Go to Eric
by Eric Miller in Dec. 1998
in an African
Eugene O'Neill was the first great playwright of the United States of America. One of the themes of his work was the isolation and alienation of the individual in the mass society of the Machine Age. He perceived the (modern Western) human condition as being overwhelmingly tragic, even tortured. Great artist and soul that he was, Eugene O'Neill sought a solution for himself and his people, those of modern Western culture. In his lifetime, he was not able to find a solution. However, Eugene O'Neill was very interested in African and African-American cultures, and he pointed in those directions when he searched for ways to involve audience members. I find myself feeling that it is a shame that Eugene O'Neill was not exposed to storytelling and ritual events in African (and other) contexts in which there is much audience participation. Of course he could have chosen to have been so exposed -- as a wealthy world-traveler he could have gone anywhere. But the time was not right. Modern Western culture was not yet ready to perceive and digest the traditional interactive storytelling event. It is only now, at the dawning of the electronic Interactive Age, that it is becoming possible for moderns to truly see and imitate the interactivity of certain traditional storytelling events. And so, this paper is dedicated to the memory of Eugene O'Neill: may my words please his spirit.
This paper looks at one particular epic storytelling event: a performance of the Ozidi saga.2 This performance was given over the course of seven nights (approximately three hours each session) in Ibidan in 1963. The Ozidi saga was traditionally performed in an annual festival, but this practice was disappearing, so the scholar J. P. Clark sought out the performers and audience members and helped to organize the performance. There was a large Ijo-speaking community in Ibidan, which is a few hundred miles from the Niger delta of Nigeria, the location in which the tradition arose. J. P. Clark asked Madam Yakubu of Inekorogha to gather the people and host the event. The storyteller was Okabou of Sama. J. P. Clark's book, The Ozidi Saga, which features a transcription of the performance, does not mention how many Ijo-speaking people were present at the performance: all we know is that the performance was held inside the home of Madam Yakubu. The stated 'purpose' of the performance was to record the event on audiotape: it was understood that this material might eventually be played on the radio and be transcribed and published as a book; that is, that it might be presented to the international academic community, including the 'white man.'
The structure of this paper is as follows: After a preliminary definition of the form and content of epic storytelling, there will be a discussion of the theory and rhetoric of participation, especially the theory of "participatory discrepancies." Then will come the heart of the paper, an analysis of audience participation through identification and through verbal interaction -- including correcting, describing, embellishing, elaborating, cueing, prompting, exhorting, and roleplaying. The discussion of roleplaying will be accompanied by a consideration of psychodrama (a form of drama therapy). The paper ends with musings about possible extensions of audience participation through the use of electronic communication.
The textual commentary is limited to consideration of verbal expressions because I am working from a written text, the verbal transcription of the performance. This is an extremely limited view of the performance event. I am missing the melodies, textures, and rhythms of the sounds, both verbal and non-verbal (the teller was accompanied by a two instrumentalists). I am also missing the physical movements of all parties involved. One major area in which I am largely in the dark regards the ways in which participants communicated to each other, both by sound and gesture, about the real audience of this performance -- those who would hear it through the microphone.3 On the positive side, however, I am very fortunate that J. P. Clark included in his transcription an element that past transcriptions of storytelling events have often omitted: the verbal contributions of audience members.4
review, then: This paper examines the
phenomenon of audience participation.
The research questions include:
"What are ways that a teller can bring a story to life through
audience involvement and participation?"
"What forms of audience participation can be found in (the transcription
of) the performance of the Ozidi saga?"
"What especially can be said about one type of participation:
roleplaying? What encourages and
enables people to engage in roleplaying?" And, "How might audience participation
as found in the Ozidi saga performance be translated into
electronically-augmented or electronically-extended performances?"
'Epic Storytelling': Form and Content
"Epic is glorious, multifunctional, multigenre, day-and-night long."5 "It is music, rhythm, song, dance, movement, dramatic entertainment. It is feasting and gift-giving ... It is group solidarity and mass participation."6 The type of epic storytelling under study is practiced by "a special type of artist who is a composer-poet-performer all rolled into one person, working in the multiple mediums of words, music, dance, drama, and ritual."7 Movements, gestures, dances, songs, lyrics, melodies, and rhythms are associated with, and are used to represent, each character and episode of the story.8 The teller is engaged in organizing and conducting the audience members' as well as his own actions (in the case of the Ozidi performance, the teller was assisted by a chorus leader and accompanied by two musicians). It must never be forgotten that this type of performance involves constant flux: performers and audience members are constantly forming and reforming into physical and aural patterns. Sometimes the group acts in unity; sometimes an individual acts in opposition to the group; sometimes the group is split in half. Oppositional, or complementary, aesthetic actions may be performed simultaneously or in alternation.
In terms of content, an epic tells the story of one individual who represents his/her entire people. This individual goes through processes of establishing social practices and institutions, even the tribe itself. In the case of the Ozidi saga, the overriding mission of Ozidi is the recovering of his father's reputation:
The teller of an epic tends to identify especially closely with the epic hero. In the case of the Ozidi epic, the teller wears a white robe, which is associated with Ozidi.10 Just as Ozidi regurgitates, or vomits, his sword and battle outfit out of his self before each battle, so the teller creates from within himself the entire storyworld, creating it at will out of his imagination. Just as Ozidi leads his little army (his musician-assistants, his grandmother, and the animals and objects that he regurgitates), so the teller leads his group (his musician-assistants and audience members) into another kind of battle. The teller wins his battle by remembering and telling his people's story, and by forging the audience members into a cohesive group and leading them in the traditional ways, thus bringing to life, re-birthing, the story, the storytelling style, and in a microcosmic sense, the Ijo people themselves. The storyteller's battle is against forgetting and being forgotten, against one's culture, one's ancestors, and thus oneself, being lost in cultural oblivion. By gathering and performing itself, the Ijo people, led by their teller, honor their inherited culture and attempt to confirm its reality and validity.
