Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5738
For Wole Soyinka, art and morality are inseparable. This does not mean simply that sensitivity to beauty is a good indicator of moral awareness, though that is strongly suggested in A Dance of the Forests. What is more to the point is that the primary obligation of art is to tell the truth: That obligation implies exposure and denunciation of falsehood. Even in Soyinka’s broad farces—for example, the two plays that feature the prophet Jero—the object is not entertainment for its own sake but satire against any religious, social, or political leader who makes a mockery of human freedom. Soyinka also insists—with an eye on the romantic notion of negritude—that human beings have a dual nature whether they be African or Western; that is, they have destructive as well as creative urges. Part of his purpose as an artist is to expose the self-serving idealization of primitive African virtue; the problems in contemporary Africa may exist in a context of Western colonial oppression, but moral responsibility lies within the individual person as much as in the cultural milieu.
What is special about the moral content of Soyinka’s drama is its metaphysical dimension, based on his own personal rendering of Yoruba myth. It assumes a continuum between the worlds of the dead, the living, and the unborn. That continuum is made possible by a fourth realm, which, in Myth, Literature, and the African World, Soyinka calls “the fourth stage,” a realm that links the living with their ancestors and with the future. The myth of Ogun, the god who risked the dangers of the abyss and created a road from the spiritual to the human world, is the key to an understanding of all Soyinka’s work, including his drama. The worship of Ogun is a ritual repetition of the god’s feat. Yoruba drama, in a comparison that Soyinka himself makes, thus resembles Greek drama in its ritual essence and its origin. Ogun is the Yoruba counterpart of Dionysus. To emphasize its ritual nature, Soyinka incorporates in his drama elements of dance, music, mime, and masquerade. Characters are not merely actors playing a role—which in itself has ritual suggestions—but, in moments of high tension, are symbolically possessed by a god. The central actions are variations of rites of passage, with transformation or death-rebirth being the central archetypal pattern. Soyinka’s most frequently used term for the terrifying experience of the numinous fourth stage is “transition.” In some plays, the transition experience is artificial or incomplete, or it is parodied (the Jero plays); in others, it is the most pervasive theme.
Soyinka has a remarkable ability to combine the dramatic and theatrical device of peripeteia with the metaphysical experience of transition. The peripeteia, or climactic event of the play, is at the same time as the moment of divine possession. Generally, the plays move from ordinary realism to ritual enactment, with the nonverbal elements of dance, song, and masquerade receiving increasing prominence as the climax approaches. Thus, for Soyinka, drama is a serious matter. He may say in a facetious moment that it must be primarily entertainment, but in fact he treats it not only as a social and moral force but also as an act of human freedom and a ritual reenactment of human beings’ relationship to divinity.
Among Soyinka’s early plays, A Dance of the Forests is the most ambitious; it is also the most complex treatment of the chthonic, or underworld, realm of gods and spirits of transition. Even in Soyinka’s earliest major play, The Swamp Dwellers, the sensitive protagonist, Igwezu, appears as an outcast from ordinary society, as one who has returned from a confrontation with the gods and is not yet able to deal with the compromising and capricious worlds of society and nature. His climactic decisions are those of a man dazed by his revolutionary experiences. The wise old Beggar (an incarnation of the god?) cannot persuade him to turn his knowledge to account. The Lion and the Jewel, a comic rendition of society, presents the archetype of transition in at least two ways: through a parody of transformation as the ridiculous country schoolteacher, Lakunle, imagines his passage from bachelor to husband, and through the real rite of passage experienced by the heroine, Sidi, from maiden to wife.
A Dance of the Forests
A Dance of the Forests, as the title itself suggests, is in another world entirely. All the action is set in the forest, a universal symbol of the unknown, of the mysterious secrets of nature. It relies heavily on ritual, with its accompanying music, mime, dance, and masquerade. In the forest are representatives of the three other realms—the ancestors from the past, the living, and spiritual projections of posterity—as well as the gods and spirits who participate in and organize an extraordinary ritual to bridge the abyss between them.
