Thematic Interpretation of Folklore in Mesgun Zerai's Play: A Village Dream
Folklore primarily is said to be a narrative of common folks. In it, the psychology of the protagonist undergoes various tribes and tribulations. Drama is an ancient art of common people and folklore is an expression of their day to day anxieties. Fusion of these two disciplines creates considerable influence on the individual and social psyche of the audience. In the modern Eritrean drama, there is a focus on the use of folk elements to bring this theatre closure to the heart of the audience. Since folklore originates in the psyche of the common folks, its thematic infusion in a play by dramatists can be seen as a conceptualization of peoples’ voice, their ideas, their anxiety, their wants and their social predicament. The long-suppressed desire of freedom in the mind of womenfolk does sometimes reflect in dramatic lore of this kind. Present paper attempts to introduce this psyche of the common people especially that of women of the African State of Eritrea, as dramatized in Mesgun Zerai’s internationally acclaimed play – A Village Dream.
Folkloric world is the world of illusion. The dramatist from the State of Eritrea (East Africa), Mr. Mesgun Zerai, however, brings this illusion to light to a penetrating reality of psychological disturbances experienced in contemporary times by womenfolk of his country. The female characters of his play, A Village Dream, are mentally shattered due to the rigid social and familial conventions of the African-Eritrean society and show tendency of revolt against the age-old patriarchal system to keep their vanity and self-respect intact.
In the garb of a folktale, Zerai’s English play, A Village Dream expresses women rights as its main theme. It is a short play of six highly charged scenes written and first performed by the Workshop Theatre of University of Leeds in February 2001. It is a delightful play with the feeling of a folk story exploring the inequality of relationships and uneven workloads between men and women. The title of the play immediately tells its audience that we are in a place of folktale and allegory. It is structured in story-telling format akin to Girish Karnad’s celebrated play Naga-Mandala. The setting of the play is typical of African villages, and the language used by the characters of the play suggests the atmosphere of traditional African night story telling. The whole play, backed by extensive use of poetry, dance and music has the dreamlike feel of a story told late at night, which we hear unsure as to whether it represents a ‘true’ story, a folktale or an allegorical fantasy invented by the playwright himself (Plastow, 2006, 16).
The play presents a rebellion of women of an Eritrean village against the dominance of their men which leads them to abandoning their husbands and their children and makes them take refuge in the mountains. It is an act of profound unity initiated by the traditional women of Eritrean society to teach the menfolk of the village a lesson. This rebellion results in a thorough discomfort and sheer feeling of helplessness amongst their male counterparts. For so long women have carried the overwhelming burden of the majority of the workload; but the men, in their absence, prove themselves to be totally inept at looking after the children, feeding them or doing the housework which their wives previously used to do routinely and expertly without any complaints.
The theme of the play is centred on a question raised by the protagonist and the dream interpreter, Dehabe, in the very beginning of the play. In conversation with her father, Dehabe asks: ‘Why are we women suffering too much? We fetch water, we cook, we collect firewood … we do everything without any help from our husbands. What is our sin father?’ (Zerai, 2006, 28).
This anguished cry of women folk, represented by Dehabe’s complaint, here explicitly throws light on the African-Eritrean socio-cultural scenario where the women mandatorily start work before their men even wake, and when the men do rise they take their ease (Plastow 16). For generations, their service to the family, in general, and slavery to their husbands, in particular, has always been taken for granted whatever may be their mental state – willing or unwilling – in Eritrea. In most parts of Africa, the oppression of women is an institutionalised behaviour. It is no different in Eritrea. This gender bias is exposed in Mesgun Zerai’s A Village Dream through the words of a male chauvinist character named, Ijugu, when in the course of the play, he comments: ‘You know my wife can’t even piss without asking my permission.’ (31).