Just as Ozidi cannot rest until his father is set in his proper place, the listeners to this epic, as the spiritual descendants of Ozidi and his father, likewise cannot rest until that father is restored. Only when this is done can the father's children (including all members of the community and the listeners present) relax, hold themselves with self-respect, and feel that they have a proper place in the world. They need to feel that their past is solid and acknowledged. This foundation gives a sense of security and orientation. Thus, the existence of each moment throughout the performance, the existence of the performance form, the very existence of the people themselves, are all dependent on the hero of the epic having successfully completed his mission. Thus, in helping the epic hero, audience members help to give birth to themselves, to their here-and-now, and to their future.11
storyteller brings the story to life and involves audience members by casting
a storynet over all present, thus incorporating and enlisting listeners as
actors in the storyworld. More will be
said below about ways in which audience members are encouraged to engage with
the presented material through identification and roleplaying. (I would like to take this opportunity to
recount how the Ozidi story ends:
After being coached to multiple and complete victories by his
grandmother, Ozidi went too far and killed his uncle and an innocent woman
and her newborn son. The Smallpox King
came to take Ozidi in punishment, but Ozidi's mother in her innocence and
love insisted that her son was only being afflicted by Yaws, a mild childhood
disease that Ozidi had never contracted.
Somehow the Smallpox King was confused and he retreated. Upon recovery, Ozidi gave up his battle
sword for good.12
"Participation Theory": "Participatory Discrepancy"
In the course of developing on this paper, I have come across the "theory and rhetoric of participation."13 As the subject of participation is central to my consideration of the Ozidi saga, I hope I will be forgiven for presenting this theoretical material, which has sprung from the study of African and African-American music, before proceeding to the text. (As mentioned, as I am presently unable to attend, or watch or listen to a recording of a performance of the Ozidi saga, the application of this theory to an actual performance will have to wait for a future date.)
"Participation theory (is) the necessary complement to Marxism and feminism"(14) in that it promises deliverance from alienation:
Participation theory calls for "each of us (to) incorporate the crafts and skills of participatory healings in order to recover from those alienations from body, labor, society, and nature that permeate late capitalism, to recreate ourselves, our communities, and our cosmologies."16
One participation theory is "participatory discrepancy":17
The word discrepancy may not the best to convey what I believe the originator of the theory, anthropologist Charles Keil intends: discrepancy sounds too much like "cretin" and "decrepit." Too many negatives are associated with this word. In the West, and perhaps to some degree in any social group, that which is out of step from the norm is often looked down upon and shunned. However, some cultures have more tolerance than others for what looks from the outside like organized (or unorganized) chaos. The author does not insist on his term: "For 'participatory discrepancies' one could substitute 'creative tensions' or 'semiconscious or unconscious slightly-out-of-syncness.'"18
The theory of "participatory discrepancy" states that "music, to be personally involving and socially valuable, must be 'out of time' and 'out of tune.' "19 Practitioners of "participatory discrepancy" have a "magic due to their cultural refusal to become civilized -- fixed, printed, formalized, monumental, predictable."20
this theory, "Living, co-evolving, genuine cultures ... are built upon
participatory consciousness ... and are filled with participatory
discrepancies that appear 'irregular,' 'far out,' and wild-and-crazy to the
control-over people still trapped inside civilization.22
'Groove' or 'vital drive' ... must be figured out each time between players: music is not so much about abstract emotions and meanings, reason, cause and effect, and logic, but rather about motions, dance, and global and contradictory feelings. It's about getting down and into the groove, everyone creating socially from the bottom up. 23
As a group process, improvisation contributes to joy, establishing a dialogue with 'hip' audiences by letting all the parties participate in the creative aspects of music. Without this variety -- the sheer joy of being able to 'play' with the system -- life would gradually lose its meaning.24
It may be difficult for certain elements of academia to embrace discrepancy theory, as "the discipline (of ethnomusicology) falls back over and over again into standardization, accuracies, and approximations of the Platonic forms or essences, the civilized paradigm in control of our minds."25 However, Charles Keil believes that there is "a deepening awareness that abstract perfection, absolute time, perfect pitch, ideal form, flawless performance, etc., are weird myths of the West and the eventual death of music."26
Charles Keil suggests that we "reclaim music as the most important communication system available to us for relearning participatory consciousness."27 A central area in which these creative and living discrepancies appear is in relation to time. According to discrepancy theory,
In this view,
The existence of
a variety of 'times' within the same event is found especially in certain
African cultures. In much of African
music, there is "use of multiple meter -- two or three time-signatures
African music ... uses the interplay of two or more metrical frameworks as the primary material out of which the music is built. Rhythmic emphasis shifts back and forth from meter to meter. Anyone who cares to attempt to perform a 6/8 beat with one hand, a 4/4 beat with the other, and a 3/4 tap with the toe of one foot will be convinced of the complexity, and will learn something about the character, of African multiple meter.31
In this approach to art and life, only "negotiation, give-and-take, imperfection, are constant. Everything is relational and imperfect."32 In this "'kaleidoscopic density,' 'everchanging euphoniously discordant polyphonic harmony,' and 'imperfect unison,' (there is) the charm of wrong notes that sound right."33 In this realm there are also multiple textures: "Some strokes within a pattern can be sloppier, others must be very precise; these phrases breathe in relation to each other."34
One jazz musician (jazz being largely derived from African music) "usually hears someone ahead, someone 'bringing up the rear,' and a 'pendulum' player who releases energy by positioning sounds between the two time-feels and/or by joining one then the other."35 The "drummer's beat is shaped by a personal touch (and) creates a 'push' or 'relaxed dynamism.'"36 "The beat ... is delayed or advanced."37 There are "tiny hesitations and anticipations."38 "The participatory discrepancies in musical time-processes and tone-textures are both essentially micro-rhythmic phenomena; the slightly different sustained sound waves through time rub or 'beat' against each other."39
"Micro-participatory-discrepancies phase into noticeable and notable delays and anticipations."40 "Four-quarter time is shoved off-center ... Bo can syncopate it anyway he wants to."41 "It is the little discrepancies within a jazz drummer's beat that create 'swing' and invite us to participate."42 "Perfection would be the end of evolution, the end of freedom, the end of creativity. We have learned that nature is far less than perfect for a very good reason -- for the same reason that nature is far more than mechanism."43
Implied in the idea that participants are often catching up to and falling away from each other, going into and out of phase with each other, is the possibility that at certain moments and in certain ways, they will come together. This coalescence, when it does occur, can be a very powerful experience.
