John Pepper Clark

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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 Ijaw saga of Ozidi has an odd sense of culmination for a writer who has spent his dramatic career turning back to his cultural roots: odd because he has integrated his formal educational influences with his more local traditional influences at a comparatively early age, Ozidi having been published when he was only 31.

The interesting point about John Pepper Clark is that his awareness of what he calls "traditional" and "native" influences has come to dominate what he has learned from western literature. He is conscious of the two cultures in tension. On the one hand he gives convincing proof that the springs of drama in Nigeria are [as he states in The Example of Shakespeare (1970)] "in the early religious and magical ceremonies and festivals of the peoples of this country". Nigeria's drama, in other words, did not start at the University of Ibadan. Yet without that institution the flowering might have been a lot slower, and Clark acknowledges that the imported skills learned at that kind of institution have helped to generate the new writers. "The new playwright in Africa", he says, "though employing a European idiom and technique, plies a traditional art form."

His own progress from Warri to schools in Okrika and Jeremi, to Warri Government College and to the University of Ibadan to read English Honours is a typical enough cursus through local and more sophisticated education. Until he went to Ibadan he grew up in the midst of local Warri influences. He comes, as he puts it [in A Reed in the Tide (1965)], from "ancient multiple stock in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria from which I have never quite felt myself severed". The repeated locale of his plays, the river delta area, confirms this sense of rootedness in the sensuous, social, cultural and mythological character of a particular place. Most of his characters take their livelihood from the river and the sea. In his work the tides, the creeks, the ships, ports, fog have a teasing fascination: sometimes they are symbolic of loneliness, chaos and death, but always they are firm images of a particular people and their way of life.

The sea itself is referred to as a metaphoric presence early in The Masquerade and at the end of The Raft. Clark's poem addressed to Olokun, goddess of the sea, concludes with mis obeisance:

So drunken, like ancient walls
We crumble in heaps at your feet;
And as the good maid of the sea,
Full of rich bounties for men,
You lift us all beggars to your breast.

The strongly felt emotional flux from ruin to hope, and the ritual action of falling down and being raised up captures the movement of the sea, with the control and subtlety of an artist working with immediate and felt experiences. It typifies the relation of Clark to his local surrounds.

It is not surprising then that his main themes in the first two plays, Song of...

(This entire section contains 5320 words.)

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a Goat (1962) and The Masquerade (1964), have local pertinence: fertility, respectable family lineage, a husband thwarted by forces outside his control, families feuding. These themes are worked out within the ambience of the Masseur, a crippled itinerant who is doctor and oracle, and Orukorere, a half-possessed aunt. The language is laced with an animalistic imagery of goats, leopards, hens, cocks, lizards, snakes, all of which evoke a local rather than a Beckett-like universal setting.

But Clark's protagonists do struggle with broader situations than their context might suggest. They are caught in the frustrations of failure. In the opening scenes of Song of a Goat in which Zifa's wife consults the Masseur because she is now barren, her language has the suppressed, controlled despair of a wife who wants to remain loyal to her husband yet realizes mat he is impotent, mat "there isn't just a pith to the stout staff. Zifa knows she is anxious and hopes against hope that he will not be permanently impotent, declaring "the thing / May come back any day, who knows? The rains / Come when they will." But the natural imagery of water, fertility, seasons, all part of what Clark calls the language of "indirection", works against Zifa's hopes. His own and his wife's conversation with the Masseur is courteous, sensitive, respectful of intimate feelings of shame and pride; but the accumulation of images of fecundity—bringing forth fruit, raising green thatch, tilling the fertile soil—stands in contradistinction to imagery of death, as in the comment "they have picked my flesh / To the bones like fish a floating corpse". This latter imagery makes it clear that because Zifa is impotent he will wither and die. In an imagistic context of fertility he is doomed to a passionate but fruitless isolation. Clark says of Zifa that he is

an Ijaw fisherman who loses the will to live when he loses potency and all hope of further procreation. His surely is a tragic passion as the Greeks knew it, and as only primitive people today, like Garcia Lorca's and mine, may know it.

