The Trials of Brother Jero
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
The Trials of Brother Jero is a play by Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. It was first produced in the dining hall at Mellanby Hall, University College, Ibadan, Nigeria, in April 1960. Notable productions were staged at the Hampstead Theatre Club in London during June 1966, and at the Mews Theatre, New York City, beginning at the end of October 1967. The play was first published in Nigeria in 1963 and by Oxford University Press in 1964. It is available from the same publisher as one of five plays in Soyinka's Collected Plays 2.
The Trials of Brother Jero is a light satiric comedy that takes aim at religious hypocrisy in the form of a charlatan, or fraud, named Brother Jero, who preaches to his followers on Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria. Jero is a master of manipulation and keeps his followers in a subservient position because he understands what they long for—money, social status, and power—and convinces them that they will soon be able to fulfill these materialistic desires. For their part, they are gullible enough to believe him. The vitality of the rogue Jero makes him a popular figure with audiences, and this rambunctious, humorous play is one of the best-known and most frequently performed of Soyinka's early works.
Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, and essayist Wole Soyinka, whose given name was Akinwande
Oluwole, was born on July 13, 1934, in Isara, Nigeria. Born into the Yoruba tribe, he was the son of Ayo and Eniola Soyinka; his father was a headmaster of a school established by the British. At the time, Nigeria was under British rule.
Soyinka attended the University of Ibadan and continued his education at the University of Leeds, England. He graduated with honors, with a bachelor of arts degree in English in 1957 and then spent over a year as a play reader at the Royal Court Theatre in London. His early plays The Swamp Dwellers, The Lion and the Jewel, and The Invention all received productions in London in 1958 and 1959.
Returning to Nigeria in 1960, just after Nigeria became independent, Soyinka's career as a dramatist flourished. He established a reputation for blending Yoruba influences with Western dramatic styles. He founded theater groups and produced and acted in his own plays. The Trials of Brother Jero was first produced at Ibadan's University College in April 1960, the same year A Dance of the Forests was produced. Soyinka's first novel was The Interpreters (1965).
During the 1960s, in addition to holding various teaching positions at universities in Nigeria, Soyinka was also a political activist, working to combat government corruption and censorship. When a civil war broke out in 1967, Soyinka was arrested and imprisoned for more than two years, spending fifteen months in solitary confinement. Several of his writings were influenced by this period of imprisonment, including the play Madmen and Specialists (1971); a poetry collection, A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972); and a novel, Season of Anomy (1973).
After his release in 1969, Soyinka went into exile for six years, living in Ghana, England, and the United States. His plays Jero's Metamorphoses (1974), The Bacchae of Euripides (1973)—an adaptation of Euripides' work and one of Soyinka's best-known plays—and Death and the King's Horseman (1975) date from this period.
Soyinka returned to Nigeria in 1975 and remained politically active. He spoke out against repression under the military government that ruled Nigeria from 1979 to 1983. During this period, Soyinka was professor of comparative literature and dramatic arts at the University of Ife; he was also a visiting professor at Yale University and the University of Ghana.
In 1984, another of his most popular plays, A Play of Giants, was produced, and in 1986, Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first African writer to receive this award. In 1994, Soyinka was accused of treason by the Nigerian military government, and he once again went into exile, traveling and lecturing in Europe and the United States. He returned to Nigeria in 1998, where a new government was promising to release political prisoners and hold elections. Since his return home, Soyinka has published a collection of essays, The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness (1998), and a memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006).
The Trials of Brother Jero begins with a single spotlight illuminating an otherwise dark stage. In the spotlight is the main character, Brother Jeroboam, who speaks directly to the audience. He identifies himself as a prophet, by which he means preacher. He has been a prophet for a long time, he says. His parents thought he was Page 263 | Top of Articleideally suited to such a role because of his long, thick hair. He enjoys his work, which comes naturally to him. Then he reveals that in recent years, many preachers have taken to the local beach (Bar Beach, Lagos) to preach and attract converts, and there is aggressive competition among them for available space. The Town Council had to go to the beach to settle the disputes and allocate a territory to each preacher. Jeroboam helped a preacher he refers to as his Master gain a large portion of the beach, although he admits he was only doing so because he thought it would work to his own advantage. Jero then goes on to say that there are few worshippers coming to the beach these days. Many people prefer to stay at home and watch television.
He tells the audience that his purpose is to tell them about the events of one particular day in his life, which disturbed him. He also mentions how he was cursed by his Master. He is interrupted by the sudden appearance of his Master, Old Prophet, who reprises his original curse, accusing Jero of having driven him off his piece of land on the beach. Jeroboam, known to his followers as Brother Jero, pays no attention. He tells the audience that the old man was a fool not to realize that he, Jero, was really only out for himself. Old Prophet continues his curse, saying that Jero will be ruined by his appetite for women, and then exits. Jero admits the old man knows that his one weakness is for women, so he has decided to avoid women.
It is early morning in a fishing village. Chume enters on a bicycle, with his wife Amope sitting on the crossbar. The bicycle stops abruptly in front of Jero's house, and Amope is aggrieved at what she considers Chume's inconsiderateness. They squabble, with Amope complaining that the bumpy landing hurt her foot. It is clear that they are not happily married. The squabble continues as Chume unloads the bag containing their lunch. She tells him to make sure he does not spill it. Chume says he has to go because otherwise he will be late for work. Amope responds by chiding him for his lack of ambition.
Jero looks out from his window and sees Amope. He tries to escape from his house without Amope seeing him, but he is not successful. Amope confronts him, saying that he owes her money and that he promised to pay her three months ago. Jero makes an excuse and goes back into the house.
A woman trader passes by on her way to the market. She is selling smoked fish. Amope speaks to her in a surly manner and the two women exchange insults. No sale is made. Amope then catches sight of Jero escaping from his house through the window. She hurls abuse at him and also at the trader, who has now disappeared. A boy walks past her, beating on a drum, and she insults him, too. The scene ends with Amope complaining about Jero, the fish-seller, and the boy, whom she calls a beggar.
A short while later, Jero, at his church on the beach, speaks directly to the audience. He says that he bought a velvet cape from Amope, and he hopes people will start calling him by some impressive name because of it, such as "Velvet-hearted Jeroboam." He wants a name that will appeal to the imaginations of his congregation. He also complains about Amope, cursing her and saying that the cape was not worth what she was asking for it. He confesses that he likes to keep his followers dissatisfied with their lives, so that they will keep coming to him. For example, he refuses to give his assistant, Chume, permission to beat his wife, because he wants Chume to remain feeling helpless.
Jero watches as an attractive girl passes, and then prays that he will be able to resist temptation. Chume enters and prays with him. Jero is surprised that Chume is not at work, and Chume says he is sick. Out of Chume's hearing, Jero reveals his contempt for Chume, and is satisfied that this simple man will never try to become his equal. He is also glad that Chume has found him on the beach this early in the morning, because he likes to pretend that he sleeps on the beach, whereas in fact he sleeps in a bed in his house.
Chume asks permission to beat his wife, just once. Jero refuses and establishes his authority over Chume by reminding him that he predicted he would become Chief Messenger. Now he predicts he will become Chief Clerk. Chume continues to complain vigorously about his wife, while Jero asks God to forgive him. The congregation starts to arrive, and Jero comments about how he has cynically prophesied to two of them that they will advance their political careers. Then he tells Chume once more not to beat his wife. The congregation begins to sing a hymn, dancing and clapping with the rhythm. The Boy Drummer enters, chased by a scantily dressed woman. Page 264 | Top of ArticleThey pass by several times, and Jero goes to intercept the woman, whom he recognizes as his neighbor. This leaves Chume to continue the service, which he is incompetent to do. He repeatedly asks God to forgive one penitent woman, who is having a kind of fit, as the congregation says, "Amen." The woman eventually becomes still, and Chume, encouraged by the support he is getting from the congregation, continues his prayer, asking God to provide them with more money and more status in their work.
The angry woman reappears, this time in possession of the boy's drums, while he follows her. He denies that he was abusing her father by drumming, which is why she is angry with him.
Jero returns. He clothes are torn and his face is bleeding; he has been attacked by the woman. He complains about being tormented by women, and Chume, with his own wife in mind, readily agrees. From something Chume says, Jero realizes that Chume's wife is the woman he owes money to. Hoping to free himself from her request for payment, he authorizes Chume to take her home and beat her. He also informs Chume that the Son of God has given him, Jero, a new title: the Immaculate Jero, Articulate Hero of Christ's Crusade.
