Wole Soyinka

A Dance of the Forests

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A Dance of the Forests Summary

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Acclaimed Nigerian author and playwright Wole Soyinka’s debut play, A Dance of the Forests, widely considered one of the most challenging of his plays to interpret, is inspired by Yoruba belief systems and is an allegory for modern Nigerian society. In the play, Soyinka uses various reincarnations of the same characters to reveal the seamy underside of Nigerian life, encouraging viewers to celebrate Nigerian independence and make better choices than their forefathers. The play was first staged in 1960, on the anniversary of Nigerian independence.

The plays opens as two characters, the Dead Man and Dead Woman, emerge from their burial places in the earth to come back to life in the middle of a forest. The man and woman ask all who pass by their burial place to take their cases and learn about their lives. They claim to have been a Captain and his wife in their past lives, tortured and brutally murdered by the Emperor Mata Kharibu and his wife, Madame Tortoise. The man and woman reveal that they were sent to the Gathering of the Tribes by the god, Aroni, to take the places of the ancestors the living called upon to join them during the ceremony.

Four characters come upon the Dead Man and Dead Woman in the forest. Each of them has also been chosen by the god Aroni to learn more about their past lives and atone for the sins they committed before they were born. The first is a woman, Rola, who was once known as Madame Tortoise. The second is Adenebi, who was, in a past life, a court historian during the time of the Emperor Mata Kharibu. The third is a soothsayer, who has the same role in this life as he did when he worked for the Emperor Mata Kharibu. The final visitor is an artist, Demoke, who was a poet in his past life but is now a talented carver.

First, Obaneji, the spirit of the forest posing as a human man, invites the four walkers to welcome the Dead Man and Dead Woman by dancing. Their dance is interrupted when a reckless spirit, Eshuoro arrives, claiming that Demoke caused the death of his apprentice by pushing the man out of the araba tree they were carving together. Another god, Ogun, defends Demoke, who claims that he wanted to cut down the araba tree. Another story is told of a great fire in the forest, like the Biblical flood, which killed sixty-five of the seventy inhabitants.

Eventually, the play moves back in time to the past lives of each of the characters, revealing the ways they intersect with the lives of the Dead Man and Dead Woman. This section of the play depicts the court of Mata Kharibu; each of the four walkers is part of his court. The court counselors, they are guilty of the crimes committed by the Emperor during their period in power.

The Dead Man, it is soon revealed, was a prominent soldier in the Emperor’s army. He refused to go to war when Kharibu attacked a neighboring tribe to rescue Madame Tortoise, his queen and wife. In punishment for his lack of loyalty, the soldier is castrated and sold as a slave. His wife, who comes in moments later, is pregnant – Soyinka does not reveal how she is killed. It is clear that each of the court counselors is guilty of the sins of their past selves.

The play ends when petrol trucks smoke out the characters, clearing the forest. The head of the forest claims that it is his role to purge the human race of crushing habit, in order to create a new and clean life without sin. Demoke is then returned to the land of the living by climbing up a burning totem; he is asked what he learned during his time among the gods.

Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian Yoruba writer known for his plays, poems, and essays. He was the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. Soyinka is critical of many of Nigeria’s military dictatorships, and other tyrannies on the African continent. He was a professor of Comparative Literature in Ife for many decades before becoming a professor in America at Cornell, Emory, and other prestigious universities. He has written more than a dozen plays, two novels, eight collections of poetry, and five memoirs, among other works.