Madmen and Specialists

by Wole Soyinka

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

In 1966, Igbo nationalists in Nigeria attempted a military coup d’etat, which largely failed. However, the deaths of several major leaders, the survival of the president—an Igbo—and the subsequent lack of punishment for those involved led to intense violence toward the Igbo minority; pogroms over the following months led to the death of thousands—by some counts, up to 30,000—of ethnic Igbos living in Nigeria. The conflict soon spiraled into secession and civil war. Like many others, Wole Soyinka, a vocal anti-war advocate, was swept up in the chaos and incarcerated for his advocacy. Soyinka’s 1971 two-act play Madmen and Specialists subtly addresses the themes and ideas that emerged during his twenty-two-month incarceration from 1967-1970. 

The play begins with a group of mendicants—beggars reliant on alms or donations to survive—throwing dice on the side of the road. The four men—Aafaa, Goyi, the Blind Man, and the Cripple—discuss their circumstances and mention a mysterious deity named As. Their train of thought is distracted by the arrival of Si Bero, a young woman filling in as the village physician for her absent brother. They beg her for money and speak briefly, but she soon leaves, meeting Iya Mate and Iya Agba, two earth-mothers who look over her newly-gathered herbs. They approve her selections but note that she has mistakenly collected an uncommon poisonous plant with deceptive markings. Si Bero moves to burn the poison, but the older women urge her to keep it, saying that even evil can be instructive. She leaves and once again passes the men, offering to pay them to organize and prepare her herbs. 

Briefly, Si Bero worries about her brother, Bero, who is working as a field medic at the front lines of the ongoing war. However, her fears abate as he soon returns home. Bero tells her that their father, who followed him to the front lines, is ill and forbids her from seeing him. Moreover, during his time at the front lines, he found a new vocation. Bero is no longer a physician; instead, he works as a Specialist in the Intelligence sector. As the siblings talk outside their home, the local priest arrives and tells a story about the night their father—the Old Man—left to join the war effort. Laughing, he explains an absurd argument they had that evening, in which the Old Man advocated for the legalization of cannibalism. 

Bero affirms his father’s desire. At first, the priest believes him joking, but when Bero grabs the priest’s cheek and tells him that he, a scientist, can confirm the delicate taste of human flesh, the devout man turns pale. Bero invites him to dinner, but the priest declines in a panic and hurries away. Si Bero laughs at her brother’s clever trick but soon realizes Bero is serious. He tells her that he consumed flesh as part of a ritual practice done in the name of the deity As, a new teaching that their father has popularized. Moreover, the mendicants, who are all wounded or disabled from their time in the war, are adherents of their father’s new religion. Bero has paid them to keep an eye on her and ensure that she does not stumble across their father, whom he has stashed away in the basement of his clinic. The four mendicants gather around Si Bero and tell her that the Old Man has rejoined the cycle of As, a claim with terrifying implications. All revealed, Bero offers to show her their father, but she runs away. Act one ends with a glimpse of the Old Man as he sits in the basement surrounded...

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by the chanting mendicants. 

Act two opens where the first left off; the Old Man sits still and rigid as the mendicants discuss the nature of As, attempt to locate the complex ideas which define it, and throw dice. Their discussion is disrupted when Bero arrives with dinner; at the sight of his son and captor, the Old Man demands paper to write to his son’s supervisors. A battle of wills ensues, in which the father and son debate the semantics of needs—which Bero is happy to supply—and wants—which he is not. Paper and a lighter for the Old Man’s pipe are wants. Their argument soon spirals into the nature of As, and the the Old Man argues that his new ideas will lead to change for the better. Bero rejects this notion, noting that the Old Man's new ideas have led those in charge to threaten his life; by imprisoning the Old Man, Bero is protecting him from those who wish to see him tortured and murdered for his beliefs. Their argument escalates as Bero attempts to pry information about As out from his father. The Old Man is firm in his secrecy but knows that Bero’s search for knowledge is rooted in a desire to prove that, despite his taste for human flesh, he is untainted by the ritual practice of As. Bero leaves in an angry huff, and the Old Man and the mendicants hurriedly eat the food he brought, which appears to be flesh. 

As he leaves, Bero runs into Si Bero, who says she wishes to see their father. He refuses and bids her to force Iya Agba and Iya Mate to leave them alone. Si Bero sobs that they will not, as they feel she owes them a debt. Bero briefly debates with the women, but the conversation is fruitless, and he returns to the clinic frustrated. In his frustration, Bero refers to his father as a diseased strain that should be culled and is enraged when the Old Man doubts his son’s ability to do so. Bero presses his father further; when he continues to evade straightforward questioning, Bero places a gun to his throat and screams: “What is As?” In response, the Old Man embarks on an extended monologue that pokes fun at the conventional way men define the world. He condemns the “manifestos and charades” of false empathy that fail to aid those struggling. Moreover, the Old Man recalls the biblical flood and condemns all attempts modern attempts to recreate it and, in so doing, rebuild a better world.

As the Old Man speaks, the scene fades away, turning to Iya Arba and Iya Mate as they mourn the misuse of their knowledge and prepare to take action against Si Bero. As they do, the focus returns to the clinic, where the mendicants are chanting. The Blind Man begins to speak; his speech is at once satirical and honest, highlighting the nationalist and cultural ideals which inform prejudice, violence, and discrimination. The Old Man praises his monologue and embarks on one of his own, explaining the nature of As as an inescapable and omnipresent social reality in which everyone is complicit. Meanwhile, the two earth mothers rouse Si Bero from sleep and demand repayment in full. The younger woman sobs in fear, alerting her brother, who runs out to confront them. 

Bero is distracted by his father’s zealous monologue. Events in the clinic have spiraled out of control; the Old Man has donned his surgical gear and is preparing to cut open the Cripple to examine his innards. Before he makes an incision, Bero shoots him, and the Old Man topples over, dead. Si Bero runs to her father’s side, and while she is away, the two earth mothers set fire to her carefully gathered herbs, then walk away. As the mendicants sing in the distance, the stage returns to blackness.