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Blending The Traditional With The Modern In John Pepper Clark’s Plays
In his very life Clark exemplifies this uneasy fusion of the traditional and the modern. In introducing his volume of poems A REED IN THE TIDE he considers himself as:
…….. that fashionable cultural phenomenon they call ‘mulatto’ – not in flesh but in mind! Coming of an ancient multiple stock in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria from which I have never quite felt myself severed, and going through the usual educational mill with the regular grind of English school at its end, I sometimes wonder what in my make-up is ‘traditional’ and ‘native’ and what ‘derived’ and ‘modern’.
J.P. Clark embodies in his work a wide range of influences from ancient and modern western sources to the myths and legends of his Ijaw people. Although he writes in English in order to reach the widest possible audience, African images, themes, settings and speech patterns are at the center of his work.
Born in 1935 in Nigeria, Clark along with Wole Soyinka is one of Nigeria’s foremost dramatists and poets. His interest in poetry started while he was studying at university College in Ibadan. There he also co-edited THE HORN, an undergraduate magazine publishing poems, reviews and articles by young African writers. In 1964 he published his scurrilous work on American society AMERICA THEIR AMERICA based on his experiences whilst studying at Princeton University. He worked briefly at the Daily Express and co-edited BLACK ORPHEUS with Abiola Irele. He has written several volumes of poems and plays and produced two documentary films The OZIDI OF ALONZI and The GHOST TOWN. He has since 1968 been teaching African Literature and English at the University of Lagos and is the director of the Repertory Theatre there.
The traditional and the modern are almost always blended in Clark’s plays in themes, attitudes and techniques as they are in some of Soyinka’s early plays. His first two plays SONG OF a GOAT [performed in 1961] and The MASQUERADE [performed in 1965] contain elements of classical Greek and Shakespearean drama, the poetic plays of T. S. Elliot and the folk literature of the Ijaw people which Clark says has much in common with classical drama. In SONG OF A GOAT a barren woman consults with a masseur and conceives a child by her husband’s brother. Unable to accept this situation, both the husband and his brother commit suicide. The child, grown to manhood and unaware of the circumstances of his birth, is the tragic hero of THE MASQUERADE. He travels away from his native village and engages a beautiful, strong-willed girl. When the young man’s background is revealed the girl’s father forbids her from marrying him, but she refuses to abide by his decision. In the violent denouement all of them die. Both plays are written in verse and share a relentless aura of doom, with neighbours functioning as chorus commenting on the tragic happenings.
A SONG OF A GOAT demonstrates well how the two elements – the modern and the traditional – coalesce or conflict. But the whole social situation of the play is essentially traditional. . The attitude of the characters therefore keep strictly in line with the social ethos of the world created within the play. These are ethos and traditions sanctioned by the gods themselves. Those who pit themselves against it are seen as rebelling against the customs sanctioned by the society and the gods themselves. Therefore as a result of resisting those customs. Zifa has an ill-fated battle to overturn the curse inflicted on him.
The play also shows the high premium the society places on the reproductive act. It is to them the most sacred duty of life. Anyone who fails to fill up his house with children is deemed as being guilty of a very serious omission, which could portend danger as the masseur explains here:
An empty house, my daughter, is a thing Of danger. If men will not live in it Bats or grass will, and that is enough Signal for worse things to come in.
So important is this act of fecundity that everything else becomes subordinated and functional to it. For as the Masseur states:
You buy your wife the truest Madras, beat for her the best gold and Anyone can see she is very well fed But we fatten our maidens to prepare for fruition, Not to thwart them.
Significantly, the masseur hints that not to facilitate it is to impede it. For tradition holds that those who have not produced are as good as dead. Therefore:
…custom dictates those who die childless Be cast out of the company of the fruitful whose Special grace is interment in the township.
Zifa who has been cursed with infertility because of the sins of his father, refuses to adhere to the traditional curstom of giving his wife over to someone virile enough to make her bear fruits and by so doing confirm her existence. She thus pits herself against a strong traditional force which could be almost impossible to battle against. The ill-advised nature of his quarrel against tradition embodied in the oracular masseur – is shown in his rash statement: ‘I am strong and /Alive and dare you open your filthy/mouth to suggest I pawn my land?’ His very words repudiate the age-old belief that not to create is not to live and exposes the ill-fatedness of his struggle. The impending doom is underlined by the masseur’s reply:
You are eaten up with anger but although You crush me, a cripple, between your strong Hands it will not solve your problem.
And what he suggests, the masseur goes on, has been of a long-standing tradition, our father did not forbid even in days/of old.’
