Soyinka, Wole (13 July 1934- )

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Wole Soyinka (13 July 1934- )

James Gibbs
Bristol, England

1986 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

Soyinka: Banquet Speech

Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Literature 1986

Soyinka: Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1986




This entry was updated by Tanure Ojaide from the Soyinka entry in DLB 125: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Second Series. See also the Soyinka entries in DLB Yearbooks 1986 and 1987.

BOOKS: A Dance of the Forests (London & Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press, 1963);

The Lion and the Jewel (London & Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press, 1963);

Three Plays (Ibadan, Nigeria: Mbari, 1963); republished as Three Short Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1969);

Five Plays (London & Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press, 1964);

The Interpreters (London: Deutsch, 1965; New York: Collier, 1970);

The Road (London & Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press, 1965);

Idanre & Other Poems (London: Methuen, 1967; New York: Hill & Wang, 1968);

Kongi’s Harvest (London, Ibadan, Nigeria & Nairobi, Kenya: Oxford University Press, 1967);

Poems from Prison (London: Collings, 1969);

The Trials of Brother Jaro, and The Strong Breed: Two Plays (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1969);

Madmen and Specialists (London: Methuen, 1971; New York: Hill & Wang, 1972);

A Shuttle in the Crypt (London: Collings/Eyre Methuen, 1972; New York: Hill & Wang, 1972);

The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (London: Collings, 1972; New York: Harper & Row, 1972; Lagos, Nigeria: University of Lagos Press, 1972);

Before the Blackout (Ibadan, Nigeria: Orisun Acting Editions, 1972?);

Camwood on the Leaves (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973);

The Jero Plays (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973);

Collected Plays, 2 volumes (London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, 1974);

Season of Anomy (London: Collings, 1973; New York: Third Press/Okpaku, 1974);

Death and the King’s Horseman (London: Eyre Methuen, 1975; New York: Norton, 1975);

Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976);

Ogun Abibimañ (London: Collings, 1976);

Aké: The Years of Childhood (London: Collings, 1981; New York: Random House, 1981);

Opera Wonyosi (London: Collings, 1981; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981);

The Critic and Society (Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press, 1982);

A Play of Giants (London & New York: Methuen, 1984);

Six Plays (London: Methuen, 1984);

Requiem, for a Futurologist (London: Collings, 1985);

Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (Ibadan, Nigeria: New Horn / Oxford: Zell, 1988); revised and expanded edition (London: Methuen; New York: Pantheon, 1993);

Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1988; London: Methuen, 1989; Ibadan, Nigeria: Fountain, 1989);

This Past Must Address Its Present (New York: Anson Phelps Stokes Institute, 1988);

Isara, a Voyage around Essay (Ibadan, Nigeria: Fountain, 1989; New York: Random House, 1989; London: Methuen, 1990);

The Credo of Being and Nothingness (Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum, 1991);

From Zia, with Love, and A Scourge of Hyacinths (London: Methuen, 1992); From Zia, with Love, published separately (Ibadan, Nigeria: Fountain, 1992);

Iku Olokun-esin (Ibadan, Nigeria: Fountain, 1994; London: Methuen, 1994);

Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946–1965 (London: Methuen, 1994);

The Beautification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope (London: Methuen Drama, 1995);

The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996);

Early Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997);

Arms and the Arts—A Continent’s Unequal Dialogue (Cape Town: University of Cape Town South Africa, 1999);

Scourge of Hyacinths: An Opera in Twelve Scenes, with Tania León (New York: Peermusic Classical, 1999);

The Seven Signposts of Existence: Knowledge, Honour, Justice and Other Virtues (Ibadan, Nigeria: Pocket Gifts, 1999);

The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999);

Nigeria’s Transition to Democracy: Illustrations and Realities (Port Harcourt, Nigeria: Centre for Advanced Social Science, 2002);

Salutation to the Gut (Ibadan, Nigeria: Bookcraft Nigeria, 2003);

Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World (New York: Random House, 2005);

You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 2006).

PLAY PRODUCTIONS: The Swamp Dwellers, London, National Union of Students’ Drama Festival, 31 December 1958;

The Lion and the Jewel, Ibadan, Nigeria, University College Arts Theatre, February 1959; London, Royal Court Theatre, December 1966;

The Invention, London, Royal Court Theatre, 1 November 1959;

The Trials of Brother Jero, Ibadan, Nigeria, Mellanby Hall, April 1960;

A Dance of the Forests, Lagos, Nigeria, Yaba Technical College, October 1960;

The Republican, Ibadan, Nigeria, University College Arts Theatre, November 1963;

The (New) Republican, Ibadan, Nigeria, University College Arts Theatre, March 1964;

Before the Blackout, Ibadan, Nigeria, University College Arts Theatre, 11 March 1965;

Kongi’s Harvest, Lagos, Nigeria, Independence Hall, 12 August 1965;

The Road, London, Theatre Royal Stratford East, September 1965;

The Strong Breed, Ibadan, Nigeria, Secondary Schools, 1966;

Madmen and Specialists, Watertown, Conn., Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center, 2 August 1970;

The Bacchae of Euripides, adapted by Soyinka, London, Old Vic, August 1973;

Jero’s Metamorphosis, Bristol, U.K., Van Dyke Theatre, February 1974;

Death and the King’s Horseman, Ife, Nigeria, University of Ife, Oduduwa Hall, December 1976;

Opera Wonyosi, Ife, Nigeria, University of Ife, Oduduwa Hall, December 1977;

Before the Blow-Out, Ife, Nigeria, 1978;

Rice or Rice Scene, Lagos, Nigeria, Museum Kitchen, 1981;

Camwood on the Leaves, Lagos, Nigeria, National Theatre, March 1982;

Priority Projects, Ife, Nigeria, December 1982;

Requiem for a Futurologist, Ife, Nigeria, University of Ife, Oduduwa Hall, January 1983;

A Play of Giants, New Haven, Conn., Yale Repertory Theater, 27 November 1984;

Before the Deluge, Lagos, Nigeria, 18 October 1991;

From Zia, with Love, Siena, Italy, June 1992;

The Beatification of Area Boy, Leeds, England, 1996.

MOTION PICTURES: Culture in Transition, commentary by Soyinka, Esso World Theater, 1964 (includes an abbreviated version of The Strong Breed);

The Swamp Dwellers, screenplay by Soyinka, London, Transcription Centre, 1967;

Kongi’s Harvest, screenplay by Soyinka, Lagos, Nigeria, Calpenny-Nigeria Films, 1970;

Blues for a Prodigal, scenario by Soyinka, Ife, Nigeria, Ewuro, 1985.

TELEVISION: My Father’s Burden, Western Nigerian Television, August 1960;

Night of the Hunted, Western Nigerian Television, November 1961.

RADIO: Camwood on the Leaves, Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, September 1960;

The Tortoise, Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, December 1960;

Broke-Time Bar [series], WNBS, Lagos, 1961;

The Detainee, BBC African Service, 5 September 1965;

The Swamp Dwellers, BBC African Service, 3 August 1969;

Die Still, Rev’d Dr. Godspeak! BBC African Service, 12 December 1982;

A Scourge of Hyacinths, BBC Radio 4, 8 July 1991.

RECORDING: Unlimited Liability Company, Ife, Nigeria, Ewuro Productions, July 1983.

OTHER: Frances Ademola, ed., Reflections: Nigerian Prose and Verse, includes Soyinka’s essay “Salutations to the Gut”; poems; and The Exiles, part of his trilogy “The House of Banigeji” (Lagos, Nigeria: African Universities Press, 1962);

“Telephone Conversation,” in A Book of African Verse, edited by John Reed and Clive Wake (London: Heinemann, 1964), pp. 80–81;

D. O. Fagunwa, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga, translated by Soyinka (London: Nelson, 1968; Atlantic Heights, N.J.: Humanities, 1969);

“The Writer in a Modern African State,” in The Writer in Modern Africa: African-Scandinavian Writers’ Conference, Stockholm, 1967 (Uppsala, Sweden: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1968), pp. 14–36;

“Modern Negro-African Theatre,” in Colloquium on Negro Art (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1968), pp. 495–504;

“The Fourth Stage: Through the Mysteries of Ogun to the Origin of Yoruba Tragedy,” in The Morality of Art, edited by D. W. Jefferson (London: Rout-ledge, 1969);

The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite, adapted by Soyinka (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973; New York: Norton, 1974);

James Gibbs, Study Aid to Kongi’s Harvest, prefatory letter by Soyinka (London: Collings, 1973);

“Theatre and the Emergence of the Nigerian Film Industry,” in The Development and Growth of the Film Industry in Nigeria, edited by A. E. Opubor and O. E. Nwuneli (New York: Third Press, 1974);

John Wakeman, ed., World Authors 1950–1970: A Companion Volume to Twentieth-Century Authors, includes an autobiographical statement by Soyinka (New York: Wilson, 1975);

Poems of Black Africa, edited, with an introduction and selected poems, by Soyinka (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1975; New York: Hill & Wang, 1975);

“Aesthetic Illusions,” in Reading Black: Essays in the Criticism of Afican, Caribbean, and Black American Literature, edited by Houston A. Baker Jr. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University African Studies and Research Center, 1976);

“Drama and the African World View,” in Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature, edited by Rowland Smith (New York: Africana, 1976);

Abdias do Nascimento, Racial Democracy in Brazil: Myth or Reality, foreword by Soyinka (Ibadan, Nigeria: Sketch, 1977);

“Morality and Aesthetics in the Ritual Archetype,” in Colloque sur littérature et esthétique négro-africaine, edited by Christopher Dailly (Abidjan, Ivory Coast & Dakar, Senegal: Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1979);

“The Man Who Was Absent,” in And They Finally Killed Him: Speeches and Poems at a Memorial Rally for Walter Rodney (1942–80), edited by Femi Falana and others (Ife, Nigeria: Positive Review, 1980);

“Cross-Currents: The ’New African’ After Cultural Encounters,” in Writers in East-West Encounter: New Cultural Bearings, edited by Guy Amirthanayagam (London: Macmillan, 1982);

“The African World and the Eurocultural Debate,” in Africa Under Colonial Domination, edited by A. Adu Boahen (Paris: UNESCO, 1985);

“Ethics, Ideology and the Critic,” in Criticism and Ideology: Second African Writers’ Conference, Stockholm, 1986 (Uppsala, Sweden: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1988), pp. 26–51;

Universal Declaration of Human Rights = Declaration universelle des droits de l’homme= Sanarwar kasashen duniya game da hakkin yan-adam = Nkuwuwaputa uwa nile bony ere ikike mmadu nwegasiri = Ikede kariaye fun retro omoniyan, foreword by Soyinka (Ibadan, Nigeria: Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique, Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, 1994).



“One Tree that Made a Forest,” Guardian (Lagos, Nigeria), 10 June 1987.


“Keffi’s Birthday Treat,” Nigerian Radio Times (July 1954): 15–16;

“Madame Etienne’s Establishment,” Gryphon (March 1957): 11–22;

“A Tale of Two Cities,” Gryphon (Autumn 1957): 16–22;

“Egbe’s Sworn Enemy,” Geste, 5 (21 April 1960): 22–26.


“An Open Letter to the Western Obas,” Daily Times (Lagos, Nigeria), 10 November 1966;

“Let’s Think about the Aftermath of This War,” Daily Sketch (Ibadan, Nigeria), 4 August 1967, p. 8;

“The Scholar in African Society,” Nigerian Herald, 31 February 1977 and 2 March 1977;

“1979: Year of the Road,” Daily Sketch (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1 January 1979, pp. 5, 13–14;

“The Wasted Generation—the Real Wasters,” Guardian (Lagos, Nigeria), August 1982;

“Shakespeare and the Living Dramatist,” Shakespeare Survey, 36 (1983);

“Ethics and Aesthetics of Chichidodo,” Guardian (Lagos, Nigeria), 7 December 1985, p. 9;

“Religion and Human Rights,” Index on Censorship, 17 (May 1988);

“Power and Creative Strategies,” Index on Censorship, 17 (August 1988);

“Nobel Lecture,” Black American literature Forum, 22 (Fall 1988): 429–448;

“A Time of Transition” and “Beyond the Berlin Wall,” Transition (New York), new series 51 (1991): 4–5; 6–25;

“The New Driver’s Licence: Rights and Responsibilities,” Guardian (Lagos, Nigeria), 10 April 1991, p. 28;

“No, This Is Not a Job for the Boys,” Vanguard (Lagos, Nigeria), 24 April 1991, p. 6;

“Why I Cannot Support Obasanjo,” Sunday Champion (Lagos, Nigeria), 2 June 199?.

Until he became, in October 1986, the first black African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Wole Soyinka was probably best known within his own country, Nigeria, as a political activist with a fierce commitment to individual liberty and human rights. His involvement over the previous quarter of a century had alerted his compatriots to the shortcomings of those in power and with responsibilities. For some younger Nigerians and for those outside the educational system, he had become particularly well known because of his efforts to reduce the number of accidents on the nation’s roads. Many people were, of course, aware of his varied and impressive achievements as a writer: he had many enthusiastic and discriminating admirers, and he exerted a major influence on younger generations of creative Nigerians. He also had his critics. Some of those on the Left considered him irresponsible and ideologically suspect, and some nationalists and “decolonizers” condemned him for allowing Western models to influence his writing. Soyinka insisted that his receiving the Nobel Prize should be seen as an award to the continent of Africa as a whole, but some regarded that as an indication, or as a further indication, of Soyinka’s appeal to a European audience.

