The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A Dance of the Forests presents a complex interplay between gods, mortals, and the dead in which the ideal goal is the experience of self-discovery within the context of West African spiritualism. The living have invited two glorious forefathers to take part in a feast and celebration—the “Gathering of the Tribes.” The god Aroni, however, explains in the prologue that he received the permission of the Forest Head to select instead “two [obscure] spirits of the restless dead”: the Dead Man and the Dead Woman, a captain and his wife from the army of the ancient Emperor Mata Kharibu. These two were selected because in a previous life they had been violently abused by four of the living. The four mortals are Rola, an incorrigible whore nicknamed Madame Tortoise, who was then a queen; Demoke, now a carver and then a poet; Adenebi, now council Orator and then Court Historian; and Agboreko, Elder of Sealed Lips, a soothsayer in both existences. They have been selected because of past debauchery, which Aroni hopes can be expiated through revelation. Aroni further explains in the prologue that the Forest Head, disguised as a human, Obaneji, invites the four mortals into the forest to participate in a welcome dance for the Dead Man and the Dead Woman, who Aroni takes under his wing after the living ostracize them. The dance is interrupted by the wayward spirit Eshuoro.

Eshuoro seeks vengeance for the death of Oremole, a devotee of Oro and apprentice to the carver Demoke, who killed Oremole by pulling him off the top of the araba tree that they were carving together. Ogun, the patron god of carvers, defends Demoke. Ogun (the god of iron, war, and craftsmanship of the Yoruba, Soyinka’s own society) and Oro (the Yoruba god of punishment and death) represent antithetical forces that continuously interact until their hypothetical synthesis, through which the mortals would attain self-understanding.

As the play itself begins, the dead pair, encrusted in centuries of grime, are observed from a distance by Obaneji as they are rejected in turn by mortals Demoke, Rola, and Adenebi, who refuse to hear their case. While the mortals play charades with their inglorious backgrounds, the Dead Woman observes that the living are greatly influenced by the past accumulation of the dead: “The world is big but the dead are bigger. We’ve been dying since the beginning.” She implies that the living are in no position to be choosy about which of their past lives they confront first.

The ceremony for the self-discovery of the four mortals consists of three parts: first, the reliving of the ancient prototype of their present crimes; second, the questioning of the dead couple; and third, the welcoming dance for the dead couple. As a preliminary step, the four mortals are compelled to reveal their secrets. In Demoke’s passionate account of his killing of his apprentice Oremole, he associates the negative...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A Dance of the Forests, commissioned for the celebration of Nigeria’s independence in 1960, makes use of all the devices traditionally found in Yoruba ritual performances: music, dance, masquerade, possession, and poetry. Critics have described this play as plotless, but Soyinka is concerned less with narrative than with folkloricism, or a folkloric dramaturgy based on ritual significance. Although Soyinka warned Nigerians not to neglect the problems of the present by living in nostalgia for Africa’s glorious past, he is nevertheless distinguished from his fellow poets inasmuch as he continues to work within a traditional system. His plays are considered “difficult” or literary as opposed to popular. The Yoruba cosmology of the play is embodied in Ifa, the traditional religion. In exploring the fact of creation and existence from within this traditional framework, Soyinka works not merely with symbols but also with the essence of Yoruba culture.

Although offered to a nation to celebrate its independence, the irony of A Dance of the Forests is that the victim of its satire is Nigeria itself. Completely devoid of nostalgia, Soyinka boldly deromanticizes his characters by focusing on delusion, death, and betrayal. The great gathering of the tribes corresponds to the birth of a nation, but the heady excitement of the present, bolstered by a glorious heritage, is satirically complemented by a glimpse of the disquieting truths of the...

(The entire section is 443 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Adelugba, Dapo, ed. Before Our Very Eyes. Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum Books, 1987.

Banham, Martin, with Clive Wake. African Theatre Today. London: Pitman, 1976.

Bossier, Gregory. “Writers and their Work: Wole Soyinka.” Dramatist 2 (January/February, 2000): 9.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Kwame Appral, eds. Critical Perspectives, Past and Present. New York: Harper Trade, 1994.

Gibbs, James. Wole Soyinka. New York: Grove Press, 1986.

Jones, Eldred Durosimi. The Writing of Wole Soyinka. 3d ed. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1988.

Moore, Gerald. Wole Soyinka. London: Evans Brothers, 1978.

Sekoni, Ropo. “Metaphor as Basis of Form in Soyinka’s Drama.” Research in African Literatures 14 (Spring, 1983): 45-57.

Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature, and the African World. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.