One area in which the discrepancy process could be observed in Ozidi saga performance is in the call-and-response patterns of leader and chorus. "The chorus phase regularly commences while the soloist is still singing; the leader, on his part, begins his phrase before the chorus has finished."44 "The ubiquitous 'overlapping' call-and-response pattern provides many instances of a sort of sporadic, although accidental, harmony when the beginning notes of the chorus refrain happen to harmonize with the simultaneously sounded terminal tones of the soloist's phrase."45
of the specific aesthetics of rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, and physical
movement in a storytelling event will have to wait for another paper, as my
focus here is on verbal interactivity.
Before coming to that subject, however, I would like to discuss the
subject of teamwork between teller and listeners.
Teller and Audience Members as Team
Writes ethnographer Dennis Tedlock:
This was markedly not the situation in the case of the Ozidi performance transcribed in J. P. Clark's book. Here the teller gave a "reconstruction of a dramatic narrative that is the public property of an audience (that was) very much aware of its proprietary rights."47 The teller, Okabou, had to contend with many interruptions and additions. This was partly the case because the entire event had been arranged in order to present this story to an outside audience, as represented by the tape recorder. Thus, all the people present, teller and listeners, were in effect members of the same team and a number of the listeners it seems were very eager to make sure the story was given fully and correctly.48 Here we truly have an instance of a group creating something together. We are told that questions came from the young, while corrections and additions came from the elders.
In Western culture, "We specialize in fixed settings, in keeping strangers out, and in giving the performer some privacy in which to prepare himself for the show. Once we begin a performance, we are inclined to finish it, and we are sensitive to the jarring notes which may occur during it."49 Usually, "Open disagreement in front of the audience creates, as we say, a false note. It may be suggested that literal false notes are avoided for quite the same reasons that figurative false notes are avoided: in both cases it is a matter of sustaining a definition of the situation."50
Erving Goffman and other Western scholars often seem to think in terms of the danger of interruptions, in terms of the embarrassment and disruption they can cause speakers. In the Ozidi performance, however, the teller seems to take most of the interjections as positive contributions. Perhaps because there is more of a tradition in Africa of group participation, and because these audience members were helping to make this recording for an outside audience, this storyteller had more tolerance of and appreciation for interruptions that would otherwise be the case.
Nonetheless, it was true here as elsewhere that "When one examines a team-performance, one often finds that someone is given the right to direct and control the progress of the dramatic action."51 The teller, Okabou, was the individual invested with this responsibility in our performance of the Ozidi saga. However, as mentioned, he was working with a team: "A team may be defined as a set of individuals whose intimate cooperation is required if a given projected definition of the situation is to be maintained."52
question then is: In the Ozidi
performance how was "the definition of the situation projected by a
particular participant fostered and sustained by the intimate co-operation of
more than one participant"?53 At
any storytelling event, each listener visualizes and experiences each element
in a unique way. If audience members
are to work in conjunction with the teller, there must ways for them to
contribute their internal responses and so together produce a shared,
collective visualization and representation of the storyworld. Ways in which Ozidi saga audience members
were able to do this on the verbal level are explored in the next section of
The hearers may feel an aesthetic and historical alienation from the world of the story, much like the alienation experienced by the readers of a written text from a distant time and place, but the ongoing hermeneutical task of overcoming that alienation may sometimes be faced in the very midst of a performance, here and now and for these particular hearers. This is not only a matter of making the "separate" world of the story seem attractive or internally coherent and getting the hearers to project themselves into their private versions of that world, nor is it only a matter of achieving a "fusion of horizons" where the separate worlds of audience and story seem to have some distant areas of overlap. For the speaking storyteller, there is yet a third possibility, in which the world of the story, instead of being at the other end of a journey, enters the collective experience of the very room or dooryard where it is being told. There is a "fusion of intimacies" when the speaker calls attention to the fact that the stage set of a scene in the story was the same as the present set of its telling, or compares a character in the story with someone in the audience.54
This "fusion of intimacies" can be achieved on a number of levels including conceptual, verbal, musical, and physical. The process involves mixing one's internal experience with the outside world, one's present with the past and future. It is a mystical experience, this "Fusing with the ancestor, the totem, the force, the sound, and therefore with the universe."55
A first principle of audience participation is that of identification with images and characters. This sort of identification occurs throughout the artistic event, and indeed, throughout all of conscious experience. When an artist presents an image, he/she is offering and suggesting that each audience member consume, adopt, internalize, and become it. Everything we perceive, in art and life, becomes a possible model for us. As we go through life, we are constantly assimilating or rejecting all that we come into contact with, all that is around us. 'You are what you eat,' as the expression goes, and also what you take in via your eyes, your ears, and your other senses. One becomes, to some degree, like the people and the environments one chooses to surround oneself with.
In addition, every image implies a relationship. Let us take, for example, something that many people at first thought might consider inanimate, something that might not seem to be having relationships with anyone or anything: a rock. But that rock does have a relationship with its environment: the rock was chipped out of a larger whole. It is now in a state of freedom and isolation. It can pulverize or cut things in the environment (depending on its mass, shape, etc.). It is slowly being dissolved, worn away by the environment. These are just some of the conditions, processes, and relationships inherent in a rock, or in an image of a rock. When a perceiver of a work of art perceives this rock image, then, he/she imagines the image and the relationship between the image and its surroundings, its background. Although a healthy person on one level always remains separate from his/her imaginings, one also -- in a temporary and play sense -- naturally and automatically enters into and in a play sense becomes those imagined images or complexes of images.
When one is presented with a story, which is a complex of images, one does not only identify with the hero: one identifies with all of the figures, both sides of relationships; one assimilates the situation, the whole. To put it another way, one follows and learns from the storyworld's method of dividing reality into opposite or multiple sections.
