Euripides' Alcestis and Sutherland's Edufa: An Attempt at Cultural Transposition or Mere Coincidence

Obiora Eke, PhD

Department of English,

Madonna University Okija Campus,

Anambra State, Nigeria.



Aloy Nnamdi Obika

Department of English,

Madonna University Okija Campus,

Anambra State, Nigeria.



Edufa is written within the African traditional context. It borders on a society that is controlled by superstitious belief, a society full of medicine men who act as mediators assuring the protagonist that he can prolong his life through substitution. This can be done through asking or luring one to accept death on another person's behalf. Through a critical analysis of Edufa, we are shown a serene African environment which is devoid of the influence of Western culture. There is also the symbol of an owl, which traditionally represents doom as well as the chorus in the form of women mourners which all linked to African oral tradition. Sutherland in Edufa has succeeded in blending the elements of African folklore to achieve dramatic success. It is therefore clear that Sutherland had looked inward into the African tradition and has been able to create, through cultural influence, a play that is deeply rooted in the oral tradition of her people, and has successfully conveyed this through the vehicle of contemporary African dramatic form relevant to the needs of the modern man. However, in spite of all the African influences in the play, some critics accuse the playwright as adapting Euripedes' Alcestes for her to produce her own. Such accusations are unfounded and this is what this research has set out to correct.

Keywords: ritual, death, superstitious belief, substation, life


Efua T. Sutherland's Edufa shows an indebtedness to oral tradition in the area of sacrifice, which is made to counter the potency of the charm by washing and rites of purification. In the play, the issue of divination to know what the future holds for the people, the symbol of an owl, which traditionally represents doom, as well as the chorus in the form of women mourners are all linked to African oral tradition. Edufa is based on the traditional belief that the action(s) of a person or group of people can be controlled by more powerful people or person. In other words, the play borders on the traditional belief system that a person can pawn the soul of a beloved one probably for riches, power or long life. In Sutherland's words, as explicated in Edufa, it is the medicine man who acts as a mediator between the people, their gods and ancestors. Usually in most traditional African settings, it is believed that the gods are mediators for men and are often worshipped by men through the ancestors.

In Edufa, we are presented with Edufa, a very important personality in town, and as Sutherland puts it in the blurb of the play, we are made to understand how highly placed Edufa is. According to her in the words of Edufa:

Ask the town. They know who Edufa is and what he's worth. They can count you out my value in the houses that eat because I live. They rise in deference from their chairs when they say my name. And can a man allow himself to lose grip on that? A position like that!... Edufa's obsession with maintaining his privilege leads him to barter his wife's life against loss of prestige.

In other words, Edufa, afraid of dying and losing what he has worked for including his prestige and position, decides to substitute his life with the death of a beloved one and thereby postpones his own death. He (Edufa), therefore, asks a medicine man to prepare a charm for him so that a beloved one who accepts will die in his place and his life be prolonged. After the preparation of this charm, Edufa comes home and puts a question to his family members; he carelessly throws the question into the air as if he never meant his words. Unfortunately, "Edufa's attempt to substitute someone to die for him becomes a subtle guile which boomerangs" (Asgill 177). Instead of his father whom he thought will accept the "offer", his wife, Ampoma, speaks up first accepting the fact that she will die in place of her husband. And to worsen matters, Edufa does not want to make a public confession in order to remedy the situation.

The play opens with Abena (Edufa's sister) as she engages in sleepless nights in order to collect enough dew water in the pot as she has been ordered by her brother, Edufa, even though she does not understand the implications of what she is doing. As Abena says:

The last drop of dew has fallen. There's enough dew water in the pot ... My brother Edufa, your orders are done, though I obey without understanding... (4).

But soon after, we are made to understand that the dew water is to be used for the bathing in herbs; the performance of some ritual to counter death which Ampoma has accepted. However, this ritual performance turns out not to be helping matters, and according to Seguwa:

It seems to me that the time has come now to seek some other help. All this bathing in herbs and incense burning; I don't see it bringing much relief to your wife Ampoma in there

As the story unwinds, the true picture of what is happening begins to unfold; we get to understand why Ampoma is sick.

