Wole Soyinka’s work, like most modern African literature, is closely tied to historical circumstance—the British colonization of Nigeria, the independence of Nigeria and other African countries in the early 1960’s, the continued cultural and economic presence of Western capitalism, and the power struggles among ethnic groups within the independent nations. While to some extent Soyinka has dealt with the so-called conflict of cultures motif, including the tendency among some authors to blame the European incursion for Africa’s current problems, Soyinka has focused primarily on more fundamentally human roots of social and political disturbances—roots that lie deeper than cultural differences. He also has insisted that Africans can draw upon their own cultural myths to understand themselves and their situation. Hence Soyinka frequently relies upon Yoruba mythology, in particular the tragic god Ogun, to explain the creative and destructive tendencies in human nature and the cosmic significance of human action. In this respect Madmen and Specialists is a typical Soyinka play; it is so little concerned with the effects of British colonialism that only the naïve Priest and parodies of its cultural heroes, Christ and Socrates, remind the audience of it. The core of the play is a confrontation of elemental forces. The language may be English, but the mythic and ideological basis is African.
While the mythic background is ahistorical, it gives meaning to particular historical events, and Madmen and Specialists, like other Soyinka plays, reflects a merger of myth and history. Soyinka wrote and produced it immediately after the mass genocides of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1969), during which he was detained as a political prisoner. The play is a terrifyingly personal literary response to both the war and his own flirtation with death. As Soyinka recorded in his prison notes, The Man Died (1972), he spent much of his solitary confinement challenging the authorities with life-threatening fasts. His greatest fear, which became an obsession, was that he might die in dishonor, his public identity defamed by government lies. His physical survival depended upon his exposing, through secret prison contacts, the truth of his situation.
While Madmen and Specialists has no specific setting in place and time, and one speech is even designed to be changed to fit the political circumstances of the audience, there can be no doubt that the war and the two years in prison inspired everything about it, including its emotional and spiritual energy. Bero is surely based on General Yakubu Gowon and other officers responsible for the genocide, and the mendicants are not only the visible casualties but also the subordinate tools of terrorism, like the monstrous, though sometimes humane, warders (Polyphemus, Hogroth, Sow, and Caliban) who kept constant guard over Soyinka in prison. As Soyinka says in The Man Died, this was not a revolutionary war to change ideas, but a war to reinforce the old, inhumane ones. The specialists have lost everything but the will to kill, and the world has gone mad. The most interesting parallel between the historical events and the play is the resemblance of the Old Man’s situation to Soyinka’s solitary confinement.
Like Soyinka, the Old Man has become a public enemy because he has dared to expose evil and has thus been hidden from public view. For lengthy periods the public did not know where Soyinka was, or even whether he was still alive. He remained for two years an enigmatic figure. The Old Man, with his Socratic skepticism, is equally elusive. Fatigue, mental torture, and hunger finally drive the Old Man to insane behavior just before he dies. Soyinka experienced similar bouts with madness as...
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his fasts carried him to the realm of “transition.” Finally, the Old Man, as the manager of his circus of mendicants, is the dramatist whose main goal, as Bero complains, is to get people to “Think, Think, THINK.”
This philosophical and mythic drama, then, has an intensely personal origin in concrete historical circumstances. The writer’s function, as Soyinka argued in his 1986 Nobel Prize address, is to ensure that historical realities are put on the record. He must not allow governments to reinterpret history for their own self-serving ends. While autobiography itself is not new to Soyinka’s work, Madmen and Specialists marks a change in his career to even greater political commitment and a deeper moral tone.