Tutuola, Amos 1920–1997

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Amos Tutuola 1920-1997

Nigerian novelist, short story writer, and playwright.

For additional information on Tutuola's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.


Generously praised by Western critics upon publication, Tutuola's novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead's Town (1952) was derided among Nigerian scholars. Although it prominently features the folklore of Tutuola's homeland, some Nigerian critics despaired that Tutuola's nonstandard English, along with grammar and vocabulary derived from Tutuola's native language, Yoruba, reflected poorly on Nigerians and their literary potential. Tutuola's skillful and innovative transformation of the themes and motifs of Yoruba oral narrative traditions became more widely appreciated among his own countrymen with the publication of his later works, although Tutuola's subsequent novels received less critical attention from Western critics than did The Palm-Wine Drinkard.


Tutuola was born in 1920 in Abeokuta, Nigeria, to a cocoa farmer, Charles Tutuola, and his wife, Esther. After attending missionary primary schools, Tutuola worked on his father's farm. He was trained as a coppersmith during the second World War and worked for the Royal Air Force from 1943 through 1945. Following the end of the war, Tutuola attempted unsuccessfully to establish his own blacksmith shop. In 1947 he married Alake Victoria. A year later, he secured a position as a messenger for the Labor Department in Lagos. Tutuola was inspired to write by his observation that local cultural traditions and stories were being forgotten. The Palm-Wine Drinkard was published in 1952 and immediately received favorable reviews. Tutuola continued write, attending evening classes and expanding the range of literature that he read. He also spent time traveling through Africa, Europe, and the United States. In 1979 he became a visiting research fellow at the University of Ile-Ife in Nigeria. By 1983, he was serving as an associate in the international writing program at the University of Iowa. Having published other novels and short stories, Tutuola returned to Nigeria and continued to write until his death in 1997.


Many of Tutuola's works share the common motif of the spiritual journey. During the journey, a typically weak character encounters dangers (often spirits from the underworld) and is transformed by the experience to lead a more meaningful life. The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Tutuola's best-known work, features such a journey and borrows subject matter and stylistic technique from Yoruba oral tradition. In the work, the Drinkard is driven on a quest to the land of the dead. Once tested, the changed man returns to his village, where he resolves a conflict between the Heavens and the Land. Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1956) is similar in format: the title character is a wealthy girl who decides that she must suffer and endure poverty. She is kidnapped and follows a fantastical path home through strange places such as "The Town of the Multi-Coloured People." The spiritual themes and allegorical nature of Tutuola's works have lead to their being described as mythologies or epics, rather than novels. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954) similarly employs an episodic structure, with elements derived from Yoruba folklore, but rather than featuring a quest-driven character, this work involves a young protagonist who accidentally wanders into the realm known as the Bush of Ghosts following abuse and abandonment by his stepmothers. Once he has embarked on his journey through this realm, he experiences trials and transformations similar to those experienced by Tutuola's other protagonists. After twenty years, a goddess finally offers the boy the chance to return to an ordinary life with his mother and brother—an offer which the boy accepts.


The techniques which Tutuola employs in The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his other works are praised for their ability to capture elements of oral tradition in written narrative. Tutuola repeats specific episodes for emphasis and embellishes well-known folktales with both personal interpretations and modern situations. Some works are concluded, in folklore tradition, with a moral or lesson, as in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in which Tutuola comments on the effects of hatred. Tutuola's unconventional usage of the English language—which includes unusual syntax, broken English, and idiosyncratic diction and grammar—is regarded by some scholars as integral to his oral style. Others have harshly criticized this approach as unpolished, claiming that it reflects negatively on West African culture. Still other critics have faulted Tutuola for the lack of development in his style over time and for his habitual reliance on episodic structure. Richard Bauerle favorably reviewed the collection of short stores that Tutuola published in 1990 (The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories), observing that the stories, like Tutuola's earlier works, are based on traditional Yoruba folktales and feature themes of greed and betrayal. Describing the collection as "illuminating," the critic finds that Tutuola's style remains "fresh," even after so much time has passed since the appearance of his first novel. Other recent appraisals of Tutuola's work have gone back to The Palm-Wine Drinkard and offered reappraisals of this early and acclaimed novel. Steven M. Tobias has studied the book's anti-realism, finding that this style provides Tutuola with a unique tool for a subversive sociopolitical critique of colonialism. Examining Tutuola's unpublished plays, Chris Dunton has identified common themes in three of Tutuola's dramas. Dutton notes that Tutuola explored isolation, the problems associated with trust, and individual vulnerability, as he continually worked to improve his skills as a dramatist.


The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead's'Town (novel) 1952

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (novel) 1954

Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (novel) 1956

The Brave African Huntress (novel) 1958

The Palm-Wine Drinkard (drama) 1958

Feather Woman of the Jungle (novel) 1962

Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty (novel) 1967

The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town (novel) 1981

The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts (short stories) 1982; revised edition, 1989

The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories (short stories) 1990


Richard Baurele (review date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Baurele, Richard. Review of The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, by Amos Tutuola. World Literature Today 65, no. 3 (summer 1991): 539.

[In this review of Tutuola's The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, Baurele discusses the collection's basis in traditional Yoruba folktales and praises the work as "illuminating."]

Amos Tutuola's new volume [The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories ] contributes eighteen more stories to his already large number, all based on traditional Yoruba folktales. His themes are much like those in his previous books: greed, thievery, betrayal, fraud, et cetera. However, the milieu is in some cases more modern. The major plot device is that of the trickster tricked. The title story is typical though more elaborate than most. The witch doctor keeps tricking his victim in different ways until finally the tables are turned. The characters in the tales include many familiar figures: the tortoise, the jungle drummer, the beetle lady, and people with regular Yoruba names.

Tutuola's manner of telling his stories is, as one would expect, closer to that of his later books than to that of his first and most famous work, The Palm-Wine Drinkard. There is more of the writer and less of the talker. Almost gone are such rich expressions as "He said whisperly" and "We took our fear back." Still, one occasionally encounters such fresh phrasing as "The priest lived lonely in the heart of the forest." It is gratifying to see Tutuola at age seventy still busy enriching African literature with his illuminating interpretations.

Steven M. Tobias (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Tobias, Steven M. "Amos Tutuola and the Colonial Carnival." Research in African Literatures 30, no. 2 (summer 1999): 66-74.

[In the essay that follows, Tobias contends that Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a subversive and complex analysis of Western colonialism, stressing that the anti-realism for which the work is often dismissed is an effective instrument for Tutuola's sociopolitical discourse.]

The truth is an offense but not a sin!
Is he who laugh last, is he who win!,
          —Bob Marley, "Jah Live" (1975)

From the time of its publication in 1952, the supernatural tale The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead's Town by the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola has generated an enormous amount of both critical confusion and controversy. Western critics initially reacted quite favorably towards the book and praised it for its rich, albeit "primitive," adherence to Yoruba oral, folk traditions. Perhaps its most well-known European proponent was the poet Dylan Thomas who described it in a review as a

brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching story, or series of stories, written in young English by a West African, about the journey of an expert and devoted palm-wine drinkard through a nightmare of indescribable adventures.

          (qtd. in Lindfors 7)

Anthony West, a critic for The New Yorker, went so far as to say that in reading it, "[o]ne catches a glimpse of the very beginning of literature, that moment when writing at last seizes and pins down the myths and legends of an analphabetic culture" (222). Although most Western critics praised the book in a similar backhanded fashion for its freewheeling descriptions of exotic characters and situations, they ultimately found it lacking in "true" literary merit.

African reactions to the book were generally less favorable. Many educated Nigerians were highly incensed to discover that such a "primitive" book, written in broken English by a lowly messenger, was being lauded in European intellectual circles as the pinnacle of Nigerian culture. In particular, with Nigerian political independence nearly in sight in the early 1950s, Tutuola's world of bogey-men was one that most educated Nigerians would have liked to purge forever from global perceptions of their country (Lindfors 344). In addition, African critics were quick to point out that in many instances Tutuola outright botches his retelling of traditional folk tales or at best merely offers inferior English renditions of pre-existing Yoruba originals. All in all, the book proved something of a general embarrassment to the Nigerian intellectual establishment of 1952.1

In terms of its relationship to the discourse of Western colonialism, The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a far more complex and subversive book than it has generally been given credit for being. Admittedly, at first glance the story seems no more than a mythical romp by an unnamed, picaresque hero through a dream world in search of his dead palm-wine tapster. On this fairy tale quest, all normal laws of time, place, and nature are suspended. The hero changes his own physical form at will, moves effortlessly between the lands of the living and the dead, and encounters varied and wondrous creatures, many of whom he must fight and/or flee. What is to be made of this world and why would Tutuola choose it as his subject? More important, how could a such a fantastic story, one that would seem to have so little to say about the real world and its numerous problems, ever be called subversive?

