John Pepper Clark Essay - Critical Essays

Clark, John Pepper


John Pepper Clark 1935-

Born Johnson Pepper Clark Bekederemo.

Clark is one of Nigeria's foremost anglophone dramatists and poets. In his plays he unites Western literary techniques with themes, images, and speech patterns drawn from traditional African theater. He also incorporates elements of the myths, religion, and folklore of his people, the Ijaw, and utilizes masks, drum rhythms, and dance. By integrating aspects of both African and Western cultures in his plays, Clark comments on the effects of English colonization on Ijaw society and the consequences of eroding cultural traditions.


Clark was raised in a fishing village located in the Delta region of Eastern Nigeria. The son of an Ijaw tribal leader, Clark was among a minority of children to attend elementary school, and as a young boy he decided to become a writer. He later attended the Government College in Ughelli and later earned a bachelor's degree in English at University College Ibadan, a branch of the University of London. While in school, Clark and a group of fellow students founded the Horn, a publication for which Clark served as editor and where he began to publish his poetry. In 1960 Clark wrote his first dramatic work, Song of a Goat, which was staged in Ibadan the following year. After graduation, Clark worked as a journalist, editor, and feature writer in Lagos for Express newspapers. His success as a journalist resulted in his being awarded a fellowship to study at Princeton University in the United States. Clark did not complete the program but returned to Nigeria, whereupon he accepted a position teaching English at the University of Lagos. In 1964 he published America, Their America, which chronicles his experiences and impressions of American society. Clark served as the Department Head of English at the University of Lagos until his retirement in 1980. He is currently the director of the PEC Repertory Theatre in Lagos.


Clark's first four plays are verse dramas, and they demonstrate the influence of William Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot, as well as Ijaw folk literature. Song of a Goat has often been compared to both classical Greek drama and Shakespearean tragedy. Set among the Ijaw, the play tells the story of a fisherman whose impotence leads his frustrated wife to consult a masseur. The masseur advises the wife to conceive a child with her husband's brother. After the affair has been consummated, both the husband and his brother commit suicide. The Masquerade continues the story, focusing on Tufa, the child born of the taboo union in Song of a Goat. Grown to manhood, he becomes engaged to a beautiful, strong-willed woman. When the circumstances of Tufa's birth become known to the family of his betrothed, her father forbids the marriage, but she refuses to abide by his decision. In a violent conclusion, all die. Song of a Goat and The Masquerade share a relentless aura of gloom; and in both neighbors function as a chorus, commenting on the tragic happenings.

Clark's third play, The Raft, traces the misadventures of four men on a raft who attempt to bring logs downstream to be sold. Unlike me plots of his first two dramas, which focus on Nigerian folklore and sexual mores, The Raft has often been interpreted as a critique of economic determinism or as an allegory of the political situation in Nigeria. Clark's first full-length play, Ozidi, was adapted from an Ijaw saga in which two feuding families seek revenge upon each other. The saga traditionally uses mime, music, and dance in its performance, and Clark retains some of these elements in his version. After Ozidi Clark did not write for the theater for more than ten years; but in 1981 he produced The Boat at the University of Lagos and in 1985 staged both The Return Home and Full Circle. These three short plays were performed together as a trilogy in 1985 and subsequently published as The Bikoroa Plays.


Clark's dramatic works have generally garnered mixed reviews. While often admired for their rich poetic imagery, Clark's plays have also been criticized for employing clichéd situations and florid rhetoric. As Margaret Laurence has contended, the language in Song of a Goat is "effective when it is simplest and most unadorned, but [Clark] frequently gives way to the urge to be grandiose." Some commentators have regarded the construction of his plays as faulty, judging the perceived flaws to be the result of Clark's lack of experience as a dramatist. Critics have continually debated the extent to which Clark patterns his dramatic works upon Greek tragedy, in which the characters are controlled by external forces beyond their control. While some stress the influence of Western classical models, others argue Clark's plays owe more to the folklore, imagery, and customs of the Ijaw people, which have furnished the playwright powerful symbolic representations of the human condition.

Principal Works


Song of a Goat 1961

The Masquerade 1964

The Raft 1964

Ozidi 1966

*TheBoat 1981

The Wives'Revolt 1984

*The Return Home 1985

*Full Circle 1985


Poems (poetry) 1961

America, Their America (autobiography) 1964

A Reed in the Tide (poetry) 1965

Casualties: Poems, 1966-68 (poetry) 1970

The Example of Shakespeare: Critical Essays on African Literature (essays) 1970

The Ozidi Saga [with Okabou Ojobolo] (translation) 1977

A Decade of Tongues: Selected Poems, 1958-1968 (poetry) 1981

State of the Union (poetry) 1985

Mandela and Other Poems (poetry) 1988

Collected Plays and Poems, 1958-1988 (drama and poetry) 1991

*These three plays were published together in 1985 as The Bikoroa Plays.

