The Lion and the Jewel takes place in Ilujinle, a small African village facing rapid change. As the play begins, it is morning, and the audience sees a marketplace, dominated by an immense odan tree. To the left of the stage is part of the village school, within which the students chant the “Arithmetic Times.” Sidi enters the stage; she is a beautiful, slim girl with plaited hair—the true village belle. Balancing a pail on her head and wearing a broad cloth, Sidi attracts the attention of Lakunle, the young schoolteacher, who looks out the school windows to admire her beauty.
Lakunle, dressed in an old-style, threadbare, unironed English suit, scolds Sidi for carrying the pail on her head, telling her that the weight of the pail will hurt her spine and shorten her neck. He wants her to be a “modern” woman. Sidi, however, quickly reminds him of the times he has sworn that her looks do not affect his love for her. There is a comic exchange of charge and countercharge between the two, revealing Lakunle’s uncomfortable attitude about Sidi’s showing parts of her body: “How often must I tell you, Sidi, that a grown-up girl must cover up her. . . . Her shoulders.”
This first scene also introduces Baroka, the Bale (the village chief): Sixty-two years old, wiry, goateed, he is also attracted by Sidi. The Bale, the opposite of Lakunle, is an artful, traditional man who resists the building of roads and railways, trying to keep his society insulated from “progress.” The dialogue between these two men constitutes the crux of the play: the conservative, clear view of life represented by the Bale versus the progressive sloganeering of Lakunle. Beneath this sociopolitical theme is the other struggle—the war for Sidi’s love.
The second scene of the play, “Noon,” introduces Sadiku, for forty-one years the chief wife in the Bale’s harem. Sadiku, acting as ambassador for the “Lion,” the Bale, announces to Sidi that the Bale wants her for his latest wife; it has, after all, been five months since he last took a wife. In a comic exchange, Sidi, Sadiku, and Lakunle argue about whom shall have Sidi. Lakunle, in a rage more pretended than true, denounces the Bale: “What! The greedy dog! Insatiate camel of a foolish, doting race; Is he at his tricks again?”
Sidi reminds him that she can speak for herself, bolstered by her “fame” that has been spread throughout the region by the magazine pictures taken by a photographer. Sadiku, no novice at wooing wives for the Lion, appeals to Sidi by telling her that even the Lion has to die sometime, and Sidi will then have the honor of being the senior wife of a new Bale. Sidi, however, is not easily won. She slyly asks: “Baroka not request my hand. The stranger brought his book of images. Why did the Lion not bestow his gift before my face was lauded to the world?” Lakunle, always ready to insult the Bale, interjects: “I don’t know what the women see in him. His eyes are small and always red with wine.”
Lakunle contrasts his “dew-moistened” face with the Lion’s “leather piece.” Here and throughout the play, Lakunle’s words result in his defeat. Soyinka’s subtle use of linguistic register consistently highlights Lakunle’s role of poorly prepared reformer. Lakunle espouses progress, success, civilization, and fame, but never supports his empty generalities.
The third and final scene, “Night,” opens, much the same as the first scene, in the village center. The contest for Sidi’s love continues with the Lion reminding everyone of his virility and touting his manliness. His attempts are again unsuccessful. In a conversation with Sadiku, the crafty Lion conceives a new ruse: He announces that his manhood is gone. The Bale’s feigned impotence releases Sadiku’s suppressed feelings, and she invites Sidi to celebrate the women’s victory over the dominating male. Unfortunately for Sadiku and Sidi, the old Lion still has life in him.
Sidi cannot resist...
(The entire section is 1,336 words.)