BORN: 1934, Abeokuta, Nigeria
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, drama
The Lion and the Jewel (1963)
The Interpreters (1965)
The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972)
Death and the King’s Horseman (1975)
Ake: The Years of Childhood (1981)
Wole Soyinka. Soyinka, Wole, 2006, photograph. AP Images.
Wole Soyinka’s plays, novels, and poetry record twentieth-century Africa’s political turmoil and its struggle to reconcile tradition with modernization. With a style that combines the European dramatic form with traditional folk-drama in the Yoruba tongue, a Niger-Congo language family, Soyinka presents both satire and spectacle on the stage. The first black African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Soyinka is also well-known as a political activist in Nigeria.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
British Colonial Upbringing in Nigeria. Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka was born in Abeokuta, in the British colony of Western Nigeria, on July 13, 1934, to Samuel Ayodele, headmaster for the village school established by the British, and Grace Eniola Soyinka, a Christian convert. His grandfather introduced him to the 401 gods of Yoruba and to other West African tribal folklore.
After high school and a brief period as a clerk in Lagos, Soyinka attended the University College in Nigeria. He published several poems and short stories before leaving Africa in 1954 to attend the University of Leeds in England, where The Invention, his first play, was produced in 1957. At Leeds, Soyinka expanded his awareness of Western literary and theatrical traditions. He was awarded a BA in 1957, started work on a master’s degree, and moved to London, all the while continuing to be involved in the theater.
Critiquing Western Modernization. Soyinka returned to Nigeria in 1960, shortly after independence from colonial rule under the United Kingdom had been declared. He began to research Yoruba folklore and drama in depth and incorporated elements of both into his play A Dance of the Forests (1960), commissioned as part of Nigeria’s independence celebrations. In the play, Soyinka warned the newly independent Nigerians that the end of colonial rule did not mean an end to their country’s problems. Among Soyinka’s best-known works is the play The Lion and the Jewel (1963), which mocks the unquestioning embrace of Western modernization. Its 1966-1967 London production established Soyinka as a significant English-language dramatist.
In 1962 Soyinka began as a university lecturer at University College in Ife, Nigeria. Disgusted by the weakness shown by college authorities in the face of political pressure, he resigned the following year. During 1965, Soyinka became a senior lecturer in English at the University of Lagos. He allowed his genius for satire full rein in The Republican (1963), The (New) Republican (1964), and Before the Blackout (1965), attacking a variety of targets, exposing clearly identifiable individuals to ridicule, and commenting on the state of Nigeria since independence.
Political Critiques Lead to Imprisonment. Soyinka was well established as Nigeria’s premier playwright when he published his first novel, The Interpreters (1965). The novel allowed Soyinka to expand on themes in his plays and to present a sweeping view of Nigerian life immediately following independence. Essentially plotless, The Interpreters is loosely structured around the informal discussions among five young Nigerian intellectuals.
Solitary Confinement. The year 1965 also marked Soyinka’s first arrest by the Nigerian police. He was accused of using a gun to force a radio announcer to broadcast incorrect election results. No evidence was ever produced, however, and Soyinka was released from jail after three months, only to be arrested two years later during Nigeria’s civil war. After the Nigerian region of Biafra had declared itself an independent republic in 1967, Soyinka traveled to Biafra to establish a peace commission of leading intellectuals from both sides. When he returned home, the Nigerian police accused him of helping the Biafrans to buy jet fighters. This time, Soyinka was imprisoned for more than two years, even though he was never formally charged with any crime. In solitary confinement during most of his detention, Soyinka was denied reading and writing materials, but he managed to manufacture his own ink and began writing a prison diary on toilet paper, cigarette packages, and in between the lines of a few books he had secretly obtained. Published as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972), Soyinka’s diary should be regarded not as a factual account of his prison experience but as a creative response to detention.
Release from Prison and Self-Exile in Europe. Soyinka was released in 1969 and, in an act of self-exile, left Nigeria soon after and did not return until 1975. He spent most of 1972 in Europe and delivered a series of lectures at Churchill College and Cambridge University during 1973-1974. Subsequently published as Myth, Literature and the African World (1978), the lectures combine criticism of specific texts with discussions that reveal the extent of Soyinka’s knowledge of literary and theatrical traditions.
Returning Home. Soyinka returned to Nigeria in 1975, and in 1976 became a professor at the University of Ife. The Nigeria to which Soyinka had returned was a country where the rich had become richer and the poor had become even poorer than before. This polarization in wealth was due, in part, to the oil boom of the 1970s; while revenues from sales of Nigeria’s oil were significant, most of the money fell into the hands of corrupt politicians. In reaction to conditions in Nigeria, Soyinka wrote Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), a work that explores the complexities of situations, ambiguities, and uncertainties in human relations. The work was not well received in Nigeria.
