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
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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. InDeath 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 directly with specific corrupt regimes in Nigeria, Uganda, or other African countries; apartheid in South Africa received particular attention through the 1980’s, and Nigeria through the 1990’s and beyond. These specifically targeted works also deal on a general level with human rights and freedoms, and these plays have been performed and well received throughout the world.
Through his long career, Soyinka has been much more than a playwright, although he will be best remembered for his more than twenty plays. He also is an accomplished actor and has directed plays and films. He has published many articles of literary criticism in African, European, and American journals, collecting the most important of them in Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976) and Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (1988). He has published five volumes of memoirs. These volumes demonstrate Soyinka’s dedication to African tradition and belief and show how his family and his people became the sources of his creative imagination.
He also has published two novels, The Interpreters and Season of Anomy (1973), which are not as strong as the plays. The Interpreters is an especially difficult novel because of its modernist approach to plot and language and because of many allusions to Yoruba tradition that are not explained.
More than his novels, Soyinka’s poetry approaches the greatness of his plays. From his earliest volume, Idanre, and Other Poems (1967), through his later works, including Mandela’s Earth, and Other Poems (1988) and Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (2002), his poetry shows the same concerns for social and political criticism as his drama. He may comment directly on politics, as in his early poem “Civilian and Soldier” or the later “Mandela’s Earth.” Other poems, such as “Season,” use natural imagery to speak of universal truths.
Soyinka has long been recognized as one of the most important African figures in world literature. In 1986, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first African to win that honor. The Swedish Academy praised him for his dedication to traditional culture and to human rights. He has not been universally accepted in Nigeria, where he has been criticized—even imprisoned—by political figures he has challenged. He has also been rejected by left-wing Nigerians, who see him as too European.
Soyinka’s writing reflects his life: Immersed in two worlds, it draws on African and Western forms and sources. It uses the English language to bring Yoruba culture to the world.
The Lion and the Jewel
First produced: 1959 (first published, 1963)
Type of work: Play
In a small Nigerian village, a schoolteacher with Western ideas confronts a cunning village chief whose power is threatened by modern ways.
The Lion and the Jewel, written in London, was one of the first of Soyinka’s plays to be performed in Africa. It was performed at the Ibadan Arts Theatre in 1959, where it was well received. The Lion and the Jewel was the first major play to draw on traditional Yoruba poetry, music, and dance to tell a Nigerian story in English. The play enabled Nigerian drama to become part of world theater.
The Lion and the Jewel is a comedy set in the small remote village of Ilujinle. There are three central characters: Lakunle, an eager but naïve schoolteacher who accepts Western ideas and modernity without really understanding them; Baroka, the village chief, who sees modern ideas as a threat to his power; and Sidi, the jewel of the village, a beautiful woman who will choose one of the men for a husband. The characters are exaggerated: Lakunle is arrogant and talks too much, and Baroka is cunning, but they are ultimately likable. Unlike many of Soyinka’s later plays, there is no evil in this play, and the author pokes only gentle fun at his characters. In the end, the men will have to deal with each other. As Baroka says, “the old must flow into the new.”
The play focuses on several conflicts that Soyinka presents but does not attempt to resolve. Lakunle and Baroka embody the contrary urges toward modernity and tradition. They personify the two sides of the major social and political issue in Africa during the last half of the twentieth century. They are not so far apart as they may think. Both look to the same Yoruban god, Sango. Both are skilled performers. Both are attracted to the same woman. Their conflict also is a universal one, between youth and age. Lakunle has new ideas, but he is inexperienced and brash. Baroka is afraid of progress, but he knows more of life.
The women in the play present other themes. Sidi chooses to marry the lion Baroka, who is much older than she, instead of the younger Lakunle because Baroka is more experienced as a lover and because he shares her view of marriage. Lakunle refuses to pay a bride price because he thinks the custom is old-fashioned and demeaning. Sidi believes the bride price will guarantee her rights and will not marry without it. Meanwhile, Baroka’s senior wife Sadiku seethes inside. Women have little power in the traditional society, but they are beginning to question their role.
Soyinka presents these themes through an artful mingling of Western and Yoruban elements. Scenes of plot and action alternate with flashbacks employing dance and mime. The stage is peopled with Yoruban drummers, dancers, and one masked figure. The play closes with a grand marriage dance, invoking the gods of fertility. Like all good drama, The Lion and the Jewel uses local and personal elements to tell a universal story.
Death and the King’s Horseman
First produced: 1976 (first published, 1975)
Type of work: Play
A man refuses to answer a call to give up his life, placing his entire people in disharmony with the world of the ancestors.
Death and the King’s Horseman, one of Soyinka’s tragedies, presents a representation of the Yoruba worldview. In Yoruba cosmology, there are three worlds: the world of the living, the world of the dead, and the world of the unborn. This play focuses on what connects all three worlds—transition, the pathway on which members of the different worlds meet and interact.
The opening of the play involves the ritual ceremonies for the burial of a dead king. Elesin, the king’s horseman, attired in glorious robes, enters the village marketplace in a majestic dance procession, followed by praise-singers and drummers. Elesin dances until he is in a trance, a state of transition. He performs poetry and song about the world of the ancestors and the connectedness of the three worlds.
The purpose of this ceremony is to help the dead king travel peacefully to the world of the dead. It should conclude with the suicide of Elesin, whose soul will accompany the king’s. Elesin sees a beautiful woman in the crowd and demands one night of love with her before he dies. Iyaloja, the mother of the marketplace, reluctantly agrees.
Also in the village is the British colonial district officer, Pilking. He is well-meaning but unable to understand or respect the Yoruban people. He also performs a dance at a gathering of his own people—a mocking imitation of an African dance in captured regalia. When Pilking hears of Elesin’s intention to die, he has him arrested to prevent it.