AMPOMA... Over me, the sun is getting dark. [With great agitation] my husband! Watch the death that you should have died. [She frets from place to place as if escaping from him]. Stay over there in the sun. Children! My children! If I could cross this water I would pluck you back from the mountain side....

EDUFA [Catching hold of her]: Oh, wife of my soul.

You should never have made that fatal promise.

AMPOMA: That I love you? My love has killed me ... (11).

From the above exchange of feelings between husband and wife, we are made to understand that Ampoma is sick and about to die because she made a fatal promise to die in place of the husband just for the love she has for him. Just as Kankam (Edufa's father) puts it:

KANKAM: You had willed that some old wheezier like me should be the victim. And I was the first to speak. 'Not me, my son', said I joking. 'Die your own death. I have mine to die'. And we all laughed. Do you remember? My age was protecting me.... Then Ampoma spoke... Yes, I see you wince in the same manner as you did when she spoke the fatal words that day and condemned her life. 'I will die for you Edufa', she said, and meant it too, poor, doting woman (17).

Unfortunately, all attempts made by Edufa later for Ampoma to forswear the oath, which she had sworn innocently, were futile. In fact, the more he tries to make Ampoma to forswear the oath, the more emotional Ampoma becomes, swearing away her life for love of her husband. Edufa later makes it plain to his wife the danger she is in for having taken the oath, and despite all efforts to counter the potency of the charms, Ampoma dies. All these things are brought to light as Kankam reproaches his son, Edufa:

KANKAM: You know you killed your wife that day. I saw fear in your eyes when she spoke. I saw it, but I didn't understand. I have learned that in your chamber that night, you tried to make her forswear the oath she had innocently sworn. But the more you pleaded, the more emotionally she swore away her life for love of you; until, driven by your secret fear, you had to make plain to her the danger in which she stood. You showed her the charm. You confessed to her its power to kill whoever wept? She had spoken and made herself the victim. Ampoma has lived with that danger ever since, in spite of all your extravagant efforts to counter the potency of the charm by washings and rites of purification. [With great concern] Edufa, I am here because I fear that time has come to claim that vow (18).

It becomes very clear that the death of Ampoma is as a result of the oath she has taken. Some people may think that Sutherland's attitude towards the supernatural seems to have contrary values due to further evidence which she brings in that help in making the death of which Ampoma swore by to be very potent. But the potency of this oath is reduced when she (the playwright) brings in other factors such as the hooting of the owl, the obliteration of the sign of the sun on the staircase, the violation of the rule that Ampoma should not fall three times on the floor as well as the idiot servant's inaudible utterances. Some people may see these as constituting some ambiguity thus making it difficult to ascertain what caused Ampoma's death.

These signs notwithstanding, the cause of Ampoma's death is made clear by the playwright through Seguwa (a matron member of the household) as she says:

SEGUWA: (Out of control) Bad signs. They would pose no menace if no oath had been sworn, and we were free to read in her present condition normal disabilities for which remedy is possible. As it is, the reality of that oath makes Edufa for all time guilty, no matter how or when she meets her end (55).

Within the traditional context, Edufa belongs to a society that is controlled by superstitious beliefs, a society full of medicine men who act as mediators between the characters in the play. To these medicine men, one can prolong his life, that his death can be avoided through substitution. In other words, someone else can be used as a substitute for his death; a beloved one can be brought to die in his place. This can be done by asking or luring one to accept death, and for the one who is supposed to die offering some sort of sacrifice, which can be said to be commensurate with the gravity of the offence as well as the social status quo of the individual affected.

