Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 56-73
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Revolution and Recidivism:
The Problem of Kenyan History in the Plays of Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Given the imme nse power of the regime
. . . .
One would think they wouldn't have to
Fear an open word from a simple man.
In a recent essay, "Art War with the State," Ngugi wa Thiong'o engages in a dialogue with Brecht's "The Anxieties of the Régime," the poem from which the above fragment is taken. Ngugi, who has been censored, imprisoned, and finally exiled by the Kenyan government, has more right than anybody to pose anew the question of the "subversive" power of art. This question had begun to seem at best self-indulgent—in the context of a European or American intellectual sphere that is ready enough to assimilate the most apparently "transgressive" avant-garde aesthetics under a contemplative attitude towards the object, and a commercial sphere that immediately makes over dissent and subversion into the "alternative" and into "shock value"— at worst an ideological mystification. But Ngugi's theater, which was shut down more than once by the Kenyan state, and was ultimately razed by state police, permits us to take seriously the possibility that art can be at war—in more than a metaphorical sense—with the state. What indeed is the origin of the regime's anxiety? Is it mere paranoia? Or did Ngugi's theater pose a real threat to the neocolonial state in Kenya?
Ngugi wa Thiong'o's radical transformation of the East African theater apparatus begins in earnest in 1976 with the origins of the Kamiriithu theater group—a village-based collective of peasants, workers, petty-bourgeois, and intellectuals—which produced only two plays (I Will Marry When I Want [Ngaahika Ndeenda] and Mother Sing For Me [Maitu Njugira]) before being shut down for good by the government of Daniel arap Moi. I will begin, however, with a somewhat earlier work, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, 1 which he and Micere Githae Mugo started in 1974 and which was published just before Ngugi began work on the Kamiriithu project. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi shares the central preoccupation of the Kamiriithu plays: the attempt to narrate, and in narrating to re-think the meaning of, the Mau Mau uprising of 1952-56, whose role in forging Kenyan independence is still a matter of debate. 2 Moreover, it already contains, in embryonic form, the problematic that haunts the Kamiriithu plays and which will occupy the remainder of this essay.
The Trial of Dedan Kimathi begins, appropriately enough, in a courtroom, at the arraignment of Dedan Kimathi, the Mau Mau leader whose [End Page 56] capture and execution in 1956 put a close to the already-waning period of Mau Mau resistance (see Venys 63). But the courtroom trial only frames the real trials of the play, which are four temptations Kimathi, sequestered in his cell before the courtroom trial begins, undergoes before his martyrdom. Kimathi is first visited by his capturer, Henderson, who offers him the collaborationist option: he may save himself by betraying his fellow-fighters in the forest. The second visitation, by a triumvirate of bankers (British, Indian, and African) represents the temptation to trade real victory for a share in the spoils of colonialism. The third temptation is brought by another trio—Business Executive, Politician, and Priest, all African—who represent the hollow nationalization or Africanization of the bourgeoisie, the political class, and the Church (and perhaps the intellectual class more generally). The fourth, as Henderson returns—with gloves off, so to speak—is to capitulate under brutal violence. Kimathi refuses to submit, and is sentenced to death.
Interleaved with this narrative is the story of a Boy and a Girl, who first come onstage locked in a deadly battle over a few coins tossed by a tourist. The subplot of the Boy and the Girl represents colonialism in quite another way, as a fourth principle character, a Mau...