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Soyinka, Wole 1934–

Wole Soyinka 1934

Author, actor, political activist

At a Glance

Began Writing Career

Twice Arrested

Post-Prison Writings

Literary Philosophy

Selected writings


In 1986 Wole Soyinka became the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. The Swedish Academys presentation of the award recognized Soyinkas artistic commitment to render the full complexity of his African culturea culture that Soyinka and other African intellectuals feel has often been reduced in the West to a flat symbol of primitiveness. In his desire to celebrate Africa, this writer, theatrical producer, actor, and activist does not romanticize his native land; he is as willing to charge Nigerian politicians and bureaucrats with barbarity and corruption as he is to condemn the greed and materialism of the West.

Soyinkas Nigeria is a society in transition, attempting to mold a new nation out of a variety of rich, tribal cultures and a turbulent legacy of European colonization. He maintains that an artist is the record[er] of the mores and experience of his society and... the voice of vision in his own time. As a playwright, Soyinka bridges the distance between these two disparate cultures in his works by infusing Western dramatic forms with elements of traditional Yoruban performance, such as masking, dance, and drums. In this way he both chronicles the social and political experience of modern Nigeria and creates on stage the ideal fusion that Nigeria has failed to achieve politicallyone informed by both Nigerian tribal traditions and elements of European culture.

Soyinka was born July 13,1934, in Abeokuta, a village on the rocky banks of the River Ogun in western Nigeria. About ten million Yoruban people inhabit southwestern Nigeria and the nearby country of Benin. Although Christianity and Islam have through colonization impressed themselves upon much of this population, about two million people still adhere to the belief system and the rituals of the traditional ancestral spirit cults. Soyinkas mother became a Christian convert so devout that he nicknamed her Wild Christian, and his father was the scholarly, agnostic headmaster of a Christian primary school established in their village by the British. (Soyinka nicknamed his father Essay for his occupation and also his initials, S. A.) In addition to these European influences, Soyinkas paternal grandfather and the village ogboni, or tribal elders, saw to it that young Woles early years were also steeped in Yoruba mythology.

Soyinka has written an anecdotal account of the first eleven years of his life entitled Ake: The Years of Childhood.

At a Glance

Name pronounced Woh-le Shaw-yin-ka ; born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, July 13, 1934, in Abeokuta, Nigeria; son of Soditan Akinyode (nicknamed Essay; a school headmaster) and Eniola Soyinka. Education; Attended University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, 1952-54; University of Leeds, England, B.A. (with honors), 1960. Religion; Human liberty.

Reader at Royal Court Theater, London, 1958-60; University of Ibadan, Nigeria, Rockefeller research fellow in drama, 1960, chairman of department of theater arts, beginning in 1967; University of Ife, Nigeria, lecturer in English literature, 1961-63; Lagos University, Nigeria, senior lecturer in English, 1965-67; political prisoner at Kaduna Prison, 1967-69; Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, fellow of Churchill College, 1972-73; editor of African cultural magazine Transition, 1973-75; University of Ife (name changed to Obafemi Awolowo University in 1987), professor of comparative literature and chairman of department of dramatic arts, beginning in 1975; reassumed editorial post at Transition, 1991. Director of Nigerian theater groups the 1960 Masks and the Orisun Repertory.

Awards: Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1960; John Whiting Drama Prize, 1966; Dakar Negro Arts Festival award, 1966; Jock Campbell Award, 1968; Nobel Prize in literature from the Swedish Academy, 1986; named Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by General Ibrahim Babangida, 1986; Prisoner of Conscience Prize, Amnesty International; several honorary degrees.

Addresses: Agent Carl Brandt, Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc., 1501 Broadway, New York, NY 10036; or c/o Transition: An International Review, 1430 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138.

Critic James Olney in the New York Times Book Review called Ake the best available introduction to Soyinkas work because it immerses the reader in the sights, sounds, flavors, and aromas of the childhood world that shaped the playwrights adult vision. In Ake the Christian saints and the Yoruban ancestral spirits, or egungun who return to Yorubaland whenever their masks are danced at village festivalscomfortably coexist. Soyinka recalls in the memoir that, as a child, he viewed St. Peter as an egungun because his picture in the stained glass window of the Christian church in the village shows him wearing egungun like robes. Later, as Soyinkas father encourages him to pursue a scholarship to the colonial government school in Ibadan, his paternal grandfather secretly subjects him to a painful scarification rite of initiation into Yoruba manhood. He consecrates Wole to the Yoruba god Ogun, despite the fact that the childs mother has entrusted him to Christ. These seeming contradictions do not trouble young Wole; rather, he derives a sense of security from the fact that his entire extended family of living relatives and ancestral spirits, along with the ogboni, cares for him.

Soyinka was a precocious and inquisitive child; the adults apparently warned one another: He will kill you with his questions. At age four he was already fascinated by the rich profusion of life beyond the confines of the parsonage compound on which he and his family lived. As chronicled in Ake, he wandered off the grounds one day, following a police band all the way to the colorful, noisy, aromatic village market, only to be returned on the crossbar of a policemans bicycle hours later. Ake has been praised by many critics for the vivid sensuousness of its description; Soyinka seems to have astonishingly detailed memories of the atmosphere and daily events of his childhood. The memoir has also won acclaim for the subtlety with which it registers the childs awakening perception of the fissures opened in his world by the strain of tradition and modernization pulling in opposite directions. At the end of Ake, Soyinka is watching his mother organize the Egba Womens Union to protest a tax that has been levied on local tradeswomen. While his own participation in the protest is restricted to running errands for the women, he is clearly absorbing his mothers capacity to deploy modern means to protect longstanding communal interests and to balance progressive politics with belief in a palpable spiritual world.

