The Lion and the Jewel, although an early play by Wole Soyinka, is perhaps his most widely known and performed drama. It was first produced along with The Swamp Dwellers (pr. 1958, pb. 1963); both plays are concerned with a society in flux and treat the issue with humor. The Lion and the Jewel differs in tone in that it conveys a sense of physical danger that is not apparent in the former. The Lion and the Jewel contains most of the dramatic themes and literary devices that Soyinka enlarges upon in later plays. Although it is lighthearted and contains music, dance, and mime, it also has a serious underlying theme—the possible dangers inherent in the clash between the old and the new.
Soyinka’s continued concern with the theme of the battle between a traditional and an emerging society appears in later plays such as A Dance of the Forests (pr. 1960, pb. 1963) and The Trials of Brother Jero (pr. 1960, pb. 1963): The former views history as a cyclical movement; the latter unfolds a satire of undiscovered identities. Similar dramatic conventions appear in Death and the King’s Horseman (pb. 1975, pr. 1976), in which traditional customs are challenged, and the age-old idea of self-sacrifice is shown to be no mere mechanical ritual. The protagonist, Elesin, is confronted with the same danger of change that confronts the Bale. When Elesin’s son, Olunde, assumes the traditional responsibility that Elesin avoids, he embodies Soyinka’s hope for the regeneration of a healthy community.
The canon of Soyinka’s work—in drama, poetry, essay, and the novel—was justly acknowledged with his receiving of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. Soyinka’s dramas have a strong social impact; through his use of humor, satire, irony, and realism, he has created African drama that addresses universal concerns.