Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 120-132
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Between Drama and Epic:
Toward a Medium for Ozidi
A certain critical ambivalence has always attended the career and stature of John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo. More than any of his contemporaries, he has been the one who frequently stands the risk of being forgotten. Indeed it is quite easy to forget that he belonged there with the other three--Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, and Wole Soyinka--at the beginning. 1 The critical neglect from which Clark-Bekederemo suffered may have been occasioned as much by the creative drought that has punctuated his career now and then as by his early maturation as a writer, which makes even his most coherent works at best apprentice pieces. From the title and resolution of tragic conflict (Song of a Goat), the dramatic convention of a sequel, sourced in a donnée held in common in the lore of the people (The Masquerade), to the absurdist notion of Mankind uprooted from the ancestral terra firma of beliefs and conceits, and floundering in a sea of caprice and uncertainty (The Raft), the dramatist in his first three plays was searching for an appropriate form and mode in which to anchor his impending statement for an African tragic spirit, protagonist, and worldview. As attested by The Ozidi Saga, when this statement came it was not as drama but as epic. Ozidi the play is, quite simply, Clark-Bekederemo's attempt to force (not distill) this statement into the straitjacket of the medium he knew best: drama. No doubt Clark-Bekederemo will ultimately occupy his hallowed place in the pantheon of Nigerian literature, but this is not likely to be on the strength of these early works. There is, instead, an understated significance for what is increasingly turning out to be his life's work, the Ozidi corpus, 2 and it is in due analysis and assessment of its value and merit that Clark-Bekederemo's true stature will ultimately reside. Ozidi the drama is a fine example of the new directions to the performing arts opened by the writer.
Ozidi is unique in Nigerian theater for the enormity of its unrealized, perhaps unrealizable, stage potential. Its overwhelming sense of atmosphere and spectacle, its insistence on space beyond the means of the conventional stage, its dependence on stunts, eye-flash transformations, and other visual, essentially cinematic effects sometimes make the reader (in its present circumstances this is how best to refer to the play's interlocutor) feel a sense of irremediable incongruity between message and medium, means and mode. In addition, The Ozidi Saga seems to drag every other thing Clark-Bekederemo has done in tow each time a discussion of these works arises. This is nowhere else as prominent as in critical response to Ozidi the drama, which, either on stage or in print, has never enjoyed anything near an independent existence. Clearly, much of the play's ungainliness is a result of its derivative status, caught between its antecedent of an epic, open-air performance, and its transplanted medium of the proscenium arch. Regrettably, those who have noted this have generally been [End Page 120] content to see its consequences in terms of the limitations of the Nigerian stage or the resourcefulness (or lack of it) of Nigerian producers. Ozidi may go on being a failure or at best half-fulfilled theater on the stage, for as long as critics and producers insist on pouring this wine of the epic, airy tradition of space and verisimilitude into the circumscribed and hidebound space of the conventional theater. Perhaps it "was inevitable that Clark, an outstanding playwright, should make a play from the narrative that he had taped" (Okpewho, Myth in Africa 164). Still, Ozidi is unlikely to be fully realizable on stage simply because the dramatist himself may have missed his line, so to speak, by attempting a direct transplant of the material of a narrative, fictive, and fancy-intensive mode into the elliptical, stylized idiom of the theater.
The Ozidi corpus will ultimately...