Began Writing Career

Soyinka next attended the University College at Ibadan, as his father had hoped. Among his classmates there was Chinua Achebe, who later also earned an international reputation as a novelist. Soyinka studied literature at the college, with an emphasis on drama, from 1952 to 1954. In his studies he explored Yoruba and Greek mythology, laying the groundwork for the imaginative synthesis of tribal and western sources that became a hallmark of his achievement in the theater. While at Ibadan he published several poems and short stories in the literary magazine Black Orpheus. Soyinkas first published poem, Telephone Conversation, demonstrates his flair for satire; it manages to treat with great humor the difficult subject of a racial confrontation between an African student and his English landlady.

Soyinka then left Africa to study drama at Leeds University in England under the influential British critic and professor G. Wilson Knight. While in London he also worked as a reader at the Royal Court Theater, where his first play, The Invention, was staged in 1957. One of Soyinkas few explicitly political plays, The Invention explores in satirical fashion the consequences for the South African apartheid government of the sudden destruction of skin pigment in its entire black population. Horrified at their inability to distinguish black from white, the government assigns the nations scientists to the task of restoring the visible differences on which apartheid is based.

In 1960 Soyinka triumphantly returned to the University of Ibadan as a Rockefeller research fellow in drama, and he commenced serious study of Nigerian folklore. His arrival was marked with productions at the Arts Theater in Ibadan of two of his early plays, The Swamp Dwellers, which had been given a student production in London in 1958, and The Lion and the Jewel. The Swamp Dwellers is a verse tragedy depicting the manipulation of a community of poor, superstitious swamp farmers by greedy religious leaders. The Lion and the Jewel is a comedy that warns against reckless modernization and strives to demonstrate that some of the old values ought not to be thoughtlessly abandoned. These two productions established Soyinka as a literary figure of serious consequence in Nigeria.

It was at this time that he founded his influential amateur theater group, the 1960 Masks, dedicated to forging a new Nigerian drama. This drama was to be written in English but draw its inspiration from the ceremonial performance traditions of Africareligious festivals, pantomime, and traditional music among them. Most of the members of the group were teachers or civil servants who lived either in Ibadan or in Lagos, one hundred miles away; they frequently conducted rehearsals over the phone or in the Land Rover that carried Soyinka and the company from one city to the other.

The Masks first major production was Soyinkas Dance of the Forests, which had been commissioned from him for the Nigerian independence celebrations of October 1960. Despite the festive occasion, Soyinka seized this opportunity to warn his fellow Nigerians of the dangers of repeating the violence and opportunism of their past and of romanticizing it at the expense of the present. In A Dance of the Forests, the tribes assemble for a great festival during which the egungun are ritually summoned. The people expect their ancestral spirits to be as heroic and noble as they are in legend, and they are shocked to discover that the petty meanness of the ancestors rivals their own bickering.

A Dance of the Forests is the Soyinka play that most deeply draws upon Nigerian folklore, and it has been criticized for its obscurity to westerners and even to non-Yoruban Nigerians. Canadian novelist and critic Margaret Laurence stated, moreover, that there are some parts of A Dance of the Forests which seem overloaded. There are moments when the multiplicity of themes creates the feeling that there are a few too many plates spinning in the airsome of them speed by without being properly seen, and some crash down. But these are minor flaws in a work of enormous richness. Critic John Povey wrote in Tri-Quarterly of A Dance of the Forests: The dramatic power of the surging forest dance carries its own visual conviction. It is this that shows Soyinka to be a man of the theater, not simply a writer who might air his concerns equally effectively in the pages of a novel.

Soyinka went on from Ibadan to lecture in English literature at the University of Ife, which he left in 1963 for what he termed political reasons. He spent the next two years traveling, writing, and directing plays. In 1964 he disbanded the Masks to assemble a professional theater troupe, which he called the Orisun Repertory. The following year he returned to England for the Commonwealth Festival production of what some have called his most beautiful tragedy, The Road. Soyinka has named the Yoruba god Ogun, to whom his grandfather consecrated him in childhood, as his muse. In modern Nigeria, Ogungod of iron and the forge, of creation and destructionhas become the god of electricity and the guardian of highways. In The Road, car accidents symbolize Oguns destructive power over the careless traveler. His high priest is the Professor, a madman who deliberately rearranges crucial road signs, hoping to discover the meaning of life amid the carnage he helps to create.

Soyinkas first novel, The Interpreters, published in 1965, dramatizes another search for meaning. A group of young Nigerian intellectuals gathers periodically to discuss their countrys tribal past and its westernized future. Each of them has been away to study in England or America and has returned hoping to help shape the new Nigeria. It becomes apparent that the young intellectuals are also searching for clues to their own identities. The Interpreters has been both lauded and criticized for its stylistic obscurity; some critics have likened the shifts in point of view and the general plotlessness of the novel to the writings of modernists like James Joyce and William Faulkner, while others have found it too difficult an introduction to an unfamiliar society.

Twice Arrested

In 1965 Soyinka was arrested by the Nigerian government, accused of forcing a radio announcer at gunpoint to broadcast incorrect election results. His arrest sparked a protest campaign by PEN, the international writers organization. Such influential American authors as Norman Mailer and William Styron called for his release. No evidence was ever produced by the police to prove the allegation, and Soyinka was released after three months. Today it is commonly assumed that the election was rigged.

In 1967 Soyinka became the chairman of the Department of Theater Arts at the University of Ibadan, but in August of that same year he was once again arrestedthis time during Nigerias civil war, to which Soyinka was implacably opposed. Nigeria, a country roughly twice the size of the state of California, is occupied by people speaking hundreds of different languages. In 1967, after several military coups, 30,000 members of the Ibo tribe were slaughtered in the North, where the Hausa-Fulani tribe dominated. More than a million Ibos fled to the east, where they declared the independent Ibo state of Biafra. Federal troops then went to war against Biafra. Soyinka lived on the federal side of Nigeria and his own Yoruban tribe supported the federal cause, but he defied those loyalties and set about organizing Nigerian intellectuals to lobby for a ban on arms sales to both sides.