When a teller presents an image that is similar to a listener, this can be thought of as a cue for the listener to relate to that image. When the teller then manipulates that image, this will have some effect on the audience member who has been relating to it. For example, in the Ozidi performance when the teller said that the wind from Ozidi's sword cut off the heads of all the people in the village, numerous audience members responded with "surprised shouts"56, for, as we will see, the audience members were often especially identifying with and playing the roles of the townspeople. When something happens to an image in a story that one has especially been identifying with or relating to, one often feels the possibility, threat, and/or hope that this process will happen (or has happened) also to oneself in reality.
In the normal course of many artistic events, audience members give no clear indications of what, if any, elements of the storyworld they are especially identifying with. We cannot read peoples' thoughts and emotions. What we can do is observe audience members' verbo-motor processes, and see what and how they move and make sounds in response to, in empathy with, or in enactment of the figures presented. Before I come to the subject of verbal enactment of story figures (roleplaying), however, I will first discuss three other forms of verbal audience participation: correcting, describing, and exhorting. As a preface to all of these comments, I wish to say that throughout the Ozidi performance, teller and listeners perpetually and energetically prompted, cued, and challenged each other to give beautiful, accurate, and full representations of the story -- and all who can hear the recording or read the transcription of this event must be very grateful for all of their efforts.
It is up to everyone present at a storytelling event as to whether or not contributions to the telling will be accepted: each submission is judged and classified as canonical or not. One area in which there was repeated disagreement in the course of the Ozidi performance was in the use of certain English words. The teller tended to want to use English words. Perhaps he wanted to present himself as being 'educated,' up to date, and in touch with the modern world. Perhaps he feared being ridiculed as unsophisticated by listeners to the audiotape, or perhaps he feared losing his distant, fantasized, English-speaking audience. Many of his immediate listeners, however, were more concerned with presenting Ijo culture in an 'authentic' fashion. It is not easy to play to two disparate audiences simultaneously: "The disciplined performer is someone with sufficient poise to move from private places of informality to public ones of varying degrees of formality, without allowing such changes to confuse him."57
In any event, the use of anachronisms -- modern motifs substituted into a story to help fuse it with the everyday experience of listeners -- is a traditional storytelling technique. This is an example of how it can be utterly traditional to incorporate the new, the novel, and the culturally impure. Anachronisms inserted by the teller of the Ozidi saga included a polo shirt (81), an airplane ("The way her wings beat aloud, the noise was as loud as that of an aeroplane," 222), and a football (Ozidi's sword bounces off the Scrotum King as it would a football, 226). The audience members tolerated these English words, and in fact often laughed at them.
word which caused much disagreement and prompted repeated corrections in this
performance was the English word, "time." Near the beginning of the story, the teller
said that, in the storyworld, it was "10 o'clock" (3). This was permitted. However, in at least ten instances over the
course of the performance, audience members protested the teller's use of the
word, "time," and insisted that he use the Ijo word instead (104,
131, 170, 262, 174, 184, 327, 336, 353, 362).
I found it quite interesting that this word was so objectionable. It has led me to think that it was not only
the alien word for time that was being rejected by audience members, but
rather it was the alien concept of time that they found so
objectionable. Time in agrarian
cultures is measured by the cycles of nature, not by clocks. Time in such cultures is not divided up
mathematically and represented by numbers.
Agrarian time tends to be thought of more in terms of being
project-oriented, rather than schedule-oriented. As we have seen in the discussion of time
in the section of this paper about "participatory discrepancies,"
time outside of the modern Western world is often considered to be
multidimensional, variable, elastic, and fluid. The teller himself by implication protested
the modern, mechanical, uniform, linear sense of time in the course of the
performance when he looked down and commented that there was still a lot of
blank tape on the audio reel: without that pressure, he would perhaps have
taken a break, following his own internal rhythm (234).
Exhortation is a form of encouragement. It is often the joyful act of telling someone to do more of the same. As such, exhorting is in a sense the opposite of correcting. In the course of the Ozidi performance, listeners spontaneously exhorted the teller and the story characters countless times.
To the teller (and possibly his accompanying musicians), audience members said such things as: "'Now drum it on!" (60). "Take it forward!" (61). "Bring her into port!" (386). To Ozidi, the hero of the epic, audience members said such things as "Draw your sword!" (165). "Eat them up!" (10). These exhortations often came as Ozidi was preparing to do battle. Audience members were not the only ones to exhort Ozidi: at one point the teller reported that another character in the story, one of Ozidi's musician-assistants, exhorted Ozidi: "And now the string player burst out, 'Advance, advance! Go on! Go on!'" (161).
At one point the teller playfully complained that he was exhausted and was being forced to continue: "The people of this town are always pushing me forward in everything." (112). Here the teller was consciously collapsing his identity with Ozidi's, and his listeners' identities with the townspeoples'. (The teller also frequently collapsed the identities of Madam Yakubu, the hostess of the event, with that of the character Oreame, Ozidi's grandmother: just as Oreame was coaching Ozidi, Madam Yakubu was coaching the teller.)
When spontaneous exhortations were made by listeners, it was sometimes unclear as to whether the listener was speaking as him/herself or as a character in the story. For example, in the following case, the listener could have been speaking as him/herself or as Ozidi, who was recovering from smallpox at the time, or as a townsperson:
(Speaking as Smallpox King) "We are dying of hunger. Therefore we are going."
In the following
case, the listeners' exhortation was definitely being made from the point of
view of Ozidi (this was a nonspontaneous exhortation, as it occurred in a
pre-composed and repetitive song sequence):
leader: O father, fly and come!
Sometimes the exhortation is more like advice. When Ozidi was flirting with another man's wife and a listener knew that the other man was about to return home, the listener called out to Ozidi: "Ah, go in quickly!" (377). Another time, when Ozidi was bullying his uncle, a listener tried to advise him to stop his taunts: "Don't press him, boy!" (374).
In the following instance, a listener first commented on a story character, Scrotum King, and then addressed him:
Describing (Elaborating, Embellishing)
Another way in which listeners participated verbally in the Ozidi performance was to add to the teller's presentation of images and situations. Here are two instances in which listeners contributed details to the general picture presented by the teller:
These listeners were confirming the teller's vision and extending it further.