Work in the U.S. Yields More Publications. During the 1980s, Soyinka held visiting professorships at American universities and continued to write and direct. He published Ake: The Years of Childhood (1981), followed almost ten years later by Isara: A Voyage around ‘Essay’’ (1990), which explores the world in which his father grew up. In between these two works, A Play of Giants (1984) was published and performed. This drama is partly a specific campaign against Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and partly the presentation of a more general concern about the lack of responsible leadership in Africa.
Humble Acceptance of International Recognition. In recognition of his achievements as a widely produced playwright, Soyinka was elected president of the International Theatre Institute in 1986. That same year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for being ‘‘a writer who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.’’ Soyinka stated that the prize was not an award for himself ‘‘but to all the others who laid the basis and were the source from which I could draw. It is the African world which can now be recognized.’’
Political Questions Drive Ongoing Work. A collection of Soyinka’s essays, Art, Dialogue and Outrage (1988), and a volume of poetry, Mandela’s Earth (1988), followed. In 1996’s The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (1996), Soyinka examines Nigeria’s dictatorship. A compilation of essays originally delivered as lectures at Harvard University, The Open Sore questions corrupt government, ideas of nationalism, and international intervention.
In 1998, Soyinka ended a four-year self-imposed exile from Nigeria. His exile can be traced back to 1993, when a democratically elected government was to have assumed power. Instead, General Ibrahim Babangida, who had ruled the nation for eight years, prohibited the publication of the voting results and installed his deputy, General Sani Abacha, as head of the Nigerian state. Soyinka, along with other pro-democracy activists, was charged with treason for his criticism of the military regime. Faced with a death sentence, Soyinka went into exile in 1994, during which time he traveled and lectured in Europe and the United States. Following the death of Abacha, who held control for five years, the new government, led by General Abdulsalem Abubakar, released numerous political prisoners and promised to hold civilian elections. Soyinka’s return to his homeland renewed hope for a democratic Nigerian state. Like other acts of aggression against Soyinka by the leaders of his country, this incident failed to deter him from writing. He published a poetry collection Outsiders (1999), a play of political satire ‘‘King Baabu’’ (2001), and another poetry collection Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (2002).
After a relatively calm period of several years, however, Soyinka once again plunged into political activism as the leader of a grassroots group called ‘‘Citizens Forum.’’ He was tear-gassed and arrested in May of 2004 while protesting then-Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s attempt to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. In 2006, Random House published Soyinka’s memoirs, titled ‘‘You Must Set Forth at Dawn.’’ In April of 2007, two weeks after the country’s presidential elections, Soyinka advocated for the election’s cancellation, citing on-going violence and corruption. Today, he continues to take a strong stance against political corruption in Nigeria and abroad.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Soyinka's famous contemporaries include:
Sani Abacha (1943-1998): President of Nigeria from 1993 to 1998, Abacha banned political activity, suppressed the press, and was named the fourth most corrupt world leader in recent history by the anticorruption coalition Transparency International.
Idi Amin (mid-1920s-2003): Hundreds of thousands of people were killed during the brutal rule of Amin, who seized power in a military coup and became president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979.
Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968): In 1961, this Soviet cosmonaut became the first person in space and the first person to orbit the Earth.
Jayakanthan (1934-): Jayakanthan is an Indian novelist and playwright from the Tamil Nadu region whose works question middle-class beliefs and conventions.
Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995): This Nigerian author and activist led a campaign against environmental damage caused by multinational oil companies; he was executed after a sham trial under Achaba's rule, provoking international outrage.
Works in Literary Context
Significant influences on Soyinka’s writing, include, among others, Irish author J. M. Synge, traditional African theatre, and the mythology of his tribe, the Yoruba. Some reviewers link Soyinka’s writing style, particularly that used in The Interpreters, to that of novelists James Joyce and William Faulkner. Others dislike the formless quality of the novel, but critic Eustace Palmer asserts in The Growth of the African Novel (1979), ‘‘If there are reservations about the novel’s structure, there can be none about the thoroughness of the satire at society’s expense.’’
Synthesizing Traditions. In his plays, Soyinka has consciously combined African—particularly Yoruba— forms with the European tradition of dialogue drama. For instance, Opera Wonyosi (1981) uses Bertoldt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (1928) as the basis for an attack on the vices of Nigeria and Africa. The Nigerian version of the story is patterned after Brecht’s play, and therefore, to some extent, after English Renaissance playwright John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728). Because Soyinka adds new characters and sequences, he gives the work a distinctively African and Nigerian flavor.
