A Dance of the Forests

by Wole Soyinka

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 381

Wole Soyinka’s play explores the impact of ancestral spirits on the beliefs and activities of living mortals. While focusing on the spirits and people as characters, he further applies their motivations and interactions to the larger social and political environment of Nigeria in early post-independence times. Thus the spiritual realm also provides a metaphor for the mundane world, offering guidelines for human ethical behavior.

The Relationship Between Past and Present

While the spirit characters may be understood to represent specific people who are deceased, each of them also stands for larger groups of which they had been members, especially the Yoruba tribal-ethnic group. By extension, they represent traditional, authentic African values in contrast with modern, imposed British ones. The potent life forces of the Dead Man and Dead Woman are necessary for the current and future vitality of African peoples. The continued importance of the deity-spirits, such as the Forest Father, is communicated through intermediaries such as Aroni and Agboreko.

Trickery and Deception

The illusions offered by the mundane world often block mortal humans from understanding the deities’ messages and appreciating the important qualities of life. Eshuro embodies the power to deceive through his combined role as a trickster figure, as he partly derives Eshu, but also straddles life and death in his derivation from Oro. By deceiving people into doing immoral acts, Eshuro endangers not only their lives but also their future generations’ well-being. This combined threat is played out through the combined fates of Demoke and the half-child.

Creativity and Regeneration

The importance of the creative artist is exemplified by Demoke, a wood carver. Because he works in a traditional Yoruba medium and uses the natural material of forest-derived wood, however, that creativity also stands for the importance of traditional culture and of respect for nature. Moreover, creativity extends to procreation and reproduction of human beings, and the regeneration of essential life forces in society. The negative side of sexuality as a manifestation of desire for power is represented by Rola, who uses her sexuality to take life rather than give it. Demoke must be the conveyor of the half-child because he is an artist; while the archetypal Dead Woman physically gave birth to the half-child, her debased status disables her from raising the child in appropriate cultural conditions.

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