Zifa’s battle against tradition is principally through questioning the legitimacy of the curse placed on him by cosmic forces. Here he is in direct combat with the gods whom he regards as thwarting his efforts to fulfill his marital responsibilities.. Even through his father who had angered the gods had died and had been buried in the evil grove, as customs dictates, and he has done his duties as a son by making sacrifices, the curse is still extended to him when ‘they dared not spit at his father when he was alive.’ In a fit of despair, he asks: ‘And am I to blame/If all was fish that come to his net? But the masseur quietly hints that perhaps his fault was in bringing him back home among his people a bit too early for one who died of the white taint. But Zifa is not to be persuaded. He sees it as an unjust punishment which he describes as picking his flesh ‘To the bones like fish a floating corpse’.
Ironically, Tonye, Zifa’s brother and Zifa’s wife, Ebiere, in their effort to effect the procreative act Zifa has failed to perform also put themselves in the way of tradition. They are thus threatened with doom. Their fate comes from their omission – not seeking the sanction of tradition and thus inviting the cleavages climaxing the play. Significantly in the heat of the act – with Ebiere and Tonye interlocked – cock crows ominously and this immediately rouses the all-seeing Orukorere. The unnaturalness of the act and their unacceptance of tradition is shown in her words:
I have seen a sight this dusk to make The eagle blind. I heard the cock crow As I woke up from sleep. That was sign Of omen enough but little did I know It was this great betrayal of our race.
The futility of the struggle against tradition, and its self-destructive outcomes was being hinted at from the very start of the play. The first comes from the masseur who has been a prophetic voice of insight in the play. He warns:
….you yourself saw even now how the hen All but blew down the house with the flutter Of her wings. With the cock himself, the walls May well give in and I am too old To start raising green thatch for my grey hair.
Though Orukorere, another prophet-like figure, has been hinting at danger from the play’s very start, it is only towards the end that his message becomes clear. Then she pronounces
There will never be light again in this House, child, this is the night of our race, The fall of all that ever reared up head Or crest.
This fall seems as that of Adam and Eve of cosmic dimension affecting the fate of all men. She concludes: ‘Recognition therefore’s become a thing/for houseflies and bats, has it? The destruction of Zifa, Tonye and Ebiere shows the fate awaiting those who rebel against tradition and defy the gods.
The curse placed on Tonye and Ebiere extends to the product of their incestuous act, Tufa, in the next play THE MASQUERADE. Tufa himself recounts:
I am that unmentionable beast Born of woman to brother and for whom brother Drove brother to terrible death. That’s not All. My mother who they say engendered The seed, on expulsion of it, withered In the act, and it was left an old woman Without wit to pick me up and take Into another country [ p86 THREE PLAYS]
Evidently then such a curse has doomed his love for Titi as it has his life… Here, Titi defies tradition to woo a man who is cursed. She defies her father’s offer to dissolve the marriage with ‘a haphazard choice’ in favour of the choicest man in all the creeks and the virgin paths on land and sea. She scoffed that she wouldn’t ‘be put/On a platter for hawking’.
However, the conflict is not that simple, for the marriage had already been bound and blessed by Titi’s father, Diribi. He thus transforms himself into an accomplice in the sacrilegious act though unwittingly. The dissolution of the marriage cannot then come simply by proclamation from only father and mother. For they had only then discovered the man’s ugly past. It is thus a conglomeration of ironies that in their fight against tradition, both TitI and Tufa resort to tradition – the marriage having been tied and blessed to justify their stance. The father, in turn, in a bid to uphold tradition and fight against a curse that could come over his family, battles against tradition itself, and brings himself a curse of wider ramifications. Ironically enough it is the gift that Tufa presented Diribi on the occasion of his marriage that became the instrument of his undoing and his wife’s death. As a result, that whole force face certain doom as with Umoko who lost her wits.
Admittedly, such a pervasive traditional setting brings in modernistic attitudes or forces which contest with the forces of tradition in both plays. A SONG OF A GOAT and THE MASQUERADE reveal free-wheeling women in quest for female independence in Ebierre and Titi. In her battle of words with Tonye she gives the appearance of one who would omit nothing in her fight to prove that her sex cannot be a reason for being put in the wrong all the time. She says:
Of course, it is the woman who is in the wrong Always I who have suffered neglect and Gathered mould like a thing of sacrifice Left out in sun and rain at the cross-roads You talk to me of my short temper; what Short temper have I, when it is pulled and Tugged at daily like a hook-line?
Titi, on the other hand is not only a woman but a young girl striving to assert to the older folks her right to choose the man she wants to be married to and not to be ‘put on sale/like fish or fowl rejected by the meanest/Household’.