[The Example of Shakespeare]

It is helpful to recognize constructional and thematic ties between these first two plays and Greek tragedy, but to dwell on mem any more than Clark does is an injustice to what the plays offer. Song of a Goat is not a Greek tragedy that fails to come off. Certain aspects of Greek drama which critics have overlooked give the play a universal pathos; but because these aspects are in the service of plays as patently rooted in the particular traditions and mores of Nigeria as Greek tragedy was in those of Greece they should not be considered as imitated but as adapted.

Clark suggests that there is a similar handling of tragic passion in his and in the Greek plays. This passion is fanned by the older women, particularly Orukorere in Song of a Goat and Oreame in Ozidi. Worn by time and experience their words have a prophetic sadness. Thus, when Zifa's wife Ebiere dies, his aunt Orukorere wearily foresees the death of the whole family:

There, another blow
Has been dealt the tree of our house, and see
How the sap pours out to spread our death. I
Believe it, now I believe it. White ants
Have passed their dung on our roof-top.
Like a tree rotten in the rain, it
Topples. What totem is there left now
For the tribe to hold on to for support?
                                     [Song of a Goat]

The images of collapse are permeated with a sense of inevitability: the life has already gone out of the wood, and this in spite of Ebiere's good intentions and the Masseur's kindly advice. Good motives in a complex situation have brought nothing but disaster. Likewise in The Masquerade the father, Diribi, has traditional honour on his side to justify his anger. He is "lashed by forces fit / To confound forests" because his daughter wants to marry a bastard, a "cur without pedigree", and he cries out:

Must I kill her, too, this witch and bitch
Who has quite infected her breed and
Now makes corruption of all that is
                                  [The Masquerade]

The passion is justified, but its consequences are pitiable'. In both plays the parent generation finds itself inextricably involved in turbulent emotions which their children have brought upon them.

The protagonists are not, however, akin to traditional Greek tragic heroes: they are not "wanton boys" struggling against the gods. The imagery, a factor which Clark repeatedly stresses in his criticism, never suggests those proportions. Zifa, Tufa and Kengide have nothing of the stature of Ozidi, but are more like anti-heroes, playing out their difficulties in a limited metaphoric arena. They suffer or survive, not according to fate, but as a result of their own resources to resist the pressures that isolate them from their society. Death is the defeat of self. It does not purge. If we regard The Raft as a development of Clark's concern in the previous plays with the dramatic function of death, we see that he is working at something other than a Greek tragic model.

The problems he tackles in the first two plays—fertility, family lineage, infidelity—are played out in a context similar to that in Greek tragedy and among people with similar attitudes to the family; but Clark's explorations are not into heroism or avenging fate. At the end of the two plays less attractive features of his society stick in the mind. The legend surrounding Tufa in The Masquerade, the bogus suitor from another village come to entice away a local belle, gives no room for heroism or even sympathy for Tufa, for he and Titi are presented as victims of social traditions embodied in the fiery prejudices of Titi's father Diribi. The latter is a Brabantio figure whose daughter has been "corrupted / By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks" [from Shakespeare's Othello]. Like Brabantio, Diribi is covetous of his daughter, which would be no fault if he were not also so pretentiously moralistic and intolerant of youthful romance. Moreover, local convention, the priests, and legend are against Titi. The priests contemptuously relate her death: "Now she lies squashed / Like a lizard in the sand." Yet, as the priests acknowledge, she had "the dream of all girls" in wanting to love and be loved. Social pressures had militated against her in the mind of her father, as they had done against Zifa in the mind of Ebiere. In The Masquerade Diribi feels his family lineage has been insulted. No less does Tufa feel that his rights as a husband to Titi have been violated. From that tension between a husband's rights and a society's traditions comes the pathos, for neither wins in any meaningful sense, and there is no victorious passion or feeling of vindication. Neither the survivors nor the dead have won anything.

We have to wait for The Raft to see what positive values Clark means to assert. Here the same sense of unmitigated waste is countered by something more positive. Again, people die, victims of their own failings. Unlike Orestes or Agamemnon or Macbeth or Hamlet the main characters hold no prominent position in society; nor do the survivors. All are local Ijaw, unknown and unsung even within their own community, men doing a job of work. Of them, two prove foolish, two wise, and whereas wisdom in the previous plays was not an issue, in The Raft it is in the limited sense that survival is affirmed to be better than death.