It is later that day in front of Jero's house. Amope and Chume are quarreling again, and Chume tells his wife it is time to go home. She replies that she is not moving until she gets her money. Jero enters, hides, and observes them, as Amope taunts Chume about his humble station in life. Chume tells her to shut up, which astonishes Amope, who thinks her husband must have gone mad. Chume tries to force her to come with him, but she resists and bangs on the door of Jero's house, calling for help. Jero ignores her cries. Chume tries to force Amope on to the bicycle while she protests loudly. Neighbors gather to watch the scene. Amope dares her husband to kill her and calls on Jero again, saying that if Jero will curse Chume, she will absolve Jero of his debt. Chume questions his wife, discovering that they are outside Jero's house and that it is the preacher who owes his wife money. He had not suspected this before, but now he realizes why Jero finally agreed to allow Chume to beat Amope. It was for the preacher's own convenience. Angry, he gets on his bicycle and rides off, telling Amope to remain where she is.
It is nightfall at the beach. A man is practicing giving a speech, and Jero observes him. He says the man is an ambitious politician who comes to the beach to rehearse his speeches for Parliament, but he never has the courage to make them. Jero then thinks of Chume, assuming that by now he will have beaten his wife. This means that he will be confident and no longer need Jero, but at least it will have rid Jero of the woman's demands for payment.
Jero then turns his attention back to the politician and decides to recruit him as a follower. At first the man is not interested, but Jero gets his attention by saying that he had a vision in which he saw this man elevated to the position of Minister for War. He suggests that God might withdraw His favor if the man does not become a believer, and he suggests that they pray together.
While Jero is working his wiles on the politician, Chume enters, talking to himself. He is furious with Jero, now that he can see through all the preacher's lies. He wonders whether the preacher and Amope have some kind of relationship that he knows nothing of, and he soon convinces himself that they are in fact lovers. He exits.
The politician is kneeling, eyes closed, at the feet of Jero as the preacher asks God to protect him. Chume rushes in, brandishing a cutlass and accusing Jero of adultery. Jero runs away, with Chume chasing him. The politician, unaware of what has taken place, opens his eyes. Finding that Jero has vanished, he thinks that God has mysteriously spirited him away, and he bows his head in reverence.
Jero returns and speaks to the audience, saying that soon the whole town will hear from the politician about the preacher's miraculous disappearance. The politician sits down, hoping that if he has faith, Jero will reappear to him.
Jero tells the audience that he has contacted the police and arranged for Chume to be sent to a lunatic asylum for a year. He notices that the politician has fallen asleep and says that when he wakes, he, Jero, will tell him that Chume is an agent of Satan and must be put in a straitjacket. He picks up a pebble and throws it at the politician, who wakes up, sees Jero, and hails him as Master.
Amope is the shrewish wife of Chume, well practiced at adopting the role of a martyr and indulging in constant bickering. She complains about her ill-treatment at Chume's hands and taunts him for his laziness and lack of ambition, reminding him that his old school friends are now government ministers. They ride in cars, but he still gets around on a bicycle. Later she compares his job unfavorably to that of a sanitary inspector, who at least has a motorcycle. Amope supplements the meager salary Chume brings home by trading various items, and she says she works hard for whatever money she can make. She sold a velvet cape to Jero, for example, although he has yet to pay for it.
Amope does not appear to live in abject poverty, although certainly she and her husband have limited financial resources and she longs for something better. Her husband's passive acceptance of his humble role in life is a constant goad to her. She has no respect for him and loses no opportunity to ridicule him and sneer at him. Amope is an assertive, combative woman, chronically dissatisfied and frustrated. For no apparent reason, she picks a quarrel with a passing female trader, and they trade insults for a while. She also confronts Jero about the non-payment of his debt. Unlike others, she is not awed by his claim to be a man of God; she sees through him immediately. She is also determined to get her money.
When Chume, who has finally received permission from Jero to beat his wife, stands up to her, talks back, and tries to force her to go home with him, she is convinced that he has gone mad. She probably never guesses that her weak husband has been harboring such anger against her. She creates a noisy scene, daring him again and again to kill her, which she must know he will not, but it does give her the chance once more to act the martyr, and in front of others, too.
The Boy Drummer appears in scene 2, carrying a drum on each shoulder. He walks toward Amope, banging his drums, but Amope shoos him away. He appears again in scene 3, running across the stage as he is being chased by a woman. When the two characters reappear, the woman is in possession of the drums, and the Boy Drummer pleads for their return.
Chume is Amope's husband and an assistant to Brother Jero. He used to be a laborer, but now he works as chief messenger in the local government office. Chume is a simple, ineffective man who feels he does not have any power or control in his life. He is nagged and taunted by his wife for his lack of ambition, and he would dearly love to assert himself by beating her, but Jero will not give him permission to do so. Chume clings to Jero because he is weak, and the cynical Jero, who has only contempt for his assistant, gives him hope that his life may improve. Although it is highly unlikely that Chume will ever be more than a chief messenger, he is so bitterly conscious of his weakness and his lowly status that he believes Jero's prophecy that he will eventually become chief clerk, with power over others. Chume is, in fact, a fairly decent man. He does not drink, smoke, or take bribes—Amope says the only reason he does not drink is because he cannot afford it—and his emotions run deep. When he gets excited, he lapses into pidgin English. But Chume simply does not know how to deal with his wife. Nothing he does satisfies her. He eventually manages to get Jero's permission to beat Amope, and he also becomes convinced that Amope and Jero are having an affair. This makes him furious, and he goes after Jero, brandishing a cutlass. But he is no match for Jero's powers of manipulation, since the preacher arranges for Chume to be locked up in a lunatic asylum for a year. Chume therefore pays the price for being the gullible victim of the wily preacher.
Brother Jero is described as a "beach divine." He is a preacher who has no bricks-and-mortar church but preaches to his followers on the beach, as many other low-status preachers do. Jero is a cynical, manipulative charlatan who appears to have no genuine religious beliefs at all. But he has long had a talent for preaching, which showed up even when he was a child. His family encouraged him to become a preacher, and he attached himself to an established divine, Old Prophet, who acted as his spiritual mentor. Jero worked hard for Old Prophet, securing him a territory on the beach where he could preach, but then he forced Old Prophet off his patch and took over the ministry himself, a move he had been planning from the beginning.
Jero has no ethical values at all, and he preys upon the weak. He is very effective at this because Page 266 | Top of Articlehe has a good understanding of human psychology, especially of those who come within his orbit. He knows that people are generally unhappy with their lot in life and want more. He reels them in by prophesying that they will prosper in their careers and become important. He tells the insignificant politician, for example, that he will become a minister, and he also reports that one of his favorite prophecies is to tell people that they will live to be eighty. If they do not, they are hardly in a position to complain to him that he was wrong. Jero does not really want to empower any of his congregation. In truth, he cares nothing for them. He likes to keep them dependent on him, so it is in his interests to keep them weak and unable to help themselves. He refuses to allow Chume to beat his wife, for example, because he thinks that would give Chume a sense of fulfillment and he would no longer look to Jero for guidance. Jero likes others to think he is important, which is why he makes up all kinds of names for himself that he hopes the congregation will adopt, such as Immaculate Jero and Articulate Hero of Christ's Crusade. He likes to be distinctive, to stand out from the crowd. He has a very high opinion of himself, although he does acknowledge that he has a weakness for women.
Jero may be unscrupulous, but he is good at what he does. When Amope relentlessly comes after him for his money, he cunningly uses Chume to get the better of her. When Chume chases after Jero, believing that the preacher is having an affair with his wife, Jero soon turns the situation to his advantage, arranging for Chume to be sent to a lunatic asylum. By the end of the play, Jero has attracted into his orbit the Member of Parliament, a far more influential figure than Chume. This suggests that Jero is about to move up in the world, at least in terms of the stature of the people he is able to manipulate and control.
Despite his many faults, Jero is an amusing character. His redeeming quality is that he is fully aware of what he is doing, does not fool himself, and openly confesses his cynicism and selfish motives to the audience.
