THEME OF POLITICS IN OUR HUSBAND HAS GONE MAD AGAIN
Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again by Ola Rotimi is a very humorous play about the political struggles of modern Africa. The main character is Lejoka-Brown who is a member of the military and who has contracted many wives (unknown by his first wife) over the years.
Early in the play, we learn of Lejoka-Brown’s wives. Mama Rashida was his brother’s wife. Lejoka-Brown had to marry her according to tradition and due to his brother’s death. Sikira (the second wife) married Lejoka-Brown in order to advance him politically and, literally, to help him win the women’s vote. Then, of course, there’s Lizzy who (like the others) thinks she is the only wife. She comes back from the United States after completing her medical degree. It is here that the real comedy begins.
Lizzy’s plane lands earlier than usual in Nigeria, so she simply finds Lejoka-Brown’s father’s house and makes it her own. Lejoka-Brown, at that point, is on his way to the airport in order to prevent that very thing. After living in America for some time, Lizzy has adopted the Western view of “traditional” marriage and isn’t afraid to “chase” her husband, even after the three wives learn about each other. Many comic incidences ensue. Most notably, the title incidence, where Sikira runs from the house shouting, “Our husband has gone mad again!” This is her exit-line in that Sikira leaves the marriage once and for all here. It isn’t long before Mama Rashida does the same thing and, by the end, Lizzy has obtained her desire: Lejoka-Brown all to herself. Lizzy is now Lejoka-Brown’s one and only wife.
It is straightforward to describe Our Husband as a piece of political theatre, if Michael Kirby’s (1975) definition of political theatre is applied in a general sense. Writes Kirby: Political theatre is intellectual theatre. It deals with political ideas and concepts, usually in an attempt to attack or support a particular political position. It is literary theatre, not because it necessarily involves words and/or a script but because all production elements are subservient to, support, and reinforce the symbolic meanings” (Kirby, 1975: 130).
THEME OF POLITICS IN OUR HUSBAND HAS GONE MAD AGAIN
Given the very identifiable texture of contemporary politics in Our Husband, the play is a great example of political drama – a drama in which we find the process of politics as an art of government as its major component, or political events as a form or subculture of theatre, or politicians as actors in some sort of human drama. However, unlike other great pieces of political theatre, such as Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest (Soyinka, 1967), or Osofisan’s The Chattering and The Song (Osofisan, 1976), Our Husband is not a cerebral ventilation of political ideas or issues. Instead, in Rotimi’s deft satirical humour, Our Husband is a visceral attack on the daft politics of post-Independence Nigeria between 1960 and 1966.
On the 15th of January, 1966, the first military coup in Nigeria decimated the class of politicians so humorously carved into Rotimi’s satirical political theatre. As party politics is always the first casualty of military putsches, politicians only emerged again in Nigeria from 1979 until 1983, when the military struck again, and from May 1999, when democracy was restored, to date.
Given these interregnums, Rotimi’s play assumes nearly the status of a political documentary on the wild and zany times of Nigeria’s First Republic. In this perspective, despite the notion in some quarters that Rotimi borrowed some elements of his plot from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (Hansberry, 1958; Wetmore Jr., 2009), Our Husband is largely a social satire which attempts to theatricalise the absurdities of Nigeria’s post- Independence parliamentary politics with rather marginal partisan interest. Here, arguably, lies the strength and weakness of this play: the strength, because the theatricality is undeterred by ideological or party persuasions, and the weakness since the theatricality veers off in most places into purely farcical dimensions which blur the focus of the satire.
The thread of the entire story is slight. Ex-Army Officer, Major Lejoka-Brown, having made it big as an upscale cocoa plantation owner and business man, ventures into politics to consolidate his position, and, even more, carve a niche for himself in government. His political strategy, as he codes it himself, is “Surprise-and-Attack”, a neo-military tactic that involves taking a third wife and driving through the country-side in a campaign blitz. But Lejoka-Brown fails to reckon with the unexpected arrival of his Kenyan wife, the one he married legally while on active service in the Congo. Liza, who had not returned with her husband, had no knowledge of the other wives. Having completed her medical studies, she hopes on the next flight against all directions of her husband, and arrives in Nigeria, ostensibly to aid her husband – now Leader of the National Liberation Party and Prime Ministerial hopeful, ex-Major Lejoka-Brown, in the crucial days before the polls.
