Critical Analysis of John Pepper Clark’s “The Wives’ Revolt”

Wives stage a walk-out against their husbands for passing obnoxious law preventing them from owning goats.

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The Wives’ Revolt by John Pepper Clark outlines the struggle between men and women in a certain oil-rich community in Nigeria. The men as always want to assert their superiority and domineering spirit while the women in turn fight for gender equality. There is a tussle between the both genders on the sharing formula of the money given to the community by an oil company.

The power struggle in this society comes down to the family which is the smallest unit in any society. The relationship between Okoro and Koko, man and wife, reflects the conflict and tension the play engenders. Both Koko and Okoro are active participants in the conflict.

The playwright projects the couple as a microcosm of what obtains in their society.

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Setting

The setting of the play is Erhuwaren, an oil-rich community in Urhobo Area of Nigeria. Its dwellers are characteristically farmers and traders. The temporal setting is visualised against a backdrop of a community of people who are compensated for the devastation of their environment by the oil companies prospecting for and mining oil.

Characters

There are three identified characters in the play. They are Okoro, Koko, and Idama.

Timeline of Events

  • An oil company gives the community of Erhuwaren some money.
  • The men who are coincidentally the leaders of the community decide to share the money into three. A part will go to the men; another to the women; and the third chunk will be given to the elders.
  • The women kick against the arrangement. They argue that the sharing formula is unjust. They posit that the elders of the community are made up of men. Technically, the men are taking the lion share of the money in two places.
  • The men try to suppress the opposition from the women. They make a law which forbids the rearing of goats by the women.
  • The women are not going to give in without a fight. All the wives in the community leave the community en masse without arousing the tiniest suspicion from their husbands.
  • The men are left with strenuous domestic duties which they obviously can’t handle.
  • The women taunt their men further by choosing to stay in “diseased-ridden” Iyara, an arch-enemy town.
  • The voices of reason of the reconciliatory husbands prevail over the stubborn ones like Okoro to placate the women and repel their stifling draconian goat ban.
  • The women return home with burning thighs, having contracted what seem like STDs through asexual means.
  • There is a resolution that necessary measures should be taken to restore the women back to good health. It is also agreed that the oil money, initially the bone of contention, should be channelled into the community’s education fund.

Culture

In the play, the playwright expresses some cultural practices either peculiar to the Urhobo ethnic group or reflective of the African culture.

First of such values is the sanctity of the African home. Koko, despite being crossed with Okoro for aligning with the men’s sharing formula, cooks for her husband nonetheless. Koko does not allow her political interests to conflict with her domestic duties. It is only when the wives reach a consensus to leave their husbands that she toes in line too.

Another is the patriarchal hegemony in African societies. Predictably, the leadership of Erhuwaren community is dominated by men. The membership of the elders of the community speaks volumes. It is made up of just older men when there are older women who, ordinarily in a gender equal society, are as qualified as the men to be members. The laws and decisions made in the community (e. g. the sharing of the oil money, the goat ban) favour the men. Okoro’s washing of his hands to eat and his fiddling with the solid chunk in his soup further reinstate the patriarchy in most African homes. He does these deliberately to spite his wife.

The playwright also depicts food-related cultural practice in the play. He uses Okoro as a vehicle of communicating this cultural ideology. For example, while trying to eat, Okoro throws the bone of his fish to the threshold for bad spirits to choke on while he throws a chunk of its flesh for the good spirits to feed on. These acts portray the belief that the cosmos of Africans is governed by spiritual forces, which necessitates reserving some parts of their food or drinks for the spirits, good or bad.

The concept of witchcraft is also explored in the play. As expected, the women are associated with witchcraft. The men, for mischievous reasons, label their wives as witches possessing the diabolical powers to merge with or transform into goats. This ridiculous superstition is founded upon the judgement of two drunken men.

Plot Summary

J. P. Clark’s The Wives’ Revolt is divided into six parts, each contributing to the plot development of the play. They are also arranged sequentially in such a way that one part prompts the other.

The first part is titled Proclamation. This part sets a foundation for what to expect in the play. Okoro, the town crier, goes round the town of Erhuwaren, announcing to the generality of the public about the goat ban. He predicates this decision of the community leaders on the fact that goats are being used as channels by the women to practice witchcraft. He also intimates the public about how the sharing formula of the money given to the community by an oil company has been a bone of contention between the men and the women of the community. He generally believes that the sharing formula is just and finds it hard to come to terms with why their wives would not see it that way too.

The second part is titled Dissent. In this part, the playwright domesticates the ensuing conflict in the community. He gives an insight into how the issue plays out in each family, using Okoro’s family to epitomise this. Koko, Okoro’s wife, is particularly crossed at Okoro and the other men in the community for passing what she calls an “obnoxious law.” She finds it hard to believe that the men could take the words of three drunks and perennial wife beaters (Oto, Kama, and Idodo) on the face value; hook, line and sinker on the basis that they are highly respected members of the community.

Koko holds dear to the position that the law in itself is promulgated in order to suppress the women for their dissent. It does not escape her that the category of people affected by this law are the women of the community. She questions why it is goats, not pigs, that are banned. She brings us to the understanding that goats are owned by women while pigs are owned by men — which justly confirms her suspicions.

Despite her protestation, Koko continues to perform her wifely duties which include cooking for her husband. Okoro on the other hand deliberately downplays and belittles her efforts, finding fault in the food she cooks among many other things. He doesn’t fail to flaunt the superiority of his gender in words and manners to his wife’s face.