See Brother Jero
Member of Parliament
The Member of Parliament is an ambitious but timid politician of little political importance. He goes to the beach to rehearse the fiery speeches he plans to give in Parliament, but he is too frightened actually to deliver them. He is, at first, hostile to Jero, but Jero soon outwits him by playing on the man's ambition. He is so flattered when Jero tells him that he will become minister for war that he is then easily manipulated. Jero convinces him that fervent prayer would advance his cause with God, and the man complies without hesitation. He thinks Jero is a real prophet and man of God. Jero, of course, plans only to use him for his own ends, but all the politician can think about is his future elevation to the rank of minister for war.
Old Prophet is the preacher who acted as Jero's spiritual mentor. With Jero's help, Old Prophet staked out a territory for himself on the beach. But then Jero betrayed him by driving him away from his patch. Furious, Old Prophet cursed him, declaring that women would be Jero's downfall. Jero pretends to take no notice of the curse, although in fact it worries him. He has no respect for his former tutor, referring to him as a foolish "old dodderer."
The Penitent is a woman in Jero's congregation who has a paroxysm, a kind of emotional fit, during a religious service. She lies on the ground moaning as Chume and the congregation pray for her.
The Tough Mamma is an angry woman who chases after the Boy Drummer, accusing him of using the drum to abuse her father. She is Jero's neighbor. Offstage, she gets the drums from the boy, leaving him to follow her onstage pleading for his drums back. The woman is aggressive. When Jero tries to intervene in the dispute, she scratches his face and he ends up with his clothes torn as well. (This incident takes place offstage, and the woman's role throughout is a non-speaking one.)
The Trader is a woman who passes by Amope while Amope waits outside Jero's house. She is on her way to the market to sell fish. She and Amope exchange angry words. Amope appears to believe that the woman is trading in stolen property.
The Young Girl frequents the beach near the spot where Jero preaches, and he observes her. When she goes to swim, he thinks she looks dirty, but when Page 267 | Top of Articleshe returns she looks much more attractive. Jero observes the same transformation in the girl every day and tries to resist his lustful thoughts about her.
Hypocrisy and Religious Charlatanism
The play is a satirical attack on religious charlatans or frauds, like Brother Jero, who make a mockery of genuine religion. Jero appears to have no genuine faith at all. Even though he prays for and with his congregation, he does not believe a word of what he tells others. Everything he says is to secure his own position and keep his followers in a subordinate place. He intuits that what people want is not spiritual knowledge but material advancement, and this is what he promises God will deliver for them. A hypocrite is a person who preaches one thing but does another, and this is a perfect description of Jero. No doubt he speaks to his congregation about the need for honest and upright living, but he buys a cloak from Amope and it appears he has no intention of paying for it. He is little more than a crook, always alert for new ways of impressing his gullible followers and keeping them within the fold, as can be seen by his musings about acquiring some grand title for himself that would make his congregation even more malleable in his hands. Jero knows that he is a dreadful example of a preacher (or prophet, which is the term he uses). Near the beginning of the play he quotes a proverb: "There are eggs and there are eggs. Same thing with prophets." He means that not all prophets are the same; some may be good, some bad; some may be genuine, while others are fakes. Jero well knows that he is a fake, but he feels no twinge of conscience about it. Although his followers are not actually shown giving him money, they probably do, since Jero refers to them as "customers": "I always get that feeling every morning that I am a shopkeeper waiting for customers. "He also refers to his religious calling as a "trade." In other words, Jero is running a business; he merely pretends to be communicating knowledge about the spiritual realm. He is a fraud, but a clever one, and the audience is amused by his antics and his plots.
The play presents some misogyny, or negative attitudes toward women, on the part of the male characters, and the women themselves are portrayed as either aggressive or as chronic complainers. Jero sets the tone. He worries about his weakness for women and sees them as temptresses who will lead him into trouble. He refers to them, following Old Prophet, as Daughters of Discord; he disparages Amope as a "daughter of Eve" (Eve fell prey to the temptations of the serpent and then tempted Adam in the Garden of Eden); and he mentions the Biblical characters Delilah and Jezebel: "How little women have changed since Eve,
since Delilah, since Jezebel." Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab in ancient Israel, led the Israelites away from God. Her name has since come to symbolize a wicked woman. Delilah was the woman who betrayed Samson, as recorded in the Book of Judges in the Old Testament.
As for Chume's attitude toward women, he wants nothing more than to beat his wife. Amope is presented as a shrew, a woman who always thinks of herself as a martyr whether she has something to complain about or not, and she certainly makes Chume feel miserable with her taunts. The angry woman who pursues the Boy Drummer and attacks Jero is another example of a negative portrayal of women. It is as if all the women are presented through the eyes of the men who fear them.
It is not only Jero who lacks spiritual values. No one else in the play has such values either. The people in the congregation want more material goods and greater success in the world rather than any spiritual salvation. The play therefore satirizes the materialism of the culture. This is amusingly presented in the incident in which Chume briefly takes over the service in Jero's absence. In his prayer he asks for God to give them all "money to have a happy home." He then sets out a list for the Almighty to act upon, consisting entirely of material desires:
Those who are petty trader today, make them big contractor tomorrow. Those who dey sweep street today, give them their own big office tomorrow. If we dey walk a today, give us our own bicycle tomorrow…. Those who have bicycle today, they will ride their own car tomorrow.
Satire and Farce
The play combines elements of satiric comedy and farce. Satire pokes clever fun at the failings of humanity; a satiric comedy, according to M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, "ridicules political policies or philosophical doctrines, or else attacks the disorders of society by making ridiculous the violators of its standards of morals or manners." Through the character of Brother Jero, Page 269 | Top of ArticleSoyinka ridicules the churches of his day, although Jero himself, because of his shameless admission of his own low motives, becomes not so much a ridiculous figure as one whom the audience is likely to enjoy. This does not lessen the satirical point the dramatist wishes to convey. Farce is a form of comedy in which stock characters are put in exaggerated situations with the intention of eliciting laughter. The humor is often coarse and physical. In this play, there are farcical elements in scene 3, when the angry woman chases the Boy Drummer across the stage, and the two of them keep reappearing while the bewildered Chume takes over the religious service and the Penitent starts writhing around on the ground. Other farcical moments happen when Chume grabs Amope and tries to put her on the bicycle (scene 4), and when Chume chases Jero across the stage, brandishing a cutlass (scene 5).
When Chume gets emotionally excited or involved, his speech lapses into what is called pidgin English. Pidgin English is a combination of English with a local language. In Nigeria, the languages combined with English are mainly Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo, and several million people speak different forms of pidgin English. A good example comes in scene 5, when Chume finally realizes that Jero is a hypocrite and even thinks that the preacher is having an affair with Amope:
O God, my life done spoil. My life done spoil finish. O God a no' get eyes for my head. Na lie. Na big lie. Na pretence 'e de pretend that wicked woman! She no' go collect nutin! She no' mean to sleep for outside house. The Prophet na 'in lover.
Jero has a contemptuous attitude to Chume's pidgin English, which he calls "animal jabber" and sees as a sign of Chume's inferiority.
The Emergence of West African Literature in English
West African literature in English has a comparatively short history. It can be said to have begun with the publication of Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard in 1952, which was a telling of Yoruba folktales in an unorthodox English style.
Like Soyinka, Tutuola came from the Yoruba area in western Nigeria. His second book, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was published in 1954. Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), achieved international recognition.
In drama, the work of the physician and playwright James Ene Henshaw marked a significant beginning. Henshaw's plays dealt with important issues in Nigerian social and political life in the 1950s and 1960s. His first play, This Is Our Chance (1957), was highly popular, and he wrote many more successful plays, including Jewels of the Shrine (1957), Children of the Goddess (1964), Magic in the Blood (1964), Medicine for Love (1964), and Dinner for Promotion (1967). In the 1960s, Soyinka emerged as the dominant figure in Nigerian drama, but other playwrights also made significant contributions to the emerging literary culture. These include John Pepper Grant, whose plays produced in the 1960s were Song of a Goat (1961), The Masquerade (1964), The Raft (1964), and Ozidi (1966); and Ola Rotimi, whose first play, The Gods Are Not to Blame (1968), is based on Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex but set in fifteenth-century Nigeria.
