Wole Soyinka (born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka in 1934) is Africa’s most distinguished playwright, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. A Yoruba, he studied first at the University College of Ibadan, then at Leeds University in England, where he came under the influence of the brilliant Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight. The fifties were a period of great experimentation in the theater, both in France and England, and Soyinka was involved with various productions in Great Britain before returning to Nigeria, having been commissioned to write a play to celebrate that nation’s independence in 1960 (A Dance of the Forests). It was a lyrical blend of Western experimentalism and African folk tradition, reflecting a highly original approach to drama. He has always emphasized his African roots, dubbing his early theater troupe “Masks,” to acknowledge the role Yoruba pageantry has played in his work.
From the beginning he was a political figure, During the Nigerian Civil War he was not sufficiently anti-Biafran to suit the government and was put into solitary confinement for two years, being released only after an intense international campaign. This experience is movingly recounted in his book, A Man Died. He has written many plays, both for the theater and for radio production, poetry, and prose fiction. He was granted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. His political stands earned him–like most other prominent Nigerian writers–exile from his homeland for a number of years.
He is also a vigorous critic of contemporary literature and has engaged in heated debates with other Africans who have accused him of writing in an obscure idiom that owes more to European traditions than Nigerian ones. In turn, he has argued against the Négritude movement, stating that “The Tiger does not boast of his tigritude.” A passionate attachment to his Yoruba roots combined with a fearless experimentalism has continued to make him a controversial figure. Much of his later writing has been satire directed against corrupt African leaders such as Bokassa and Amin, whose predecessors in various African states were targets of such plays as Madmen and Specialists. In 1973 Soyinka wrote a much more serious sequel to The Trials of Brother Jeroentitled Jero’s Metamorphosis which objected to the extreme measures taken by the Nigerian government against criminals.
Biblical passages are given here from the King James translation, which would have been the one familiar to Soyinka and his audience.
The Lion and the Jewel (1963)
This play is one of Soyinka’s most popular. Despite occasional uses of unconventional devices, it is readily accessible and highly entertaining. Like Death and the King’s Horseman, a much more serious work, it explores the value of traditional Yoruba ways vs. European innovations. Some modern readers object to its treatment of women and find the humor spoiled by the sexism. What is your reaction?
The play is set in the village of Ilujinle. Note Lakunle’s age. Despite his behavior on occasion, he is essentially a lively young man. He tries to emulate European notions of courtesy by relieving Sidi of her burden, though carrying water is traditionally a women’s task. His flirtatious opening speech may seem rather crude, but is typical of the kind of jesting that goes on in courtship. Sidi is not so much shocked as bored by Lakunle.
How does Sidi cleverly answer his insistence that she should abandon the traditional way of carrying loads on her head? Note the contrast between the ideas that Lakunle has derived from books about women’s weakness and Sidi’s answers based on experience. Baroka, the Bale (chief) of the village is a major character later in the play, here introduced as standing for tradition.
“A prophet has honour except/in his own home:” Jesus says this when his family and acquaintances in his home town of Nazareth reject his teachings (Mark 6:4). When Lakunle proposes to Sidi he is quoting words he has read in popular English books about marriage. Note that his pretentious metaphors are answered by her pithy proverb. “Bush” means “uncivilized,” typical of people who live in the bush.
Their relationship is clarified when Sidi says she wants a bride-price. It is not that she lacks affection for Lakunle–what has passed before has been essentially good-natured sparring on her part. But she insists on the tradition which will prove her value in the eyes of the village. Lakunle, in his “Pulpit-declamatory” style, quotes to her lines from the wedding service which are in turn quoted from Genesis 2:24. Why does Lakunle mention “breakable” plates? “Stretched” hair is a form of straightening of naturally kinky African hair. What is Sidi’s reaction to kissing?
Why is Sidi eager to see the stranger’s book? Notice how the conflict in the play which has been between Lakunle and Sidi is now complicated by the tension between Sidi and Baroka. How do you react to Sidi’s celebration of her own beauty?
The dance of the lost Traveler draws on Yoruba tradition and that of many other African peoples. Current events are often depicted and commented upon in dances involving costumes and pantomime. It is this sort of “street theater” which Soyinka sees as providing fertile ground for the development of drama in Africa. One of the problems with reading a play rather than seeing it performed, is that one skims quickly over what would be a very impressive high point in the production, with dancing and drumming building to a climax. Imagine this “dance” taking quite a long time and having much more dramatic impact than anything that has gone before. Note that Lakunle finally enters into the dance with enthusiasm. Despite his modern pretensions, he is underneath not so alien to Sidi and her comrades as one might at first suppose. The stranger had been photographing Sidi while she was bathing, and she quickly grabbed up her clothes to cover herself when she saw him.
