of some of the same texts in The Truthful Lie (London: New Beacon, 1985). This makes one feel that the entire book reflects the zest and excitement of a doting fan still under the awe of a master. Once in a while, Ebewo makes an attempt to theorize the arguments in the book but stops at the bridge of hesitation. It is not quite clear if this stems from fear or innocence. He therefore ends up in the trough of a conservative study of drama as literature, not theater or performance text.
Even his foray into Yoruba and other African indigenous forms of satires that may have influenced Soyinka's work is so cursory and book-bound that he misses out on an opportunity to fully educate the Western reader on how modern African literary creativity owes its resilience and ebullience to precolonial traditions of theater such as the Ekong, Okumkpa, Ekpe, Gelede, and Apidan, which are only mentioned in [End Page 142] passing. Whether Ebewo really knows about the complexity of the indigenous theater traditions is not clear. Just as well, we do not quite understand why he opts for a mere literary explication of the texts. A detailed semiotic analysis of the sophistication and efficacy of these theater traditions within African societies could have powered the work towards a comparativist paradigm that would have better explained the urgency and desire for immediate change that lies at the heart of Soyinka's satires. Here lies the primary weakness of the work. It hardly goes beyond annotation, literary exegesis, and occasional tendentiousness. At some point you begin to ask yourself: What new contribution does this book make to what we already know about Soyinka's work? The answer to this question may...