Madmen and Specialists

by Wole Soyinka
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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

To reveal some of the horrors that war can inflict on a society, Wole Soyinka makes just a few characters central to his play. It takes place in one family’s home after the soldier Dr. Bero returns home from a war. By making the protagonist a physician, Soyinka draws further attention to the paradoxes that can be created by serving in the military for a controversial cause. Bero’s relationship to his own family members and to the people in his community is analogous to the broader responsibility of each person to the nation. Bero and his father have lost their moral compass, but other community members offer hope that society can heal. The village women are healers who have taught their art to Bero's sister, Si Bero. In the end, because the women suspect that Si Bero is tainted by her family, they destroy the herbal medicines; they believe that Si Bero might misuse them. However, they protect the knowledge of healing herbalism.

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When he left for the military, Bero believed he would serve as a physician. Instead, his profession was distorted into a grotesque, evil mirror of itself. He uses euphemisms like “specialist” and “intelligence” when he tells his sister of the work he performed. Bero claims to savor this work, heavily implying that he performed acts of cannibalism, saying that flesh is delicious. However, Soyinka carefully avoids offering anything like proof that Bero’s endorsement of his cannibalism is true. It seems, rather, that “cannibal” is another euphemism. The playwright implies that Bero’s job was to torture people, probably mutilating them while they were alive. (During the Nigerian civil war with the Igbo, who formed Biafra, starvation was also a weapon of war, consuming bodies in a different way.)

Bero seems already to be lost: beyond hope of saving himself. Although the audience cannot know how he was pressured to participate in committing atrocities, it remains the case that he has returned alive and with all his limbs intact. His elderly father, also physically unharmed, has nonetheless suffered a mental collapse. Rather than hide his actions in shame, the Old Man promotes officially abandoning any pretense of morality; why not make cannibalism legal? Why not eat the bodies of those they kill? Soyinka makes us ask where and how these moral lines are drawn; if we can justify any one of the atrocities committed, then can't other atrocities be likewise justified?

While the heart of Soyinka’s play is absurdist, its dark humor raises existential questions about fundamental human relationships and the choices that war compels people to make. Bero, in turn, must face his father’s madness and take a decisive action to stop further social madness from spreading throughout his home, community, and country. He does so by killing his father. The older women also take decisive actions, but are instead guided by positive, forward-looking motivations. Although their actions are destructive (i.e. destroying the herbs), the remedies come from plants and natural sources, and will eventually grow again to contribute to the country’s future.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1627

Part 1 of Madmen and Specialists opens with four mendicants at a roadside—Goyi, Cripple, Blindman, and Aafaa. Behind them is Dr. Bero’s home with a basement office. To the side is a “semi-open hut” in which are visible two old women, Iya Agba and Iya Mate. The level space in front of Bero’s home holds barks and herbs set out for drying. The mendicants, casualties of a recent war, wager parts of their bodies in a dice game and wonder if their former therapist, the Old Man, Dr. Bero’s father, will ever fulfill his promise of taking them on a world tour, during which they would perform as a circus act, the “Creatures of As.” When the doctor’s sister, Si Bero, passes by them on her way home from gathering herbs, they put on their routine to beg for money. Being familiar with their act, she stops it, condemns them for not working for a living, tosses them a few coins nevertheless, and offers them the job of sorting herbs. They bless her for the contribution—all but Aafaa, who sarcastically blesses her brother instead. The others, in fun, follow suit, giving the first hint of Bero’s inhumanity as they stage an arbitrary trial, execution, and burial of Goyi. After describing themselves as serviceable vultures, they reveal the reason they are begging before Bero’s house. Still under orders as Bero’s spies, they have Bero’s father, who is a prisoner in the office, under surveillance.

When Si Bero chooses Blindman to enter the house to get the herbs, the mendicants’ constant bickering escalates into resentment and sarcasm. Si Bero tries to restore order, but when she leaves for the old women’s hut, a fight erupts between Aafaa and Blindman. Amid this uproar, Dr. Bero enters for the first time and must remind them of their orders. They are unhappy with their menial tasks and are distressed over their conflicting obligations to the three strong characters, Bero, Si Bero, and the Old Man. Blindman and Goyi are attracted by the atmosphere of love surrounding Si Bero. Aafaa, who had been a chaplain in the war and had never served under Bero, is the most defiant in his commentary on military intelligence as a cowardly activity; Bero strikes him in the face with his swagger stick.

Bero’s reunion with Si Bero reveals how much Bero has changed since he left for the war. She wants to call all the neighbors to announce his return; he wants privacy. She pours palm wine in front of the threshold as a blessing to the earth; he calls it superstition and declares that he, in shedding blood, has spilled a more potent sacrifice. The scene exposes Si Bero’s ignorance of Bero’s real activities—that he rejected medicine for intelligence operations and thus participated actively in killing, and that he has had the mendicants sequester the Old Man in the basement. On the other hand, Bero is ignorant of her activities. She has engaged the services of the old women, has even installed them on the property so that they can aid her in discovering medical secrets.

