Critical Context

Wole Soyinka, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1986, is considered a “difficult” or literary as opposed to a popular dramatist. The Road, even though it falls within the traditional framework of his other plays, defies narrow classification. It ranges in mood from the near tragic to the absurdly comic, and it contains grim realism, abstract symbolism, caustic satire, and religious and mystical speculation. As an example of ritual theater, The Road presents a microcosm of the “cosmic” human condition. As Soyinka says of ritual theater in Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), “powerful natural or cosmic influences are internalized within the protagonists.” Since the stage for Soyinka is “brought into being by a communal presence,” the ritual aspect of the play draws the audience into participating in the cathartic process.

Soyinka distinguishes European from African literature on the basis of their different relations to the audience and to reality. Whereas the European literary experience consists of a series of literary ideologies, such as realism, naturalism, and absurdism, the African literary experience concerns mainly the discovery and understanding of timeless truth and the preservation of the moral fiber of society. For Soyinka, African literature does not have an independent existence as an ideological entity. The Road, like Soyinka’s other plays, employs ritual devices within a folkloric framework in order to engage the audience in the cathartic process. Ideally, this process has the effect of raising collective consciousness and thereby bringing the community into harmony with the laws of nature. In his visionary projection of society, Soyinka’s satire extends well beyond the road. His absolute standard includes the Christian God and Yoruba deities, such as Ogun and the spirits of timber and the graveyard. The characters (and through them the audience) apprehend these deities not merely as abstract concepts but as real forces open to direct experience on the basis of expanded awareness. For Soyinka, crossing the transitional gulf cannot be separated from the African cultural context.