In the following example, the teller seemed to be cuing his listeners to visualize and add to the portrayal:
After the contributions from Listener #1 and Listener #2, the teller was himself inspired to add a colorful detail. Successful contributions are often built upon by aesthetic events that directly follow them. As seen in this case, listeners' descriptions can function to prompt the teller to give more information, to linger on a scene. Describing and embellishing by listeners is often a sign that they are enjoying a scene and want to go further into it, they do not want the scene to end just yet. This is the opposite of prompting or exhorting the teller to move forward in the narrative. Each verbal contribution by a listener can be seen as a suggestion for where the story could go, what the teller could say next.
Asking listeners to "see" a situation, then, is perhaps one way a teller can cue his/her listeners that additional descriptions would be welcome. Another technique of cuing, or inviting, embellishments might be to present a general picture, which might serve to invite listeners to chime in with specifics, to fill in the blanks. Let us not forget all the possible gestural ways that a teller could invite this sort of participation. In any case, the ratifying act of participation by audience members can make a communication cycle satisfying and authentic. Once a cue has been dropped, inviting a certain type of audience response, the group aesthetic demands that an appropriate response be given, and the group aesthetic is not satisfied until it is given. Listeners in traditional communication situations understand when they have been asked to complete a communication cycle.58
In the following instance, a listener elaborated not on visual imagery, but on a character's inner experience. This listener commented from outside the character and outside the story, but he/she did so in an empathetic manner.
In the next example, a listener commented on the treacherous behavior of Odogu's wife (she had made advances toward Ozidi and then had told her husband that Ozidi had made advances towards her). A few moments later, the teller built upon this comment by putting one that concurred with it into the mouth of the character, Odogu:
Perhaps the most vivid examples of the spectators' cooperation with the bard can be seen in those instances where they subsume roles within the mythic drama, and, as it were, engage with the narrator in dialogue.59
The storyteller sets up a dramatic situation by creating voices and then letting them speak.60 The resulting conflicts, conversations, actions and reactions, the working out of the story toward resolution -- this is what happens in the course of a storytelling session. A character in a traditional story can take on a life of his/her own and act in spontaneous but predictable ways. The teller does not own or control the characters, it is simply his/her job to put them into play in their proper setting and, together with audience members, move them along their appointed paths. Especially if the characters are traditional and known to all, there is no reason why audience members cannot at times speak for and as various characters.
Before proceeding to instances of verbal roleplaying in the Ozidi performance, I would like to explain the roleplaying process in psychodrama, a form of drama therapy. I include psychodrama in this discussion in order to give an additional perspective on roleplaying and to suggest ways that roleplaying in traditional storytelling might be similar to and different from roleplaying in a modern internal-individualistic-psychological context.
Psychodrama is a form of drama therapy developed by Dr. J. L. Moreno in the 1920s. A psychodrama, like a storytelling event, is a guided fantasy. The basic components of the psychodrama experience are:
Protagonist: The chief character in any roleplaying
Alter Ego (also called Auxiliary Ego, Inner Self, Double, Mirror, Echo, Guiding Spirit, Guardian Angel, Consultant, Advisor, and Conscience). The Alter Ego thinks along with the Protagonist and says things that the Protagonist has not yet said, often filling out a picture or telling inner thoughts that the Protagonist has not gotten around to telling. Describing, elaborating, and embellishing might be done by an Alter Ego. At times an Alter Ego might disagree with and confront the Protagonist, in order to provoke him/her into a deeper involvement in the here-and-now of the drama. Alter Egos attempt to flesh out situations: they supply aspects of the scene that the teller maynot have remembered, or just does not see clearly.
Role-reversing (Role-switching): People reverse roles either during the enactment of a situation or at the end of it.
Substitute Roleplaying: One person assumes the reallife role of another for a limited time, principally in order to understand the position of the other, or perhaps to demonstrate to the other how the role might be played in real life.61
A standard structure of a psychodrama is:
A) The director brings the Protagonist to the stage, where the problem is briefly discussed.62
B) The conflict is redefined in terms of a concrete example -- one that could be enacted.
C) The director brings other members of the group forward to take the parts of significant figures in the Protagonist's drama -- these people become Antagonists and Alter Egos.
D) The Protagonist is instructed to play the scene as if it were occurring in the here-and-now.
E) The director asks the Protagonist to switch roles with an Antagonist, to help the Protagonist see the situation from an opposing point of view.
F) The enactment is ended and everyone discusses what happened.63
In this method, the Protagonist presents his "social atom" -- the key people most relevant to his experience (often his family) -- as if they were a group of sculptures in a diorama, or a three-dimensional painting. Members of a group become Alter Egos and Antagonists and portray these significant figures. With the help of the director, the Protagonist positions them in characteristic poses which symbolically portray their essential relationships to the Protagonist (who is also portrayed within the scene). The use of posture, the direction in which each figure faces, and the proximity or distance from the Protagonist in the scene may all symbolically represent the quality of the relationship. Finally, the Protagonist gives each figure in the scene a characteristic sentence or phrase to speak which symbolically brings them "to life." He then steps back and observes, or enters the scene and begins to relate to members of his family or central group.64
I can imagine Ozidi as the Protagonist at the center of a psychodrama, with his grandmother and his musician-assistants as Alter Egos, and his battle foes as Antagonists. Or perhaps in another psychodrama scene, his grandmother would be the Antagonist, and various Alter Egos could help him talk with her.
A great benefit of the psychodrama experience is that participants get a chance to experience all of the characters in the environment. Participants learn that every character is playable. A similar thing happens at a performance of the Ozidi saga: participants undergo a strenuous emotional and conceptual workout as they play the parts of virtually every character in the story, through spontaneous and/or nonspontaneous (song sequence) roleplaying. The end result of the whole experience is a certain synthesis and integration of the self, be it individual or cultural.
In one type of psychodrama, one creates and surrounds oneself with figures who represent the people in one's life. Another type of psychodrama involves creating figures which represent all the aspects of one's individual psyche. Stories can also be looked at from this latter, psychological point of view: that all the figures in a story represent the various aspects of an individual or cultural psyche, and that it is only through the telling of the story that these disparate elements can interact and integrate. According to this model, to achieve integration of the personality, the individual must accept and understand all the elements, not just the good or favorite ones.
