Wole Soyinka Biography

Wole Soyinka Biography

That Wole Soyinka has lived to write so much about the African experience is a miracle. Throughout his long and productive career, Soyinka’s politics have placed him in danger repeatedly. His upbringing reflected both African and Western influences, and the conflict and interaction between these two forces would occupy much of his writing, particularly in the play Death and the King's Horseman. Through drama, poetry, essays, and autobiographies, Soyinka has documented not only the struggles of his homeland of Nigeria but of the African continent as a whole. His works earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, and he used the occasion to highlight the plight of fellow activist Nelson Mandela. Soyinka’s life has been so full of intrigue and accomplishment that he has published several memoirs in which the hardships of the African nation overlap with Soyinka’s own personal evolution.

Facts and Trivia

  • Soyinka was imprisoned for nearly two years during the Biafran Civil War in the late 1960s. A few years after his release, he published a book chronicling the experience titled The Man Died: Prison Notes.
  • During a period of political unrest in the mid 1990s, Soyinka lived in exile in the United States and taught at Emory University.
  • In addition to his prolific writing career, Soyinka has founded numerous theatrical groups, including Nineteen-Sixty Masks and Guerilla Unit.
  • One of Soyinka’s most famous theatrical works was Opera Wonyosi, an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.
  • Soyinka has taught at numerous universities around the world, most recently as a literature professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

As a playwright and poet, Soyinka developed his voice and vision during Nigeria’s most politically turbulent period, and he became the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1986. Throughout his career, Soyinka worked as both an artist and political activist, meshing the concerns of an emerging postcolonial Africa with authentic traditions and voices in Nigeria.

Soyinka’s political stance shifted continually between the classroom and the theater, while his work often focused on the political corruption surrounding the slow emergence of Nigerian democracy. Plays such as The Trials of Brother Jero (1960) and The Lion and the Jewel (1960) placed Soyinka in opposition to the first national government, and his work was frequently denied official support and funding. By 1965 heavy censorship was being imposed on his work, and he was arrested on dubious charges that were ultimately dismissed.

In 1967 Soyinka was appointed director of the school of drama at the University of Ibadan, where he wrote against the government until he was arrested at the outbreak of the Biafra war in the same year. After his release in 1969, Soyinka left the country and produced a prison play, Madmen and Specialists (1970), and an autobiography, The Man Died (1972), both of which were blistering attacks on the Nigerian regime.

Though many of Soyinka’s works sold poorly in Nigeria, mainly due to suppression, he remained a major African voice, and his continual defiance of corruption, compromise, and censorship continued to make him a focus for democratic expression throughout the continent. He was particularly critical of the military rulers of his own country. In March, 1997, a little more than a year after the Nigerian government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, it charged Soyinka with treason. Conviction would carry a death penalty, but Soyinka was living in exile.


Adelugba, Dapo, ed. Before Our Very Eyes: Tribute to Wole Soyinka. Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum, 1987. Collection of sixteen essays divided into two parts. The first part consists of ten personal tributes, and the second of six analytical essays. Brian Crow’s essay on Soyinka’s romanticism is particularly useful.

Banks, Thomas, and Judith Steininger. “Wole Soyinka.” In Critical Survey of Drama, edited by Carl Rollyson. 2d rev. ed. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2003. A thorough overview of Soyinka’s life and career, emphasizing the plays.

Coger, Greta M. K. Index of Subjects, Proverbs, and Themes in the Writings of Wole Soyinka. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. A valuable key to references and allusions in much of Soyinka’s work. The introduction is particularly useful for its brief discussion of connections between works, for its descriptions of topics of interest to Soyinka, and for its commentary on Soyinka’s use of Yoruba proverbs and rituals.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. In the House of Oshugbo: Critical Essays on Wole Soyinka. London: Oxford University Press, 2002. Large collection of essays that includes analyses of individual plays, biographical information, comparative studies involving contemporary writers such as Bertolt Brecht and James Joyce, and discussions of literary theory, the art of writing, and Yoruba culture.

Gibbs, James. Wole Soyinka. London: Macmillan, 1986. Part of the Macmillan Modern Dramatists series, this is a very detailed source that follows Soyinka’s career from his earliest plays. Contains some good biographical information, illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.

