Wole Soyinka Soyinka, Wole (Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Soyinka, Wole (Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka) 1934–

Soyinka, a Nigerian dramatist, director, poet, and novelist, is considered one of the most important contemporary African dramatists writing in English. Underlying all his work is African folklore, with its relevance to social and political elements. Critics agree that his two-year political imprisonment in Nigeria had a tremendous effect on his writing, changing his once hopeful outlook to one of growing despair and pessimism. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Alan Brien

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Soyinka is a fluent, funny and angry West African, but he has not yet begun to understand how to work out a verse or to organise a play….

Mr. Soyinka's verse was mainly in the cata-Logue manner with clumsy pamphleteering phrases ('untransmuted emotion,' 'venery,' 'chillun worse than their sires') leading into unusual and unprecise images ('the moon bounds like a fried egg in oil'). The humour was occasionally attractively raw and tough…. The farther away from the Chelsea street-poet he went the more natural and affecting Mr. Soyinka became. His play, The Invention, revealed his limitations even more embarrassingly. The original idea was quite sharp and provocative…. But now the idea has been kicked off, it must be passed from player to player until it smacks the goal. Mr. Soyinka has no way out of the narrative dilemmas he has set himself. Eventually he tries to abolish them all with a version of the Emperor's-New-Clothes device. The humours and the horrors of the situation are both too easy. (p. 629)

Alan Brien, "Where Spades Are Trumps," in The Spectator (© 1959 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 203, No. 6854, November 6, 1959, pp. 629-30.∗

Martin Esslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Drama] deals with the basic human emotions and predicaments in a social context, both in the interaction of several characters on the stage, and in the even more important interaction between the stage and the audience. The basic human emotions are still involved, but they are expressed through social conventions which may be totally different from one society to another. (p. 33)

This is not to say that universal, or almost universal, drama is wholly impossible. There may, after all, be social conventions that are shared by very large sections of humanity, if not by all mankind…. It is only occasionally that the very strangeness of the social context is a factor in favour of an imported play which allows it to cash in on its exoticisms. But, alas, experience shows that delight in exoticism almost invariably fastens on superficial, external factors (like the bare bosoms of African dance companies) and therefore tends to favour the most shallow importations which concentrate on such surface elements. (p. 34)

[But, it might be argued, the work of Wole Soyinka] should be largely exempt from these considerations; for, after all, [he is] writing in English. Far from being an advantage, in my opinion, this is a further handicap. Not that [Soyinka is] in any way at a disadvantage in using the English language. On the contrary: [he is a real master] of all its nuances and [is, indeed, a very considerable artist]…. Here again the problem arises from the nature of drama itself…. We are here presented with African peasants, African fishermen, African labourers expressing themselves in impeccable English. Of course in reality they speak their own languages equally impeccably and the [playwright has] merely translated what they would have said is those languages into the equivalent English. Precisely! Which is to say that these original plays labour under the universal handicap of all translated drama…. Realistic plays in non-Standard idioms are untranslatable. Only highly stylised poetic...

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John F. Povey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] connection between traditional drama and religious ritual has led some commentators to note a similarity between the origins of African and Greek drama. Both arise from public celebration of local festival that approaches religious rite. Soyinka's own A Dance of the Forests is developed from the Yoruba Egungun Festival. Probably the point is theoretically valid, but I doubt whether we are helped to proper evaluation of this drama if we have the sublime power of Greek tragedy echoing in our memory.

Some new African dramatists aim at the conventionally European structure. They simply take over the format of the British "well made play." Only the fact that the characters are African and that the set is located in Africa supply any local element…. Other dramatists experiment boldly and extend the area available to drama by merging the European structure with specifically Nigerian aspects to begin the creation of a distinctively national Nigerian drama.