A Dance of the Forests was written for the Nigerian independence celebrations in 1960, represented in the play as the Gathering of the Tribes. The principal human figures, Adenebi, Rola, and Demoke, have left the public festivities and sought the solitude of the forest. They are all guilty of some crime, hence uneasy in public, though the degree of their awareness varies considerably. Adenebi remains a lost soul because he cannot admit his guilt, even to himself. Rola, a prostitute, and Demoke, an artist who has just murdered his rival, at first, like Adenebi, try to hide their shame, but eventually they face the truth about themselves as human beings and achieve redemption. This is the essential plot of the play; it requires that these three characters—especially Demoke, as the central figure on whom the climax turns—pass from the ordinary world of the living to the world of the dead and the gods—that is, that they enter the “fourth stage.” The first people they meet are Dead Man and Dead Woman, who have come in answer to the summons of the tribes. These ancestors turn out to be not the glorious heroes of Africa’s imaginary past but fallen human beings who led unsatisfactory lives. They are accusers rather than celebrators of humankind.
Part 1 ends with some of the townspeople trying, through divination, ritual proverbs, dance and song, and a smoking, air-polluting lorry, to chase them away. Early in part 1, the three human protagonists also meet the Supreme Deity, called in the play Forest Head and temporarily disguised as an ordinary man named Obaneji. He guides them to the appointed place for the ritual Welcome of the Dead, which he has decided to hold in the forest because human society has refused to acknowledge the two dead guests as true ancestors out of their past.
Part 2 depicts a conflict between the forces of chance, retribution, and destruction, represented by the god Eshuoro, and the creative forces, represented by the god Ogun and his human agent, Demoke. It is a spiritual conflict that takes place in the realm of transition, symbolically rendered by the swamplike setting deep in the forest. The actual conflict between Eshuoro and Demoke is preceded by an elaborate Welcome of the Dead. Forest Head, in Prospero-like fashion, stages a drama that re-creates the crucial event in the lives of Dead Man and Dead Woman. Dead Man, a warrior in the court of Mata Kharibu three centuries earlier, had defied the order of his ruler and refused to fight a senseless war. His punishment was emasculation and slavery, which he had to endure in two subsequent incarnations. What he wants now is rest. Forest Head is sympathetic, but Eshuoro is not. Dead Woman was Dead Man’s pregnant wife, who, overcome by grief, committed suicide and hence doomed her unborn child to the fate of an abiku, an infant that dies repeatedly in childbirth. This scene, designed to arouse fear and pity for the suffering in human life, especially of those whose motives are pure, becomes in the hands of Eshuoro, an uninvited guest who appears in disguise as the Questioner of the Dead, further evidence of the weakness and sinfulness of human nature. The scene also includes two other figures, previous incarnations of Rola and Demoke as Madame Tortoise, the archetypal prostitute, and the Court Poet, who along with the Warrior resists her charms. What the scene also suggests, therefore, is the ever-recurring cycle of human history, and what follows is a dramatic and symbolic investigation of the question: Do human beings have the freedom and the will to change the pattern? Again it is Eshuoro who attempts to control the inquisition.
Up to this point, the three human protagonists have remained in the background (partly through dramatic necessity, since Rola and Demoke are actors in the flashback), but now the magic of Forest Head concentrates on their redemption. He insists that he cannot change anything himself; he can only provoke self-awareness. Thus, he designs a spiritual projection of the future but remains a passive observer. Significantly, the three humans are masked and become possessed by the spirits who speak through them. Having lost their identities, they enter totally the abyss of transition. The spirit voices from the intangible void are purposely obscure in their dire warnings. Scattered among them are the cries of Half-Child, whom Forest Head has meanwhile taken from the womb of Dead Woman. Its voice, too, is a voice of the future; it wants a full existence with a living mother.
