Wole Soyinka Drama Analysis
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...
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