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Wole Soyinka's play A Dance of the Forests was first performed in 1960 during the Nigerian Independence celebrations. In the prose passage that precedes part 1 of the play, Aroni (the messenger for the Yoruba god Forest Father, or Forest Head) tells the audience that he has agreed to invite two dead people to the eponymous Dance of the Forests because he feels sorry for them. As with much of Soyinka’s writing, the play that follows is an allegory for turmoil in Nigerian history and the tendency of those in power to glorify the past. The play earned the ire of many Nigerian elites for its largely negative allegorical representation of them.

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Plot Summary

During a Yoruba festival known as the Gathering of the Tribes, a group of seemingly unconnected villagers flee to the woods to escape the festivities for various reasons. At the same time, a dead man and woman escape from their graves and ask each of these villagers to listen to their pleas so that they might finally achieve eternal rest. In a previous life, the dead man was a captain for a corrupt emperor known as Mata Kharibu; the dead woman was the captain’s wife.

The villagers who have fled to the forest and gathered together are Adenebi, Demoke, Obaneji, and Rola. Adenebi is a member of the government, and he finds the gathering boring. Demoke is a talented woodcarver who was hired to create an ornate totem to be used at the festival, but he doesn’t want to witness how the villagers will use it. Obaneji is a municipal records worker who says he respects the festival, but it makes him nervous to be around so many people at once. Rola complains that she had to escape the village to get away from her extended family, who have come into town for the festival.

Once these facts are established, the next scene introduces the one-legged god Aroni, who talks with the tree demon Murete. Aroni is searching both for the living humans who have entered the forest and for the dead couple. Aroni summoned the unsettled souls of the dead man and woman because Agboreko, a village soothsayer, was sent to ask the forest gods to send illustrious ancestors to attend the Gathering of the Tribes. Instead, Aroni roused the spirits of two “accusers,” or people who were wronged and never received justice. Unbeknownst to them, the reincarnated spirits of those who had wronged the dead man and woman were lured into the forest. Aroni arranged this so that the spirits of the dead couple could finally find peace and the current reincarnations could rectify their past sins.

In a subsequent scene, another Yoruba god, Ogun (guardian of metal workers and artisans), gets Murete drunk on the wine left behind by Agboreko as part of the village’s offering to the forest gods. Ogun hopes that Murete will tell him where to find the living villagers, because Ogun wants to protect Demoke from Eshuoro, a wayward spirit of the forest. Eshuoro wants to punish Demoke for killing a man who was a devoted follower of Oro.

The next scene returns to the four villagers. During their conversation, the four villagers discuss a recent accident with a passenger lorry that was carrying nearly double the number of people for which it had capacity. Obaneji is interested in this accident because he is responsible for recording the names of everyone involved. Obaneji asks Adenebi, who works in the council office that approves lorry permits, to provide him with a list of passengers after revealing that only five of the seventy passengers survived a fire aboard the lorry. Rola and Adenebi accuse Obaneji of being insensitive, since all he wants is to record the names of people involved, including the man who was bribed to approve the permit.

All of this talk leads to a discussion of death. Demoke interjects that he would rather fall to his death than be burned like the lorry passengers, citing his apprentice’s recent death....

(The entire section contains 1369 words.)

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