Author Commentary

Interview with Clark (1970)

SOURCE: Palaver: Interviews with Five African Writers in Texas, edited by Bernth Lindfors and others, The University of Texas at Austin, 1972, pp. 15-22.

[In the following interview, conducted by faculty and students at the University of Texas at Austin in 1970, Clark responds to questions regarding the political themes in several of his plays and offers his thoughts on the role and responsibilities of the writer.]

[Students and faculty at the University of Texas]: You have written all your plays in English, a non-African language. Did you write Ozidi, a play based on indigenous theatrical traditions, with an African or non-African audience in mind?

[John Pepper Clark]: In a new nation like Nigeria which cuts across several groups of people, or rather which brings together several peoples speaking different languages, you've got to have a lingua franca, and this is the role that English is playing in the absence of one widely-spoken Nigerian language.

So a play like Ozidi has several audiences and communicates at several different levels. It is true that my father and mother would not be able to follow the dialogue in the play because it is written in English. But at the same time, my brothers and sisters, who are part of the growing English-speaking community in Nigeria, can understand what I have written. I can communicate with them at two levels—one, at the level of the cultural heritage which they share with me and with my parents, and the other at the new linguistic level and overall culture uniting all the different peoples of Nigeria. And of course we also have a third audience, which is you people outside. So there are different audiences one has in mind, and one hopes to reach as many people as possible.

I will not pretend for one moment that I enjoy the same kind of local audience which, say, Hubert Ogunde enjoys in and outside Western Nigeria. This dramatist and his numerous imitators in what we may call the Yoruba dramatic movement write in Yoruba, act with Yoruba companies, and play mostly to Yoruba-speaking audiences. When their plays are running in Lagos, Ibadan or Ife, the audience, players, and playwright are of one community. This kind of instant union which they achieve with their public is not available to one who writes in English. I belong to the new community of Nigerians who have undergone a new system of education and therefore share a new kind of culture, a synthetic one which exists alongside the traditional one to which fortunately I also belong. Since the function of a play—like the function of any other work of art—is a social one, I write in order to speak to my own kind of people.

How much were you influenced by Greek tragedies in writing Song of a Goat?

It's quite possible that Sophocles or Euripides are in that play. It's quite possible that the Elizabethans are there too. But this business of looking for sources can be misleading. I remember that one of the first persons who saw the play in manuscript said, "Oh, J.P., you've been reading Lorca." I said, "Who is he?" So he lent me his volume of Lorca's tragedies, and there I read for the first time Yerma, The House of Bernarda Alba, and Blood Wedding, but, you see, by that time I had already written my play. What I am trying to say is that the influences may be there, but there are coincidences, too, because we are all human beings with the same basic emotions and experiences.

There are some differences, some regional variations, of course. The Ijo man who comes to this play will probably recognize things the Greeks never dreamt of. The idea of sacrifice is a universal one, but the theme of impotence is something that doesn't have the same kind of cultural significance for you as it has for me. The business of reproduction, of fertility, is a life and death matter in my home area. If a man doesn't bear, he has not lived. And when he is dead, nobody will think of him. Whereas here, you have other interests and preoccupations which have made you less concerned with the issue of procreation, and the sense of survival after death that we derive from it. Of course there are several aspects to any work, and certain of the ideas in Song of a Goat may have come from places other than the Niger Delta. I suppose one is doing a sort of synthesis, marrying lots of things one knows in the course of producing. But it takes the courage of an old John Bull like Gerald Moore, alias Mr. I-know-my-Africa, to pontificate that in Ijo the sins of the father are not visited upon his children, sometimes to the last generation, by a particular god invoked to determine a dispute between two parties. Naturally, it's the guilty ones who get the punishment but so do the innocent if they fail to acknowledge the decision and sentence awarded.

Are any of the Shakespearean echoes in The Masquerade deliberate?

Yes. I would say that the Bard was very much in my mind in The Masquerade. When I made one of the neighbors cry in admiration that the bride, a shrew of a girl, "walked afloat, doing the last of her pageants," I wasn't unmindful of Enobarbus eulogizing Cleopatra, or of T. S. Eliot's parody of her in "The Waste Land." There are times when you are well aware you're doing a doubletake, and it doesn't take a very clever critic to detect that.

Does your play The Raft contain a political message?

I was at Princeton in 1962-63 when I wrote The Raft soon after seeing Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is a play which has been seen by some critics as being an allegory of the Nigerian situation—one of the four old regions breaking away, seceding, when the raft breaks up. I tell them that I wrote it in 1963, and don't remember trying to write a political thesis. But then they insist that the seeds were already there by 1963, that there were signs and symptoms of distress that were to lead to the threatened break-up of the nation. So maybe subconsciously I was thinking about all this. But essentially I was trying to create a human condition which I knew existed not only in Nigeria but elsewhere. The play may, however, have at the same time some remote or close connection with the political reality in Nigeria at one time, though basically it's an invention, a work of my imagination.

