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.
Because A Dance of the Forests was written primarily for a Nigerian audience, it can be best appreciated through an understanding of Yoruba culture. A recurring figure in Soyinka’s plays is Ogun, the Yoruba god of war, fire, carving, and metal. As Soyinka says in his essay “The Fourth Stage” (1976), “Ogun stands for a transcendental, humane but rigidly restorative justice.” By using elements of traditional Yoruba performance such as dance and music, Soyinka creates an effect of cathartic ritual. Yoruba myth and its ritual drama, however, do not reach toward an ideal absorption in “godlike essence,” but rather plunge “into the ’chthonic realm,’ the seething cauldron of the dark world will and psyche, the transitional yet inchoate matrix of death and becoming.” As a Yoruba, Soyinka believes that the ancestral is contained within the living, and that the gulf between the living and their ancestors—and between mortals and deities—must be constantly diminished by ceremonial sacrifice and ritual.
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- Critical Essays