The writer who has achieved most for this new drama is Wole Soyinka…. Though an impressive poet—his renowned Telephone Conversation is one of the few writings that see the agony of colour prejudice as a subject for sardonic humour—he is, above all, a man of the theater. Soyinka is equally gifted as writer, director, producer and actor. The theater is the single focus of all his artistic activity. (pp. 129-130)

So much of recent interest in drama in Africa stems from Soyinka's determined and brilliant explorations…. Soyinka's plays and productions have made Nigerian drama closely approximate to the totality of African drama. (p. 130)


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Margaret Laurence

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wole Soyinka's writing often seems like a juggling act. He can keep any number of plates—and valuable plates, at that—spinning in the air all at the same time. He is able to handle many themes simultaneously without ever endangering the reality of his characters. His people are never ciphers or symbols, always persons speaking in their own voices. He is a volatile writer, and he achieves in his work an almost unbelievable amount of vitality. He is well known as a poet, and he has written one novel, but it is as a playwright that he has done his major work so far. (p. 11)

In his work Soyinka enriches and gives dramatic emphasis to modern themes by drawing upon the religion, the mythology and the poetry of the African past. Yoruba gods inhabit his plays, and he uses the Yoruba drums, including the talking drums, as they have been used for centuries to heighten and define rituals. He also makes use of the dance and mask idiom which are an integral part of traditional Yoruba drama. He combines these elements with contemporary settings and with themes which are universal, and the results are sometimes electrifying….

Generally speaking, Soyinka's plays contain everything necessary to understand his references to Yoruba gods or cults. Nevertheless, because Soyinka's background is so wide, and includes influences both from the European theatre (Brecht, Durrenmatt and Arden have all been said to have influenced him) and from African traditional drama, and because his frame of reference includes a double mythology, Yoruba and Christian, it is necessary to … realise that his writing, both in form and content, owes as much to African sources as it does to European. (p. 12)

The Yoruba festival which has the closest bearing on the work of Soyinka is the Festival of Ogun, which is still celebrated each year. Ogun is the Yoruba god of war and of iron. He is the protector god of hunters and carvers and all who work with iron….

In the plays of Soyinka, Ogun takes on new dimensions and acquires meanings which are psychological and symbolic, but it is important to remember that for many of Soyinka's characters,… Ogun is believed in literally. (p. 15)

Traditional religious masquerade is not the only form of Yoruba drama which has had an influence on the plays of Wole Soyinka. A popular theatre, with plays performed in Yoruba, had its origins in the Christian Church, and particularly with such sects as the Apostolic Church and the Seraphim and Cherubim. These sects, some thirty years ago, began to produce biblical plays which can be compared with the European medieval passion plays and morality plays, strong-lined and simply motivated. (p. 16)

Wole Soyinka's inheritance and background [includes] the mask dramas of Egungun, the Yoruba pantheon of gods, the praise-songs and the rituals of the festivals, the ever-present drums which convey both words and emotions, the Yoruba mythology and proverbs, the folk opera with its chanted songs and its quick-paced and often violent action. He has drawn material from all these sources, transforming it into something rich and strange and new, and adding to it his own ability to create individual character and his own way of seeing.

Irony, in [The Lion and the Jewel], is used with a delicate touch. The manners and customs of both the old Africa and the new are satirised, but lightly, never with the bitter vigour that marks Soyinka's social commentaries in his later plays. All the protagonists in this play are treated affectionately. (pp. 18-19)

[The Trials of Brother Jero, a] short comedy, is a take-off or send-up of the many evangelists, prophets and other religious curiosities who flourish and milk money from the gullible along the beaches of Lagos. It has the simplest structure of all Soyinka's plays, and in fact the entire plot hangs on the well-worn device of concealed identity. (p. 22)

There are strands of both traditional religion and Christianity in [The Strong Breed]. The elders and priest, the sacred grove, the carrying of the year's evils to the river—these are drawn from African religions. But the whole play in a sense is a parallel with the Christian passion story—the man who must ultimately act the role demanded of him as his father's son, the temptation to evade the role, the final facing of the role of redeemer who takes upon himself the sins of all, the death on the cross (the sacred tree).

Soyinka is exploring the nature both of human sacrifice, where the victim is unwilling, and of a type of martyrdom where the victim offers himself…. And in his death there are various elements—a desire to serve, a desire to give meaning to his own life, and finally a desire to die.