The point is made in The Raft by Kengide, an old lumberman. At times he is cynical, testy, cantankerous, but always a realist. Moreover, he is no passive sufferer like old Orukorere. He repeatedly sees the journey on the raft as symbolic of his people's aimlessness; and in his affirmation, "Truly / We are a castaway people", he states more positively what was latent in the earlier plays.

But Kengide is not a romantic either, and herein lies Clark's second positive assertion. He is the first to say that the raft is caught in "the great Osikoboro whirlpool", admitting the truth so frightening to the others. Only by facing reality does he keep sane. The immediate details and pressures of being adrift are a challenge to reasonableness which each of his companions tries to avoid. Afraid to admit their plight and to allow that there is no escape from fear except in the mind, they try to change their predicament. Olotu and Ogro do get away, but it is to their deaths. Only Kengide accepts the finality of being a castaway, and he alone is able to live with the situation. In knowing danger when he sees it and in recognizing the deceitful hopes of those who run in the face of it, he accepts his limitations and thus retains his judgement.

It is important to see the differences between Kengide and the others because his realistic appraisals, his refusal to put up with the anxieties and romantic illusions of his companions protect him against a tragic death. He watches the loss of Olotu and Ogro with a cynical acceptance. When at the end Ibobo's fears make him frantic to go ashore and he gradually cracks under the strain of admitting that the raft is helplessly adrift, Kengide remains assertive of initiative, sanity and the need for company. Life may be bitter, sordid and corrupt, but the altruism of Ogro and the hopes of Ibobo are dangerous and foolish compared with the assurance of someone else's company in the darkness and uncertainty of not knowing where you are or where you are going.

Kengide is something of a watershed character for Clark. He stands between the sufferers in the first two plays and Ozidi in the latest play. He is a workman exploited by his employers. As a victim he sees the need to scorn heroic gestures of protest: victims need one another if they are to survive. Thus, when at the end Kengide and Ibobo go on down to the sea shouting out at the dark, it is a dismal predicament; but the spirit of Kengide is demonstrative of life for if it were not for Kengide, Ibobo would succumb to death by throwing himself into the river teeming with sharks. In neither of the previous two plays do we find such resistance to death or the forces that control man's future. Zifa in Song of a Goat gives himself to the sea as Ibobo would like to, Tufa in The Masquerade dies asking, "how is it they left me loose / To litter such destruction?" Kengide would never have let him reach so vulnerable a stage. If we see Kengide in these terms, Ozidi is less of a break from Clark's previous writing than it may at first appear.

As Clark tells us in a prefatory note [to Ozidi,], the play is based on an Ijaw saga. Not unexpectedly Kengide [in The Raft] dismissed the Ozidi story as "mere mud", but for Clark the saga provides a framework of epic proportions. The play is almost as long as the first three put together, with a cast of well over fifty. The action is at times reminiscent of the Iliad, the Aeneid, and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Ozidi the father, a warrior-like figure, and his elder but idiot brother Temugedege are rivals for the throne of Orea. The family situation of the earlier plays h?s been broadened on a much wider social and political scale. The division within the family—Ozidi has locked up his brother because he thinks him incapable of the job—is reflected in the public sphere where Ofe, the popular leader, plans to kill Ozidi knowing that he and his group can control Temugedege. Ozidi goes to his death through a sequence of bad omens strongly reminiscent of the Caesar story in Shakespeare. The consequent disorder, the offence to Ozidi's family and the corruption in Orea under the ineffectual Temugedege, must wait for their reform by Ozidi's son who, like many a hero in classical epics, will have to assert himself by his own prowess in single combat. Moreover he is assured of victory by the help of supernatural powers, in particular his grandmother-witch, Oreame. The climax (a four-day fight with Ofe his chief enemy and leader of the murderers of his father), the saving intervention of Oreame and the stakes themselves echo the great contests of Achilles and Hector, of Aeneas and Turnus in classical literature, indeed epic fights in many literatures.

