Let us talk classicism again: a critical review of Abdul O. Umar’s The Surrogate

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Reviews season two

Last Updated on June 2, 2018 by Memorila

Abdul O. Umar’s The Surrogate teaches us not to let ambitions push us towards wrong paths and that even if a lie survives for a thousand years, it withers the very day it is confronted with the truth. Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy reviews

“… I punish children for their parents’ sins to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (Exodus 20:5–God’s Word® Translation)

Oh no, I do not agree with the above quote, let he who has sinned fall short of the glory of the Lord, not an innocent generation. For how long shall the children keep paying for their father’s sin? Yet, this is the thrust of Abdul O. Umar’s The Surrogate.

Perhaps, this is the most exciting drama piece I am fortunate to have come in contact with in a long while.

The play focuses on man’s struggle with the supernatural. It is a quest for truth, but a truth which points towards the path of disaster!

So what is the story?

Well, it is time to cleanse the land again and the surrogate is being prepared to carry out this function as it is the custom of the land from time immemorial.

The princes and princess return home tired and weary from their sojourn in the outside world. They are not happy. They have not made much progress in the outside world and have returned home to pour out their disappointment to their father, the king. They return home carrying heavy loads which the palace servants assists them in carrying inside but that which is heavier than the heavy load they came with is the burden in their heart, which they intend to pour out to their father.

As soon as their parents return to the palace after performing some necessary traditional rites before the final ritual of the cleansing should take place, the children meet with their father to pour out the content of their heart.

The father hears them and calls on the divination priest to come assist in providing panacea to the issues disturbing his children. The Ifa priest divines but chooses not to divulge the truth.

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Ayegba, a younger prince who fortunately has learnt the art of divination in his sojourn, confronts the priest and challenges him to spell out the truth as it is.

It turns out that the king had forcefully taken the throne. Although, the throne was his right as the first son of the late king but he had committed an abominable act which should have deprived him of the throne. He had impregnated his lover and when he got to hear of the pregnancy and knew that it was an abomination for the crown prince to occupy the throne if he had ever had carnal knowledge of a woman and even put her in the family way, he hides his iniquity by secretly having her murdered in a bush.

Little did he know that the young lady he had put in the family way had placed a curse on him, a curse which would be his doom and that of his children.

Now, the gods and ancestors want him to make reparation by making his sin public and seeking forgiveness at the spot where he sacrificed the lady for his ambition.

Would King Acheneje agree to liberate himself and his children from the curse of the lady and the annoyance of the unborn foetus in her womb?

Why don’t you read the story to find out?

Now, let us access the strength and weakness of the drama piece.

The drama is structured on the tenets of Classicism as defined by Aristotle. It observes the unity of time, place and action (although this was heavily violated by the epilogue). If we expunge the epilogue–which I think to be a terrible anticlimax and should be expunged–the play has its setting in the palace court all through (unity of place), it does not exceed one revolution of the earth (unity of time), and its major actions surrounds Acheneje (action). All these would have been tidy enough without the epilogue coming in to break them up.

Fatalism is a prominent feature of Classicism and we find this in the play for everything, as we shall later find out, revolves around a curse. Acheneje’s offspring (as the case of Oedipus) were doomed to failure because a curse had been placed on them due to the iniquity of their father.

The play is also replete with anagnorisis and peripetia, both important ingredients in the soup of classical tragedy. What we could perhaps say is missing is hubris, which we cannot pinpoint in the tragic character.

However, the tragic character (King Acheneje) is of noble blood and household, and he, as many other tragic characters in classical drama, falls from grace to grass. The playwright however failed to exploit the use of pity and finally the purgation of emotion was mismanaged. Acheneje’s tragic flaw would be inordinate ambition as that of Shakespeare’s eponymous character Macbeth.

In the aspect of language, I must really commend the playwright for giving his best. There were minimal grammatical inconsistencies. The language of the characters of noble standing as that of Acheneje and Ayegba are laced in beautiful poetic rhythm with them all speaking in verse while that of characters of lower standing is proselytized. The playwright also peppers the characters’ words with good African proverbs which I find quite engaging and scintillating.