Baroka gives Lakunle the traditional greeting and is displeased to get a European one in return. Far from being displeased by the dance, he insists on it being continued, playing the role he played in the original incident. When he tells Lakunle “You tried to steal our village maidenhead” he is speaking to the character Lakunle is playing, not the villager himself. He is telling him to go on acting. Why is it significant that Lakunle has been given the part of the stranger?
“The Lion” is Baroka’s nickname. It is common in many cultures for men to use elderly women as go-betweens to solicit a new bride. What is Sadiku’s special status? Ruth, Rachel, Esther, and Bathsheba were all women extravagantly loved by men in the Bible, a book which is quite alien to Sidi. What do you think of the fact that Sidi seems to have learned that she is beautiful through the magazine photographs? How do the magazine photographs affect Sidi’s perception of Baroka? The storm god Sango (often spelled “Shango” or “Xango” is a West African deity, the most famous of those to have survived the slave trade to the western hemisphere, where his name is invoked in such places as Bahia and Haiti, where African traditions linger on among the black inhabitants. Of what quality does Lakunle accuse Baroka?
Laukunle’s story is told through pantomime, in the form of another dance. Again it is important not to skip quickly over this passage, but to attempt to imagine it vividly enacted on stage. Amatchet is a large knife used for clearing brush, machete in Spanish. Note how the Bale is worked into this “flashback.” A bull-roarer is a carved piece of wood or stone which is whiled at the end of a long cord to produce a mysterious roaring sound, part of the religious traditions of many cultures. What do you think Lakunle’s attitude is toward Baroka’s success in diverting the railroad?
The removal of body hair is a feature of many cultures, not–as is often supposed–of western ones alone. How can we tell that Baroka is confident of his ability to seduce Sidi? “Wroth” means wrathful, angry.
Sadiku’s glee at Baroka’s impotence may be partly based on resentment at having been long abandoned by him as a lover; but there seems generally to be a tension between the Bale and his wives which roots his dominance over them in his sexual potency. Her story of the rusted key which could not open her treasure house is an obvious sexual metaphor. However, based on what we have just seen, she knows of his impotence only through what he has told her, not by first-hand experience as she claimed. Note the insistence on the power of women’s rituals, from which men are banned. Note Sidi’s glee in desiring to torment Baroka. What are the main features of Lakunle’s vision of “progress?”
The wrestling match in Baroka’s bedroom is of course a metaphor for the power struggle about to take place between himself and Sidi. What excuse does Baroka give for there being no servants about? Throughout this scene the Bale tries to throw Sidi off her balance by pretending not to know why she has come. To what extent does he succeed? “Christians on my Fathers’ shrines” is a general curse. I have no idea what this saying means: “The woman gets lost in the woods one day/And every wood deity dies the next.” Can you explain it?
To “pull asses’ ears” is to mockingly put one’s fingers behind one’s head to imitate a donkey’s ears. How does Sidi mock Baroka in her conversation with him? It is suggested that a” tanfiri” may be an aphrodisiac. What metaphor does she use to satirize his pursuit of young women? The “tappers” are palm-wine tappers. How does Baroka manage to keep throwing Sidi off balance in their conversation? In his description of Sadiku’s activities as match-maker he quotes her typical line of chat. Sidi’s respectful words in boasting of her traditional garment cause Baroka to call her “wise.”
Several small African nations make a large part of their national income by selling beautiful stamps to collectors abroad. It is not then too surprising that the Bale should view stamp sales as a major source of revenue. What is it the Bale says he dislikes about progress? How can you tell that Sidi is being bewildered by Baroka? According to a parable of Jesus (Mark 2:22), new wine should not be put into old “bottles” (wineskins) which have already been stretched out and may burst when the new wine begins to ferment. Why do you think Sidi is “overcome” by Baroka’s words? What appeals to her in what he has said?
The third pantomime ironically depicts the triumph of women over a man just as the Bale is triumphing over a woman. Lakunle’s description of the Bale’s dungeons is probably a paranoid fantasy. “Mummers” are dancers who pantomime stories. Lakunle is expected to tip the mummers, like other people; but in this he adheres to the pattern established by his refusal to pay a bride price. He clings to modernism as an excuse for saving money, though the following description makes clear that he actually enjoys the performance.