The fight is played out at levels other than the physical and ritual. Just as The Raft succeeds dramatically because of its sustained tensions (those between Kengide's cynical realism and the wilful individualism of his companions, and in the last scene between Ibobo's fear and Kengide's defiance), so in Ozidi there is a similar opposition of sentiment at the thematic level. The play is a celebration of Ozidi the warrior, but there is much within it reminiscent of the depressing end to The Masquerade. For example, Ozidi is never liberated from anxiety. Bad dreams of vengeance haunt him and he seems doomed to live in a perpetual state of fear. Like Macbeth he wants to protect himself against his enemies only to find that he is threatened, as was Macbeth by Fleance, by the next generation, the sister and son of Tebesonoma:

… Take it from me, Ozidi, except you murder them
Twenty years from now, as you did
With your father's assassins, you shall be called to
  account …

The struggle is reinforced by further echoes of epic and tragic literature. Ozidi's son, like Orestes, returns from exile to avenge his father's murder and is thrown into a dramatic situation which he does not fully understand. His own mother, Orea, who nevertheless wants him to renounce his role of public valour, complains:

I have only this one child and I do
All I can to keep him under cover of
My roof. But you always incite him to fly out
Among black-kites.

Yet like Achilles he has an invulnerable protection in battle, and like so many heroes of saga literature he has a sword "not seen before by eyes of man". Thus equipped and sustained, Ozidi the younger is the invincible harbinger of revenge for his family. But when he dies we are not at all assured that the whole cycle will not repeat itself, perhaps in favour of the other side.

It is difficult to see what are the rewards of the struggle for vengeance. An uncomfortable feature of Clark's plays is the lack of a redemptive theme, the want of any adequate consolation for the waste of human life and suffering. There is a Senecan justice in Ozidi's son revenging the murder of his father, but in this Ijaw saga justice does not work on a quid pro quo basis. It does not bring order or hope or peace to the external world. Society remains vulnerable. Suspicion, fear, malevolence and corruption are not reduced by feuds and death. These are not the cost of a better world. Family honour is set right, a point is made, but that is all and only for the moment The society is forever at war with itself.

Furthermore Ozidi learns little from the experience. The supernatural powers of the opposing witches, Oreame and Azema, the spell of the old wizard of the forest and the whole backdrop of magic reduce his final significance. The decisions in his world are made and worked out on a level at which he is powerless. Like Orestes he will have blood for blood; but his grandmother's lust for vengeance, like Clytemnestra's, colours the entire play, and Ozidi is never anything more than an actor in her revenge drama. As the Story-Teller says of the fight between Ozidi and Odogu whose wife Ozidi means to abduct:

… For as the bowels of Ozidi
Boil over in rage from the mortar-and-pestle charm
So the bowels of Odogu. Unknown to either,
The old wizard of the forest Bouakarakarabiri
Or Tebekawene, as some call him after
His habit of walking on his head, has invested
The other with his celebrated master charm,
Thus creating our deadlock.

Not only are Ozidi and his protagonists ignorant of certain forces within their situation, they are powerless to curb or excite them. The element of tragedy does not develop to the horrifying proportions of the Oresteia largely because Ozidi, unlike his father, is never asked to make a fateful decision. Nor does Clark intend him to be concerned with such choices. More important is the climate and significance of magic.

Ozidi's future is foretold, approved and worked out by characters like the Old Woman, the Old Man of the Forest, and the witch Oreame. His reaction to them is never critical or anything but responsive. Only at the end does he cut down Oreame, a mistake it seems, and in so doing reduces himself to a more human level. The relation is a passive one and differs in its dramatic possibilities from that between, say, Macbeth and his witches. The Tempest, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and Dr. Faustus rely on magic for much of their dramatic impact but where this is meant to be taken seriously, as in Faustus's conjuring, the audience's belief in the supernatural is not challenged so much as its critical ability to see the action as a dramatic metaphor of the tensions between intellectual pride and spiritual fear. It is feasible that the principal characters can renounce their involvement in the magic at any time: Faustus [in Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus] has the chance to repent, Prospero [in Shakespeare's The Tempest] is able to say at the end, "I'll break my staff … I'll drown my book." Ozidi, however, is powerless in this respect. As a boy he is taunted by his playmates for not knowing who he is. His mother and grandmother exacerbate his curiosity by not telling him. From first to last he is provoked by and entangled in the unknown. In the scene in which the Old Man of the forest goes through his ritual with Oreame and the boy Ozidi to ensure that "No sword wielded by man may cut through / His skin nor any spear or bullet wound pass / Beyond a bump", Ozidi has no foreknowledge of the ceremony or of what the wizard will do or why. The forces of magic are protective, as are the gods of Aeneas, but never problematical as they are to Faustus.