Soyinka’s distinction as a writer, particularly as a playwright and poet, had also become apparent to many Africans outside Nigeria who had encountered his work on the stage or in the classroom. His writings had been featured extensively on course syllabi—evidence of endeavors to come to terms with African experiences—and African academics had examined his work from a variety of angles. Beyond the educational system, some had become aware of his interest in Pan-Africanist issues, his firmly held conviction that African intellectuals should be concerned about developments in the continent, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

His being awarded various honors and his plays being favorably received in Europe and the United States reflect Soyinka’s standing among academics and theater people on other continents. His work embodies a profound knowledge of the European intellectual tradition as well as a deep awareness of Yoruba attitudes and aesthetics. The Swedish Academy described him as “a writer who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.” More than any other single award, the Nobel Prize elevated Soyinka to a position of international prominence from which he could make his voice heard on social and political issues, and it provided him with opportunities to realize new creative projects. The award came after a period of five years during which Soyinka had produced some intense political dramas and a book of childhood memories, Aké (1981), which had made an impact on many who might never have read his poetry or seen his plays. Aké brought him wide recognition but also, from those who take a different stand on social and political issues, criticism.

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka was born in Abeokuta, in Western Nigeria, on 13 July 1934; he was the second child and eldest son of Samuel Ayodele (Ayo) and Grace Eniola Soyinka. His father, dubbed “Essay” in Aké, was principal of St. Peter’s Primary School, and his mother, nicknamed “Wild Christian” in Aké, was a teacher and became involved in agitation against the Alake, the local officeholder through whom the British ruled. Ayo Soyinka’s hometown, an ancestral base with which he maintained links throughout his life, was Isara, in the Ijebu part of Yoruba-speaking Western Nigeria. Wole Soyinka spent holidays there during his childhood and thus came in contact with a relatively isolated community, one that had managed to keep British colonial influences at arm’s length. Abeokuta, by contrast, was a refugee settlement, founded during the 1830s by a variety of mostly Egba groups fleeing southward before aggressors from the north. The town retained considerable political independence for decades; only after World War I did it become part of the British colony of Nigeria. But it was open to religious and economic influences. Beginning in the 1840s Christian missions established churches and schools there, and it gradually became an important trading center for the region. Abeokuta, particularly in its religious and commercial life, provided an example of creative syncretism that deeply impressed the young Soyinka. His mother was a member of one of the most distinguished families in the town. She was closely related to I. O. Ransome-Kuti, pioneering headmaster of Abeokuta Grammar School, whose wife, Funmilayo, played a decisive role in local and national politics. For the young Soyinka, the Ransome-Kuti family exemplified creative endeavor and political action.

At age eleven Soyinka left Abeokuta for Ibadan, where he completed his secondary education at the well-equipped Government College. After a brief period working as a clerk in Lagos, he returned to Ibadan, this time to the recently established University College to begin undergraduate courses. In 1954, at the end of his second year, he was awarded a scholarship to study English literature in the United Kingdom and took a place at the University of Leeds. He was awarded a B.A. in 1957 and started work on an M.A. He then moved to London, where he was encouraged by the directors at the Royal Court Theatre and gained valuable practical experience. He has since continued to move between universities and theaters, using the relative security of academia to work on creative challenges, always remaining his own man, resisting temptations to compromise and resolutely refusing to remain silent in the face of tyranny.

On 1 January 1960 Soyinka returned to Ibadan to accept a research post at University College and to contribute to the development of West African drama. Two years later he was made a lecturer at the newly founded University College of Ife, and then, after a break, he was promoted to a senior lectureship at the University of Lagos. In 1967 he was appointed director of the School of Drama at the University of Ibadan but was soon arrested and imprisoned for his political activity during the Nigerian civil war. After his release in 1969 he spent some time at Ibadan before leaving the country for visiting professorships, at Churchill College, Cambridge (1972–1973); at the University of Sheffield (1973–1974); and then at the Institute of African Studies, part of the University of Ghana. He returned to Nigeria, to a professorship at the University of Ife, in 1976 and remained there, with numerous absences to attend conferences, deliver papers, and direct plays, until 1985. During the mid and late 1980s he held visiting professorships at some American universities, including Yale and Cornell, and continued to find and make time to write, direct, and contribute to conferences and workshops in Nigeria and elsewhere.

His pattern of employment shows Soyinka moving between the classroom and the theater, his position and attitude often affected by the tumultuous political developments in Nigeria and black Africa during the last thirty years. These developments have included the nationalist movements’ agitation for independence; the tensions in the Western Region of Nigeria during the early 1960s, which resulted in the imposition of a state of emergency; the corruption and rigging that characterized the Nigerian elections of 1964; the rise and fall of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana; the January 1966 coup in Nigeria and the counter coup that followed; the massacres of Igbos in the Northern Region and the drift toward the secession of Biafra and civil war; Idi Amin’s and Macias Nguema’s reigns of terror in Uganda and Equatorial Guinea; the scandals of the Second Nigerian Republic; the repressive tone of the Buhari regime, which followed the coup of December 1983; and the restrictive elements that, in the late 1980s, crept into the Babangida regime.

Soyinka has returned again and again to particular themes and areas of interest in his work. These have included the responsibilities of the individual, the vigorous influence of the past on contemporary events, and the value of making a willing sacrifice. He has also campaigned against individuals and groups who have betrayed the trust placed in them and abused the privileges of office.

As a schoolboy, clerk, and student in Nigeria, Soyinka wrote poetry, short stories, and brief plays. He prepared sketches for production in school and pioneered Nigerian radio drama. At Leeds he deepened and broadened his awareness of Western literary and theatrical traditions and responded to the challenges of teachers such as George Wilson Knight and Arnold Kettle. He wrote witty, subversive short stories that attacked British insensitivity and ignorance about Africa; he campaigned against the South African policy of apartheid; and he gained valuable experience working as a reporter, interviewer, and presenter for the BBC during the late 1950s.

Toward the end of his time at Leeds, probably in 1957 and 1958, he wrote The Swamp Dwellers (in Three Plays, 1963), a drama triggered by reports of the extent of Nigeria’s reserves of oil. The play was produced in London (1958) and Ibadan (1959) and stimulated debates, which still continue, about Soyinka’s intentions as a playwright: Should he be regarded primarily as a poetic or a political dramatist? Is he most interested in conveying mood, in exploring the effectiveness of ritual sacrifice, or in motivating the masses to improve their conditions? Is he writing for intimate “art” theaters or for his fellow countrymen? The Swamp Dwellers works through contrasts and juxtapositions but shows an uncertainty that marks it as an apprentice work, an interesting failure that carries too clearly the marks of Soyinka’s reading in his “World Drama” class at Leeds.

The Lion and the Jewel, from the same period (produced in 1959, published in 1963), is part of a dialogue with the European tradition of comedy and with Eurocentric views of Africa—specifically with Joyce Cary’s novel Mister Johnson (1939). Set in a village called Ilujinle, the play presents the clash between the seventy-two-year-old Bale Baroka and the young schoolmaster, Lakunle, for the village belle, Sidi. Intrigue and fine— and merely bombastic—speeches are combined with elaborate passages of mime and dance. The wily Baroka completely outmaneuvers his opponent, and by so doing he challenges preconceptions, not least preconceptions about elderly people. Although demanding numerous skills from the performers, the play has been successfully produced in schools and colleges in Africa, Europe, and America, and it is among Soyinka’s best-known works. The 1966–1967 production at the Royal Court Theatre in London was a landmark in the recognition of Soyinka as a significant English-language dramatist. Some of those who have responded to the productions and those who have written about the text have been confused by the openness that is a feature of much of Soyinka’s stagecraft, and they have been uncertain how to interpret this relatively straightforward play. Many have jumped to the conclusion that Baroka represents tradition and that Soyinka is being reactionary in allowing him to win Sidi. Closer examination within the context of Soyinka’s ideas indicates that Baroka is a discriminating syncretist taking what he considers useful from outsiders and combining it with the virtues and privileges in the indigenous culture. Lakunle, the challenger, has considerable vitality and some creativity, but he is, by contrast, undiscriminating and infatuated with foreign novelties. While in some respects a challenge to European ideas about Africa and about the role played by Europeans in Africa—there is a revealing episode in which a venal white surveyor appears—the play is a contribution to the debate that preoccupied many Nigerians in the years preceding independence, about how imported and indigenous elements were to be “married” in the new, independent nation. An important element in Soyinka’s creative and intellectual makeup derives from the debates among African intellectuals during the 1950s; his writing frequently reflects an awareness of tradition and a flair for incorporating foreign ideas. There remains something of Baroka in Soyinka, and he continues to find inspiration in controversy.

In London during 1958 and 1959 Soyinka made contact with the BBC and wrote scripts for both the domestic and overseas services. He also did some part-time teaching in London day schools. An evening of political, semi-improvised drama in the tradition of the Living Newspaper, presented at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs during 1959, provided Soyinka with an opportunity to sing songs he had composed. One, with the refrain “Long Time, Bwana,” articulated, in an easily accessible folk idiom, the resentment of an exploited African worker. Soyinka’s considerable musical talents include composition, guitar playing, and singing, and the interweaving of musical with dramatic elements is a distinctive feature of his work. He has explored the capacity of music and song to make an impact on popular audiences and has found his songwriting abilities particularly valuable in attempting to communicate political opinions to mass audiences.

In November 1959 Soyinka directed an evening of his own work at the Theatre Upstairs. The first half of the program consisted of poetry and extracts from “A Dance of the African Forest” (unpublished); the second was an antiracist play, The Invention (also unpublished). By the time he mounted the production, Soyinka had already started publishing poems in Nigerian publications, and his range as a poet went far beyond the dramatic monologue: he was experimenting with a variety of poetic styles. The program contained some poems that are now familiar, including “Telephone Conversation” (in A Book of African Verse, 1964) and “Alagemo,” which appears as a prefatory poem to the published version of The Road (1965). The program also included a few Yoruba folk songs and Negro spirituals, which helped to define the parameters within which Soyinka was seeking his voice as a poet. Some of Soyinka’s poetry is densely textured, highly allusive, convoluted, even verbose, but to argue—as some do—as if all his poetry is in this style is to miss the variety of his output. Of the poems recited or sung at the Royal Court in 1959, only “Deserted Markets” and “Abiku” are in his first published collection of verse, Idanre & Other Poems (1967)—a succinct comment on the scope of the collection and a warning to those tempted to generalize on the basis of the thin volumes of poetry Soyinka has published in London and New York.

The Invention, a heavy-handed attack on racist notions, is set in South Africa after a nuclear explosion has turned everyone a pasty gray color. South African scientists have been commissioned to produce a means of finding out who had been “Bantu,” “Coloured,” and “White” before the mutation. The thin story line, which appears to owe certain elements to Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” does not adequately sustain the satire, which includes American, British, and South African bigots among its targets, and Soyinka has not included the play in any collections. He takes his role as a writer seriously and tries to fulfill many functions in this play and others. From time to time he uses his pen to attack specific targets, usually by exposing them to ridicule, in the hope that he will sway the wavering and stiffen the resolve of the committed. He has long felt passionately about South Africa and is acutely aware of the problems faced by the outsider who wants to write about conditions in that country.

Toward the end of his stay in England, Soyinka submitted a research proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation. He drew attention to what he considered the major issues confronting the African dramatist who endeavored to combine the “strong aesthetic awareness of traditional art” with dramatic conventions developed elsewhere. He anticipated the fusion of “the idiom beneath traditional drama” with other idioms, and he referred in passing to Japanese No theater and commended Bertolt Brecht as “the truly modern dramatist who has perpetuated the morality/parable as a dramatic form.” There is evidence in Soyinka’s interviews, critical writing, and plays that he has consciously endeavored to combine African, particularly Yoruba, forms with the European tradition of dialogue drama. He has published critical and theoretical writing, some of it clear and direct, some obscure, which provides a theoretical justification for his own experiments, has expressed an admiration for elements in Brecht’s work on several occasions, and has drawn on his poems and plays for ideas and conventions. In Opera Wonyosi (performed, 1977; published, 1981) Soyinka used The Threepenny Opera (1929; translated, 1964) as the basis for an attack on the vices of his country and his continent.

His proposal was accepted by the foundation, and Soyinka returned, with his research grant, to Nigeria in 1960, the year in which the country became independent. He immediately threw himself into the creative activities of the country, particularly those in Lagos and Ibadan and those associated with University College and the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. He gave radio talks, acted in a production of Brecht’s Good Woman of Setiuan (1943; translated, 1948), published poetry, performed at concerts organized by the American Society for African Culture (AMSAC), and became secretary of the Committee of Writers for Individual Liberty. He also wrote plays for radio, television, and the stage. As was expected of him by his Rockefeller sponsors and University College, Ibadan, he undertook research into West African drama, but writing it up was not given priority.

The Trials of Brother Jero (performed, 1960; published in Three Plays), his best-known work of this period, was written, or rewritten, at short notice, in response to a request for a play that could be performed in a converted dining hall in Ibadan. Drawing on his observation of the separatist Christian churches of Nigeria, on Ijebu folk narratives, and on theatrical conventions exploited by Brecht, Soyinka put together a vital and vigorous comedy, which contains a stark warning to a country on the eve of independence and a more general message about gullibility and false leaders. The negative reactions of those critics who regarded the play as an attack on Christianity have not endured. Indeed, because separatist sects are familiar throughout the continent and because the theatrical idioms employed are acceptable and exciting, the play has become a favorite with school, college, and community-center audiences throughout anglophone Africa. Productions in London and New York, sometimes with additional, topical references, have shown that the appeal of the play extends far beyond the continent of its birth. Aware of the vitality of the central character, and of the advantages of using a popular figure in order to make a series of social and political comments, Soyinka has written at least one other play in which Jero is featured, Jero’s Metamorphosis (published in The Jero Plays, 1973; performed, 1974).