It is important to pay close attention to the way in which Tutuola employs traditional folk tales in The Palm-Wine Drinkard. His retelling of these anecdotes has earned him the censure of African critics who argue that in many cases his stories deviate substantially from the Yoruba originals upon which they are based. However, Tutuola's retelling of these various stories may be regarded as instances of what Henry Louis Gates has dubbed "unmotivated signification" in his book The Signifying Monkey (xxvi). Gates suggests that in instances of "unmotivated signifyin(g)"—pastiche or noncritical parody—an established story or trope is not appropriated or echoed for the purpose of disparaging it. Rather, the intention behind this sort of signifyin(g) is to establish common cultural-narrative ground with a specific predicate work or literary tradition. Gates describes how this kind of signifyin(g) functions as

a joyous proclamation of antecedent and descendant text. The most salient analogue for this unmotivated mode of revision in the broader black cultural tradition might be that between black jazz musicians who perform each other's standards … not to critique these but to engage in refiguration as an act of homage.


Historically, African oral tales have always been adapted and molded by their tellers so that they would have particular relevance to the specific social and moral climate in which they were told. Therefore Tutuola's modifications cannot be criticized legitimately for being either "untraditional" or "inaccurate." Admittedly, he alters traditional plots; however, he does this intentionally in order to speak more directly to the particularized concerns of the African setting in which he wrote. Despite the fact that most of the incidents of The Palm-Wine Drinkard appear to constitute little more than silly farce, many of them are in fact covert jibes at colonialism and the social conditions that it engendered. Through a sustained use of sublimation and metonymy, Tutuola creates an episodic allegory through which he can vent his personal frustrations with life under British domination.

For example, Tutuola did much of his writing while at his dull and bureaucratic British job and it can be argued that the episode of The Pine-Wine Drinkard in which his hero must turn himself into a canoe may be interpreted as an autobiographical confession of the real grief Tutuola felt at becoming a virtual object in service of an alien bureaucracy:

I commanded one juju which was given me by a kind spirit who was a friend of mine and at once the juju changed me into a big canoe. Then my wife went inside the canoe with the paddle and paddling it, she used the canoe as a "ferry" to carry passengers across the river, the fare for adults was 3d (three pence) and half fare for children.


Despite the great abilities and wondrous accomplishments of Tutuola's hero, in this incident he is reduced by an externally imposed economic system to struggling subhumanly—yet in a way that appears vaguely, almost cryptically bourgeois—for a modest sum of British money. Such a belittling and objectifying occupation is a severe drop in stature for Tutuola's hero: he has just a short time earlier not only done battle with powerful monsters but bravely conquered Death itself.2

The process in which Tutuola's hero and his wife are turned into various objects parallels the experience whereby colonized people lose their very sense of identity through the marginalization of their native languages and codes. Composing the canoe episode probably not only proved cathartic for Tutuola, but allowed him to examine and begin to redefine his own position in society during the transition to independence. This impulse to establish social positioning is a primary consideration of (post)colonial literature. According to theorists like D. E. S. Maxwell:

A major feature of post-colonial literature is the concern with place and displacement. It is here that the special post-colonial crisis of identity comes into being; the concern with the development or recovery of an effective relationship between self and place.

          (qtd. in Ashcroft 9)

In a very real sense, the imposition of a foreign linguistic and cultural template onto his surroundings destabilizes the colonized or formerly colonized subject's context and, in so doing, renders his own identity uncertain.

Tutuola's true quest both for his hero's and his own identity, which he recaptures by taking charge of the alien environment established by colonial discourse, may help account for the fantastic and infinitely mutable landscape of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. In his book Tutuola struggles to mold and shape his hero's world into one that makes sense. Through the manipulation and reformulation of a foreign tongue Tutuola attempts to refamiliarize and reclaim the environment. This linguistic struggle is central for any colonized or formerly colonized culture whose language system has been supplanted by that of its colonizers. Typically, this process leads a colonized person to experience a sense of loss and alienation before he or she can develop an "appropriate" usage, or language system, with which to express the (post)colonial experience.

In developing such a usage, Tutuola invents and employs what can be described as an "interlanguage": a regionally specific version of English (Ashcroft 11). To Tutuola's initial Western readers and critics—such as Thomas and West—the author's English seemed incomplete, if not rather childish. And it is easy to come to this pate conclusion since Tutuola's book appears to be riddled with logical, grammatical, and syntactical errors as it seems to slip in and out of the author's textual grasp. For example, consider its opening paragraph:

I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life. In those days we did not know other money, except for COWRIES, so that everything was very cheap, and my father was the richest man in our town.


In answer to criticism that Tutuola's English is frequently "wrong," it can be countered that the writer's discourse constitutes a separate and genuine linguistic system (see Ashcroft 67). The development of such a system helps to displace standard English from its privileged place at a colonial or postcolonial country's cultural center. Tutuola's use and manipulation of both language and the fantastic play pivotal and complementary roles in his formulation of a discourse of resistance.

The critical writings of Mikhail Bakhtin help to explain the way that The Palm-Wine Drinkard most forcefully undermines and redefines the social context of its nascence: the colonially framed power structure of 1952 Nigeria. The struggle that exists between the two opposing forces—the colonizers and the colonized—of any colonial country is fundamentally dialogical. Quite obviously, the discourse and cultural codes of the colonizers occupy a place of privilege and control in a colonized country. There is very little that is secretive about colonial domination: the colonial machine is oiled by public, and quite frequently brutal, displays of power and discipline. Because the power structure of the colonial social order is, more or less, in plain sight—in contrast to the covert way in which power generally operates in the postcolonial world—Southern resistance can be directed at obvious targets.

Because it is such a jumbled and polysemous book, a central question begged by The Palm-Wine Drinkard is how to classify it. By no stretch of the imagination can The Palm-Wine Drinkard be considered a novel in the classical sense. As has already been noted, the book borrows heavily from traditional Yoruba orature. Antithetically, its plot's structural basis, that of an extended quest on which a hero must do battle with various allegorically conceived monsters, was probably derived from Western sources—possibly from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Conjecture that Tutuola was influenced by Bunyan is supported by his admission to having read the poet while a student at the British school where he was educated (Lindfors 336).

Pilgrim's Progress has seemingly influenced the organization as well as both the language and landscape of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Note the epic, Bunyanesque quality of the following passage in which Tutuola's hero suffers in the African cousin of the Slough of Despond:

As we had freed from the white creatures then we started our journey in that field. This field had no trees or palmtrees, only long wild grasses grew wild there, all resembled cornplants, the edges of its leaves were as sharp as razor blades and hairy. Then we traveled in that field till 5 o'clock [quitting time?] in the evening, after that, we began to look for a suitable place to sleep till morning.


This passage is a composite of influences, both Western and African, fantastic and starkly modern. Taken together, however, these diverse influences project an image of colonial oppression: they allegorically represent a hard day's labor in a Western-style plantation. In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, life becomes a mythic quest to flee toil amid foreign vegetation and to escape domination by "white monsters."

Tutuola's use of capitalized chapter headings such as "THE INVESTIGATOR'S WONDERFUL WORK IN THE SKULL'S FAMILY'S HOUSE," "OUR LIFE WITH THE FAITHFUL MOTHER IN THE WHITE TREE," and "TO SEE THE MOUNTAIN-CREATURES WAS NOT DANGEROUS BUT TO DANCE WITH THEM WAS THE MOST DANGEROUS" also hints at a Western influence. Tutuola probably derived this practice either from reading boy's adventure books or eighteenth-century novels, or quite possibly from reading English-style newspapers. The headings, as well as much of his phrasing throughout the book, without question possess both the appearance and tone of tabloid headlines.

Because The Palm-Wine Drinkard is infected with Yoruba as well as both British pop cultural and literary strains, it can be best conceived according to Bakhtin's idea of heteroglossia. It is truly a colonial romance in that it borrows both structurally and linguistically from the cultures of colonizer and colonized alike. In describing the ghost of his hero's child, Tutuola writes:

When we reached there, she picked a stick and began to scratch the ashes with it, and there I saw that the middle of the ashes rose up suddenly and at the same time there appeared a half-bodied baby, he was talking with a lower voice like a telephone.

