It was my privilege to meet Tony Harrison at his home in Newcastle on a wet October afternoon. We sat at his kitchen table drinking strong coffee, and talking about his early years in Leeds and his work at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Northern Nigeria, where he worked from 1962-1966.
Tony Harrison is often referred to as ‘Britain’s leading poet-playwright’, although he criticises attempts to differentiate aspects of his work, responding by saying that “poetry is all I write.” It is true that Harrison is one of Britain’s most celebrated poets. He recently won the David Cohen Prize for Literature, and his many other honors include the inaugural PEN/Pinter Award, the Faber Memorial Award, the European Poetry Translation Prize, and a UNESCO fellowship.
Harrison’s work is rarely seen in relation to the multiple international contexts in which he has worked. Harrison was a student in Leeds in the late 1950s, where he wrote and performed with others at Leeds including Wole Soyinka, James Simmons, Geoffrey Hill and Gregory Fellows at the time. Like several of his contemporaries, he then travelled to Nigeria to work. He has also lived and worked in cities all over the world, including Prague and Athens.
James Simmons, friends with Harrison at Leeds, also took a job at Ahmadu Bello University, when Harrison was Head of English. In 1965 they worked together on a translation and production of Aristophones’ Lysistrata, entitled Aikin Mata, performed in 1966. Soon after I arrived at Tony Harrison’s house, he gave me a copy of the programme for Aikin Mata:
The colour and design of the programme and play was precisely planned and Harrison later wrote to Oxford University Press to complain about a revised edition (now extremely rare) published with a blue cover, because it replaced the colour of the clay pots and traditional robes which Harrison and Simmons wanted to capture. The play was produced and performed with a cast of the A.B.U Students’ Dramatic Society in collaboration with the Department of English, and it included students, village musicians and drumming. There is a full cast listing inside the programme:
More detailed information about the cast and performance of Aikin Mata can be found at the fantastic Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama in Oxford. The play itself is fascinating. It brings together a Classical Greek text with Hausa, Yoruba, Pidgin English and Harrison’s Northern inflections. Harrison was frustrated with the imposition of certain types of European theatre in Nigeria and translated the play partly because he felt that it had the life and energy to speak to people in Nigeria. This is explained in the programme: ‘The origins of Greek Comedy have a great deal in common with the masquerade one finds all over Nigeria and the plays of Aristophenes lend themselves particularly well to adaptation in Nigerian terms.’
We talked about the importance of masque in Harrison’s work, and he explained how formative the experience of producing the play was for his own practices of writing, particularly in relation to writing for the theatre and performance. Like all of Harrison’s plays, Aikin Mata was written for a specific time and place, and is not performable outside of this context (Harrison has elaborated on this point elsewhere, including in his “Introduction” to a later version of the Lysistrata entitled A Common Chorus, Faber & Faber, 1992).
The play is but a single instance of the fascinating cross-cultural collaborations taking place during this period. It has left me with more questions and leads than answers, but what an honour to hear first-hand about the production and performance of this extraordinary play.