The approach of independence made Nigerians particularly self-conscious, keenly aware of the possibilities for growth and change offered by the change of status. Soyinka presented two other plays to his countrymen in 1960; a radio play titled Camwood on the Leaves (published in 1973); and a national drama, A Dance of the Forests (performed, 1960; published in 1963), partly a reworking of “A Dance of the African Forest.”

Soyinka has described Camwood on the Leaves as an attempt to use “the idiom of the masquerade in auditory terms.” Set in a community like that in which Soyinka grew up, in which conflicts between Christian groups and followers of Egungun (native-religion) processions could divide families, the play explores the relationship between the Reverend Erinjobi and his son Isola. The drama unfolds with masterly control and important local details, accompanied by the effective use of the singing of the dirge “Agbe.” In the closing moments Isola kills, or “sacrifices,” his father, and the dirge wells up. The play can be seen as a rite of passage, with implications for a nation at a time of transition. It can also be regarded as an essay in tragedy: a dramatic statement of particular importance to those, mostly European, observers who had denied the existence of an African sense of tragedy. Camwood on the Leaves contains several of the ingredients found in German playwright Frank Wedekind’s Awakening of Spring (1891; translated, 1909), notably the repercussions of a youthful pregnancy, but the perspective of the community presented in Soyinka’s play is distinctively and challengingly different. After being broadcast during September 1960, Camwood on the Leaves lay neglected for many years. Often disregarded by those writing on Soyinka, it deserves consideration particularly for the way it uses sound, for its evocation of a divided community, and for the manner in which it establishes a dialogue between two traditions. Soyinka’s own interest in the play led to its publication in 1973 and his decision to stage it at the National Theatre in Lagos in March 1982.

As the similarities between the titles suggest, A Dance of the Forests is closely linked with “A Dance of the African Forest,” extracts from which formed part of Soyinka’s Royal Court evening. But whereas the London production was directed at the racist regime in South Africa, the latter play is directed at Nigeria; indeed, it draws on encounters with the politicians who were about to inherit power from the British. This “independence” play shows an awareness of the capacity of leaders to exploit those they lead, and it warns that euphoria at a change in national status “should,” in the playwright’s words, “be tempered by the reality of the eternal history of oppression.” A major theme in the play concerns the difficulties involved in making “new beginnings,” but there is much more. The cast list includes human beings and supernatural entities; the action incorporates rites, masques, a flashback, and a series of dances; there are also references to a variety of European dramas. Not surprisingly, Soyinka encountered numerous difficulties in mounting the production. Some of these were the result of extraneous factors (some members of the cast lived in Lagos, some in Ibadan; official support was reduced when the local implications of the play became apparent); others grew out of the text and the demands it made on the cast. As a result certain elements in the original text had to be abandoned—as the existence of alternative endings in various versions makes clear. A Dance of the Forests remains extraordinarily ambitious, a young man’s endeavor, full of themes that were to be more effectively worked out in his later writing.

Reviews of the premiere indicate that members of the first audiences were bewildered. Soyinka has claimed that it was the culturally alienated—the sort of people who wrote reviews—who found the play difficult, and he has maintained that “ordinary” members of the audience, the cooks and cleaners who allowed themselves to respond to the unfolding of the stage images without intellectualizing, returned to watch the production night after night. Since publication of the play, critical debate has continued about its meaning and significance. The play can be seen as an attempt to combine Yoruba traditions of festival drama with European traditions of dialogue drama, and the themes of expiation and purification are, with Soyinka’s grim warning about the “recurrent cycle of stupidities,” central. In a world in which envy and wickedness are often dominant, the possibility of establishing harmony may, Soyinka suggests, come from a recognition of past failures, from suffering, and from a willingness to assert oneself in a responsible manner on behalf of the community.

A Dance of the Forests reveals Soyinka’s ambition and the range of dramatic sources, both African and European, which he can draw on in his creative endeavors. The history of the first production shows the limitations, both human and political, which sometimes have restrained him. The critical response indicates the haste with which some critics reject him and the seriousness with which others take him. There has been speculative comment about the Nigerian reception of Soyinka’s plays in performance. Text-based criticism has often failed to appreciate the delight Nigerian audiences take in watching Soyinka’s plays, and this situation suggests that weight should be given to Soyinka’s observation about “ordinary” members of the audience.

Twelve years after his independence-year production of A Dance of the Forests, Soyinka directed extracts from the play in Paris, and reports suggest that he brought to the production a strong hand, establishing a firm sense of ritual and carefully controlled, stylized effects. Since he is an accomplished and experienced director, there is a sense in which his plays exist most authoritatively when he directs them.

Confronting the challenges posed by directing A Dance of the Forests in 1960 did not sap Soyinka’s creative energies, and the early 1960s continued to be a time of exceptional productivity. He wrote for television and radio and undertook research into West African drama. Two of his television plays reveal the tremendous range of his writing: My Father’s Burden (August 1960) is a naturalistic drama in which issues of ethnic differences, corruption, and, once again, the possibility of breaking with the past provide central interests in a play set among the bourgeoisie of Lagos. Night of the Hunted, the first part of a projected trilogy titled “The House of Banigeji,” was telecast during November 1961. An extract from the trilogy had appeared in the 1959 Royal Court performance, and portions of the second part, titled The Exiles, were published in the anthology Reflections (1962). The play shows how the curse of a dying mother is fulfilled despite flight from Nigeria to London to evade it. Written in a variety of styles, “The House of Banigeji” was on Soyinka’s desk for a long time and, perhaps, never reached a form that satisfied him. Furthermore, the conditions under which he worked at the Nigerian Television studio at Ibadan were frustrating: for instance, the transmission of My Father’s Burden was delayed by an hour because of a power cut, and as a result some members of the potential audience missed it. The importance of the plays for television is that they show a young dramatist anxious to exploit every available means of communicating with his fellow countrymen. “The House of Banigeji” is, in fact, a potentially important text that should be rescued from near oblivion.

During 1961 Soyinka was committed to writing scripts for a weekly radio comedy series, Broke-Time Bar, which ran for many months and was a cross between a situation comedy and a soap opera. Eventually, Soyinka’s desire to introduce what he called “astringent political comment” into the series brought him into conflict with administrators and politicians; he then stopped working on the program, which came to an end. The scripts indicate Soyinka’s skill at putting together popular comedies and at creating variations on mistaken identities and farcical confusions. Broke-Time Bar provided Soyinka with a means of communication and with additional income; it also enabled him to bring together and keep together a group of young people who wanted to become professional actors. A Dance of the Forest had been put on by “The 1960 Masks,” largely made up from the professional classes. Soyinka wanted to go further and to encourage younger people who could give more time to acting. To this end he formed the Orisun Theatre company, a major effort in the campaign to sustain a reliable group of actors and an effort that was encouraged by Broke-Time Bar.

During 1960 and 1961, as a Rockefeller research fellow, Soyinka was in a rather unusual position within the structure of University College, Ibadan; he was a postgraduate student at a time when University College was made up almost entirely of undergraduates or staff members. The grant provided him with considerable freedom, and he was entitled to a Land Rover and a mileage allowance. During his time as a researcher Soyinka observed rituals and performances in Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast, and he attended conferences in Europe and the United States. He also spent some time in libraries reading old issues of Nigeria Magazine and Nigerian Field, he kept abreast of the work Ulli Beier was publishing on Yoruba festivals, and he thought about the essential ingredients of African, and more precisely Yoruba, theater.

Within Soyinka there has always been a tension between the academic and the man of the theater, the critic and the creator, the analyst and the writer. Despite excursions into academic, critical, and analytical writing, he is basically and most importantly a creative writer, and his conduct as a research student indicates his own recognition of his aptitudes. It was expected that he would write a book based on his research, but the book does not seem to have been completed. He did, however, gather material for a paper and for subsequent writing. The paper, titled “The African Approach to Drama,” was delivered at a UNESCO-sponsored conference on African culture held at Ibadan during December 1960 and was an artist’s manifesto, which, in some lights, sounded like a research paper. He dispensed with the formalities of academic papers but drew on reading and observation, and on an essentially comparative approach. Soyinka is constantly seeking and finding parallels, both within and outside the field of African drama; he feels similarities and is sensitive to affinities with other traditions of drama. He was, in the paper, more concerned to state a position than to argue a case. “Dramaturgically,” Soyinka asserted, “the African is an instinctively metaphorical artist, eschewing the plain historical restatement for a symbolic ritual.” Much of the paper was personal, idiosyncratic, and impressionistic; it ultimately said more about his approach to drama than about “the African approach to drama.”

In his plays, among other concerns, he is particularly interested in symbolic ritual. The play that appears to owe most to Soyinka’s period as a research student, one that is worth more than any monograph on West African drama that he might have written, is The Strong Breed (published in Three Plays; performed, 1966). It contrasts two purification rituals, one highly stylized, the other comparatively unsophisticated. Soyinka seems to borrow structural features from Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones (1920) in order to explore the conduct of Eman, a member of “the strong breed,” one of those who bear the burdens of the community. The chronological sequence of events is scrambled and can be confusing, but the dramatic contrasts, the oppressive mood, and the challenge to Eman’s will that Soyinka establishes help to make this a compelling drama. Though short, The Strong Breed stands near the center of his achievement as a dramatist, clarifying ideas about sacrifice that had been obscure in A Dance of the Forest, employing ritual for dramatic effect, exploring the position of the individual, and continuing a dialogue with Christianity and with the Western theatrical tradition.

During the early 1960s Soyinka prepared an abbreviated version of The Strong Breed, and that version formed part of the movie Culture in Transition (1964). The play has since been produced professionally in New York (1967) and London (1968), has been translated into French, has been produced by Nigerian students, and has attracted amateur groups in several anglophone African countries. Its appeal is not nearly as immediate as The Trials of Brother Jero, but it remains an invaluable introduction to serious themes in Soyinka’s work.

Soyinka combined his writing with his other contributions to the vigorous development of Nigerian cultural life that characterized the early 1960s. He shared in enterprises with other Nigerian literary figures of his generation, such as Chinua Achebe, J. P. Clark, and Christopher Okigbo, and with some of them he attended the Writers’ Conference held at Makerere, Uganda, during June 1962. There he criticized negritude (though not for the first time), advocating that African writers accept their African background and feel free to respond to experiences originating outside the continent. He expressed this attitude by reportedly saying, “The tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.” Some critics have demanded that African writers should strive to eliminate non-African images and influences from their work and have taken Soyinka to task for this attitude. His debate with nationalists, chauvinists, and “decolonizers”—whom Soyinka sometimes calls “Neo-Tarzanists” or “throwback activists”—continues.

In 1962 Soyinka began his career as a university lecturer at University College, Ife. But the following year he resigned, disgusted at the weakness shown by the authorities of the college in the face of political pressure. He has never been averse to making the most of a potentially dramatic situation—some regard him as impetuous—and has always been prepared to put his principles above his well-being. The struggle for power between Nigerian political parties and their leaders during the early 1960s led to the erosion of academic freedom and provided a test of his commitment to human rights. Temporarily cut off from any base at a university, Soyinka worked with amateur and professional theater groups to bring together a season of plays in English and Yoruba. He began producing plays he thought were particularly relevant to his contemporaries, and he cultivated links with the vigorous Yoruba traveling theater companies. He had been interested in these companies for some years, supported their efforts in various ways, and drew inspiration from the skills and styles they cultivated.

The political and human tensions Soyinka had drawn attention to in his plays of 1960—such as the gullibility of the people, the hypocrisy of leaders, and the difficulties involved in making a new beginning-became increasingly apparent. Eventually, the federal government found an excuse to declare a state of emergency in the Western Region. To Soyinka and other Nigerian intellectuals, the country appeared to be following the trend set elsewhere in Africa toward repression, a one-party state, and dictatorship.

During 1965 Soyinka took a post as senior lecturer in English at the University of Lagos. His being hired was probably based on recognition of his creative rather than his scholarly achievements. In Lagos he watched the challenges to democratic institutions grow stronger, and, because of censorship, he experienced difficulties in communicating his ideas. With the 1960 Masks, Orisun Theatre, and Yemi Lijadu he gave his genius for satire full rein in working on a series of revues: The Republican (1963), The (New) Republican (1964), and Before the Blackout (1965; published circa 1972). Through them he attacked a variety of targets, including opportunist politicians, corrupt timeservers, and cynical manipulators, exposing clearly identifiable individuals to ridicule and providing a commentary on the state of the nation since independence. Some of the more literary sketches from the revues were subsequently published under the title Before the Blackout (probably in 1965, though the book is not dated). They reveal Soyinka’s skills as a songwriter and satirist as well as his confidence that the writer can sway the audience. His strategy in the revues was to identify and pillory individuals who in his opinion had behaved irresponsibly. Critics from the Left have sometimes challenged this approach, regarding it as focusing on symptoms and neglecting causes, but Soyinka has changed little over the years. Given the vigor of the Marxist school of criticism in Nigeria and the wide distribution of other Marxists, it seems probable that this debate, like that over negritude, will continue.