          (35; emphasis added)

Similarly, in describing a place outside a village the hostile inhabitants of which have captured his hero, Tutuola writes, "After that, they took us to a wide field which was in the full heat of the sun, there were no trees or shadows near there and it was cleared as a football field" (61).

Such hodge-podge cultural shifts are common throughout The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Frequently among ghosts, goblins, and enchanted villages, a seemingly out-of-place reference to a European object or concept such as a bomb, a razor blade, or soccer will appear. Tutuola's liberal cultural blending works hand-in-hand with his creation of a grotesquely "carnivalesque" atmosphere. The purpose of this is to subvert and undermine the privileged place that a foreign culture has come to occupy in his society. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin describes the way that invoking the carnivalesque challenges the dominant social-political paradigm, the normal way of living:

As opposed to the official feast, one might say that the carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and form of the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed.


In The Palm-Wine Drinkard a monstrously distorted, nonsense view of the world becomes the norm. As a result, when an artifact of otherwise privileged English culture appears in the book, it in turn becomes something of an oddity. In this way Tutuola turns the colonial power structure on its ear in an attempt to reclaim the center for himself and his culture.

In The Dialogical Imagination, Bakhtin offers an explanation of the social function of parody, which hints at why Tutuola may have been attracted both to this genre and to discourse blending in general. Moreover, Bakhtin's theories may help account for the reason Tutuola chooses to adopt a comical anti-heroic character-narrator. Bakhtin suggests that in the parodic discourse of the public sphere, that of the street or marketplace, or in this particular case, quite possibly, the school yard or soccer field,

the heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth, ridiculing all "languages" and dialects; there developed … street songs, folksayings, anecdotes, where there was no language-center at all, where there was to be found a lively play with the "languages" of poets, scholars, monks, knights and others, where all "languages" were masks and where no language could claim to be an authentic, incontestable face.


The establishment of such a climate and such a powerfully parodic language is central to Tutuola's anti-colonial project.

In its parodic rebellion, Tutuola's book has much in common with traditionally canonized novels such as Gulliver's Travels, Moby-Dick, and Gargantua and Pantagruel. Like its Western cousins, The Palm-Wine Drinkard was generated by a cultural context characterized by intense tension. Swift, Melville, and Rabelais all wrote in order to challenge and subvert the dominant morality, culture, and language of their respective eras, in the process trying to reinvent their societies' normative values. In attempting to critique and reform society, hyperbole, satire, and anti-logic often prove more forceful than direct assaults with realistic, customary literary weapons.

Perhaps the most striking and memorable of all the traditional folk tales recounted in The Palm-Wine Drinkard is that of the "beautiful complete gentleman." Variations of this story have appeared in at least seven different anthologies of Yoruba folk tales and it may be assumed that their word-of-mouth dissemination in Nigeria has been even more extensive (Lindfors 339). In this story a girl is enthralled by the physical beauty of a man she encounters in the marketplace. In framing this tale, Tutuola ironically confides in the reader:

I could not blame the lady for following the Skull as a complete gentleman to his house at all. Because if I were a lady, no doubt I would follow him to wherever he would go, and still as I was a man I would jealous him more than that, because if this gentleman went to the battle field, surely, enemy would not kill him or capture him and if bombers saw him in a town which was to be bombed, they would not throw bombs on his presence, and if they did throw it, the bomb itself would not explode until this gentleman would leave that town, because of his beauty.


Despite the man's apparent beauty, when the enamored woman follows him to his home she witnesses an amazing spectacle. Along the way, the man proceeds to remove various parts of his body—one by one—and return them to the people from whom he has rented them. Ultimately, the man is reduced to a terrifying, shrilly humming skull that takes the girl prisoner by tying a magical Cowrie to her neck. This enchanted bit of currency not only renders the girl unable to speak but emits an awful noise if she attempts to escape.

If Tutuola's version of this story is read allegorically, in a manner informed by the circumstances that surrounded it composition, then it can be interpreted as a warning about some of the dangers and temptations offered by colonial/transitional life in Nigeria. Through his retelling of this tale Tutuola suggests that although Western ideas and projects might at first seem tempting and attractive, these things ultimately prove little more than a deceptive facade. Once stripped away they reveal the true underlying structures of colonialism: death and enslavement. Through this tale Tutuola hints at the way in which colonial and, subsequently, postcolonial socioeconomic systems serve to chain their African victims to money and other seemingly positive trappings while simultaneously trying to remove their ability to voice resistance.

Tutuola's story may be further elucidated by Bakhtin's discussion of the "Catchpole" incident from Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. In this episode a stand-in king rents his body to those who would pay to beat him. Bakhtin notes in Rabelais and His World that the theme of a ruler physically renting his body is particularly common in carnivalesque literature (197). Invariably, kings in such stories are unmasked and their true forms are revealed:

In such a system the king is the clown…. The abuse and thrashing are equivalent to a change of costume, to a metamorphosis. Abuse reveals the other, true face of the abused, it tears off his disguise and mask. It is the king's uncrowning.


The unmasking of the beautiful complete gentleman—his actual physical transformation to a diminished state—serves to undercut the dignity and control of this symbolic colonial ruler. Tutuola's story plays with this particular theme in order to subvert the colonial social hierarchy: the ruler is transformed into a fool and the palm-wine drinker escapes his clutches unscathed, ever the clever and victorious hero.

The effectiveness and legitimacy of employing the fantastic in culturally subversive art and literature has been attested to by various critics. Typically, they argue that

[i]n cinematic as in novelistic discourse … realism operates as a form of fetishism, corresponding to the commodification of the novel and the film. That which seems most opposed to illusion or the fantastic—namely, mimetic representation—is from this perspective all the more illusory and powerful because it masks as truth its fetishized condition.

          (Brantlinger 168)

In other words, no matter how apparently damning an attack a realistic novel makes upon the society that has generated it, its very realism cannot help but partly reinforce dominant socio-political substructures. Realism does this by encouraging its readers to accept the conventional perspective it offers as the only appropriate way of decoding reality. In terms of Southern resistance literature, this interpretive habit could have negative repercussions. Primarily, it could encourage colonized and formerly colonized people to interpret their social milieu in terms of their colonizer's language/sign systems—the only real way of interpreting it. This practice could have the effect of reducing the likelihood that they will make a psychological break with their subservient role in the (post)colonial power structure.

Therefore, it may be argued that it is The Palm-Wine Drinkard 's monstrous anti-realism that makes it such a powerful vehicle for sociopolitical critique. The book's very absurdity is what frees it from the discursive and cultural center and challenges its readers to question the dominance of foreign paradigms. It is this quality that has made the book a classic of colonial literature despite initial criticism by both African and European reviewers. Unquestionably, the book is fantastical, but ultimately its carnivalesque qualities provide a useful and effective kind of "fantasy space" from which to critique the colonial world.


1. Chinua Achebe notes that not so long ago, many of his African students still showed displeasure that The Palm-Wine Drinkard was being given serious consideration as a work of literature. In his essay "Work and Play in Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard," Achebe recalls:

A young Nigerian woman doing a higher degree in American said to me when I taught there in the 1970s, ‘I hear you teach Tutuola.’ It was not a simple statement; her accent was heavy with accusation. We discussed the matter for a while and it became quite clear that she considered The Palm-Wine Drinkard to be childish and crude and certainly not the kind of thing a patriotic Nigerian should be exporting to America. Back in Nigeria a few years later I also noticed a certain condescension among my students towards the book and a clear indication that they did not consider it good enough to engage the serious attention of educated adults like themselves.


2. I derived the original idea for the narrator-as-canoe segment of my essay from a series of lectures given by Patrick Scott at the University of South Carolina in the fall of 1993. I would like to thank Dr. Scott both for assisting me with this particular work and for helping to deepen my interest in and understanding of African literature in general.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. "Work and Play in Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard." Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1989. 100-12.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse in the Novel." The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays. 1975. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 259-422.

———. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge: MIT P, 1968.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Crusoe's Footprints. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1990.

Lindfors, Bernth. "Amos Tutuola." Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers. Ed. Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sanders. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993. Vol. 125 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. 332-346. 148 vols. to date.

Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford, 1988.

Tutuola, Amos. The Palm-Wine Drinkard. 1952. Westport: Greenwood, 1970.

West, Anthony. "Shadow and Substance." The New Yorker 5 Dec. 1953: 222-23.

