THE DRAMATIC ART OF

WOLE SOYINKA, THE NOBEL LAUREATE

 

DR. S.A. KHAYYOOM

S.K. University, Anantapur

 

The voice of Africa, the new voice of world literature, endea­vours to emancipate Africa from its literary stereotype. Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, the nobel laureate of 1986, the first west African writer to receive the award in literature, is a Yoruba. Of the three major tribes in Nigeria–Hausa (North), Igbo (East), and Yoruba (West) – Yoruba is the largest ethnic group south of Sahara with a high level of cultural achievement and political domination till the appointment of Nnemdi Azikwe as president.

 

Wole Soyinka born in 1934 in Abeokuta in the then Western Nigerian Province, is a Yoruba of mixed Egba and Ijebu descent. He had his elementary education and christian upbringing at Abeo­kuta, collegiate education at the Government College and the University College, Ibadan, where he was a dynamic member of the student political organization and the editor of the “Eagle,” a cyclostyled news-sheet of the organization. After his graduation in English literature, Soyinka left for Leeds to work for a Degree in Drama. Then he worked as a play-reader at the Royal Court Theatre, London, where he was acquainted with the various modern theatrical trends in Europe. In 1960 Soyinka returned to Nigeria to associate himself with the Institute of African studies at the University College, Ibadan, where he studied the local dramatic festivals and the traditional theatrical forms. He founded a theatre company, The 1960 Marks, which performed his play A Dance of the Forests at the Independence Day celebrations. He is also the founding Director of the Orisun Theatre, Lagos. He became Research Professor in Drama and Head of the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife. In 1985 Soyinka relinquished his position as Professor of Comparative Literature at Ife and went to the United States.

 

Soyinka’s plays are primarily meant for the stage and have a secondary life as pieces of literature. His pure comedies like The Trials of Brother Jero and The Lion and the Jewel (1959) also deal with the serious problems of life. His other plays - The Swamp Dwellers (1958), The Strong Breed (1963), A Dance of the Forests (1960), The Road (1965), and Madmen and Specialists are serious plays bordering on the tragic. The Invention (1959), is an inveterate satire. Soyinka’s first novel The Interpreters was published in 1965 and his second novel A Season of Anomy, an allegorical novel treating of violence, massacre, and man’s inhumanity to men, appeared in 1973. He has produced two Radio plays–1. Camwood on the Leaves (1973), and 2. The Tortoise. He also contributed articles to The Drum, a leading magazine. Soyinka welcomed the coup d’etat in Nigeria in 1966 and was convicted of supporting “the rebels” and imprisoned in 1967 and after two years (1969) he was released as a part of “Independence Anniversary Amnesty”. He has narrated his arrest and imprisonment in his memoirs The Man Died (1972). Soyinka’s lectures were published under the title Myth. Literature and the African world (1976).

 

Wole Soyinka, who is highly cultivated and pragmatic, is an actor, producer and theatre-director, a scalding critic of his society and above all a forceful dramatist of the Third World to win the Nobel Prize of 1986 for literature, who as cited by the Swedish Academy of Letters “in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones, fashions the drama of existence.”

 

Soyinka’s work is on the threshold of a genuine African writing unhampered by ideological requirements and negritude. Soyinka has in his essay in “Horn” dismissed the concept of Negritude expounded by Cesaire and Senghor and opined that “the less self-conscious the African is, and the more innately his indivi­dual qualities appear in his writing, the more seriously will he be taken as an artist of exciting dignity.” Though he has set his themes against African background and the complex Africa, in transition, indelibly marked by the West, Soyinka does not make his works entirely anthropological, historical and political. His themes tran­scend the topical to the universal and explore the human condition. He does not sentimentally romanticize or glorify the African past like the Negritude writers, and there is no worship of Mother Africa. He does not consider “ancients” better than the “moderns” though the former had built great empires and known for “ancestral wisdom”. Soyinka also finds fault with the gods for their callousness or caprice in their dealings with men. But he uses the African heritage and African experience meaningfully in his works of art. Soyinka, as a Yoruba and product of British colonialism, has used Yoruba mythology, the native landscape-mountain, streams and forests as well as its steel bridges, power stations, night clubs and tenementhouses in his works. His focus is on man, human nature, and man in conflict with himself, with God, with religion, esta­blished institutions and nature itself. As a conscience-keeper of his society, conscious of the time, Soyinka explores the meaning of life to spiritually awaken.