This is an extraordinary unfairness of a system that divides labour so unevenly along gender lines (Plastow 16). Dehabe’s father later narrates a story called ‘The Women’s Sin’ to ease out the agony of his daughter at least for a while. This story within a story then attempts to evaluate and justify the age-old gender inequality of Eritrea in women’s perspective and runs like a dream narrative throughout the play. This story within the story states the women’s grievances, even including apparent sexual slavery to their men. Yet the women do not hate them, they love them, but the men neither notice their women’s yearnings nor pay any heed towards their wants. Therefore, under the leadership of Dehabe, the women of the village collectively decide to teach their menfolk a lesson so that the women’s place in their household be respected and be valued by them. They, therefore, abandon their families and seek refuge in the mountains. This way the women commit a ‘sin’ of abandoning duties assigned to them traditionally by the patriarchal society.
The women in exile now feel somewhat liberated of male dominance. These are assertive, opionated, wise and funny women (17). Because of their long absence, the men folk back home are in utter discomfort. They now carry all the burden of labour which, in their psyche, meant for women folk only. Here, the women’s intentional revolt against the masculine gender seems succeeding. The constant dreams of the women as shown in the play thereafter are comic in their regularity, and reminiscent of the structure of many folktales in their repetitiveness (Plastow 17).
Literally speaking, these women are now emancipated – free from male bullies, familial obligations and societal pressures. However, from deep within their hearts, they do not seek revenge against the menfolk. Instead, they look for equality (17). That, in reality, was the motive behind their move to desert families. Love and lust between the sexes mean eventually men and women cannot do without one another (17). Abita, one of the young but emancipated women of the group, realizes this. She, therefore, sneaks down the mountain in search of her lover named Rogie and sow a path of grain so that the men can follow to find their women hidden in the mountains (17). The hushed conversation between the two lovers in the play very clearly represents the need of man and woman for each other:
ROGUIE: I have missed you. It’s a good thing that you came back.
ABITA: I snuck away to see you, risking my life. My sisters will not forgive my weakness but I can’t do without you. I don’t want to leave you, but I must return before morning. (Zerai, 32).
Accordingly, all these womenfolk’s dreams of men’s need of women and the possibility of peace between the two sexes are represented later in the play in the dreams of the age old symbols of white eagles, burning fire in the cave and an olive branch. The following dialogues of Abita, point out to these feelings of the emancipated women folk:
ABITA: In my dream I saw rain falling. And I have seen white eagles floating in the sky. (Zerai, 33).
ABITA: They said: ‘There is fire in your cave.’ (34).
ABITA: They are carrying branches of the olive tree. (34).
For ages, white eagle and olive branch have been considered by the common folks as symbols of peace and ‘fire in the cave’ represents the sexual desire of both the sexes in Eritrea. The dream sequence of the women containing these symbols validates the natural need of men and women for each other and point out to the possibility of a reconciliation between the two sexes (Plastow, 17). Finally, we see the dreams’ literal truth with the very appearance of their men in the mountains directed by the grains’ path of Abita’s escapade earlier. The protagonist, Dehabe, tells the story of how this scenario was once played out in reverse with men as victims which resulted in the present day enslaved plight of women. But she now realizes that their revolt of abandoning everything to seek emancipation is not a complete solution to address the grievances. In the course of their rebellion, each other’s need of natural existence has surfaced on the ground which leads them all to get united once again ‘in order to achieve a final solution by sharing the bad and the good together’.
Accordingly, Mesgun Zerai through this play gives a message of paramount importance in the newly formed State of Africa. The long-suppressed desire of freedom in the mind of womenfolk as reflected in the folktale comes out on the surface in through A Village Dream. The folkloric women of Zerai, however, do not seek revenge, they only look for equality. Accordingly, through this folkloric play the playwright proposes a ‘gendered democracy’ (18) founded on the base of love and respect by both the sexes for each other.
Plastow, Jane. 2006. “The Plays: A Village Dream by Mesgun Zerai”. Three Eritrean Plays.
Asmara: Hdri Publishers. Print.
Zerai, Mesgun. 2006. “A Village Dream”. Three Eritrean Plays. Asmara: Hdri Publishers. Print.