His peaceful initiative failed, however, because he was immediately arrested. Though he was never formally charged, a faked confession released by the government in October indicated that he was being accused of assisting the Biafrans in their attempt to overthrow the government. Ironically, the government specifically accused the pacifist Soyinka of supplying weapons to the rebels.

Soyinka spent two years as a political prisoner at the Kaduna Prison facility, mainly in solitary confinement. When his jailers vaccinated most of the prisoners against the deadly disease meningitis, Soyinka was passed by. In addition, he was not allowed medical attention when he developed vision problems. He was refused access to reading and writing materials, but manufactured his own ink and began keeping a prison diary and writing poetry on cigarette packages and toilet paper. Every time a letter or poem was miraculously smuggled from prison, the international press seized upon it both as an important literary event and as welcome evidence that he was still alive. Soyinka was released in 1969 and left Nigeria, not to return until after a change of government in 1975.

Post-Prison Writings

Many critics have remarked on a distinct darkening of tone in Soyinkas writing after his second imprisonment. His prison diary was published in 1972 as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. It is a fragmented account of his experience, disorderly and wildly various in tone. Its achievement lies less in its attempts at political commentary, asserted Gerald Weales in the New York Times Book Review, than in the notes that deal with prison life, the observation of everything from a warders catarrh to the predatory life of insects after a rain. Of course, these are not simply reportorial. They are vehicles to carry the authors shifting states of mind, to convey the real subject matter of the book; the authors attempt to survive as a man, as a mind. While many critics also note that Soyinka seems to have had some difficulty finding a language adequate to this dehumanizing experience, Rex Collings asserted in World that there are... moments when he seems to strike a precise reality.... Thus I shall never forget what he calls his moment of self-definition, at the moment when fetters were placed on his legs for the first time: I define myself as a being for whom chains are not, as, finally, a human being.

Two poems smuggled from Soyinkas cell were published in 1969 in a pamphlet entitled Poems from Prison; these were republished later in a larger volume entitled A Shuttle in the Crypt, a sort of verse companion to The Man Died. Many critics suggest that Soyinkas poetic exploration of his prison experience captures its essence more successfully than does his prose, but The Man Died is said to provide an invaluable context for Soyinkas imagery and for the personal and political references he makes in his poetry. (Soyinkas first poetry collection, Idanre and Other Poems, had been published in 1967, just before his long imprisonment; it examines the events leading up to the Biafran War and mourns the loss of the Ibo slaughtered in Biafra.)

Late in 1971 Soyinka accepted a fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge. He related in the preface to his essay collection Myth, Literature, and the African World that his reception at Cambridge was an ambivalent one; at one point in 1973 the universitys English Department withdrew its support of a lecture series he had proposed to give on the subject of African literature and society, claiming that they had no reason to believe in the existence of any such mythical beast as African Literature. Soyinka gave the series with the backing of the Department of Social Anthropology instead. After his stay at Cambridge, Soyinka went on to Ghana to edit the African cultural magazine Transition until 1975, when he accepted a position as professor of comparative literature at the University of Ife.

Soyinka published a second novel, Season of Anomy, several years after his release from prison. Some critics found the book horrifying in its explicit descriptions of torture and murder but compelling in its message that those who hope for peace must first confront such sickening realities. John Mellors wrote in London Magazine that Soyinka seems to have written much of Season of Anomy in a blazing fury, angry beyond complete control of words at the abuses of power and the outbreaks of both considered and spontaneous violence at a time when winds of change are blowing at gale force through societies, governments, and individuals.

Soyinkas post-prison plays, like the novel Season of Anomy, also strike readers as more angry and despairing than his earlier works. In the play Madmen and Specialists, a young doctor returns from the war freshly trained in techniques of torture and practices his new skills on his seemingly mad old father. The play, like Season of Anomy, examines the tyranny and corruption that follow war. Charles Larson in the New York Times Book Review called Madmen and Specialists a product of those months Soyinka spent in prison, in solitary confinement, as a political prisoner. It is, not surprisingly, the most brutal piece of social criticism he has ever published.

Not all of Soyinkas post-prison writings strike the same despairing note, however. He wrote the beautiful memoir Ake: The Years of Childhood after his imprisonment, and plays such as Death and the Kings Horseman, which Thomas Hayes called in Dictionary of Literary Biography not an attack against the effects of colonialism on traditional Africa as much as a beautiful tribute to the strength of Yoruba tradition. Death and the Kings Horseman is based on an actual interruption of a ritual suicide in Nigeria in 1946. The king has died, and according to tradition his horseman must die as well so that he can escort his sovereign to the next world. When the colonial district officer hears of what is to happen he intervenes to prevent it, and the horsemans son, a western-educated doctor, kills himself in his fathers place. According to John Colbey in Drama, The climax [of Death and the Kings Horseman ] is very beautiful. The power and the glory of Yoruba honor stand fully revealed.

In 1988 Soyinka published a prequel to Ake entitled Isara: A Voyage Around Essay. The book is a tribute to his father, who died while Soyinka was in political exile after his imprisonment. In 1983 Soyinka had discovered a box containing a collection of Essays papers, a find which awakened in him the desire to reconstruct the lives of his fathers generation of Nigerians. Essay had been one of a number of children who were sent away from their native village of Isara to be educated in a teachers training seminary and found themselves caught between two conflicting cultures ever afterward. Each of the books six chapters centers upon Essay or one of his friends and their attempts, during the years leading up to World War II, to reconcile their western-style educations with the demands of living in a country still dominated on the one hand by traditional African beliefs and on the other by condescending British colonial rule.