The scene cuts away momentarily to the old women, who fear, as they observe Bero’s behavior, that their spiritual energies have been misplaced. Si Bero had vouched for Bero to these “earth mothers,” and now it appears that Bero is not to be trusted. When the scene cuts back to the brother and sister, Si Bero explains her activities as a balancing of cosmic forces, the healing power of the herbs against the destructive power of war. Now that Bero seems to have joined the other side, she fears for their father, who left for the war and has not returned. Bero does not yet announce their father’s location but assures her that he has been able to keep track of him. He then explains his change of profession as a simple redirection of energies: His new function resembles the old—analysis, diagnosis, prescription—but now the prescription is death: “Power comes from bending Nature to your will.”

The Priest makes only a brief appearance in the play. His entrance signals that of the ordinary person, uncomprehending, suddenly face-to-face with extraordinary events. According to his own simple values, he is evil because he has come directly to visit Bero without sharing the news of the return with others. He seeks treatment for an old ailment and will not trust even Si Bero with administering the medicine. He naïvely recalls conversations with the Old Man about cannibalism and reports on a letter the Old Man sent him from the war zone describing his work among the disabled and reiterating his cannibalism theory. While the Priest still regards the debate as purely academic and takes the Old Man’s words at face value, Bero realizes the Old Man’s true meaning—that cannibalism is only the logical extension of killing—but does not explain. Instead, he scares the Priest away with an invitation to have human testicles for dinner.

Bero thus admits to being serious about the virtues of cannibalism. Si Bero is horrified. Bero continues to amaze her as he recounts the crucial event in his life: eating human flesh that the Old Man had served him and his fellow officers. When he learned what he had eaten, Bero, unlike the other officers, recklessly asked, “Why not?” and tried it again. He thus discovered the means to power to be “the end of inhibitions,” accepting this drastic condemnation of the war as a challenge instead of a warning and resenting anything that would stand in the way of his total authority. The Old Man remains, however, the main obstacle to Bero’s total independence, both as father and as philosophical antagonist: Instead of simply rehabilitating the disabled, the Old Man taught “them to think, think, THINK!” No longer docile subordinates, Bero complains, the mendicants have become “choosy.” As if in response to Bero’s complaint, the spotlight shifts to the mendicants in Bero’s office chanting to the god As and seating themselves around the Old Man. Bero finally confides to his sister where the Old Man is and hints that he must either keep him prisoner or kill him. Horrified once again, Si Bero refuses to follow Bero to the office; she moves instead toward the old women.

Most of the action in part 2 of Madmen and Specialists takes place in Bero’s office. The mendicants are still chanting and are again, as at the beginning of the play, throwing dice. Aafaa goes down the alphabet searching for words that describe the god As, but the exercise turns into a blasphemous, vulgar game. The Old Man, silent, amused, and bored, refuses to aid him in his search. Cripple describes a recurring dream that depicts Bero as a Christ who operates on him and commands him to walk. The dream always ends before he can rise from the table. Goyi admits to having a similar dream, but Blindman and Aafaa object, the latter insisting that Bero, unlike Christ, does not use miracles to show off.

The Old Man begins to make demands—he wants his watch and glasses—as Bero enters with his meal. He then demands writing paper in order to send a complaint to Bero’s superiors. Bero refuses, claiming that he has no superiors. After taunting the Old Man, Bero begins to interrogate him, without success. Meanwhile, as they speak, the mendicants are wolfing down the food that Bero brought for his father.

Bero goes out to argue with his sister: The old women must leave or he will kill them, since they have, he asserts ironically, no claim to the land on which they live. Bero proceeds to the hut to threaten them and demands to know the name of their “cult.” “We move as the Earth moves,” they say, and give him no satisfaction. Strongly drawn to the protest songs of the mendicants, Bero returns to his office to continue the interrogation; he wants to know how his father has captured the minds of the mendicants and calls him a Socrates who must be executed. They debate which one is living in illusion: the Old Man, who is committed to humanity, or Bero, who is committed to power.

