The use of song, in addition to general musical accompaniment, is also highly sophisticated and several different genres are included. Not only do characters have individual melodies which identify them and bespeak character, but moods, and even the tonality of situations, are also announced by Leitmotiven. Such songs are closely akin to kile – formal, praise greetings – which are common in West African cultures. For example, Oreame’s flights and magical power are acknowledged by her signature tune, and Ozidi executes his enemies to the chanting of a slaughter song which sometimes substitutes for a full account of the actual combat. At other times, song provides entertainment and respite from the narrative, but more often serves to raise levels of tension and excitement. Some also play on conventional cultural associations and usage beyond the confines of festival drama – for example, songs of war, worship, celebration, and lamentation (xxx). In many cases forms are stylized as in ululations – or fixed, as in lamentations which express loss of life or honor.    

The prototype can be said to consist of a repeated call on the name of the
Deceased, a catalogue of his talents and natural gifts, usually
exaggerated, and the declaration by the mourner of personal
helplessness in a world of enemies happy now the situation is so.
Recitative in delivery, the lament is reserved for moments when the
beloved is most missed. (xxviii)


A further and more difficult problem with the saga of Ozidi rests in its nature as oral literature. There is no fixed text and any given recitation or performance differs, sometimes markedly, from any other. The narrator, or story-teller, may change the number and/or order of episodes as well as the choice of songs to be included. The wording, too, is equally variable according to the demands of the situation in which the tale is recreated, the temper of the audience, and even the vagaries of the narrator’s memory. The text, as it has now been published, for example, is a version recited, rather than acted out, for a group of Ijo expatriates living far from home in the inland city of Ibadan. The occasion was a recording session arranged by J.P. Clark. Fortunately, however, other versions also exist, and a full appreciation of the tale depends largely on a review of common feature and variations. On the one hand there is the very nature of the tale as an autonomous and original creation – on the other, re-constructed features in different forms.

The role of narrator is particularly crucial in that the substance, structure, and style of the story is created freely, and in a ‘staged’ performance the narrator often doubles as hero. A close rapport is always maintained between narrator and audience, and the audience is often addressed directly, highlighting the role played and conditions under which the saga is being recreated as well as making rejoinders to audience participation. When moved, they comment loudly on the action and also take the bard to task when a performance fails to please them. Reading the transcribed text of Okabou’s recitation, the emotional tensions on both sides are obvious – the art of the story-teller as opposed to that of the story.

Beyond interest in aesthetic elements – the story’s structure and texture – lies the question of the composition as a reflection of social reality. We find ourselves in a mythic world of regeneration, but one in which full-bodied humor prevails, rather than judgment or sentimentality.

Dramatic ironies and macabre jokes abound, while comic characters and situations are handled with great sophistication. As comic relief, the Igbo blacksmith who forges Ozidi’s sword is a classic stereotype of the abject and stupid foreigner. He speaks pidgin Ijo and is exaggeratedly terrified of both Oreame and Ozidi (xxiii). On the other hand the continual re-introduction of the crazed and cowardly Temugedege, Ozidi’s uncle and titular head of the family, also provides a vivid counterpoint to the education and maturation of a cultural hero. Temugedege is too cowardly to fight, too lazy to work, and too foolish to recognize his nephew’s superiority. Ridiculed and consigned to a bad end, he represents all that is inimical to the community’s welfare.

Even on a mythic level the introduction of the Scrotum King immediately after the last of the traitors is killed off, brings the house down. Had we not have realized earlier that Ozidi has only become a warrior and culture hero, but not yet a man in the fullest sense, the narrator marks the point.


And now the spirit of the Scrotum King entered into him, none of his
Earlier victims had so invested him before.

Spectator: that scrotum has taken possession of him (laughter).
Caller: O STORY!
Group: Yes! (229)


Ozidi’s sexual innocence turns up again and again, particularly in his relationship to Ogodu’s seductive wife and to Azemaroti, the incestuous cannibal. The hero and his grandmother – now transformed as young and beautiful – only play at being man and wife, however. Both witches are struck down and then revive, and after the cannibal couple have been overcome, Oreame produces a ‘proper’ wife for the eager hero.

Interestingly enough, Clark’s modern verse play avoids all the natural and glorious humor. Christianity does encourage limitations.

Ozidi’s greatest battle is still before him – a confrontation with the Smallpox King whose jealousy has been aroused by the young man’s fame. Oreame’s charms restore our hero’s strength after the satanic attack, and the villain is cut up into little pieces. Having proved himself both in battle and bed, as well as vanquishing death, Ozidi settles down and swears never again to seek another fight.

Whether the hero suffers from external aggression (the Smallpox King) or sexual innocence and physical desire, laughter operates as antidote. The delight of the audience, however, can be disconcerting. Epics are expected to dwell on horrifying and fearsome actions, but it is unusual for audience to laugh and cheer at macabre and lugubrious proceedings. Okpewho comments:


In Africa, the performer and audience are frequently conscious of the
Play [and take great] interest even in the most fearful scenes in the heroic tale; the Tragicomic potential is given full vent (205).


