Wole Soyinka
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Literary Arts

Wole Soyinka

Past Event: Monday, December 6, 1999

For Wole Soyinka (born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka in 1934), an artist and an activist, writing and politics are interwoven. He traces his political awakening to 1958 when he met the first generation of Nigerian legislators in London. At this meeting he painfully realized that they meant to take up where the departing white colonialists had left off, in terms of continuing a corrupt political regime. It was after this meeting that Soyinka implored African writers to become the “conscience” of their nations; otherwise, they would be forced to withdraw “to the position of chronicler and post-mortem surgeon.”

Receiving his education first at the University College of Ibadan, then at Leeds University (1957) in England, where he came under the influence of the brilliant Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight, Soyinka found his passion for theater and play-writing. After he graduated he went on to write, direct, and produce plays for theater and radio in both France and England. In 1960, when he returned to Nigeria, he was commissioned to write a play to celebrate Nigeria’s independence (A Dance of the Forests). The Guerilla Theatre Unit, a Nigerian production company, performed many of Soyinka’s plays, not only in auditoriums, but also, provocatively, in front of government buildings and in public squares and marketplaces. While these community performances drew criticism from the government, they allowed the company to reach audiences traditionally excluded from theatrical performances.

Soyinka was arrested in 1967 when he tried to act as mediator for a ceasefire between the Nigerian federal government and the Biafran rebels, who wanted to secede from Nigeria. He was not “anti-Biafran” enough, according to the Nigerian government, who proceeded to imprison him for two years for his efforts. He spent most of his time in solitary confinement, where he wrote his vitriolic memoir, The Man Died, in between the lines of books smuggled into the prison. After his release he entered a period of voluntary exile. He lectured at universities, and wrote, directed, and produced plays in Europe and West Africa. He also founded the culture and criticism magazine Transition, in Ghana. He returned to Nigeria in 1975, but left again in 1983 when he learned there was “a price on his head.” Since then Soyinka has been in and out of exile in accordance with the ever-changing political environment of Nigeria. When asked where home is, he replied, “In my head,” and when asked what he misses about Nigeria, he said, “The smell . . . especially the smell of the bush when I go hunting.”

In 1986, Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His best known plays, written in English and performed mainly in West Africa and Europe, include A Dance of the ForestsThe Bacchae of EuripidesThe Swamp DwellersKongi’s HarvestThe RoadThe Trials of Brother JeroDeath and the King’s Horsemen, and The Lion and the Jewel. His non-fiction books include The Burden of MemoryThe Muse of ForgivenessThe Open Sore of a Continent, and the beautifully crafted memoir Ake: The Years of Childhood. Soyinka is currently the Woodruff Professor of the Arts at Emory University in Atlanta and a Fellow of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard.

Excerpt from A Dance of the Forests (1960)COURT POET: Did not a soldier fall to his death from the roof two days ago my lady?MADAME TORTOISE: That is so. I heard a disturbance, and I called a guard to find the cause. I thought it came from the roof and I directed him there. He was too eager and he fell.COURT POET: From favour Madame?MADAME TORTOISE: [eyeing him coolly.] From the roof.[They look at each other.]
COURT POET: I forbid him to go.
MADAME TORTOISE: I order him to go.
[The novice runs off.]
MADAME TORTOISE: And I order you to follow him. When he has retrieved my canary, bring it here to me, like a servant.[The poet bows and leaves. Madame Tortoise and her attendants remain statuesque.][From the opposite side, a warrior is pushed in, feet chained together. Mata Kharibu leaps up at once. The warrior is the Dead Man. He is still in his warrior garb, only it is bright and new.]
MATA KHARIBU: [advancing slowly on him.] It was you, slave! You it was who dared to think.WARRIOR: I plead guilty to the possession of thought. I did not know that it was in me to exercise it, until your Majesty’s inhuman commands.
[Mata Kharibu slaps him across the face.]
MATA KHARIBU: You have not even begun to repent of your madness.
WARRIOR: Madness your Majesty?
MATA KHARIBU: Madness! Treachery! Frothing insanity traitor! Do you dare to question my words?WARRIOR: No, terrible one. Only your commands.[Mata Kharibu whips out his sword. Raises it. The soldier bows his head.]

Selected WorkThe Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness (1999)The Open Sore of a Continent : A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (1996)Ibadan – the Penkelemes years – a memoir 1946 – 1965 (1994)Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (1994)Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1988)Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga (1982)Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981)Death and the King’s Horseman (1975)Interpreters (1972)The Jero Plays: The Trials of Brother Jero and Jero’s Metamorphosis (1971)The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972)Madmen And Specialists: A Play (1971)Idanre and Other Poems (1967)A Dance for the Forests (1963)The Lion and the Jewel (1963)

LinksAn interview with SoyinkaSelected book reviews of Soyinka’s booksStudy guide for Soyinka’s workSoyinka’s Nobel Laureate lecture