A duiker is a small antelope which leaps high in the air. Why is Sidi angry with Baroka? Because she has been seduced or because she has been deceived? What does she stress in her words? Lankunle reacts with stereotypically heroic words of despair, but when he hears himself utter them, he recoils and changes metaphors. What is going on here? What is his reaction to Sidi’s loss of her virginity? What are his motives? A “praise-singer” is a traditional poet-bard, often known as a griot , who sings the praises of whoever hires him. What is Lakunle’s reaction to Sidi’s seeming acceptance of his proposal? Can you explain his reaction?
Can you explain Sidi’s decision? How can we tell that Lakunle is hardly broken-hearted? Is this a story about rape? About seduction? What do you think its significance is?
The Trials of Brother Jero (1964)
Africa has been a fertile ground for Christianity, where it is growing faster than anywhere else, except perhaps in the former territories of the communist eastern bloc. Churches multiply and spread wildly, many of them quite unconventional. This play is a satire on a theme familiar to many Americans: the unscrupulous preacher more interested in greed than salvation.
A “divine” is a clergyman. Jeroboam is a “Beach Divine” because he belongs to a lower class of preachers who, lacking churches, preach in the open, on the public beach. There is a common English expression “eggs is eggs” (probably originally a pun on the algebraic statement “X=X”) which means roughly “they’re all the same”. This Jeroboam denies, at least in the case of Prophets. High Life is an older form of popular urban dance music in West Africa. Note how in even in this simple comedy Soyinka uses techniques such as having the protagonist directly address the audience while a flashback of his old Master cursing him takes place in the background in an almost cinematic “voice over.” “Daughter of Eve” is an expression for “woman.” There is a prophet named Jehu in the Bible (1 Kings 16:7), but Soyinka is probably slyly alluding to the more famous and flawed king of that name in 2 Kings 9.
We now go back from this prologue to an earlier day. Ministers in this context are high government officers (they would be called “cabinet members” in the American system). What is Amope’s attitude toward her husband? The “cola” referred to here is the same mild stimulant called kola nut elsewhere. “One pound, eight and nine” is one pound, eight shillings and nine pence. A calabash is a large gourd, often used for making vessels. It is traditional for a customer to denigrate the goods of a vendor when bargaining, but Amope rather overdoes it.
What signs are there in Jero’s speeches that he has a mainly mercenary attitude toward his followers? Note that the satisfaction and release the young girl experiences in swimming, presumably naked, is contrasted with the systematic frustration employed by Jero to control Chume. How does she affect Jero? The names Jero calls out are all pious men from the Bible who presumably could help him in his struggle, though David was notoriously susceptible to women too. Chume speaks in dialect. “Help am” is “help him.” “Na” is “He is.” Stressed adjectives are repeated, so “very quickly” becomes “quick quick.” “Hebra” sounds vaguely like “Hebrew,” but it is not clear what “Abraka” means. These words are meant to indicate miraculous “speaking in tongues” practiced by some Christian groups, as becomes clear in the next aside by Jero. An apostate is one who leaves the true faith. Ashtoreth and Baal are pagan gods denounced in the Bible, and sometimes considered demons. Why does Jero find it a safe prophecy to predict a man will live until eighty? The convulsions alluded to are a common by-product of spiritual possession, both in traditional African animist religions and certain forms of Christianity. Note the use here and earlier of “talking” drums as a form of insult. Soyinka cynically comments on the ritualistic nature of possession by the spirit by referring to it as “the expected penitent’s paroxysm.” Why is Chume able to take over the congregation? “Palaver” is talk, or–here–argumentation. Who do you think has been beating Jero? Why does Chume not know that Jero is the man his wife is after? Eve is famous for being the first human to sin, Delilah for betraying her husband Samson, and Jezebel as the wicked wife of King Ahab. Why does Jero change his mind about allowing Chume to beat his wife? See John 2:15 for Jesus’ use of a whip to drive the money changers out of the Temple. Why is Jero sadly fingering his cape at the end of the scene?
What is Chume’s reaction to learning whose house his wife has been waiting in front of?
A “back-bencher” is a junior member of Parliament, without much influence. Such politicians rarely make speeches. Why do you think he is introduced into the play? Does he resemble anyone else? How does Jero appeal to him? What conclusion does Chume draw (mistakenly) about the relationship between Jero and his wife? Why is the member of Parliament so impressed when Jero disappears? How does Jero plan to use him to get rid of Chume?