With Eshuoro directing the action, the future of humankind appears desolate, but Eshuoro’s power is not absolute. The play’s climactic events, couched as they are in symbolic mime and dance, have elicited numerous interpretations. Eshuoro appears bent on separating Half-Child from its mother, as though a reunion would mean salvation. Demoke becomes a principal actor (once Forest Head has restored his consciousness), as he attempts to protect the child. With Ogun’s help, he succeeds in returning the child to the mother, but Eshuoro emits a shout of victory even at this, suggesting perhaps that Demoke’s act may save the child but place his own life in jeopardy, for he is taking on the responsibility of changing the pattern of history. A ritual scene follows in which Eshuoro forces Demoke, a “sacrificial basket” on his head, to climb the totem that Demoke had carved for the tribal festivities. Eshuoro then sets fire to the totem in order to kill both the artist and his creation, but his vengeance is foiled by Ogun, who catches the falling Demoke.
These scenes, depicting the saving of the child and of Demoke himself, are symbolically taking place within the unconscious and are a resolution to Demoke’s particular problem and to the central issue raised by the play. As the tribe’s carver, Demoke occupies a vital position. Without his art, ritual contact with the gods is impossible, yet in the act of carving the totem he had through jealousy flung his assistant and rival to his death. The incident reflects Soyinka’s insistence on the creative and destructive tendencies in humankind. How can Demoke atone for his crime? The play dramatizes his inner acceptance of his human nature, his admission of guilt, and his redemption through the saving of Half-Child. Soyinka seems to suggest that all salvation is essentially personal and must follow the path of self-awareness, confession, and risk—a rite of passage across the abyss that separates human beings and the gods. The public celebration at the Gathering of the Tribes is pointless and meaningless, even hypocritical, because it denies the realities of the past and the destructive, darker side of human nature. The play thus offers both a tragic vision of life and hope for the future through the courageous acts of individual people. It also identifies the artist as the key provoker of self-awareness. Like Demoke, he is closest to the abyss; he possesses “fingers of the dead.”
The Strong Breed and Kongi’s Harvest
Between A Dance of the Forests in 1960 and The Road in 1965, Soyinka devoted his energies to the writing of his first novel, The Interpreters, but he did complete two plays, The Strong Breed and Kongi’s Harvest, both of which present a young man taking the responsibilities of the community on his own shoulders. In The Strong Breed, Eman first tries to deny the very fact of ritual atonement, especially his own inherited role as the “carrier” of tribal guilt; eventually, however, he plays out this role in another tribe with such obsession that he pays for his rebellion with his life. Daodu, in Kongi’s Harvest, assumes the Hamlet-like role of avenger as he challenges the authority of the usurping President Kongi, forcing him in the climactic scene to face the horrors of death, of the abyss, which in his egotism he had ignored. In both plays, the myth of transition clearly remains the key to self-awareness.
These two plays were followed by The Road, Soyinka’s first drama centered on the danger to human sanity posed by contact with the chthonic realm. The setting of The Road differs significantly from that of A Dance of the Forests. The latter takes place entirely within the realm of passage—symbolically the forest—and hence is essentially an inner experience; in contrast, The Road takes place in society—although a very specialized and symbolic segment of it—and is mainly concerned with the effects of death on social behavior. The vision of A Dance of the Forests is, broadly speaking, tragic, but with a comic ending: Demoke receives both atonement and a sobering projection of the future. The Road, on the other hand, maintains a comic atmosphere through most of its scenes but ends on a tragic note; it actually contains every conceivable dramatic mode, from satire and realism to Symbolism and the absurd. Like A Dance of the Forests, it is a complex, multifaceted, and ambiguous play.
Structurally, The Road proceeds in a manner similar to A Dance of the Forests, from the ordinary to the ritualistic. Throughout, Soyinka maintains a tension between the practical world of survival and the spiritual world of essences, between the self and the other. Samson is a realist. He always retains contact with the ordinary world and fulfills the role of mirror or “narrator” even though he never steps out of his role as character. He is the reference point by which one measures the psychological states and obsessions of the other characters. In part 1, he remains onstage and controls the action until the final scene, when Professor, the epitome of obsession with death and the other major figure in the play, takes over the action. The same pattern emerges in part 2, in which Samson and Professor are usually onstage together and in which the balance gradually shifts in the direction of ritual. The setting for the play is a kind of rundown truck stop. Samson is a “tout” for the truck driver Kotonu, who has recently given up his job for psychological reasons that the play gradually makes clear. Professor, a former lay reader in the adjacent church, now runs the truckers’ rest stop, which doubles as a spare-parts shop and headquarters of his Quest for the meaning of Death. He holds his own communion every evening for his followers and hangers-on. Murano, his assistant and palm-wine tapster, symbol of the transition stage and Professor’s best hope for enlightenment, leaves every morning and returns in the evening with wine for the ritual service.
