Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 74-91
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The Form of Uncommon Sense
In the plays whi ch I have written onto the bleeding pages of this troubled age, I have sought, advisedly by suggestive tropes, to deny consolation to the manufacturers of our nation's anomy, and at the same time to stir our people out of passivity and evasion.
Femi Osofisan, "Playing Dangerously" (24)
In Femi Osofisan's Birthdays Are Not For Dying, Kunle Aremo is heir to a large fortune at the center of which is a business corporation. On his thirtieth birthday, he decides to assume the presidency of the company, in conformity with his father's wishes in the latter's will. Kunle also decides to do something else: clean up the corruption, fraud, and sycophancy that have become endemic in the company. His mother firmly opposes him, implores him to ignore his father's will and give up the company: she is certain that his idealism will lock him in a fight to the death with entrenched interests in the company, a fight she is sure he could never win. True enough, one by one the board of directors, veritable dung beetles at an Augean stable, threaten Kunle with death if he fails to reverse his anti-corruption crusade. Kunle is brash and uncompromising, but it is unclear whether any posture of less severity could accomplish the task; his crusade is directed at those old enough to be his father (and who indeed knew him from when he was a babe)—a not insignificant fact in his gerontocratic context—but then, they are the right targets and they never deny the accusations of corruption against them. The ethical lines are starkly drawn, and Kunle has all the right on his side but, most amazingly, not (poetic) justice. Calamities rain instead on the basically good man—his migraine is unyielding, his sick "son" dies on the way to the hospital, and he is himself poisoned by his wife, the daughter of one of the corrupt board members—while the bad fellows gloat in self-justification. All these on Kunle's birthday, an occasion for celebration and hope, certainly not for dying.
Birthdays is not considered one of Osofisan's significant plays. It is not one of those select groups of about half a dozen plays generally agreed to bear the Osofisan imprint at his most perspicacious: characterized by deft appropriation and re-interpretation of indigenous performance forms, a fine-tuned materialist revision of history, and a consummate dramaturgic sophistication and openness that takes us a few steps beyond Bertolt Brecht, one of the dramatist's many inspirations. Birthdays, on the other hand, is a short, technically unchallenging one-act play with a very simple and straightforward plot, one of many in Osofisan's "peripheral" canon of naturalistic—itself a crucial factor in the critical location of the plays far below the supple, extended parable and epics—plays. The dramatist [End Page 74] himself is wont to cuddle up or shove them aside as his "less adventurous plays in the popular realist tradition," as opposed to the "parables" and "political epics" ("Playing Dangerously" 24). But lightweight and all, Birthdays, indeed like others of its kind such as No More the Wasted Breed or Altine's Wrath, has never failed to elicit active debate after a performance: the signature effect we take for granted in the more well-known plays such as Once Upon Four Robbers or Esu and the Vagabond Minstrels, and indeed the oft-stated central ideological design and goal of the dramatist. Obviously, the "peripheral" plays prove, there are several paths to get to the market.
In its own specific case, the path of Birthdays is composed of a frugal, economical plot. None of those deliciously affective Osofisanian riddles and surprising turns. Deploying dramatic and propitious entries and exits, all the drama plays out in a single, unchanging scene of Kunle's bedroom, furnished more like a living room complete with settee, armchairs, drinks trolley, and standing mirror. The pace...