Wole Soyinka’s “The Trials of Brother Jero”: A reviewPosted: May 9, 2013
(The following review-analysis of Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero was written as a requirement in my Afro-Asian Literature class when I was doing my undergraduate study in the Ateneo de Davao. The class was under the great poet Don Pagusara, and being under such an esteemed writer invariably motivated me to show off. This requirement is one of the best I’ve written during that time, and it shows a stage of my critical growth: not yet intellectual enough (I’m really not quite there yet to this day) but I was beginning to know what to look for. It also shows the remarkable impact of the English 13 classes I had in first year college, as it shows influences of that structured form with thesis statement and topic sentence. I have since grown out of that form now, but as I’m currently teaching an analogous subject in Silliman University (BC 12), I’m beginning to return to the form. For nostalgic purposes I’ve retained the text’s formatting as it appeared on the submitted manuscript .)
David, Karlo Antonio G.
3rd Year AB English
Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero
In a delightfully farcical manner, Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero give insight into the lucrative Evangelism industry, and it reveals that far more than being the personal and introspective discipline it claims to be, Religion is a serious trade which in fact demands impersonality to succeed.
The play, the first of Soyinka’s Jero series, introduces brother Jeroboam, a self-proclaimed prophet who evangelizes by the beach in a small, unnamed town. Throughout the play, he talks to the audience, comparable to how the eponymous Richard III talks to the audience in Shakespeare’s play. Brother Jero (as he is commonly known) elaborates to the audience on his “business,” talking about his early beginnings (he was born with long hair, a sign that he would be a prophet), his rivalry with the old prophet under whom he was apprentice and the general state of the prophet “market.” In the second scene, the play’s main plot begins when Chume, a messenger working for the government, and Amope, Chume’s “entrepreneur” wife are introduced. It is later revealed that Chume is Jero’s leading follower, and is set to be his successor in the Faith. But Jero shares with the audience that Chume’s main reason for following him was that he was seeking a way to divert his attention from the urges to hit his wife, who nags on him too much. Jero owes money to this wife, but he is at first oblivious to the fact that Amope is in fact that wife Chume wants to beat, knowing only that he owes money to some woman. Upon learning it however, he allows Chume to beat her. But Chume learns that Jero owes money to Amope before hitting her, and he is enraged. While he seeks brother Jero, the latter is busy recruiting another follower, the local Member of Parliament. Before fleeing from the coming Chume (who has added suspicions of adultery to his grievances against the prophet) Jero is able to entice the Member with prophesy of the latter becoming Minister of War. Jero is able to evade Chume, and he ends the play by assuring himself that he will get rid of the man with his newfound influence over the member.
Throughout the play, Jero’s status as a prophet (and the status of prophet in general) is portrayed more as an occupation than a “vocation,” and the act of evangelizing more as a business than a “mission.” This is done both blatantly and subtly in the play.
Jero, in breaking the fourth wall, shares his “entrepreneurial course of action” to the audience, blatantly revealing the trade-like nature of Religion. He even says in one line that he feels like a shop keeper going to his shop when he goes to his area on the beach every day. He it is who reveals the competition among prophets for a good place along the beach. He also mentions methods in attracting followers, and he fleetingly mentions another prophetic “firm” using French dance-girls. Most interestingly, he reveals his method of keeping the followers he has already recruited. He mentions that the key is to deny them of what they yearn for most. He does not give Chume permission, for instance, to hit his wife, knowing that when Chume has fulfilled his yearning, he would no longer have any reason to have faith. Not only does this show that Religion thrives in the misery of its followers (a point we shall discuss further later on) but that Religion is post-modern in nature, for its pleasure is in fact Lacanian Jouissance, based on tantalization from fulfillment. Jero also reveals in his act of attracting the Member of Parliament that the prophet-trade is also dynamic, and with the right investment in followers, the business can grow larger and stronger. The play in fact ends with this promise.
Comparison between evangelization and business is also made in a more subtle way in the play by means of either one’s relationship with each other. Jero, a prophet, owes money to Amope, a tradeswoman, and it is to be noted that their link (that of prophet and entrepreneur) is based on the currency of the latter: money. Chume might be viewed as the victim of the play, if not the moral hero, because Jero and Amope are the ones who play the role of villains. Yet again, the connection is made: Chume is made to suffer by both Jero’s religious self-interest and his wife’s nagging personality brought about by her mercantile endeavors. With this, it can be mentioned that neither one, business nor religion, is portrayed positively in the play.
In a way, the “Trials” of the play’s title are the challenges, both decisive and introspective (the latter of which we shall later discuss) Jero faces as a businessman.
The play, in reducing Evangelization into a business, also sheds insight into how, far from the introspection it claims, it in fact demands impersonality for one to truly “succeed” in it. This is manifested both in Jero’s success in spite of his introspective “trials” and in Chume’s defeat.
Throughout the play Jero, far from being an emotionless villain, is portrayed as a human with problems of his own, most of which have something to do with his career as prophet. Early on, it is mentioned that his biggest problem is women, a very self-centered problem. In one scene, he prays to fight against the temptation evoked by a passing young girl, remembering the “curse” (which in a way becomes a business jinx) his old mentor made against him. In order to succeed without problems in the trade, therefore, Jero needs to control himself. He ultimately is able to, and the play ends to his advantage (though I haven’t read the rest of the Jero series to say if he continues to). It is to be added that failure to control what Jero was able to (that is to say, sexual desire) is the downfall of many a Catholic priest today!
Chume, the ultimate “loser” of the play, owes his defeat in the trade to his being driven by his desires. He lets his actions get controlled by his emotions, and he ultimately fails by them. First, he joins Jero’s fellowship out of a desire to hit his wife, and he becomes Jero’s victim as a consequence. Overcome by the bliss he feels at Jero’s permission to beat Amope, he does not bother reflecting on the sudden change in the prophet’s dogma. Finally, he owes a bleak future at the end of the play to his rash and direct pursuit of Jero. All this, it must be added, with him being designated successor to the prophet, making him a bonafide “player” in the trade.
If the play has any insight into Religion per se (that is, disregarding any of its social factors) it would be that far from giving “religious fulfillment,” religion thrives in the misery of its followers, and ultimately does more harm than help. The majority of the followers in the play (Chume and the Member most especially) are portrayed as following Jero out of some unfulfilled desire and misery (desires that, as we mentioned, Jero takes advantage of). In the scene when Chume takes over for a while as prophet, in fact, he lists down all the desires of the followers, and he receives enthusiastic response (it is to be noted that this is one of only two Evangelizing scenes in the play, the other being Jero’s recruitment of the Member, also by evoking desire). Religion, as manifested by Jero’s taking advantage, thrives in these unfulfilled desires, and so long as there are unhappy people, we can presume that there will be religion. But the play reveals that while it thrives in discontent, it is far from fulfilling that discontent, and may even be a hindrance. Chume’s great desire is to hit his wife, a desire he cannot fulfill ultimately because of his devotion to Jero’s creed. All the followers in the play, in fact, do not get what they want in the end, and we can safely assume that their devotion to Jero’s creed serves as a considerable distraction as well. This is, of course, the reader-response of an Atheist!
Humorous but cruel in its polemics, Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero reveals themes that not only concern his Africa, but the entire Religious World as well, immortalizing the playwright thereby into the universal and (until religion continues to exist) timeless Literary genius he now is.