Edufa, therefore, afraid to die, resorts to substitution in order to avert his doom. Unfortunately, Edufa wanted the father to accept to die for him or presumed that the father will accept to die for him but instead of that, his wife accepts to die for him. Every attempt by Edufa to reverse the process he has set in motion fails. In the long run, victory eludes the protagonist, and the play ends tragically. Even though he decides to fall back on traditional remedies like the consultation of diviners, burning of incense, and the ritual of bathing in herbs and dew, the wife eventually dies. The playwright has really excelled in her effective use of myth as a dramatic mode. She has successfully created a believable world where natural and supernatural forces are in conflict, and men and women are caught in the web of that conflict.


In terms of the play being greatly indebted to African oral tradition, the playwright has performed a feat. Apart from propagating the oral tradition of her people, Efua Sutherland has also in Edufa succeeded in examining and thus enriching her cultural heritage by portraying her people's numerous festivals, rituals and religious rites. At the very beginning of Act One of the play, the playwright basically uses a Ghanaian chorus of women who are performing an annual religious affair: a ritual performed in order to chase vile away from home. It is pertinent to point out here that this idea of a chorus is got by the playwright from an Akan group of old women who usually perform during traditional festivals. These groups of women known as the "Kununku", which can be likened to the "Umuada" in Igbo land, are very artistic, proverbial and form a strong social group. When they arrive in any person's home, the person does everything within his reach to make them happy. The importance of the chorus in the play cannot be over-emphasized. It is their duty to exorcise evil from homes. As it is very clear that there is some evil intrusion into Edufa's house, this ritual performance becomes imperative.

CHORUS: [Chanting to the rhythm of wooden clappers.]

Our mother's dead,

Ei! Ei-Ei!

We the orphans cry,

Our mother's dead,

O! O -O!

We the orphans cry (6).

The chorus is used to present the society's view point. They even try to explain the significance of their performance. According to them, they are not only mourning the dead, but also crying for their own deaths. The mood of the chorus as they enter Edufa's house is that of gaiety; they tease Edufa and his wife, Ampoma. But as they enter into their ritual performance, their mood changes as they start singing, dancing and making music with their wooden clappers: their mood becomes formal and serious.

In the play, equally, there is the use of song, music and dance which are typical of African festivals, folktales and traditional performances. Music and dance form a very important part of the play; in fact, they are integral to the plot. Many parts of the various acts are sung and danced. As a result, there is no dull moment in the play. In the play, music is complementary to dance which is pertinent in African traditional performance. It is important to reiterate the statement of Nwabueze:

Dance is very important in African traditional theatre because it is an intricate means of communication. It is a comment on the happenings in human life and a pantomimic representation of the acts which a society reveres or abhors.

He continues:

African dancing is varied and intricate and therefore cannot be fully understood without considering both the text and context of dance that its function is discerned since music and dance in Africa play more vital roles than mere entertainment (102).

The use of language in the play is also of paramount importance. Just as she did in The Marriage of Anansewa, to evolve a language which is very appropriate for the character of the play that is communally based, the playwright makes a direct translation of the Akan Language into the English. These transliterations are evident in the statement of various characters in the play.

CHORUS: Crying the death day of another is crying your own day. While we mourn for another, we mourn for ourselves (26).

In the above statement of the chorus, there is transliteration of the Akan language into the English language without due consideration to its grammatical correctness, but with a purpose to pass across the intended message to the audience or reader. There are some cases where the Akan language is used as it is, and there is no attempt to give further explanation. The audience or reader is expected to understand the implied meaning even when he/she does not understand the Akan language.

KANKAM: [Shocked.] Nyame above! To say Father and call me mad, my ntoro within you shivers with the shock of it (17)!

Other examples abound where transliterations are used in the play:

ABENA: [Beginning slowly and sleepily]

Night is long when our eyes are unsleeping

Three nights long my eyes have been unsleeping.

Keeping wakeful watch on the dew falling,

Falling from the eaves... (3).