Madmen and Specialists (1970)
This play, written shortly after Soyinka was released from prison, reflects not only his personal mood at the time, but the horrors of the Nigerian civil war of 1966-1970. The ferocity of the fighting between Biafrans and other Nigerians was unprecedented in scale and intensity; and much of the nation was still in shock. Soyinka uses a variety of techniques borrowed from “absurdist” theater. These departures from realism are meant not to create a flight from reality, but to convey the terrors of reality in a more intense way than traditional realism could do. The result is a sometimes obscure but intense and moving work of scathing satire and protest. The raised hut of Iya Agba and Iya Mate is the site of a sort of commentary on the action taking place below.
Mendicants are beggars, in this case beggars faking a variety of ailments to prey on the sympathies of the public. They function something like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, commenting on the action. It is not always clear whether they are insane or simply expressing themselves satirically. “St. Vitus’ Dance” is a traditional name for epilepsy. Traditionally it is believed that some people can curse others by looking at them with an “evil eye.” The dehumanizing effects of the war are reflected in their gruesome gambling game. Ostriches were traditionally said to hide their heads in the sand. To “bite the dust” is an old expression for “to die.” “As” is the mysterious deity of the new ferocious faith which has swept over the nation. This is why the beggars call themselves “Creatures of As.”
Si Bero is a traditional herbal healer whose brother Dr. Bero is a modern-educated doctor who has become deeply involved with the terroristic regime ruling the country. “Rem Acu Tetigisti” is nonsense perpetrated by the new government cult and repeated here each time the beggars want to evoke the senseless violence of the government. “Casting pearls before swine” is an expression based on one of Jesus’ parables (Matthew 7:6) which implies wasting something valuable on people incapable of appreciating it. The beggars begin to mime the tortures carried out by the sadistic “specialist,” Dr. Bero. They speculate about whether Bero will torture his own father, in the play referred to simply as “the old man.”
Iya Mate compliments Si Bero as the sort of herbal woman who would not poison men, but discover she has inadvertently gathered a rare and deadly poison. The song they sing hints at the dangers they are experiencing. A boat full of oil would naturally avoid open flames. Why do you think Si Bero chooses Blindman as her assistant? It is a tradition to insult someone by insulting his mother. Si Bero has nothing particularly in mind by telling the Cripple that his mother is in a bad mood. The beggars’ litany of medical treatments quickly deteriorates into gruesome violence: medicine has blended into torture in this play, reflected in the miming that follows. Persistently barking dogs were sometimes silenced by having their vocal chords cut. “The flaming sword” was wielded by an angel at the entrance to the Garden of Eden to bar the way back to Adam and Eve after they had been banished for their sin (Genesis 3:24). An advocate is a lawyer. How do we learn that the Blindman is also faking his handicap?
A holdall is a large suitcase. What do we learn about the relationship between Bero and the beggars? Note how the Blindman tries to soften Bero toward his sister. The beggars claim to be have been discharged from the army, but Bero insists they are still under his orders. “Gaol” is the Nigerian/British spelling of “jail.” Bero hints at unspeakable crimes for which the beggars were discharged. What does Bero mean by calling all his old patients corpses? What fluid is referring to when he brags of having wetted the earth with something more potent than palm wine? What is Si Bero’s reaction to her brother? She believes that the herbal magic she was taught by the old women has preserved his life. “Big Braids”=highest officers.
The windy old priest trusts Dr. Bero. What kind of a character is he? A miter is the hat worn by a bishop. He is the first to introduce the subject of cannibalism. Cannibalism is not part of normal modern Nigerian life, but there were instances of it during the civil war as people sought to terrify and insult their enemies in the fiercest way possible. What is Bero’s reaction to the priest’s statement that his father advocated legalizing cannibalism? In the following conversation with Si Bero the doctor explains the derivation of the divine name “As” from the traditional Christian blessing, “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Amen.” In its original Christian context, it was intended as a statement of firm faith in God’s eternal goodness and justice, but in the new cult it has been emptied of theological content. The phrase has been reduced to its least significant word, and now alludes to a cursed cycle of destruction from which there is no escape. What Dr. Bero is saying is that his father tricked him and others into eating human flesh hoping to shame them into realizing how savage they had become. Instead, it had the effect of liberating them from all moral inhibitions. What was his father’s job in the war?
The Old Man is a fierce truth-teller. The beggars, who had pled insanity to escape punishment for their crimes, claim to have been driven mad by his truth-telling. What is the symbolism of the killing and eating of the flea? The cycle referred to suggests to Si Bero that the Old Man has been eaten by his son, and she is horrified. “Surgery” means “doctor’s office.”
