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Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 32-55

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Soyinka, Euripides, and the Anxiety of Empire 1

Isidore Okpewho


The old Aristotelian derivation of the word tragedy as a goat-song was given a graphic endorsement, at the dawn of the postcolonial African dramatic history, by the Nigerian poet-playwright John Pepper Clark. Newly graduated from University College, Ibadan—a colonial institution, where the old European classics were taken quite as seriously as in their

home base—Clark produced and later published his first play, Song of a Goat, demonstrating, "in title and action, that a tragic mode might be as indigenously African as it was Greek" (Wren 42; Ferguson 5).

Central to this drama, which explores the counterplay of impotence and fertility in a traditional family, is the role of a goat. The original Nigerian production of the play (1962) called for the slaughter of a goat as a communal rite. When, however, the play was produced at the Commonwealth Festival of the Arts in London in 1965, cultural differences dictated the replacement of the Nigerian example with a milder but not much more successful alternative. "A rather lively goat, another practical mistake," Wole Soyinka says in his critique of this production, "tended to punctuate passages of intended solemnity with bleats from one end and something else from the other" (Myth 45). Although Abiola Irele, in a recent discussion of the play, does not consider the theme of sexuality central to it (xlii), the liaison between the wife (Ibiere) and her brother-in-law (Tonye), which drives her impotent husband (Zifa) to suicide, clearly suggests, as I have argued elsewhere ("Understanding African Marriage"), that such subliminal drives may be even more central to the playwright's purposes than the well advertised dictates of traditional custom. At any rate this convergence of the sexual and the sacrificial, in a play which openly advertises its ties with the European classics, neatly prefigures Wole Soyinka's own exploration of the same themes in his adaptation of Euripides's Dionysian play.

I have chosen to see Soyinka's effort as a translation of culture, not of text: since he worked from previously published translations by Murray and Arrowsmith (as he tells us in a prefatory note), he has obviously given as much of his energy to reconstructing the ethnos (no less than the ethos) of the play as to manipulating the language of it. It would therefore make sense to see Soyinka's effort within such contexts of understanding of cultural translation as those articulated by scholars as diverse (in generational terms) as Reuben Brower and James Clifford.

In his examination of the successive fortunes of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, Brower states: "Translation forcibly reminds us of the obvious fact that when we read, we read from a particular point in space and time" (173). In more recent times, Clifford has been concerned with the value of ethnographic works in terms of the claims they make about representing other cultures. His point that "the maker . . . of ethnographic texts cannot avoid expressive [End Page 32] tropes, figures, and allegories that select and impose meaning as they translate it" (7) is just as valid for our understanding of literary as of anthropological "translations." Together with scholars like Brower, he has played a key role in bringing us to recognize the historicist urges to which our interpretations of cultural text respond, whether we intend this consciously or not.

In Wole Soyinka's adaptation of Euripides's Bacchae, there can be no doubt in anyone's mind that the historicist response is a calculated review of the circumstances within which he and his people have been accustomed to look at the world in which they live: namely, the uncomfortable relations between their ancestral traditions and an imperial culture that continues to pose severe challenges to these traditions. Although the adaptation presents itself as an exercise in cultural exchange, Soyinka's effort is clearly grounded in an ideological review—against the background of relations between the denizens of Soyinka's own world—of the climate within which Euripides wrote...


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