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 ...view middle of the document...
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 Forestsis 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...