The third part of the play is titled Walk-out. Here, Idama, Okoro’s friend, is introduced into the context of the play. He comes to Okoro’s house to inform Okoro of the disappearance of their wives from the town. It is by his announcement that Okoro gets to know that even Koko, his wife, has left the town with the other women in protestation of the unjust distribution of the proceeds from the oil industry and the banning of goats.

Idama’s wife, Titi, too has gone awol. When questioned by Okoro on the reasons the women cite for taking leave of their husbands, Idama claims the women are exercising and asserting their right to own and keep properties (p. 20). Okoro opines that women do not have rights to start with.

The men do not know how far the women are willing to go to assert their right. This is why some men in the community like Udi have suggested that they go and beg the women. Idama seems to buy into the idea but Okoro calls such men cowards.

Okoro rubbishes the efforts of their wives in homekeeping, saying their mothers are better in every ramification. Idama agrees that the food of their mother was tastier than those of their wives. Apart from their having to carry “load for nine months,” something he attributes as “gift of God,” Okoro does not see anything irreplaceable about their women.

Okoro invites Idama to partake in the roasting of the goat he caught. The both of them tried lighting a fire to make this possible — a task they try to no avail. It is only after a while of futility and to prove to Idama that there is nothing special about lighting a fire that Okoro suggests calling his child, Omote, to see to the lighting of the fire while they carve up the meat.

The fourth part of the play is titled Lullaby. In this part, we find Okoro at the verandah of his house babysitting his youngest child. He is frustrated by the domestic chores he is reduced to doing. He sings lullaby to soothe the crying baby in replacement of breastfeeding. Idama finds him in this activity and makes a sarcastic comment about Okoro’s pitiable condition. Idama goes on to give Okoro the status report about their wives’ whereabouts. He gives him a report about the trajectory of their movements, before finally telling him that the women have settled at Iyara town. Even the seemingly unmoved Okoro is shocked at the decision of the women to domicile in a town of their arch-enemies, a town whose people they consider filthy, uncouth, and despicable.

Idama further tells him about the arrangements being made to make peace with the women, and the demands of the women and the host-town. By the end of this part, Okoro’s youngest child soils Okoro’s cloth with urine, which Idama makes a joke of with a reference to the child pouring him (Okoro) a drink. Okoro resumes his singing of lullaby to soothe the child.

Lullaby is significant in that it shows the effects of the women’s migration from Erhuwaren on the men. It deflates their paternal ego. The men find it difficult to fit into the oversized shoes the women left behind. Even the rather egoistic Okoro laments bitterly at what he is reduced to. It is also worthy of note that the older women, continually referenced as “old girls,” in the text refuse to help their sons in attending to domestic chores, as in the case of Idama’s mother. A consensus is reached in the end of Lullaby that the “old girls” be asked to go and negotiate with the women and convince them to come back home.

The fifth part of the play is titled Return. The wives return home to their husbands with what seems to be sexually transmitted disease. Koko is not exempted. She returns home with burning thighs. She says she has got the cross-piece in her crotch. Okoro, being the combative listener that he is, immediately levels accusation of infidelity against his wife. He calls her an adulterer, lending wings to his imagination. The wife describes Okoro’s mind as “a pit of maggots” (p. 49).

While the wife claims not to know how it happened, the husband further compounds the situation with his assumptions and inferences. It takes the intervention of Idama, whose wife also comes home with the same infection, to clear the air of confusion. While in the town of Iyara, the women are assigned Ighodayen as their chief bridesmaid by their arch-enemies. Here is someone infamously denied by both marriage and prostitution. It is she who brings about the infection the women are afflicted with.

Koko joins the protesting women outside to ask that they be healed of their affliction.

The sixth part of the play, which is the last, is titled Reclamation. Like in the first part of the play, here again is Okoro in his traditional duty as the town crier making an announcement to the people of Erhuwaren. He makes public the revocation of the obnoxious law banning goats from the city. He also announces the granting of settlement dues to the women: “the specially fatted cow, the hundred heads of yam, the ten barrels of palm oil, and all the other items of reparation” (p. 59). He also assures the public that necessary arrangements have been made to ensure that the women are cured of their infection. He ends on the note that what is left of the oil money has by consensus been dedicated to the opening of a school building fund. His tone is conciliatory in this part, unlike the first part where his tone is not only that of contempt but also imposing.

Dramatic Devices

Koko and Okoro allude to the Aba women riot of 1929 and the Abeokuta women riot in page 15 of the play:

Koko: Who told you so? The British shot at women at Aba, and everybody knows they rise from seats for their women to sit, while you order us to carry yours behind you.
Okoro: Those Aba women adopted the wrong tactics. They should have stripped like the women at Abeokuta at similar protest. That would have disarmed government.

What plays out in the above excerpt is an instance of historical allusion.

Dramatic monologue also features in the play. The first part of the play, Proclamation, is characterised by the use of dramatic monologue. Okoro, fulfilling his traditional function ass the town crier, is the only one talking during the duration of this part.

There is also an instance of dramatic monologue in the early part of the fourth part of the play, Lullaby, involving Okoro again. Here, he is complaining about the troubles he is confronted with, having to babysit his children. He sings a lullaby in the process to soothe the crying baby.

Dramatic monologue manifests again in the last part of the play when Okoro announces the resolution of the conflict between men and women in the community.

There is an instance of sarcasm in Lullaby with particular reference to the statement made by Idama in respect of the deplorable condition of Okoro. Idama says:

I see in these days of emergency men play many roles. Great orators in the assembly, and poor nannies at home.
— Idama, Page 28

Resource Text

  • Clark, J. P. (1991). The Wives’ Revolt. University Press PLC.

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