Literary Philosophy

Soyinkas literary philosophy is laid out in two essay collections: Myth, Literature, and the African World, published in 1976, and Art, Dialogue, and Outrage, published in 1990. The first collection defines literature as social vision, or what Soyinka calls the decongealment of the imaginative function by past or present reality. He asserts in the essays that critics must approach African literature on its own terms rather than measuring it by standards developed in western cultures. Moreover, he argues, no single African writer can speak for the Africans; Soyinka urges western readers to listen to the great variety of African voices recording African life. Art, Dialogue, and Outrage gathers a number of previously published essays together with several new ones to further elaborate Soyinkas literary philosophy.

In 1991, Soyinka returned to magazine editing, reclaiming his post as editor of Transition. The journal presents discourse on cultural and intellectual issues of international importance by such prominent thinkers as Houston A. Baker, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and the 1992 Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.

Soyinkas friend and former student, the celebrated African-American literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., characterizes Soyinkas literary achievement simply: The universality of our experiences he never claims, he assumes. In his poetic representations of Yoruba beliefs, rituals, proverbs, and history, Soyinka allows the African part to speak for the human whole. About his own work, Soyinka told New York Times Magazine contributor Jason Berry: Im not sure Im trying to communicate a message. Im just trying to be a part of the movement away from the unacceptable present. When the tool of the pen is inadequate, I get personally involved.

Selected writings


Idanre and Other Poems, Methuen, 1967.

Poems from Prison, Rex Collings, 1969, expanded version published as A Shuttle in the Crypt, Hill & Wang, 1972.

Ogun Abibiman, Rex Collings, 1976.

Mandelas Earth and Other Poems, Random House, 1989.


The Interpreters, Deutsch, 1965.

Season of Anomy, Rex Collings, 1973.


The Invention, first produced in England at the Royal Court Theater, 1957.

A Dance of the Forests, Oxford University Press, 1962.

The Lion and the Jewel, Oxford University Press, 1962.

Five Plays (includes The Lion and the Jewel, The Swamp Dwellers, The Trials of Brother Jero, The Strong Breed, and A Dance of the Forests ), Oxford University Press, 1964.

The Road, Oxford University Press, 1965.

Kongis Harvest, Oxford University Press, 1966, screen adaptation produced by Calpenny-Nigerian Films, 1970.

Three Short Plays, Oxford University Press, 1969.

The Trials of Brother Jero Oxford University Press, 1969.

Madmen and Specialists, Methuen, 1971.

Before the Blackout, Orisun Acting Editions, 1971.

The Jero Plays, Methuen, 1973.

Camwood on the Leaves, Methuen, 1973.

The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite, Methuen, 1973.

Collected Plays, Oxford University Press, volume 1, 1973, and volume 2, 1974.

Death and the Kings Horseman, Norton, 1975.

Opera Wonyosi, Indiana University Press, 1981.

A Play of Giants, Methuen, 1984.

Six Plays, Methuen, 1984.

Requiem for a Futurologist, Rex Collings, 1985.


The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka, Harper, 1972.

Myth, Literature, and the African World (essays), Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Ake: The Years of Childhood (autobiography), Random House, 1981.

Isara: A Voyage Around Essay, Random House, 1988.

Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture, New Horn Press, 1990.



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 3, 1975; Volume 5, 1976; Volume 14, 1980; Volume 36, 1986; Volume 44, 1987.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1986, Gale, 1987.

Gibbs, James, editor, Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, Three Continents, 1980.

Jones, Eldred, Wole Soyinka, Twayne, 1973.

Katrak, Ketu, Wole Soyinka and Modern Tragedy: A Study of Dramatic Theory and Practice, Greenwood Press, 1986.

King, Bruce, editor, Introduction to Nigerian Literature, Africana Publishing, 1972.

Larson, Charles R., The Emergence of African Fiction, revised edition, Indiana University Press, 1972.

Laurence, Margaret, Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, Praeger, 1968.

Moore, Gerald, Wole Soyinka, Africana Publishing, 1971.

Omotoso, Kole, Achebe or Soyinka? A Re-Interpretation and a Study in Contrasts, K.G. Saur, 1992.

Pieterse, Cosmo, and Dennis Dueren, editors, African Writers Talking: A Collection of Radio Interviews, Africana Publishing, 1972.

Rajeshwar, M., The Novels of Wole Soyinka, Advent, NY, 1990.

Roscoe, Adrian A., Mother Is Gold: A Study in West African Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Soyinka, Wole, The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka, Harper, 1972.

Soyinka, Wole, Myth, Literature, and the African World, Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Soyinka, Wole, Ake: The Years of Childhood, Random House, 1981.


Black American Literature Forum, Fall 1988.

Black Orpheus, March 1966.

Book Forum, Volume 3, Number 1, 1977.

Drama, Winter 1975.

Hudson Review, Autumn 1990.

Library Journal, March 15, 1992.

London Magazine, April/May 1974.

New Republic, October 12, 1974; May 9, 1983.

Newsweek, November 1, 1982.

New Yorker, May 16, 1977.

New York Review of Books, July, 31, 1969; October 21, 1982.

New York Times Book Review, July 29, 1973; October 10, 1982.

New York Times Magazine, September 18, 1983.

Time, October 27, 1986.

Tri-Quarterly, Fall 1966.

Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1990.

World, February 13, 1973.

Susan M. Marren

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"Soyinka, Wole 1934–." Contemporary Black Biography. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Soyinka, Wole 1934–." Contemporary Black Biography. . (December 14, 2017).