The Strong Breed is an exceedingly compact play. In a relatively short space, Soyinka has managed to convey and contrast concepts relating to figures found in many societies and many religions….

A Dance of the Forests is Soyinka's most intricate play. Among many other things, it contains some extremely vitriolic comments on corrupt politicians and a number of pointed warnings about the dangers which face a newly independent country…. The play has been criticised for its obscurity, and it is true that parts of it are difficult and open to more than one interpretation…. The action is rapid—sometimes almost too rapid; the themes are never dealt with singly but always more than one at a time; the idiom is frequently unfamiliar; the poetic imagery is sometimes bewildering. Nevertheless, a great deal does come across, even on a first contact with this play. (pp. 27-9)

In terms of social themes, Soyinka seeks to establish a relationship with the past which will neither stifle and dominate man nor sever him from his roots. In terms of psychological or spiritual themes, Soyinka seeks to make us look at those aspects of ourselves which we would rather not see, to induce us to examine them and at least admit their existence. (pp. 44-5)

There are some parts of A Dance of the Forests which seem overloaded. There are moments when the multiplicity of themes creates the feeling that there are a few too many plates spinning in the air—some of them speed by without being properly seen, and some crash down. But these are minor flaws in a work of enormous richness…. The use of the mask and dance idiom reinforces the splendid vividness of the play and heightens the sense of mystery which is essential to the 'welcoming of the dead'. Humour and poetry exist side by side in this play in ways that might be disastrous but never are.

A Dance of the Forests is pertinent not only to Africa and to newly independent countries there, but also to any and every man's relationship with his past, with his gods and with the concealed parts of his own heart. (pp. 45-6)

Unlike A Dance of the Forests, in The Road the maskers are never used for any broad spectacular effects. A group of masked dancers enters once, in a flashback which takes us to the Festival of Ogun. But chiefly, the use of masks is limited to one particularly significant mask, and in this play the whole concept of possession by the spirit of the mask is explored minutely, in both religious and psychological terms. (p. 47)

Soyinka's portrayal of character in [The Road] … is of a very high order. They are all observably...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Soyinka] is remembered in Nigeria with awe, both for a political boldness that landed him in prison and for a commanding intellect that is manifest in every genre he tackles. "Myth, Literature and the African World" … displays him as a critic and lecturer…. Soyinka discusses material—Yoruba myths and ritual dramas, plays by Afro-Brazilians as well as by Nigerians, postwar African novels and poetry good and bad—not within the usual province of the educated Westerner; but he does so with ample cross-references to Greek drama, Nietzschean aesthetics, Jungian philosophy, and Sartrean opinionizing, and in an accent uncompromisingly, if not even mordantly, lofty….

Soyinka's long, fibrous sentences, not easy to pry apart, generally contain some meat, or milk. (p. 147)

We are best situated to appreciate his brilliance when it focusses on matters close to us…. Though his language bristles with the full armory of European critical methodology, Soyinka resists domination by extolling the profundities of African art and by giving some sacred figures of Western modernism rough treatment. Beckett—whose plays would seem exactly to fill Soyinka's prescription for ritual theatre as "a paradigm for the cosmic human condition"—is dismissed to "the lunatic fringe," and "the dotty excursions of W. B. Yeats into a private never-never land" are marvelled at for being taken seriously. African literature is commended for is refusal "to respond to the blandishment of literary ideology-manifesto art, and an imaginary representative of Cartesian civilization is finally addressed as "one-who-thinks, white-creature-in-pith-helmet-in-African-jungle-who-thinks and, finally, white-man-who-has-problems-believing-in-his-own-existence."

Yet so intent is Mr. Soyinka's will to see into the heart of his own culture that his recourse to points of invidious reference within ours arouses no disposition to argue…. [He] impresses us as being an analyst first, a propagandist second. Even at his most haughtily wordy, he has the voice of a true critic, who wishes not to praise or blame but to comprehend and explicate. (p. 148)

John Updike, "Books: 'Myth, Literature and the African World'," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 13, May 16, 1977, pp. 147-48.