But the play is no worse because it is not concerned with free will or choice. In The Raft Ogro dies because he chooses a certain course of action and it can be argued that his character is such that his choice is predictable. Nevertheless he does choose and, by contrast, Kengide is too wise to the world to do otherwise than choose to run no risks. Ozidi's role, however, is much more a predetermined one. Past events in the family history, the memory and spirit of his grandmother give him no chance other than to play the role of expiator.

This mechanistic trait and the absence of human choice could be expected to reduce the dramatic tension. Even in the bleaker drama of Samuel Beckett and in certain plays of Athol Fugard there is still the freedom to choose how to cope with despair or nihilism or social and political rejection. But the nature of the Ozidi saga is such that Clark does not dwell on Ozidi's relations to a society or even to a particular person. Ozidi seldom questions or retaliates against the people closest to him. Like many characters in Homer's epics his character does not change or develop as a result of his experience; he simply grows physically stronger and acquires the skills and accoutrements necessary to his role. We may talk of his development only in this very limited sense.

All of this raises the question of the kind of drama we are dealing with in Ozidi. Again one might ask whether it is a tragedy in the Greek mould that fails, or something else. The answer depends on seeing the role of Ozidi the younger in the right light. He is a hero only in the sense of being the warrior who defeats all his enemies. But to say even this is to give him more credit than is his due. Tebesonoma, like most of Ozidi's opponents, realizes that Ozidi has supernatural powers on his side. Having tied up Ozidi, he taunts him:

Call for her, poor suckling boy, call for
Your mother and let's see whether she can hear
And get you out of this.

Tebesonoma has taken on much more than Ozidi, for the powers that protect and guide Ozidi are his real opponents. Rather than trying to see Ozidi as a hero we should recognize that what the plot and characters might lose by simplification, the drama gains by admitting layers of spiritual and miraculous influence. We have to accept Ozidi as a character within this genre together with the peculiarities of the genre.

Do we have then the exciting and frightening world of, say, Tolkien in which all kinds of magic and strange mythologies are admitted, serious in their own terms, but tenuously related to a realistic or historical truth? Or do we have the expression of a local African saga through recognizable literary conventions, serious in itself and a significant comment on life as lived in Nigeria, and possibly on that lived elsewhere?

An audience unfamiliar with Ijaw rituals and mythology can respond only in much the same sort of way as they would to Tolkien but they will still inevitably go on to place the experience of the play into a recognizable relation with the broader body of their own experience and reading. This is certainly possible if, as Auerbach says of the concept of God, one regards the magical element not as a cause but a symptom of Clark's way of comprehending and representing things [see Eric Auerbach's Mimesis (1946)]. In short, Ozidi takes its interest and dramatic impact from a mimesis not of historical but of spiritual experience.

In The Raft the actual and real world provides a dramatic basis for the spiritual: the physical isolation of the four men on the raft and the dangers of the river gradually pale against the spiritual struggle between Ibobo and Kengide, between fear and defiance. In Ozidi metaphors of spiritual struggle exert a central force on the direction of the play. In the dénouement scene (TV. v) where Ozidi kills his deus ex machina, Oréame, and in so doing loses his powers, the dramatic contest is between the two zombie-like witches haggling over their price and their power. Ozidi is not important. He says nothing during the scene, then falls victim to the smallpox. The figures Cold, Headache, Spots, Fever, crowd in on him gloating at his vulnerability and his final sickness is appropriate to his lack of merely personal achievement in the play. Whereas he was a strong and peaceable man on his own, his dramatic context has singled him out to fulfil an almost impersonal role, that of the archetypal avenger of family honour. His grandmother tells the Old Man of the Forest that Ozidi

Must go forth and scatter death among
His father's enemies.