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Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka

The Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka (born 1935) was one of the few African writers to denounce the slogan of Negritude as a tool of autocracy. He also was the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Wole Soyinka was born July 13, 1934 in Abeokuta a village on the banks of the River Ogun in the western area of Nigeria. His mother was a Christian convert so devout that he nicknamed her "Wild Christian" and he father was the scholarly headmaster of a Christian primary school whom he nicknamed "Essay"—a play on his occupation and his initials S.A. Soyinka was educated through the secondary level in Ibadan and later attended University College, Ibadan, and the University of Leeds, from which he graduated with honors. He worked for a brief period at the Royal Court Theatre in London before returning to Nigeria in 1960. His play, "The Invention" was staged in 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre. At that time his only published works were poems such as "The Immigrant" and "My Next Door Neighbour," which appeared in the magazine Black Orpheus.

Two of Soyinka's plays, The Lion and the Jeweland The Swamp Dwellers, were performed by students at Ibadan in 1960. Later that year his play A Dance in the Forest was produced for the Nigerian independence celebrations. In 1963 Oxford University Press issued a collection of his plays. These were The Trials of Brother Jero, The Strong Breed, The Swamp Dwellers, and The Lion and the Jewel. He also continued to publish poetry in Black Orpheus and other journals, and he was very active in theater group activities in Nigeria.

In the plays written and produced in the early 1960s, Soyinka showed his ability to project traditional Nigerian themes and stories through English instead of Yoruba. He was recognized as a dramatic poet and skilled dramatic craftsman. The plays dealt with a great diversity of theme— from the farce of The Trials of Brother Jero, to the romanticism of The Lion and the Jewel, to the tragedy of The Strong Breed. Soyinka was concerned with universal problems, and his plays examined town life, a retrograde countryside, and the ambitions of the "new" Nigerians.

Perhaps the best example of the juxtaposition of the past and present was in A Dance in the Forest. Three guilty persons were lured into a deep woodland where they were confronted with their spirit counterparts from the past. Selfishness, dishonesty, and lust were personified as elements in all societies—past and present.

The worsening political situation in Nigeria was reflected in Soyinka's theme for Kongi's Harvest, first performed at the Dakar Festival of Negro Arts in 1965. The theme was the establishment of a dictatorship in an African state; and the venal politician, the uncommitted, corrupt traditional ruler, and the ruthlessness of a man driven toward power were all displayed. In Idanre and Other Poems, published in 1967, Soyinka ceased being a satirist and became a gloomy visionary. The title poem, reciting a creation myth, stressed the symbols of fire, iron, and blood, which were central to the poet's view of the modern African world.

Soyinka became a vocal critic of Negritude, accusing politicians of using it as a mask for autocracy. His increasing use of polemic against social injustice and his demands for freedom coincided with the military takeover in Nigeria and the later drift toward civil war. Soyinka was arrested by the Nigerian government in October 1967, was accused of spying for Biafra, and was kept in detention in the north for two years, after which he returned to his position as head of the drama department at Ibadan. Much of his creative attention following his release went into filming Kongi's Harvest, in which he also played the leading role.

Soyinka's Nigeria was a country in transition, attempting to mold itself out of a variety of tribal cultures and a turbulent European colonization. Soyinka did not romanticize his native land, nor was he willing to see African culture as a flat symbol of primitiveness. He was as willing to charge Nigerian politicians and bureaucrats with barbarity and corruption as he was to condemn the greed and materialism of the west. These attitudes were even more prevalent after his second incarceration on the trumped up spying charges. His work took on a darker and angrier tone. When he was released from prison in 1969, Soyinka left Nigeria and did not return until the government changed in 1975. Soyinka's prison diary, published in 1972 The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka was a fragmented and grim account of the days he spent incarcerated, often in chains. Along with his verses that captured the essence of his prison experience, The Man Died provided invaluable context for Soyinka' subsequent imagery in his works.

Soyinka's post-prison works striked readers as more angry and despairing than his earlier ones. The play Madmen and Specialists was about a young doctor who returned from war trained in the ways of torture and practices his new skills on his seemingly mad old father. Charles Larson in New York Times Review of Books called the play "a product of those months Soyinka spent in prison, in solitary confinement, as a political prisoner. It is, not surprisingly, the most brutal social criticism he has ever published."

Yet not all his post prison works were filled with despair. Ake: The Years of Childhood and its prequel Isara: A Voyage around Essay were beautiful memoirs of both his own childhood with its strong Yoruba background and his father's youth in a changing Nigeria. Isara, published in 1988 after his father's death, reconstructed his father's divided life and tried to reconcile two conflicting cultures— African and Western-that trapped him between.

In 1986 Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in recognition of his accomplishments. The prize committee recognized him for his commitment to render the full complexity of his African culture In addition to his literary output, Soyinka had produced two essay collections that define his literary philosophy Myth Literature and the African World (1976) and Art Dialog and Outrage (1991, 1994) in which Soyinka asserted that critics must approach African literature on its own terms rather than by standards established in western cultures. African literature was not monolithic and needs to be seen as a variety of voices, not merely one speaker.

In 1994, Soyinka escaped to Paris, just ahead of being arrested by the militarist government for his advocacy of democracy. In 1997, the same government charged him with treason, claiming he was involved in a series of bombing of army sites.

