The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo’s first drama, Song of a Goat, is a one-act play with four scenes. The play contains a ritual sacrifice of a goat at its climax, which echoes the early Old Testament as well as classical Greek dramas in that it shares with them a blood ritualism. The play is akin to a classical tragedy; its language is often in parable and riddle form and its characters, although common people, are depicted with dignity.

The setting is Delta Province, Nigeria, in a small village where the hero, Zifa, a man of property, is cursed by impotence, a familiar African dramatic theme. The first “movement” introduces the masseur, who is questioning Zifa’s wife, Ebiere, about her barren state. The masseur asks if Zifa has a mistress. When Ebiere says he does not, the masseur realizes Zifa’s sexual deficiency and suggests that Ebiere have a child by Zifa’s younger brother, Tonyá, an act that traditionally has been acceptable to Nigerian people. Ebiere cannot accept this advice, however, and Zifa is even more strongly opposed. He intends to wait and see if his condition will improve. Zifa’s aunt, Orukorere, prophesies tragic consequences were the masseur’s advice to be followed.

Eventually Tonyá does seduce the frustrated Ebiere; Orukorere’s warning goes as unheeded as did the classical Cassandra’s. Zifa discovers the infidelity and, in a rage, ritually slaughters a goat, forcing Tonyá to put the goat’s head into a pot that is too small for it—symbolizing his illicit act with Ebiere. The furious Zifa thinks of killing Tonyá, but Tonyá, in shame, hangs himself. Soon after, a neighbor (messenger) tells of Zifa’s sleeplike walk to the sea to drown himself in atonement for his own shame. It is also said that Ebiere miscarried. In an alternative closing of the play, the masseur returns to act as the choral leader (as would happen in classical tragedy); his final words provide an epitaph on the disaster.

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Clark-Bekederemo’s drama is built upon the tenets of classical drama. Aside from Zifa’s curse of impotence, the play describes the curse on Zifa’s family, but the scope of the play limits the cause of the curse. Zifa’s aunt, Orukorere, who is half-possessed, reinforces the family curse. A neighbor tells the audience that Orukorere’s father knowingly killed clansmen, a terrible sin, and he was indifferent to the fate of his daughter, who has remained unmarried. The sacrifice of the goat, usually a cleansing, is, in this drama, a defiling of classical sacrifice. Zifa has insulted the gods with his ceremony, which he uses to parody the illicit relationship between Ebiere and Tonyá.

The chief linguistic device used by Clark-Bekederemo is his use of metaphor and riddle; the language is vigorous but elevated diction. The masseur speaks of infertility in metaphorical terms: “An empty house, my daughter, is a thing of danger. If men will not live in it, bats or grass will, and that is enough signal for worse things to come.” The masseur introduces the subject of Zifa’s impotence with a riddle: “you have allowed the piece of fertile ground made over to you to run fallow with elephant grass.”

During the four movements of the drama, the plot reveals the theme of impotence, followed by prophecy, which is highlighted by the sacrifice of the goat, Tonyá’s suicide and Zifa’s final act of atonement. Throughout, the neighbors in the village act as chorus. The role of the masseur is a central one. He, as the most important person in the community, acts as the sage. His appearance in the alternate closing attests his paramount importance as a symbol of strength. The people of the village will survive the losses and learn to endure. They are more self-reliant than they were at the outset of the play; they have witnessed the fall of Zifa’s household stoically.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Astrachan, Anthony. “Like Goats to the Slaughter: Three Plays by John Pepper Clark.”Black Orpheus 16 (October, 1964): 21-24.

Banham, Martin. A Critical View of John Pepper Clark’s Three Plays. London: Collins, 1985.

Cartey, Wilfred. Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa. New York: Random House, 1969.

Ferguson, John. “Nigerian Drama in English.” Modern Drama 11 (May, 1969): 10-26.

Graham-White, Anthony. “John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

O’Malley, Patrick. “J. P. Clark and The Example of Shakespeare.” Odi 3, no. 1 (1978): 4-14.

Wren, Robert M. J. P. Clark. Boston: Twayne, 1984.