Christianity in Nigeria
Christianity in Nigeria dates from the 1840s when Anglicans, Methodists, the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and the Southern U.S. Baptists established missions there. These early Christian churches ignored African traditions and used European forms of worship and practice; therefore, Africans did not fully embrace these churches as their own. In the second decade of the twentieth century, as a result of African dissatisfaction with the European-centered mission churches, a Pentecostal movement spread through western portions of Nigeria, incorporating more indigenous African beliefs and practices. These spiritualist, Pentecostal churches flourished in western Nigeria during the 1960s, and they are the main targets of Soyinka's satire in The Trials of Brother Jero. These churches are known in Nigeria as Aladura, a Yoruba word that means "praying people." Emphasizing prayer and faith healing, and incorporating a more lively form of service in which there was hand-clapping and dancing (as in Soyinka's play), the Aladura churches quickly attracted thousands of converts. Aladura churches are sometimes known as "white garment" churches because of the way Page 271 | Top of Articletheir preachers dress. The "white flowing gown" that Jero wears clearly identifies him as an Aladura preacher. The four best-known Aladura churches during this period were the Christ Apostolic Church, the Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim, the Church of the Lord (Aladura), and the Celestial Church of Christ. The second of these, the Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim, is actually named in the first scene of the play as one of the many churches jostling for space on the beach. Founded in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1925 as a prayer group within the Anglican church, the sect became an independent church in 1928 and soon made a name for itself by crusading against witches. It also underwent many schisms, and by the 1960s there were ten different divisions of the church.
The Trials of Brother Jero was produced at the Hampstead Theatre Club in London in June 1966, performed by an African company from the Transcription Centre Theatre Workshop. In his review of this production, the drama critic for the London Times comments that Soyinka "appears as an extremely sophisticated craftsman working within a rich folk tradition." He describes the play as a "harsh, unforgiving comedy, but it makes its point entirely through structure and language." In terms of language, the reviewer notes the "contrast between the half-educated rhetoric and natural speech [which] perfectly conveys the power of the confidence man over the gullible victims." As for structure, "the story-telling technique … allows Jero to gossip about his methods to the audience, [which] takes the place of explicit moral comment." This production also included some insertions, perhaps by Soyinka but possibly by the director, Athol Fugard, to the speech given by the Member of Parliament, alluding to some political issues of the day in southern Africa.
The play was first produced in the United States in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1964, and then in San Francisco in 1965. It reached New York City in a production at the Mews Theatre during October and November 1967. In a review of this production for Time magazine, a critic describes the play as "a broad spoof of a religious humbug, a con man of prophecy who lives by mulcting his worshipers, or ‘customers,’ as he calls them in moments of absent-minded lucidity." The reviewer has high praise for Harold Scott, the actor who played Brother Jero: "The title role is played with unerring finesse by Harold Scott, who is sly, playful, sanctimonious or lecherous, as the occasion demands."
Since the 1960s, the play has had many productions in Africa, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and it continues to receive attention from scholars of Soyinka's work, although it is generally considered one of his slighter plays.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he examines the archetypal characters in The Trials of Brother Jero and also discusses Soyinka's development of the title character in his later play, Jero's Metamorphosis.
In order to accomplish his satirical goals in The Trials of Brother Jero, Soyinka drew on a long tradition in literature (and later in film) of the lovable rogue, the character who repeatedly cheats and schemes to his own advantage but does so with wit, verve, and often such great charm that the reader or audience cannot help but find him amusing and may even admire him, even if they cannot admire what he actually does. The lovable rogue par excellence is Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff, who appears in Henry IV, Part One, Henry IV, Part Two, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Shakespeare's character Autolycus, the peddler in The Winter's Tale, comes from the same tradition. The Artful Dodger, the boy pickpocket in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838), is a lovable rogue, as is Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Later examples include Augie March in Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (1953), and Alfie, in Bill Naughton's play Alfie (1963), which was made into the well-known movie of the same name, starring Michael Caine, in 1966. The film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) stars Michael Caine and Steve Martin as two lovable rogues.
Soyinka was therefore not working in a vacuum when he created one of his most popular characters to make his satirical points: the hypocrisy of the preachers who plied their trade on the Bar Beach in Lagos and the superficiality of the culture that produced their followers, who identified their life goals solely in terms of the Page 272 | Top of Articleaccumulation of material rewards and social position. Such naïve people, the play seems to say, in some sense warrant deception. They get the preacher their shallow minds deserve.
Brother Jero stands high in the pantheon of lovable rogues. He manipulates his followers shamelessly and appears not to have an ounce of integrity. He would no doubt regard integrity as an impediment to good business. He is a very suave operator who has his act down completely: his imposing appearance with his heavy beard, the sleek white gown with the white velvet cape that he still has not paid for, the divine rod that further marks out his authority as a man of God, and his lofty way of speaking, complete with all the usual flourishes of the silver-tongued preacher. His words beguile his congregation. Brother Jero is a master manipulator and he clearly knows it; he is much smarter, and, when he has to be, more ruthless, than not only the other preachers he outwitted in order to secure his beach territory, but also his simple followers, such as Chume, who have no idea that they are being played for fools. Poor Chume is the archetypal dupe who cannot get the better of the charlatan even when he finally realizes the truth about him. Chume is an easy victim of the man who took the measure of him a long time ago and who well knows his own superior cunning. The hold the preacher has over his assistant, and the meaninglessness of the charade he calls a religious service is shown clearly in scene 3, when Jero gets Chume to pray with him against his one weakness, which is for women. Jero calls on the names of various figures in Christian tradition, including Abraham, David, Samuel, Elijah, and even Adam. Then as Chume joins in and becomes more and more excited, Jero repeats, "Abraka, Abraka, Abraka." As Chume joins the chant, Jero continues, "Abraka, Abraka, Hebra, Hebra, Hebra, Hebra, Hebra, Hebra, Hebra, Hebra." In this context, Abraka and Hebra are nonsense words; they have no meaning. Indeed, Abraka is close in sound to the cry of the stage magician, "Abracadabra" (sometimes spelled Abrakadabra) as he is about to perform some piece of entertaining trickery in front of an audience, which is close to what Jero is doing here—putting on a show of piety for the benefit of his witless disciple, who is so caught up in the emotionalism of the situation that he has Page 273 | Top of Articleno rational power to question the appropriateness of the incantation.
If Jero is the lovable rogue and Chume his perpetual dupe, the other main character, Amope, is the archetypal shrew. Like the lovable rogue, the stock character of the shrew has a long history in literature. Shakespeare's Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps the most famous. Paulina in The Winter's Tale is another, as is Zeena in Edith Wharton's novel, Ethan Frome. The shrew is easy to spot; she is the character who is perpetually nagging her husband, showering him with verbal abuse. Sometimes the husband meekly knuckles under; sometimes he rebels and finally shows the troublesome lady who is the boss. Chume would dearly love to take the latter course, but the truth of the matter is that, in what is no doubt a long and unhappy relationship, Amope is the stronger personality and dominates her hapless husband whatever he might do to challenge her. Long skilled at playing the martyr, she accuses him of abusing her if he offers her even the mildest of rebukes. Nothing he does makes any difference to this situation, which is why he entertains fantasies of giving her a beating. When Jero gives him the go-ahead to teach her a lesson, he starts to assert himself like he never has before: "Shut your big mouth!" he yells, and he lifts her bodily in an attempt to put her on his bicycle so he can take her home and beat her. After she protests and he puts her down, he raises a clenched fist, telling her once more to keep silent. Amope appears to be at his mercy, but in fact the quick-witted woman soon finds a way of regaining the upper hand, repeatedly telling him to kill her, even as a crowd gathers to watch. She is still playing the martyr, and her gamble that he will in fact do nothing seems a fairly safe one. The audience gets the feeling that Chume, whatever he does, will never get the satisfaction of breaking his wife's spirit by physical force. This is one shrew who, unlike Shakespeare's Katharina, will not be tamed.
The Trials of Brother Jero proves to be one of Soyinka's most popular and frequently performed plays. As a light satire, it produces more fun and laughter than serious thought, and Soyinka liked his charlatan of a hero enough to bring him back in a later play, Jero's Metamorphosis (first produced in Lagos in 1972). However, the tone of the later play presents a stark contrast to that of the earlier one. Much had happened in Nigeria in the intervening twelve years. The hopes of the newly independent nation had not been fulfilled and, in 1966, there were several military coups. The following year, civil war broke out when Biafra, the eastern region of the country, declared its independence from Nigeria. The civil war ended in 1970, but during the 1970s the country remained under repressive military rule. Bar Beach, Lagos, the scene of Jero's petty chicanery, was used for public executions.