Chris Dunton (essay date winter 2006)

SOURCE: Dunton, Chris. "Pupils, Witch Doctor, Vengeance: Amos Tutuola as Playwright." Research in African Literatures 37, no. 4 (winter 2006): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Dunton relates the themes found in three of Tutuola's plays to similar thematic explorations in Tutuola's fiction and traces his attempts to improve his skill as a playwright.]


Between 1952 (The Palm-Wine Drinkard ) and 1990 (The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories ), Amos Tutuola published eleven volumes of fiction and it is on this body of work that his reputation rests. Discussion of any involvement of Tutuola's in work for the stage, or of any aspiration he might have had to try his hand at dramatic literature, has focused largely on the dramatization of The Palm-Wine Drinkard staged by Kola Ogunmola in 1963. Yet Tutuola did complete at least three plays, all of which can be found in holograph and/or typescript form in the holdings of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In this [essay] I analyze these three play texts and then focus on two questions, one of which has to do with Tutuola's working methods, the other with his thematic concerns. First, I suggest that throughout his working life Tutuola recycled material from one genre or subgenre to another to an even greater extent than has hitherto been acknowledged. Second, I highlight Tutuola's recurring preoccupation with the plight of individual characters who experience abandonment and marginalization. At this point, I broaden the scope of the discussion, to focus not only on the three plays but also on the novel Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty, to which all of the plays are closely related.1

That Tutuola should at some point have tried his hand at dramatic literature is, in one sense, not surprising, since he spent much of his working life in an environ- ment in which the production of (broadcast) drama was part of the order of the day. From 1956 to 1976, Tutuola worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (later, the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation), where he was employed initially as Junior Stores Clerk and finally, after a series of promotions, as Senior Storekeeper. During the first year of this 20-year period he was at NBS Lagos, then in 1957 he transferred to Ibadan, which was to prove a major focal point for theater activity in South-West Nigeria during the 1960s and 70s. More or less from the outset of his time with the NBS/NBC Tutuola was working for an institution that concerned itself with radio drama: in 1959, for instance, the service pioneered Save Journey, a comedy series in Pidgin that became extremely popular (see Umokoro 124-25). Correspondence in the Tutuola collection of the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) traces Tutuola's advancement at the NBS/NBC, repeated suggestions that he be transferred back to Lagos (suggestions he resisted) and negotiations over his retirement (Folders 6.1-4; 7.4).2 On the last issue, in an undated letter to Rosemary Goad, a board member at his British publishers, Faber and Faber, he writes: "This is to inform you that I have left the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation voluntarily on health reason. But I simply mentioned ‘health reason’ just to say I was fed up to do government work" (Folder 7.4).

In an autobiographical note dated July 14, 1964, and held at the HRC, Tutuola states: "In 1957 I was transferred from Lagos to Ibadan in order to be in close with Prof. Collis of the University of Ibadan. In 1958, Prof. Collis who had interest in my books, taught me how to write The Palm Wine Drinkard in the form of a play" (Folder 10.5). This was not Tutuola's first contact with the University of Ibadan (then University College, Ibadan): correspondence from March 1953 shows that he arranged to meet there Geoffrey Parrinder of the Department of Religious Studies, who was advising Faber on plans to publish the novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Folder 6.1). Further, Tutuola was clearly familiar with the possibility of disseminating his work other than through the print medium: from 1954 onwards several of his short stories were broadcast both by the BBC's West Africa Service and by the NBS/NBC (relevant correspondence is in Folder 6.1). Clearly, though, Tutuola's involvement in the stage adaptation of The Palm-Wine Drinkard was an important step in his career, although eventually, for him, not a fully satisfactory one. As documentation of the affair is quite extensive, but at points contradictory, with competing claims asserted for the authorship of the adaptation, the following is a summary account.

It appears that Tutuola first met Robert Collis, of the University College Hospital, Ibadan, in Lagos and that Collis suggested Tutuola come to Ibadan to work on a stage adaptation of his novel. The following year Collis introduced Tutuola to Geoffrey Axworthy, a highly innovative member of staff in the University College's School of Drama, responsible for such initiatives as the Theatre on Wheels project, and at that point Tutuola began work on his adaptation. Ajayi records that the task took around six months—considerably longer than Tutuola had originally estimated (Ajayi 80). When Tutuola did produce a script, it constituted what Axworthy refers to as "a libretto of Wagnerian proportions, raising technical problems far beyond the means of our university stage" (see Ogunmola ix; in my interpretation of Axworthy's account I am assuming that when commenting that in 1958 "Collis introduced me to Ogunmola, and it was agreed that the author should propose a sketch for a dramatization" (ix), the reference to "Ogunmola" should read "Tutuola"). Substantial editing work was carried out on the playscript, though to what extent Tutuola was involved in this—that is, to what extent Collis and/or Axworthy contributed—is not clear (in a letter of June 27, 1964, to Peter du Sautoy, then Vice Chairman of Faber and Faber, Tutuola claims that he wrote the original adaptation by himself and that "only my English was changed by the School"; see Folder 7.2). All of the major players in the story—Axworthy, Collis, Ogunmola, Tutuola—are now deceased. In his 1960 memoir of his time in Nigeria, Collis records his initial reading of The Palm-Wine Drinkard with great enthusiasm and how he arranged for a meeting with its author. After noting that "Amos Tutuola arrived on a bicycle from the Broadcasting Corporation where he holds the humble position of storekeeper" (Collis, Doctor's 81) he records his conversation with the author about the novel and his questioning Tutuola as to whether he himself had ever encountered spirits (82-3). There is, however, no reference to the stage adaptation. In a further volume published ten years later Collis does refer to the stage play, but only briefly, noting: "[W]hen I read [Tutuola's] ‘Drinkard’ I was completely enthralled. I got to know him and in the end I was responsible for getting the ‘Drinkard’ into dialogue so that it could be produced on the stage as something between a dramatic fantasia and an African ballet" (Conflict 16-17). Whatever the case—and what role, if any, was played in the preparation of the adaptation by Axworthy and/or Collis—although a workable script was arrived at, the project was shelved until 1962, when Kola Ogunmola was asked to work on the script; again, the extent to which Ogunmola departed from the text produced by Tutuola/Collis/Axworthy seems not possible to determine, though in the letter to du Sautoy quoted above, Tutuola credits Ogunmola with doing no more than translating the play into Yoruba.3

When the Ogunmola Travelling Theatre revived their production of The Palm-Wine Drinkard for a gala performance at the Arts Theatre of the University of Ibadan (date uncertain), on the occasion of the installation of the University Chancellor, and in the presence of the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a lavish program brochure was produced. This includes an extended note by Wole Soyinka, hailing the production as a "bold experiment" and a successful one, "the fruition of a dangerous partnership in dramatic sensibilities," that is, between the academic institution (where Ogunmola had been resident dramatist) and a "people's theatre." While Soyinka's note praises Ogunmola and the play's director, Demas Nwoko, at length, no mention at all is made of Tutuola. Correspondence in the HRC shows that Tutuola came to feel that the (highly successful) adaptation had been hijacked by Ogunmola and that his own role—his ownership of the work—had been brushed aside. In the June 27, 1964, letter to du Sautoy, Tutuola complains that Axworthy and "his assistant," the theater activist Demas Nwoko, have failed to pay him royalties from performances of the Drinkard adaptation since its première a year before (he points out that the Ogunmola Theatre Party "has been acting this play in towns and villages since August 1963 both here in Nigeria and in Ghana" and that he has contacted a lawyer to make representation with them on his behalf; see Folder 7.2). Tutuola took the matter up again five years later when, in a memo dated 20th June 1969 (recipient unknown) he objected to plans to stage the play at the Algiers Festival of the Arts: "Mr Tutuola has declared that no permission has been sought for that purpose and anybody staging the play either in Nigeria or anywhere else without his permission as from now does so at his own risk" (Folder 6.2). Protracted and finally unsuccessful negotiations in the 1960s over the possibility of a film adaptation of the novel and the ugly imbroglio surrounding the intended staging of Bode Sowande's adaptation of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in London at the Africa '95 Festival4 cannot have enhanced Tutuola's optimism regarding the viability of his work on screen and stage. Nor had a response to Tutuola from Mary Treadgold, Talks Producer of the BBC African Service, dated May 15th 1959, been particularly encouraging (Tutuola's letter to Treadgold is not in the HRC holdings, but one can guess at its drift):

I wish I could say, write us a play, but I can't. You see, we haven't enough really good African actors here to be able to produce such a play, as you would write. We couldn't use English actors for an African play, so I think that for the moment we shall have to stick to prose and poetry.