The year 1965 was also marked by the publication of Soyinka’s first novel, The Interpreters; the first public reading by him of his long major poem Idanre; the premiere of The Road at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London; and the opening of Kongi’s Harvest at Independence Hall in Lagos. Soyinka has described The Interpreters, on which he must have worked for an extended period during the early 1960s, as “an attempt to capture a particular moment in the lives of a generation which was trying to find its feet after Independence.” The novel has a complex structure and dense passages of descriptive prose, which have alienated some readers and some critics. The structure may indeed be disconcerting, but it is also intriguing, especially when one understands that narrative in Soyinka’s creative world is only one way in which a piece of work can be held together. He has always maintained his right to communicate with different groups at different times, to write adaptations of Yoruba folk songs in Yoruba, and to arrange a pattern of interrelated events for those, perhaps a far-flung elite, who respond to a challenging work of literature. The Interpreters marked an authoritative move into a genre new to Soyinka; and it quickly established itself as a classic of African writing. The momentum of the novel is sustained by the detailed portrayal of life in Lagos and Ibadan, particularly among the academic community, and by the vigorous satire at the expense of Nigerian newspapers.

Composed, apparently, within a period of twenty-four hours, Idanre is a mythological poem on a scale and on themes for which little in Soyinka’s previous output had prepared readers. During the early 1960s he had continued his experiments with verse, and his works, often concerning gyres or cycles of history, had become increasingly assured. He carried over from Yoruba usage a delight in the manipulation of word, image, and idiom that sometimes pleases but other times becomes bombastic and anarchic. He is a mythopoet for whom Yoruba and other myths provide a means of coming to terms with and communicating experiences. In Idanre he works particularly on stories associated with the Yoruba mythological figures Ogun, Atunda, Sango, and Oya, and the Idanre Hills, within a tradition that, he argues, is resilient and syncretistic, a tradition in which new experiences are easily incorporated within an old framework. To illustrate the context in which he writes, Soyinka says in his notes to the volume that a statue of Sango, god of lightning, stands outside the offices of the Nigerian electricity supply company, and Ogun, the daring pioneer who made a road through a swamp that had divided gods from men, is regarded as “the primal motor mechanic.” Ogun, compounded of opposites, powerful, Promethean, daring, and dangerous to know, is Soyinka’s patron deity.

Soyinka read Idanre at the Royal Court Theatre during the Commonwealth Arts Festival, in September 1965. The Road, though not an official Nigerian entry in the festival, was given a professional production that same month at the Theatre Royal Stratford East to coincide with the festival. Actors from a variety of backgrounds took part, and Soyinka contributed advice. The critics were divided in their response: several were taken aback by the mixture of the satirical and the spiritual, by the buried story line, and by the use of Yoruba rituals; but there was a widespread feeling that the production was stimulating and theatrically diverting. A few critics were of the opinion that Soyinka had made a major contribution to English-language theater. Literary critics, including Eldred D. Jones and Gerald Moore, have subsequently written of the published text (1965), and some have become embroiled in trying to explain the meaning of particular passages. Soyinka himself has drawn attention to the origin of the play in his interest in investigations into the transition from life to death, the groping to define the essence of death. He has also said that the play was originally conceived as a movie.

The Road is profoundly influenced by a Yoruba sense of the continuity between life and death and of the limits on human knowledge of the universe. Songs and rituals constantly break through the surface of the drama and draw attention to this Yoruba dimension. But in other respects The Road is the product of Nigerian experiences during the middle of the twentieth century, and it reflects the roles played by drugs, criminals, corrupt policemen, and unscrupulous politicians. Some of Soyinka’s critics have commented on the obscurity and complexity of this play, but others—notably some on the Left, including Biodun Jeyifo—have responded favorably to his treatment of economic and social issues.

While in London to take part in the Commonwealth Arts Festival, Soyinka played Konu in a BBC radio play he had been commissioned to write, The Detainee (unpublished). Set in a prison in a recently independent African country, it reflects the profound concern with which African intellectuals viewed the developments that had followed independence in many African countries. The imaginary state in which The Detainee is set bears resemblances to Ghana, which Soyinka knew firsthand and which, under the leadership of Nkrumah, had carried many of the hopes of the continent. The introduction of repressive, antidemocratic measures had marked the end of Nkrumah’s honeymoon with African intellectuals, and in The Detainee Soyinka set out to show that the reality of independence had fallen short of the dream. The playwright’s prognostications had been proved right: the hopes that accompanied independence had been proved false. Independence was not a horn of plenty but a Pandora’s box full of political monsters and diseases.

Kongi’s Harvest (performed, 1965; published, 1967), also draws on contemporary political developments; it combines particular and topical allusions with comments applicable to various countries. The play was apparently inspired by Hastings Banda, president of Malawi, saying that he wanted a particular opponent brought to him dead or alive. Other African leaders alluded to include Nigerian politicians and, more controversially, Nkrumah. But perennial Soyinkan concerns, such as his interests in the possibility of change and in the conflict between the forces of life and the forces of death, lie at the heart of the play. The 1965 production in Lagos seems to have emphasized certain links between the megalomaniac Kongi, autocratic ruler of Ismaland, and Nkrumah. The play is built, in a manner characteristic of Soyinka, around an interrupted ritual, in this case the ritual associated with the harvest of yams, and casts Kongi as a barren, hate-filled tyrant determined to usurp the right of traditional ruler Oba Danlola to receive “the first fruit” of the new crop. Danlola resists the political pressure from the new head of state and supports the vital challenge to Kongi launched by the characters Daodu and Segi. Daodu, an educated farmer and Danlola’s heir, and Segi, the mysterious female owner of a nightclub and the organizer of a women’s group, arrange for Kongi to be shot during the New Yam Festival, but their plan goes awry when the assassin is killed. Segi then improvises a ceremonial dance in which Kongi is presented with the assassin’s head, a gesture showing that Kongi is a harvester of death. Part 2 ends this way in the printed version of the play, but in his productions Soyinka has experimented with a variety of stage actions at this point. And he has on occasion omitted the final section of the published version, “Hangover,” in which three of the characters respond to the public humiliation of the despot.

Some critics have condemned the play for what they regard as its disrespectful portrait of Nkrumah, others for Soyinka’s failure to clarify the narrative line. (What exactly are Daodu and Segi planning?) Soyinka has also been accused of other crimes with an ideological dimension, of mystification, of selecting an elitist hero (Daodu) rather than a man of the people, and of adding yet another seductive “superwoman” (Segi) to his list of female stereotypes.

Shortly after returning to Nigeria from the Commonwealth Arts Festival, Soyinka was tried for holding up a radio station and stealing tapes. The trial grew out of an incident in which an intruder, angry at the way regional elections had been conducted and the way S. L. Akintola had been declared the winner, entered the radio station at Ibadan and, at gunpoint, forced the acting head of programs to remove Akintola’s taped victory address and substitute a tape the intruder had brought with him. According to an observer sent to cover the trial for Amnesty International, the intruder’s tape began, “This is the Voice of Free Nigeria,” and went on to advise Akintola and his followers to “quit the country.” The opening sentences of the intruder’s tape had been broadcast before a vigilant employee of the broadcasting service interrupted transmission. The Nigerian police declared Soyinka a wanted man, and in due course he gave himself up, was denied bail, and, with legal help, defended himself against the charges. The courtroom exchanges and other events—Soyinka went on hunger strike at one point—guaranteed extensive newspaper coverage and placed the playwright at the center of the national stage. Eventually, on the grounds that there were material contradictions in the evidence against him, he was acquitted in December 1965 and carried shoulder-high from the court.

Soyinka is a political activist as well as a writer: he regards it as his duty to take a part in influencing the direction taken by Nigeria. He articulated his commitment to political action in his seminal address to the First African-Scandinavian Writers’ Conference, held at Stockholm during 1967. Toward the end of his paper (“The Writer in a Modern African State”) he declared, “The artist has always functioned in African society as the record of the mores and experience of his society and as the voice of vision in his own time.” Over the years Soyinka has taken various roles in national life, and, in statements, papers, and essays, he has contributed to the debate about the role of the writer. The full story of the radio-station holdup has not yet been told, and Soyinka has been reluctant to comment on the judge’s verdict.

The months between Soyinka’s acquittal on the charge of holding up the radio station and his rearrest during August 1967, in connection with, among other things, an open letter he wrote about the Nigerian civil war, were momentous ones for Nigeria. There was a coup by radical and progressive officers who had the support of many Nigerian intellectuals, but the coup was subsequently presented to the nation as having been masterminded by a particular ethnic faction. It was followed by a countercoup launched by conservative forces, which brought Yakubu Gowon to power.

During 1966 Soyinka revised his production of Kongi’s Harvest and went with it to Dakar, Senegal, for the Festival of Negro Arts. There he was awarded a prize for The Road, gave a paper on Nigerian theater titled “A Study in Tyranny and Individual Survival,” and sat on a panel concerned with African film. But his doubts about the philosophy that provided theoretical justification for the festival—negritude—remained. Subsequently, over a period of several years, he explored differences and common ground in conversations with Léopold Sédar Senghor.

During this period he directed plays by local and foreign playwrights and channeled a considerable amount of creative energy into poetry. In 1966 he celebrated the “First Rite of the Harmattan Solstice” with a small, mimeographed (unpublished) collection of his verse, some of which may have been composed some years before. The titles suggest that some of these were written in Yoruba and in the form of Yoruba oriki (poems of praise). During the latter part of 1966 Soyinka’s poetry became more directly focused on events in Nigeria. In Idanre & Other Poems he subtitled one section “October ’66” and included in it poems that embody responses to scenes of violence and reports of massacres, which he places in a wider context. For example, in “Harvest of Hate,” meditating on the way the current situation had arisen, he writes:

Now pay we forfeit on old abdications
The child dares flames his fathers lit
And in the briefness of too bright flares
Shrivels a heritage of blighted futures

The relatively private response to events represented by the majority of the poems in the collection was complemented by outspoken contributions by Soyinka to the press. Public controversy was nothing new to him; he had reveled in the brisk exchanges of student politics and taken part in debates during his undergraduate days. Starting shortly after his return to his native land, he had written to the press on a variety of issues, including the quality of the first festival organized by AMSAC, the hazards encountered on Nigerian roads, the state of emergency, the need to adapt African dances for the stage, Ahmadu Bello’s My Life (1962) and the way Soyinka’s review of it (Daily Express, Lagos, 17 November 1962) was edited, preventive detention, and the sentencing of five northern women to one year in prison and eighty strokes of the lash for “insulting behavior.” His poem “For Segun Awolowo,” in memory of the son of a leading Western Region politician, also appeared in the press; though complex and metaphysical, it was widely appreciated and later collected as “In Memory of Segun Awolowo” in Idanre & Other Poems.

During November 1966, following the massacres of Igbos and the announcements that a group of obas (Yoruba traditional rulers) was about to set out on a nationwide peace mission, Soyinka wrote “An Open Letter to the Western Obas” (Daily Times, Lagos). He made it clear that he regarded the peace mission as a purposeless charade, a confusionist tactic that would try to cover with words the wounds that only actions could heal. He coupled his criticism of the Obas with an attack on members of the Yoruba community in Zaria for the “un-Yoruba” manner in which they had expressed their thanks for being protected during disturbances. One of the obas responded in the same newspaper by saying that “Soyinka is a carbon-copy of Shakespeare. He is rather the modern Shakespeare of our time and he is entitled to his opinion.” Another said venomously and with the confidence that comes with age in some communities, “Soyinka is not seriously wishing to help the country. Being a small boy he could be childish in ideas.” In the correspondence columns of the newspaper during the days that followed the publication of the open letter, there were more critics than supporters of Soyinka’s position.

Undaunted by the reaction to his first open letter, Soyinka wrote again during August 1967. At this stage the times were even tenser, and his style was appropriately more acerbic. By 4 August, when the letter appeared, Biafra had seceded from Nigeria; there were “Igbos Must Go” demonstrations in Lagos; rumors were circulating that Igbos were planning to blow up the city; and the Sunday Sketch newspaper had reported the capture of the city of Nsukka. Official accounts, however, were still talking of the conflict as a “police action.” Soyinka’s 4 August 1967 article, “Let’s Think of the Aftermath of This War,” was an appeal for a truce and a demand for plain speaking. It was also an attack on those he regarded as exploiting the confusion and chaos: “the now familiar brigade of professional congratulators, opportunists, patriots and other sordid racketeers who are riding high into positions of influence on the wave of hysteria and tribal hatred.” Soyinka was detained shortly after the letter was published and just after he had made a visit to Biafra and spoken to leaders there. Accusations were made against him. Although he spent twenty-seven months in prison, he was never charged, and, it seems, he was victimized because he raised his voice in the interests of peace and diplomacy.

Soyinka has described his experience of detention in his prison notes, The Man Died (1972). This book should not be regarded as a comprehensive, factual account of the entire period Soyinka spent in prison but as a celebration of a creative response to detention. It contains thoughts about the nature of tragedy; poems; tributes to the resilience of fellow prisoners; and grotesque, amusing, poignant descriptions of people and events. There are also some word sketches of the artist as a political prisoner.

While Soyinka was in prison, Idanre & Other Poems and The Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga, his 1968 translation of D. O. Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode Kinu Igbo Irunmale (1950), were published. Work on the translation had been in progress for several years and indicated Soyinka’s anxiety to make a distinguished Yoruba novel accessible to a wider readership. As a translator Soyinka is concerned with communicating the spirit of the original rather than with producing a faithfully literal version, and the book provides a focus for his ideas about language and the issues raised by translation.

