Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, more commonly known as Wole Soyinka, is a Nigerian playwright and essayist writing in the English language. Soyinka is a prolific writer whose works, despite their Nigerian context, speak to a global audience. In 1986, he earned the Nobel Prize for Literature; he was the first sub-Saharan African author to be honored in this way. Born in 1934, Soyinka grew up with the omnipresent fact of British oppression. In 1960, however, Nigeria gained independence. The first six years of the fledgling government were defined by factionalism and ethnocultural conflict, culminating in a failed coup d'etat in 1966 and a full-out civil war in 1967. Soyinka, whose childhood had taught him to reject all forms of oppressive, authoritarian rule, soon involved himself in the anti-war movement by acting as an unaffiliated, non-governmental mediator. His activism led to his incarceration; he spent nearly two years imprisoned—much of it in solitary confinement.
During and immediately after his incarceration, Soyinka wrote prolifically, composing works describing his experience and ideology. The two-act play Madmen and Specialists is one such work, though it is mechanically subtler than some of its other contemporaries. The play reveals the horrors that the chaos of war can inflict on a nation; Soyinka takes up conventional morality and turns it on its head, aiming to expose the confusing moral ambiguity of wartime life. The narrative takes place in Dr. Bero's home clinic, a basement office he returns to after serving on the front line of the ongoing civil war. Bero initially served as a physician, helping the wounded and the dying; however, he soon transformed into a ruthless "specialist." His transition, which readers do not see, indicates the warping effect that war has on its agents; paradoxically, Bero entered a healer and left a killer.
Bero’s relationship with his family members and the people in his community is analogous to the broader responsibility of each person to the nation. The two men act as the two opposing sides in this hypothetical conflict; as their argument exacerbates and becomes violent, they lose their guiding morals and original intentions. Those around them, however, offer hope that their relationship—and, by extension, society itself—can heal. Si Bero and the earth mothers, Iya Agba and Iya Mate, are healers whose knowledge of herbal lore stems from their adherence to a natural cult that worships the earth. Compared to the rage and violence of the two men, the women of the story are stoic and collected. They offer the aid they can and strive to protect themselves and the earth; when their ability to do so is impacted, they take decisive action and protect the secrets of their healing beliefs. It is a painful truth: sometimes, only so much can be done to defeat evil and immoral acts.
Soyinka integrates a sense of the grotesque into the play by using the act of cannibalism to symbolize moral decay and the complete disruption of conventional life. Ritual sacrifice, cult beliefs, and the consumption of human flesh soon consume the narrative, imbuing it with a raw, cerebral horror meant to emulate that which Soyinka himself experienced. Bero, once a physician, distorts his honorable profession into a warped image of itself. He uses euphemisms like “specialist” and “intelligence” when he speaks of his work; in doing so, he dehumanizes those he harms and hides his delight in the consumption of human flesh behind a veil of circumstantial necessity.
However, Soyinka carefully avoids offering anything like proof that Bero’s endorsement of his cannibalism is true. It seems, rather, that “cannibal” is yet another layer of coded euphemism....
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The playwright implies that Bero’s job was to torture people, probably mutilating them while they were alive. During the Nigerian Civil War, the vast majority of casualties were Biafran civilians—and predominantly children—who died of starvation, intentionally deprived of critical resources to hasten the war's end. Moreover, the poorly-trained Biafran military struggled against the well-established Nigerian military, leaving many irreparably maimed and disabled by their service. Torture, injury, and starvation were common occurrences, acts which, like cannibalism, consume bodies.
Haunted by their time in the war, Bero and the Old Man abandon all hopes of returning to normalcy. They embrace the immorality of their post-war lives: the Old Man promotes cannibalism and rejects morality, asking, why not eat the bodies of those they kill? The question is repugnant, yet Soyinka is careful to draw readers' attention to the thin line of acceptable violence. Indeed, if the mass slaughter of ethnic minorities is an understandable consequence of war, then why not cannibalism, too? If any one atrocity can be validated or vindicated, then other atrocities can 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 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, the remedies come from plants and natural sources, and will eventually grow again to contribute to the country’s future.