The setting is a clearing on the edge of the market with a large “odan” tree; this is the village of Ilujinle’s center. There is a bush school with children chanting arithmetic.
Sidi enters, carrying a pail on her head. She is slim and lovely. The schoolmaster, Lakunle, looks out the window, then shuts it and comes outside to Sidi. He is 23 years old, dressed cleanly but in older clothes.
Lakunle tries to help Sidi with her pail, but she refuses. He admonishes her that she should not carry things on her head because her neck will be squashed, but she retorts that he said he did not care about her looks before. He agrees but says it is unwomanly to carry loads thusly. Also, he adds, she ought to cover her shoulders because people look at her and lust after her.
Annoyed, Sidi replies that she has already fixed the fold on her dress and cannot do more or she wouldn’t be able to move her arms. He asks if she does not care about the names or the jokes or the lusting of men. Sidi replies that in reality everyone knows Lakunle is a madman and is full of words and curses; he is the one people call a fool.
Lakunle is surprised, but claims he is above the taunts of savages. Sidi is furious and shakes her fists at him, but he says this is natural because she has a smaller brain than he does. He is patronizing and adds that he cannot be drawn into an argument with her because it goes over her head.
Sidi grabs for the pail he’d taken and tries to leave. Lakunle begs her not to be angry, because it is science that says women are inferior to and weaker than men. Sidi asks if weak women are not the ones that pound yams and plant millet. Lakunle explains that soon machines will do all this work for them. Sidi says this turning her world upside down, but Lakunle sees it as turning it inside out. He will begin with Baroka, the crafty Bale (leader of the village).
Sidi asks what Baroka has done to Lakunle, and he does not reply. He does say that he will make things as they are in Lagos. Sidi tells him to go there.
Lakunle will not give Sidi the pail back until she agrees to marry him. He promises her that his love will open her mind. It bothers him that she and the village trample his love with their ignorance.
Sidi is frustrated and says all Lakunle does is talk with no meaning. She will marry him, but he must pay her bride-price or she will be a laughingstock: the village will say she was not a virgin. Lakunle calls this a “savage custom, barbaric, out-dated, / Rejected, denounced, accursed, / Excommunicated, archaic, degrading, / Humiliating, unspeakable, redundant. / Retrogressive, remarkable, unpalatable” (7). Sidi is amused by all his words, but he continues that this is an ignoble custom. He wants a wife for love; he wants a life-companion and an equal. She should not be his chattel or his property. She will be a modern wife, and they will kiss in the street.
Sidi is disgusted, which wearies Lakunle. He calls her a “bush-girl” (9). She finds him and his words of love mad, and sees why everyone thinks him to be a fool.
Suddenly young people and drummers enter. A girl tells Sidi that the stranger from the outside world with the “one-eyed box” (10), a camera, is back. He brought all his images and the magazine. Sidi asks if she has seen the book with the pictures of her in it. The man told her he’d “bestow upon [her] / Beauty beyond the dreams of a goddess” (10). Another girl says she has seen it, but that Baroka is feasting his eyes on it. She rhapsodizes that Sidi looks like the sun is her lover in one of the images.
The first girl says Baroka is jealous but pretends to be proud. He has a picture too, but the image is small and near another picture of the village latrines. Sidi is struck that she is more esteemed than the Bale.
Lakunle is skeptical and bitter. Sidi laughs that, now that she is so famous, perhaps she does not need to marry him. He is shocked, and she laughs that she is known to the world. She will break hearts now.
A gathering crowd cheers for the stranger and Sidi wildly suggests dancing the dance of this lost traveler. She divvies up parts and tells Lakunle he has to be the stranger because he knows the outside world. He does not want to do this because he sees this as foolishness, but Sidi forces him to.
The performance begins. Everyone chants and dances around Lakunle. Drummers join in. Four girls dance as a motor-car, and Lakunle is in it. He pretends to drive; the car falters, and he swears. He abandons his car and grabs his camera. The drums are darker. A snake and monkey menace the “stranger.” He drinks and becomes tipsy. A girl begins to sing, and he looks for her so he can take her picture. He drunkenly stumbles into the river. Sidi appears, and the people gather behind her as the villagers.