Soyinka makes it clear in his preface that this is not a mere clash of cultures; this is not simply a case of the white colonialist interfering with native culture. Elesin has failed to perform his duty, and his failure has cosmic significance. The white officer is a catalyst, but he cannot otherwise affect the village. The cosmic world is untouched by colonialism and materialism.
Elesin’s son Olunde, a doctor, returns from England. He has heard of the king’s death and assumes that his father’s death is near. Olunde reveres native culture and has had wide experience of Western culture. He tries unsuccessfully to make Pilking understand Yoruban belief. Ashamed to see his father’s failure, he kills himself in Elesin’s place.
When Elesin sees his son’s body, he takes his own life. This suicide is the result of shame, however, not duty, and it cannot repair the bonds that have been broken. The young bride, pregnant from her one night with Elesin, appears. She ritually closes her husband’s eyes as Iyaloja says, “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.”
First published: 1967 (collected in Idanre, and Other Poems, 1967)
Type of work: Poem
Observing the decaying fields at the end of the growing season, the speaker remembers that decay leads to new growth.
“Season,” one of Soyinka’s most widely anthologized poems, is in the Grey Seasons section of his first poetry collection, Idanre, and Other Poems. The poem is easily accessible to readers around the world because of its simple and universal theme. Many of Soyinka’s early poems are of this type. In later poems, Soyinka more frequently turns directly to politics, requiring more knowledge of historical figures and events on the part of the reader.
“Season” is spoken by a narrator who is involved with growing and harvesting. At harvesttime he or she surveys a cornfield and considers how ripening and decay are intermingled. Although the final message is one of hope, the tone of the poem is dark and mournful.
The poem opens with a short statement of the theme: “Rust is ripeness.” The word “rust” can carry many meanings, and all these meanings work in the poem. It can be oxidized iron, a symbol of decay. There is a fungus called rust that can attack plants (destruction) but which is itself alive (creation). Rust is also the color of the corn, when ripe, that is grown in many parts of Africa (creation). “Rust is ripeness” points out a central paradox of life.
The poem contrasts two seasons of life, youth and age, using subtle manipulation of verb tense to develop the ideas. The first stanza describes youth—“mating time”—with images of light and dance, leaves and feathers. The mating time is described in present tense, but the speaker remembers that “we loved to hear” the sounds of it. The past tense points out that the time has passed for “us.”
The second stanza describes the harvesttime, when the people “draw/ long shadows from the dusk.” The imagery is of darkness and dryness, and the verbs are in the present tense. This is not a time without hope. Twice in the six-line stanza Soyinka uses the word “await.” At the opening of the stanza, the speaker is “awaiting rust.” By the end of the stanza, reminded of the creation that follows destruction, he amends it to “we await/ The promise of the rust.”
Critics have pointed out that early in his life, Soyinka took as his personal muse the Yoruba deity Ogun. Ogun is a god of artistic skill but also a god of war. This dual nature—of creation and destruction—echoes the ideas of growth and decay found in “Season.” Soyinka was fascinated with the ambiguities Ogun represented. He turned again and again in his poetry and plays to this idea that destruction and creation were forever tied.
You Must Set Forth at Dawn
First published: 2006
Type of work: Nonfiction
Soyinka recounts his career as an intellectual and an activist, remembering the friends, colleagues, and enemies who shaped his political philosophy.
You Must Set Forth at Dawn is Soyinka’s fifth book of memoirs, but unlike the previous four it does not limit itself to a relatively confined span of time. This long and dense volume, instead, looks back as far as Soyinka’s earliest days as a university student in London, covering more than fifty years in the theater, in the academy, and in the political world, while avoiding mention of his family life.
The first section of You Must Set Forth at Dawn, placed before the chapters Soyinka labels as “Part I,” is “IBA—For Those Who Went Before,” and it establishes the approach Soyinka takes to the material in this memoir. It opens abruptly, in medias res, as Soyinka is on a plane heading toward Nigeria, remembering past plane trips: his return from exile and his trip to bring back the body of another political exile, his friend Femi Johnson. From here he moves on to an anticipation of and reflection on the loss of cactus in the bush landscape near his home in Abeokuta, and then on to a consideration of the human landscape and its loss of another friend, the late former vice chancellor at the University of Ife, Ojetuni Aboyade. Soyinka moves freely from anecdote to anecdote, from reflection to narrative to dialogue to poetry; the section’s twenty-eight pages are broken up into nine separate episodes. While the body of the book is roughly chronological, the frequent digressions and the references to an African history that the author knows far better than many of his readers makes this a challenging memoir for his non-Nigerian audience.
One of the most interesting features of this volume is Soyinka’s vivid and insightful portraits of several of the national leaders with whom he has interacted, including French president François Mitterrand, Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, and others. As the memoir unfolds, Soyinka describes personal relationships with nearly all of the important figures in the history of Nigeria over the past fifty years. He tells, for example, of his admiration for and friendship with African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela; he relates his secret attempts in 1991 to arrange diplomatic meetings between Mandela and his rival for political power in South Africa, Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, with the aid of another African Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer, and of Ibrahim Babangida, then president of Nigeria. Soyinka also describes his relationships with internationally important writers, including Gordimer, the British poets W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, and Nigerian writers Chinua Achebe and Ken Saro-Wiwa, as well as curators at the British Museum, media executives and personalities, business leaders and military officials.
As the book moves into the twenty-first century and into Soyinka’s late sixties and seventies, he remains a central political figure. While frequently throughout the memoir Soyinka yearns for solitude, for time to fish and read, he never is given—or never chooses—a solitary life. The memoir concludes where it began, at the airport when Soyinka arrives back in Nigeria after years away, surrounded by a cheering, out-of-control throng of well-wishers welcoming him home.