The play deals with one day in the lives of these characters, a day made decisive by two recent occurrences that bring Professor’s Quest to its crisis. In part 1, the occurrences are merely suggested; part 2 contains their reenactment as past merges with present. Kotonu and Samson narrowly missed being killed in an accident on the road; a truck passed them and then fell through a rotted portion of a bridge. Though Samson viewed the near miss stoically, Kotonu was so disturbed by the thought of death that he has given up driving, much to the displeasure of Samson, whose main preoccupation throughout the play is to restore Kotonu to his common sense. To this end, Samson solicits the aid of Professor, who has hired Kotonu to manage the spare-parts store. Samson insists that Kotonu’s genius is in driving, not in scavenging parts off wrecked vehicles and selling them. Professor, however, is sympathetic with Kotonu’s sudden concern with death. The second incident is even more significant. Kotonu and Samson were involved in a hit-and-run accident in which they “killed” a man masquerading as Ogun (the “guardian of the road”) in a ritual ceremony; he was in the agemo phase, in transition from the human to the divine essence. They hid the body in the back of the truck and carried it to the truck stop, where Professor found it. This victim is the Murano of the play, in dumb suspension between life and death and, hence, supposedly in possession of secrets that Professor is after. The incident intensified Kotonu’s withdrawal, especially since he was required to don Murano’s bloody mask to escape capture by the other celebrants. Thus, Kotonu himself symbolically became the god Ogun in the rite of passage. The reenactment of these scenes, together with several others in which Samson mimics Professor or recalls past incidents, dramatizes the impact of death on the living and structurally prepares for the final ritual act.
One other significant event has also recently occurred. Usually Professor leaves every morning for his tour of the road and, like Murano, does not return until evening. On this particular day, he has broken that pattern after coming upon a wreck and finding a road sign with the word “Bend” on it, which he takes to be symbolic. He returns to his headquarters more absentminded than usual and then departs in a daze. Part 1 ends at noon with a funeral service for the victims of the accident at the bridge, and with the return of Murano, confused by the organ music that usually calls him back in the evening. The day is clearly ominous. Murano is almost “killed” as a thief by one of the hangers-on.
The communion service at the end of part 2 is the culmination of the various “performances” during the play that have become progressively more intense. The policeman, Particulars Joe, is at the truck stop in search of the hit-and-run victim, whom no one has as yet identified as Murano. The identification soon becomes clear as Murano discovers the Mask he had worn, puts it on, and begins the dance that is to continue until Professor’s closing speech. Everyone at the communion, already intoxicated by the wine, senses the power of the moment, the traditional reenactment of the rite of passage from human to divine. Murano is becoming possessed by the god Ogun. Professor hopes to use the moment to gain secret knowledge of death without dying himself. Salubi, to retain his sanity, wants to leave. Say Tokyo Kid, apparently the Eshuoro figure, symbolic of retribution and destruction, skeptical of such ritual behavior, challenges Murano and, during the struggle, stabs Professor with a knife passed to him by Salubi. Murano, completely possessed by the god, hurls Say Tokyo Kid to his death. Professor ends the play with a sermon to his followers, enjoining them to imitate the Road by lying in wait and treacherously destroying the unsuspecting traveler.
