Last Updated on October 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1369
Wole Soyinka's play A Dance of the Forests was first performed in 1960 during the Nigerian Independence celebrations. In the prose passage that precedes part 1 of the play, Aroni (the messenger for the Yoruba god Forest Father, or Forest Head) tells the audience that he has agreed to invite two dead people to the eponymous Dance of the Forests because he feels sorry for them. As with much of Soyinka’s writing, the play that follows is an allegory for turmoil in Nigerian history and the tendency of those in power to glorify the past. The play earned the ire of many Nigerian elites for its largely negative allegorical representation of them.
During a Yoruba festival known as the Gathering of the Tribes, a group of seemingly unconnected villagers flee to the woods to escape the festivities for various reasons. At the same time, a dead man and woman escape from their graves and ask each of these villagers to listen to their pleas so that they might finally achieve eternal rest. In a previous life, the dead man was a captain for a corrupt emperor known as Mata Kharibu; the dead woman was the captain’s wife.
The villagers who have fled to the forest and gathered together are Adenebi, Demoke, Obaneji, and Rola. Adenebi is a member of the government, and he finds the gathering boring. Demoke is a talented woodcarver who was hired to create an ornate totem to be used at the festival, but he doesn’t want to witness how the villagers will use it. Obaneji is a municipal records worker who says he respects the festival, but it makes him nervous to be around so many people at once. Rola complains that she had to escape the village to get away from her extended family, who have come into town for the festival.
Once these facts are established, the next scene introduces the one-legged god Aroni, who talks with the tree demon Murete. Aroni is searching both for the living humans who have entered the forest and for the dead couple. Aroni summoned the unsettled souls of the dead man and woman because Agboreko, a village soothsayer, was sent to ask the forest gods to send illustrious ancestors to attend the Gathering of the Tribes. Instead, Aroni roused the spirits of two “accusers,” or people who were wronged and never received justice. Unbeknownst to them, the reincarnated spirits of those who had wronged the dead man and woman were lured into the forest. Aroni arranged this so that the spirits of the dead couple could finally find peace and the current reincarnations could rectify their past sins.
In a subsequent scene, another Yoruba god, Ogun (guardian of metal workers and artisans), gets Murete drunk on the wine left behind by Agboreko as part of the village’s offering to the forest gods. Ogun hopes that Murete will tell him where to find the living villagers, because Ogun wants to protect Demoke from Eshuoro, a wayward spirit of the forest. Eshuoro wants to punish Demoke for killing a man who was a devoted follower of Oro.
The next scene returns to the four villagers. During their conversation, the four villagers discuss a recent accident with a passenger lorry that was carrying nearly double the number of people for which it had capacity. Obaneji is interested in this accident because he is responsible for recording the names of everyone involved. Obaneji asks Adenebi, who works in the council office that approves lorry permits, to provide him with a list of passengers after revealing that only five of the seventy passengers survived a fire aboard the lorry. Rola and Adenebi accuse Obaneji of being insensitive, since all he wants is to record the names of people involved, including the man who was bribed to approve the permit.
All of this talk leads to a discussion of death. Demoke interjects that he would rather fall to his death than be burned like the lorry passengers, citing his apprentice’s recent death. Demoke explains how he could have reached out and touched Oremole—his apprentice—as he fell from the top of the sacred agaba tree that he was helping to carve into the totem for the Gathering of the Tribes. Each member of the group explains how he or she would like to die. Rola tries to kiss Obaneji to demonstrate how she would like to die, indicating that she wants to die while engaged in sexual activity. Obaneji rejects Rola’s advances, but the others realize that Rola is the notorious local prostitute called Madame Tortoise. The men chastise Rola for the recent death of one of her patrons, and they comment that she really fled to the forest because her family members would not allow her to work while they were in her house.
The dead man and woman continue to wander through the forest before approaching the villagers again. Demoke is the only one in the group who will speak to the dead man and woman. Demoke asks if the dead man has spoken to Oremole and whether Oremole has accused Demoke of murder. After the dead man and woman depart without answering him, Demoke confesses that he pushed Oremole to his death out of envy that his apprentice was overtaking his talent. Disguised as Demoke’s father, Ogun continues to search for Demoke.
At the beginning of part 2, Murete and Eshuoro discuss the present state of things. Eshuoro is irritated, both because Aroni summoned two dead spirits that the village would never embrace and because of the destruction of the forests. Eshuoro is especially angry that Demoke selected a sacred tree to use for his carving. He vows to take revenge on all humans, including Demoke. In the next scene, it is revealed in a conversation with Aroni that Obaneji is actually the Forest Father, or Forest Head, in disguise, and he wants the villagers in the forest to admit to and atone for their sins.
Suddenly, the play shifts backward in time by four centuries to a scene in Mata Kharibu’s court. Rola becomes the Madame Tortoise of the past, Kharibu’s newest queen. Demoke is the court poet who has been involved with Madame Tortoise. In a conversation between the two, Madame Tortoise asks the poet to retrieve her canary; the poet sends his novice to fetch the canary because he knows it is an impossible and dangerous task. Madame Tortoise only asks a man to fetch her canary when she hopes to get revenge on him or to be rid of him.
Meanwhile, Mata Kharibu is angry with a warrior—who is the dead man from part 1—for not taking his armies into a neighboring kingdom to retrieve Madame Tortoise’s wardrobe. Kharibu wants the warrior executed for treason and has him imprisoned. Madame Tortoise tries to seduce the imprisoned warrior, who refuses her advances. As retribution, Madame Tortoise has the warrior’s pregnant wife—the dead woman from part 1—killed in front of him. Simultaneously, the poet’s novice falls from the roof of the palace trying to get Madame Tortoise’s canary, breaking his leg in the process. This scene shows parallels between the past and the present, revealing that the reincarnated souls are repeating the sins from their past lives.
The drama of this scene plays out as the gods watch. Eshuoro remarks that the deceased warrior was foolish, after which he and Ogun quarrel about Demoke. Soon afterward, the dead woman appears before Forest Head and begs to have her unborn child removed from her sleeping womb. After the “Half-Child” is removed, Eshuoro, Ogun, and Demoke become involved in a scuffle trying to grab ahold of the child. In a flurry of confusion, Eshuoro tricks Demoke into setting fire to his totem that is waiting to be used in the festivities for the Gathering of the Tribes. Thus, Eshuoro succeeds in punishing Demoke.
The play ends with the revelation of everyone’s past identities. The villagers of the present are astounded to learn the truth about their past. Forest Head and Aroni speak about the nature of the past and present as the play ends.