Shortly before his arrest Soyinka had dispatched the essay “The Fourth Stage: Through the Mysteries of Ogun to the Origin of Yoruba Tragedy” to D. W.Jefferson, who was editing a festschrift in honor of Knight (The Morality of Art, 1969). It is not clear when this essay was composed or whether it was written with Jefferson’s collection in mind. Although sometimes tending toward an affectionate parody of Knight’s style, it provides considerable insight into the principles on which Soyinka has constructed his tragedies, principles that exploit the common ground between African and European experience. Central to Soyinka’s thinking about tragedy is the ritual root of the form and a selection of myths associated with Ogun, particularly the stories of how he built a road to link men and gods, and how, confused and drunk, he killed many of his friends and supporters. Soyinka maintains that Ogun worshipers reenact the deity’s crossing of the “transitional gulf.” In this essay, as elsewhere, Soyinka can be seen establishing his ideas in the course of a dialogue or a debate and finding, within the traditions of the Yoruba people, elements that echo his deeply held feelings. He recognizes, for example, that creative and destructive impulses are closely allied and are found together in the truly creative.

After his release from detention Soyinka returned to the University of Ibadan as director of the School of Drama and took over a production of Kongi’s Harvest, which was in rehearsal. He gave the production an anti-military slant, and those who had previously recognized Nkrumah in Kongi now saw a portrait of the head of the Nigerian military junta, Gowon. In a program note Soyinka emphasized that the play was about a condition, “Kongism,” rather than about an individual. He maintained that “there are a thousand and more forms of Kongism—from the crude and blasphemous to the subtle and sanctimonious.”

During the early months of 1970 Soyinka worked on and completed a film version of the play. He “opened out” the text, reshaped the plot, and provided opportunities for spectacular shots of Abeokuta and of Olumo Rock, which rises above the town. He played the role of Kongi himself, communicating an acute sense of spiritual exhaustion and occasionally calling to mind President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Soyinka had long been interested in film as an art form and as a means of communication, but he was unhappy with the version of the movie that was released. He went so far as to dissociate himself from it, describing his performance as Kongi as “the extent of [his] participation.” The movie never made as deep an impact as the American and Nigerian backers, Calpenny-Omega, hoped it would, but, despite dismissive comments to the contrary, it is technically acceptable. Thematically, it is generally faithful to Soyinka’s scenario: the final image (of Segi’s father becoming a dictator) is not quite what Soyinka seems to have had in mind, but the implication that Kongism has not been dethroned and will not easily be overthrown comes across.

By July 1970 the shooting of the movie had finished, and Soyinka had obtained support from the University of Ibadan for proposals to establish a performing company attached to the university and to upgrade the School of Drama to a Department of Theatre Arts. Along with some of those who were to become deeply involved in the company and the department, he responded to an invitation from the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center at Water-ford, Connecticut, to stay at the center and work on a bitter, sardonic play he had thought about and perhaps partly scripted while in prison, Madmen and Specialists (performed, 1970; published, 1971). In the excellent working conditions provided at the center, Soyinka wrote with a freedom that had rarely if ever been possible in Nigeria: passages were rewritten overnight; roles were expanded or reduced; sections were cut; and new material was added. Soyinka seems to have used the play as a means of “exorcising” his civil-war experiences, and it has been described by Abiola Irele as embodying “a passionate and consuming obsession with the problem of evil.” However, the play is not entirely bleak. Humor breaks through from time to time, although it is often grim or “sick”: smiles tend to come through clenched teeth. After putting on the play at the center and in some predominantly black neighborhoods in the United States, the group returned to Nigeria, where a revised version was staged during March 1971.

The invitation from America provided evidence of the growth of Soyinka’s international reputation, not only as a writer but increasingly as a director. Over the years Soyinka has built up a company of reliable, versatile performers who are in tune with the kind of theater he wants to create, and he was able to draw them together at Waterford, to alter his scripts in rehearsal to accommodate particular talents, and to cope with cast changes. The character Si Bero, for example, was originally a mother figure, not a sister figure, in Madmen, the alteration being necessitated by a change of actress.

After the Nigerian production of Madmen and on the eve of the release of the movie of Kongi’s Harvest, Soyinka left Nigeria for what he intended to be a “brief exile” in Europe. He was away, in fact, for five years, during which time he resigned from his post at Ibadan and wrote, published, or prepared for publication an impressive list of books: A Shuttle in the Crypt, The Man Died, his adaptation The Bacchae of Euripides (1973), The Jero Plays (1973), Season of Anomy (1973), Poems of BlackAfrica (edited by Soyinka, 1975), Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), and Myth, Literature and the African World (1976). He also acted in Joan Littlewood’s May 1971 Paris production of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Murderous Angels (published in 1969). The latter part of Soyinka’s exile was spent in Ghana, where he edited the journal Transition and was a prime mover in the formation of the Union of Writers of the African Peoples (UWAP).

The energy that went into this extraordinary creativity was released by the experiences of the Nigerian civil war, by the circumstances of his exile, and by his continued, but distanced, contact with Nigeria. A Shuttle in the Crypt, a volume of poetry, is a “map of the course trodden by the [poet’s] mind” during his imprisonment. One of the most controversial features of the collection is the extent to which he draws on Western modes and archetypes, particularly in the section that includes the creative interaction of the prisoner with such figures as Hamlet, Joseph, Ulysses, and Gulliver. Some critics have argued that the tribulations of incarceration drove Soyinka back to his foreign sources of inspiration, others that the imprisonment represented an abyss into which the poet, like Ogun, descended and in which, again like Ogun, he triumphed by asserting himself.

The Man Died carried Soyinka’s fame and opinions far beyond the literary circles that reacted to A Shuttle in the Crypt: it was read as a contribution to Nigerian studies, widely reviewed, and much discussed. Apparently, it was conceived as two books and can be seen as an unusual combination of a hard-hitting political expose and a prison memoir, with poetry and literary thoughts. Soyinka wrote part of the book to straighten the record regarding the background to his imprisonment, but other elements in it reveal the range of his interests and the variety of his concerns. Central to the political aspect of the book is the reference to the so-called Third Force, which Soyinka, apparently, supported. The significance of this group has not yet been adequately indicated. Indeed, historians and political scientists who have written about the civil war have generally found little or no space for discussion of the group, its political philosophy, its modus operandi, or its impact. Soyinka boldly—or rashly—“named names” in the book, and Rex Collings, a London publisher and friend, took some risk in publishing it. Sales in Nigeria were not as high as had been hoped, partly because of the distribution problems of the book trade in that country, partly because booksellers were discouraged from stocking it. Some years later another effort to keep the book from the Nigerian reading public was successful when Femi Okunnu, one of those named, sued the African publisher, the University of Lagos Press, resulting in an order to withdraw all copies from the shops. By that time, however, The Man Died had become an established part of the literature on the Nigerian civil war. (The court case was eventually settled many years later, and Soyinka was ordered to pay a small amount in damages.) Soyinka’s book is provocative and couched in characteristically strong, sometimes hyperbolic, terms. Though these words are not out of place in the hectic badinage that is the current coin of much Nigerian public debate, they seem self-indulgent when encountered beyond the nation’s boundaries. The title, incidentally, is taken from a telegram concerning the fate of an innocent man at the hands of the agents of the new rulers of Nigeria. It also calls to mind Soyinka’s conviction that “the man dies” in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.

Season of Anomy, Soyinka’s second novel, takes central concerns from The Interpreters and selects a new moment at which to consider the choices confronting those working for change. Fast moving, readable, and mythological—links are established with the myths of Orpheus and Euridice—the novel presents claims of a harmonious community (Aiyero), the appeal of a cold-blooded assassin (Isola Demakin), and the responses of the artist-media man (Ofeyi). Some critics have objected to what they consider the chauvinistic presentation of the major female character, to the use of a Greek mythological source, and to the lushness of some of the writing. Others have tended to downplay the forceful evocation of the brutality of civil war and the intellectual debate about the responsibility of the individual.

Soyinka spent most of 1972 in Europe, and during the academic year 1973–1974 he held a fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge. While there, he delivered a series of lectures subsequently published under the title Myth, Literature and the African World. They combine lucid criticism of specific texts with discussions that reveal the scope of Soyinka’s acquaintance with literary and theatrical traditions and his search for an idiosyncratic perspective. The lectures were given in the anthropology department, a fact that provides an insight into the authorities’ attitudes toward African studies and reveals that the struggle to have African creativity recognized had yet to be won in certain contexts. The existence of these contexts explains the polemical nature of some of Soyinka’s arguments in his lectures and his attempts to articulate ideas about existence, drama, and morality.

While at Cambridge, Soyinka returned to an episode suggested to him in about 1960 as suitable material for a drama: the interrupted ritual suicide of the king’s horseman at Oyo during the mid 1940s. Soyinka was able to write the play quickly, and it was given a group reading at Cambridge. Initially titled “Death and the D. O.,” it was published as Death and the King’s Horseman, and in 1976, after Soyinka had returned to Nigeria, it was given its premiere. Three years later, in 1979, Soyinka directed a production at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and the play was subsequently staged at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. American interest in the play has remained high, and during 1986 Soyinka directed a production in one of the theaters at the Lincoln Center in New York.

Response to the first Nigerian production and to the published version tended in Nigeria to be dominated by the feeling that the concern with the “feudal” values of the court at Oyo is irrelevant and that tensions between the classes should have been presented. In America the reaction has been more encouraging. Despite difficulties in drawing the performances he required from his American casts, Soyinka has found that his presentation of an African society and of the issues confronting it was widely acceptable. The decision to transfer the first American production to Washington, D.C, for example, indicated the feeling of influential individuals that the play deserved a wider and more cosmopolitan audience than it had in Chicago. In his “Author’s Note” to the book, Soyinka writes about the importance of the “threnodic essence” of the play and the need to avoid the “reductionist tendency” to analyze it in terms of a “clash of cultures.” Despite this note, the play does confront issues raised by the interaction of the Yoruba worldview with the prejudices cultivated at the outposts of the British Empire. The movement of the horseman, Elesin, toward death and his failure to commit suicide at the appropriate time provide considerable dramatic interest and a sharper dramatic focus than the metaphysical dimension.

Death and the King’s Horseman combines powerful dramatic verse and some impressive characterization with a structure that incorporates contrast and juxtaposition. It explores the complexities of situations, ambiguities, and uncertainties in human relations and refuses to opt for the easy rhetoric of the anticolonial struggle. Some have praised the play as a penetrating examination of responsibilities and as a worthwhile examination of the notion of honor. Others have drawn attention to the way in which Soyinka “re-creates” Olunde, Elesin’s son, who kills himself to salvage his family’s reputation. Unlike the figure in the original sources, Olunde is presented as a medical student who is foreign educated: yet another of Soyinka’s elitist heroes, a recruit to the ranks of the lonely saviors. This line of criticism frequently fails to take into account the almost inevitable concentration on individual characters in those dramas that are aimed at affecting the emotions of the audience.

While in exile, Soyinka fulfilled a commission from the National Theatre in London to prepare an adaptation of The Bacchae by Euripides. He had first worked on an adaptation of this play, which he regarded as a flawed masterpiece, while an undergraduate at Ibadan; and his mature work drew on his long acquaintance with the text, as well as on his thinking about the nature of Ogun. He also incorporated ideas from his reading—some of it Marxist analysis—about the social and economic conditions that provided a background to the play. In Soyinka’s version Pentheus emerges as a “colonial” figure obsessed with “order”; and Dionysus, “the god of the people,” as an Ogun figure. Those familiar with his earlier plays recognized Soyinka’s characteristic emphasis on cultural coincidences, on the need for a willing sacrifice, and on the renewal that comes through ritual death, while those who knew Idanre and “The Fourth Stage” drew attention to the extent to which the new version repeated Soyinka’s earlier ideas about Ogun.

The British National Theatre entrusted the production of Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides to a young director, Roland Joffe, who has since made a reputation as a movie director. A distinguished cast was assembled, and the 1973 premiere production was widely, though not always favorably, reviewed. It was suggested in some quarters—and this seems to have been Soyinka’s opinion—that Joffe’s production was out of sympathy with basic elements in the adaptation and that the performers were ill equipped to cope with the demands made on them. The Bacchae of Euripides presented by the National Theatre did not mark, as some had hoped it would, the arrival of Soyinka in a major London theater. But the text provides an opportunity to observe the points of convergence and separation between the Greek original and the Nigerian adaptation, and a comparison brings out important aspects of Soyinka’s abilities and sensibilities.

While in Europe, Soyinka remained in touch with events in Nigeria, with the result that some of his work from this period is a contribution to the debate about Nigerian issues. In the middle of 1972 a member of the Gowon junta was given the task of clearing the prophets and leaders of separatist sects from Bar Beach, the fictional home of Soyinka’s Brother Jero, near Lagos. Soyinka seems to have already entertained thoughts of bringing Jero back onto the stage—a play titled “The Exodus of Brother Jero” had been announced at one point but not completed. The junta’s clearance scheme, together with the spate of public executions carried out in a panic response to an increase in armed robberies in the country, provided a situation around which Soyinka could work a play. He called the new drama Jero’s Metamorphosis (produced in 1974 and published in The JeroPlays). It combines broad comedy, at the expense of recognizable types, with a clever, subversive attack on the Nigerian military regime. In the course of the play Jero, alert, subtle, and manipulative, uses blackmail and his wits to bargain his way into a powerful position. He becomes the leader of the Church of the Apostolic Salvation Army and obtains a “spiritual monopoly” in the National Execution Amphitheatre, which is to be built on Bar Beach once the prophets have been removed. Soyinka sent copies of the play to people he thought might direct it and clearly hoped for a Nigerian production, but apparently there was not one until the middle of 1981, by which time the soldiers were safely, if temporarily, back in their barracks. One of the reviews of that production was headlined “Corruption Glorified in Jero’s Metamorphosis”—a perverse response, which shows that even the straightforward Jero plays can be misunderstood.