In psychodrama, it is the concrete presentation -- in the form of physical and aural images of living characters -- that brings a situation to life. These concrete forms are "avenues of the unconscious"69 which circumvent such defenses and avoidances as explanation, vagueness, intellectualization, rationalization, and abstraction:
Likewise, in an epic storytelling event, characters are expressed and identified through physical and aural qualities, and, in the story itself, through concrete action in the plot.
Anyone can act as an Antagonist in a psychodrama, just as anyone can role play at a storytelling event: "'There is no age, gender, status, or race in psychodrama,' says Dr. Moreno. (Although it is true that Protagonists often pick people who resemble the real person to play Antagonist parts.)"71 The Alter Ego figure should be sensitive to the Protagonist, but should not be an exact copy:
The Alter Ego's role may stimulate the protagonist to take a "complementary" role: if the Alter Ego acts judgmental, the Protagonist responds with defensiveness rebelliousness, or gives an explanation; if the Alter Ego acts helpless, the Protagonist becomes protective ... 73
The epic storyteller, like an actor in a psychodrama, is constantly reversing roles: first he/she must play character A who is addressing character B, then he/she switches to play character B who is addressing character A. It can be very helpful to the teller if listeners step into one or the other of these roles, so that the teller does not have to carry all of this burden by him/herself.
The question of how to bring a story to life involves the issue of how a teller may be able to 1) make it clear that listeners are welcome to join in and help perform the story, and 2) provide enough structure so that listeners are guided as to what to do, how to channel their energy and creativity (it helps if one can use traditional characters known to all).
The teller must be somewhat of a social director, and, psychologically as well as physically, must clear a central space and make it plain that people are welcome to enter that space, and that it will not be too risky for them to do so. He/she must make that central space comfortable and inviting, and make it clear that people will be able to bring themselves there, that they will be able to be themselves there, that it is a place where, according to their desire of the moment, they can relax, luxuriate in the warmth and fertility of the environment, and if they so desire, recreate themselves -- it is a recreational space.
Theater, and the dramatic action in which it originates, is where we make invisible things visible. For all concerned, theater is active, not passive ... Always and everywhere, the healing power of theater abides in participation, in action as well as passion, giving as well as taking ... Here as in all our life, the healing power of the human spirit lies in its ability to share and be shared.74
Throughout the Ozidi saga, audience members were often placed in the role of the townspeople. This was done most often through 'nonspontaneous' roleplaying (the lyrics that audience members sang as chorus members). Here are just some of the calls-and-responses that audience members participated in:
As noted, in the course of the performance, audience members found themselves in almost every role. The following two nonspontaneous roleplays give just a taste of this kaleidoscopic experience. Here, audience members enacted Ozidi, calling out to his/their father's spirit, which was housed in his shrine:
members enacted the innocent woman about to be killed by Ozidi:
Chorus: "Death that has nothing to do with God, is what is killing me!" (258)
In the following
exchange, a listener confronted Ozidi, who had just killed his uncle, about
(As Ozidi) "Mother! Uncle is dead!"
In the above, it is ambiguous as to whether the listener was speaking as him/herself or as "Mother."75 (Oreame is alternately referred to as Ozidi's mother and grandmother.)
Richard Bauman suggests that,
This has prompted me to think of four acts the teller can do to cue listeners to join in:
1) The teller can switch from past tense to present tense.
2) The teller can switch from narrative mode to dialogue mode.
3) The teller can enact character A as this character is addressing character B. As the teller is doing this, he/she can look an audience member in the eye, thus playfully putting that audience member in the physical and emotional position of character B. This invites that audience member to respond as character B, and/or it encourages other audience members to respond as character B on that audience member's behalf.
4) The teller can put a character in danger. Audience members who identify with that character might try to influence the course of the story by speaking up on behalf of the character.
In the following two cases, the teller was in the narrative mode, and a listener interjected in the dialogue mode. Here the listener stepped into the role of the grandmother, to call for help in protecting, or rather restoring, her son:80
In the above case, it is not clear whom Oreame, the grandmother, was addressing.
In the case below, the grandmother was addressing her injured grandson:
It is hard to imagine that this listener did not accompany these outbursts with physical gestures of some sort, perhaps of holding a limp body in her arms, or of reaching out to ask to hold him.
In the following case, the teller was already in the narrative mode and the audience member joined him there. (It is ambiguous whether the listener was speaking as him/herself or as the character who was about to be carried off.):
In the next instance of spontaneous roleplaying, the teller was playing the grandmother and a listener stood in for Ozidi, who flatly protested the direction in which the grandmother -- and the narrator -- were taking the story (the grandmother wanted her grandson to kill an innocent woman and her newborn son):
Teller: (As the grandmother, to Ozidi) "I say
do the job quickly! Come on, come out
Teller: Next, bringing out a drug, she ordered him
to open his eyes. (As the grandmother)
"Boy, boy, my child, open your eyes, open your eyes quick!" Forcibly, she had her way.
Listener #1: What a wicked woman! (As Ozidi) "Mother, it burns badly!"
In the above exchange, the narrator began in the narrative mode, presenting the story in the past tense. Instantly, however, he shifted into the dialogue mode, enacting the grandmother ("Boy, boy, my child, open your eyes!"), which brought the situation into the present tense. Even if the teller did not want Ozidi to engage in excessive violence, he knew that the Ozidi character had to go through with it, in order for the character to express itself and learn, and eventually be purified.
however, objected to this course of action.
First Listener #1 commented on the story from without: "What a
wicked woman!" This, however, it
seems, did not have enough effect, so Listener #1 then slipped into the role
of Ozidi, the character who was being acted upon, and from that role position,
protested: "Mother, it burns badly!" What is especially fascinating here is that
a second listener stepped in. This
Listener #2 did not leave to the storyteller the dirty work of moving the
hero into wickedness. Instead,
Listener #2 helped to shoulder the burden of facilitating this horrible behavior
and episode. Listener #2 did this by
stepping into the role of the grandmother and saying to Ozidi, "Hush,
don't ever say it burns." This
marked a very deep kind of cooperation from listeners: they were willing to
enact and support all points of view in order to help carry the story forward
to Ozidi's fall and eventual purification.
