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History Of Drama In Nigeria

Drama is a genre of literature in which an action is imitated in dialogue or pantomime by actors, this dialogue is broken into scenes or acts. The sub-genres of Drama include the Comedy, Tragedy, Tragicomedy, Farce, Melodrama, Musical Comedy and closet comedy.

The term “drama” has its roots in the Greek word meaning “I do” which depict action. The word “drama” found its way into the English vocabulary by Williams Shakespeare, who replaced the term “play or game” with it.


Drama was institutionalized in the classical period of the Greek culture in the city-state of Athens with the imitation of two Greek muses of Thalia-the muse of comedy depicted by the laughing face masks worn by actors and Melpomene-the muse of tragedy depicted by the weeping face mask and competitions were held annually in festivals unto Dionysus-the Greek god of religion and myth and of later period of wine, religious ecstasy, fertility, and drama. Greek dramatists such as Thespis from whom the word Thespian “a fancy word for an actor” was derived, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Menander, and Aristophanes were prominent in the Greek classical drama history.

The decline of the Greek culture and the rise of the Roman empire transferred the mantle of drama development to the Latin culture and through them, drama was spread across the whole extent of the empire. The prominent pioneers of this Roman drama culture were Plautus and Terence.

History Of Drama In Nigeria
History Of Drama In Nigeria

The Medieval period saw the church adopting what she called “Liturgical drama” that involves responsive singing of two groups which dramatized biblical events and spread the culture across Europe. Prominent dramatists across cultures, ages and philosophies include Seneca, Hirovistha, Adam de la Halle, Christopher Marlowe, Aphran Behn-the first female professional dramatist, Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht, Rabindranath Tagore, Nawab Majid Ali Shah and host of others.



Drama is traditional to Nigeria as its manifestations predate the colonial era. The drama had been manifesting in sacred religious rituals across the ethnolinguistic groups that existed before the advent of Nigeria. Such rituals are manifested in religious festivals of the Yoruba group as the Egungun, Sango, Oro, Obatala, Ifa, Oshagiyan; among the Hausas in form of the pre-Islam and Arabian Bori spirit medium, Saro dance, Dodoo and Yakamanci; the Bornu puppet dance of the Kanuri group; the Mmous and Ekpe festivals among the Igbos; the Egwu festival among the Igala; Akume in Tiv group, Edjo of the Urhobos etc.

It also existed as secular forms of Egungun among the Yoruba, Ikaki of the Kalabari, the Kwah Hir puppet dance of the Tiv. These secular forms are purely for entertainment.


The Colonial period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the introduction of the European operas in the Lagos colony among the educated elites, and in Abeokuta and Ibadan but it was predominantly European focused but evolvement of the more literary form of indigenous drama started by the secularization of the religious Egungun to become Egungun Alaare (secular masquerades)- a masked performer who is predominately given to entertainment.

The impact of the western culture on Colonial Nigeria led to the evolvement of Alarinjo (touring theater performers) from the masked secular masquerades in the 1940s.This culture combine mine, colorful costume, music, traditional drumming, and folklore. The adaptation of the Alarinjo culture led to the evolvement of professional folk opera troupes. The pioneer of this culture is Hubert Ogunde, other troupes of this era include, Kola Ogunmola, Duro Ladipo, Oyin Adejobi, Moses Olaiya and Funmilayo Ranco.

The rise of these Troupe was influenced by the Christianization of the Western region of Colonial Nigeria, as the Roman Catholic Church introduced a form of theatre which includes hymns, recitations, and farce to portray its messages to a mixed audience of the educated elites and non-educated natives. The pioneer of this culture was the Roman Catholic French order of priests in 1867 and this culture was further developed by the rise of independent African church in the turn of the 20th century, who introduced a form of indigenous theatre performed in the church for her natives. No wonder the pioneers of the Professional theater group started from the church.

The evolution of drama was not limited to the Western region only, as some educated returnees in the Eastern region, unlike their western counterparts, chose to the page drama by publishing novellas which are an adaptation of the Europe classics, Prominent among such include Thomas Orlando Iguh and O.A. Ogali.

By the early 50’s when the nation was caught in nationalistic fever, the drama started becoming more of a page and the arrival of James Ene Henshaw, pioneered this culture


The post-colonial drama culture shifted to Ibadan as early as 1960 among the university based elitists led by accomplished playwright and theater practitioner, Wole Soyinka of the University of Ibadan who was commissioned to write the nation’s independence play he titled “A dance in the forest” other educated playwrights such as J.P. Clark, Ola Rotimi arose around the same time .In 1960, he formed the Orisun theater group and the 1960 Masks.

The formation of the Mbari Club-a cultural center for African writers, artists and musicians by Ulli Beier-a German Jewish Lecturer at the University of Ibadan, in 1961marked the beginning of another phase in the Nation’s drama and theater evolution. Prominent members of the club include Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Okigbo, J.P. Clark, Mabel Segun, Demas Nwoko, Arthur Nortje, South African Ezekiel Mphahlele, Frances Ademola, Sudanese El Salahi among others. This Club also serves as an open air performance venue where Soyinka “The trials of brother Jero” and Clark” song of a goat” were premiered.

In 1962, Ulli Beier co-founded another Mbari Mbayo club, though with another meaning different from the Igbo ‘creation” proposed by Achebe with Yoruba’s “when we see, we shall be happy” meaning with Dramatist Duro Ladipo and South African Mphalele in Osogbo, where Ladipo staged his plays and mentored other artists like Twins seven, and in 1963, the Eastern region branch of the Mbari club was founded. The prominent playwrights of this period include Wale Ogunyemi, and the first female playwright Zulu Sofola and Tess Onwueme.

The Mbari clubs consolidated the post-independence evolution of drama in Nigeria and together with the roles of Veterans like Hubert Ogunde, Kola Ogunmola, Oyin Ladipo, Moses Olaiya they created a robust drama and theatre culture in Nigeria, but the impact was short-lived with the break out of the civil war in 1967.

Post civil war period saw the emergence of radical playwrights with socialist leanings in the late 1970s, a break from the traditional liberal-conservative group of the pre-civil war. Such writers include Femi Osofisan, Bode Sowande, Tunde Fatunde, Olu Obafemi and Kola Omotoso. The challenges of drama evolution in contemporary Nigeria is the dearth of professional playwrights and the piracy menace and dearth of theater performance and performers, as the technological shift to digital film production had eroded the drama culture and depleted its rank, though we still boast of some veterans, most of the pioneers are late and the new playwrights are too few to fill in the gaps left by the Hubert Ogunde, J.P Clark among others, we have some prominent playwrights such as Sefi Atta, Africa Ukoh, and the stage drama had been limited to few unpopular groups.

With such a bleak present, how can the drama culture hold itself against the rapidly evolving society? Time will definitely tell.

That’s all about The History Of Drama In Nigeria.


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