Soyinka was imprisoned for over two years during the civil war, and when he turned his creative attention back to Brother Jero, his vision had darkened. The earlier play ended with Jero pulling into his fold the ambitious but timid Member of Parliament, who wants to become minister for war, thus suggesting that the preacher is about to widen his sphere of influence into the political realm. Jero's Metamorphosis takes up this hint of an alliance between religious quackery and the political rulers to present a bitter satire with Jero at its center. In his office, Jero displays a portrait of the country's military ruler, so the changed conditions under wich the country is operating are clear at the outset. The plot centers around the plan of the authorities to evict the rag-tag group of preachers from the beach and develop it for tourism. They also have plans to build a large stadium on the beach where they would hold public executions. Part of the plan involves issuing a license to just one religious group to operate on the beach. The role of the favored church would be to say prayers before and after the executions and give sermons to the crowds pointing out that perpetrators of crime will meet with a bad end. Jero fears that the Salvation Army is about to be appointed as the state-approved sect, so he gathers all the preachers together and announces he is forming a new church in the image of the country's military rulers. Everyone is given a military title, including Chume, who, it turns out, spent only three months in the lunatic asylum and was soon won back into Jero's fold by the preacher's promise of rapid promotion. Chume is immediately appointed a brigadier in the new church, and Jero persuades the head of the Tourist Board to grant them their desired spiritual monopoly on the beach. Jero thus sets himself up as the spiritual wing of the ruling military junta, creating an ugly alliance between religion and the repressive rulers of the state that has the people at its mercy. Jero has grown from petty con man to a state-sanctioned leader of a militarized church that does the bidding of a regime that Page 274 | Top of Articleexecutes its enemies in public as a form of mass entertainment. For Jero, this represents progress, but for Nigeria, Soyinka suggests, it represents the opposite.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Trials of Brother Jero, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Jacobs provides an overview of Soyinka's life and oeuvre, including The Trials of Brother Jero, and emphasizes the playwright's significance to contemporary literature.
Like many teachers of literature, I am sometimes asked to name the Greatest Living Writer. (I can hear the capital letters in the voices of those who ask.) Invariably I name two candidates: the Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz and the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. These names are usually greeted by puzzlement, for, though both have won the Nobel Prize for Literature—Milosz in 1980 and Soyinka in 1986—and both have been on The McNeil-Lehrer Newshour, neither has entered the American public consciousness in a potent way. Milosz is more likely to be familiar, though, and apparently my interlocutors think him a more plausible choice; my claim for Soyinka almost always earns skeptical looks.
I imagine that this skepticism derives from the still-common picture of Africa as the dark continent, full of illiterate savages (a picture that the Western media do little to dispel); and also from the suspicion that any African Nobel laureate must be the beneficiary of multicultural affirmative action. But if anything, Soyinka is a more comprehensive genius even than Milosz. Here is a writer of spectacular literary gifts; he is an acclaimed lyric and satirical poet, a brilliant novelist of ideas, a memoirist both nostalgic and harrowing, and almost certainly the greatest religious dramatist of our time. The assumption that he has come to our attention only because of academic politics is profoundly unjust—though perhaps understandable, considering the number of mediocre talents who have assumed recent prominence for just such reasons.
That assumption also carries a heavy load of irony, given the distance between the triviality of American academic politics—what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has aptly called our "marionette theater of the political"—and the real political crises which have continually afflicted Soyinka and his work. Soyinka's 1996 book on the political collapse of his native Nigeria, The Open Sore of a Continent, teaches us how absurdly misbegotten our whole literary-political conversation tends to be. Through this book, and through the shape his career has assumed, Soyinka brings compelling messages to our warring parties. To the traditionalists who deplore "the politicization of literary discourse," Soyinka serves as a living reminder that writers in some parts of the world don't get to choose whether their work will be political; that is a privilege enjoyed by those who happen to be born into stable and relatively peaceable societies. Others have politics thrust upon them. But Soyinka also tells our Young Turks that their cardinal principle—Everything is Political—is true only in an utterly trivial sense. To adapt a famous phrase from George Orwell, if everything is political, some things are a hell of a lot more political than others.
Whichever side of this dispute one tends to be on, or even if one isn't on either side, Soyinka's story is worth paying attention to, because his career has been virtually derailed by the collapse of his native country into political tyranny and social chaos. Soyinka has not eagerly thrown his energies into protest and polemic in the way that, for instance, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did in the days of the Soviet empire; unlike Solzhenitsyn, he is no natural polemicist. However, Soyinka has also been unable to follow the route of Solzhenitsyn's older contemporary Boris Pasternak, which was to combat political tyranny by ignoring it, by cultivating a realm of personal feeling impervious to the corrosive solvent of Politics. (As Czeslaw Milosz writes of Page 275 | Top of ArticlePasternak, "confronted by argument, he replied with his sacred dance.") Soyinka has felt called upon to respond to the collapse of Nigeria, and as a result his career has taken a very different direction than it once promised to do. It is hard to question his choice; it is equally hard to celebrate it, for it has led a fecund and celebratory poetic mind into an abyss of outrage.
Soyinka's homeland has suffered from the same consequences of colonialism that have afflicted almost every modern African state. The area now called Nigeria is occupied by many peoples, the most prominent among them being the Hausa, the Yoruba, and the Ibo. The boundaries of the country do not reflect the distribution of these ethnic populations; there are Ibo people in Cameroon, Yoruba in Benin, Hausa in Niger. The physical shape of Nigeria is an administrative fiction deriving from the way the colonial powers parceled out the "dark continent" in the nineteenth century. (Somalia alone among African countries is ethnically homogeneous.) So when the British granted independence to Nigeria in 1960, this most populous of African nations had some considerable work to do to make itself into a real nation, as opposed to a collection of adversarial ethnicities. These problems have been exacerbated by almost continually increasing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the country.
No wonder, then, that civic rule has been the exception rather than the norm in Nigeria's history, and that civilian governments have served only at the behest of the military, who have been quick to take over and impose martial law whenever they have sensed the coming of chaos, or genuine democracy—for them the two amount to more or less the same thing. And with martial law has always come strict censorship of all the media, which makes it difficult for even the most apolitical writer to avoid politics. Besides, respect for intellectuals is so great in most African cultures that writers can scarcely resist the pleas of their people for help.
Wole Soyinka's people, in the ethnic sense, are the Yoruba, and there is no culture in the world more fascinating. The Yoruba are traditionally among the greatest sculptors in Africa, and their labyrinthine mythology is so coherent and compelling that even the selling of many Yoruba people into slavery could not eradicate it: especially in places where great numbers of Yoruba were transported (most notably Brazil and Haiti) it survived by adapting itself, syncretistically, to certain Catholic traditions. The chief Yoruba gods (the orisa) became conflated with the popular saints; the results can be seen even today in religions, or cults, like Santeria. The notorious Haitian practice of voodoo is largely an evil corruption of Yoruba medicine, which typically seeks to confuse the evil spirits who cause illness and draw them from the ill person into a doll or effigy, which is then beaten or destroyed. This form of medical treatment is crucial to one of Soyinka's earliest and most accessibly powerful plays, The Strong Breed (1959).
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Yoruba have long practiced the arts of drama, and Soyinka is an heir of that tradition. It is really inaccurate to say that Yoruba drama is religious, because even to make such a statement one must employ a vocabulary which distinguishes between religion and other forms of culture in a way alien to Africa. For the Yoruba, as for almost all Africans, every aspect of culture is religious through and through—it simply is worship or celebration or healing or teaching—and religion is thoroughly cultural. In Africa, the notion of "the aesthetic" as a distinct category of experience is unthinkable. No Yoruba arts can be identified as part of the human realm as distinct from that of the gods and spirits. In part this is because of the animism of Yoruba culture, but such a complete integration of religion and culture does not require animism. It seems to have characterized ancient Israel, for instance: the poetry of the Israelites is inseparable from their covenantal relationship with Yahweh. Similarly, Westerners seem to have difficulty understanding why Muslims insist upon the universal application of sharia, or Islamic law, and tend to think that Muslims don't know how to respect the appropriate cultural boundaries. Yoruba drama arises from what one might call such a "total culture."
