A Dance of the Forests

by Wole Soyinka

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Dead Man and Woman

The Dead Man and Dead Woman from the beginning of the play are two unsettled souls who have been summoned to accuse the living of unresolved crimes against them. The Man was once a captain in Mata Kharibu’s army who was arrested for treason, castrated, and reincarnated several times before dying for good. The Woman was the man’s wife, who was executed while pregnant in front of her husband on Madame Tortoise’s orders.


Aroni is referred to as the one-legged forest spirit and is responsible for summoning the dead. The living wanted to summon the souls of great ancestors for their upcoming gathering, but Aroni thought it would be better for the people to face their accusers. He designs to have the dead confront the the people who ruined their lives.


Murete is a tree demon whose primary function in the play is to provide expository information to the reader. He likes to get drunk and frequently quarrels with other forest spirits.


Eshuoro is an unsettled forest spirit who is embodied in the form of an agaba tree. Eshuoro is bent on revenge on Demoke for two reasons: Demoke cut off part of Eshuoro’s head and murdered Oremole, a dedicated servant of Eshuoro, in cold blood.


Ogun is the god of metal workers, and thus he is Demoke’s patron god and protector. Ogun fights with Eshuoro over Eshuoro's desire to exact revenge on Demoke.


Oremole, although never introduced in the play, is the apprentice woodworker that Demoke killed. He was carving the top of the totem for the gathering, an action that filled Demoke with jealousy and rage because he realized his student had somehow surpassed his master.


Demoke is the master woodworker, or carver, whom the village elders commissioned to create an elaborate totem for the Gathering of the Tribes. Demoke says he is in the forest because he couldn’t stand to look at his creation any longer, but he later confesses that he feels guilty for killing Oremole and has fled as a result. Demoke eventually burns down his own creation thanks to the trickery of Eshuoro. In a flashback scene, it is revealed that Demoke was formerly a poet in the court of Mata Kharibu at the same time that the dead man and woman experienced their greatest suffering.

Rola (Madame Tortoise)

Rola at first says she has fled the village to escape the annoying children and extended family who came to town for the gathering. Later, Demoke outs her as a local prostitute named Madame Tortoise. Upon this discovery, Adenebi reveals that one of Rola’s patrons murdered another patron and then killed himself as a result of her machinations. Her lack of remorse over such events is what links her to the past Madame Tortoise, the evil wife of Mata Kharibu, who ordered the dead woman to be killed in front of the dead man after he rejected her sexual advances. This Madame Tortoise is also responsible for the novice—the form of Oremole—breaking his arm while trying to retrieve her canary.


Agboreko is a messenger and soothsayer who is charged with summoning the dead at the behest of the living.


Adenebi is an orator for the local council who bears witness to the suffering of others yet takes no responsibility for his role. He is somewhat complicit in the death of 65 lorry passengers, and in his former life as a historian in the court of Mata Kharibu, Adenebi was vocal in his condemnation of the dead man.


Obaneji is the mysterious office clerk who keeps meticulous records of the villagers’ lives and deeds. The others among the living group in the forest automatically dislike him. However, it is revealed in part two that Obaneji is actually just a human form of the Forest Head, the ruler of all forest spirits. Much like his human form, Forest Head prefers to let human beings make their own choices and learn lessons the hard way. Forest Head supports Aroni’s choices, but he doesn’t intervene when chaos erupts near the play’s end.

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