The key figure in this play is Professor, but he is such a strange composite that the play remains an ambiguous statement. He is an archetypal character, or rather a composite of archetypes. He is Faust, Falstaff, Jesus, and Don Quixote mixed up in a bundle of conflicting motives. Like Falstaff, he insists on the survival instincts in human nature. Like Faust, he challenges the gods to achieve knowledge denied to the descendants of Adam. He has messianic fantasies, but he is maddened by his preoccupation with death as surely as Don Quixote’s romance with literature blinds him to ordinary reality. It is as though the mind of Professor has become a chaotic image of the chthonic realm that he so desperately searches out but that he as a human being cannot understand. He never learns that the road of his daily wanderings on which his drivers make their living is not a real substitute for the Road that Ogun traveled to make contact with the human. Whereas Demoke in A Dance of the Forests undergoes the transition experience but retains his human perspective, Professor becomes obsessed with the realm itself and intellectualizes himself out of human society. To a large extent, of course, he is a comic figure—the proverbial absentminded professor—but the ambivalent messianic-Machiavellian Quest gives him a certain magnificent dimension and elevates his flaw to the hubris of classical tragedy.
The Trials of Brother Jero and Jero’s Metamorphosis
The chaotic misdirection of The Road—and, indeed, of much of Soyinka’s work in the 1960’s, with its motifs of political chicanery, moral inertia, and death in modern Nigeria—anticipated the horrors of the Biafran War at the end of the decade. The war and Soyinka’s two-year detention in prison did not, in fact, drastically change his philosophical approach to his craft, but they did intensify his concerns. The Trials of Brother Jero, for example, written before the war, is political and social satire, but Jero as the trickster is essentially a comic figure mixing farce and wit. The political caricature who undergoes a mock transformation in the final scene is more ridiculous than dangerous. In a companion piece, however, Jero’s Metamorphosis, written after the war, the ritual transformation of the beach prophets into an Apostolic Salvation Army is a thinly veiled attack on a military regime that has, as the play reiterates, made public execution a national spectacle. Jero, dressed in his general’s uniform, sitting underneath his own portrait as the curtain falls, is a sinister threat to moral sanity.
Madmen and Specialists
The very subject of Madmen and Specialists, written soon after Soyinka’s release from prison, is the war’s devastating effect on every phase of human life. Its central character, Bero, is hubris itself in his absolute denial of the essence of Yoruba culture: the continuity of life, the gods, the ancestors, and humankind’s responsibility toward the future. He renders meaningless the realm that links human beings with the gods, and he violates the primary law of existence—return to nature as much as or more than is taken from it—and reduces people to organisms.
Soyinka’s willingness to undertake an adaptation of Euripides’ Bakchai (405 b.c.e.; The Bacchae, 1781) thus comes as no surprise: It, too, deals with a madman in defiance of the gods and of the basic rhythms of human society and human nature. Dionysian possession and retribution are the closest thing in Western culture to the worship of Ogun among the Yoruba: The Bacchae, like Madmen and Specialists, constitutes a warning to militaristic oppression. In all three of these postwar plays, the motif of death, the numinous realm of passage, has retained its central place within the philosophical and dramatic structure; it has simply taken on added significance and urgency because of the realities through which Soyinka has had to live. Death has become part of a greater political commitment and a deeper pessimism.
Death and the King’s Horseman
The new commitment and tone are nowhere more evident than in Death and the King’s Horseman, a play that addresses the failure of the older generation to preserve intact the traditional Yoruba culture and that pessimistically depicts the attempt of their children to undertake the responsibility. According to Yoruba custom, when a king dies, his horseman must, at the end of the thirty days of mourning, commit suicide and join him in the passage to the underworld; otherwise, the king remains in the passage, subject to evil forces. Soyinka builds his play around the king’s horseman, Elesin Oba, whose weakness of will breaks the age-old formula and places the entire society in danger of extinction. As with the other plays, much of the action is ritual, and, as is common in Soyinka, the climactic scenes combine dramatic peripeteia with divine possession and entrance into the transition phase. The structure also reflects the clash of African and Western cultures, a theme common in African literature but rather rare in Soyinka; the scenes alternate between Nigerian and British settings. Soyinka insists in a prefatory note that the British presence is only accidental: Elesin’s failure is not imposed from without but is self-inflicted.