Liza’s arrival, however, upturns the applecart of Mr Lejoka-Brown. Henceforth, he must direct all his energies towards containing a festering marital crisis within his family, in which there are already two wives! But he fails. His antics and pranks make his second wife, Sikira, a woman absorbed without formal marriage into Lejoka-Brown’s political schemes, dub him a madman. His tactic does not impress his party either; so, his political rivals chuck him out of the party chair. What effectively collapses his house of cards, however, is Sikira’s nomination by the National Liberation Party caucus for the enviable party chair and the departure of his third wife, Mama Rashida, inherited in a levirate marriage scheme, from the shambles of Lejoka- Brown’s home in the capital city to the pastoral rust of her country home. At the end of the play, Major Lejoka-Brown’s ego is thoroughly deflated; he is no longer the centre of his own political or family universe – he is only a bewildered bystander. Panicky and uncertain of what next to do, he intones gravely, “The world has come to an end” (Rotimi, 1977: 77).
Lejoka-Brown’s world that has come to an end is a ridiculous, risible world in which such half- demented middle-class elements as the ex-Major suddenly rise to a position of status through either accidental or shady fortune. Lejoka-Brown, for instance, gains his economic leverage through inherited family plantations. The scale of this new boom is shown in Lejoka-Brown’s boisterous assertion before one of his trustees, the Lawyer Mr
G. A. Okonkwo. Boasts the ex-Major: “…if they put you on auction right now – you, your degrees, your coat – everything – I can buy you all over again” (Rotimi, 1977: 6). Though not without some exaggeration, this claim is soon validated by the ease and rapidity with which Lejoka-Brown forms a political party and slips himself into the party chair. In Our Husband, politics is the latest industry, a lucrative business reserved for those who can gamble with their hoard. As investment, politics is another conduit for siphoning the material wealth of the nation into grasping private pockets. Remarks Lejoka-Brown, “You want to chop life? – No, no – you want to chop a big slice of the national cake? – Na politics” (Rotimi, 1977: 4).
Since politics is another avenue for self-enrichment and personal aggrandizement, the politicians bring into it their hawkish, grasping, scheming, vindictive and generally corruptive tendencies. Politics becomes, as the saying goes, a dirty game in which all rules apply and nothing is certain or predictable. This is the face of contemporary politics in Our Husband: rabid materialism, feckless chauvinism and instinctual but melodramatic posturing of the politicians accommodating their egos and greed to the ill-informed and uncritical trust of their constituents.
So, Lejoka-Brown in a bid to secure the votes of the women folk, conclude a hasty marriage with the daughter and heir of the president of the National Market Women Union, Sikira. One expediency soon commands the next: Lejoka- Brown must have his second wife, Liza, flown straight to Nigeria after the elections because now that the latter has completed her studies, she would beef up the stature of the Ministerial hopeful. The vainglorious ex-Major puts it succinctly:
Ladies and gentlemen, I have the pleasure in introducing to you this evening, the chairlady of this august occasion…. She is the one and only Dr the Honourable Mrs. Elizabeth Lejoka- Brown, M.D. (Yale), MSc (Gynaecology), wife of the one and only Federal Government Minister of Agriculture and Housing, Minister and Honourable Major Rahman Taslim Akinjide Lejoka-Brown, ON, MHR, Esquire! (Rotimi, 1977: 29).
But we must not think that the pretensions and posturing of Lejoka-Brown are of course what the public see of him. Actually, until the very end of the play, the contradiction between his public and private image is what gives gusto to Rotimi’s hilarious satire. For Lejoka-Brown is a fire-eating radical, a breathing freedom fighter who has pledged to liberate the masses of his country from the shackles of oppression and want, with undying vigour and – when required – with the last quart of his dear blood. As a matter of fact, his party’s anthem is: Freedom, freedom. Everywhere there must be freedom Freedom for you, Freedom for me Freedom for Nigeria, Freedom for Africa! (Rotimi, 1977: 29).