It is also necessary to mention the presence of diviners, medicine men, the bathing in herbs and rites of purifications. Through a critical analysis of Edufa, we are shown a serene African environment which is devoid of the influence of Western culture. But life goes sour when Edufa, afraid of death, seeks to know what the future holds for him through the diviners. He is told that death awaits him, but it can be avoided if there is a beloved one who is ready to die for him. When Edufa puts the request to his family members, his father refuses to die for him. But his wife, out of the love she has for him, takes an oath to die for him without knowing the implication of what she has done to herself. Edufa's efforts to persuade her to forswear the oath fails, and he then tells her the danger she has put herself into. Frantic efforts are made to save Ampoma, but it is too late to cry when the head is off. Edufa's wife finally dies.

Furthermore, there is the symbol of an owl, which traditionally represents doom as well as the chorus in the form of women mourners; all are linked to African oral tradition. To the modern audience, the play provides a food for thought; there are many incidents that can put the modern audience in a rather confused state: the obliteration of the sun which leads to Ampoma's death, the hooting of owl which is a bird of ill-omen; the gift of beads curiously given to Edufa by Ampoma; the uneasy steps of Ampoma which result in her falling thrice against the warning of the medicine man; and the wooden clappers which the chorus leaves in Edufa's house after their early morning ritual performance.

Having said all these things, one cannot but be surprised when some people claim that Sutherland's Edufa is an adaptation of Euripides' Alcestis. Asthe companion to African Literature puts it "Basing her play specifically on Alcestis, Sutherland sought to exploit the similarities between the world views of ancient Greece and contemporary Ghana" (91). In the same vein, Asgill asserts, "Sutherland has worked on a Greek theme..." This may well be admitted but for Asgill's contradictory statement that the so-called Greek theme which Sutherland has worked on "... is familiar as it is indeed a popular African mythical belief, also, that a man could postpone his own death by the substitution of another's life. This, according to popular belief, is an inclination of the affluence and successful in life to prolong unduly their hegemony" (176).

In the same way, The Companion to African Literatures agrees with one important fact:

Although some of the most powerful moments in Edufa owe a debt to the Greek play, there are points at which local inspiration takes over and the Ghanaians interact, and the character of Senchi is drawn to appeal to a distinctively West African sense of humour (91).

In fact, one can therefore say without mincing words that there is hardly any basis to say that Edufa is an adaptation to die in place of the husband: in Edufa, Ampoma accepts to die for her husband, Edufa, so that the latter can live. In the same vein, in Alcestis, Alcestis accepts to die in place of her husband, Admetus. Be that as it may, Asgill, too, agrees that in as much as this is a Greek theme, it is also a "popular African mythical belief." It will amount to an unfair supposition for one to believe whole and entire that Sutherland's Edufa is based on Euripides' Alcestis. At critical look at the two plays will show a lot of marked disparities. In the first instance, Alcestis begins with Apollo playing a mediatory role even though without success. In Edufa, before the play begins, everything has been decided; there is no mediator.

Also, in Alcestis, the handmaid does not hide anything from the chorus. She makes them understand clearly the state Alcestis is in: she is almost dying, and that she is dying because she accepted to die in place of her husband. But in Edufa, even though Seguwa talks to the chorus about the happenings in Edufa's household, she talks in riddles. That makes it difficult for the chorus o understand what is really happening. It is important to point out that in Alcestis, Admetus (the husband of Alcestis) is a King. Meanwhile, Edufa is a mere opportunist who was lucky to make money, and is respected for his generosity.

Above all, the two visitors in the two plays (Senchi and Heracles) are worthy of mention. Heracles, who visits Admetus in Alcestis, has mystical powers. He wrestles with Death, and in fact, brings Alcestis back to life. On the other hand, Senchi (Edufa's visitor and friend) had no such powers. He can only sing melodious songs. As a result, when Ampoma (Edufa's wife) dies, she had no opportunity to live again. Thus Alcestis ends, and the protagonist, by a miraculous turn of events lives and the play ends happily. On the other hand, Sutherland's Edufa ends up as a tragedy: Ampoma dies and never comes back to life.

