Madmen and Specialists Essay - Critical Essays

Wole Soyinka

Critical Context

Wole Soyinka’s work, like most modern African literature, is closely tied to historical circumstance—the British colonization of Nigeria, the independence of Nigeria and other African countries in the early 1960’s, the continued cultural and economic presence of Western capitalism, and the power struggles among ethnic groups within the independent nations. While to some extent Soyinka has dealt with the so-called conflict of cultures motif, including the tendency among some authors to blame the European incursion for Africa’s current problems, Soyinka has focused primarily on more fundamentally human roots of social and political disturbances—roots that lie deeper than cultural differences. He also has insisted that Africans can draw upon their own cultural myths to understand themselves and their situation. Hence Soyinka frequently relies upon Yoruba mythology, in particular the tragic god Ogun, to explain the creative and destructive tendencies in human nature and the cosmic significance of human action. In this respect Madmen and Specialists is a typical Soyinka play; it is so little concerned with the effects of British colonialism that only the naïve Priest and parodies of its cultural heroes, Christ and Socrates, remind the audience of it. The core of the play is a confrontation of elemental forces. The language may be English, but the mythic and ideological basis is African.

While the mythic background is ahistorical, it gives meaning to particular historical events, and Madmen and Specialists, like other Soyinka plays, reflects a merger of myth and history. Soyinka wrote and produced it immediately after the mass genocides of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1969), during which he was detained as a political prisoner. The...

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