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.
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.
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...
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