Gibbs, James, ed. Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980. Contains introductory essays by Bernth Lindfors and Abiola Irele; fifteen essays on individual plays and such subjects as popular theater, tragedy, Third World drama, and dramatic theory. Other essays cover Soyinka’s poetry and prose.

Jeyifo, Biodun, ed. Conversations with Wole Soyinka. Jackson:...

(The entire section is 1697 words.)

Wole Soyinka Biography

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: The first African ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Soyinka is generally held to be Nigeria’s foremost contemporary dramatist and possibly the most influential of all black African playwrights. Although he has earned high praise equally for his poetry, fiction, and literary criticism, it is as a playwright that Soyinka has distinguished himself.

Early Life

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka (pronounced Shoy-ink-a) was born July 13, 1934, in Abeokuta in Western Nigeria, to Ayo and Eniola Soyinka. His mother was a successful businesswoman, his father the headmaster of the local missionary school, which Soyinka attended as a child. Describing his earliest memories in an autobiographical work, Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), Soyinka remembers that his father seemed to be on a first-name basis with God; he recalls that his mother was nicknamed “the Wild Christian,” for her flamboyant faith.

The young Soyinka was exposed early to Christian ideas and English language and culture. He attended St. Peter’s School and Abeokuta Grammar School in his hometown before transferring to Government College in Ibadan. His undergraduate education began at University College, Ibadan (later to become the University of Ibadan), where he studied from 1952 to 1954. Interestingly his classmates number among them such future literary giants as Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo. Soyinka traveled abroad to England to complete his undergraduate degree, graduating from the University of Leeds in 1957 with a B.A. in English. It was at Leeds that he met G. Wilson Knight, a noted scholar, whose influence started Soyinka on a lifelong interest in the metaphysical and the imagistic.

After graduation, Soyinka spent two years working as a play reader at the Royal Court Theatre, where he was exposed to the experimental and innovative of some of Great Britain’s best young playwrights, among them Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Samuel Beckett, and John Arden. His experience at the Royal Court rounded out his academic and professional training in drama and theater. During these years, Soyinka wrote his first plays: The Swamp Dwellers (1958), about one community’s history; The Invention (1959), a one-act satire comparing the leaders of South Africa’s apartheid system to mad scientists conducting horrible experiments; and The Lion and the Jewel (1959), a comedy. The Invention was performed at the Royal Court Theatre in November, 1959, as part of a program which also featured excerpts from A Dance of the Forests (1960). That same year, The Swamp Dwellers was produced in London and in Ibadan, where The Lion and the Jewel was also performed.

Even as a child Soyinka had felt drawn to his Yoruba roots despite the Christian environment in which he was reared and educated. His grandfather had initiated him into adulthood through the traditional ritual incisions on the wrists and ankles to prepare him to face the world. As an adult, Soyinka realized that his dream of a thriving black African theater tradition required his immersion in traditional African culture, and in 1960 he returned to Nigeria with the support of a Rockefeller Research Fellowship. Although the fellowship attached him to the University of Ibadan, he spent much of his year as a fellow in an intensive study of Nigerian culture. He traveled widely throughout the country to participate in community rituals and traditional festivals, and he experimented with ways to combine native traditions with Western culture. At the end of his fellowship year, Soyinka accepted a position as lecturer at the University of Ife in Ibadan. Since that time, he has held various faculty positions at universities all over the world. In 1998 he returned to his homeland amid renewed hopes that the long era of military rule in Nigeria was nearing an end.

Life’s Work

Soyinka returned home to a Nigeria which had no native dramatic tradition in English. Theatrical productions were limited to William Shakespeare’s plays and other English classics, or to European plays in English translation. Nothing on stage had any bearing on the average playgoer’s life; the only extant Nigerian play in English was written in Elizabethan speech. In 1960, Soyinka created “The 1960 Masks,” a theater company composed of professionals and civil servants who were interested—if untrained—amateurs. Formed in Lagos primarily to perform in Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests for Nigerians’ independence year celebrations, The 1960 Masks was that country’s first English-language theater company—although its amateur composition kept it from being the theater group that Soyinka had dreamed of forming. The year 1960 also saw the production of two more Soyinka plays: The Trials of Brother Jero and Camwood on the Leaves, a radio script.