Further Reading

For a selection of his work see Soyinka's Five Plays (1964). A fine biographical, critical study was Gerald Moore, Wole Soyinka (1972). There was a good discussion of Soyinka in the essay by Martin Esslin, "Two Nigerian Playwrights," in Ulli Beier, ed., Introduction to African Literature (1967), and also in Wilfred F. Cartey, Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa 1969). See also The Emergence of African Fiction (1972) and The Novels of Wole Soyinka (1990); and The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972). □

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"Wole Soyinka." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Soyinka, Wole

Wole Soyinka (wō´lā shôyĬng´kə), 1934–, Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, and political activist, born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka. Educated at the universities of Ibadan and Leeds, England, and at London's Royal Court Theatre, he writes in English, fusing Western and Yoruba traditions. In Nigeria, he founded the Masks amateur theater company and the professional Orisun Repertory, both of which presented plays in English that incorporated the traditions of Nigerian music and dance. He has taught at the Univ. of Ife, Nigeria, and at Cornell. Imprisoned (1967–69) for political activism during Nigeria's civil war (see Biafra, Republic of), he wrote his prison notes, The Man Died (1973). In 1986 Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Again under threat of arrest from the Nigerian government in 1994, he fled abroad. After the death of Nigeria's military dictator (1998), Soyinka returned home, where he resumed his political activism and has been an outspoken critic of Nigeria's government. In 2010, Soyinka launched a reformist political party, the Democratic Front for a People's Federation, and was elected its chairman.

Soyinka's works are concerned with the tensions between spiritual and material worlds, with beliefs as the underpinnings of social relations, and with individuals' dependence on one another. His widely performed plays often highlight the problems of daily life in Africa; best known are Death and the King's Horseman (1975) and A Play of Giants (1984), a satiric attack on contemporary Africa. His novels include The Interpreters (1965), which considers the plight of young Nigerians in an increasingly corrupt society, and Isara (1988). His essay collections—such as Art, Dialogue, and Outrage (1988, 1994) and The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness (1998)—discuss a variety of African cultural and political issues. He has also written memoirs memoirs: Ake (1983), which outlines his early life and offers insights into Nigerian culture during the late colonial period, and You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006), which covers his adult years and focuses on his political activism in opposition to Nigeria's corrupt regimes.

See studies by E. Jones (1973), J. Gibbs (1986), and K. Katrak (1986).

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Soyinka, Wole


Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, in Abeokuta, 13 July 1934. Education: St. Peter's School, Ake, Abeokuta, 1938-43; Abeokuta Grammar School, 1944-45; Government College, Ibadan, 1946-50; University College, Ibadan (now University of Ibadan), 1952-54; University of Leeds, Yorkshire, 1954-57, B.A. (honors) in English. Family: Married; has children. Career: Play reader, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1957-59; Rockefeller Research Fellow in drama, University of Ibadan, 1961-62; lecturer in English, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, 1963-64; senior lecturer in English, University of Lagos, 1965-67; head of the department of theater arts, University of Ibadan, 1969-72 (appointment made in 1967); professor of comparative literature, and head of the department of dramatic arts, University of Ife, 1975-85. Visiting fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge, 1973-74; visiting professor, University of Ghana, Legon, 1973-74, University of Sheffield, 1974, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1979-80, and Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1986. Founding director, 1960 Masks Theatre, 1960, and Orisun Theatre, 1964, Lagos and Ibadan, and Unife Guerilla Theatre, Ile-Ife, 1978; co-editor, Black Orpheus, 1961-64; editor, Transition (later Ch'indaba ) magazine, Accra, Ghana, 1975-77. Secretary-General, Union of Writers of the African Peoples, 1975. Tried and acquitted of armed robbery, 1965; political prisoner, detained by the Federal Military Government, Lagos and Kaduna, 1967-69. Awards: Dakar Festival award, 1966; John Whiting award, 1967; Jock Campbell award (New Statesman), for fiction, 1968; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1986; Benson Medal, 1990; Premio Letterario Internazionalle Mondello, 1990. D. Litt: University of Leeds, 1973, Yale University, University of Montpellier, France, University of Lagos, and University of Bayreuth, 1989. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature (U.K.); member, American Academy. Named Commander, Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1986, Order of La Legion d'Honneur, France, 1989, and Order of the Republic of Italy, 1990; Akogun of Isara, 1989; Akinlatun of Egbaland, 1990. Agent: Morton Leavy, Leavy Rosensweig and Hyman, 11 East 44th Street, New York, New York 10017; or Triharty (Nig.) Ltd. Agency Division, 4, Ola-ayeni Street, Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria. (U.K. Correspondent: Cognix Ltd., Media Suite, 3 Tyers Gate, London SE1 3HX). Address: P.O. Box 935, Abeokuta, Nigeria.



The Interpreters. London, Deutsch, 1965; New York, Macmillan, 1970.

Season of Anomy. London, Collings, 1973; New York, Third Press, 1974.


The Swamp Dwellers (produced London, 1958; New York, 1968). Included in Three Plays, 1963; in Five Plays, 1964.

The Lion and the Jewel (produced Ibadan, 1959; London, 1966). Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1963.

The Invention (produced London, 1959).

A Dance of the Forests (produced Lagos, 1960). Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1963.

The Trials of Brother Jero (produced Ibadan, 1960; Cambridge, 1965; London, 1966; New York, 1967). Included in Three Plays, 1963; in Five Plays, 1964.

Camwood on the Leaves (broadcast 1960). London, Eyre Methuen, 1973; in Camwood on the Leaves, and Before the Blackout, 1974.

The Republican and The New Republican (satirical revues; produced Lagos, 1963).

Three Plays. Ibadan, Mbari, 1963; as Three Short Plays, London, Oxford University Press, 1969.

The Strong Breed (produced Ibadan, 1964; London, 1966; New York, 1967). Included in Three Plays, 1963; in Five Plays, 1964.

Childe Internationale (produced Ibadan, 1964). Ibadan, Fountain, 1987.

Kongi's Harvest (produced Ibadan, 1964; New York, 1968). Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1967.

Five Plays: A Dance of the Forests, The Lion and the Jewel, The Swamp Dwellers, The Trials of Brother Jero, The Strong Breed. Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1964.

Before the Blackout (produced Ibadan, 1965; Leeds, 1981). Ibadan, Orisun, 1971; in Camwood on the Leaves, and Before the Blackout, 1974.