Soyinka, though, was raised in a Christian home. His mother's brand and intensity of piety may be guessed at from this: in his memoirs he refers to her almost exclusively as "Wild Christian." But it seems that his chief interest in the doctrines and practices of Christianity derives from their similarities to Yoruba traditions. Biblical themes always echo in his work, especially early in his career: the story of the Prodigal Son in The Swamp Dwellers (about 1958), the Passion Page 276 | Top of Article(with staggering force) in The Strong Breed. But, as in his fascinating adaptation of Euripides's The Bacchae [The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite] (1973), so do the themes of classical tragedy. It is clear that Soyinka has been interested in the primordial mythic truths that lie behind the doctrines and practices of particular religions: he shares the Jungian view that all religions are concretized and particularized versions of universal experiences. Moreover, he seems to espouse the Feuerbachian projection theory of religion as he says in his critical book Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), "myths arise from man's attempt to externalise and communicate his inner intuitions," and more recently he has written, in oracular tones. "THE WILL of man is placed beyond surrender…. ORISA reveals Destiny as—SELF-DESTINATION."
These universalistic and syncretistic tendencies are more easily reconcilable with Yoruba than with Christian or Muslim beliefs, as Soyinka observes in the essay "Reparations, Truth, and Reconciliation," one of a series of lectures given at Harvard University in 1997 and published as The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (1999):
Just what is African, for a start, about any section of that continent that arrogantly considers any change of faith an apostasy, punishable even by death? What is African about religious intolerance and deadly fanaticism? The spirituality of the black continent, as attested, for instance, in the religion of the orisa, abhors such principles of coercion or exclusion, and recognizes all manifestations of spiritual urgings as attributes of the complex disposition of the godhead. Tolerance is synonymous with the spirituality of the black continent, intolerance is anathema!
Soyinka's imagination is thus secondarily and derivatively Christian at best, despite his upbringing and his long-term fascination with Christian doctrine. And as we shall see, he has sought to exorcise that fascination in rather frightening ways.
When, as a young man, he came to study in England at the University of Leeds, it is not at all surprising that Soyinka fell under the influence of the controversial Shakespearean scholar G. Wilson Knight. For Knight's career was devoted chiefly to the contention that Shakespeare's plays, however "secular" they might appear, were really Christian (in a mythic or archetypal sort of way) through and through. It must have seemed perfectly natural to Soyinka, coming from his Yoruba world, that such would be the case, indeed it must have been hard for him to think of drama in any other terms. No wonder he ultimately decided to adapt The Bacchae: the Euripedean original, so obviously shaped by and angrily responsive to the Athenian worship of Dionysos, was a clear picture of what he had always understood drama to be. Soyinka's version, a turbulent tragic fantasy half-Greek and half-African, is one of the most striking and provocative plays of our time, and in its exploration of irreconcilable worldviews often seems a veiled commentary on the troubles of modern Africa.
Soyinka's plays are often said to be about the modern "clash of cultures" in Africa between Western and African traditional ways, but this is a phrase for which Soyinka has a singular contempt. In an "Author's Note" to what may well be his greatest play, the tragedy Death and the King's Horseman (1975), which is based on a historical event, he complains that "the bane of themes of this genre is that they are no sooner employed creatively than they acquire the facile tag of ‘clash of cultures,’ a prejudicial label which, quite apart from its frequent misapplication, presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter."
One might think that Soyinka is here reminding us that the British came to Africa with technologies and forces that traditional African cultures could not hope to resist; in other words, that he is reminding us of his people's status as victims. That would be a misreading. The British did indeed bring superior physical force to Nigeria; but Soyinka is more concerned to point out that the spiritual and cultural forces upon which the Yoruba relied were far more impressive. Now, Soyinka is never shy about offering potent critiques of his culture, and not just in its modern manifestations; from those early plays, The Swamp Dwellers and The Strong Breed, we can see a fierce indictment of how power corrupts even at the level of the village, where leaders pervert their people's traditions and manipulate them for their own gain. But those traditions themselves, Soyinka is always eager to say, have enormous power, and when rightly used and respectfully employed can overcome the humiliations inflicted upon the Yoruba by British imperialism. This is indeed the central theme of Death Page 277 | Top of Articleand the King's Horseman, where tradition finds a way to rescue the dignity of a people even when the colonial power seems to have things well under control.
In Nigeria during World War II, a king has died. Oba Elesin, the king's horseman and a lesser king himself ("Oba" means "king" or "chief"), is expected, at the end of the month of ceremonies marking the king's passing, to follow his master into the spirit world of the ancestors. In other words, he is to commit ritual suicide. It is his greatest wish to do so, and in the village marketplace, surrounded by people who love and respect him, he awaits the appointed time.
All is prepared. Listen! [A steady drum-beat from the distance.] Yes. It is nearly time. The King's dog has been killed. The King's favourite horse is about to follow his master. My brother chiefs know their task and perform it well…. My faithful drummers, do me your last service. This is where I have chosen to do my leave-taking, in this heart of life, this hive which contains the swarm of the world in its small compass…. Just then I felt my spirit's eagerness…. But wait a while my spirit. Wait. Wait for the coming of the courier of the King.
But Simon Pilkings, the district officer in this British colonial outpost, intervenes to prevent the suicide, which violates British law and which he considers to be a barbaric custom. And his intervention succeeds in part because at the crucial moment Elesin hesitates, and thereby cooperates with Pilkings in bringing shame upon himself, his people, and his king (who is by Elesin's cowardice "condemned to wander in the void of evil with beings who are the enemies of life"). Elesin's son Olunde—who had been in England studying medicine and returned when he heard of the death of the king—explains this to Simon Pilkings's wife Jane before he knows that the interference has succeeded. When she suggests that Elesin "is entitled to whatever protection is available to him"—that is, available from her husband as instrument of the colonial Law—Olunde quickly replies,
How can I make you understand? He has protection. No one can undertake what he does tonight without the deepest protection the mind can conceive. What can you offer him in place of his peace of mind? In place of the honour and veneration of his own people?
And it is Olunde—the one who Elesin feared would in England forget or repudiate the old tribal ways—who finds a way to rescue his people and his king from the shame brought by Elesin.
In his preface Soyinka is determined to insist that the colonial situation of the play be seen as a catalyst for an exploration of what is permanent in Yoruba society; the play is about "transition," the transition from this world to the world of the spirits and the ancestors, and as such cannot be reduced to a single historical moment. The colonial era simply troubles the waters, it cannot dam the river of Yoruba tradition. "The confrontation in the play," Soyinka writes, "is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle which is Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind—the world of the living, the dead, and the unborn." Simon Pilkings thinks he holds the power in this situation, that he participates in a story which his people are writing and of which they are the protagonists; but Soyinka reveals him as merely a plot device, a means by which "the universe of the Yoruba mind" is explored.
This potent tragedy marked a return to Soyinka's early themes and concerns, arresting a drift toward political satire that had begun some years before. One sees this tendency in his two wickedly funny plays about the shyster preacher and self-proclaimed prophet Brother Jeroboam (The Trials of Brother Jero  and Jero's Metamorphosis ), who ultimately becomes the "general" of a Nigerian version of the Salvation Army, sending his "troops" out into a dangerous world while he remains secure in his office. Lingering just below the surface of these plays is a commentary on the ambitions and absurdities of Nigeria's hyperactive military. The Jero plays were followed by Soyinka's darkest, bitterest play, Madmen and Specialists (1970), which reveals his disgust at the crisis of Biafra in 1969.
Biafra was the new country proclaimed by leaders of the Ibo people of eastern Nigeria; but their attempt to secede from Nigeria ended when they were beaten and starved into submission. Soyinka's sympathy for the Biafran rebels led to his arrest and lengthy detainment, an experience chronicled in his searing memoir, The Man Died (1972).
Madmen and Specialists emphasizes the ways that the lust for power, and not just power itself, corrupts gifted men and turns them into tyrants who cannot abide dissent or even questioning. One can easily see why after writing this play and The Man Died, Soyinka would produce Death and the King's Horseman, with its passionate commitment to the maintenance of a great Page 278 | Top of Articlespiritual tradition that cannot be extinguished or even derailed by the traumas of political history. But as passionately as Soyinka expresses that commitment, what speaks still louder than the brilliance of the play is that in the quarter-century since it appeared Soyinka has severely curtailed his theatrical writing. (And most of the plays he has written are topical political satires, like The Beatification of Area Boy.) It is hard to imagine a greater loss for modern drama….