Thus the audience laughs when characters, even the innocent, are struck down by magic or gruesomely mutilated. The value judgments of a Christian tradition simply do not apply in a world which celebrates and admires the might of a culture hero. The story is the thing – its adventure and exaggeration. The underlying mythic patterns are also psychologically satisfying: cyclical recurrence, celebration of the ideal warrior, sexual initiation, and control of the supernatural world through magical power.

On the other hand the influence of contemporary experience is also evident.
An overlapping vision of past and present is seen in comparing the flight of a witch to that of an airplane, or the height of a hero to that of a telephone pole. The contemporary world of clock time and a seven day week is easily assimilated into a traditional world as in the works of Amos Tutuola or Onitsha market pamphlets. The Smallpox King attacks Ozidi’s home ground in a heavily armed gun boat. Oreame, in disguise, is said to be wearing a fashionable Lagos blouse. There is also obvious assimilation from the Old Testament – such as the impassable lake of sperm discharged by the Scrotum King through which Ozidi creates a passage by extending his sword (Ho, ho). Then too, there is the seduction by Odogu’s wife who bargains her favors against the secret of his strength.

The world view which informs Clark’s formal verse drama, however, is very different from that of Okabou’s. Having undergone a Western education, Clark cannot help reinterpreting traditional material in the light of Eurocentric perspectives, just as Okabou, living in modern Nigeria, cannot help including reflections of contemporary experience in the rendering of traditional lore.

In both his film commentary and the modern verse play Clark chooses to emphasize Ozidi’s involvement in Temugedege’s death and certain other exploits as the excesses of a tragic hero. He prefers the version, whether Erivini’s or Afoduwa’s, in which our hero actually kills his grandmother, to Okabou’s tension-creating account in which Oreame is accidentally struck down, but revives. Clark ends both commentary and published play with Ozidi being saved, in spite of himself, through the innocence of his mother who treats smallpox as though it were common yaws. The Smallpox King stalks off in ironical indignation. Instead of including the hero’s sexual initiation, Ozidi’s battle with the Scrotum King is reduced by Clark to a fleeting Freudian dream, and his hesitation over killing Tebesonoma’s defenseless sister (whose name literally means ‘the innocent’) is seen as the product of a humane and caring sensibility, rather than his unacknowledged longing for wife and children. The modern verse drama greatly reduces the number and importance of encounters with the supernatural and completely alters the point of view from which they are described. Instead of the characteristics of a truly African, epic hero, Ozidi is invested with those of the classical Greek. Sexual initiation and victory over death are reduced to comedy. The celebration of a traditional world-view edges towards the reassurance of tragi-comedy. Battle-lust and sexuality give way to absolute judgment; error, expiation, and regeneration.

As literary composition, Clark’s play must be recognized as hybrid. The publication of traditional versions in The Ozidi Saga (1977) underlines a structural imbalance in the Eurocentric play. Nearly three-quarters of the action concentrates on the hero’s maturation and the cyclical renewal of the community. Clark’s first three acts are unified and complete in themselves, however episodic they are made to appear by the numerous scene divisions. When the last of his father’s assassins is overcome, a kind of completion has been achieved. The emphasis has shifted from heroic combat to the hero’s apprenticeship.

In the saga, as performed, one day’s narration covers Ozidi’s origin and development, while three are given over to single combat with his father’s enemies. In the modern verse drama only the last three scenes of Act Three deal with the later material, and emphasis is diverted from general acclamation/celebration to the incremental steps or stages of narrative.

In addition to introducing new interests, the radical condensation of the saga’s last three days further confuses the formal (European) unity of the play. On the other hand Act Four gives the appearance of merely being tacked on, which conspicuously confuses genre classification. From a world of myth we now find ourselves in one of classical, European drama which aspires to tragic stature. The shift is somewhat less than certain, however, and the main thrust  emphasizes Ozidi’s excesses as well as justifies the inevitability of retribution. Not that a work of mixed genre offends. Clark may well have had The Bacchae in mind, but Euripides had integrated the personal excesses of Pentheus into the broader conflict between reason and uncontrollable passion (Greece/Pentheus vs Asia/Bacchus). Ozidi, on the other hand, matures into the perfect culture hero and then subsides into excesses.

According to a European point of view, the lack of consistency in Clark’s play, Ozidi, is most obvious in the final act. The on-going action takes up about one-twentieth of the play’s duration while paralleling lengths and development of scenes throughout. Ozidi’s stature as a tragic hero is further undermined by the return to an ostensibly mythic world, but one which is obviously neither serious nor traditional. The Smallpox King, no longer Death incarnate, comes off as an exaggerated, Eighteenth Century, coffee-house joke – accompanied by Headach, Fever, etc. One is expected to laugh at the traditional world-view, and Ozidi charges on to overcome the Other World by the accident of Orea’s innocence and Death’s overweening pride. Clark’s attempt at reinterpretation of the legend unravels, and the piece is better classified as pageantry. 'Tis a pity as the underlying plot has both tragic and tragi-comic, as well as mythic (ritual), potential.