Soyinka, Wole 1934–
Nigerian playwright, novelist, translator, and critic, Soyinka is often credited with bringing Nigerian culture to the attention of the world. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
Wole Soyinka has already established a firm reputation in Great Britain, the United States, and Nigeria as his country's leading dramatist. He has also published his first novel, The Interpreters (London, 1965), and some poetry. In addition, he has been an actor and a theater producer—he formed his own company, the 1960 Masks, which in turn mounted his symbolistic work, A Dance of the Forests, in October, 1960, as part of the Nigerian independence celebrations. Soyinka has been a college teacher and drama critic as well. That he has accomplished so many things in so many fields in so short a time is in itself symptomatic of his great talent, but what is more exceptional is that the quality of his chief work—his plays—is comparable to the best work of contemporary playwrights anywhere in the world….
Soyinka is the best example of [the] continuing maturation of African literature in English…. He treats most of the themes with which other and earlier African writers have been concerned, but unlike them, interweaves these themes within a humanistic fabric. Soyinka's plays are concerned with the mystery and fascination of a primitive countryside. His characters are either drawn back to the vital countryside or else never leave it, finding in its mystery and voraciousness their necessary fulfillment. Often enough that fulfillment is doom, but in Soyinka's plays this magnetism of primitive life is so strongly projected that there is no accompanying sense of depression. The reader is too over-whelmed by the terrors of the infinite—whether forest or swampland—and pity for his own sake to concern himself with rational qualms or depression. He is shocked into the sense of disbelief in what is happening, but is powerless to resist following the playwright into that black-forested void that, in Soyinka's plays, always seems to be beckoning from just beyond the real stage. Even in his comedy, The Trials of Brother Jero, the reader is led into a black hell which a demagogue priest opens and closes at will. Soyinka paves his plays with pitfalls into which his characters stumble one by one, as if willingly embracing their emasculation or self-destruction.
Soyinka is one of the few contemporary African writers writing in English who does not introduce any white man into his cast of characters (with the exception of his recent novel). This feature, certainly a distinctive characteristic, points up Soyinka's disinterest in contemporary situations, on which the historicopolitical role of the white man in Africa has a direct bearing. Although almost all his work—with the exception of his early allegorical piece, A Dance of the Forests, and The Lion and the Jewel—is set in the present time, his essential interest lies in the primary emotions of hope, struggle, and defeat. In a sense, his people could as well be Asians or Americans or Europeans: their hungers and needs do not in themselves demand a specific local environment. This is not of course to deny Soyinka's ability to characterize peculiarly African folk beliefs and conflicts.
Martin Tucker, in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967, pp. 110, 112-13.
Six years have passed since Soyinka published his last play, The Road. The Nigerian war, his own imprisonment and his concern for the way Nigeria would emerge from its political crises have made this perhaps the most turbulent period in his life. Those who have awaited Madmen and Specialists will not be disappointed, for he has transformed those years into a masterpiece which may prove to be his finest play….
Madmen and Specialists is poetic drama at its best. In form it is very close to The Road…. Moreover, the play is bound together by the satiric wit we saw in Soyinka's earlier work, though here that wit has matured and developed a far more refined edge. Once again we see that Soyinka is the finest contemporary African playwright writing in English.
Richard Priebe, in Books Abroad, Summer, 1972, p. 533.
In places [in the poems collected in A Shuttle in the Crypt] Soyinka achieves the effective liturgical rhythms of T. S. Eliot ("This death was arid/There was no groan, no sorrowing at the wake—/Only curses….") and elsewhere the word-twisting wit of Dylan Thomas ("The meeting is called/To odium…."), but comparisons with other poets fail to do Soyinka justice, for the wit, the words and the rhythms are in any final account distinctly his own. Yet for all the praise this collection deserves, it must be noted that Soyinka's tendency to be obscure is here exaggerated beyond anything he has previously written. In several of the poems the images are so personal and abstract that communication between poet and reader simply breaks down. Despite the great demands Soyinka makes of his audience, and very often because of these demands, anyone who enjoys good poetry will surely be rewarded by reading A Shuttle in the Crypt.
Richard Priebe, in Books Abroad, Spring, 1973, p. 407.
["The Man Died"] fascinates me because its author does, but there is much about it that will baffle a great many American readers. Much of it is political, but allusively so. A man writing prison notes to himself, or even for his countrymen, can drop names or oblique references to events, knowing that the allusions are redolent with allegiances and prejudices, but to the uninitiate the effect is confusing….
It is not the political content of "The Man Died" or its justifiable anger that will give it whatever readers it finds. It is the notes that deal with prison life, the observation of everything from a warder's catarrh to the predatory life of insects after a rain. Of course, these are not simply reportorial. They are vehicles to carry the author's shifting states of mind, to convey the real subject matter of the book; the author's attempt to survive as a man, as a mind. The notes are both a means to that survival and a record of it.
Gerald Weales, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 29, 1973, p. 10.