Both plays have been largely well received and their favourable evaluation is mainly for their mostly first rate artistry and sophistication. For Anthon Astrachan, ‘At his weakest, he is more competent than many dramatists more widely known outside Africa; at his strongest, he is magnificent. His THREE PLAYS can compete as equals on the stage of world literature without losing a cowries worth of their African qualities.’ He goes on to compare both plays of this first rate dramatist to Sophocles’ Oedipus plays, as does another critic, John Fergusson. ‘The language and feeling of both are so rich in action that the reader is compelled to stage them in the theatre of his interior vision, and not having seen them become less of a handicap’. Going on to analyzing the language of SONG OF A GOAT he states thus:
The language evokes the pity and terror which are the prime aims of tragedy, and the dramatic construction has an aura of doom….. Orukorere evokes the terror of the offence that is still to come. In her half-crazed nightmare:
I must find her, the leopard That will devour my goat, I must Find him.
John Ferguson describing it as a powerful play also joins Astrachan in acknowledging how hugely indebted Clark is to Greek drama without being imitative or derivative. It recalls the curse of Laius or Atreus and their working out in OEDIPUS and AGAMENNON. The masseur is the equivalence of the divine figure that normally begins or ends Greek plays. The neighbours form the chorus, though Clark does not link his movements with song and dance sequences. The movements are taut, and the characters economical in number and conception. Like Greek drama the play is religious in tone. Some of the devices and approaches of Greek drama .are used with great skill. The concept of the Messenger’s speech is beautifully adapted to describe Zifa’s self-immolation in the sea. The most moving elements of Aristotelian tragedy – peripeteia and anagnorisis – are all evident in this play.
Astrachan also notes that many lines such as the last one quoted are rich in myth. This last speech unveils a tragedy of revelation that is the keynote and the vehicle of action in OEDIPUS TYRANNOS. But no such development nor suspence could be experienced in SONG OF A GOAT. No change, growth or degeneration occurs in Tonye and Ebriere that bring them on to sin. The basis of the tragedy is not clearly established. Zifa’s tragedy thus is without cause.
African-American poet, Amiri Baraka’s appreciation of the unique African lyricism of Clark’s language is also worth noting. He first of all describes it as ‘so beautiful a work’. He expresses his difficulty in placing Clark’s language, which to him, is English, but it is not. The tone and the references are drawn from a clearly African experience. ‘The English is pushed past the immaculate boredom of the recent Victorians to Non-European quality of experience, though it is the European tongue which seems to shape it, externally. But Clark seems to him after a specific emotional texture that is strange to European literature or life:
Is open and warm as a room
It ought to accommodate many
Well, it seems to like staying empty
An empty house, my daughter is a thing
Of danger, if men will not turn in it
Bats or grass will, and that is enough
Signal for worse things to come in
The writing of this play about a traditional Nigerian family split and destroyed by adultery, moves easily through the mythic heart of African life, building a kind of ritual drama that depends much on the writer’s inside for its exactness and strength as it does on the narrating of formal ritualistic acts. The language is gentle and lyrical most of the time, but Clark’s images and metaphors are strikingly and indigenously vivid as evident here:
It should be easy to see a leopard
If he were here. His eyes should be
Blazing forth in the dark.
So I hear I have heard them likened
To the light house out on the bar
And its motion is silent as that big house
We must be careful
These are African lines in tone and reference, securing for us readers a sense of place.
Though extensive similarity has been established between this play and Greek tragedy, it is not Greek tragedy. It can stand on its own two feet as Ijaw tragedy. Fergusson thus endorses it as ‘in many ways the most remarkable play to emerge from Nigeria.’
The MASQERADE is not only a sequel to SONG OF A GOAT but a tragedy without hubris. John Ferguson though calling it as ‘not an unworthy companion to SONG OF A GOAT claims it has a far less powerful impact. Here, the verse writing is more certain but less memorable. There is less climax and less anticlimax. The finest writing is in the love talk of the first act between Tufa and Titi with it’s highly, mellifluous passages. Its lightness contrasts well with the somber gravity and grim destruction of the final scene. The handling of plot is untidier, less taut and less controlled. Though suspense and more dramatic development has been detected, the revelation does not come at the beginning – the characters react more strongly when it does come.
Astrarchan, Anthony., ‘Like GOATS TO Slaughter THREE PLAYS by John Pepper Clark’ in BLACK ORPHEUS, No 18, October 1964, pp. 21-4
Clark, J. P. A REED IN THE TIDE
Clark, J.P. THREE PLAYS: SONG OF A GOAT, THE MASQUERADE and THE RAFT
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