While following Nigerian affairs with great intensity and responding to specific episodes, Soyinka in exile was also able to cultivate his sense of the experiences that unite the African continent. He edited a volume of poems from black Africa for Seeker and Warburg, a volume that runs to 378 pages and includes his introduction and about 240 poems, 9 of them by Soyinka. The collection differs from earlier anthologies of African verse and makes a Pan-Africanist point by arranging the poems according to theme rather than by the nationality of the poet. One intriguing feature is to be found in the biographical notes at the end of the volume: Soyinka has indicated the towns in which most of the contributors were born, but he writes discreetly, or perhaps secretively, that he himself was born simply “in Nigeria.”

This major collection, the result of wide reading and careful selection, shows the points at which black African experiences in different parts of the continent touch, and it brings together traditional verse with the work of several generations of writers. In the introduction Soyinka confronts the issue of outside influences on African poets and argues that in poetry, as in fields of major technological development, there has obviously been outside influence, which is not necessarily bad. He makes the point in relation to freedom fighters: “To recommend, on the one hand, that the embattled general or the liberation fighter seek the most sophisticated weaponry from Europe, America or China, while, on the other, that the poet must totally expunge from his consciousness all knowledge of a foreign tradition in his own craft, is an absurdity.” In these lines it is possible to hear, once again, distant echoes of Soyinka’s exchanges over negritude and his debates with those who demand “the decolonization of African literature.” Much of his writing over the years has been given an edge, and made more difficult to follow, by being part of a debate or a contribution to a series of debates.

After leaving Cambridge, Soyinka took the post of editor of Transition, a magazine devoted to “Culture and the African Creative Scene,” which had been founded in 1961 and had been edited in Kampala, Uganda, by Rajat Neogy. But with the rise and tyranny of Amin, Uganda could no longer provide a base for either Neogy or a publication devoted to freedom. Soyinka was guest editor for volume forty-six (1974), and in an editorial he struck a distinctive note, carrying over concerns apparent in Death and the King’s Horseman:

Peoples who have experienced the humiliation of imperial attitudes on their own soil must recognise that any pretence towards decolonisation is a gesture of betrayal as long as vestiges of such attitudes remain on the liberated soil. Attitudes are directly related to values. The African people, minus such national leaders as are hopelessly seduced by their own image of the black colonial governor, must know that the values of the outgoing imperial powers must be replaced by an ethnically appropriate system of values and social structure, if the work of true liberation is to be completed.

Soyinka’s policy pushed forward the cause of liberation by focusing on the positive achievements in Guinea-Bissau and of Amilcar Cabral and then by boldly exposing tyranny and failure in Ethiopia and Uganda. Volume forty-six of Transition also featured an article on the 1973 famine in Ethiopia, and a subsequent issue documented the extent of the bloodshed caused by Amin. On the literary side Soyinka published an article by some of his severest critics—Chinweizu, Onwuchewka Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike—and he replied to them in a typically spirited article titled “Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Traditionalism” (in Art, Dialogue and Outrage, 1988).

With volume fifty Soyinka sought to reflect the new direction in which he was taking Transition by changing the name of Ch’Indaba, an invocation composed of “’Indaba’—the Great Assembly, Council, Colloque (Matabele) and ‘Cha’—to dawn (Swahili).” But his efforts were to no avail: stories linking the American Central Intelligence Agency with associations and congresses for cultural freedom began to appear in other publications, and financial support for Transition was seen to have come from a partisan American source. Attempts were made to find alternative funding, but these were unsuccessful; Transition/Ch’Indaba died. One of the last issues printed a preliminary “Declaration of African Writers.” Dated March 1975, it looked forward to the inaugural meeting of UWAP, scheduled to take place during 1975. Soyinka had been an active member of a campaigning writers’ group in Nigeria during the early 1960s and had carried on his interest in creating a writers’ organization that would fight for human rights and promote the development of literature. He took a leading role in the formation of UWAP and was elected secretary-general at the inaugural meeting. The extent of the union’s activities have not been fully documented, but Soyinka wrote, spoke, and organized functions in the name of the union during the years that followed. For instance, he wrote an open letter (Daily Times, Lagos, 9 December 1978) to Senghor objecting to the banning of the movie Ceddo, and he wrote to Daniel Arap Moi demanding the release of the imprisoned Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Soyinka organized a press conference at the time of the Second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), and he spoke at a public meeting called to celebrate the removal of Amin. UWAP came into existence because of Soyinka’s vision, passion, enthusiasm, and energy.

In December 1975 Soyinka, speaking on behalf of the Cabralist Movement for African Alternatives, welcomed the stand taken on Angola by Murtala Mohammed, who had overthrown Gowon during the previous July. The new junta provided a leadership under which Soyinka, for all his dislike of military rule, felt he could live and work. He returned to Nigeria and in January 1976 took a professorship at the University of Ife. In certain respects he began to work within the establishment. Soyinka enjoyed a few days of Mohammed’s brief but, for many, golden reign: in February the leader was shot dead during an attempted putsch. He was succeeded by the uncharismatic Olusegun Obasanjo.

When, on 3 March, Samora Machel put Mozambique on a war footing against Rhodesia, Soyinka celebrated by writing a major poem, Ogun Abibimañ (1976), which runs to twenty-two pages and is dedicated to the dead and maimed of Soweto. The poem, which brings together the gods Ogun and Shaka, ends with Ogun in the ascendant. However, the fact that Machel subsequently signed the Nkomati Accord, a nonaggression pact with South Africa, was viewed by Soyinka as a betrayal.

During December 1976 Soyinka produced Death and the King’s Horseman at the University of Ife, but the play seems to have been out of tune with the times. The Nigeria to which Soyinka had returned was a country in which the rich had become richer and the poor poorer than before, in which the economy had been distorted by the oil-boom years, and in which the voice of the Left was louder and more articulate than ever before. The arts festival FESTAC, which took place early in 1977, provided Soyinka with many insights into the extent to which corruption and inefficiency had come to characterize his native land. Hoping that something could be salvaged from the occasion, he became involved in the organization of the festival, but he eventually resigned, frustrated and angry. It had become clear that the “cultural jamboree” was being run for the benefit of contractors and businesspeople, rather than for artists or performers; the festival was not for those interested in the contribution the arts could make to the nation or the continent. Although he resigned from his official festival post, Soyinka did not boycott the celebrations entirely: he delivered a paper at the Colloquium on Black Civilization and Education, which constituted one of the less spectacular, less extravagant, and more productive aspects of the festival. In “The Scholar in African Society,” Soyinka injected notes of controversy and idealism into his speech, alluding to diplomatic dramas and stressing the social obligations of the academic community. He defined the black scholar as “a historicized machine for chewing up the carcase of knowledge to regurgitate mortar for social reconstruction,” and he addressed himself to the vexed question of a language for the continent. After reviewing the debate up to 1977, he asked the assembly whether it joined him “in calling upon [African] governments to commence the teaching of Kiswahili in all the schools on this continent.” No answer is recorded. It seems that plans to adopt Kiswahili as the continental language remain pious resolutions.

During 1976 Soyinka used Brecht’s Threepenny Opera as a basis for Opera Wonyosi, literally “The Fool Buys Wonyosi”—wonyosi being a particularly expensive lace very popular with wealthy Nigerians. In some respects the work can be seen as a response to those who had condemned Death and the King’s Horseman as well as a reaction to the brutalized society to which Soyinka had returned. The Nigerian version of the story follows Brecht, and therefore to some extent John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728), but Soyinka added new characters and sequences and gave the work a distinctively African and Nigerian flavor. Soyinka’s script contains allusions to continental and local scandals—for example, the outrageous extravagance of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s coronation and the mysterious deaths associated with the marble deposits at Igbetti. Some of these atrocities are attacked in effective musical sequences or in memorable songs. The play might seem to be the kind of production the Left would have welcomed, and to some extent they did: it was vigorous and accessible theater. But, in the words of Biodun Jeyifo (in a review collected in The Truthful Lie, 1985), it fell short of what was desired because it lacked “a solid class perspective.” This absence was to be expected in view of the indebtedness to an early Brecht script and in view of Soyinka’s rejection of a perspective based on class as providing the answer to all questions about human behavior. His response to Jeyifo’s criticism, an important document in Soyinka’s encounters with the Left, is found at the beginning of the Collings edition of the play. But his most recent creative work, particularly his agitprop theater, his popular, satirical music, and his ventures into filmmaking, must also be taken into account when describing his response to such criticism.

It was planned that Opera Wonyosi would move on from Ife, where it premiered, to the National Theatre in Lagos, but the production was deemed unsuitable, and the invitation was withdrawn. The scale of the piece meant that it could not easily be accommodated in other venues. Determined to avoid similar frustrations and in order to communicate with the general public, Soyinka created his next productions in an agitprop style. He wrote Home to Roost and Big Game Safari, known collectively as Before the Blow-Out (performed in 1978; unpublished), which provide a commentary on current affairs, particularly on the preparations being made for a return to civilian rule. These sketches, which are suitable for performance in almost any open space and require few props, follow the careers of some of the characters introduced in Opera Wonyosi as they return to Nigeria to fight for their place at the “table of delights” that would be laid for the politicians successful in the forthcoming elections. The opportunists were getting ready for “the blow-out.” The sketches, performed by a new group, the Guerrilla Theatre Unit of the University of Ife, reveal that Soyinka still had something to learn about using performance arts to make an impact on his countrymen. They are written in English, and although many of the effects created are easily appreciated, some of the humor assumes a fairly advanced knowledge of the language. Their importance resides in what they reveal of Soyinka’s moving toward popular, political theater.

During 1978, while working with the Guerrilla Theatre Unit, Soyinka also directed The Biko Inquest, a version of the eponymous proceedings in a South African court that had been edited by Jon Blair and Norman Fenton, and a major indictment of the South African police state. Soyinka designed an effective set for the production and stepped in at an advanced stage in the rehearsals to avert possible disaster by taking over a major role. The production was subsequently televised and taken to New York for a festival in 1980— evidence of Soyinka’s desire to use the media to take his theater to a large audience and to broaden the experience of those working with him.

Soyinka’s concern about his country and his continent did not only find expression in theatrical activities. He had long been distressed by the number of people killed on Nigerian roads and by the appalling risks taken by those who travel by road. In a 1 January 1979 newspaper article he asked that 1979 be designated “The Year of the Road,” and he became an active campaigner for road safety, putting forward proposals and accepting certain responsibilities. This activity might seem meekly virtuous and thoroughly uncontroversial, but, in the context of the cross between a racetrack and a battleground that Nigerian roads sometimes resemble, it was no easy undertaking. Unroadworthy vehicles; unlicensed drivers; reckless nihilists behind steering wheels; irresponsible, inept, ill-equipped, and inefficient road-maintenance engineers; and profit margins that depend on high speeds, low maintenance costs, and overloaded trucks make Nigerian roads a formidable challenge. Soyinka has put vast resources of energy into patrolling roads, writing about roads, and framing proposals to make the roads of Nigeria safer. He has composed leaflets and, at one point, was said to be working on a road-safety movie, applying his talents and skills in an effective manner. In handling officers and the press, Soyinka’s conduct has been high-handed on occasion and has attracted criticism from inside and outside the Road Safety Corps.

In the period immediately before the October 1979 Nigerian elections, Soyinka was in Chicago working on the production of Death and the King’s Horseman for the Goodman Theatre, but he returned home from time to time and followed what was happening closely. As a result of the elections, or rather as a result of a particular reading of the provisions of the constitution, Shehu Shagari became president of the Second Republic of Nigeria. It was a new beginning, ending thirteen years of military rule in a nation that had not yet been independent for twenty years. But the very announcement of Shagari’s victory provided serious grounds for concern. In Oyo State, within which both Ibadan and Ife are situated, Bola Ige, a member of the Unity Party of Nigeria and an old friend of Soyinka, was elected governor. Soyinka accepted from him the chairmanship of the Oyo State Road Safety Corps and threw himself into its crusade. He also worked closely with Tunji Aboyade, the vice-chancellor of the University of Ife and another companion of long standing.

In December 1980 Soyinka delivered his inaugural lecture, a professorial obligation. Like much that he had written before, his lecture is stimulating and exciting but shows more of the creative writer than of the academic. Titled “The Critic and Society: Barthes, Leftocracy and Other Mythologies” (collected in Art, Dialogue and Outrage), it restates Roland Barthes’s concepts so as to make them unrecognizable—merely a starting point for an inquiry. The critics whose works are examined are predominantly those of the Nigerian Left, but Soyinka also comments scathingly on some European and American critics.

