The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 763 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.