A Dance of the Forests

by Wole Soyinka

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Act II

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Last Updated December 1, 2023.

At his dwelling, Murete prepares to leave for the gathering of the tribes. Eshuoro enters and chokes Murete, complaining that he has not been invited to Aroni’s welcoming of the dead. He vows to seek revenge against the humans for desecrating the araba and tearing down the forest.

Meanwhile, the Forest Crier announces the welcoming of the dead. The scene is transported back in time, to eight centuries earlier. The Forest Head—Obaneji—enters with Aroni. They talk about Forest Head’s deception, insisting that it was only Madame Tortoise who was suspicious that Obaneji was not what he seemed. They then attend the court of Mata Kharibu.

In the court, Mata Kharibu and his queen, Madame Tortoise, are seated on their thrones. She commands the court poet—Demoke in a past life—to fetch her canary from the rooftops. A warrior—the Dead Man—enters the court, his feet in chains. Mata Kharibu advances, raging at the warrior for defying his orders. He then raises his sword, but the court physician stops him from delivering the blow.

The physician explains to the warrior that he merely wishes to save him and his men. However, the warrior responds that he refuses to wage war because Mata Kharibu stole the wife of a neighboring chieftain and is threatening war. Despite his best efforts, the physician cannot convince the warrior to relent to Mata Kharibu’s orders and fight, even if it is for petty reasons.

The historian—Adenebi in a previous life—tells Mata Kharibu that only war will bring the nation greatness, reaffirming his choice to fight. However, the soothsayer—Agboreko—foresees too much bloodshed on both sides. Meanwhile, a slave dealer offers his services for the war. Mata Kharibu rewards him with the warrior’s men, but the physician opposes this, arguing that it is better to execute the men rather than subject them to torment and enslavement.

Demoke finally returns Madame Tortoise's canary; however, she no longer wants it. She then approaches the warrior and mocks him for refusing to fight for her. The warrior’s pregnant wife rushes in and begs for mercy on behalf of her husband. However, the queen declares that she has decided to castrate him.

At this moment, the Forest Head and Aroni, who have been watching the spectacle, are disrupted by Eshuoro. He demands compensation for the humans’ crimes against him. Ogun enters and proceeds to taunt Eshuoro. The Forest Head separates the two, reprimands them for squabbling like human men, and then bids Aroni to continue.

The scene shifts to a forest clearing in the aftermath of a lightning storm. The Forest Head sits on a large stone, with the Questioner standing behind him. The Dead Woman and Dead Man enter, proclaiming that although he has lived three lives, his first still “possesses” him. The Questioner insults the Dead Man, prompting Aroni to rip off the Questioner's mask, revealing him to be Eshuoro. Amused, the Forest Head announces he will continue to welcome the dead without his Questioner.

The Interpreter leads Demoke, Rola, and Adenebi to the scene. The Forest Head is disappointed that the Interpreter is merely an acolyte; his original interpreter has gone off to the Gathering of the Tribes. He then bids Aroni to force the unborn infant out of the Dead Woman, and the Interpreter places masks on the three humans. The Dead Woman’s infant, Half-Child, crosses the clearing and begins playing a game of sesan. A Figure in Red appears and joins the child. Various forest spirits then speak in a chorus. The game ends, with the Figure in Red winning.

Aroni attempts to approach the Figure in...

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Red but is thwarted. The Ant Leader joins the scene and introduces himself to the Forest Head as one of his sons. However, Aroni shouts at the ants for interrupting, and they vanish.

The first of the Triplets enters and introduces himself as the End that will justify the Means; the second triplet proclaims that he is the Greater Cause used to excuse crimes. Finally, the third triplet introduces himself as Posterity. As they introduce themselves, the Forest Head explains that the triplets are perversions, which are only born when “lesser criminals” such as Demoke obtain power. At this moment, the Figure in Red unmasks himself, revealing that he is Eshuoro. He extends his hand to the Half-Child, claiming he beat him in the game, but the child avoids him, approaching the Dead Woman instead.

To capture the Half-Child’s attention, Eshuoro gestures for the Interpreter to play a game of ampe with the Triplets. As the game increases tempo, the Interpreter unmasks himself as well, revealing that he is Eshuoro’s Jester. The Half-Child is drawn in their game and tossed around between Eshuoro and the players. Finally, Demoke intervenes and retrieves Half-Child, returning Half-Child to the Dead Woman, despite the Forest Head's warnings. As Half-Child reaches the Dead Woman, Eshuoro yells in triumph.

At the gathering of the tribes, the celebrants dance around Demoke's totem. The Dance of the Unwilling Sacrifice commences with Eshuoro’s Jester clamping a sacrificial basket on Demoke's head. Eshuoro and his Jester start dancing. Demoke is made to climb the totem while wearing this burden, climbing to the sound of drums beating from below. Once he is out of sight, Eshuoro sets fire to the tree. However, Ogun catches Demoke as he falls, leaving him unconscious on the ground with a gun and a cutlass.

At dawn, a drunken Murete leads Agboreko and the Old Man to the scene. The Old Man rushes to Demoke and wakes him up, asking him what he has seen. Upon questioning, Demoke confirms that he has been with Aroni and the Forest Head himself. He insists that he has gone through enough that night to make amends. Rola enters, looking humbled. All four deliver an epilogue while Igbale music plays.

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Act I