John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo’s first play was Song of a Goat. Its title indicates the multiple cultural elements he integrates into his drama. There is obvious reference to classic Greek in that the very term “tragedy” translates as “goat song” (tragos meaning “goat,” and oide meaning “song”). There is also a parallel tradition from Africa. By Ijaw custom, a goat is the appropriate sacrifice—in the manner of the Hebraic concept of scapegoat. Similarities with the Irish playwright John Millington Synge are also apparent. Clark-Bekederemo accepts Synge’s view of the tragic dignity of humble people.

Song of a Goat

The plot of Song of a Goat presents a conflict between traditional and modern beliefs, though this does not seem to be the central element. The tragedy itself derives from urgent human responses. Zifa’s wife, Ebiere, consults a “masseur,” who is both doctor and priest, concerning her infertility. From her diffident explanations, it becomes clear that the husband has become impotent: “I keep my house/ Open by night and day/ But my lord will not come in.” The doctor argues that “some one has to go in, or they will take rust.” He advises the tribal custom that someone within the family, such as Tonye, his younger brother, substitute for the husband. “That’ll be a retying of knots,” and there will be continuity of issue. Clark-Bekederemo presents a curious psychological ambivalence in response to this advice. Even though presumably the practice is legalized by long-term custom (“What I suggested our fathers did not forbid”), Ebiere is as horrified as any Western wife would be. “I’ll not stay here longer to hear this kind of talk,” she says. With ominous perception, she answers, “That will be an act of death.” Her husband Zifa is also violently shocked by the suggestion. He prefers to wait: “The thing may come back any day.” He is shamed that he will receive public scorn for his impotence. “Everybody will be saying, there/ Goes the cock. . . .” There are continuing hints that his problem is imposed by the gods as punishment for some very vaguely defined and unpurged offense committed by his father.

After some months of barrenness, Ebiere, bitter against her husband and lusting with thwarted passion, teases Tonye into seducing her. He resists at first, for the deed is wicked, but he embraces her with such ardor that there is no possible pretense that he is simply obeying the decrees of custom. This is naked adultery passionately performed. Zifa finds his incestuous brother in his bed and berates him: “I can’t believe it. . . . My own brother who I have looked after.” Zifa decides that he will kill the adulterer, but before he can do this, in shame Tonye goes and hangs himself. It seems there is nobility in this decision, for he takes on himself the crime of suicide and frees Zifa from the penalty for committing the most heinous crime conceivable in Ijaw life: a deed that offends the gods. Zifa recognizes this sacrifice. “I thought to kill/ You but in that office you have again performed my part.” Only now does his self-condemnation confirm the possible justice of the act. “He went to my wife. . . . Was that not a brotherly act?” Ebiere is said to have miscarried his brother’s son. Despairing at the disaster his own anguish and jealousy have wrought, Zifa commits suicide by drowning himself in the sea, yielding to the power of the gods whom in his life he has opposed. The masseur concludes by attempting words of comfort and reconciliation, rather than blame, in the face of tragedy that reduces men to misery and defeat. “It is enough/ You know now that each day we live/ Hints at why we cried at birth.” Here is the moral essence of the tragic condition. The urgency in this play does not rest with the external cultural conflict, though this is often mentioned. The conflict between human passion and moral duty provides the trigger for the inescapable disaster constantly prophesied by an old woman who leads the neighbors in the role of Chorus. Cassandra-like, she issues warnings that are perceived but not heeded. This makes for absorbing drama in the classic tradition.

The richness of the language more than sustains the tension of the events. Clark-Bekederemo enjoys the long, extended poetic metaphor. Ebiere’s unpregnant womb is compared to a “piece of fertile land—run fallow with elephant grass,” an analogy he carries through to extreme development. This technique connects with the Ijaw preference for the riddle when matters are too intimate to be spoken of directly. There is the almost Shakespearean invective: “You lame thing, you crawling piece/ Of withered flesh.” Clark-Bekederemo also employs the profoundest declamatory poetry. “You may well cry. But this is nothing/ To beat your breast. It was how/ We all began and will end.” Here is something rare on the contemporary stage—a modern tragedy, a form that Western playwrights have only rarely achieved in the twentieth century.

The Masquerade

The Masquerade is closely linked with the earlier play. It is essentially similar in mood and structure. One of the chief characters derives from Song of a Goat. It is now determined that Ebiere died giving birth to Tonye’s son, Tufa. The earlier play spoke of her surviving a miscarriage. That minor point indicates that the two plays were not conceived originally as part of a single cycle. Tufa grows up and travels from his home, hoping like Oedipus to escape from the curse of his illegitimate origin. The play begins with a sense of foreboding. Without knowing the reason (“as far as I know no feasts have been left out,” says one), the villagers see ominous signs: “The tilt [of the moon] is prominent,/ It is never so but there is disaster.”

Into this situation comes Tufa. Titi is the local belle. A neighbor’s description of her almost parodies the famous report of Cleopatra by Enobarbus: “Her head high in that silver tiara so/ Brilliant it was blindness trying to tell/ Its characters.” Tufa immediately falls for her, and at first the affair seems blessed. The couple make love in lyric poetry: “Your flesh under flush/ Of cam flashes many times lovelier than gold/ Or pearls.” Soon, however, gossip informs of the tragic but polluting events of Tufa’s past: “His father/ Usurped the bed of his elder brother, yes,/ Brazenly in his lifetime, and for shame/ Of it hanged himself.” Titi’s father, Diribi, immediately condemns Tufa and forbids the marriage: “Consider the taint.” He fears that the curse Tufa bears will spread among the entire family. If they associate with him, the gods will threaten them, too. The mother is equally dismissive, saying, “the man is no more your husband now happily/ His past and back are in full view.” Tufa is told “leave my daughter alone, . . . and go your curse-laden way.” To her father’s horror, Titi defies him and argues that she will marry Tufa in spite of “this prospect of pollution.” Her father curses Titi, calling her “this witch and bitch/ Who has quite infected her breed.” Tufa, however, is touched by the generosity of her love and recognizes her devotion. Titi “called herself my wife, my bride ready to go with me/ In spite of my shame.” Her father, in spite of his great affection, is more concerned with his consequent family shame and determines to kill her. Though “she tried tears, tried prayers,”...

(The entire section is 3070 words.)