The Road (produced London, 1965; also director: produced Chicago, 1984). Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1965.

Rites of the Harmattan Solstice (produced Lagos, 1966).

Madmen and Specialists (produced Waterford, Connecticut, and New York, 1970; revised version, also director: produced Ibadan, 1971). London, Methuen, 1971; New York, Hill and Wang, 1972.

The Jero Plays: The Trials of Brother Jero, and Jero's Metamorphosis. London, Eyre Methuen, 1973.

Jero's Metamorphosis (produced Lagos, 1975). Included in The Jero Plays, 1973.

The Bacchae: A Communion Rite, adaptation of the play by Euripides (produced London, 1973). London, Eyre Methuen, 1973; New York, Norton, 1974.

Collected Plays: A Dance of the Forests, The Swamp Dwellers, The Strong Breed, The Road, The Bacchae. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1973.

Collected Plays:The Lion and the Jewel, Kongi's Harvest, The Trials of Brother Jero, Jero's Metamorphosis, Madmen and Specialists. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1974.

Camwood on the Leaves, and Before the Blackout: Two Short Plays. New York, Third Press, 1974.

Death and the King's Horseman (also director: produced Ile-Ife, 1976; Chicago, 1979; also director: produced New York, 1987). London, Eyre Methuen, 1975; New York, Norton, 1976.

Opera Wonyosi, adaptation of The Threepenny Opera by Brecht (also director: produced Ile-Ife, 1977). Bloomington, Indiana University Press, and London, Collings, 1981.

Golden Accord (produced Louisville, 1980).

Priority Projects (revue; produced on Nigeria tour, 1982).

Requiem for a Futurologist (also director: produced Ile-Ife, 1983). London, Collings, 1985.

A Play of Giants (also director: produced New Haven, Connecticut, 1984). London, Methuen, 1984.

Six Plays (includes The Trials of Brother Jero, Jero's Metamorphosis, Camwood on the Leaves, Death and the King's Horseman, Madmen and Specialists, Opera Wonyosi ). London, Methuen. 1984.

From Zia with Love. London, Methuen, 1992

The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope. London, Methuen Drama, 1995.


Kongi's Harvest, 1970.

Radio Plays:

Camwood on the Leaves, 1960; The Detainee, 1965; Die Still, Dr. Godspeak, 1981; A Scourge of Hyacinths, 1990; Nineteen Ninety-Four, 1993.

Television Plays:

Joshua: A Nigerian Portrait, 1962 (Canada); Culture in Transition, 1963 (USA).


Idanre and Other Poems. London, Methuen, 1967; New York, Hill and Wang, 1968.

Poems from Prison. London, Collings, 1969.

A Shuttle in the Crypt. London, Eyre Methuen-Collings, and New York, Hill and Wang, 1972.

Ogun Abibimañ. London, Collings, 1976.

Mandela's Earth and Other Poems. New York, Random House, 1988; London, Deutsch, 1989.

Early Poems. New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.


The Man Died: Prison Notes. London, Eyre Methuen-Collings, and New York, Harper, 1972.

In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington. Seattle, University of Washington African Studies Program, 1975.

Myth, Literature, and the African World. London, Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Aké: The Years of Childhood (autobiography). London, Collings, 1981; New York, Vintage, 1983.

The Critic and Society (essay). Ile-Ife, University of Ife Press, 1981.

The Past Must Address Its Present (lecture). N.p., Nobel Foundation, 1986; as This Past Must Address Its Present, New York, Anson Phelps Institute, 1988.

Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture. Ibadan, New Horn, 1988.

Isara: A Voyage Around "Essay." New York, Random House, 1989; London, Methuen, 1990.

IbadanThe Penkelemes Years. London, Methuen, 1994.

The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of The Nigerian Crisis. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.

The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Editor, Poems of Black Africa. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Hill and Wang, 1975.

Translator, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter's Saga, by D.O. Fagunwa. London, Nelson, 1968; New York, Humanities Press, 1969.



Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography by B. Okpu, Lagos, Libriservice, 1984.

Critical Studies:

Wole Soyinka by Gerald Moore, London, Evans, and New York, Africana, 1971, revised edition, Evans, 1978; The Writing of Wole Soyinka by Eldred D. Jones, London, Heinemann, 1973, revised edition, 1983, 2nd revised edition, London, Curry, 1988; Three Nigerian Poets: A Critical Study of the Poetry of Soyinka, Clark, and Okigbo by Nyong J. Udoeyop, Ibadan, Ibadan University Press, 1973; Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka edited by James Gibbs, Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1980, London, Heinemann, 1981, and Wole Soyinka by Gibbs, London, Macmillan, and New York, Grove Press, 1986; A Writer and His Gods: A Study of the Importance of Yoruba Myths and Religious Ideas in the Writing of Wole Soyinka by Stephan Larsen, Stockholm, University of Stockholm, 1983; Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing by Obi Maduakar, London, Garland, 1986; Before Our Very Eyes: Tribute to Wole Soyinka edited by Dapo Adelugba, Ibadan, Spectrum, 1987; Index of Subjects, Proverbs and Themes in the Writings of Wole Soyinka by Greta M.K. Coger, New York, Green-wood, 1988; Wole Soyinka Revisted by Derek Wright, New York, Twayne, and Toronto, Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1993; The Politics of Wole Soyinka by Tunde Adeniran, Ibadan, Nigeria, Fountain Publications, 1994; Wole Soyinka and Yoruba Oral Tradition in Death and Theking's Horseman by Bimpe Aboyade, Ibadan, Nigeria, Fountain Publications, 1994; The Poetry of Wole Soyinka by Tanure Ojaide, Lagos, Malthouse Press, 1994; Some African Voices of Our Time by Ivor Agyeman-Duah, Accra, Ghana, Anansesem Publications, 1995; Understanding Wole Soyinka: Death and the King's Horseman by A.O. Dasylva, Ibadan, Nigeria, Sam Bookman, 1996; Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Orality and History in the Work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri by Ato Quayson, Oxford, J. Currey, and Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997; Form and Technique in the African Novel by Olawale Awosika, Ibadan, Nigeria, Sam Bookman, 1997; Ogun's Children: The Literature and Politics of Wole Soyinka Since the Nobel Prize, edited by OnookomeOkome, Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1999.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: Plays by Brecht, Chekhov, Clark, Easmon, Eseoghene, Ogunyemi, Shakespeare, Synge, and his own works; L'Espace et la Magie, Paris, 1972; The Biko Inquest by Jon Blair and Norman Fenton, Ile-Ife, 1978, and New York, 1980. Actor: Plays Igwezu in The Swamp Dwellers, London, 1958; Obaneji and Forest Father in A Dance of the Forests, Lagos and Ibadan, 1960; Dauda Touray in Dear Parent and Ogre by R. Sarif Easmon, Ibadan, 1961; in The Republican, Lagos, 1963; Film Kongi's Harvest, 1970; Radio Konu in The Detainee, 1965.

