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A Dance of the Forests by Wole Soyinka was a controversial play in Soyinka's native Nigeria at the time it premiered. A Dance of the Forests was performed during the 1960 Nigerian independence celebration. Soyinka wrote the play as a warning to Nigeria and other African countries about the dangers of repeating past mistakes politically, socially, and economically. In essence, Soyinka was stating that postcolonial Nigeria could veer towards the same exploitation and oppression that colonizers inflicted upon the native people.

Soyinka knew that there would be a power vacuum in the country after it obtained independence and that the Nigerian political elite were just as capable of negatively affecting the new nation as the foreign invaders of the past. The play and its central message angered the political establishment, and the new Nigerian government deemed the publication and performance of A Dance of the Forests an act of rebellion.

This reaction is understandable from the elite's point of view, since the play portrayed the Nigerian politicians at the time as corrupt, greedy, and inept. However, this portrayal is considered by many African historians to have been fairly accurate. Soyinka portrayed the government as aimless and disorganized. He depicted the politicians as more concerned with fighting each other for power and wealth than trying to improve the country.

Soyinka was aware that the colonial powers had made sure that the Nigerian political arena was divided, so that if and when the colonial powers lost control of Nigeria, the local politicians would struggle to unite the country, allowing the colonials powers to continue taking economic and political advantage of Nigeria. These were the same tactics of division and diversion that allowed the colonialists to control and govern Nigeria in the first place. Soyinka's criticism of imperialism in Nigeria and other African nations was the prelude for articulating his vision of a new Africa. Soyinka proposed solidarity, or what could be called Pan-Africanism, and advocated for the implementation of a pure form of democracy.

The Play

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1197

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 aspect of creation with a feeling more appropriate to the positive aspect. The blood that flows from Oremole acts as a medium through which the spiritual energies of the forest are manifested (an event often resulting in the possession of a human witness). The tapping of these demon forces may account for Demoke’s supernatural burst of creative energy just after the murder—an example of the ever-present spirits interacting with mortal life.

In part 2, the scene retrogresses about eight centuries to the ancient court of Emperor Mata Kharibu. Rola, Demoke, and Adenebi are portrayed as Madame Tortoise (the queen), the Court Poet, and the Historian respectively—all of whom enact paradigms of their current crimes. Madame Tortoise, for example, fights boredom by seducing her subjects and then sending them to retrieve her canary from the palace’s dangerously steep roof. After a risqué bantering session with the Poet, the piqued Madame Tortoise dispatches him to fetch her canary. The Poet instead sends his pupil, who falls and breaks his arm. At this point a chained warrior (the Dead Man) is brought before Mata Kharibu on charges of treason. The captain had fought against a fellow chief and abducted his queen, Madame Tortoise, for Mata Kharibu, but he now refuses to risk his men in another frivolous battle to obtain her dowry. The Court Physician tries to reason with the captain, who adamantly refuses to obey.

Adenebi, the Historian, asserts that the carnage of history is normal, that the warrior’s pacifism is sick or traitorous. Adenebi’s historical evaluation suffers from the restricted awareness that the four mortals share, a state of awareness that the Forest Head tries to expand. Of the four, only the Soothsayer attempts to spare the captain from being enslaved and to restrain Mata Kharibu from plunging into another senseless war: “I see much blood Mata Kharibu. On both sides of the plough.” Fretful, Kharibu asks the Soothsayer if the captain is a “freak” who can multiply; the answer is “no.” However, the Dead Man has returned and participates in the welcoming dance of revelation. He is not “perfectly dead.”

Before the questioning of the dead pair begins, the spirit Eshuoro demands vengeance against Demoke and hurls invectives at the Warrior. Aroni, however, says, “It is enough that they discover their own regeneration.” The dead pair are asked to give an account of themselves and explain the reason for their return. The Dead Woman is pregnant—a universal mother figure seeking fulfillment.

After the dead couple are welcomed, the Dance of Welcome is performed by the spirits of the Forest (represented by Demoke, Rola, and Adenebi, wearing masks) who, while momentarily entranced, chorus the future. The dead pair listen in suspense to see whether the future will be more auspicious than the past or present. The Forest Head orders Aroni to relieve the Dead Woman “of her burden (the Half-Child) and let the tongue of the unborn, stilled for generations, be loosened.” The multiple spirits of the Forest envision a future of more suffering and hopelessness; it becomes apparent that the Interpreter of the spirits is collaborating with Eshuoro by conjuring up portents of disaster to demonstrate the futility of self-knowledge.

At this point Demoke comes to himself and, in the “Dance of the Half-Child,” tries to rescue the Half-Child from the fate of being continually “born dead.” The significance of Demoke’s intervention is not that it liberates the Half-Child—this is beyond him—but that he has taken the first tangible step toward his own redemption. In the dumbshow at the end of the play, the “Dance of the Unwilling Sacrifice,” Demoke’s totem is silhouetted as the town people dance around it. Eshuoro finally consummates his involvement by forcing Demoke to climb the araba tree with a basket over his head, a burden representing the blindness of his guilt. Eshuoro then sets fire to Demoke’s tree of transition, from which he falls into the arms of Ogun, the patron god of carvers. Thus Demoke’s rebirth is symbolized not with words, but with dance and music. The impulse toward transcendence originates not from the Forest Dwellers, but from within each mortal, from their inner gods that the Forest personifies.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

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 human condition accumulated throughout the ages. Soyinka’s characters are forced to confront the grim realities lurking behind their dreams. For Soyinka, then, Africa has an inglorious past; his technique is to expose this reality through the metaphysical elements of Yoruba cosmology. Expecting to worship their historic magnificence, the African audience instead looks back across time to a whore as queen, a barbaric king, and a subjugated people.

Noted for its Janus-like viewpoint, A Dance of the Forests uses Africa’s past to cast blame on the present and future. The Dead Man and Mata Kharibu were involved in the slave trade, implying that Africa too readily accepted its chains, whether imposed by foreigners or brothers. The living characters’ rejection of the past, moreover, constitutes a deplorable treatment of guests that violates the rules of conduct held in high esteem by African societies. Men treated each other badly in the past, and they continue to do so in the present. Events in Nigeria since 1960 (including a bloody civil war) have proven Soyinka’s prescience in predicting the need for rational self-criticism. Soyinka’s satiric vision resembles that of Jonathan Swift. He has also been compared to Joseph Conrad in his representation of horror and to William Wordsworth in his lament on man’s inhumanity to man.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 112

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.