John Pepper Clark Author Commentary - Essay

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

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...

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