          (Folder 6.1)

Yet there were more positive indicators. The HRC's Faber correspondence contains references to numerous stage adaptations of The Palm-Wine Drinkard —in, for example, Finland and Czechoslovakia—and in 1981 the South African writer John Matshikiza produced a dramatization of the short story "Ajantala, the Noxious Ghost" (Folders 7.3-6). In 1982, in correspondence with Anne Walmsley, there are references to discussions between Tutuola and Wole Soyinka on the possibility of a new stage adaptation of Drinkard (though Tutuola's letter of October 18th to Walmsley mentions this only as a tentative possibility; see Folder 6.6). And despite the vicissitudes of Tutuola in his dealings with stage and film professionals and their agents, as the three playscripts in the HRC collection make clear, from 1959 to 1982, at least, he did attempt to write work for the stage.


The earliest of the three plays under discussion is The Pupils of the Eyes: A Yoruba Folk-Lore Written as a Short Play. The HRC holds a holograph version of this play and also a typescript (Folders 3.6 and 2.7 respectively). Although the holograph is undated, the HRC correspondence contains a draft letter by Tutuola to the journal Atlantic Monthly offering for possible publication five short stories and the play (Folder 6.1); the letter is dated April 30th 1959, a date supported by the position of the holograph in the notebook in which it appears, sandwiched between texts dated 1959 and 1960 (the notebook is one of a series kept by Tutuola, some of them filled only over a period of years, as each new work was entered). Although it is also undated, from internal evidence (corrections and additions to the holograph) the typescript is later; it contains further corrections, written in by hand.5

A second play, Ajaiyi and the Witch Doctor, appears only in typescript form, dated 22/8/64; there are a few handwritten corrections, in Tutuola's hand (Folder 1.1). In the case of the third play, The Sword of Vengeance, the HRC holds the holograph and two typescripts, all of which are dated 16 /10 / 82 (Folders 3.7 and 3.8, respectively). I do not discuss here changes made to the text while Tutuola was in the process of writing the manuscript, changing his mind several times, for example, over the names given to characters. It is possible that the holograph does not represent Tutuola's first thoughts: the material on pages 2-5 is repeated, as if Tutuola were copying from an earlier draft and forgot that he had already covered this ground. The Sword of Vengeance is by some way the most substantial of the three plays, the typescripts of which number 18, 22, and 48 pages, respectively, and it is the only one of them, to my knowledge, to have been discussed in print hitherto. (In an interview with Molara Ogundipe-Leslie conducted by Alex Tetteh-Lartey for the BBC in 1983 it is referred to—by Tetteh-Lartey—as Tutuola's first dramatic work apart from the 1963 adaptation of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Ogundipe-Leslie proceeds to give a synopsis of the dramatic action; Tetteh-Lartey 1-2). One of the typescripts bears numerous corrections in a hand other than Tutuola's; these emendations are incorporated in the other, "clean," typescript. In the context of the discussion that follows, Ogundipe-Leslie's record is significant:

[T]he play is […] not written in the usual format […] for one thing [Tutuola] admits he doesn't know how to write a play. But he's just used his natural tal- ent and all that. So it's like a combination of a novel and dialogue. So having finished the play he gave it to me. I looked at it and I thought it was very good and I handed it over to a playwright on the campus of the University of Ibadan who was very thrilled by it and who wants to produce it. So plans are on the ground to have it produced at Ibadan.

          (Tetteh-Lartey 2)

After the passage of more than 20 years and with the understandable fading of memories, it has not yet been possible to establish the identity of the University of Ibadan dramatist to whom Ogundipe-Leslie passed on the typescript (pers. Comm.., Ogundipe-Leslie to CD, January 10th 2005; Dapo Adelugba to CD, January 22nd 2005). Further, whether that unnamed University of Ibadan playwright was responsible for the emendations on the earlier of the two typescripts I have not been able to determine.


I wish now to give brief accounts of the three plays, focusing on their plots, their thematic preoccupations and on their approach to dramaturgy. The earliest of the three, The Pupils of the Eyes, is, by some way, the least assured. An incomplete handwritten note on the back of the cover page reads: "In the olden days there were no pupils in the eyes, but." The plot is thus identified as an etiological one (along the lines of "How the leopard got his spots"). Divided into nine short scenes the dramatic action corresponds to that of a central episode in Tutuola's 1967 novel Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty (see Ajaiyi 137-64: a discussion of Tutuola's recycling of materials is in the following section of this paper); the chief difference between play and novel is that in the earlier work the character Ajaiyi and his friends are absent—in other words, in the play the structure of (perilous) encounter and confrontation is less complex. The central character, Ishola, is instructed by his mother, Adeola, to take a dead rat to market to sell. There, three mysterious characters appear and bring the rat back to life, whereupon it runs away. When he returns home empty-handed, Adeola reveals to her son that she is a witch. The casual abruptness of this announcement is—presumably—unintentionally comic (devastating news is conveyed as if it were domestic trivia); a good example of Tutuola's strengthening of his materials as he recycled them can be seen through a comparison of this moment with its equivalent in the novel, where, given that Ajaiyi knows that Ishola's mother is a witch, while the boy remains ignorant of this, there is an element of dramatic irony. Subsequent scenes deal with Ishola's fear his mother plans to devour him—fears that are exacerbated by her dealings with other members of her coven—and with the revelation that the three strangers from the marketplace are powerful spirits. A drama of intrigue and counterintrigue ends with Ishola's escape from the forces of evil and with the mother seeking refuge in the eyes of the local blacksmith (becoming—and here is the etiological "stinger"—the pupils in his eyes).

In terms of its dramaturgy, Pupils reveals a lack of awareness of the requirements of the dramatic text: that is, of those structural features and the conventions of stage directions that ensure the text provides materials and signals that might readily enable stage production. This is a problem that persists, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout Tutuola's career as an aspirant dramatist. Some scenes in Pupils are too brief to have any meaningful impact when staged: they constitute the bare bones of tale-telling (I am begging the question of how these scenes could be fleshed out—brought to life—by an innovative director). Similarly, much of the dialogue provides, in effect, a sketch for the more expansive and vital dialogue of the corresponding episodes in Ajaiyi : compare the exchange in which Adeola contrives to comfort her son (Pupils typescript 6-7; Ajaiyi 145-46)—237 words in the play text fleshed out to 322 words in the novel, the expansion allowing the dialogue to breathe and giving greater impact to characteristic verbal formulae. Yet a comparison of the holograph, the typescript, and revisions to the latter do show Tutuola grappling with the demands of effective dramaturgy. In the holograph version, for example, in scene 8 (when the spirits plot to kill Adeola) over the extent of a whole page Tutuola in effect abandons the format of the dramatic text and provides instead a narrative account of the incident. In the typescript this is corrected. Again, in the typescript the stage direction "Many people are going up and down in the market in buying articles" (Pupils typescript 11) appears canceled and replaced with the handwritten emendation "The noises of the people in the market are hearing loudly"—more manageable a direction for stage production. Likewise, with a handwritten addition to the end of scene 6 (typescript 12), which provides what would otherwise be absent, that is, continuity with the following scene.

As with Pupils, the dramatic action of the second of the three plays, Ajaiyi and the Witch Doctor, corresponds to one of the plot components of Tutuola's novel of 1967, although in this case the composition of the play text and that of the novel were closer chronologically: the typescript of the play is dated 1964 and a letter of Tutuola's to Bernth Lindfors dated 16th May 1968 confirms that the novel was written in 1965 (Folder 6.2). The dramatic action of the play relates to the framing action of the novel: that is, its first five scenes correspond to the opening action of the novel (Ajaiyi 11-40) and the closing two scenes to the novel's long-suspended denouement to that action (Ajaiyi 223-35). In this respect, a distinction can be drawn between the two plays Ajaiyi and Pupils, in that while the plot of the former corresponds to the base- or starter-material of Ajaiyi —the premise that generates the bulk of the action of the novel and its major thematic concerns (the struggle to achieve competence, to successfully con- front evil and to escape from poverty)—in the case of Pupils the action corresponds to a single incident in the novel, one of that sequence of episodes that constitute the quest narrative, each of which episodes contributes to a broader understanding of Ajaiyi's protracted ordeal. If Pupils works at all it is at the level of marvel and wonder; thematically, it is relatively shallow.