In 1981 Soyinka was a visiting professor at Yale University, which had already awarded him an honorary doctorate. It was anticipated that he would direct a new work, A Play of Giants, subtitled “A Fantasia on an Aminian Theme,” but other commitments prevented the immediate realization of this project. The play, which was eventually published and performed in 1984, is partly a specific campaign against Amin, who had begun his reign of terror in Uganda during February 1971, and partly the presentation of a more general concern with responsible leadership in Africa. It is a ferocious attack on a selection of the tyrants who had taken power in Africa: Nguema, Amin, Bokassa, and Seko. Some of those, from the Eastern and Western blocs, who interfere in African affairs are attacked, and the gullibility of those who are manipulated is exposed. The drama, set in the “Bugaran Embassy” in New York, shares some qualities with plays by Jean Genet and is somewhat static, more concerned with making satirical points than with maintaining dramatic momentum. It ends with Kamini, the Amin figure, turning the firepower with which he had been supplied by the world powers (and which he had smuggled into the embassy in diplomatic bags) on the United Nations building. A Play of Giants recalls The Invention in being a political drama first presented to a non-Nigerian audience by a non-Nigerian cast and in being so bitter that the attack sometimes proves wearisome. It is iconoclastic theater, nonnaturalistic, grotesque, reminiscent of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), and linked at many points with the lives of the powerful tyrants who had emerged in Africa. Indeed, power and its exercise have long fascinated Soyinka, and A Play of Giants is just one in a series of his works that examine the theme.

Soyinka began writing his autobiography in Ghana during his time as editor of Transition and had encouragement from publisher Rex Collings. The story of his first eleven years was completed at the beginning of the 1980s and published under the title Aké: The Years of Childhood. It is a dramatist’s autobiography, filled with vividly realized characters, neatly shaped episodes, effective dialogue, and a wealth of information about the families and communities that nurtured him. Aké reveals a dramatist’s recognition of the need to simplify and highlight, fueled by the desire to capture in writing the characteristics of a disappearing culture. The impact of the autobiography in Nigeria was not as great as might have been expected, because of problems of distribution and, until the paperback was issued, of cost. Some of the most important Nigerian responses to Aké have been political and social, reacting to Soyinka’s criticism of the political situation in Abeokuta or his presentation of women, for example. In the United Kingdom the book was widely and favorably reviewed, but it made a much greater impact in the United States, where it found an enthusiastic readership and drew the author and his resilient African world to the attention of a new public.

During 1982 Soyinka worked, once again, in a variety of contexts. For instance, in January he launched Aké at Abeokuta, using the occasion to attack Shagari’s government and draw attention to the political violence and injustice apparent in the country; during March and April he staged his early radio play, Camwood on the Leaves, at the National Theatre in Lagos; in the middle of the year he delivered his paper “Shakespeare and the Living Dramatist” at a conference held in Stratford-upon-Avon; he also fulfilled a commission to write a radio play for the BBC (Die Still, Rev’d Dr. Godspeak!). These and other engagements showed Soyinka to be a full-fledged international figure with a deep involvement in Nigerian affairs and a commitment to a wide variety of practical, academic, social, and creative projects.

Die Still, Rev’d Dr. Godspeak! was further developed and, under the title Requiem for a Futurologist, widely toured within Nigeria in 1982 and 1983 and was published in 1985. Drawing inspiration from a text by Jonathan Swift about an almanac maker, John Partridge, the play mingles satire and social comment with metaphysical speculation. While not vintage Soyinka, Requiem for a Futurologist provides evidence of Soyinka’s continued concerns and creativity. It was toured with a series of sketches, titled Priority Projects, which made a considerable impact: they used spectacle, simple dialogue, strident lyrics, and effective music to draw attention to the corruption, mismanagement, and hypocrisy in Nigeria. Soyinka released the songs that made a major contribution to Priority Projects on a long-playing record, together with a chanson à clef titled Unlimited Liability Company. This song was a witty and telling attack on the widely discredited government Shagari headed. The record was sold, sung, and danced to in the weeks before the national elections of August 1983. In those states that opposed Shagari, the record was broadcast, reached a large section of the population, and seems to have become an anthem of the opposition.

Millions voted against Shagari, and many were convinced that Shagari had been voted out. However, he was declared the winner—a sequence of events that recalled for many the 1965 elections. Soyinka’s reaction was to head for a microphone: he flew to London and gave an interview to the BBC in which he described the background to the elections, the way the Western press had been manipulated, and the distortions apparent in the official version of the results. The interview was broadcast by the BBC to Europe and Africa and was heard by millions. Shagari’s second term was short, ended by the coup that brought Mohammed Buhari to power. Soyinka was initially prepared to give this new military regime a chance to prove its worth, but he quickly became disillusioned; he was distressed by its intolerance of opposition and its repressive tendencies, and he began saying so.

On 13 July 1984 Soyinka celebrated his fiftieth birthday. A symposium was held at Ife, providing opportunities for colleagues, friends, and critics to assess his achievements as a dramatist, novelist, poet, filmmaker, political activist, and social commentator. The Left was well represented, asking whether Soyinka was progressive or reactionary, urging a move toward greater “audience consciousness” and a “transparency which is simple but delicate,” drawing attention to his penchant for histrionics, and requiring that as an artist he should go “beyond the rot.” The celebrations included a showing of a rough-cut version of Soyinka’s Blues for a Prodigal (released in 1985), a movie designed initially to expose the violence and corruption that characterized the Shagari government. Blues for a Prodigal is, however, something of a disappointment: it slides occasionally below B-movie standards, searching for an idiom in which narrative and political comment can be effectively brought together. There are also technical weaknesses, which may be the result of the small budget and of having to shoot part of the movie under the occasionally vigilant eye of antagonistic political opponents. Soyinka was still seeking to come to terms with the cinema; he was aware of the enormous potential of film as a means of communication and anxious to develop a characteristic approach to the medium, but he had difficulty arranging financial and technical support.

When, at the beginning of 1985, Soyinka attempted to screen Blues for a Prodigal in Lagos, the print was seized by officers of the National Security Organization; Buhari was not prepared to allow the showing of a movie directed primarily at the regime he had toppled. During the following months Soyinka attacked the Buhari regime on several counts, particularly for Decree 20, which meant “death by retroaction,” imposing retroactive death penalties for many offenses; for the “deafness” of the leaders; and for the detention of columnist/educationist Tai Solarin who criticized the regime for human rights abuses. On 17 June, Soyinka was in London, where he spoke at the Institute of Contemporary Art on “Climates of Terror,” a topic that enabled him to challenge, provoke, and entertain his audience. (The paper was later published in Art, Dialogue and Outrage.) In the question-and-answer session that followed he spoke about the Nigerian situation and about the future: “The dam must burst … a people like ours cannot be held down.”

During early August, Soyinka severed some of his links with the University of Ife. A special program of poetry, music, drama, and several farewell speeches revealed the esteem in which he was held. He designed the house he intended to build at Abeokuta, and during the years that followed, he devoted time and energy to the construction of what he regarded as a center for creative people rather than as a home. The end of August 1985 saw yet another coup in Nigeria. Led by Major General Ibrahim Babangida, the coup showed that the dam had not burst, but a sluice gate had been opened. In September, Soyinka combined approval of the first few steps taken by the new regime with advice to the new junta about the dangers that might come from the indiscriminate release of political detainees.

His departure from Ife, assumption of academic responsibilities at Cornell University, and work on a production, in French, of Jero’s Metamorphosis with a theater group in Martinique reflected the shift in focus of part of his life. One effect of the move was to bring him to even greater international prominence. During the year following his resignation he was president of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), was runner-up (to Max Frisch) for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, was awarded the Mattei Prize for Humanities, and was elected a corresponding member of the East German Academy of Arts and Letters. He also became an honorary member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters.

Soyinka’s career in the mid 1980s exhibited familiar ingredients: there were national and international concerns and academic and creative projects. But the proportions altered somewhat since he was no longer attached to a Nigerian university and since, in 1986, he was elected president of the ITI. His election was in recognition of his achievements as a widely produced playwright. Based part of the year at Cornell University, he fulfilled various ITI obligations, lecturing and taking responsibilities connected with an international theater festival held in Baltimore, where there were Russian objections to the presentation of Animal Farm, by the British National Theatre. Tested in the fire of Nigerian politics, and experienced in the diplomatic moves that go into the smooth running of African arts festivals, Soyinka found himself caught up in the tensions of the Cold War. In the same year, moving confidently where Nigerian affairs were concerned and speaking boldly on familiar issues, he joined with Achebe and Clark in unsuccessfully petitioning Babangida to spare the life of Major General Mamman Vatsa, a poet-soldier accused of plotting a coup. A month later Soyinka delivered a provocative paper, “Ethics, Ideology and the Critic,” at the Second Stockholm Conference for African Writers.

The announcement that he had been awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature came on 16 October. The citation described Soyinka as “a writer who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.” Soyinka expressed the opinion that the prize was not an award for himself “but to all the others who [had] laid the basis and were the source from which [he] could draw. It is,” he observed, “the African world which can now be recognised.” Soyinka was informed about the award in France when he flew in from the United States en route to a drama festival at Limoges. After giving the world press the quotes it needed for the story about the first black African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he cut short his visit to Europe and returned to Nigeria. Minutes after his arrival he was informed that the military leader had made him a “Commander of the Federal Republic.”

In the months following the award of the Nobel Prize, Soyinka directed Death and the King’s Horseman in New York and gave readings, lectures, and interviews. He also wrote what he described as “scraps of poetry…chapters of this…sketches of that” and accepted a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company in London to prepare a script of The Blacks by Genet for their autumn 1987 season. He never completed the script to his own satisfaction, and the production never took place.

In May 1987 he read poems at the Albert Hall about Muhammed Ali, Master Sergeant Doe of Liberia, and Nelson Mandela. The reading came just after the death of Nigerian politician Obafemi Awolowo, and Soyinka responded by composing for Awolowo a tribute in verse titled “One Tree that Made a Forest,” published in the Guardian (Lagos), 10 June 1987.

In 1988 Soyinka published a collection of essays, Art, Dialogue and Outrage, and a volume of poetry, Mandela’s Earth. A sequel to Aké, titled Isara, was published the following year. The essays brought together the familiar with the previously unpublished, the most striking being those written in outrage, angry contributions to debates that show Soyinka’s passionate concern. In the poems, written with supreme self-confidence, Soyinka comments on experiences in America and responds to the villains and heroes of Africa. The poems about the Mandelas and poems that evoke Nigeria are the most moving and powerful. The final note of the final poem in the collection brings together powerful images of fire and rain, which run through many African cultures, and, in the final stage, Soyinka marries “earth to heaven.”

Isara explores the world in which Soyinka’s father, Ayodele, grew up. Throughout the novel runs the conviction that the earlier generation responded to the challenges posed by a changing world with considerable determination and praiseworthy resourcefulness. Inevitably there are parallels with Soyinka’s own generation, a group he has described as “wasted.” Although set in the past, his readable, fluent novel engages the modern reader.

Much of Soyinka’s work after Isara was an attempt to salvage something of value from the failed hopes of the heirs of the colonialists, and the tone of his writing is often desperate. Regarding Nigeria’s roads, the playwright continued his campaign to try to reduce the terrible death toll, for example, by requiring national driver’s licenses. This step might appear to be a relatively straightforward in many societies, but, despite training schemes, the distribution of free booklets, and a huge publicity onslaught, the program was thrown off course at almost every turn in Nigeria. Corruption, opportunism, ineptitude, inefficiency, and the submissiveness of Nigerians were difficult obstacles. In a newspaper article, “The New Driver’s Licence,” Soyinka wrote: “I would be frankly ill at ease with myself if I failed to call the attention of the public to its own laziness, its continuing abdication of basic rights to official crooks, thugs, touts and other adventurist scum of society who prey upon the public’s civic shortcomings, even where the crucial interests of [the] public are involved.”

That passage is, in a sense, typical of Soyinka—the school principal’s son, the poet-policeman, the “angry old man.” Campaigning for road safety was a means through which he attempted to improve his society in a very practical and down-to-earth manner, and he found it a desperately frustrating experience. After an extended period during which a successor was sought, he relinquished the chairmanship of the Governing Council of the Federal Road Safety Commission at the end of 1991. His resignation did not, however, mean an end to his involvement with road safety or with other attempts to improve the quality of life in Nigeria and to reduce corruption. In August of 1991 he came out in favor of “Reparations”—a movement to ensure that the account left open by the slave trade was settled. Soyinka’s solution, given in an address to an April 1992 international conference held in Washington, D.C., involved a distinctive twist: a writing off of the debts to international bodies and banks owed by African nations. “Let all debts be,” he said, “not forgiven but—simply annulled.”

A more obviously creative response to some aspects of the spiritual, financial, and social malaise he diagnosed in Nigeria came in Before the Deluge, a satirical revue, the successor to Before the Blackout and Before the Blow-Out. Staged in October 1991 with the help of musicians, actors, and directors who had worked with Soyinka over the years, the revue included attacks on the gutter press, the conditions in Nigerian prisons, the head of state (Babangida), and the violent solutions offered for urban housing problems.

This engagement with social issues, and the determination to continue defying the encroaching tentacles of corruption and compromise, can also be seen in his published dramatic texts from this period. In July 1991 the BBC broadcast Soyinka’s play A Scourge of Hyacinths, and in June 1992 Soyinka directed From, Zia, with Love at a festival in Siena, Italy. Both were published in the same volume in 1992, and a comparison shows that they are two versions of the same play. The first is for a radio audience with limited knowledge of the intricacies of Nigerian politics. The second, more expansive, exploits the particular possibilities of live theater, includes songs, and contains a stinging indictment of Nigerian society—particularly the involvement of the business and military communities in drug transactions.