Soyinka organizes the play with his usual economy. All the action takes place within the span of a few hours. Act 1 presents Elesin’s procession through the market just at closing time, on the way to his own death: He and his Praise Singer chant his fate. His love of the market as a symbol of earthly activity and life, however, suggests his ambivalence toward his role, and when he sees a beautiful young girl and arranges with Iyaloja, her future mother-in-law and leader of the market women, to marry and enjoy this maiden as his last earthly act, his eventual failure to carry out his appointed role is almost certain. Both Iyaloja and the audience, however, yield temporarily to Elesin’s sophistic arguments. He insists that this is not mere sexual indulgence but a mingling of the “seeds of passage” with the life of the unborn; he deceives himself and his audience with poetic fancies and beautiful language. Iyaloja grants him the gift of the girl but warns him of his responsibility. His poetic fancy will not become a reality unless he dies.
In act 2, the scene changes to the home of the British District Officer, Simon Pilkings, and his wife, Jane; the accompanying music changes from sacred chant and rhythm to the tango. The egungun mask, used in Ogun worship to represent divine possession, has been turned into a costume for the masquerade later that evening. Here, Soyinka presents ritual suicide through the eyes of the supercilious Pilkings, who rejects Yoruba culture as barbaric; Jane is more sympathetic but still uncomprehending. Simon arranges for Amusa, a Nigerian sergeant in his employ, to arrest Elesin and prevent the completion of the ritual.
Act 3 begins with a comic scene in which the market women and their daughters turn Sergeant Amusa’s duty into a mockery and send him packing back to his white superior. This moment of hilarious triumph gives way to what appears to be the climactic scene of the play, Elesin’s emergence from his wedding chamber and his hypnotic dance of possession as he symbolically enters the abyss of transition.
This sacred event is replaced again by the artificiality of British custom, as act 4 begins with a mime at the masquerade ball, with the prince of Wales (having come to Nigeria as a gesture of courage and solidarity during World War II) and his entourage dressed in seventeenth century costume, dancing to a Viennese waltz and admiring Pilkings’s demonstration of the egungun dance movements and vocal accompaniments. When he learns that Amusa has failed in his mission, Pilkings departs for the market to halt the suicide. Meanwhile, Jane has a long discussion with Elesin’s son, Olunde, who has just returned from studying medicine in England to oversee his father’s ritual burial. Jane is shocked that Olunde still clings to barbaric customs in spite of his Western education; in turn, Olunde suggests the greater barbarism of world wars, and there is no meeting of minds. The act closes with the unexpected return of Pilkings with Elesin. Olunde, who had assumed with absolute confidence that his father had completed the ritual obligation, senses immediately the cosmic reversal of roles, represented onstage by the father on his knees begging forgiveness from his son and the son judging the father.
Act 5 sees Elesin in chains imprisoned at the Residency. Iyaloja and the other market women bear the body of Olunde to his cell. She condemns Elesin for forcing his son to die in his place, thus reversing the cycle of nature. At the sight of his son, Elesin strangles himself with his chain and enters the abyss, though perhaps too late to satisfy the demands of the gods. What is especially significant about this scene is Elesin’s second attempt to conceal the truth from himself. In act 2, he had refused to face his excessive love of life, his inability to leave the world of pleasure to the young. Now, in his conversation with Iyaloja before his recognition of his son, he is denying responsibility for his failure of will. He blames the tempting touch of young flesh and mentions Iyaloja’s own complicity in the temptation; he blames especially Pilkings for his abrupt intervention. His most significant statement, however, is his self-serving appeal to the cultural situation. The power and influence of British culture, he says, caused him to question the loyalty of his own gods, and he came to doubt the validity of the ritual itself. The play ends with a dirge over the deaths of Olunde and Elesin, but also, perhaps, over the death of a culture. Iyaloja and Olunde have completed the ritual as best they could, but she is not sure whether the son’s death will satisfy the gods. The question remains, whether the younger generation of Nigerians will be able to save the civilization that their parents, in self-indulgence, doubt, and cowardice, have abandoned.
