Read essays on production history, playwrights, styles, genres.
- Black British Plays Post World War II -1970s By Professor Colin Chambers
- Critical Responses: Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel. Royal Court Theatre, London, December 1966. By Professor Martin Banham
- Lynette Goddard on the rennaisance in black British drama in the 1990s
- Tracing Black America in black British theatre from the 1970s by Dr. Michael Pearce
Critical Responses: Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel. Royal Court Theatre, London, December 1966. By Professor Martin Banham
Although not the first of Soyinka’s plays to be staged in London, the production of The Lion and the Jewel at the Royal Court Theatre in December 1966 is of particular interest for two reasons: the commitment of The Royal Court’s Artistic Director William (Bill) Gaskill to Soyinka’s work, and the range of critical responses that reflect, in equal measure, enthusiasm, uncertainty and – sometimes – naïve cultural responses to this African voice.
Correspondence between Gaskill and producer Oscar Lewenstein dated 19 September and 9 November 1966 (Lewenstein at that point being a Council Member of the English Stage Company Ltd) show Gaskill’s enthusiasm for Soyinka’s work. Gaskill, discussing the programme for the forthcoming season, writes:
‘After Three Men for Colverton and Macbeth, we want to do Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel. This is the first play that we are going to do as part of a tie-up with a group of African actors called the Ijinle Players, who did a tremendous production of Soyinka’s play The Trials of Brother Jero at the Hampstead Theatre Club, and was the first play I went to see twice in about the last ten years. It had a vitality and immediacy which very few of our new plays have. Wole is a real Court writer in the true sense of the word. He was one of our script readers and a member of the Writers’ Group when I ran it, and there has been a great backlog of wonderful work which we have always drawn back from doing because of the lack of actors. This group has solved that particular problem and besides The Lion and the Jewel, which has not been performed in England but is an early play, we are planning to do Kongi’s Harvest which is Wole’s latest play about African politics. We plan to do this in about July of next year when Wole will come over and direct it himself and bring over some African actors and dancers to perform it. … If you would like to see some of their work, they are going to revive Brother Jero and another Soyinka play The Strong Breed for a Sunday performance on October 2nd.’
The production of The Lion and the Jewel at the Royal Court - described in the programme as ‘Wole Soyinka’s comedy with music’ - was directed by Desmond O’Donovan and designed by Jocelyn Herbert, both major talents of the period. (Of the actors in the company, Femi Euba, who played Lakunle, the Schoolteacher, went on to become a significant playwright, latterly based in the United States.)
The production received extensive reviews in the national press; the sometimes nervous engagement of critics with the ‘exotic’ can be illustrated by extracts from two particular responses. The first is from the leading critic John Russell Taylor in an article in Plays and Players, February 1967, headed ‘Avoiding the Insulting’. The critic’s own response to the play is one of general disappointment: ‘there is no getting away from it: the play is badly acted and written in a curious jargon’, but equally he recognises Soyinka’s talent: ‘Wole Soyinka is no primitive and deserves to be judged by the highest standards: it seems to me to be profoundly insulting to judge him by anything less’. His concern, rather, is with what he sees as the patronising condescension of elements of the Royal Court audience who, despite showing ‘restlessness and obvious sounds of boredom’ indulge in the ‘height of patronage’ in the interval.
Russell Taylor notes that ‘In the interval the opinions on everybody’s lips were conveniently summed up by the remark of a large sub-deb lady next to me who said ‘Aren’t they marvellous – so colourful, such a sense of rhythm. And only one of them forgot his lines…’ He continues: ‘It seems to me the height of patronage to carry on as though it is extraordinary in 1966 that a Nigerian can write literally at all or that coloured actors can get through a text without actually forgetting their lines.’
The director Sam Wanamaker also encouraged Soyinka, hosting a reading of The Lion and the Jewel in his flat.
 Both this letter and the transcript of the critics’ discussion quoted later are held in Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. I am grateful to Professor Philip Roberts for bringing them to my attention.
 Otherwise ‘The Ijinle Theatre Company’ (Royal Court Theatre Programme note.)
 The play was first staged at the Arts Theatre, University College, Ibadan, Nigeria in 1959, directed by Geoffrey Axworthy.
 Whatever plans Soyinka might have had for this were destroyed by his detention without trial from August 1967 to October 1969, accused by the Nigerian authorities of conspiring with the Biafran secessionists.
 This did not take place.
Martin Banham is Emeritus Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds. Between 1956 and 1966 he lectured at University College, Ibadan – later the University of Ibadan – and, with Geoffrey Axworthy, founded the School of Drama at Ibadan. He has written extensively on African theatre.