A Dance of the Forests

by Wole Soyinka

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Soyinka's enigmatic play serves as an allegory of Yoruba history and comments on the nature of human existence.

While they convene in the forest, the four villagers—one of whom is actually Forest Head, the ruler of the Forest, in disguise—discuss their lives and identities in the town. Each of them has fled the town during the Gathering of the Tribes for different reasons. Suddenly, the lone woman, Rola, is recognized by the others as a notorious prostitute named Madame Tortoise, whose patrons meet untimely deaths. When Adenebi realizes Rola is Madame Tortoise, he asks how she can live with herself knowing what becomes of the men who pay her, and Rola replies:

When your business men ruin the lesser ones, do you go crying to them? I also have no pity for the one who invested foolishly. Investors, that is all they ever were—to me.

While Rola is simply explaining her lack of remorse in terms that Adenebi, a businessman, will easily understand, her statement emphasizes the thematic idea of morality that the play interrogates. Rola suggests that while many believe their individual moral codes make them superior to others, especially to sex workers like her, morality is nothing but an arbitrary construct, and each individual is guilty of violating the moral codes of others at some point in their lives. This underscores how the lives of the characters in the play are interconnected, each one affecting the others in ways the individual could not have foreseen.

Another important quote comes later in the play when the villagers are once again discussing their lives. Demoke, the carver responsible for the totem that is being used at the Gathering of the Tribes, confesses that he murdered his apprentice, Oremole. Earlier, he had told the other villagers that Oremole merely fell from the agaba tree as the team of carvers were working on the totem, thereby concealing his role in Oremole's death. When the villagers ask Demoke why he killed Oremole, he replies:

Envy, but not from prowess of his adze.

This quote clarifies Demoke's motivation for killing Oremole. While it might seem that Demoke was simply jealous of Oremole's talent, Demoke admits it had little to do with carving skills. Rather, Demoke did not like that Oremole had climbed to the top of the tree above Demoke, a symbolic representation of Oremole's internal feelings of superiority over Demoke. Demoke's envy of Oremole is indicative of the negative emotions that drive many of the plays' characters to commit acts that adversely impact the lives of others.

After the events of the play, the forest spirits gather and discuss what has transpired. Although the villagers came to the realization that the earlier incarnations of their spirits drove their actions in the present day, the people learned very little from what happened among them. The gods, with Forest Head at the helm, discuss how their original intentions for the meeting in the forest did not work out the way they had hoped:

My secret is my eternal burden—to pierce the encrustations of soul-deadening habit, and bare the mirror of original nakedness—knowing full well, it is all futility.

This quote is spoken by Forest Head and encompasses the philosophical premise of the play. Ultimately, the gods have hope that mankind will be able to right their wrongs and achieve spiritual enlightenment, yet at their core, the gods know that human beings are incapable of casting aside their inherent moral failings in order to live up to their full potential. Forest Head explains that it is his responsibility to continue to have faith in human creation because without it, all existence would be meaningless.

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