Aafaa’s alphabetical sermon leads to the Blindman’s assertion that the epileptic fits of worshippers bring not true freedom, but subjection to a vicious deity. “Circus turn” means “circus act.” “Collaborate” is a much more loaded word than “assist,” suggesting aiding in crimes. The Old Man has sat silent up to this point, seemingly in shock. The line “Arise, throw off thy crutches and follow me” is a combination of phrases from the Bible: Jesus saying to his would-be followers “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) and Mark 2:9 where Jesus defends his right to heal a crippled man by stating “Who is my neighbor” is uttered in Luke 10:29 by a man responding to Jesus’ teaching to love your neighbor as you love yourself. “Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk.” “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word,” is the grateful speech of Simeon who has been preserved long enough to meet the infant Jesus, implying that he can now die content (Luke 2:29). Here it has more sinister implications. Soyinka was raised as a Christian and attended a missionary school as a boy, so he knows his Bible thoroughly.
“Chop” is slang for food. What is the nature of the relationship between Bero and his father? A stationer’s is a stationery store. Why does Bero emphasize that the Old Man will get everything heneeds? The Old Man revels in his feat of having tricked the leaders into practicing cannibalism. Why does he say he is still needed? A recidivist is one who commits again a crime that he has committed before. Why has Bero brought the Old Man here?
How does Aafaa say he was filled with the spirit that drove him mad? Note how the two old women present themselves as part of a spiritual reality far older and more powerful than that represented by Bero. The Latin quotation which the beggars mangle is “Dulce et decorum est pro patria morire”: “Sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country.” Just as Biblical passages about love and healing have earlier been given a sinister twist, so now references to patriotism and democracy are made to serve the goals of a degraded dictatorship. The song they sing is “When the Saints Go Marching In,” yet another allusion to impending death. Clearly, the Old Man is doomed, but does not want to have died in vain.
Socrates was condemned to execution by drinking a potion made of hemlock berries. In the dialogue between Bero and the Old Man Bero is not so much talking of his father as of the resistance to the regime which his father represents. When he uses the word “you,” he means “people like you.” What does the new regime offer instead of freedom? The story is told that the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes went about in daylight carrying a lighted lantern. When asked why he did so, he said he was looking for an honest man. Note how the beggars run a variation on this story.
After Bero leaves the stage the beggars discuss the pageantry carried out by governments which conceal their crimes while gaining international acceptance through showy ceremonies. The mock ceremony culminating in cries of “We want Him” is probably meant to remind the audience of the mob’s cry for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:6-15). Blindman’s speech is a parody of an ignorant, bigoted European colonizer, pretending not to be interested in the mineral wealth of the colonized nations and maintaining the necessity of imperialism in the face of the winds of change. What sorts of negative stereotypes does he articulate about African cultures?
The speech culminates in a recitation of the formula of the new regime, implying that nothing has changed. The exploitation and oppression of colonialism has now become postcolonial exploitation and oppression. The Old Man’s long speech dwells on this theme. A “cat-house” is a house of prostitution. A “poor box” is a box in a church where donations may be put to aid the poor. An heresiarch is a leading heretic, a disbeliever. The usual expression, “the ends justify the means” is often used to excuse crimes of oppression. If the purpose is worthy, then normally immoral means may be used to achieve it. Here the phrase is mocked by saying “the end shall justify the meanness.” John 1:1 says “In the beginning was the Word” which is taken to be both Jesus and God. The new faith began not with God but with its priesthood. What does Aafaa mean by saying there is no division in this new religion? Monsieur l’homme sapiens is French for “Mr. Homo Sapiens.”
The Old Man’s last long speech is a brilliant series of puns in which he shows how debased the new faith is. Ham is forbidden to Muslims, as it is to Jews. An ashram is a Hindu place of spiritual retreat. A kibbutz is an Israeli commune. How many people are trying to kill each other at the end of this play? Who wins?
More Study Materials for World Literature in English of India, Africa, and the Caribbean
- Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart
- Buchi Emecheta: The Joys of Motherhood
- Athol Fugard: “Master Harold”. . . and the Boys
- Nadine Gordimer: Selected Stories
- George Lamming: In the Castle of My Skin
- R. K. Narayan: The Guide
- Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses
- Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things
- Anita Desai: Baumgartner’s Bombay Translations and notes
- “Postcolonial Literature”: Problems with the Term
- The Irrelevance of “Postcolonialism” to South Asian Literature
- About African Literature, by Azfar Hussain
- Postcolonial Literature Journals List
- World Literature Syllabus
Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.
First mounted February 8, 1996.
Version of February 22, 2003.