A Dance of the Forests

by Wole Soyinka

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Critical Context

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In Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), Soyinka makes a distinction between the European and African literary experience. The European experience consists of a series of literary ideologies: allegory, neoclassicism, realism, naturalism, surrealism, absurdism, constructivism, and so forth. The African experience, on the other hand, while not without ideological concepts, concerns mainly the discovery of universal truths. In contrast to the European idea of literature as having an objective existence, African literature, Soyinka explains, remains integrated with traditional values, social vision, and collective experience. It is “far more preoccupied with visionary projection of society than with speculative projections of the nature of literature, or of any other medium of expression.” By social vision in literature Soyinka means a concern to reveal social realities beyond immediate, conventional boundaries, a concern to free society from historical presuppositions and replace them with the writer’s idealistic and pragmatic ordering of human experience.

One of Soyinka’s main concerns is the question of when (and whether) ritual can become drama—whether a mythic or religious celebration can be transformed into a work for the stage, and whether the actors and the audience can actually relive the revelation of a ritual experience. Soyinka believes that the audience is integral to the arena of dramatic conflict because it supplies the protagonist with the spiritual strength necessary to challenge the chthonic realms. By conjuring all the sensory experiences of ritual communication—sound, light, motion, smell, and so forth—the ritual theater parallels the experience of humanity as it enters the gulf between itself and infinity. The audience (community) emerges from the ritual experience of drama charged with a new energy because its “consciousness is stretched to embrace another and primal reality.”

While essentially pure, African gods, like those of classical Greece, are susceptible to human excesses and weaknesses such as hubris. But unlike the Greek gods, to whom moral reparation seems totally foreign, African gods such as Ogun are held to a system of moral standards, which has the effect of narrowing the gulf between the human and the divine. Obaneji is thus not only the Forest Head but also a mortal. As Soyinka explains, the mythic inner world of A Dance of the Forests combines both inner and outer reality, the psychic as well as the temporal in which it subsists. Whereas psychiatrist Carl Jung did not believe that archetypes arise from physical facts, the Yorubas believe that psychic archetypes, or the structure of consciousness, is connected to experience in the natural world. Soyinka’s notion of transition—of transcending to a deeper experience of the transitional gulf—cannot be separated from the African context of being and historical continuity. Soyinka, the recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, rounded out the twentieth century with a radio play, A Scourge of Hyacinths, pr. 1990, pb. 1992), and two theater plays: From Zia, with Love (pr., pb. 1992) and The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope (pb. 1995, pr. 1996).

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