Source: Alan Jacobs, "Wole Soyinka's Outrage: The Divided Soul of Nigeria's Nobel Laureate," in Books & Culture, Vol. 7, No. 6, November-December 2001, pp. 28-31.
In the following interview, Soyinka details how his Nigerian and Yoruba heritage and his mood influence his work, including The Trials of Brother Jero.
Even the briefest of encounters with Wole Soyinka—celebrated playwright, essayist, activist and winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature—is enough to make evident the qualities that are at the crux of his accomplishments. A formidable and centered man, he speaks with a quiet and utter confidence—a confidence that belies his personal fury for the events of June 12, 1993, which rendered him into exile from his native Nigeria.
It was on that day that a military coup prevented a newly elected civilian government from assuming power. Large numbers of Nigerians had voted across ethnic and regional lines in what was widely seen as the country's most democratic election ever—an event that, in Soyinka's eyes, was his homeland's last best hope of becoming a free and viable nation. But the military strongman Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who had ruled Nigeria for eight years (in the process building one of Africa's largest private fortunes), forbade publication of the voting results and, in place of the election's ostensible winner, installed his own deputy, the brutal Gen. Sani Abacha, as head of state. Soyinka celebrated his 60th birthday with a protest march against Abacha's takeover, an action that led to threats of house arrest and the writer's movement into exile.
From this vantage, stateless but hardly alienated, Soyinka has continued to bring the issues of Africa to the table, so to speak. His most recent play, The Beatification of Area Boy, arrived in America in October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, following its debut in Leeds, England last year; his impassioned philosophical essay The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, was published last August by Oxford. The two works illuminate distinctly different but complementary sides of Soyinka: the anecdotal, celebratory playwright with a penchant for portraiture and whimsy, and the fiercely angry polemicist, producing what he once called "monster prodigies of spleen."
A full measure of the writer's righteous anger cannot be taken without considering a second incident of outrage: On Nov. 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Soyinka's friend and fellow dissident writer, was executed by the military government, along with eight other members of the Ogoni ethnic minority. Soyinka, himself a member of the Yoruba majority, had arduously campaigned throughout the world community for their release, and for the cause of the Ogoni, who have waged a desperate battle for survival against overdevelopment and international oil interests.
Soyinka's plays—the best-known of which is the Yoruban epic Death and the King's Horseman, which was directed by the author in an acclaimed 1987 production starring Earle Hyman at Lincoln Center Theater—keep such practical political matters at arm's length, or at a poetic remove. The Beatification of Area Boy takes the form of a lively slice of life as it explores the condition of Nigeria's urban poor, young boys who survive in the environs of a shopping complex in Lagos through a savvy that almost always involves hoodwinking the unwitting, innocent shopper or tourist. Sanda, a failed revolutionary, surreptitiously manages the "boys" while serving as the complex's chief security guard. Street vendors and madmen are the play's other principal characters. The plot thickens when Sanda encounters Miseyi, a former lover and college student, on the Page 279 | Top of Articleeve of her wedding to a key military officer. But flowing like a stream beneath the play's buoyant surface is an underlying awareness of the offstage exodus of a million people, forcibly resettled at the whim of the military government.
Soyinka the dramatist clearly shies away from prescribing solutions to the wretched conditions in the play, reserving his ideas about correctives for Open Sore of a Continent. There Soyinka summons the international community to discuss the urgent problems of African nationhood, fashioning a philosophic imperative to do the right thing in Africa. The Nigerian people, he points out, did not repudiate nationhood—they voted their hunger for it, only to see their will criminally denied. "A nation is a collective enterprise," he writes; "outside of that, it is mostly a gambling space for the opportunism and adventurism of power."
As one talks with Soyinka about his art—an art indelibly linked to his ideas of nationhood in this age of Nigerian uncertainty, and to the rich and complex mythology of Yoruba culture—his countenance betrays neither lament nor brooding. Rather his indomitable spirit is a nourishing symbol of African perseverance.
DALE BYAM: Do you write in response to something, or can it simply be a mood?
WOLE SOYINKA: A mood, or just an idea in my head. I know there are writers who get up every morning and sit by their typewriter or word processor or pad of paper and wait to write. I don't function that way. I go through a long period of gestation before I'm even ready to write. Take Death and the King's Horseman. The story of that play [based on a true incident in 1946, in which the horseman of the title was prevented by resident colonial authorities from following his deceased king to the grave by committing ritual suicide] is something I had known for about 10 years before I got down to writing it. One day it was just ready to be written. The muse had mounted my head, shall we say, and I sat down and wrote the play, and that was that.
When you write a play, is there a particular audience that you have in mind?
It would be more accurate to say I have a company in mind to perform the play. I used to work very closely with two different companies in Nigeria, and while I'm not writing the plays as vehicles for them, in certain cases I do have certain actors in mind for certain roles. One of the companies I used to run did what I call guerrilla theatre—we made instant improvisations on themes of the day and gave performances in market places, outside civil service offices, outside the houses of assembly members. Obviously the plays were targeted not merely at the specific audience, which is Nigerian, but also created for a specific time when certain events are fresh in the mind.
There are other plays like Opera Wonyusi, my adaptation of Brecht's Threepenny Opera, which are particularly targeted at Nigerian audiences. Even though this play was written before the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni people, there's no way anybody would see this play—which involved the military, and takes place in Nigeria without immediately thinking of this universally traumatizing event. I know that for me, who went to speak to heads of state after the sentences were confirmed, it was so disquieting that I couldn't function for about three days.
It is pleasant to find that even though Opera Wonyusi was produced outside Nigeria, it is receiving a tremendous response. I saw it in Zurich with mixed audiences, and it's amazing how people responded to it.
Do political events direct your work, or are they a distraction from work that you ideally want to do?
My creative temperament is rather eclectic. I find I'm in the mood some days to write a densely mythological play like Death and the King's Horseman; at other times, I write lighthearted "scoops" like the Jero plays [such as The Trials of Brother Jero, about the power trips of a prophet who feeds on his followers' dissatisfaction]; then there are ritualistic plays like Strong Breed. Anything which agitates me sufficiently to start conceiving of an event to strike a feeling of revenge, a projection in creative terms—that's what gets onto the paper.
Are there any plays that have worked better on paper than on stage?
For me a play can never work better on paper than in performance. You can say, perhaps, that the performance has not quite fulfilled the expectations of the play; the performance may understate the playwright's intentions, or distort them completely. But the play on paper isn't working yet. You can enjoy reading it like a piece of literature, yes, that's true. Some read better than others, but they don't come to life until they're on stage.
I understand the director of Area Boy, Jude Kelly, actually visited Nigeria to find actors. Is it necessary to have Nigerians in the play?
Well, yes, even when I direct my plays outside Nigeria I always do everything possible to bring a core of my company—four, five or six actors—to participate in the production. It makes a difference with certain plays. You try to create a certain atmosphere in the kind of plays which involve community. To create the atmosphere, the color, the tone, to infect the others who are alienated from that environment, you cannot guess the difference it makes to have a community of actors. Also, in this kind of play I use a lot of local music.
Because you are of the Yoruba culture but very representative of the whole of Nigeria, have you managed to straddle the ethnic contradictions?
First of all, I don't believe in ethnic contradictions. (There are, however, collisions of ethnic interests which the government orchestrates.) Take Strong Breed, for instance—the ritual of the carrier I used in that play is not a Yoruba ritual at all. It is a ritual from the Ibo, in the eastern part of Nigeria. Others of my plays incorporate many things which most Nigerian ethnic groups will recognize. But essentially, my culture dominates my plays, and naturally it is the Yoruba culture.
No one considers it a transgression when you incorporate ethnic rituals in your work?
They have no right. Culture is not their property. Culture is universal.
Even when it is attached to a religious framework?
Oh, some people find, for instance, my spoof Brother Jero offensive—it's offensive to the Christian religion, although others of my plays have spoofed religious extremism all over the place. But there has been no price on my head yet.