The management of suspense leading up to the denouement is superb! Reminds me of Oedipus Rex. The information comes in tidbits and leaves the audience hungry for more.

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Being a classical drama, the playwright went for a straight story rather than a distorted one which would have implied the fixation of modern techniques in a drama piece.

Now, let us examine the characterization. All characters played vital roles. Although my feminist friends might complain of the portrayal or weakness of the female characters in the play but I do not have a problem with that since the playwright was only trying to be realistic and be in keeping with the Igala culture and traditions. However, the stage directions are poor as it fails to give proper descriptions of characters and their accoutrements.

However, the character of Ayegba is not true to the legendary figure whose name he inherits and he is not consistent. He seeks for the truth, would do anything to unravel the mystery behind his failures, forces his father to confession, urges his brother to make the ultimate sacrifice and relinquish his claim to the throne yet, when the onus falls on him to redeem and liberate his lineage, he absconds and chooses life over death. The legendary Ayegba would have done otherwise.

Maybe I am not comfortable with Princess Ajanigo making proverbs in front of her father and elders although it mars nothing still, just a cultural issue. All characters’ speech mannerisms match their personalities and that too is a good thing.

I find it quite funny that King Acheneje rules over a kingdom whose name is unknown to the audience, perhaps the playwright forgot to add that.

There was no use of local colour, except perhaps the names of characters, yet there is no doubt as to the fact that the play is set in Igala land at a far back time, probably precolonial or early colonial days.

I must however ask where the cast of elders are in the play, they seem to be no elder except the old man and other representatives of the nine clans.

You might ask what my opinion is of the content.

Well, maybe I do not like the idea of having one suffer for the sins of another; the fact that they come from the same stalk notwithstanding. The play leaves us to the controversial question posed by Odewale in Ola Rotimi’s The God’s are not to Blame, “If the gods are not to be blamed, then who is to blame?”

The gods knew Acheneje was unfit to be king yet they let him burn the flame of his ambition by occupying a throne he should not have occupied for more than thirty years. Granted that the gods have no say in who becomes king since it is usually passed down from king to the first son. But, why did the gods not expose him when he requested a wife, yet they choose for him a woman to marry so that his doom would be perfected in three decades time. What a long period to wait for vengeance! Were the gods and ancestors deliberately toying with human lives as they did with Oedipus? Are they just being malignant? What is the sense of justice in punishing the offspring for the sins of the father?

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Even when Acheneje takes his own life, the priest who is the mouthpiece of the gods and ancestors issues out an order for Amana to go perform the hara-kiri in his father’s stead, albeit the priest makes this pronouncement without seeking a second opinion from the gods. Maybe if the gods had been consulted for a second time, the curse might have been lifted with the death of king Acheneje.

Why does this same priest say again who the next king should be without consulting the gods before the choice is made?

The idea of banishment and vagrancy of late king Acheneje’s family is not in keeping with the Igala culture. I think the playwright here chooses the Oedipus approach where the blind Oedipus leads his children out of Thebes to become a destitute. The Igala society would maintain the former queen and her offspring in their community nonetheless.

It is perhaps ridiculous that Ayegba who is so interested in hearing his father’s confession because he assumes it is related to his failure in life would later turn back to say that destiny is driven by human will and capacity. Here he shows he is a true son of his father for like his father, destiny clearly did not mark him out to become king but he forced his will on destiny. That epilogue makes a mockery of the fatalism in the play.

For me, the play ended with the death of Acheneje, the epilogue as said before is quite unnecessary.

All in all, Abdul O. Umar’s The Surrogate has a lot to teach society. We must not let ambition push us towards a wrong path and we must also know that even if a lie survives for a thousand years, it withers the very day it is confronted with the truth. Lastly, we all must know and accept that the choices we make today might end up affecting others tomorrow.

I rate the drama piece 3.5 stars. Abdul Umar did a great job; I look forward to reading more of his works.

To order a copy of the novel, the author can be reached on 08068452534.

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Read Eazy’s reviews on Memorila every Saturdays!

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

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