 

Soyinka is essentially a critic and his weapon is satire. He is greatly concerned about the well-being of his community and his plays are a keen dissection of his society and a ritual carrier of the sins, maladies and political injustices he explores and exposes. Wole Soyinka endeavours to correct the follies implicit in change through ridicule. Kongi’s Harvest, a black comedy bordering on satire is a study and ridicule of dictatorship. The play depicts the conflict between the obstinate, old traditional king Oba Danlola and Kongi, a megalomaniac and power-crazy epileptic president of Isma and the eventual downfall of both. Soyinka’s satire is incisive and witty. Kongi who is fashioned on self-styled dictators like Nkrumah and Dr. Banda of Malawi, is intentionally portrayed as a petty figure in the play. Soyinka also incorporates a traditional myth or ritual to heighten the satire. In Kongi’s Harvest The New Yam Festival is symbolically significant and meaningful. Soyinka is incensed with the hypocrisy of religious leaders, the ineffectuality and sheer apathy of the intellectuals, with the new men in power and the bourgeois that is stupidly contemptible and cynical. Brother Jero like Volpone is a cunning rogue who lives off cheating gullible fools of their money. The moral atrophy of the intellectuals is illustrated in A Dance of the Forests. The Reformed Awed Frater­nity in Kongi’s Harvest represents spiritual and intellectual repression and are ineffectual, effeminate and lacking in virility. They submit themselves to enforced starvation and are asked by Kongi to dispute a matter on which a decision is already taken by Kongi himself.

 

Soyinka presents cultural chasm or a conflict between “tradition” and “modernity” in a comic mode in his plays. He satirizes both the traditional Nigeria and the modern Westernized Nigeria in The Lion and The Jewel in the contest for the bride between Lakunle and Baroka. In Kongi’s Harvest the conflict between tradition and a form of African socialism is represented by Oba Danlola and his retinue and Kongi and his Reformed Awed Fraternity, Orga­nizing Secretary and the Carpenters’ Brigade. But the conflict sub­sumes a larger philosophical theme – a contrast between Daodu’s philosophy of pleasure, love and life and Kongi’ death-bringing social and political ideas. Soyinka is not against new education and progress. He operates primarily in a satiric mode and so to dismiss the play as a conflict between tradition and progress with tradition triumphing would be to miss satire. The Road presents a society in which communication, law and order are fast deteriorating. And his first play The Invention is a biting satire on the policy of apartheid.

 

Soyinka is an individualistic and solitary “iconoclastic” play­wright. He is a serious dramatist in the Aristotelian sense as he is concerned with profound themes like the fate of man in his milieu, his struggle for survival, the real progress and sacrifice and death. There is a successful fusion of the two elements of realism and symbolism in his plays. His characters with double histories are also symbols of general humanity. Danlola, Daodu, Kongi, Lakunle, and Baroka represent a vision and certain values of life. They are also morality figures, one dimensional – Kongi is a megalomoniac, Danlola, a moribund monarch interested in his own comfort, Secretary wishes to please everyone and makes money. Soyinka working in the tradition of world drama, has endeavoured to incorporate Nigerian dramatic traditions to evolve a unique Nigerian theatre. John Arden writes in New Theatre Magazine (xii, 2 (1972): “Soyinka’s work is not exactly rootless but it has an awkward double root – one half in Europe and one half in Nigeria. It may be that one half-root is set in dry sand and the other in fertile soil.” Soyinka has drawn from the ritual drama and the traditional drama and also from the well of folklore for his subject matter. And he aims at Bertolt Bercht’s kind of theatre. He has also made his works relevant to the times, everywhere contemporary and has used the past only to clarify the present. Soyinka has employed all the favourite Brechian devices of spectacle, music and dance, variety of characters, placards and titles meaningfully, mimes, masquerades and traditional drums to give African flavour to his plays. He presents in Kongi Harvest two scenes simultaneously on the stage and the action alternates between the two scenes in turn by lights. We have Kongi’s retreat in the mountain with Kongi and his band of apostles to disseminate his creed-reformed Aweri Fraternity in session and the Carpenters’ Brigade chanting hymns in praise of Kongi and the den of Segi, her night club with colored lights and Juju music. There is a huge cyclorama which dominates the stage and on which are projected pictures of various buildings, factories and dams – all clearly titled Kongi Terminus, Kongi Uni­versity, Kongi Dam, etc., and finally, of course, a monster photo of the great man himself.

 

The Theatre in Africa today is a means of education, cele­bration, protest and discovery, more positive, alive more functional and assertive than its counterpart in Europe and America. It is not a closet drama confined within a building; it is free and flexible. It is not purely for entertainment or diversion but serves a special purpose within communities and cultures. The plays today are per­formed in simple courtyards or on platform stages in the round or especially built theatres like Ghana Drama Studio in Accra without the inhibitions of European Theatre. Soyinka believes in a “People’s Theatre” with participating audience – vocally and physically, and to constrain this response is to kill the drama. Applying the yardstick of nationalism, critics like Femi Osofisan and Biodun Jeyifo consider Soyinka a reactionary. But it is argued in defence of Soyinka that he manipulates myth to mould contemporary thought. Sometimes his plays become obscure because of too much symbolism and traditional element. But as a craftsman there is no faulting Soyinka. Theme and technique are finely integrated and mimes and masquerades, music and dance, in his plays add both to the thematic content and the dramatic spectacle. Though Soyinka restricts his work to Nigeria and has Ogun as his ordering deity. his usable past, African oral literature and his theme of human condition which he explores so well in both comedy and tragedy, triumph and defeat, have made his works interesting and a pleasure to read and Soyinka, more than an African playwright, a conscious artist of high order and a writer for all time and place.

 

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