At this point, the analysis of Paul O. Iheakaram on the influence on Clark's The Raft (1964) by Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" (1897) readily comes to mind. A critical study of his (Iheakaram's) article will show remarkable similarities in the two works of art as regards the titles, the desires of the men, the characterization, the natural forces that harass the men, their identical methods of appealing to those they expect assistance from, their feelings and fear about imminent death, their similar songs, and the general atmosphere in the two works. He, therefore, rightly concludes in support of Dathorne's statement:

The Raft would have been a better story as prose fiction. Clark may have chosen the stage medium in order to achieve greater aesthetic distance, but it is quite clear how close he is to his source. The parallels between "The Open Boat" and The Raft cannot be attributed to mere coincidence (Iheakaram 59).

Having said these, it is important to reiterate that someone who says flatly that Sutherland's Edufa is an adaptation of Euripides' Alcestis is not being fair to Sutherland. It will not be wrong if one says that the critics in this "boat" belong to the evolutionary school of thought: those blind-folded by the Eurocentric views of drama. As Enekwe states, "Drama thrives best when its structure is indigenous to the society for which it is created. If borrowed elements are permitted to displace traditional ones, the resulting drama tends to be defective." (59)


In Sutherland's Edufa, the format of presentation is its forte. The parallel between Sutherland's Edufa and Euripides' Alcestis may be mere coincidence. Sutherland's play is largely based upon the oral tradition of her people. This indebtedness can be clearly noticed in the area of sacrifices, which were made to counter the potency of the charm by washing and rites of purifications; there is also the burning of incense. In the play, too, diviners are consulted to ascertain what the future holds for the people, the symbol of the owl, which traditionally represents doom as well as the chorus in the form of women mourners. All these things are linked to the African oral tradition. It can therefore be said that folklore has a dominant influence in the culture of any group, and in Africa as elsewhere, folklore reflects the people's way of life.

The play is based on a very popular African mythical belief that a man can live longer by substituting his death with another person's life. In other words, one can die for another person thereby postponing the death of the person he has died in his place. In this case, the help of diviners to ascertain what the future holds for a person and that of medicine men to prepare the charms are needed; it is from this belief system that Sutherland's Edufa has successfully developed a new art form, which is deeply rooted in the tradition of the Akan people of Ghana. She has succeeded in blending the elements of African folklore to achieve dramatic success.

In the play, the use of language is characterized chiefly by repetition.

CHORUS: [Chanting to the rhythm of wooden clappers.]

Our mother's dead,

Ei! Ei-Ei!

We the orphans cry,

Our mother's dead,

O! O -O!

We the orphans cry. (6)

The stage direction makes us understand that there are repetitions of the chanting. It is therefore very clear that Sutherland had looked inward into the African oral tradition and has been able to create, through cultural influence, a play that is deeply rooted in the oral tradition of her people, and has successfully conveyed this through the vehicle of contemporary African dramatic form relevant to the needs of the modern man. Through the use of language, character, music and structure, she has excellently converted the folklore of her people into drama thereby showing that folklore has a major influence on contemporary African drama.

Names very common to the Akan-speaking people of Ghana are used. Such names as "Odum (Name of a rich and powerful man in a folktale), Abena (daughter of Odum who got married and had not been prepared for the difficulties that she encountered)" go a long way to buttress the fact that the play is heavily indebted to oral tradition as well as signifying the importance of marriage before one gets into bearing children. There is also the mention of nysnys which is "a vine used in ritual ceremonies, believed to have the power to purify and avert evil force" (30 and 49).


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Enekwe, Ossie. "Myth, Ritual and Drama in Igboland". Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Source Book. Yemi Ogunbiyi. (Ed) Lagos: Nigeria Magazine, 1981, 77. Print.

Iheakaram, Paul O. "John Pepper Clark and Stephen Crane: An Investigation of Source and Influence".In Research in African Literatures. 13: 1, 1982. Print.

Killam, Douglas and Ruth Rowe (Ed). The Companion to African Literatures.

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. Print.

Nwabueze, Emeka. Vision and Re-Visions: Selected Discourse on Literary Criticisms. Enugu: ABIC Publishers, 2003. Print.