Wole Soyinka Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.

Early Plays

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.

The Road

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,...

(The entire section is 5738 words.)