Presidential Lecture Series
spacer spacer Wole Soyinka


Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka Portrait
Wole Soyinka is among contemporary Africa's greatest writers. He is also one of the continent's most imaginative advocates of native culture and of the humane social order it embodies. Born in Western Nigeria in 1934, Soyinka grew up in an Anglican mission compound in Aké. A precocious student, he first attended the parsonage's primary school, where his father was headmaster, and then a nearby grammar school in Abeokuta, where an uncle was principal. Though raised in a colonial, English-speaking environment, Soyinka's ethnic heritage was Yoruba, and his parents balanced Christian training with regular visits to the father's ancestral home in `Isarà, a small Yoruba community secure in its traditions.

Soyinka recalls his father's world in `Isarà, A Voyage Around "Essay" (1989) and recounts his own early life in Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), two of his several autobiographical books. Aké ends in 1945 when Soyinka is eleven, with his induction into the protest movement that during the next decade won Nigeria's freedom from British rule. The political turbulence of these years framed Soyinka's adolescence and early adulthood, which he chronicles in his most recent autobiographical work, Ibadan, The Penkelemes Years, A Memoir: 1946-1965 (1994).

At twelve Soyinka left Aké for Ibadan to attend that city's elite Government College and at 18 entered its new university. But in 1954, his ambition focused on a career in theater, Soyinka traveled to England to complete a degree in drama at Leeds, under the well-known Shakespearean critic, G. Wilson Knight. After graduation in 1957, Soyinka extended his European apprenticeship by working several years as a script-reader, actor, and director at the Royal Court Theatre in London. This period also saw the composition of Soyinka's first mature plays, The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel, and their successful staging in both London and Ibadan. In 1960 a Rockefeller research grant enabled Soyinka, now 26, to return to Nigeria. There he assembled his own acting company, produced a new play, A Dance of the Forests, and timed its opening to coincide with the country's official celebration of independence in October.

Though Soyinka's return from England had been widely welcomed, A Dance of the Forests at once placed him at odds with Nigeria's newly installed leaders as well as with many of his fellow intellectuals. Thematically, the play presents a pageant of black Africa's "recurrent cycle of stupidities," a spectacle designed to remind citizens of the chronic dishonesty and abuse of power which colonialism had bred in generations of native politicians. Stylistically, A Dance of the Forests is a complex fusion of Yoruba festival traditions with European modernism. Hostility greeted the play from almost all quarters. Nigerian authorities were angered by Soyinka's suggestion of wide-spread corruption, leftists complained about the play's elitist aesthetics, and African chauvinists -- those proponents of pure Negritude whom Soyinka labels "Neo-Tarzanists" -- objected to his use of European techniques.

What Soyinka's critics failed to appreciate was the radical originality of his approach to liberating black Africa from its crippling legacy of European imperialism. He envisioned a "New Africa" that would escape its colonial past by grafting the technical advances of the present onto the stock of its own ancient traditions. Native myth, reformulated to accommodate contemporary reality, was to be the foundation of the future, opening the way to "self-retrieval, cultural recollection, [and] cultural security."

From this perspective, the critics of A Dance of the Forests appear unwitting neocolonialists, their ideas mere replays in African costume of the West's own indigenous myths of liberalism, Marxism, and regressive racism. Soyinka dreamed instead of a truly de-colonized continent, where an autonomous African culture assimilated only those progressive elements of recent history that were consistent with its own authentic identity.

Over the next seven years, from posts at the universities in Ife, Lagos, and Ibadan, Soyinka pursued his hopes for a reborn Nigeria with inventiveness and energy. He wrote and directed a variety of plays, ranging from comedies like The Trials of Brother Jero, a popular exposé of religious charlatans, to a series of politically charged tragedies, The Road, The Strong Breed, and Kongi's Harvest, each of which turns on the modern world's interruption of ancient ritual practice. Beyond these full-length plays, Soyinka composed satirical revues, organized an improvisational "guerrilla theater," and wrote for radio and television. He also published his first novel, The Interpreters (1965), and his first book of poetry, Idanre and Other Poems (1967).

Not only did much of this large body of work openly challenge Nigerian authorities, but Soyinka also involved himself in practical politics. His actions led to a brief detention, trial, and acquittal in 1965. Then in 1967 came extra-judicial arrest and imprisonment for more than two years, much of it in solitary confinement. Soyinka recounts this trauma in The Man Died (1972), another of his autobiographical works.

Following his release in 1969, Soyinka went into voluntary exile and soon after entered a second period of intense creativity. Among its highlights were a book of poems, A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), a new novel, Season of Anomy (1973) -- both bitter reflections on his years of confinement -- additional street satires, and, perhaps most important, two extraordinary tragic dramas, Madmen and Specialists (1970) and Death and the King's Horseman (1975).

Complementing this literary outburst, Soyinka delivered lectures and wrote essays that discussed the nature of his art, traced its roots in Yoruba tradition, and compared his aesthetic principles and practice to those of other writers, both African and European. Some of this criticism Soyinka revised and published as Myth, Literature and the African World (1976). Most of the rest he collected a decade later in Art, Dialogue & Outrage (1988). The political history that animates Soyinka's cultural thought in these two volumes is the subject of The Open Sore of a Continent (1996). This book traces Nigeria's decline into increasingly inhumane military governments, a deterioration epitomized by the 1995 execution of fellow playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa as well as by the death sentence pronounced on Soyinka himself in 1997.

For Euro-American readers, these three books form an indispensable introduction to Soyinka's art. At its center and guiding its artistic mission lies the idea of "organic revolution," which Soyinka contrasts with the neocolonial practices that black Africa absorbed from European imperialism. As he defines the concept, organic revolution is a process of communal renewal reached in moments of shared cultural self-apprehension -- moments whose manner and content are particular to each society. Such revolution is inherently local and cyclical, qualities more appropriate to African culture, Soyinka argues, than the global teleologies of either Marxist communism or capitalist nationalism. Indeed, Soyinka's mode of liberation ultimately displaces the logic of Western politics with the rhythms of native ritual. For the revolution he advocates rejects the abstractions of both dialectical materialism and market economics for the particularity of ceremonial healing -- of the divisions that isolate individuals from society and sever both from their sustaining integration with nature.

The god whose ritual Soyinka offers as the model for this organic restoration is Ogun, who risks his own life to bridge the abysses that separate the three stages of Yoruba existence -- the world of the ancestors, the world of the living, and the world of the unborn. Ogun, as Soyinka reads the myth, is unique among tribal deities because he is at home in none of these three structured states of experience. Rather, his realm is the chaotic region of transition between them, what Soyinka calls the "fourth stage" of the Yoruba universe, a condition where opposites collide without resolution in "a menacing maul of chthonic strength that yawns ever wider to annihilate" all social and natural order. Ogun's heroic passage through this realm not only preserves the connections between the ancestors, the living, and the unborn. It also revitalizes the Yoruba cosmos by benignly channeling into it fresh energies from the fourth stage.

This model of social revolution is essentially one of recurring crisis, where novel and alien forces are regularly mastered and integrated into the matrix of tradition and custom. It is to the challenge of this crisis that Soyinka commits his art, and only within its context can the signature gestures of his style achieve their full meaning. But once seen in the framework of Ogun's encounter with the fourth stage, Soyinka's discordant mixing of genres, his willful ambiguities of meaning, his unresolved clashes of contradictions cease to be the aesthetic flaws Western critics often label them and become instead our path into an African reality fiercely itself and utterly other.

By William McPheron

(c)1998, Stanford University

Wole Soyinka pages edited by William McPheron, William Saroyan Curator for American and British Literature, Stanford University,


Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University