A Play of Giants and Requiem for a Futurologist
Two satirical plays of the 1980’s, A Play of Giants and Requiem for a Futurologist, insist that neither the political leaders nor the people have emerged from the chaos. In the first, set in New York City, Field-Marshal Kamini (a thinly disguised Idi Amin of Uganda) is a con artist who leads three other heads of state in a hostage-taking, blackmailing, terrorist challenge against the United Nations. It is an all-out, farcical attack on the worship of power by those who wield it and those who submit to it. In the second play, the con artist is an opportunistic servant, Alaba, who uses various disguises to “overthrow” his master, Dr. Godspeak, a well-known prophet or “futurologist,” by convincing the public and the doctor himself that he is dead. At Godspeak’s “death,” Alaba becomes the futurologist, a reincarnation of the famous French astrologer Nostradamus, who can use his supposed powers to exploit a gullible population. In Kamini and Alaba, Soyinka thus metamorphoses once again the Jero of the 1960 play. Nigeria—and the world—still plays the grotesque, exhausting, and futile game of the quack and the dupe.
Plays of the 1990’s
Three plays written in the 1990’s, From Zia, with Love, A Scourge of Hyacinths, and The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope, are Soyinka’s direct responses to the military dictators and irresponsible government of Nigeria. For his critical portrayals, Soyinka paid an additional four years (1993 to 1998) of self-imposed exile. During that period, he taught and traveled in the United States and England.
Both From Zia, with Love and A Scourge of Hyacinths were originally written as radio plays. Each grew out of real situations. Whether parodying the dictatorship of General Sani Abachu by comparing life under him to living in a prison in From Zia, with Love or likening the destruction of civil liberties to an invasion of water hyacinths in A Scourge of Hyacinths, Soyinka used his position as a world-respected writer to protest and was charged with treason for his efforts.
The Beatification of Area Boy
The Beatification of Area Boy shows the suffering of the average Nigerian at the hands of both the military and corrupt politicians. Soyinka’s protagonist is Sanda, a university dropout, who is the leader of a group of small-time vendors on Broad Street in Lagos, the capital. This one-act play, written in 1995, combines many of Soyinka’s writing strengths with his political determination. He uses the setting of the streets of modern Lagos to illustrate the huge disparities in the lives of Nigerians and to show that while at one time the country’s problems may have been imposed on it by outsiders, usually Western powers, current difficulties are primarily indigenous, rooted in the corruption and greed of the Nigerian military and political parties.
The title is taken from the name given to the Area Boys, or young men who operate more or less like gang leaders in specific, assigned turf in Lagos, basically conning and blackmailing wealthy businesspeople and tourists. Their quasi-director and the play’s protagonist is Sanda. What becomes quickly apparent is that Sanda and all the other characters hustling on the street really have no other choice. The corruption and brutality in the country have made it all but impossible for them to have legitimate jobs and the chance at a better life.
Soyinka’s sympathy for the ordinary Nigerian is obvious because the characters exude charm and warmth and care for each other in addition to exhibiting a realistic assessment of their situation and the powers that persecute them. On this busy street, working from their humble stalls, exists a community of people like Mama Put, who sells food; Judge, a vagrant; Barber; Cyclist; Boyko; Sanda; and Sanda’s former girlfriend Miseyi, although she is actually from a well-connected family. The police, military officers, and a military governor use their considerable positions and thugs against these people, who are merely trying to survive. A public wedding and the bride’s last-minute rejection of the groom force a showdown between the street people and the military and political powers. Despite a serious skirmish complete with gunshots and beatings, the street people escape to try another day, showing that Soyinka still harbors hope for his country.
Soyinka’s considerable skill at presenting song and dance in his plays is evident in The Beatification of Area Boy. For example, upset because the Area Boys have overcome some of his soldiers, a screeching military officer belts out a tune entitled, “DON’T TOUCH MY UNIFORM!!!” Another song example is “Maroko,” which describes a “wretched shanty town.” Both are funny despite the pathetic and miserable situations being described.
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