Stylistic techniques in Undeground Engineering and She Who must be despised

As works of art, Akin Adejumo’s Underground Engineering and She who must be despised are linguistic masterpieces. In the latter play which validates the universality of the province/purview of literary subject matter, the author unearths the maladies in Nigeria’s construction industry in highly technical language. The play is suffused with lexical items such as asphaltic concrete binder, drawings, bills, binder course, shoulders, inches, site instructions, granular base, lateritic sub-base, bill of quantities, valuations, construction cost management and payment certificate, among others, all of which are drawn from the industry under reference. While non-specialists may find these items a little challenging, the implied dramatist is careful to offer useful explanations to aid their comprehension. Consider: “Well, you know the wearing course—that layer of asphaltic concrete on which vehicles ply. Directly beneath it is the base and beneath the base is the subbase. Under the subbase is the subgrade.” (p.158). In this scene in the play, Engineer Layi is being questioned by two officials of the War Against Corruption Agency (WACA), but the information he provides is of course also to the benefit of the audience.

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Perhaps because of the subject matter, the play foregrounds the use of simple sentences and sentences without heavy pre- and post-modification. Thus: (a)Interrogator 1: “ We’ll get you the glasses. Does strengthening the subgrade affect the bases too?” (p.159); (b) Engineer Layi: We don’t shortchange the government. The checks and balances are there.” (p.163); (c) Engineer Layi: What happened? Where is this? What am I doing here? (d) Dr. Smart: Nobody wants to kill you, Engineer. You’re safe here.

The point that should be made clear is that while the play necessarily manifests all the sentences types attested in English (from simple to compound-complex), the author is at great pains to ensure that the sentences are not convoluted, with the effect that the technicality of the subject matter is tempered by syntactic simplicity. In the play, the implied author utilizes humour to lighten the rather grim, “interrogative” atmosphere of the play. Consider:  Engineer Layi (sits up, terrified): Don’t tell me you’re going to use that on me.

Dr Smart: No, I won’t tell you…I’ll just use it. Sometimes we improvise.

Here, Dr. Smart, the general medical practitioner on hand at the WACA clinic, prepares to deploy a pair of giant pliers and a carpenter’s drilling machine to remove Engineer Layi’s ‘broken teeth’ after receiving a generous bribe from his wife who wishes to curb his craving for meat. Here, the comic element of incongruity is deployed to clinical effect, provoking laughter, but also shock, in the audience. In this way, the author achieves the typically Soyinkan strategy of simultaneously making the audience to laugh and forcing them to absorb shock in the same breath.

But the beauty of Underground Engineering need not detain us further. In She who must be despised, a play based on the Biblical story of Job, the author employs versification, humour, song and dance to capture the intensity of the tense fictional context. Consider:  Gangan: Ajeku iya ni o je/Eniti o to gelete/To n mi finfin/Ajeku iya ni o je.” Gloss: He will be severely beaten/A midget/heaving like a monster/He will be severely beaten. (p.138).

Here, the author draws upon the elements of drumming, dance and music, vital aspects of the African ‘total theatre,” to spice the conflict between Bab, Fem and Chim, three major characters in the play who represent Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups and their “antagonistic great traditions.” Those who are familiar with Yoruba oral literature will not miss the tonal/lyrical aesthetics of the folk song “Ajekun iya ni o je,” the first line here being realised in drumming as do-re-mi-do-do-do-mi-mi-re, a song proverbially used to warn minions not to engage their superiors in a losing battle. But let us enjoy a bit of the verse:

Chairman: Shut up, woman! /Can the clay query the porter?/Can the dregs and trash of the earth/Say to his maker/Why have you done this? God abides in the heavens/Whatever pleases him, he does/And who can resist his will?

Lady She (contemptuously) : Why don’t you keep God out of this?/What does he know about the situation anyway?/And even if he knew anything/What could he have done contrarily? (pp.118-119).

Since She who must be despised is an attempt to x-ray contemporary Nigeria from the prism of the Book of Job, it is no surprise that it is a poetic drama. Linguistically, the play thrives on the schematic elements of repetition, rhyme and parallelism to foreground the ideas that the characters canvass in the fictional world of the play. To sum up, Adejumo’s Underground Engineering and She who must be despised present different aspects of the Nigerian dilemma (the failures of the construction industry and the quest for nationhood) in simple, yet mellifluous language. They are definitely worth much more meticulous critical attention than is possible here.

Dr Awolaja is on the staff of the Nigerian Tribune.


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