The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779

Events begin in an African village. Nyobi laments to Thoni that her younger son has chosen to live in the distant big city, ignoring his obligations at home. Remi’s extended absence imposes even more pain upon his wife, who longs to bear a child. The leader of the village comes to Nyobi to explain his intention to travel to the city and persuade Remi to return. Remi is their best hope for acquiring national political advantage. He believes that Remi’s decision to leave resulted from Christian training, which undermined his loyalty to the traditional ways. To buttress his appeal, he seeks the blessing of Remi’s mother. Nyobi acquiesces hesitantly; in spite of her yearning for her son’s return, she is uncomfortable about the elders’ motives and pagan beliefs. She worries that she may have been manipulated and begs the pastor for advice. He agrees that the village Christians also need Remi’s presence. He, in turn, decides to seek out Remi and urge him to come home.

Act 2 is set in the city, where Remi is involved with a white South African woman, who is seeking to purge herself of the racism of her country by embracing a black lover. City life is already beginning to pall on Remi, for both personal and political reasons. He expresses his disenchantment in a political debate with his friend Omange, arguing that tribalism undermines the ideal of a united nation. Subsequent, more personal conversation reveals that Remi’s departure was based not only on his shame because he urged his village to vote for a regime that turned out to be corruptly self-serving but also on a more intimate motivation. When Thoni was widowed by the death of Remi’s brother, Remi accepted his traditional family obligation and was married to her. This marriage was not, however, a mere formal convenience for Remi. He was passionately in love with Thoni but had been too shy to express his feelings. While he hesitated, his brother had won her. Now that he is actually married to Thoni, he jealously believes that she agreed to marry him only because of tribal custom. He conceals his true feelings from her and refuses to accept his mother’s assurances of her real devotion.

The delegation of elders arrives at Remi’s apartment, and the elders expose their selfish intentions to exploit the system as others are doing. Remi is so offended that he refuses their appeal. The pastor arrives and reminds him of other obligations, pleading not only that his mother needs him but also that God himself asks him to serve. After the pastor leaves, Remi recognizes the impossibility of finding any spiritual escape in the city. At this point, in a symbolic gesture, he examines both the Bible left by the pastor and the bundle left by the elders. They represent his dual inheritance and his double obligation. He knows that he must return. He cannot be “the black hermit” forever. This decision requires that he distance himself from his white girlfriend, Jane. In spite of her protestations that she is willing to share his village existence, he quite cruelly rejects her with the unexpected legal excuse that he is already married. The more profound reason rests on his new recognition of his inherited duties.

Act 3 presents the situation after Remi has abandoned the city. Nyobi is delighted. It even seems as if his return has brought the rain that has ended the drought. Thoni is more fearful, suspecting that emotional complications will attend Remi’s decision. The neighbors wildly cheer Remi’s political pronouncements, which they interpret as portending profit....

(This entire section contains 779 words.)

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Remi denounces Thoni, charging that her deepest love will always be reserved for her first husband, his dead brother. Even when his mother continues to defend his wife’s true affection, he still repudiates her. Hurt by his unloving behavior, Thoni despairingly seeks death.

In scene 2, Omange visits the village, but his and Remi’s political argument is cut short when they notice that Thoni is missing. A village woman brings Remi a farewell note in which Thoni expresses her abiding love. Remi agonizes over the cruel injustice of his behavior. The pastor asserts that the trouble derives from the fact that he put politics before religion. Although Remi does not accept this interpretation, he does at last realize that in pursuing social goals he has neglected the most precious thing, human affection. At the news of Thoni’s suicide, he realizes that his ability to manipulate a crowd does not compensate him for what he has lost in his personal life. He confesses that the city has destroyed him.

Dramatic Devices

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Many modern African plays borrow from the traditional forms of public ritual. They deliberately include dance, mime, and music as part of an almost operatic performance. The Black Hermit is more conventional in the European sense. It sets a realistic social context, within which pertinent political issues can be debated. There are no contrivances or innovative theatrical devices to present the plot. This limitation derives partly from the fact that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is attempting a drama of ideas, in the manner of George Bernard Shaw. It also derives from Ngugi’s intention that the play be capable of being staged under very restricted conditions. School assembly rooms and village cultural centers offer few provisions for unusual or complex methods of staging.

The most important theatrical aspect of The Black Hermit derives from its structure. The play establishes two very different worlds: the village and the city. The village maintains a cohesion of traditional behavior. Pagan and Christian beliefs battle each other, but even that conflict does not alter the security and implicit harmony of the daily routine. In contrast, the scenes set in the city reflect a rootless, unprincipled existence: self-serving and grasping, without dignity or moral purpose.

This difference is exemplified in the diction in which the political and personal levels of plot are expressed. Ngugi deliberately differentiates the language spoken within these contrasting lifestyles. In the city, the characters’ speech includes much colloquial slang, intended to indicate an African style of English. Political statements are couched in the most artificial clichés of radical journalism. Neither style sounds very convincing. The village speech has a formal, poetic quality intended to reflect the natural rhythms of the African idiom. The intense feeling conveyed by this diction lends importance and authority to the village tradition. It also brings a classical quality to the tragedy, in which the villagers serve as a kind of Greek chorus. In contrast, the political debate seems banal for being couched in simplistic rhetoric. Despite Ngugi’s determination to devise a mouthpiece for his socialist beliefs, they are hardly attractive when so pompously expressed.

As the play progresses, the story of love betrayed becomes more and more central, finally overshadowing the political debate. The play ends in the village, which signals Ngugi’s realization that it is there, not in the cities populated by corrupt and Europeanized Africans, that the basis for noble nationhood will be found.


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Sources for Further Study

Bjorkman, lngrid. Mother Sings for Me: People’s Theatre in Kenya. London: Zed Books, 1989.

Cook, David, and Michael Okenimkpe. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: An Exploration of His Writings. 2d ed. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1997.

Graham-White, Anthony. The Drama of Black Africa. New York: S. French, 1975.

Jones, Eldred D., ed. African Literature Today: An Annual Review. New York: Africana, 1973.

Moore, Gerald. Twelve African Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Robson, Clifford B. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. New York: Twayne, 1979.

Roscoe, Adrian A. Uhuru’s Fire: African Literature East to South. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.


Critical Essays