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.
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...
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