As Palmer observes, works including Soyinka’s Interpreters notably influenced the African fiction that followed it, shifting the focus ‘‘from historical, cultural and sociological analysis to penetrating social comment and social satire.’’s
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Much of Wole Soyinka's work attacks corrupt societies and regimes. Here are several other works that examine public corruption and its effects:
Imelda, Steel Butterfly of the Philippines (1988), a biography by Katherine W. Ellison. This work tells the story of Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines, who, accused of racketeering and fraud in 1990, was acquitted of thirty-two counts of money laundering in 2008.
The Last King of Scotland (2006), a movie directed by Kevin Macdonald. Forrest Whitaker won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in this movie, which is based on the novel of the same name by Giles Foden.
A Russian Diary: A Journalist's Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin's Russia (2007), a published diary by Anna Politkovskaya. This work documents eighteen months of increasing power and corruption within Russian president Vladimir Putin's government; the author was murdered in 2006.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), a film directed by Alex Gibney. This critically acclaimed documentary details the collapse of the energy giant Enron, a corporate scandal in which investors and employees lost everything while company executives walked away with millions.
Works in Critical Context
Soyinka’s work is frequently described as demanding but rewarding reading. Although his plays are widely praised, they are seldom performed, especially outside of Africa. Their dancing and speech, reminiscent of the classical Greek chorus, are unfamiliar and difficult for non-African actors to master. However, when the Swedish Academy awarded Soyinka the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, its members singled out Death and the King’s Horseman and A Dance of the Forests as ‘‘evidence that Soyinka is ’one of the finest poetical playwrights that have written in English,’’’ reports Stanley Meisler. Thomas Hayes summarizes Soyinka’s importance: ‘‘His drama and fiction have challenged the West to broaden its aesthetic and accept African standards of art and literature. His personal and political life have challenged Africa to embrace the truly democratic values of the African tribe and reject the tyranny of power practiced on the continent by its colonizers and by many of its modern rulers.’’
The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. The Man Died is ‘‘the most important work that has been written about the Biafran war,’’ believes Charles Larson. ‘‘The Man Died is not so much the story of Wole Soyinka’s own temporary death during the Nigerian Civil War but a personified account of Nigeria’s fall from sanity, documented by one of the country’s leading intellectuals,’’ Larson asserts. Gerald Weales suggests that the political content of The Man Died is less fascinating than ‘‘the notes that deal with prison life.... They are vehicles to carry the author’s shifting states of mind, to convey the real subject matter of the book; the author’s attempt to survive as a man, and as a mind.’’ Larson, however, underlines the book’s political impact, noting that, ironically, ‘‘Soyinka, who was placed in solitary confinement so that he wouldn’t embarrass the government, was writing work after work.’’ A Times Literary Supplement reviewer characterizes The Man Died as ‘‘a damning indictment of what Mr. Soyinka sees as the iniquities of wartime Nigeria and the criminal tyranny of its administration in peacetime.’’
Ake: The Years of Childhood. Soyinka’s account of his first ten years stands as ‘‘a classic of childhood memoirs wherever and whenever produced,’’ states James Olney. ‘‘This is the ideal circle of autobiography at its best. It is what makes Ake', amidst its other virtues, the best introduction available to the work of one of the liveliest, most exciting writers in the world today.’’ John Leonard writes, ‘‘Most of Ake charms; that was Mr. Soyinka’s intention. The last fifty pages, however, inspire and confound; they are transcendent.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Read part of A. R. Ammons’s long poem Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), which he typed on long, narrow paper. How does the paper’s shape affect the work? Discuss writing media in the context of Soyinka’s The Man Died. How do you think the work would be different if Soyinka had been given access to books and paper while in prison?
2. Discuss Soyinka’s blend of European and African cultural elements in his work.
3. Citing specific examples from the text, analyze examples of fantasy and satire in A Dance of the Forests.
4. Discuss the style and format of The Interpreters. Describe your emotional reaction(s) to the text.
Adeniran, Tunde. The Politics of Wole Soyinka. Ibadan, Nigeria: Fountain, 1994.
Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.
Gakwandi, Shatto Arthur. The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa. New York: Africana, 1977.
Goodwin, Ken. Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten African Poets. London: Heinemann, 1982.
Larson, Charles R. The Emergence of African Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.
Wilkinson, Jane. Talking with African Writers. London: Currey, 1992.
Wright, Derek. Wole Soyinka Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Borreca, Art. ‘‘Idi Amin Was the Supreme Actor.’’ Theater 16 (Spring 1985): 32-37.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. ‘‘An Interview with Wole Soyinka.’’ Black World 24 (August 1975): 30-48.