Ajaiyi and the Witch Doctor opens, as does the novel, with Ajaiyi's parents discussing their poverty and its origin with the boy and his sister, Aina, and announcing that their own death is imminent. The dialogue here foregrounds more prominently than its equivalent in the novel the idea that the children are too immature to realize the full implications of their poverty: when they sing "How poor we are!" their naivety is marked through the direction that their voices should be "cheerful and melodious" (Ajaiyi typescript 1). The following four scenes correspond closely to the novel, dealing with the death of the parents, with Ajiyi's pawning of his labor, and with the kidnapping of the children, a misfortune that comes about as a result of their misunderstanding of their father's words and their consequent belief the kidnapper is their long-lost brother (a further pointer to their immaturity).6 The moral object lesson here is to be careful to inquire into the true meaning of everything that is said, however clear its meaning may appear to be: a lesson that exemplifies one of Tutuola's main thematic preoccupations throughout his work, that even apparently secure circumstances may suddenly disintegrate, leaving an individual in extreme hardship or peril.

Ajaiyi and Aina are rescued from the kidnapper by a group of their home villagers (why these have come to the kidnapper's village is unexplained). In the novel the children effect their own rescue: the difference between the two texts here highlights the picaresque structure of the novel and its thematic concern with the testing of the individual, as Ajaiyi's escape initiates a period of wandering and perilous encounters culminating in his return to his village. In the play, with its much more restricted scope, Tutuola brings the children back to the village as quickly as possible, in order to re-engage with the problem of their negotiation of their poverty. This, as in the closing section of the novel, is effected through Ajaiyi's confrontation with the dishonest Witch Doctor whose trickery, it transpires, has been the cause of the family's poverty. As in the novel, this is the point at which Ajaiyi most definitively takes his fate into his own hands, the point at which he appears able to plan—to use deductive reasoning and decisive action—to resolve his crisis (another thematic feature characteristic of Tutuola's work, as I shall discuss below).7

As with the earlier play Pupils, the text of Ajaiyi shows Tutuola still not secure in his handling of conventions such as the viable stage direction. At several points what he offers is far more appropriate to narrative form. Thus: "The dead father is carried by the neighbours to the distance of half a mile" (Ajaiyi typescript 5); or the following passage of exegesis: "Ajaiyi does not know that it was not his father who had taken the first two rams but the Witch Doctor" (20). Elsewhere, an extended narrative passage indicates that a conversation is taking place without actually providing the dialogue ("After a few seconds [the father] tells [his children] to kneel down before him and then he is praying for them," 4). Nonetheless, Tutuola persisted in his efforts as a dramatist and in 1982 composed The Sword of Vengeance, the most assured of the three extant plays and, unlike its predecessors, a piece that merits stage production. As with the two earlier plays there is here a relationship with the Ajaiyi material (which by now had been published in novel form), although here only part of the dramatic action corresponds to this; other material in the play can either be viewed as a kind of excursus from the plot of Ajaiyi or does not correspond to this.

The play, which comprises 33 short scenes, begins with a party held by Owolabi and his friends, which is interrupted by the news that Owolabi's father has fainted. The emphasis here is very much on the irresponsibility of the group of young men:

Gbotaye: (stops and shouts retighting the rope of his trousers as others were still running into the room) Ah! Yee! My trousers fall down from my buttock

          (Sword typescript 1)8

When the father dies, Owolabi, who is incapacitated by drink, drops his cup of wine on the old man's head. Each of the six friends takes his leave—with comic variants on the excuses they make—as soon as they realize the palm wine is finished.

Preparations for the burial are carried out—the wrapping of the body, performance of a funeral dirge, the placing of money in a plate: one of several set-pieces in the play that dramatize traditional observance. After the burial Owolabi rejoices in his inheritance, a sentiment echoed by his friends (as Owolabi is a rich man now, they realize "our palm wine will be increased by one hundred per cent," 4). The thematic motif of crass irresponsibility reaches its apex in the speech of the Cupbearer, who proclaims: "God has buttered my bread today! Look how the palm wine is full up on the floor. Now, I shall drink palm wine to excess today!" (7). Over the following scenes (nos. 3-8) Owolabi's wife gives birth to a son, Esan, and an unscrupulous witch-doctor, Osanyingbemi, contrives to steal Owolabi's inheritance (the emphasis here is on the hypocrisy of Osanyingbemi, who is "flattering Ifa continuously" (8) even as he steals, and on Owolabi's hedonism and lack of critical perception). Osanyingbemi reveals to Owolabi that his dead father has stolen the money (10)—the first point at which the dramatic action corresponds to (an element in the climactic episode of) Ajaiyi. Owolabi swears on his "sword of vengeance" that either his son or his son's son will recover the money (10-11).

The action jumps forward several years, with Esan now a young man, asking his father for money to get married and with Owolabi's mournful response that their poverty is too great to allow for this ("that is the life of a man on earth. It is a pity, Esan, poverty has ruined us," 11). Esan—unlike his father, a model of responsibility—resolves to pawn his labor ("a poor person like me must work hard," 12). Though the pawnbroker is initially unwilling to take him on, he is vouchsafed for by Ajoke, who is now his fiancée ("though he is thin and weak on sight, he is able to work hard," 14). In this episode the emphasis on Esan's good faith, the motif of the helper (Ajoke) bolstering the courage and dedication of the hero, and the testing of the young man by the pawnbroker all correspond closely to the action of the third chapter of Ajaiyi. Following this, Tutuola departs from the novel, as the action develops with Esan and Ajoke's wedding (there is some telling parallelism here with the opening party scene of the play), the death of Owolabi, handing over to Esan his sword of vengeance, and—as his poverty worsens—the pawning by Esan of his labor to a second and then a third pawnbroker (again, the testing of his strength by these characters offers some dramatically effective parallelism, as the level of challenge increases).

In scene 19—the funeral of Owolabi—Osanyingbemi reappears, gloating in a melodramatic aside over Esan's ignorance of the whereabouts of his fortune (23). Dramatic irony is developed as Esan places his trust in Osanyingbemi ("as he was my father's close friend," 24). Esan continues to work for the pawnbrokers, leaving himself with insufficient time to work his own farm ("His inherited poverty began to grow from bad to worse"; 24). At this point the plot reverts to that of Ajaiyi, with Osanyingbemi convincing Esan to offer up rams placed in sacks on his father's grave, as propitiation required to insure the return of his fortune. The concluding scenes of the play are—assuming a fairly considerable degree of suspension of disbelief—dramatically effective, with a skillful concatenation of multiple pressures, as Esan is hounded by the pawnbrokers, whose demands he has not been able to fulfill, and as he continues to be manipulated by Osanyingbemi (once again, there is some effective dramatic irony here. At one point Osanyingbemi advises Esan "you can go back to your house now, because a young man like you must not keep too long in the dark!" 29). Eventually—though it has to be said, as much through luck as through judgment—Esan discovers how he has been tricked by Osanyingbemi. Their eventual confrontation is, again, dramatically effective with the cut-and-thrust of variants of threat and attempted self-defense. With Esan's recovery of his fortune the play ends—parallelism, again—with a celebration, but one that is far more authentic than that which opened the play. As Esan forgives Osanyingbemi, as in the novel, the focus finally is on magnanimity and communal healing.

As regards the formatting of a dramatic text, Tutuola makes some advance here on his earlier efforts. While there are still occasional reversions to past tense narration, the holograph shows greater confidence in composing conventional stage directions.9 In terms of the intrinsic interest of its materials, its skillful development of emblematic characterization (the irresponsible friend; the man of courage, good faith, and initiative; the loyal helper) and of dramatic intrigue and confrontation, The Sword of Vengeance is a substantially greater achievement than its predecessors.


I wish finally to discuss those ways in which the three plays cast light on Tutuola's working methods, on his approach to form and on his thematic preoccupations. Bernth Lindfors has commented wittily on the relationship between the individual episodes that comprise Tutuola's works of extended fiction (in this case he is focusing specifically on The Palm-Wine Drinkard ): "Like boxes of a freight train, they are independent units coupled with a minimum of apparatus and set in a seemingly random and interchangeable order" (Folklore 55). Or, putting it another way, the episodes constitute "a concatenation of discrete fictive units strung together on the lifeline of a fabulous hero in an almost random order" (Lindfors, Early Nigerian 31). Tutuola himself admitted as much: in a letter dated August 21st 1978 to Elena Borelli, an Italian student preparing a thesis on his work, he commented: "Everyone of my books comprises of many of Yoruba folk-tales which are extended. I cannot call my books Novels"; he goes on to add that the episodes in, for example, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, are "loosely strung together" (Folder 6.4).

