The Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka (born 1935) was one of the few African writers to denounce the slogan of Negritude as a tool of autocracy. He also was the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Wole Soyinka was born July 13, 1934 in Abeokuta a village on the banks of the River Ogun in the western area of Nigeria. His mother was a Christian convert so devout that he nicknamed her "Wild Christian" and he father was the scholarly headmaster of a Christian primary school whom he nicknamed "Essay"—a play on his occupation and his initials S.A. Soyinka was educated through the secondary level in Ibadan and later attended University College, Ibadan, and the University of Leeds, from which he graduated with honors. He worked for a brief period at the Royal Court Theatre in London before returning to Nigeria in 1960. His play, "The Invention" was staged in 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre. At that time his only published works were poems such as "The Immigrant" and "My Next Door Neighbour," which appeared in the magazine Black Orpheus.
Two of Soyinka's plays, The Lion and the Jeweland The Swamp Dwellers, were performed by students at Ibadan in 1960. Later that year his play A Dance in the Forest was produced for the Nigerian independence celebrations. In 1963 Oxford University Press issued a collection of his plays. These were The Trials of Brother Jero, The Strong Breed, The Swamp Dwellers, and The Lion and the Jewel. He also continued to publish poetry in Black Orpheus and other journals, and he was very active in theater group activities in Nigeria.
In the plays written and produced in the early 1960s, Soyinka showed his ability to project traditional Nigerian themes and stories through English instead of Yoruba. He was recognized as a dramatic poet and skilled dramatic craftsman. The plays dealt with a great diversity of theme— from the farce of The Trials of Brother Jero, to the romanticism of The Lion and the Jewel, to the tragedy of The Strong Breed. Soyinka was concerned with universal problems, and his plays examined town life, a retrograde countryside, and the ambitions of the "new" Nigerians.
Perhaps the best example of the juxtaposition of the past and present was in A Dance in the Forest. Three guilty persons were lured into a deep woodland where they were confronted with their spirit counterparts from the past. Selfishness, dishonesty, and lust were personified as elements in all societies—past and present.
The worsening political situation in Nigeria was reflected in Soyinka's theme for Kongi's Harvest, first performed at the Dakar Festival of Negro Arts in 1965. The theme was the establishment of a dictatorship in an African state; and the venal politician, the uncommitted, corrupt traditional ruler, and the ruthlessness of a man driven toward power were all displayed. In Idanre and Other Poems, published in 1967, Soyinka ceased being a satirist and became a gloomy visionary. The title poem, reciting a creation myth, stressed the symbols of fire, iron, and blood, which were central to the poet's view of the modern African world.
Soyinka became a vocal critic of Negritude, accusing politicians of using it as a mask for autocracy. His increasing use of polemic against social injustice and his demands for freedom coincided with the military takeover in Nigeria and the later drift toward civil war. Soyinka was arrested by the Nigerian government in October 1967, was accused of spying for Biafra, and was kept in detention in the north for two years, after which he returned to his position as head of the drama department at Ibadan. Much of his creative attention following his release went into filming Kongi's Harvest, in which he also played the leading role.
Soyinka's Nigeria was a country in transition, attempting to mold itself out of a variety of tribal cultures and a turbulent European colonization. Soyinka did not romanticize his native land, nor was he willing to see African culture as a flat symbol of primitiveness. He was as willing to charge Nigerian politicians and bureaucrats with barbarity and corruption as he was to condemn the greed and materialism of the west. These attitudes were even more prevalent after his second incarceration on the trumped up spying charges. His work took on a darker and angrier tone. When he was released from prison in 1969, Soyinka left Nigeria and did not return until the government changed in 1975. Soyinka's prison diary, published in 1972 The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka was a fragmented and grim account of the days he spent incarcerated, often in chains. Along with his verses that captured the essence of his prison experience, The Man Died provided invaluable context for Soyinka' subsequent imagery in his works.
Soyinka's post-prison works striked readers as more angry and despairing than his earlier ones. The play Madmen and Specialists was about a young doctor who returned from war trained in the ways of torture and practices his new skills on his seemingly mad old father. Charles Larson in New York Times Review of Books called the play "a product of those months Soyinka spent in prison, in solitary confinement, as a political prisoner. It is, not surprisingly, the most brutal social criticism he has ever published."
Yet not all his post prison works were filled with despair. Ake: The Years of Childhood and its prequel Isara: A Voyage around Essay were beautiful memoirs of both his own childhood with its strong Yoruba background and his father's youth in a changing Nigeria. Isara, published in 1988 after his father's death, reconstructed his father's divided life and tried to reconcile two conflicting cultures— African and Western-that trapped him between.
In 1986 Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in recognition of his accomplishments. The prize committee recognized him for his commitment to render the full complexity of his African culture In addition to his literary output, Soyinka had produced two essay collections that define his literary philosophy Myth Literature and the African World (1976) and Art Dialog and Outrage (1991, 1994) in which Soyinka asserted that critics must approach African literature on its own terms rather than by standards established in western cultures. African literature was not monolithic and needs to be seen as a variety of voices, not merely one speaker.
In 1994, Soyinka escaped to Paris, just ahead of being arrested by the militarist government for his advocacy of democracy. In 1997, the same government charged him with treason, claiming he was involved in a series of bombing of army sites.
Further Reading on Wole Soyinka
For a selection of his work see Soyinka's Five Plays (1964). A fine biographical, critical study was Gerald Moore, Wole Soyinka (1972). There was a good discussion of Soyinka in the essay by Martin Esslin, "Two Nigerian Playwrights," in Ulli Beier, ed., Introduction to African Literature (1967), and also in Wilfred F. Cartey, Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa 1969). See also The Emergence of African Fiction (1972) and The Novels of Wole Soyinka (1990); and The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972).