Introduction

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.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

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.

MAJOR WORKS

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.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

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.