The recognition that the extended fictional works comprise a sequence of, in Lindfors's words, "discrete fictive units" should caution against too confident an application to them of the term "novel" or, alternatively, too narrow a definition of what that term might cover. It also helps us to understand the ease with which Tutuola felt able to re-process his materials, as short story, extended fiction, play: he held, clearly, a very flexible idea as to the boundaries between genres.

Certainly the extent to which Tutuola recycled material is pretty remarkable. With a publication date of 1967 Ajaiyi draws on work written and/or published up to 13 years earlier. Its antecedents include the play Ajaiyi and the Witch Doctor and the published short story of the same title (1959: a highly condensed piece—just five pages—that covers what would eventually form two major episodes in the novel), as well as the play The Pupils of the Eyes and the story Don't Pay Bad for Bad (1960), an earlier version of which, Dola with her Colanut Tree, had been broadcast by the BBC's West Africa Service in 1954 (see Folder 6.1). Following the publication of the novel Tutuola drew on its materials for the play The Sword of Vengeance and for two pieces in his 1990 collection The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, namely, the title story and "Remember the Day After Tomorrow."10 Given that this recycling was not unique to the Ajaiyi materials, Tutuola's desk seems to have functioned as a processing and reprocessing plant, with Tutuola first drawing on the Yoruba corpus as a primary source of material, and then reworking his own products as the opportunity arose.11


Tutuola's imaginary is a world in which individual endeavor and, indeed, human existence itself are fragile in the extreme, a world in which supernatural forces and human frailty, and wickedness combine to threaten the individual and (in a work such as Ajaiyi ) to render him or her in a state of constant anxiety. The commanding recognition for such an individual is, to quote one character in Tutuola's collection Yoruba Folktales : "‘Ah, I am finished today!’" (Tutuola, Yoruba 38).

Tutuola was quick to acknowledge his recognition of the fragility of his own career. In a response to a question posed by the journalist Kristine McKenna (November 17th 1980) he refers to the death of his father—an event that brought Tutuola's education to an abrupt halt—as "the biggest and bitter obstacle which I have ever had in my life" (Folder 6.5). That this event was of cardinal—even paradigmatic—importance for him is suggested by the frequency with which the subject of poverty recurs in his work (poverty that can appear perpetual) and by his concern with the irresponsibility and / or powerlessness of parents and with the notion of the "lost" child.

In the novel Ajaiyi these concerns appear in a "darker proof" than in the rest of Tutuola's output.12 This is not surprising, given that the novel was written during the Nigerian political crisis of 1965 (that is, at about the same time as Achebe's A Man of the People). As Nancy J. Schmidt observes: "the inclusion [in the novel's purgatory episode] of judges and politicians with liars and murderers is hardly surprising in terms of [the then] recent political events in Nigeria" (24). It is a novel in which the vulnerability of the individual is depicted relentlessly, as its dominant lexical cluster demonstrates: the words "poverty," "poor," "poorest" "poorness" appear no fewer than 169 times. There is an insistent, recurring emphasis on hunger and on hard work that brings insufficient reward or none at all, so that the individual surrenders his autonomy to those more economically powerful ("we become the recluses of our creditors," Ajaiyi 88). Powerfully emphasized, too, right up until the novel's climactic episode, is a sense of confusion and of the sundering of the ability to read the world correctly: in, for example, the episode of the pupils of the eyes, in which three spirits kill their own mother (in a case of mistaken identity). The power of this episode lies not only in the unsettling nature of the explanation for the origin of the eyes' pupils (eyes that were clear before now have pupils that represent the sinister powers of a witch) but also in its narrative structure: as Ajaiyi and his companions seek refuge in a house that turns out to be that of a witch—fleeing from the frying-pan to the fire—as they then encounter threats even fiercer still, unfolding events are organized as a series of concentric circles, conveying a sense of deepening, helpless terror.

Tutuola's heroes find themselves alienated, cast adrift, with the rupture of relationships or of mechanisms of enablement through which a secure and fulfilling life might be sought. In Robert Plant Armstrong's words, the hero "endures by his own free will at least, even though in a world where freedom of will is abrogated, he submits to a moral order that is one of imposed and unpredictable outrage" (29). Remarkably, however—and this is at least as true of Ajaiyi as of Tutuola's other work—adversity is confronted and can be overcome. As B. M. Ibikotun has put it: "A reaching out to bring home what is lacking and good becomes imperative. Tutuola's heroes and heroines go out, come back and become forces to be reckoned with in their respective communities. They are never observers but participants and even makers" (30). If the two plays The Pupils of the Eyes and Ajaiyi and the Witch Doctor are decidedly minor works in Tutuola's output, in The Sword of Vengeance he depicts both extreme adversity and principled persistence in overcoming this, in a dramatic structure that is exciting and persuasive.


1. Research for this paper was supported by a Mellon Foundation scholarship and by a grant from the Research and Conferences Committee of the National University of Lesotho. My thanks are to these two bodies and to the Director of the Harry Ransom Center, Dr. Tom Staley, who with his administrators and library staff helped make my time there as Visiting Fellow so enjoyable. Thanks to Martin Banhma, who provided with a copy of the program brochure for the premiere production of the Ogunmola adaptation of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Thanks also to Bernth Lindfors—that prime mover of so much work in African literary scholarship—who pointed me in the direction of this research.

2. All references to Folders are to the location of papers held in the Tutuola collection of the HRC.

3. Owomoyela (Tutuola 107) assertively contests Collins's assumptions about the extent of Tutuola's participation (in relation to that, variously, of Collis, Axworthy, and Ogunmola). For a further take on this controversy, see the comment made by Ulli Beier that "I still find it regrettable […] that Ogunmola was not given a chance to create his own ply out of Tutuola's book, but that he was given someone else's dramatization that turned the realities of Tutuola's supernatural world into the feeble device of a dream" (Beier 114). See also Michael Etherton, who notes that "[The] prosaic attempt at providing some sort of naturalistic credibility reflects a deep-rooted misunderstanding of the bizarre but significant world of the original" (Etherton 49).

4. The Sowande play was withdrawn at the behest of Nigeria's then Minister for Information and Culture, Walter Ofonagoro, one of General Sani Abacha's most reviled henchmen. Ofonagoro's objections to My Life perpetuate familiar anxieties about the "primitivism" of Tutuola's work: "anything which promotes the largest African country should not be one that can ridicule it" (see Balogun). Femi Osofisan has commented eloquently on how Tutuola's "international success was […] taken by the dominant Nigerian middle-class as a threat to their own social security" (Osofisan 27). Although both the Africa '95 Committee in London and the British Council supported the staging of My Life, after Ofonagoro's intervention it was replaced with Ola Rotimi's (in some respects) politically more acceptable Ovonramwen Nogbaisi.

5. Tutuola's handwriting is in a clear, easily readable, vertical cursive. There is a fair degree of variation in the formation of individual letters, depending on whether they are initial, medial, or final, and gradually developing changes in letter formation from the early 1950s to the late 1980s. Nonetheless, the basic features of Tutuola's handwriting remain distinctly recognizable. An important question in discussing Tutuola's development as a dramatist is the authorship of the handwritten emendations to the typescript of the latest of the three plays, "The Sword of Vengeance": though the hand here is not dissimilar to Tutuola's, there is sufficient, consistent variance to indicate it is not his.

6. Ajaiyi and Aina take their father's reference to "The Day after Tomorrow" to be the personal name of their absent elder brother, whereas it is intended to support a maxim along the lines "One will reap what one sows." The kidnapper taunts his victims by pointing out: "[I]t should have been better is you had asked for the meaning of it from your father before he died" ("Ajaiyi" typescript 10-11).

7. The play ends with an extravagant celebration, and with Ajaiyi and Aina singing "How rich we are!" (an inversion of the lament that opens the play: "How poor we are!"). The novel avoids this triumphant conclusion: here, the focus is on Ajaiyi's conscientiousness, on his repaying of debts, and on the consolidation of harmonious relationships in the village (Ajaiyi 233-35).

8. All quotations are from the "clean" typescript that incorporates emendations by someone other than Tutuola. Irrespective of the source of these changes, the typescript is approved by Tutuola, closing with his customary "The End / By Amos Tutuola / Copyright" and the date.

9. The anonymous changes made to the typescript are thoroughly professional, as in the opening general stage direction: "A bare stage is best suited for this drama so as to facilitate easy scene changes. […] Noon. Owolabi and his six friends on chairs in the sitting room. […]" (1).

10. The recycling of material did not always work to Tutuola's advantage. "The Village Witch Doctor" has few of the features that give, for example, "The Sword of Vengeance" its vitality, such as the inheritance of the sword, the role of the wife as helper, the use of parallelism to establish different levels of responsibility, and the use of dramatic irony.

