Revisiting The Lion and the Jewel and its affinity to African life

By Gracious Madondo

VERY few scholars in whatever field have not read or heard about “Lion and the Jewel” a play written by Nigerian author Wole Soyinka.

Literary critic Duke Overa describes “The Lion and the Jewel” as, ‘’an evergreen classic which holds the fondest of readers and lovers of literature as one of the most popular works of Wole Soyinka”

The play-write is no doubt “evergreen”, it is timeless and full of life. Its plot simplicity and theatrical depth gives it a well-founded position in literature and theater arts.

If taken into cognizance in the study of literature and theatre studies in schools, Soyinka’s “The Lion and the Jewel” can deliver the required requirements in both fields.

The play was first performed in 1959 and later published by Oxford University Press in 1962.

Soyinka‘s “The Lion and the Jewel” can be said to have introduced a new flair into African contemporary art because it acknowledges the relationship between African life, art and performance.

The Lion and the Jewel also presents Africa’s most intricate stories of alienation in the simplest of terms and scenarios and this is what makes it the basis for reflecting the historical cultural and spiritual conflicts of Africa making the play even more compelling.

Clashes presented in the play include the conflict between African and European education and the conflict between African culture and modernity with polygamy and monogamy being the center of the cultural clash.

The play is driven by four main characters who are Baroka, Sidi, Lakunle and Baroka’s first and eldest wife Sadiku. Soyinka pitches each character as a symbol of the play’s major concerns. The old man, Baroka, represents the African culture that has survived through generations competing head to head with modernity and the younger generation. Baroka is representative to the “Lion” in the title of the play.

Through characterization, Soyinka tells the bitter story of the mental conquest of the African soul due to colonization. The infiltration of Western traditions into the African continent not only traumatized the African folk physically but also psychologically.

It is arguably this indelible mark of trauma upon the African mind which is embodied by the educated, verbose and confused school teacher Lakunle who finds fault in all that is African and seeks to replace it with the Western ways through Western education. Lakunle is also at logger-heads with Baroka as he also wants Sidi as his bride.

In their attempt to make Sidi their bride, each man employs his own means to win the bride. Baroka puts to use the traditional duty of the first wife, Sadiku, to help him woo Sidi convincing her into a polygamous marriage, a significant role of the first wife in a polygamous marriage. Lakunle on the other hand ridicules Baroka calling him a relic and irrelevant, boasting about his intellectual knowledge to win Sidi’s heart.

In Nigeria marrying many wives is legal and in the African culture polygamy is quite a prominent feature and it was also accepted that an old man can marry a young girl. Soyinka critically captures this phenomenon as Baroka woos Sidi “The Jewel’’ aiming at making her his bride.

Finally, Sidi’s decision to marry Baroka can be interpreted as though the author is saying Baroka is the better man and his attitudes are considerable and well worthy.

The triumph of the African culture over the Western culture is therefore the underlying massage of the entire play. The African culture’s resilience and firm practical establishment stands the test of time and the changes of the outside world.

The simplicity in which Soyinka depicts this triumphant story of the African culture makes The Lion and the Jewel a relevant text in both teaching and learning drama, dance, literature as well as the history behind Africa’s spiritual conflicts of belonging and identity.

August 2017
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