Sitting in a New York cab driven by a Nigerian, I mentioned your Beatification of Area Boy. This taxi driver became so excited by the mere mention of your name. He had read your work during his school years in Nigeria. How do you reconcile your celebration in that society with the present reality that you are in virtual alienation … exile?
My condition is not one of permanent exile. There's no question at all, though, that my condition is one of partial alienation. That alienation, of course, triggers off the need to respond in some fashion—in some creative way. If you're a painter, you respond as a painter; if you're a musician, you respond as a musician. It's no surprise that some musicians have been jailed by this dictatorship for their music. [The Nigerian pop idol] Fela has been persecuted by a number of regimes—that's become his way of life. It's not just writers who are in exile.
But there is no conflict: If you live in a state of social disjunction, on certain levels that becomes your reality. You operate within it, you critique it. From time to time, you act as a citizen and join others in resisting it. You become part of an oppositional movement which cuts across your profession. During the protestations to remove [former Nigerian President] Babangida, you would see all sorts of people there—civil servants, union members, policemen, market women. There were the "touts," the area boys, as well, some of whom were totally committed, others who took the opportunity to pick a few pockets. The whole society is involved, and the question is which is the real society at that moment? Is it the predators who are sitting on top, immune in their fortifications? Or is it those masses on the street? Which is the reality?
Which is the reality?
Oh, the people on the streets … with whom I find myself.
Even though a culture of silence prevails amongst these oppressed people?
No, it is not a culture of silence. Sometimes, yes, there is stasis, a seeming acquiescence. But, believe me, there is simmering ferment going on all the time. People may be hobbled by the superior power, the ruthlessness, of a regime like Abacha's. But talk to those taxi drivers—even those who are here in the U.S.; talk to people who come out from time to time; look at the vibrant underground press in Nigeria, the risks that they take. They are jailed, they are brutalized by the police, their families are sometimes taken hostage. For me, this is the reality, this underground reality. The culture of resistance begins gathering force, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly. You never can tell which way it will go.
As a Yoruba, how do you see yourself in relation to Nigeria?
I am undeniably a Yoruba because I was born into Yoruba; I am a Nigerian because I was born into a certain definable entity called Nigeria. What I am saying is that when you compare that entity called Yoruba—or Ogun, or Hausa, or Ibo—when Page 281 | Top of Articleyou compare it to the entity called Nigeria, you see that one is not the result of any artificial creation or agreement. It happens to be. It's like your blood. The other, however, something called Nigeria, was not there 50 years ago. It was invented. What was the purpose of that invention? Was it simply to supply raw material to Great Britain and to the international and commercial world? Or was Nigeria invented in order to cohere all the disparate elements into a single entity, where all have the right to life, liberty, means of education, health, etc., etc.? You must decide, what should be my definition of a nation?
Are both Open Sore of a Continent and Area Boy responding to the military rule in Nigeria?
Open Sore of a Continent is a large discourse. The Beatification of Area Boy is a vignette, a microcosm of society. The characters in the play are not concerned with issues of nationhood—they're concerned with issues of community and how best to survive; they are responding to the cruelty of a singularly insensitive regime. I wouldn't say the two works cover the same ground.
The military expulsion, the removal of a million people, which actually happened there, horrified me—it made me feel ashamed to be a Nigerian in a time when such things could happen. One wonders how there can be a nation where people could wake up and be rendered homeless in peacetime, for no reason other than greed. But I'm not asking that question in the play.
Having now traveled so extensively, do you see parallels between the Nigerian condition and elsewhere?
Oh, yes, no question at all there are many such spots on the African continent, and look at what's happening in some of the Latin American countries—look at "class sanitation," which takes place in Brazil when the police go and round up all these area boys, little ones, not even the grown-up ones, and shoot them because they think they will grow up into thugs and thieves. Repression is not peculiar to Nigeria.
So what can the performing artist do?
The performing artist is at a disadvantage, as his resources are limited. All an actor can do is join forces. He or she may also decide, "I will not do this kind of play, it's reactionary or corrupt." Remember, a writer, a musician, a painter, a sculptor, an architect—these are first of all citizens. Their responsibility is no different from any other citizen. There should be no unfair burden being placed on the artists in society—each artist must choose the degree and capability of his or her commitment to certain issues. You cannot say an artist 24 hours, 7 days a week, must be politically engaged. That's madness. You cannot make that imposition on a bricklayer or a craftsman; you cannot make it on the artist.
But you find yourself in that position?
It doesn't mean that I believe that this is the best life. I do what I do because I'm temperamentally inclined to do it. All writers are not the same, just like all preachers are not the same. Some preachers believe that religion should be an instrument of social change, and thank God for that; but there are others who believe that their function is simply to minister to the spirit. Similarly, you have artists who believe that their function is to be revelatory, to open up certain horizons for human striving. I'm an artist and a producer, a creative person, but I'm also a consumer—I like to go into galleries, to listen to music, to read books—and I don't recall screaming in outrage if a work is not politically engaged, because what I'm consuming at that moment fulfills a certain part of me. The kind of spiritual elevation that is also a part of the function of the artist should never, never be underestimated.
Does your condition overwhelm you?
Oh, yes, sometimes.
How do you temper that?
I go for a drink. At home I'll pick up my gun and go hunting. The thing I miss here is getting lost in the bush. I just go. I call it sometimes "just taking my gun for a walk." I can get lost in the bush for hours. Come back very much refreshed, feeling more benevolent towards life in general, because I've seen animals who act better than human beings.
Source: Dale Byam, "Art, Exile and Resistance: An Interview with Wole Soyinka," in American Theatre, Vol. 14, No. 1, January 1997, p. 26.
Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th ed., Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981, p. 25.
Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook, s.v. "Nigeria," https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/print/ni.html (accessed August 12, 2008).
"Festival of Death," in Time, March 22, 1976, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,911769,00.html (accessed August 12, 2008).
Gibbs, James, "Wole Soyinka," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 332, Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 4: Quasimodo-Yeats, Thomson Gale, 2007, pp. 341-78.
"Harsh Comedy on a Lagos Beach," in Times (London), No. 56670, June 29, 1966, p. 7.
"Infectious Humanity," in Time, Vol. 90, November 17, 1967, p. 50.
Ositelu, Rufus Okikiolaolu Olubiyi, African Instituted Churches: Diversities, Growth, Gifts, Spirituality and Ecumenical Understanding of African Initiated Churches, Lit Verlag, 2002.
St. Jorre, John de, The Brothers' War: Biafra and Nigeria, Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
Soyinka, Wole, The Trials of Brother Jero, in Collected Plays 2, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 143-71.
———, Jero's Metamorphosis, in Collected Plays 2, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 173-213.
Falola, Toyin, and Matthew M. Heaton, A History of Nigeria, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
This is a history of Nigeria from pre-colonial times to the present. The authors' discussion of Nigerian politics, nationalism, and the economy and their presentation of Nigerian culture, including art, music, literature, and drama, shed light on the cultural environment in which Soyinka was raised and in which he produced much of his life's work.
Msiska, Mpalive-Hangson, Wole Soyinka, Northcote House, 1998, pp. 18-21.
Msiska discusses both Jero plays in terms of the corruption in society that they reveal. He argues that The Trials of Brother Jero also targets the false promises of the nationalist ideology of the early 1960s.
Obilade, Tony, "The Stylistic Function of Pidgin English in African Literature: Achebe and Soyinka," in Research on Wole Soyinka, edited by James Gibbs and Bernth Lindfors, Africa World Press, 1993, pp. 13-24.
Obilade examines the use Soyinka makes of pidgin English, concluding that it is an indispensable part of The Trials of Brother Jero.
Ogunba, Oyin, The Movement of Transition: A Study of the Plays of Wole Soyinka, Ibadan University Press, 1975, pp. 55-68.
This is the most detailed critical essay on the play. Oguna argues that the play is a satire on a materialistic society and that the characters are stock types, but Soyinka injects them with a vitality that is fresh and interesting.
Wright, Derek, Wole Soyinka Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1993.
Wright presents a comprehensive examination of Soyinka's work. His treatment of The Trials of Brother Jero discusses the elements of satiric comedy that Soyinka uses and also argues that the play should be regarded as a light comedy and not seen as a prelude to the darker Jero's Metamorphosis. However, Wright also argues that Soyinka created an ending to the play that revealed his serious misgivings about the future political leaders of Nigeria.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2279300024