And as Sikira one of his wives avers, Lejoka-brown is “madly in love with politics, he breaths politics, he sleeps with politics, and dreams of…” (Rotimi, 1977: 23). Though he is, of course, in politics for concerns other than the emancipation of the exploited masses of his country, it is only towards the end that Lejoka-Brown’s posturing is effectively debunked as he panics before Liza at seeing his sharp-tongued but less-witted Mama Rashida mouth women’s libs equality clichés so freely in his own house. Un-balanced by the prospect of a minor – and, female too – revolution in his house, Lejoka- Brown becomes desperate in asserting control over a fast-disintegrating family structure. His desperation leads him to take personal measures which are often ridiculous and occasionally border on the frenetic and the neurotic. The height of Lejoka-Brown’s “madness” occurs when he halts midway a world press conference of his National Liberation Party and orders his listeners at gun point to lie prostrate on their bellies so that they may not catch a glimpse of his wife (Liza) arriving then in a bikini. Immediately Liza is out of sight
Lejoka-Brown dismisses the press and his party- wigs with a Christian hymn and a toast. A farcical conclusion for a grotesque and absurd situation. If, however, the ex-Major appears as a fraudulent politician, his opponents and party stalwarts alike do not fare better. Nor does the government in the saddle of power. Most particularly, the outgoing government is indicted as brutal and insensitive in its official policies. A measure of this is shown in the manner the government pulls down illegal structures – stalls in the slum and the city and other old-fashioned city centre located dwellings. Alhaj Mustapha’s case is summary of the material loss and anguish of the affected. He complains severely to Mama Rashida:
Hmm…there is trouble, sister. They have just broken down the house of my grand- father. Hmm. What the eye sees in this Lagos, the mouth can’t describe. As if…as if it was nothing …the Government demons broke it down with their white- man’s machine. It is a disgrace…A horrible sight! (Rotimi, 1977: 17).
But the angst of people like Hajj Mustafa is not likely to be remedied by the politicians who want to wrest power from the present government. The acquisitive culture provides a common background for the politicians we find in Our Husband. Whether as individuals, such as Lejoka-Brown, Okonkwo and Mallam Gaskiya, or, as a collective (for instance, the National Liberation Party), the politicians typify the cabalistic pretensions and emptiness of the political class. They are not different or better than one another beyond the vainglorious names of their respective political parties and the temperament of their party leaders. There is an ever-present atmosphere of dissension, of fusion and fission, of desertions and fresh loyalties. In Our Husband, the undercutting, criss- crossing, manoeuvrable personalities become a rowdy assembly of self-seekers, large-scale looters, and the most formidable enemy against the genuine interest of their country.
The speed with which Lejoka–Brown is chucked out of the party chair and replaced with Sikira, a malcontent whose interest in politics was only aroused by the fact that she was finally jilted by her erratic politician-husband, is a résumé of the unpredictability and absurdity of current politics. Madam Ajanaku, Sikira’s mother and president of the Market Women Union, is the redoubtable kingmaker in the party caucus. The path to Sikira’s political championship cannot thus be more assured or be less arduous. But it is the same old guard and the same old chorus. Sikira is borne “shoulder-high in an open sedan” with the usual motley multitudes, chanting: Freedom, freedom. Everywhere there must be freedom (Rotimi, 1977: 76).
The satirical bent of Our Husband has its cutting edge not in the melodramatic Yoruba tonalisation of English words, or the chirpy Arabic exclamations, but in the feeble-mindedness of Lejoka-Brown, the unflattering bluster of Lisa and Sikira and the beatific passivity of Mama Rashida. In Lejoka- Brown’s family, Rotimi presents a relentless hilarious spectacle, amplified by Lejoka-Brown’s tomfoolery and his wives’ convivial sensibility. As for Lejoka-Brown’s alter ego – Okonkwo – and his party colleagues, they become but aesthetic vistas into the crudeness, chauvinism and licentiousness of power-grabbers at the national level.
Whilst it is evident that “Rotimi works within the usual conventions of mistaken identity, conflict between the sexes and different cultures” (Johnson, 1982: 140), the satire relies more on the convincing differentiation of the characters in matters of language, class, temperament and even gender. There are three obvious shades of language in this play and Rotimi exploits the comical aspect of each register to the hilt. Whilst Mallam Gaskiya, Lejoka— Brown’s right hand man, affects a quaint “officialese” typical of the loud–mouthed, word– minting politician, Madam Ajanaku uses proverb– riddled pidgin and Madam Rashida speaks in a style that fully conveys her rusty rural background, and placidly traditional sensibility. As for Lejoka- Brown, he is accustomed to all three styles and his dexterity allows him to extricate himself from difficult situations with very minimal loss of face. The rapidity with which he breaks through the various speech registers is suggestive of his listlessness, his irrepressible joviality or even foolhardiness in situations as grotesque as his own moral and political vision.
In its essential details, language is the verve of the entire satire, it provides an infectious convivial atmosphere that cradles the farcical tantrums of Lejoka-Brown, especially, in the mock-ironic seriousness of the several political conferences. Language assists us to distinguish the class, temperament, gender and mannerisms of the different characters. No one character is like the other, or yet the immediate foil, but each is identifiable by the style of his speech pattern, as much as by his own, individual mannerisms. We find that Lejoka-Brown “is husky, broad shouldered, barrel-chested and hirsute, has only a loin-cloth on, buttressing, as it were the complacent sag of his jumbo-size pot-belly” (Rotimi, 1977: 4).