* * *

Early in his career, Wole Soyinka produced two novels which distill several of the Nobel laureate's key themes. Both The Interpreters and Season of Anomy focus on the tensions and contradictions of post-colonial Nigerian society. They explore the social and political consequences of the uncomfortable coexistence of African and Western European values within a single cultural framework. Soyinka's characters try to affect various temporary (and often unsatisfying) resolutions in their lives, and to reconcile past to present, tradition to modernity, local life to global economies.

Soyinka's writing style has been criticized as overly erudite and unnecessarily allusive; in both his dialogue and his narration, he tends to blend references to Yoruba traditions (which would be inaccessible to Western readers and which require him to include a glossary in The Interpreters ) and to European art and philosophy (which would be largely foreign, his critics have suggested, to his Nigerian readership). Soyinka's cultural politics push him to discover and to recover a distinctively African form of literary self-expression; however, his thought and writing have also been indelibly informed by Western traditions. The difficult, abstract textures of his prose emerge from a fluctuating position he establishes between these two cultural systems, as he attempts to negotiate his own uneasy compromise. In fact, that lack of ease or stability gives his writing its energy and its vital interest.

The Interpreters opens with a complex nightclub scene which sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Six friends, who represent various functions in contemporary Nigerian society (such as journalist, engineer, artist, and teacher), get drunk and discuss their lives. The dialogue, in keeping with their situation, is highly fluid, restless, and ironic. The time frame shifts from present to past, establishing resonances but also suggesting the interconnectedness of memory and action. Soyinka's narrative remains somewhat non-linear throughout the book, preferring to follow multiple threads of event and history. Various voices and perspectives interpenetrate, creating a verbal web rather than a monolithic, disciplined plot. Like his character Egbo, who cannot reconcile the demands of his native heritage with contemporary life, Soyinka tends to float between worlds, exploring the manifestations and consequences of that medial state without necessarily resolving his dilemma. The novel is often bitterly satiric, particularly through the character of Sagoe, whose pseudo-philosophy of "voidancy" (a scatology run amuck, not unlike that of Jonathan Swift) offers an ongoing misanthropic commentary on the corruption and absurdity of Nigerian society. Little escapes the novel's incisive harshness. Sekoni, the one idealist, is killed at the novel's midpoint, and the second half of the text finds no alternatives for social recovery or happiness. Symbolically, a schoolgirl whom Egbo has made pregnant offers some hope for new life, but she remains nameless and lost to Egbo himself. The Interpreters traces the dissolution and despair often brought about by post-colonial states of cultural hybridity and uncertainty.

While Season of Anomy also remains uncertain at its conclusion, it takes up the duplicitous situations of post-colonial life and attempts to suggest tentative social, political, and imaginative resolutions. The title refers both to the anarchy that comes with the violent political upheavals in the novel and to the yearly cycles of death and rebirth in nature. The narrative follows the attempts by Ofeyi, a marketing genius who works for a nameless cartel controlling the government, to subvert his employers' social and economic power by introducing a counter-philosophy he discovers at the agricultural community of Aiyéró, which is collectivist, peaceful, native, and benign. The five parts of the novel trace the slow vegetal spread of the indigenous "way of life" of Aiyéró, which leads to violence as ideologies of greed and corruption collide with grass-roots philosophy. The revolution appears to fail, although Soyinka also suggests that "spores" have been released among the people and that the possibility of betterment remains. The figure of Suberu, the prison guard who has thoughtlessly served the interests of corruption but later chooses to follow Ofeyi, represents such potential conversions. Iriyise, Ofeyi's kidnapped lover whom he sees as intimately and symbolically tied to the land and to Aiyéró, becomes sick and then lapses into a coma from which she has not emerged at the novel's close; her eventual rescue represents the possible healing of Africa in the wake of terrifying social upheavals, while her lack of consciousness suggests that all is not yet well. Soyinka's novel has been criticized for over-simplifying the political conflicts in post-colonial Nigeria, but he aims, at least, to advocate in his fiction a positive, forceful change for African society.

Kevin McNeilly

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Soyinka, Wole

Soyinka, Wole (1934– ) Nigerian playwright, novelist, and poet. Soynika's plays include The Lion and the Jewel (1963), Madmen and Specialists (1970), Jero's Metamorphosis (1972), and A Play of Giants (1984). The Road (1965), Season of Anomy (1973), and Death and the King's Horseman (1975) are among his most powerful novels. Detained (1967–69) without trial during the Nigerian civil war, Soyinka remains a vocal opponent of the military regime. He received the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature.

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