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The Lion and the Jewel as an African Play

The Lion and the Jewel, an African play written in English, has paid attention  to the English speaking audiences in different countries. The play has brought together some features of African, more definitely Yoruba, theatrical tradition. At the same time, it communicates with elements of English theatre tradition.

Soyinka’s own words clarify his intention in the play, and single out one by one, the elements or features of African theatre tradition in the play:
“African drama is sophisticated in idiom. Our forms of theatre are quite different from literary drama. We use spontaneous dialogue, folk music, simple stories, and relevant dances to express what we mean. Our theatre uses stylized forms into the drama of the English language.” (Quoted in Nkosi,108)

          The first and foremost quality of an African drama is its “spontaneous dialogue” which in the context means unprepared or extempore sentences spoken by the performers in the course of the actual performance. This spontaneity may vary from person to person, company to company. However, in wring it down, printing and publishing, Soyinka had inevitably to eliminate spontaneous dialogue from The Lion and the Jewel. Yet he tries to give the performers and directors certain amount of spontaneity: the use of details as and etc indicates such opportunity. Thus, Soyinka’s theatre differs from African drama in respect of rehearsal stage or performance.

          Born in the traditional musical family, Soyinka had an early interest in music. In The Lion and the Jewel he uses folk music, the music of the people or popular music from a variety of sources.

          Oyin Oguba (1976:44-45), an African scholar, observes that the songs sung by the prisoners working on the railway are “well-known, lewd pub-songs”:
          Whenever I have threepence
          Whenever I have sixpence
          It is always palm-wine.
          I would have been married by now
          But for the palm-wine gourd.
The song is obviously a song which witnesses to the attraction of palm-wine and to the need to save in order to “afford” a wife. It was a favourite  percussion song among prisoners.
          Again Segun Osiokeye comments on the songs sung at the end of the play,
          “these are two of many Yoruba songs for celebrating marriages” (p.16)
These songs are part of a village repertoire, familiar to all, including children, and part of the ever-changing body of popular music.

          Drum is an important element in Yoruba musical and theatrical tradition. There are in the play specific requests for the “gangan” and “ilu iya”, two sorts of drum which, though difficult to control, can imitate some of the tonal patterns of the Yoruba language.

          In the case of “simple stories”, the story of The Lion and the Jewel itself is straight forward and can be simply told, and in this play resembles Soyinka’s “African drama”. But there is complexity in the handling of the plot, in the anticipating of the certain developments, in using various techniques to fill in the background, in leaving the audience in suspense.
          Soyinka emphasizes on “relevant dances” as a reaction to the so called “African dramas” which simply add a few local dances to a play with borrowed plot and fundamentally alien characters. The playwright has incorporated into this play a number of dances, dance dramas, and mimes through which we learn about significant events which have happened in Ilujinle, or about the personalities of the characters. They are:
1)    “The dance of the lost traveller”, a dance drama with episodes of mime and final communal dance .
2)    “The mime of the white surveyor”, largely a mime in the course of which the prisoners sing and move rhythmically.
3)    “Sadiku’s dance of triumph” a solo performed around a carving of the Bale.
4)    “The dance of  Baroka’s story”: in two parts, the story of Baroka’s sex life as understood by Sadiku
5)    “The finale”, a bridal and communal dance which takes Sidi off to her hushband and draws the play to a close.

Soyinka’s education gave him a wide and intimate knowledge of the English traditions of drama. Therefore, Soyinka “integrates” African drama with “the drama of the English language” with a rare mastery and eloquence. His primary way of this integration is of course in the use of the language itself. Being asked about the reason of writing in English, Soyinka replied:
English is the common language-not always the Queen’s English but what you call broken English or pidgin.(Quoted in  Morrell, 28)
Another obvious way in which he follows the English tradition is in the act of writing the play down. The Lion and the Jewel consists of three acts entitled morning, noon and night. However, it is also true that the English tradition has passed through many developments: the traditions of written drama are not actually uniform.

          To sum up, we must claim that The Lion and the Jewel is an excellent example of “African drama” associated with English theatre tradition. Though not very unusual, Soyinka shows his mastery in combining acting, dancing, and singing in this play.  

Works Cited

Nkosi, Lewis. Home and Exile. London: Longman, 1965

Oguba, Oyin. The Movement of Transition. Ibadan: University of Ibadan Press, 1976

Osiokeye , Segun. Notes and Essays on Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel. Ibadan: Progresso, 1973

Morrell, Karen L. Ed. In Person: Achebe, Awoonor and Soyinka. Seattle, 1975


  1. Thank you so much.very helpful.


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