Epic Storytelling and Videoconferencing
Just as Ozidi could not rest until his father was restored to a place of honor, and just as the performers of the Ozidi story could not rest until their culture's story was properly performed and enshrined on audiotape, so I as a lover of epic storytelling will not rest until this most precious and powerful of artforms is perceived, appreciated, and honored by the modern world. I believe that by putting epic storytelling on its proper pedestal and by letting it set an example for and be an influence on all of the arts, I am honoring my ancestors, am setting the world aright, and am providing a very valuable model for modern people. As mentioned above, I believe that the modern world is now ready for the proper burial (and rebirth) of epic storytelling, because our work with computers and telecommunications has led us anew to interconnectedness and interactivity.
One way of restoring and resurrecting a thing or process is to translate it into a new medium: thus the interest, in 1963, in putting the Ozidi saga onto audiotape, on the radio, into a book, and onto film. As I complete this paper, it is only a few days until 1999: I am dedicated to helping to transpose the art of epic storytelling into the medium of videoconferencing. (Of course, I also believe in the continuation of face-to-face epic storytelling.) In videoconferencing, we could have not just relics of the interactivity of epic storytelling, but live interactivity, and thus epic storytelling in a new, extended and mediated form. Some traditional peoples have already begun to use videoconferencing. Among these are the Warlpiri Aboriginal people of Australia:
Mentioned in these 1995 and 1996 articles are: hand signals, "extensive consultations that Aborigine leaders traditionally employ in reaching ceremonial and community decisions," art presentations, a dance performance, and a planned music festival. There is no explicit mention of interactive epic storytelling or other performance via videoconferencing, but I would be surprised if such experiments are not being conducted even as we speak, as they say. It is now my duty to investigate further to see what is occurring.
A recent edition of the New York Times reported a new popular music concert tradition -- the use of cellular telephones:
If there were a central telephone number that audience members -- both in the concert hall and beyond -- could call, they could perhaps be organized into performers, that is, the audio they could send in could be incorporated into the concert or storytelling event.
Most cell phones presently can only send sound. But this sound can be automatically translated into text and visuals. In addition, by pressing the buttons on their cell phones, audience members could contribute to a common picture that could be projected on a large screen accompanying an epic storyteller. In the in-class demonstration I gave in conjunction with this paper, I showed how, in the context of an epic storytelling event, multiple painting devices could be used by audience members to contribute to a common visual field. The providing of visual accompaniment, the translation from the oral to the visual plane, brings risks and as well as benefits: one risk is that the visual may distract too much attention from the aural, another is that the visual plane provides tangible evidence for all to see what has been expressed, and this visual evidence is not as fleeting as the spoken word. However, the great promise of this experimental work is that it provides ways for active audience participation.
traditional arts of epic storytelling must never be lost. Traditions such as the Ozidi saga epic
storytelling style must be nurtured.
Thanks to the scholarship of such people as J. P. Clark, the modern
world now knows about epic storytelling: even should by some tragedy the Ijo
people discontinue their practice, others will be able to recreate many of
the epic storytelling techniques and invent new styles, complete with sound
and motion and various types of audience participation. Yes, old forms of epic storytelling will be
saved, and new forms -- both technology-free and technology-augmented -- will
come. Perhaps the great question is:
what stories will we tell?
1) Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York, Harper and Row, 1974), p. 602.
2) The terms 'epic' and 'saga' are used interchangeably in this paper.
3) At one point, the microphone was discussed verbally: the teller gestured toward the microphone and asked the group: "Shall we sing into it?" (84).
4) One factor that makes it increasingly easier to include audience aural participation in documentation is the improvement of recording technology. When ethnographers first began recording in the field, the singer/speaker had to speak loudly directly into a recording device. This overemphasis on the role of the leader certainly often hampered and distorted the traditional performance process, as well as produced a simplistic recording. Now we have more sensitive omnidirectional microphones, and miniaturization, which even makes the use of multiple microphones possible.
5) Richard Dorson, ed., African Folklore (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), p. 41.
6) Daniel Biebuyck & Kahombo C. Mateene, ed. and trans., The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic),(Berkeley, University of California Press, 1969), p. 22.
7) J. P. Clark, The Ozidi Saga (Ibadan: Ibadan U. Press, 1977), p. ix.
8) The question arises of what to call this sort of performance. 'Oral literature' seems out of the question, as 'literature' means the written word. 'Oral literature' connotes a mode of composition well as transmission: clearly the mode of composition here is not 'literary,' for although there are many set pieces that have been memorized, the pieces are called up from memory and woven together only in the process of performance, by an oral-formulaic method. 'Aural art' is a useful term, in that it draws attention to the fact that more sound is being produced than just words, and that the words themselves are being produced with tone, inflection, etc. In a sense this term opens the door and does not go far enough to the general term, 'performance,' because as mentioned, dance is involved, as well as activity on every other sensory level. 'Orature' is an interesting option, a mixture of 'oratory' and 'literature' -- but this term seems to connote solo political speaking. I think the term, 'oral art' comes closest to being appropriate for the Ozidi saga. Of course, 'performance' would be more accurate in the sense that it is all inclusive; but 'oral art' indicates that the experience is built around and structured by that which is oral, spoken.
Incidentally, I would call this form of performance not 'audience-centered,' but 'relationship-centered' (referring to the relationship between performer and audience members).
Regarding the question of whether or not this epic and the performance of it are folklore, I would resoundingly say yes, because it is a tradition held and shared by a group. The notion that Africa did not have folklore until Independence and the emergence of an alienated intelligentsia is sophistry and absurd. Perhaps this activity was not named and perceived as folklore until this intelligentsia came into being, but it existed nonetheless, as did class differences. I tend to follow the definition of folklore as "artistic communication in small groups" by that definition, the telling of the Ozidi saga would have always have been folklore.
9) Clark, p. xxxiii.
10) Clark, p. xxiv.
11) These psychological factors exist in all storytelling, but they are especially powerful in the telling of epic, where, content-wise, the creation and maintenance of the entire people is at stake.
