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...
(The entire section is 1197 words.)