To this the Old Man replies:

It's a good son; for how else can
His father come home from company of the

What emerges is that the play has a strong celebratory and ritual air. The younger Ozidi is the god's favourite. He is chosen for an honourable task, "a son who Oyin Almighty / Herself is sending forth to put to right / This terrible wrong done to his father". He is "a good son" not because he chooses, like Hamlet, to avenge, but because he is chosen.

What pathos there is surrounds his mother, Orea, who insists on a lesser role for him and in doing so is guilty of self-pity. Her final plea, "you cannot / Let this happen to me", breaks into an accusation of Ozidi's failure in familial duty, and her words are full of both love and self-love:

     I am only a poor hen roosting
Here in a hut by a hearth at which only one chicken
Nestles—my one child bigger than a crowd!
A child sees home his parents in the dusk
Of their lives: so should his in his own turn.
No such duties has my boy done.

She is asking for customary familial affection. What she fails to see, and this points up her self-pity and the honourable role her son has been chosen for, is that private affection has to be sublimated into something more public. It is easy to mistake her for a typical bereaved woman of Greek tragedy, but her egoism makes her far less noble, and is implicitly criticized by the celebratory air at the end.

It is important to note that the audience, who may or may not be the people of Warri, are asked to partake in the "festival" of Ozidi. The ritual at the start and end is an explicit movement into and out of an area of "play" coloured by singing, music, procession, and dance. The recognizable world of Nigeria, explicitly referred to by the Story-Teller, has something to celebrate in the saga of Ozidi. And as the play progresses from the scenes of treachery and death in Act One to the promise of a son and his fashioning in Act Two, there is little doubt that the young Ozidi is destined to play a victorious role. When he provokes his enemies' wives (III. iii), he has a confident ritual deliberateness that is amusing rather than frightening because his final victory is assumed. The speeches of Oreame as she prepares Ozidi for his fight with Azezabife are counterpointed by the sounds of an orchestra "beating in the event of the day".

Her prayer at the shrine followed by her ritual light beating of Ozidi with her fan are all part of the atmosphere of the deliberateness of success when Ozidi wins his first victory over Azezabife. A "great spontaneous cheer fills the air and the people pour into the square cheering and beside themselves with excitement".

Just as Kengide in The Raft asserts himself over the unknown by shouting at it, so the Story-Teller and the audience in Ozidi assert that the tragic overtones and possibilities count for nothing in comparison to the heroic example of Ozidi. Heroic is perhaps the wrong word, because Ozidi, unlike Kengide, fights against nothing and risks nothing. He is the elected one. The audience rejoice that his example exists; and they ritualize it.

In the final analysis, the acting out of the various ritual scenes stamps the play with the awesome and joyous character of a ceremonial. It is Clark's first success in what he regards as the most promising area for dramatic writing in Nigeria, "this composite art of the folk theatre", the combination of dance, music, ritual, and poetry [The Example of Shakespeare]. The shift from the first two plays is remarkable but not inconsistent. The lonely role of Ozidi, often facing the same chaos as Ibobo and Kengide on their raft, is finally ameliorated. His cause is noble in the eyes of the audience and the audience share in its celebratory quality. It is no answer for an individual like Zifa to walk away into the sea, or for the audience simply to watch Kengide's stirring defiance of the unknown. Ozidi is a play in which the audience must share. The dramatist foregoes an individualistic interpretation of life for something more public: a dramatic manifestation of the community to itself. Clark acknowledges this when he writes [in The Example of Shakespeare], "the very myths upon which many of these dramas are based, so beautiful in themselves, serve to record the origins and raison d'etre of the institutions and peoples who own mem". It would be intolerable if these were tragic. To respond to the role of Ozidi is to confirm the worth of his ordeal and to make of his example a living and joyous defiance of me spirit of evil.


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Song Of A Goat