Alan Jacobs

Wole Soyinka's Outrage

The divided soul of Nigeria's Nobel laureate.

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Just what is African, for a start, about any section of that continent that arrogantly considers any change of faith an apostasy, punishable even by death? What is African about religious intolerance and deadly fanaticism? The spirituality of the black continent, as attested, for instance, in the religion of the orisa, abhors such principles of coercion or exclusion, and recognizes all manifestations of spiritual urgings as attributes of the complex disposition of the godhead. Tolerance is synonymous with the spirituality of the black continent, intolerance is anathema!

Soyinka's imagination is thus secondarily and derivatively Christian at best, despite his upbringing and his long-term fascination with Christian doctrine. And as we shall see, he has sought to exorcise that fascination in rather frightening ways.

When, as a young man, he came to study in England at the University of Leeds, it is not at all surprising that Soyinka fell under the influence of the controversial Shakespearean scholar G. Wilson Knight. For Knight's career was devoted chiefly to the contention that Shakespeare's plays, however "secular" they might appear, were really Christian (in a mythic or archetypal sort of way) through and through. It must have seemed perfectly natural to Soyinka, coming from his Yoruba world, that such would be the case; indeed it must have been hard for him to think of drama in any other terms. No wonder he ultimately decided to adapt The Bacchae: the Euripedean original, so obviously shaped by and angrily responsive to the Athenian worship of Dionysos, was a clear picture of what he had always understood drama to be. Soyinka's version, a turbulent tragic fantasy half-Greek and half-African, is one of the most striking and provocative plays of our time, and in its exploration of irreconcilable worldviews often seems a veiled commentary on the troubles of modern Africa.


Soyinka's plays are often said to be about the modern "clash of cultures" in Africa between Western and African traditional ways, but this is a phrase for which Soyinka has a singular contempt. In an "Author's Note" to what may well be his greatest play, the tragedy Death and the King's Horseman (1975), which is based on a historical event, he complains that "the bane of themes of this genre is that they are no sooner employed creatively than they acquire the facile tag of 'clash of cultures,' a prejudicial label which, quite apart from its frequent misapplication, presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter."

One might think that Soyinka is here reminding us that the British came to Africa with technologies and forces that traditional African cultures could not hope to resist; in other words, that he is reminding us of his people's status as victims. That would be a misreading. The British did indeed bring superior physical force to Nigeria; but Soyinka is more concerned to point out that the spiritual and cultural forces upon which the Yoruba relied were far more impressive. Now, Soyinka is never shy about offering potent critiques of his culture, and not just in its modern manifestations; from those early plays, The Swamp Dwellers and The Strong Breed, we can see a fierce indictment of how power corrupts even at the level of the village, where leaders pervert their people's traditions and manipulate them for their own gain. But those traditions themselves, Soyinka is always eager to say, have enormous power, and when rightly used and respectfully employed can overcome the humiliations inflicted upon the Yoruba by British imperialism. This is indeed the central theme of Death and the King's Horseman, where tradition finds a way to rescue the dignity of a people even when the colonial power seems to have things well under control.

In Nigeria during World War II, a king has died. Oba Elesin, the king's horseman and a lesser king himself ("Oba" means "king" or "chief"), is expected, at the end of the month of ceremonies marking the king's passing, to follow his master into the spirit world of the ancestors. In other words, he is to commit ritual suicide. It is his greatest wish to do so, and in the village marketplace, surrounded by people who love and respect him, he awaits the appointed time.

All is prepared. Listen! [A steady drum-beat from the distance.] Yes. It is nearly time. The King's dog has been killed. The King's favourite horse is about to follow his master. My brother chiefs know their task and perform it well. … My faithful drummers, do me your last service. This is where I have chosen to do my leave-taking, in this heart of life, this hive which contains the swarm of the world in its small compass. … Just then I felt my spirit's eagerness. … But wait a while my spirit. Wait. Wait for the coming of the courier of the King.
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