Because the actors involved in The 1960 Masks were dependent for their livelihoods on their positions in the civil service and in...

(The entire section is 2080 words.)

Wole Soyinka Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka was born July 13, 1934, at Abeokuta in Western Nigeria. His mother was a strong-willed businesswoman; his father, a school supervisor. Soyinka is a member of the Yoruba tribe whose culture is dominant in Western Nigeria. He has studied Yoruban mythology and theology as a scholar, and he has developed a theory of tragedy from Yoruban culture and has used it as the basis and inspiration of his fiction, poetry, and drama. His works are filled with its gods and spirits and its rituals and festivals. The traditional leader, the Oba, retains his spiritual and moral authority. The Yoruba language influences Soyinka’s rhythmic and imagistic English style. Soyinka’s formal education, however, has been basically...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Wole Soyinka Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Wole Soyinka was born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka on July 13, 1934, at Abeokuta, in western Nigeria. A Yoruba by birth, he studied Yoruba mythology and theology and made it the basis of his literary themes. His formal education, however, was British. He attended primary and secondary schools in Abeokuta and Ibadan, began his undergraduate work at University College, Ibadan, and received his bachelor of arts degree with honors in English (1957) at the University of Leeds. He would continue to be associated with various universities throughout his academic and literary career, holding lectureships, delivering papers at academic meetings, and publishing critical reviews and articles. His career as a dramatist began at Leeds and...

(The entire section is 385 words.)

Wole Soyinka Biography

(World Poets and Poetry)

Wole Soyinka was born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, the second child of Soditan (Samuel) Akinyiode, headmaster of the Abeokuta Grammar School, a Christian primary school established by the British, and Grace Eniola (Grace) Soyinka, a shopkeeper. Soyinka grew up in western Nigeria and attended his father’s school. His father was an agnostic and his mother a devout Christian. Soyinka’s grandfather introduced him to tribal mythologies and had him secretly initiated into Yoruba manhood. Soyinka began writing in high school; he attended University College at Ibadan, studying literature with an emphasis on drama. There he began to investigate Yoruba and Greek mythology and published several poems in the literary magazine Black...

(The entire section is 324 words.)

Wole Soyinka Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka (sho-YIHNG-kah) was born on July 13, 1934, in Ijebu Isara, near Abeokuta, western Nigeria, where he grew up. His parents were from the Ijebu and Egba ethnic groups, both of which spoke Yoruba. “Abeokuta” means “under the rock,” referring to the home of the town’s guardian deity. Soyinka’s parents were Christian, and Nigeria was then under British colonial rule. Soyinka was reared with roots in the Yoruba culture but was heavily influenced by Western thought.

He attended schools in Nigeria until he was twenty and then went on to the University of Leeds in England in 1954. At that time, the university had an unusually active drama department, and Soyinka had the opportunity to see...

(The entire section is 930 words.)

Wole Soyinka Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Wole Soyinka’s politically committed art has earned him censorship, time in prison, and the Nobel Prize in Literature. His plays incorporate Yoruba and Western traditions in a manner that conveys a realistic understanding of the place of both in postcolonial African life. Soyinka’s works argue for independence—political, intellectual, and cultural—from all forms of repression. Sometimes difficult and experimental, his plays bring a portrait of Nigerian life to the world stage.

(The entire section is 74 words.)

Wole Soyinka Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

One of Africa’s most important writers, Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka (shoy-IHNG-kuh) became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1986. His extraordinary work exemplifies his vision as a Yoruba, an African, and a world citizen. His knowledge of oral and written literature is a fusion of his traditional Yoruba and his Western and world literary heritage. He was born of mixed Ijebu and Egba parentage in western Nigeria. His father was a catechist elementary school principal; his mother, a businesswoman, provided the stimulating home environment that Soyinka describes in Aké. Both of his parents were Christians, and on both sides of the family were three generations of distinguished relatives. He...

(The entire section is 1103 words.)

Wole Soyinka Biography

(Drama for Students)

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka was born in Ijebu Isara, near Akeokuta in western Nigeria, on July 13, 1934. His parents, who were from different...

(The entire section is 462 words.)