As the climax approaches, the old women and the mendicants demand their due. For Bero’s abuse of power, the old women will set fire to the herbs. The mendicants want their promised tour but realize that it may be too late. They hold a mock ceremony giving themselves medals for meritorious service, and Blindman gives a speech apparently defending the status quo against popular uprisings. At the conclusion of their performance, the Old Man, predicting the future, “freezes with his arm raised towards the next scene as if in benediction.” While the old women approach the house to burn the herbs, Bero comes toward them with a revolver but is distracted by the Old Man’s indictment of him as “the dog in dogma” and “the cyst in the system.” When Cripple says he has “a question,” the Old Man and the other mendicants shut him up, knock him out, and lay him on the operating table. Acting out Cripple’s dream, the Old Man examines him and is about to make an incision to find out “what makes a heretic tick” when Bero enters and shoots his father. Si Bero runs to the office, Iya Agba sets fire to the herbs, Si Bero reappears in the doorway, and the two old women calmly walk away. The lights go out as the mendicants chant their Yoruba praise song to As.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763

Wole Soyinka creates a form of ritual drama, what, in one of his critical essays, he calls revolutionary drama. Madmen and Specialists, that is, takes place on a cosmic stage, giving it metaphysical dimension; it follows the paradigm of a Yoruba myth that is central to Soyinka’s work, the voyage of Ogun. The two key events in Ogun’s adventures are his initial challenging of the abyss (the chaos of transition between humankind and the gods) and his second confrontation with it, the drunken slaughter of human beings during a battle in which he cannot distinguish between friend and foe. The first is creative as Ogun builds a bridge of communication between humans and the supernatural; the second is destructive, the act of a madman. This mythic background is basic to themes, characters, and structure in Madmen and Specialists. The characters are, for the most part, larger than life; with the exception of the Priest, who exits in fear of the unknown, they have moved beyond the ordinary world onto a cosmic stage. It is a world of risk, horror, and madness. The goal: a “revolution” in the minds of the audience. The spectators must become celebrants; they must accompany Bero on his journey into the cosmic realm of transition.

Soyinka uses several dramatic devices to achieve communal empathy. Visually, the stage reflects the three realms: The hut of the old women is raised to suggest their supernatural being; the home and the herbs are on level ground; the doctor’s office is in the cellar, death and the underworld, as it were, and it is here that part 2 mainly takes place, ending with the act of patricide, the ultimate challenge to nature’s laws. In addition, Soyinka incorporates into the play a chorus of sorts: The mendicants function not only as casualties of war, bewildered pawns in the struggle for power, but also as worshipers who chant and dance to the songs of their god, disciples who eat the sacrificial food, “the favorite food of As,” actors who perform their “circus” routine, politicians who conduct official ceremonies, and poets who tell a proverbial tale. They are both celebrants of the divine and, in William Butler Yeats’s phrase, “mockers of man’s enterprise.” To add to the aura of mystery, one of their choral chants is in Yoruba. The ritual is enhanced by an occasional stop action, as characters freeze to allow characters on another part of the stage to act out their scene. In the final such action, the Old Man actually points to the next scene as if to indicate that he predicts the future consequences of Bero’s actions.

The mythic dimension of the play is prevalent throughout, as the action is patently symbolic and the dialogue overtly raises philosophical questions. The characters are more representative than individual: Si Bero, the good woman aligned with the fruitfulness of mother earth; Bero, the embodiment of nihilism; the Old Man, the Socratic philosopher and dramatic artist who exposes falsehood; the Priest, conventional morality that cannot fathom the depths of cosmic forces; and finally the mendicants, victims, tools, and inadequate protégés of society’s stronger wills. Aafaa proclaims Bero greater than Christ; Bero specifically calls his father a Socrates. The meal served to the Old Man but confiscated by the mendicant disciples is a parody of the Last Supper.

The Old Man’s need for his glasses and watch suggests his alienation from space and time. Bero’s offer of a “choice” to his father between his pipe and tobacco without a light and cigarettes with a light has a philosophical intent: The Old Man’s refusal to smoke the cigarette, his refusal to be bought, sets him apart from both Bero and the mendicants, who no longer have the capacity for “self-disgust.” The herbs, always in view during the play, are the constant symbol of nature’s secrets, to which only the honorable have access. When the old women set fire to them at the end, Soyinka completes the symbol: In his universe, evil forces nature to withdraw its gift even from the good. The two cancel each other out. The play’s ritual action imitates nature’s laws.

Madmen and Specialists, then, from the set and the stylized action to the poetic imagery and the crazy protest songs of the mendicants, suggests a movement toward and a return from the realm of transition. The tragic hero’s blasphemous defiance of cosmic law should send a shudder through the audience as it joins Bero on his cosmic journey.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 116

Sources for Further Study

Berry, Boyd. “On Looking at Madmen and Specialists.” Pan-African Journal 5 (1972): 461-471.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Kwame Appral, eds. Critical Perspectives, Past and Present. New York: Harper Trade, 1994.

Gibbs, James, ed. Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. London: Heinemann, 1981.

Gibbs, James. Wole Soyinka. New York: Grove Press, 1986.

Jones, Eldred Durosimi. “Madmen and Specialists.” In The Writing of Wole Soyinka. 3d ed. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1988.

Sekoni, Ropo. “Metaphor as Basis of Form in Soyinka’s Drama.” Research in African Literatures 14 (Spring, 1983): 45-57.

Soyinka, Wole. The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Wright, Derek. Wole Soyinka: A Life, Work, and Criticism. London: Macmillan, 1992.

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Critical Essays