12) I would like to take this opportunity to recount how the Ozidi story ends: After being coached to multiple and complete victories by his grandmother, Ozidi went too far and killed his uncle and an innocent woman and her newborn son. The Smallpox King came to take Ozidi in punishment, but Ozidi's mother in her innocence and love insisted that her son was only being afflicted by Yaws (a mild childhood disease that Ozidi had never contracted). Somehow the Smallpox King was confused and he retreated. Upon recovery, Ozidi gave up his battle sword for good.
13) Charles Keil, "Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music" (in Cultural Anthropology2(3), 1987) p. 276.
14) Charles Keil, "The Theory of Participatory Discrepancies: A Progress Report" (in Ethnomusicology, v. 39, n. 1, Winter 95), p. 2.
15) Keil, '87, p. 276.
16) Keil, '95, p. 2.
17) Keil, '87, p. 277.
18) Keil, '87, p. 275.
19) Keil, '87, p. 275.
20) Keil, '95, p. 12.
21) Keil, '95, p. 4.
22) Keil, '95, p. 4.
23) Keil, '95, p. 1.
24) Edward T. Hall, "Improvisation as an Acquired, Multilevel Process" (in Ethnomusicology36:2, Spring-Summer 1992), p. 233.
25) Keil, '95, p. 5.
26) Keil, '95, p. 9.
27) Keil, '95, p. 6.
28) Keil, '95, p. 3.
29) Keil, '95, p. 8.
30) Richard Waterman, "African Influence on the Music of the Americas" (in Acculturation in the Americas: Proceedings and Selected Papers of the XXIXth International Congress of Americanists.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952) p. 210.
31) Waterman, p. 212.
32) Keil, '95, p. 12.
33) Keil, '95, p. 5.
34) Keil, '95, p. 9.
35) Keil, '95, p. 8.
36) Keil, '87, p. 277.
37) Waterman, p. 213.
38) Keil, '87, p. 279.
39) Keil, '95, p. 12.
40) Keil, '95, p. 8.
41) Keil, '87, p. 281.
42) Keil, '87, p. 277.
43) Keil, '95, p. 16.
44) Waterman, p. 214.
45) Waterman, p. 209.
46) Dennis Tedlock, The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation(Philadelphia: U. of Penn. Press. 1983), p. 286.
47) Clark, p. iv.
48) It must also be remembered that in this case, the ethnographer was a member of the cultural group that was making the recording; thus the ethnographer was also in a sense a member of the performance team. Perhaps this made all concerned more relaxed and willing to give of themselves. At one point the hostess of the event stated the situation for the record: "'Pepper (J. P. Clark) called me and asked me to gather all Ijo people together so that a story can be told again into the radio. At his request, I, Yabuku, have summoned the whole town to recount today a tale into the radio.' (The tape recorder is the same as the radio to Madam Yabuku.)" (154.) Also, at one point Okabou, the teller, summarized the situation: "We are the Ijo people telling this story" (57).
49) Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life(New York: Doubleday, 1959), p. 244.
50) Goffman, '59, p. 87.
51) Goffman, '59, p. 97.
52) Goffman, '59, p. 104.
53) Goffman, '59, p. 77.
54) Tedlock, p. 10.
55) Keil, '95, p. 11.
56) Clark, p. 153.
57) Goffman, '59, p. 217.
58) Lecture by Kwesi Yankah, 20 November 1998. Prof. Yankah was referring specifically to cuing for a proverb response. Incidentally, a number of proverbs were recited by the teller in the course of the Ozidi performance. In a sense, the entire Ozidi saga can be seen as illustration and proof of two such proverbs: "A man wronged will always bear a strong child" (145), and "A man fights his battles to return home" (124).
59) Isidore Okpewho, "The Oral Performer and His Audience: A Case Study of The Ozidi Saga" (in The Oral Performance in Africa,Isidore Okpewho, ed., Ibidan: Spectrum Books Limited, 1990), p. 168.
60) Spoken communication by Roger Abrahams, 3 November 1998.
61) Adam Blatner, Acting-In: Practical Applications of Psychodramatic Methods(New York: Springer Publishing Co., 1973), p. 23, 214.
62) Epic is perhaps more related to sociodrama than psychodrama: sociodrama "aims at clarifying social themes rather than on focusing on the individual's problems." (Blatner, p. 9.)
63) Blatner, p. 12.
64) Blatner, p. 46.
65) Blatner, p. 73.
66) Blatner, p. 63.
67) Blatner, p. 111.
68) Blatner, p. 72.
69) Blatner, p. 64.
70) Blatner, p. 64.
71) Blatner, p. 26.
72) Blatner, p. 13.
73) Blatner, p. 16.
74) Roger Grainger, Drama and Healing: The Roots of Drama Therapy(London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1990), p. 121.
75) Ozidi and his grandmother, Oreame, address each other as Mother and Son.
76) Richard Bauman, Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Literature(Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1986), p. 65.
77) Erving Goffman, Forms of Talk(Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), p. 121.
78) Although it is not the norm, verbal interjections also occur in conventional theater. For ex.: "Convincing Barbara she should broaden her range, (the director) cast her as a streetwalker. She played the part with such ferocity, rousing the actor who played the pimp to such a frenzied response, that at the climactic murder scene members of the audience stood up, screaming, 'Stop!'" (Blatner, 102)
79) I want to add that there is also something to be said for keeping a telling in the past tense: the distant and contained nature of past narrated events invites listeners to project themselves into such imaginative material perhaps in a quieter, more meditative way. (Spoken communication by Laura Simms, storyteller and educator, 10 August 98.)
80) Audience members interjected cries for help in numerous instances (266, 279, 350).
81) Mark Hodges, "Online in the Outback: Use of Videoconferencing by Australian Aborigines" (in Technology Review,v.99, n. 3, April 1996), p. 17.
82) Jeffrey Young, "Downlinks in the Outback: A Videoconference Between Yuendumu, Australia and San Francisco, California" (in Forbes, v. 156, n. 13, 4 December 1995), p. 68.
83) Hodges, p. 17.
Neil Strauss, "A Concert Communion with Cell Phones" (in the New
York Times,9 December 1998), p. E1.
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