Why has the philosophy of negritude had little impact on English-speaking African authors?

I don't consider negritude a philosophy as such but a natural reaction, a movement which was necessary at one time for a number of Africans who were living abroad in Paris and found themselves too assimilated, found themselves too submerged in French civilization for their own comfort. Negritude was a cry that they wanted to surface and be themselves. They didn't want to be drowned by European culture; they wanted to swim in their own stream, as it were. A good number of us in English-speaking Africa didn't find it necessary to shout our identity because we were not culturally submerged by the British in the same manner as was Senghor or the West Indian Aimé Césaire. This is not to say we've all stayed outside the broad current and sweep of negritude, our protests and criticisms notwith-standing. What is more important, perhaps, is that we who employ English in our works have tended to operate more as individuals than as parts of any movement such as Senghor and his French African contemporaries have had to do.

Senghor has claimed that intuition and emotion are innate qualities of the African. What do you think of this?

To say mat some group of people have all heart and no head is, I think, one of those things you say to make a special point. I'm sure that Senghor is a very intelligent man, and knows fully well that Africans are not all music, all soul, and no brains, no technology. Science is acquired, after all, it's not genetic. You acquire it over a period of time. I think he felt music and dance and art were the things we had to offer Europe at that time. He was a good salesman, but he said those things then to counteract certain prevailing forces. It's like that in any war—you overstate most of the time to survive. Everything on this side is virtue, everything on the other, vice. Otherwise you wouldn't be able to kick the other man really hard to win.

Do you think...

(The entire section is 3524 words.)

Overviews And General Studies

T. O. McLoughlin (essay date March 1975)

SOURCE: "The Plays of John Pepper Clark," in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 18, No. 1, March, 1975, pp. 31-40.

[In the following essay, McLaughlin examines the role of the hero in Song of a Goat, The Masquerade, The Raft, and Ozidi and compares and contrasts these plays with Greek myth and Shakespearean drama.]

John Pepper Clark's early plays show the influence of established European literary forms, yet Nigerian myths and cultural attitudes have so asserted themselves in his most recent play, Ozidi, that his artistic manner has changed considerably. His fascination for the...

(The entire section is 5320 words.)

Song Of A Goat

Wole Soyinka (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Drama and the African World-View," in Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature, edited by Rowland Smith, Longman Group Ltd, 1976, pp. 173-89.

[Soyinka is a Nigerian novelist and dramatist, and he was the recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature. In the following excerpt, he discusses Song of a Goat within the context of the "matrical consciousness of the African world "]

Song of a Goat, a play by J. P. Clark, has the advantage … of fitting into the neat category of tragedy in the European definition of this genre. It was first performed in Europe at me...

(The entire section is 4595 words.)

The Masquerade

William Connor (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Diribi's Incest: The Key to J. P. Clark's The Masquerade, " in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 18, No. 2, November, 1979, pp. 278-86.

[In the following essay, Connor contends that critics of The Masquerade have misunderstood the play and have neglected the complexity and subtlety of the plot, whose predominant theme is one of incest.]

John Pepper Clark's second play, The Masquerade, has not been a favourite of the critics; I believe they do Clark and his play a great injustice.

The basic plot of The Masquerade is deceptively simple:...

(The entire section is 3373 words.)

The Raft

R. N. Egudu (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "J. P. Clark's The Raft: The Tragedy of Economic Impotence," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 15, No. 2, November, 1976, pp. 297-304.

[In the essay below, Egudu characterizes The Raft as "an outright indictment on economic cannibalism and a sincere plea for the observance of the Marxist principle of an equitable distribution of the basic means of human existence and survival. "]

The Raft is a tragedy of a group of four economically weak lumbermen who have undertaken a journey by a raft on a river. Their journey is not without cause. The purpose of the journey is to...

(The entire section is 3299 words.)


Margaret Laurence (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Rituals of Destiny: John Pepper Clark," in Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, Macmillan, London, 1968, pp. 77-96.

[In the following excerpt, Laurence provides an overview of Ozidi, with special emphasis on Clark's use of traditional material and the play's relationship to his earlier works, particularly Song of a Goat.]

Ozidi is based upon an Ijaw epic, one of the masquerade serial plays which were told in seven days, accompanied by dance, music and mime. Clark made tape-recordings of this masquerade series and also filmed it. He later did a...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)

Further Reading


Pieterse, Cosmo, and Duerden, Dennis, eds. "J. P. Clark." In African Writers Talking, pp. 63-74. New York: Africana Publishing, 1972.

Compilation of three interviews. In the first interview, dated September 1962, with Lewis Nkosi, Clark discusses cultural influences on his dramatic and poetic works. In the following two interviews with Andrew Salkey, dated January and September 1964, Clark chronicles his reasons for writing in English and describes his role as a poet, playwright, and journalist.


Adejumo, Z. A. "Language in the Plays of J. P. Clark." In Nigeria Magazine,...

(The entire section is 426 words.)