Madmen and Specialists

by Wole Soyinka
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247

In this play, the primary theme is the consequences of immoral action in a world where values are inverted. Exploring numerous dimensions of morality, Wole Soyinka also presents themes of Oedipal father-son conflicts and humans’ responsibility toward the earth. By creating an Absurdist scenario in which cannibalism has been normalized, the author points out the difficulty—or even impossibility—of making an ethical choice between two abhorrent alternatives. He emphasizes the inversion of values by making one central character a physician. In this regard, although the play seems to relate to Soyinka’s native Nigeria in his own time, it also calls up earlier atrocities committed in the name of science, such as Nazi experimentation.

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The Old Man has forced Bero and his companions into immoral or sinful behavior through cannibalism. In doing so, he has placed Bero in an untenable position. Already fatally compromised, Bero sees no hope of salvation for himself. His reasoning, therefore, is that committing another sin—killing his father—will not worsen his own situation but will instead save others from his fate.

Although Bero had done noble deeds as a doctor, past virtue cannot redeem present depravity. Further transgression, ironically, will benefit society by removing the scourge that the Old Man and his philosophy represent. In this Oedipal scenario, the mother-son marriage aspect goes beyond any individual, biological mother; rather, it encompasses the maternal, fecund aspect of the earth as symbolized by the two mothers characters, Iya Agba and Iya Mate.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734

Madmen and Specialists presents a stark confrontation between good and evil forces. Good it defines as creative, beneficent, and humane; evil as destructive, sadistic, and reductionist. To make sure that the audience does not miss the point, Wole Soyinka provides two supernatural characters—the earth mothers Iya Agba and Iya Mate—to pronounce the law that governs the universe. Nature, they say, operates according to the principle of reciprocity: “We put back what we take, in one form or another. Or more than we take. It’s the only law.” Anyone who violates that principle is doomed, eventually, to fail. When Bero tries to“proscribe Earth itself” he attempts the impossible task of stepping outside the circle.

In addition, Soyinka gives another “elder” in the play, the Old Man, unusual intellectual powers and a moral sensibility that, in his case, borders on madness. His response to Bero’s evil is a disturbing, ironic dialectic that proves even more elusive and provoking to Bero than the philosophical calm of the old women. Like them he strikes certain humanistic chords—“A part of me,” he says, “identifies with every human being”—but his dealings with Bero are aggressive and extreme, a kind of psychological shock treatment. He lowered Bero and his fellow officers to the level of beasts when he told them, “All intelligent animals kill only for food . . . and you are intelligent animals.” With the meal of human flesh, he “robbed them of salvation.” While they are looking for him, they should instead “be looking for themselves.”

Like Socrates, the Old Man insists on the importance of the examined life. He fails, however, to enlighten Bero any more than he has the mendicants. The best he can do is, like the blindman in the moral fable, shine his lantern on the thief to expose him. When Bero’s cannibalism extends to patricide, he has made two fundamental denials of reciprocity: Man eats man instead of nourishing him, and cuts the generational link instead of continuing it. The ritual chant that the Old Man teaches his mendicants, but which they do not understand (as the audience may not), nevertheless suggests the continuum that Bero defies: “As—Was—Is—Now—As Ever Shall Be. . . .” By killing his father he tries to kill As. The continuum of the dead, the living, and the unborn is fundamental to Soyinka’s Yoruba metaphysic.

The play deals, then, with the tragic fall of a particular man, Bero, who before the war had been a doctor, a specialist, engaged in uncovering the secrets of nature in order to heal the sick. His ability and his reputation are attested by the priest, whose dramatic purpose is partly to suggest what Bero used to be. By the time he returns from the war, however, he has become an intelligence officer, uncovering secrets to gain power over men. Soyinka thus incorporates a traditional tragic theme, the hero’s defiance of the gods, the hubris that carries the hero beyond the bounds of safety. As the Old Man says to Bero, “Once you begin there is no stopping. . . . For those who want to step beyond, there is always one further step.” Iya Agba’s judgment is even more succinct: “Your mind has run farther than the truth.”

The ultimate mystery cannot be known, cannot be named. What the audience sees in Bero is the frustrated operative of an intelligence agency, threatening the earth mothers with death if they will not reveal the “name” of their cult, threatening his father with death if he will not reveal the secrets of As that allow him to control the minds of the mendicants. He is obsessed with knowing the truth, but by reducing truth to a manageable thing that he can bring under his power, by reducing reality to a definition, he enters a world of illusion. The old women and the Old Man maneuver and frustrate him with riddles. Bero is caught hopelessly between the mysteries of nature and mind. The encouraging message of the play is that evil eventually defeats itself as the forces of good withdraw their support. The tragedy is that just when one seems on the verge of using the secrets of nature for good, when one seems, as Si Bero is, in perfect harmony with nature, the urge for power asserts itself and will not listen to reason or respond to humane impulses.

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