11. This recognition is not original: see, for example, Owomoyela (Tutuola 128-30) on the relationship between Ajaiyi and the short stories. Consideration of the three play texts does, however, further highlight the case. For accounts of Tutuola's use of the Yoruba corpus, see, among others, Lindfors's "Debts" and Quayson. In an interview given in Palermo, Italy, in 1990, Tutuola lists fourteen categories of "materials which I use in my stories": thirteen of these refer to the Yoruba corpus (folktales, proverbs, riddles, legends, curses, and so on), while the remaining one refers to "My own imagination" (Di Maiao 40-50).

12. Very little critical attention has been paid to Ajaiyi. The first full-length study of Tutuola's work, by Harold R. Collins, gives only a brief summary account (ix-x—understandably, as the novel had appeared just as Collins was completing his study). Owomoyela pays the work some attention throughout his study Amos Tutuola Revisited, but no more than to any of the other novels; The Palm-Wine Drinkard is discussed in much greater detail here than are any of the works that followed. The volumes on Lindfors's Black African Literature inEnglish that cover the period 1936-1999 cite only one article devoted to Ajaiyi (that by Nancy J. Schmidt); of 49 articles listed that are devoted to specific works, 38 are on Drinkard). What critical attention has been paid to Ajaiyi is sharply divided as to its position within Tutuola's output. In a 1997 article, Owomoyela asserts that the novel "offers no appreciable departure form Tutuola's format or style" ("Tutuola" 873: a remark that recalls Lindfors's observation that "[Tutuola's] unkindest critics, denying he has written six novels [by 1973], insist that he has merely written one book six times," Folklore 61). By the time of his full-length study, published two years later, Owomoyela concedes that the extensive moralization in the novel marks "a spectacular exception" to the earlier work (Tutuola 79). Fred Akporobaro's assessment of the novel is similar to Owomoyela's: after noting that in Tutuola's work of the 1960s, "a new tone of strident satire and moralism has begun to emerge," he observes that "in spite of the new moralistic tone of Ajaiyi […] the basic modes of hyperbolic and fantastic images, the technique of alogical predication, the exploitation of suspense and the embedding of situations and episodes remain still the characteristic features of his narrative art" (110-11). Perhaps the most perceptive commentary on the novel to date is that by Schmidt. While acknowledging continuities between Ajaiyi and the earlier work (in Tutuola's linguistic technique and in his use of fantastic elements, even if these are less extensively elaborated than previously), Schmidt notes the extent to which "Ajaiyi acts in terms of contemporary values" (22) and the unprecedented extent to which Tutuola in this novel "takes a definite stand in reference to some aspects of contemporary Nigerian life, namely, religion, kinship ties and politics" (24). Certainly Tutuola's publisher, Faber and Faber, seemed happy with Ajaiyi. Writing to the author on receiving the novel, Alan Pringle commented: "I think [Ajaiyi] is a splendid story, both exciting and moving, with so many variations of its theme—one of your best books and perhaps the best since My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and The Palm-Wine Drinkard (Folder 7.3). Schmidt's acknowledgment that Tutuola shows himself willing to pronounce on aspects of contemporary Nigerian life might appear surprising to those who have read only the earlier novels. In the later fiction that willingness is apparent and it shines through, too, in some of his correspondence. Witness a two-page typescript held in the HRC and headed "Below is my response to your letter of Dec. 30th 1986 (the identity of Tutuola's correspondent unknown) in which he comments on the need to resolve current crises in Africa (his examples show he is well informed) and on the need to revive the Pan-Africanist project, and in which—at some length—he defends Soyinka, recently awarded the Nobel Prize, against the virulent critique made of his work by Chinweizu. In a fascinating comment on the alleged obscurity of Soyinka's language—fascinating because it reflects implicitly on charges leveled at Tutuola's own use of language—he states: "Though I strongly believe a writer is responsible to the public—(if you can define the Public)—that it should create for the public, the question of method (use of language inclusive) should strictly be left to him (the writer). For that makes the difference in writing" (Folder 6.7).

Works Cited

Ajayi, Jare. Amos Tutuola: Factotum as a Pioneer. Ibadan: Creative Books, 2003.

Akporobaro, Fred. "Narrative Form and Style in the Novels of Amos Tutuola." Studies in the African Novel. Ed. S. O. Asein and A. O. Ashaolu. Ibadan: Ibadan UP, 1986.

Armstrong, Robert Plant. "The Narrative and Intensive Continuity: The Palm-Wine Drinkard." Research in African Literatures 1:1 (1970): 9-34.

Balogun, Sola. Report on Africa '95 Controversy. Third Eye (June 9, 1970).

Beier, Ulli. The Hunter Thinks the Monkey is Not Wise. Bayreuth: U of Bayreuth, 2001.

Collins, Harold R. Amos Tutuola. New York: Twayne, 1969.

Collis, Robert. A Doctor's Nigeria. London: Secker and Warburg, 1960.

———. Nigeria in Conflict. Lagos: John West Publications, 1970.

Di Maio, Alessandra. Tutuola at the University. Rome: Bulzoni, 2000.

Etherton, Michael. The Development of African Drama. London: Hutchinson, 1982.

Ibitokun, B. M. "Amos Tutuola." Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: Volume Two. Ed. Yemi Ogunbiyi. Lagos: Guardian Books, 1988: 28-30.

Lindfors, Bernth. Folklore in Nigerian Literature. New York: Africana Publishing, 1973.

———. "Amos Tutuola's Earliest Long Narrative." Early Nigerian Literature. New York: Africana Publishing, 1982.

———. "Amos Tutuola: Debts and Assets." Critical Perspectives on Amos Tutuola. Ed. Bernth Lindfors. London: Heinemann, 1980. 224-55.

Ogunmola, Kola. The Palmwine Drinkard. Ibadan: Institute of African Studies, U of Ibadan, 1972.

Osofisan, Femi. The Nostalgic Drum: Essays on Literature, Drama and Culture. Trenton and Asmara: Africa World P, 2001.

Owomoyela, Oyekan. "Amos Tutuola." African Writers: Volume Two. Ed. C. Brian Cox. New York: Scribner, 1997. 865-78.

———. Amos Tutuola Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Quayson, Ato. Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997.

Schmidt, Nancy J. "Tutuola Joins the Mainstream of Nigerian Novelists." Africa Today 15 (1968): 22-24.

Tetteh-Lartey, Alex. Interview with Molara Ogundipe-Leslie. BBC Arts and Africa transcript 517G. 1983.

Tutuola, Amos. "Ajaiyi and the Witchdoctor" (short story). Atlantic 203 (1959): 78-80. Rpt. Black Orpheus 19 (1966): 10-14.

———. "Don't Pay Bad for Bad." Présence Africaine 30 (1960): 78-81. Rpt. Reflections: Nigerian Prose and Verse. Ed. Frances Ademola. Lagos: African Universities P, 1962. 33-6.

———. Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.

———. Yoruba Folktales. Ibadan: Ibadan UP, 1986.

———. The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.

Umukoro, Matthew M. "Radio Drama in the Nigerian Theatrical Scene: Promise and Performance." Theatre and Politics in Nigeria. Ed. Jide Malomo and Saint Gbilekaa. Ibadan: Caltop, 1993. 123-37.


Asagba, O. A. "The Folktale Structure in Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard." Lore and Language, 4, no. 1 (January 1985): 31-9.

Identifies the folklore elements present in Tutuola's novel and defends Tutuola's work against accusations that the author plagiarized the work of D. O. Fagunwa, who, like Tutuola, drew from Yoruba folklore traditions in his writing.

Breitinger, Eckhard. "Images of Illness and Cultural Values in the Writings of Amos Tutuola." In Health and Development in Africa: International, Interdisciplinary Symposium 2-4 June 1982, University of Bayreuth, edited by Peter Oberender, Hans Jochen Diesfeld, and Wolfgang Gitter, pp. 64-72. Frankfurt: Verlag Peter Lang, 1983.

Explores the ways in which African cultural ideas about illness are represented and reflected in Tutuola's writings.

Owomoyela, Oyekan. Amos Tutuola Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999, 174 p.

Study of Tutuola's writings, focusing on themes, inspiration, the author's exploration of and responses to colonialism, and the critical response to Tutuola's work.

Additional coverage of Tutuola's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:3; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 159; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 66; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 14, 29; Contemporary Novelists, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 125; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules, Ed. MULT; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Feminist Writers; Literature of Developing Nations for Students; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; and World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 2.