Wole Soyinka World Literature Analysis
It would be simplifying only a little to say that Soyinka’s writing can be divided into two phases. All of his work is marked by a social consciousness and a skillful intermingling of Western and traditional West African culture. Soyinka’s interment as a political prisoner in Nigeria, however, changed him and his artistic vision forever.
His first plays were performed shortly before and shortly after Nigeria gained independence from British colonial rule. The conflict brought about by overlapping and opposing cultures is the subject of the early plays, including The Swamp Dwellers, The Lion and the Jewel, and A Dance of the Forests. In each of these plays, the setting is West Africa, and the main characters are Africans who come into contact with European ways and values.
Soyinka is not a detached observer of cultural clash. His sentiments lean heavily toward the traditional culture. His dialogue contains many Yoruba proverbs. Traditional song, dance, costume, and ritual are also part of his plays; Yoruban deities are invoked. These traditional elements are not presented as interesting curiosities. In these plays, Soyinka emphasizes how Nigeria is politically independent of Great Britain and how his native country must take pride in tradition and claim cultural independence. Nigerian art must use Nigerian elements; artists must help the Nigerian people celebrate their heritage, instead of yearning, as the schoolteacher does in The Lion and the Jewel, for a European life that is not theirs.
Serious as these ideas are, the early plays often present them through comedy and satire. Both the village “bale” (leader) and the schoolteacher in The Lion and the Jewel are somewhat ridiculous figures. Their exaggerated speeches are funny and demonstrate their weaknesses. The Trials of Brother Jero (pr. 1960, pb. 1963) presents a preacher who is a very humorous buffoon. In The Road (pr., pb. 1965), Professor is a comic scalawag, while Samson is a comic coward.
These early plays are also marked by obscurity. The young Soyinka was, in effect, creating the modern English Nigerian theater, and he was determined that this theater would defy the expectations of Nigerians and Europeans alike. Beginning with A Dance of the Forests, Soyinka experimented with different ways to structure his plays. A Dance of the Forests has a plot of sorts, and characters and dialogue. On the other hand, the chronology is skewed, the dialogue is filled with hard-to-understand proverbs, and the action is interrupted for dances and rites that are not explained. Critics have argued for decades about the meaning of this play. Experimentation has always made Soyinka’s greatest plays hard to understand—often more something to be experienced and felt than to be analyzed and understood.
The work Soyinka produced after his release from prison is clearly the work of the same gifted man. The man is older, however, and more in control. The later plays, while still rich and dense, are not so obscure; these plays also have a note of seriousness and urgency. The political satire of The Road still appears, but without The Road’s softer comic elements. After prison, Soyinka’s targets for satire are not Westerners or would-be Western Africans. Instead, he targets the weaknesses and corruption of Nigerian military rule.
Of his work before his prison term it might be said that his chief concerns were for honoring and validating traditional African culture in an increasingly Westernized world. After prison, his attention shifted slightly, so that his focus was on the broader issue of human freedom and on bringing the world’s attention to political tyranny in Africa and around the world. In Death and the King’s Horseman (pb. 1975, pr. 1976), he shows clearly that freedom is tied up with responsibility. Opera Wonyosi attacks the greed and tyranny of many contemporary African rulers; this play argues that freedom must mean freedom for all.
Several of Soyinka’s works since the 1970’s deal...
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