The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Professor, the protagonist of The Road, searches for the Word, or Logos, the inward rational principle of language, consciousness, and the natural universe. As the proprietor of the Aksident Store, Professor also dedicates his life to the knowledge and propagation of death, which the Word symbolizes: “The Word may be found companion not to life, but death.” Life is the field of activity, while death, as represented by the Word, is an absolute stasis in which all activity has its unified source. Pursuing the Word can involve the fear of death, which for the Yorubas (the people to which Wole Soyinka belongs) is not considered to be the cessation of life. Professor tries to cheat the illusion of death and embrace the Word, but he ends up only cheating himself.

Death is a constant companion on the road, the synecdoche for the industrial states of Europeanized Africa. The characters in The Road live in ignorance of the true interplay between life and death. Professor’s most intimate medium in his quest for the enigmatic Word is Murano, who is accidentally run over by the truck driver Kotonu during the annual Drivers’ Festival. Murano had been masquerading as the god Ogun, the Yoruba god of carvers, metal, engineering, technology, war, and fire. Ogun symbolizes the creative-destructive principle. Murano dies in a phase known to the Yorubas as agemo and is therefore in a state of suspension: “Agemo, the mere phase, includes the passage of transition from the human to the divine essence.” Murano is a dramatic embodiment of the Word: He is mute, arrested in time, and vanishes during daylight; the Word is silent, eternal, and to most people hidden by the darkness of ignorance.

When Murano is killed, just before the play opens, Kotonu and his tout Samson hide his body in their truck to avoid the frenzied worshipers. Professor discovers Murano and engages him in his former occupation as wine-tapper and companion who might reveal the secrets of freedom from incarnate bondage. As Professor explains, Murano walks with a limp because “when a man has one leg in each world, his legs are never the same.” Murano has one foot on the Word, and the Professor hopes to find rehabilitation in this connection.

Professor’s following consists of a group of drivers and truck-park layabouts who congregate every evening for “communion service,” in which they share palm wine tapped and delivered by Murano. Kotonu asks Professor whether Murano is the “god apparent,” since he was killed in possession by Ogun. Professor thinks that by holding a god captive he can anticipate and cheat the final confrontation with death.

Kotonu, after killing Murano and witnessing an accident at the broken bridge, abandons the road and becomes manager of the Aksident Store. An ambiguous figure, Professor stocks the store from the abundant sacrifice of wrecks and road victims, forging licenses and removing traffic signs to keep his business flourishing. His rationale of reverent purpose—the search for the Word—belies his affinity to the gang of layabouts, whose consciousness of death lacks only his style of spiritual exploitation. Wole Soyinka satirizes Professor by showing how his search leads down the perverse road of madness and megalomania.

The Road consists of two parts, with a series of five major mimes in which one of the characters is in a state of possession. In the opening mime,...

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The Road Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Wole Soyinka’s condensation of time and space began with the play-within-the-play of A Dance of the Forests (pr. 1960, pb. 1963) and the periodic flashbacks of The Strong Breed (pb. 1963, pr. 1964) and reaches its greatest originality in The Road. The characters of this play revive the past through an intensity of recall that dissolves the boundaries of time and personality and allows them to dramatize their mental images instantaneously. Soyinka’s paradigm is the communication between the Word and the masquerader at the moment of his possession by the spirit for whom he is dancing. The difference between Murano’s possession by Ogun and the possession of the other characters by the past incidents that they relive is one of intensity and depth. Murano transcends into the pure energy of the Word at the source of thought, while the others dive to deeper levels of thought that are purged in the process of being dramatized.

In his essay “The Fourth Stage” (1976), Soyinka explains that in addition to the three worlds commonly recognized in African metaphysics—those of the unborn, the living, and the ancestors—there is a less understood fourth space, “the dark continuum of transition, where occurs the inter-transmutation of essence-ideal and materiality.” The characters of The Road enter this transitional space while being possessed or reenacting events from the past. In this experience of transcending the...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

The Road Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Adelugba, Dapo, ed. Before Our Very Eyes: Tribute to Wole Soyinka, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum Books, 1987.

Bossler, Gregory. “Writers and Their Work: Wole Soyinka.” Dramatist 2 (January/February, 2000): 9.

Gates, Louis, Jr., and Kwame Appiah, eds. Critical Perspectives, Past and Present. New York: Harper Trade, 1994.

Gibbs, James, Ketu H. Katrak, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Jones, Eldred Durosimi. The Writing of Wole Soyinka. 3d ed. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1988.

Maja-Pearce, Adewale. Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal. Oxford, England: Heinemann, 1991.

Moore, Gerald. Wole Soyinka. 2d ed. London: Evans Brothers, 1978.

Ogunba, Oyin. The Movement of Transition: A Study of the Plays of Wole Soyinka. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1975.

Okagbue, Osita. “Wole Soyinka.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Sekoni, Ropo. “Metaphor as Basis of Form in Soyinka’s Drama.” Research in African Literatures 14 (Spring, 1983): 45-57.

Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature, and the African World. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Wright, Derek. Wole Soyinka: A Life, Work, and Criticism. Indianapolis: Macmillan, 1992.