A Dance of the Forests

by Wole Soyinka

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Act I

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Last Updated December 1, 2023.

A Dance of the Forests opens with an introduction from Aroni, a deity dubbed "the Lame One," who explains that he has conjured two spirits to attend the Gathering of the Tribes. Usually, such spirits are illustrious figures; this year, however, he has elected to invite two mundane spirits, known only as the Dead Man and the Dead Woman. Once, the Dead Man had been a Mata Kharibu army captain; the Dead Woman was his wife. While alive, they were wronged by the previous incarnations of the play's living characters—Adenebi, Demoke, Rola, and Agboreko.

Now alone in the forest, the Dead Man and the Dead Woman, who is visibly pregnant, seek out passers-by to help them, including those who wronged them, all of whom reject them. Adenebi, Demoke, Rola, and Agboreko gossip amongst themselves, explaining why they intend to avoid the Gathering of the Tribes. Rola explains that she is irritated with her visiting relatives, and Demoke is disillusioned with his handiwork—the totem he had carved into the sacred tree that acts as the centerpiece of the gathering. Obaneji, a deity named the Forest Head who is disguised as a human, arrives and leads the group into the forest, away from the Dead Man and the Dead Woman.

Elsewhere, Aroni is coaxing Murete, a tree demon, out from his tree, scolding him for hiding and asking him to participate in the welcoming of the dead. Murete insists that he wishes to attend the Gathering of the Tribes instead, as he and Agboreko, the Elder of Sealed Lips, feel that Aroni's choice of spirits was poor; they asked for illustrious ancestors to attend their gathering but were given the Dead Man and Dead Woman instead, mere “accusers.”

In the next scene, Agboreko attempts to summon Murete, who refuses to entertain him. Agboreko exits and Ogun, Demoke's favored deity and the patron god of carvers, enters. He commands Murete to direct him to the four “witnesses,” asking if Demoke is among them. However, Murete is too drunk to provide a clear answer. Ogun explains that he must find Demoke, as he has angered the deity Eshuoro by carving a totem from araba, a sacred tree, and, in doing so, killed Eshuoro's follower, Oremole. 

Together, Rola, Demoke, Adenebi, and Obaneji surmise the identities of the Dead Man and Dead Woman. When Rola asks Obaneji if he is hiding something, he answers that he simply feels overwhelmed from knowing too much, as he works as a filing clerk for the Courts. His favorite type of records, he explains, are those about passenger lorries, such as one dubbed the Incinerator. The day before, the overloaded lorry had caught fire and all but five passengers survived. Obaneji explains that an office worker had taken a bribe and doubled the lorry’s capacity, but Adenebi protests that it could not have been one of their workers.

The four get to talking about how each of them would like to die, and Demoke states he would like to fall to his death while woodcarving. At one point, Rola teases Obaneji about preferring to die in his bed and attempts to kiss him. When Obanjei rejects her advances, she starts furiously insulting him. Meanwhile, Demoke realizes who Rola was in a previous incarnation and begins calling her “Madame Tortoise.”

The dead couple enters, and Demoke rushes to ask the man if he is Oremole, the apprentice who fell from the tree while they were carving the totem. The Dead Man does not answer his question and instead describes how he traveled to the underworld after his death. The pair...

(This entire section contains 1003 words.)

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exit. In their absence, Demoke confesses that he pushed Oremole to his death because he refused to let Demoke carve the top of the araba. After confessing, Demoke hears his father’s voice from a distance and follows it.

Ogun is dismayed to learn he has missed Demoke once more. He prays to the Forest Head to be lenient on Demoke, as he is still his servant even though he committed a crime. After he exits, the Old Man, two of his councilors, and Adanebi enter. The Old Man orders one of the councilors to drive the broken lorry, The Chimney of Ereko, into the forest in hopes that the lorry’s petrol fumes will drive away the dead couple. A baffled Adenebi wonders why the Old Man seeks to expel their guests. The Old Man responds that instead of the great ancestors they had asked for, the forest sent them “disgruntled creatures” instead, and he has no wish to keep them around.

Agboreko enters and comments that the ghosts are here at the behest of Aroni, who is too powerful to be undermined by the Old Man's efforts. Meanwhile, Adenebi reveals that the Old Man’s son, Demoke, is around the area, with Madame Tortoise and a man who claims to be Chief Clerk. He then describes two “very unpleasant looking” beings who keep following them. The Old Man angrily responds that the “Chief Clerk” must be Eshuoro in disguise and says they will all be led to destruction because Oremole has been killed.

Agboreko calls for a divination ritual and his beaters enter, accompanied by the dirge-man. While drums play and a dancer performs, the dirge-man entreats those present to “leave the dead some room to dance.” However, Agboreko and the Old Man are disgruntled about what they divine. At this moment, the lorry—the Chimney of Ereko—approaches and scatters them all. Adenebi is knocked out in the confusion.

Adenebi awakes and hides from the forest spirits who have been driven out by the lorry’s fumes. Rola, Demoke, and Obaneji enter. The latter asks Adenebi if he was able to find out the man who had taken the bribe for the Incinerator. Adenebi protests that he merely wishes to be left alone. He asks Obaneji where he is taking them, and the latter responds that they are attending the welcoming of the dead.

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Act II