The central dilemma in both plays concerns Miguel Domingo, who is accused of a crime that has retroactively become a capital offense. The drug plot is tied in with an increase in drug-related offenses during the 1980s, which led to the arrest of many Nigerian women who were being used to carry drugs into Europe and North America. Investigations within Nigeria linked local drug barons with the highest officials, and this situation is also explored. The hyacinths in the title of the first play are a dominant image in both texts and refer to the water hyacinths that have spread uncontrollably in certain African waters. Soyinka makes them a symbol of the military who are in power in so much of the continent, and of the “official crooks, thugs, touts and other adventurist scum.” Nigeria has become a place in which it is difficult to do anything in a straightforward manner: inefficiency and corruption are widespread, an appeal to the public good rarely gets a wholehearted response. Bureaucratic arteries are clogged like the waters full of hyacinths. In both plays, but particularly in the stage version, the desire to embody the struggle of the man of principle is confused because of Soyinka’s compulsion to comment on current events. He seems to be looking for vehicles to carry the concerns of Soyinka the social critic, but that which finds convenient expression in a revue sketch or a newspaper article is not always suitable for a play.

The theater has not been the only means Soyinka has employed to communicate during the early 1990s. For example, during 1992 he not only directed From, Zia, he also traveled to Britain, where The Road received its second London production, and to Washington, D.C., where he addressed the international conference on finance with his speech called “Culture, Memory and Development.” Back in Nigeria he broadcast, wrote for the press, and organized various projects. Toward the end of March he launched the African Democratic League, with the stated aim of concerning “itself with state crimes against individuals,” and which set 1995 as a “reasonable date” for establishment of “the total democratic process on the continent.” At a time when Nigeria was beginning to get caught up in election fever and when local parties were being formed, Soyinka, the maverick supporter of human rights, took a non-partisan stance, embodying his commitment to multiparty democracy and thereby establishing a platform from which he could comment on events.

In 1994 Soyinka left Nigeria to live in exile in France and the United States, remaining a dedicated opponent of the regime of strongman Sani Abacha. Accused of participating in bomb plots against the government in 1996 and 1997, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. After Abacha died in summer 1998, Soyinka returned to Nigeria to fight for establishment of a democratic government. During his exile Soyinka continued to fight for human rights in Nigeria. In 1996 he published The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, in which he discusses the hanging of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight members of his Movement for the Survival of Ogoni Peoples, among other considerations of Nigeria’s postcolonial identity. In 1997 he delivered at Harvard University a series of lectures (collected in 1999 as The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness) critical of the Nigerian military regime and questioning whether the culture of repression could be overcome. After his return to Nigeria in 1999 Soyinka published the pamphlet titled The Seven Signposts of Existence: Knowledge, Honour, Justice and Other Virtues, in which he explores the traditional Yoruba belief in Orisa and urges his people to study the spirituality of their continent as a means of strengthening their cultural identity.

Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (2002) is a collection of poems written while Soyinka was in exile and during his many international travels. The short title poem takes on from the traditional African/Yoruba saying, “The world is a marketplace”; hence, the poet says of human beings, “Bargain hunters all.” The collection harshly criticizes religious bigotry, a subject that Soyinka has often spoken against and celebrates fellow writers and activists, such as Saro-Wiwa, Joseph Brodsky, and Achebe. There are also reflections on the deaths of politicians, dictators, and friends. Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known connects with Soyinka’s earlier poetic preoccupations and projects the persona of a sage, as the poet reflects on life and death using the metaphor of the market.

During Soyinka’s exile of the late 1990s, he wrote and produced King Baabu, an apparent adaptation of Jarry’s Ubu Roi, which deals with regal decadence. The play is a blatant satire of the Abacha regime and African dictators who adopt democracy to gain acceptance in the outside world and then distort it. Goaded by his wife, General Basha Bash seizes power (like William Shakespeare’s Macbeth). To shed the stigma of military rule, he gets crowned King Baabu and turns the republic into a kingdom. King Baabu even toys with the idea of uniting the African continent in a Pax Baboonia. The characters Baabu (echoing the Hausa word for “no”), General Uzi (so named after a gun), and Baboonia (land of baboons) and others add to the comic quality of the play. The characters behave childishly to show that the dictators are only fooling themselves and not the public. The dialogue is beautiful and the burlesque outrageous. Soyinka, while modeling King Baabu on Abacha, criticizes African dictators who think that once a general abandons his uniform for robes and calls himself any other name that he is a democrat. This play brings to mind Kongi’s Harvest and A Play of Giants.

In 2003 Bookcraft, Nigeria, published Soyinka’s Salutation to the Gut, an essay written some forty years earlier, celebrating Yoruba culture and food in witty and humorous language. Also in 2003 Soyinka gave a lecture at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs published as a pamphlet titled The Deceptive Silence of Stolen Voices. In the lecture, he argues that popular will cannot be smothered and calls for a sovereign national conference to debate and settle Nigeria’s political problems resulting from the amalgamation of the North and South.

After his return to Nigeria, Soyinka was active in attempting to shape the conscience of his country. He was arrested in May 2004, while participating in a rally demonstrating against the reelection of President Obasanjo in an election widely believed to have been rigged. Against the objections of the Obasanjo government, he lobbied for a National Sovereign Conference to review the commonalities that bind the different ethnic nationalities of Nigeria as one nation. In 2005 both Soyinka and the veteran Nigerian politician Chief Anthony Enahoro organized an alternative conference to the one organized by the federal government.

Wole Soyinka’s Nobel status has elevated him to a world writer, often studied. Both Aké: The Years of Childhood and Death and the King’s Horseman are regarded in the West among Africa’s best one hundred books, and excerpts are widely anthologized. He has attracted serious critical attention, most often focusing on the plays, rarely on his fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. Soyinka has been described as rebellious, opposed to constituted authority, subversive, and a transgressive spirit in constant argument with customary “givens.” At the same time, he is a writer of unlimited latitude, a free-ranging, though stubbornly rooted, spirit for whom the entire world is a legitimate constituency.


John Agetua, When the Man Died: Views, Reviews and Interview on Wole Soyinka’s Controversial Book (Benin City, Nigeria: Agetua, 1972), pp. 31–46;

Dennis Duerden and Cosmo Pieterse, eds., African Writers Talking: A Collection of Radio Interviews (London: Heinemann, 1972; New York: Africana, 1972), pp.169–180;

Biodun Jeyifo, “A Transition Interview,” Transition, 42 (1973): 62–64;

Henry Louis Gates Jr., “An Interview with Wole Soyinka,” Black World, 24 (August 1975): 30–48;

Karen L. Morell, ed., In Person: Achebe, Awoonor and Soyinka at the University of Washington (Seattle: Institute of Comparative and Foreign Area Studies, University of Washington, 1975), pp. 89–130;

Art Borreca, “Idi Amin Was the Supreme Actor,” Theater, 16 (Spring 1985): 32–37;

Chuck Mike, Soyinka as Director (Ife, Nigeria: Department of Literature in English, University of Ife, 1986);

Jane Wilkinson, Talking with African Writers (London: Currey, 1992), pp. 90–108;

Jeyifo, ed. Conversations with Wok Soyinka (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001);

Christina S. McMahon, “Interview with Wole Soyinka,” Theatron (Spring 2003): 89–95.


Malcolm Page, Wole Soyinka: Bibliography, Biography, Playography (London: Theatre Quarterly Publications, 1979);

B. Okpu, Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography (Lagos, Nigeria: Libriservice, 1984);

James Gibbs, Ketu H. Katrak, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986).


B. Olabimpe Aboyade, Wole Soyinka and Yoruba Oral Tradition in Death and the King’s Horseman (Ibadan, Nigeria: Fountain, 1994);

Oluwole Adejare, Language and Style in Soyinka: A Systemic Textlinguistic Study of a Literary Idiolect (Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann Nigeria, 1992);

Dapo Adelugba, Wole Soyinka: A Birthday letter, and Other Essays (Ibadan, Nigeria: Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, 1984);

Adelugba, ed., Before Our Very Eyes: Tribute to Wole Soyinka (Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum, 1987);

Tunde Adeniran, The Politics of Wole Soyinka (Ibadan, Nigeria: Fountain, 1994);

Aderemi Bamikunle, Introduction to Soyinka’s Poetry: Analysis of A Shuttle in the Crypt (Zaria, Nigeria: Ahmadu Bello University Press, 1991);

Viktor Aleksandrovich Beilis, Wole Soyinka (Moscow: Nauka, 1977);

Rita Böttcher-Wöbcke, Komik, Ironie und Satire im dramatischen Werk von Wole Soyinka (Hamburg: Buske, 1976);

Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike, Toward the Decolonization of African Literature (Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 1980; Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1983; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), pp.163–238;

Greta M. K. Coger, Index of Subjects, Proverbs, and Themes in the Writings of Wole Soyinka (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988);

Jean-Pierre Durix, ed., Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 13 (Spring 1991—special issue on A Dance of the Forests);

Romanus N. Egudu, Modern African Poetry and the African Predicament (London: Macmillan, 1978; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978), pp. 104–124;

Kayode Eso, The Myskry Gunman (Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum, 1996);

Michael Etherton, The Development of African Drama (London: Hutchinson, 1982), pp. 242–284;

Robert Fraser, West African Poetry: A Critical History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 231–250,265–270,295–300;

Shatto Arthur Gakwandi, The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa (London: Heinemann, 1977; New York: Africana, 1977), pp. 66–86;

Etienne Galle, L’Homme vivant de Wok Soyinka (Paris: Silex, 1977);

James Gibbs, Wole Soyinka (London & Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986; New York: Grove, 1986);

Gibbs, ed., Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1980; London: Heinemann, 1981);

Gibbs and Bernth Lindfors, Research on Wole Soyinka (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World, 1993);

Ken Goodwin, Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten African Poets (London: Heinemann, 1982);

M. Radhamani Gopalakrishnan, At Ogun’s Feet: Wole Soyinka the Playwright (Tirupati, India: Sri Venkateswara University, 1986);

Anthony Graham-White, The Drama of Black Africa (New York: S.French, 1974);

Edde M. Iji, Three Radical Dramatists: Brecht, Artaud, Soyinka (Lagos, Nigeria: Kraft, 1991);

Iji, Understanding Brecht and Soyinka: A Study in Antiheroism (Lagos, Nigeria: Kraft, 1991);

Abiola Irele, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (London: Heinemann, 1981);

Biodun Jeyifo, The Truthful Lie: Essays in the Sociology of African Literature (London: New Beacon, 1985), pp. 11–45;

Jeyifo, Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, and Postcolonialism (Cambridge, U.K. & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004);

Jeyifo, ed., Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001);

Eldred D. Jones, Wole Soyinka (New York: Twayne, 1973); also published as The Writing of Wole Soyinka (London: Heinemann, 1973; revised edition, London: Currey, 1988);

Denise Kakou-Koné, Shakespeare et Soyinka: Le Théâtre du monde (Abidjan, Ivory Coast: Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1988);

Ketu Katrak, Wole Soyinka and Modern Tragedy: A Study of Dramatic Theory and Practice (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986);

Stephan Larsen, A Writer and His Gods: A Study of the Importance of Yoruba Myths and Religious Ideas to the Writing of Wole Soyinka (Stockholm: University of Stockholm, Department of the History of Literature, 1983);

Charles R. Larson, The Emergence of African Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971);

Margaret Laurence, Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952–1966 (London: Macmillan, 1968; New York: Praeger, 1969);

Michèle Lurdos, Côté cour, côté savane: Le Théâtre de Wole Soyinka (Nancy, France: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1990);

Obi Maduakor, Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing (New York & London: Garland, 1986);

Adewale Maja-Pearce, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal (Oxford, U.K. & Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1994);

Gerald Moore, Wole Soyinka (London: Evans, 1971; New York: Africana, 1971);

Oyin Ogunba, The Movement of Transition: A Study of the Plays of Wole Soyinka (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1975);

Ogunba, Soyinka: A Collection of Critical Essays (Ibadan, Nigeria: Syndicated Communications, 1994);

Ogunba and Irele, eds., Theatre in Africa (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1978), pp. 151–175;

Yemi Ogunbiyi, ed., Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Source Book (Lagos, Nigeria: Nigeria Magazine, 1981);

Tanure Ojaide, The Poetry of Wole Soyinko (Lagos, Nigeria: Malthouse, 1994);

Akomaye Oko, The Tragic Paradox: A Study of Wole Soyinka and His Works (Ibadan, Nigeria: Kraft, 1992);

M. Rajeshwar, The Intellectual and Society in the Novels of Wole Soyinka (New Delhi: Prestige, 1990);

Alain Ricard, Theatre and Nationalism: Wole Soyinka and LeRoi Jones (Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press, 1983);

Ricard, Wole Soyinka ou l’ambition démocratique (Paris: Silex, 1988);

Adrian A. Roscoe, Mother Is Gold: A Study in West African literature (London: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 48–63, 219–252;

Wiveca Sotto, The Rounded Rite: A Study of Wole Soyinka’s Play, The Bacchae of Euripides (Lund, Sweden: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1985);

Nyong Udoeyop, Three Nigerian Poets: A Critical Study of the Poetry of Soyinka, Clark and Okigbo (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1973), pp. 19–59, 147–157;

Derek Wright, Wole Soyinka Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1993).