Lawyer Okonkwo is “spruced up in a western suit that lends some dignity to his frail, five-foot-five frame” (Rotimi, 1977: 4). The feature of Mama Rashida tells its own tale: “MAMA RASHIDA enters from outside. Balanced on her head is a large basket cage housing a number of live chickens” (Rotimi, 1977: 5). As for Polycarp, the house help, his appearance denotes his status: “Enter POLYCARP, clad in khaki shirt over a pair of shorts of the same fabric…A pair of worn-out army boots encases his feet, like over-sized hooves” (Rotimi, 1977: 5). In spite of the storm of laughter the mere appearance of these characters will provoke, the climactic moments only come off during the army reminiscences of the ex-Major, the rowdy conferences, Liza’s maiden encounter with her co- wives and Lejoka-Brown’s “Egg Treatment” at the end of the play. These are the cardinal comical flourishes in Our Husband, they illustrate the crucial moments when the absurdities of Rotimi’s characters cause an overspill of social mayhem. These moments show Rotimi’s “great skill in building a comic structure with pertinently related parts” (Johnson, 1982: 142).
In view of the excessive theatricality of Our Husband, the rapid metamorphosis of such characters as Liza, Sikira and Mama Rashida, and the absence of a discernible ideological or partisan focus, Johnson (1982) comments as follows: “Rotimi’s treatment of his themes suggests a lack of focus and a failure to sustain a specific point of view. The execution of themes is uncertain and the inadequate motivation cumulative, thus minimizing the significance of the comedy” (Johnson, 1982: 142). I think Johnson has missed the very point of this play: the characters may be gross caricatures but they can easily fit into the newsprint profiles of many politicians of the First Republic and, probably, even anticipate today’s politicians over-burdening the political landscape in post-oil-boom Nigeria.
Additionally, it is probably a misplaced argument that Rotimi fails to “sustain a specific point of view”. His consistent point of view in this drama is, on the contrary, very loud: parliamentary democracy in the First Republic in Nigeria was an unmediated sham. There is no intellectual argument behind this view, as one finds in, for instance, Kongi’s Harvest (Soyinka, 1963), or The Chattering and the Song (1977) because the characters in Our Husband are overly portrayed as street-wise anti-intellectual politicians and their crude hangers-on. Arguably, Rotimi’s play mocks our conventional sensibility of searching beneath the surface of laughter for the treatment of serious public issues. On the contrary, in Our Husband, the laughter itself becomes the issue. There is nothing underneath it save the desultory emptiness of contemporary politics. And this forces the reader and spectator quite ironically to enjoy Rotimi’s humour in all its savage bewildering “truthfulness” as a political documentary.
Rotimi must be considered here as a humourist. The place of the humourist in the theatre is an exalted one, requiring not only the quickness of wit, but also an alertness to the prevailing mood conveyed by words and the trend of dialogue. This inevitably cuts back to the power of laughter which is “brought in to mock things as they are so that they may topple down, and make room for better things to come” (O’Casey, 1957: 204). It is only in this connection that, “Nothing seems too high or low for the humourist; he is above humour, above faith” (O’Casey, 1957: 204). The success of Our Husband lies in this direction, i.e. in Rotimi’s expertly combining various risible incidents to provide a social comedy which satirises the corruption and banalities of Nigeria’s (even in a large sense, postcolonial African) politics.
Our Husband is a veritable potpourri, a grapevine which forces its audience to laugh at their society’s crass politics, whilst at the same time they are laughing at themselves – laughing at their own easy compromises and accommodation of political corruption and social charade. Rotimi, possibly, has trivialised the intellectual arguments that should provoke us against the infantilism and rascality of the political class and landscape covered in his play. However, in its engaging theatricality, Our Husband does attempt to shock us and shake us awake to the glaring inadequacies of postcolonial democracies across sub-Saharan Africa, in particular.
In conclusion, it’s important to note that as the play goes one, the watcher/reader learns that Lejoka-Brown is obviously not as educated as his wife, Lizzy, but that his political prowess puts them on the same level in Africa.
Peter Hezekiah Lawson (Sir Pee). The CEO of Sir Pee Integrated Services and www.libraryguru.com and www.projectvilla.com.ng. A reputable researcher, ICT Instructor and a publisher of many research works in Education.