Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Because A Dance of the Forests was written primarily for a Nigerian audience, it can be best appreciated through an understanding of Yoruba culture. A recurring figure in Soyinka’s plays is Ogun, the Yoruba god of war, fire, carving, and metal. As Soyinka says in his essay “The Fourth Stage” (1976), “Ogun stands for a transcendental, humane but rigidly restorative justice.” By using elements of traditional Yoruba performance such as dance and music, Soyinka creates an effect of cathartic ritual. Yoruba myth and its ritual drama, however, do not reach toward an ideal absorption in “godlike essence,” but rather plunge “into the ’chthonic realm,’ the seething cauldron of the dark world will and psyche, the transitional yet inchoate matrix of death and becoming.” As a Yoruba, Soyinka believes that the ancestral is contained within the living, and that the gulf between the living and their ancestors—and between mortals and deities—must be constantly diminished by ceremonial sacrifice and ritual.

Perhaps the most basic metaphysical feature of West African religion is the belief that souls reside in objects and natural phenomena, a belief known as animism. Thus trees, hills, streams, oceans, and rocks all have resident souls. A Dance of the Forests is alive with species deities—all the Forest Dwellers. Animism postulates a common soul for each individual species, indicating the West African’s deep conviction of a...

(The entire section is 476 words.)