In this article, we introduce you to a Nigerian play with a familiar background. You should get a copy of the play, read it before studying this unit. At the end of this unit, you should be able to compare and contrast King Oedipus and Zifa as tragic heroes.
Summary of Play
In the play, Zifa, the major character in the play is sexually impotent. In addition to that, he bears the burden of a family curse. His aunt, Orukorere, has the gift of prophecy and foretells the tragic consequences of Zifa’s burden of impotence and the family curse. Zifa’s wife, Ebiere, goes to the Masseur for help and he tells her that an empty house (her womb) is dangerous because if men will not use it, bats or grass will.
The encounter with the Masseur establishes Zifa’s impotence by indirection. This perhaps, leads her to take a lover. Ebiere, takes as her lover Zifa’s younger brother, Tonye. She becomes pregnant. Unfortunately, Zifa discovers her infidelity. In a proud rage, he ritually slaughters a goat and asks Tonye to put the head of the goat into a pot that is too small for it. When the pot breaks, the symbolism of Tonye’s adultery is complete which indicts his brother and his wife and their illicit relationship.
Tonye could not bear the shame and the consequences of his action so he hangs himself instead of waiting for Zifa to kill him. Ebiere collapses. Zifa walks down to the sea, apparently to drown himself. The play does not state specifically what happens to Ebiere, Dode and Orukorere. Ebiere suffers a miscarriage. The important issue is that the people of Deinogbo survive the loss. The catharsis in the play is highlighted. The people learn to bear their lives, maybe more stoically after the example of the fall of Zifa’s household as a messenger describes his suicidal walk into the sea.
The reason for most marriages in all the countries of the world is for child-bearing. Children are therefore of a great importance in marriage. A family is not considered complete without a child. This is more so in African societies where a marriage is basically for bearing children and bringing them up. In Deinogbo, where the play is set, impotence has great social significance because children are major proofs of a man’s substance, wealth, and prestige. Economically, children form part of the labour force in the family. So, the increase in potential labour carries with it social rewards.
Children help to ensure the survival of the family and its perpetuation from one generation to another. They also promise the ancestors future sacrifice and thus enhance the spiritual life of the community. It means, therefore, that failure to have children robs the living and the dead of their increase and honour.
In this community, children are so necessary that the impotent man will usually find a surrogate to father his children, since the children of his wives are part of his own household. He can choose a trusted friend or a brother.
However, in the case of a younger brother, a ceremonial propitiation is required of them because it might be unacceptable to the ancestors. Among other things needed for this ceremony is the blood of a goat. It is believed that male impotence upsets the social order and lies outside the presumed natural order. Zifa refuses to accept the reality and seeks solution to his problem and this contributes to the catastrophe that ends the play.
Infertility, like impotence is seen as an anathema. Infertile wives are treated with contempt. They are usually not happy. This explains why Ebiere has” grown very queer of late”. She seeks a solution to end her supposed infertility. In desperation to prove herself she has an affair with her brother-in-law without the recommended ceremonial appeasement of the ancestors.
Zifa inherits a family curse but the playwright is vague about its antecedents. The curse affected Orukorere and Zifa’s father. The former became the bride of the sea while the latter dies of leprosy and apparently, Zifa buried him instead of depositing the corpse in the evil grove. Thus, he commits a crime against the gods and the land. The gods do not forgive without compensation and Zifa is not willing to carry out the propitiation ceremony that involves a goat. It appears, therefore, that the curse is the cause of Zifa’s impotence.
The play is set in Deinogbo, an Ijaw town in the Niger-Delta area of Nigeria. It is a town located by the sea-side in the colonial period.
The language of the play is poetic. However, Clark has been able to capture the nuances of the Ijaw language. The dramatic dialogue is constant in its allusion to the circumstances of mode of life in the delta communities of southern Nigeria.
He uses proverbs and riddles freely in the play. The riddle is a verbal entertainment in Ijawland. Clark has been able to use riddle not for mere entertainment but as a vehicle of communication of ideas that are too sensitive for direct speech. The images used in both the riddles and other aspects of the dialogue are drawn from the playwright’s background – the Ijaw world. The effectiveness of the device derives from the fact that the playwright is consistent in his use of imagery. A very good example is the imagery of ‘house’ used for Ebiere’s womb and love-making.
MASSEUR: An empty house my daughter is a thing/of danger…
EBIERE: It is not my fault. I keep my house/Open by night and day! But my lord will not come in …why? Who bars him?… My house has its door open I said … Masseur …
MASSEUR: Has he a house elsewhere?
The neighbours are used as chorus. They make comments on the events of the play and make some philosophical statements about life and living.
Zifa is the tragic hero of the play. He conforms to the standard of the classical tragic hero. He is a notable man in the community. He has a tragic flaw, pride, which causes him to commit an error of judgment that leads to catastrophe.
He is impotent and also bears a family curse. He arrogantly refuses to acknowledge his impotence. Consequently, he refuses to carry out the ritual that will help to solve his problem. He rejects the Masseur’s suggestion that he allows another man to assume the role of husband to Ebiere.
In his pride, he defies the tradition in respect of his father’s second burial and on the ceremony of the goat. In this process, he insults the gods. Zifa has for years neglected the gods. Orukorere has been urging him to perform the propitiation ritual, but he does not pay any attention to her. However, as soon as he discovers that Tonye impregnated Ebiere, he performs the sacrifice. Unfortunately, it is not done in a proper manner despite the warnings from Orukorere.
He performs the sacrifice without ritual cleansing. He slaughters the goat, splashes the blood and insists that it should cleanse the compound immediately. He is rash in taking decisions. He resolves to kill his brother as soon as he discovers that he was having an affair with his wife. However, he does not carry out this threat because Tonye courageously hangs himself instead of waiting for his brother to kill him.
Ebiere is a beautiful woman. She is a dutiful wife and loving mother. She is considered infertile so she goes to find out. The Masseur assures her of her good state of health and suggests an affair between her and another man. She accepts the suggestion and becomes pregnant for her brother-in-law. Unfortunately, her husband discovers and threatens to kill his brother. She faints at the end of the play.
Orukorere is Zifa’s aunt. She has the gift of prophecy but she fluctuates between madness and sanity. She is said to be chosen by the sea-god, so would not get married. Her words are, in most cases, philosophical. Her role, apart from being Zifa’s aunt is confusing. Dode calls her mother and calls Ebiere by her given name. It is not clear, therefore, if Dode is really (biologically) her son.
Masseur is a very important character in the play. He plays the role of choral leader. However, in this play, he also plays his role as a healer. Women who fail to bear children consult him. He massages the women to correct any default in their reproductive organs. His successes or failures are manifested by whether a massaged woman gets pregnant or not. He also acts as a confidant. He knows the secrets of many members of the community but does not divulge them.
J.P Clark is one of Nigeria’s foremost playwrights. In Song of a Goat he constructs a classical tragic play. He presents characters that are life-like who operate naturally in their traditional environment. He captures the Ijaw speech pattern perfectly and still presents them in correct English language. The play is accessible and contemporary.
Clark presents in this play the story of a man who is so obsessed by pride that he destroys himself and his entire household. From this you have learnt to heed positive and progressive advice.