Madmen and Specialists

by Wole Soyinka

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Last Updated on December 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

Moral Ambiguity in Turbulent Times

Madmen and Specialists was inspired by the author’s personal experience with extreme violence and war during the Nigerian Civil War. However, the vague setting and time frame ensure that the narrative is readily accessible for all those with similar experiences. Broadly, the play explores inverted and lost morality in times of war and violence, forcing readers to question the extent to which human depravity might sink. This inversion of expectations begins with the conscription of a physician to the front lines of a civil war; it continues as Bero transforms from a dedicated healer to a cold-blooded killer. This dynamic recalls earlier atrocities committed in the name of science, such as Nazi and Japanese experimentation during World War Two. The linguistic reevaluation of these roles—from “healer” to “specialist”—replicates this association, adding an element of dehumanization to both the victim and agent of violence. This inversion is—though tragic—familiar. Bearing witness to war and extreme violence is a life-changing trauma; no one escapes unscathed. However, the inversion exacerbates as readers learn that this physician, Bero, and his father have sunk to a further low: they have accepted and, in some ways, normalized the grotesque, repugnant act of cannibalism. 

Soyinka makes a stark argument about how violence degrades morality. When one is surrounded by death, suffering, and seemingly unending conflict, the moral clarity of everyday life clouds, then vanishes. There can be no sense of right or wrong; as such, even the vilest, most abhorrent acts can seem reasonable and justifiable. During the Nigerian Civil War, two million Biafran citizens—mostly ethnic Igbos—died of famine. The numbers are horrifying, yet perversely, legitimize the Old Man’s claims of wastefulness. In times of abject suffering, morality is a luxury. 

Complicity in Social Ails

In his monologues, the Old Man reveals that As, the deity he reveres and worships by consuming human flesh, is a reminder of man’s inescapable susceptibility to reprising the oppression they have experienced and condemned. Soyinka, who grew up when Nigeria was a British protectorate and matured alongside the fledgling nation’s corrupt democracies, was vehemently against systemic oppression and governmental authoritarianism in any form. However, he is careful to acknowledge that everyone lives within the sphere of their environment and is unlikely to escape every aspect of social degradation or inequality. Simply by living within the bounds of a society—which is invariably flawed and unfairly structured in any number of ways—one is guilty. 

For example, the Old Man wishes to offer an alternative, inviting those whom society has failed—the ill, the infirm, the crippled—a way out. However, in so doing, he has trapped them, forcibly indoctrinating them into a comfortable ethos that rejects the painful conventions of everyday life. In short, his escapist outlet has replicated the same pitfalls of the social structure he rejects. Similarly, Bero, who wishes to heal his father and understand the nature of his beliefs, turns to violence as a means of conflict resolution. He traps his father in his clinic, points a gun to his head, and demands answers. Soyinka’s argument about the inescapability of replication and complicity is bleak and pessimistic, yet it finds its roots in reality, a tragic realization that points to man’s innate faults.

Salvation Through Nature

While much of the play focusing on the father-son conflict as a parable for the devastation wrought by war and the ensuing moral degradation, Soyinka locates a kernel of hope. Through Iya Agba and Iya Mate, he introduces a humanistic element of natural goodness. By illustrating their efforts to help Si Bero and keep their work from falling into the wrong...

(This entire section contains 748 words.)

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hands, Soyinka depicts a different image of mankind. Not all is lost, as there are still some who, through their deep connection to the natural world, are still motivated by the desire to do good. Although the earth mothers ultimately embrace violence and destruction by burning Si Bero’s home, violence is their last choice and is only used under duress. These protectors of earth and mankind are present, a maternal force that aims to heal the malignancies born of war and violence. In marrying these two aspects—the maternal, fecund earth and her elderly female characters—Soyinka speaks of renewal, recalling the basic flows of human life without the trappings of prejudice, discrimination, and the violence which follows. It is a seed of hope which grows in an otherwise bleak narrative.