Suddenly Baroka appears and the performance stops. Lakunle tries to sneak off while the others kneel. Baroka calls him back and says the performance should not stop; he says that he will play Chief Baseje. Lakunle wonders aloud why Baroka has time for this foolishness; Baroka replies that his life would be dull if he did not.
The play begins again with the villagers clamoring for punishment of the stranger because he took the village maidenhood. The Chief intervenes and pacifies the villagers. Sidi is brought in; Lakunle, as the stranger, takes pictures of her. He also drinks a great deal and becomes sick.
After the play ends, Sidi tells Lakunle he did a perfect job of playing the stranger, and that it was better than teaching school.
Sidi then calls her friends to go with her to find the man and his book. They run off excitedly, bringing Lakunle so he can talk to the man for them. Baroka muses he has not taken a wife in five months.
The Lion and the Jewel is a funny, piquant, and deceptively simple play. With only a few characters and three short acts corresponding to the morning, noon, and evening of a single day, it manages to compellingly probe the conflict between modernity and tradition as it played out in post-colonial Nigeria.
Soyinka creates two memorable characters in this first act. Sidi is a beautiful but simplistic young woman, narcissistically absorbed with her own image and the concomitant fame. She is lively and effervescent, and though she is not particularly intelligent, she has a fierce spirit and feels free to tell her suitor Lakunle how she feels about him. She will not compromise on the bride-price, is visibly angry at his patronizing comments about the inferiority of women, and resists changing her behavior just for him. She clearly does not love Lakunle, but at this point she is committed to marrying him if he pays the bride-price.
Lakunle is an extremely humorous character, his foibles and flaws blatantly on display. First, he extremely arrogant and prideful. This manifests in the way he talks to Sidi and generally in his volubility. He is always talking and trying to impress Sidi (and putatively the other villagers) with his words. When Sidi teases him by asking why he stopped naming synonyms for “savage,” he earnestly replies, “I only own the Shorter Companion / Dictionary, but I have ordered / The Longer One—you wait!” (7.) Sidi calls him out on this, saying “You talk and talk and deafen me / With words which always sound the same / And make no meaning” (7). Critic John Povey acknowledges this, noting “Lakunle’s language has the passionate extravagance of semi-illiteracy and folly.” His view on his future with Sidi feature an “appalling, fatuous lack of discrimination that males Lakunle a creature inviting ridicule.” Furthermore, as will become clear when contrasted with the character of Baroka, Lakunle’s main problem “is his inability to separate the reasonableness from the meretricious evidence of progressive change.”
Lakunle brazenly touts his own intelligence; he lambasts the village as ignorant and its customs as barbaric. He indignantly tells Sidi he does not care if he is misunderstood “by you / And your race of savages” (3). Second, he comes to the village with plans of turning it inside out and making it like Lagos, which does not seem to be something that the villagers are interested in having happen. He seeks to overturn traditions in the quest of modernity.
One of the more interesting things about Lakunle is his complicated views on women. On the one hand, he is utterly retrogressive. He thinks it is “unwomanly” (2) for her to carry a pail and criticizes her for wearing revealing clothing. He tells her, “as a woman, you have a smaller brain / Than mine” and “The scientists have proved it. It’s in my books. / Women have a smaller brain than men / That’s why they are called the weaker sex” (4). He does not want to engage in an argument with her because she can “no longer draw me into arguments / Which go above your head” (4). On the other hand, he espouses very modern views. He deems the bride-price a retrogressive and savage custom and claims to want “an equal partner in my race of life” (8) rather than a wife to merely cook and clean. He paints a picture of walking next to her in the street and kissing like a modern couple. For him, this is “civilized romance” (9). As critic Mumia Abu-Jamal writes, “It is this self-loathing, this colonized distortion of vision, that cools Sidi, who sees in this Westernized young man, naught but an educated fool.”