Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka

Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, and critic who received the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1986. He wrote of modern West Africa in a satirical style and with a tragic sense of the obstacles to human progress.
A member of the Yoruba people, Soyinka attended Government College and University College in Ibadan before graduating in English in 1958 from the University of Leeds, in England. Upon his return to Nigeria he founded a national theatre, The 1960 Masks (later the Orisun Theatre), and wrote his first important play, A Dance of the Forests (produced 1960, published 1963), for the Nigerian independence celebrations. The play satirizes the fledgling nation by stripping it of romantic legend and by showing that the present is no more a golden age than was the past.

In plays of a lighter vein he made fun of pompous, Westernized schoolteachers, as in The Lion and the Jewel (first performed in Ibadan, 1959; published 1963), and he mocked the clever preachers of upstart prayer-churches who grow fat on the credulity of their parishioners, as in The Trials of Brother Jero (1960) and Jero's Metamorphosis (1972). But his more serious plays, such as The Strong Breed (1963), Kongi's Harvest (1965; opened the first Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, 1966), The Road (1965), and From Zia, With Love (1992), reveal his disillusionment with African authoritarian leadership and with Nigerian society as a whole.

Other notable plays include Madmen and Specialists (1971; later retitled Madmen and Scientists) and Death and the King's Horseman (1975), which examines the clash of the colonial authorities' mores with the more demanding ones of traditional Yoruba society. In these and Soyinka's other dramas, Western elements are skillfully fused with subject matter and dramatic techniques deeply rooted in Yoruba folklore and religion. Symbolism, flashback, and ingenious plotting contribute to a rich dramatic structure. His best works exhibit humour and fine poetic style as well as a gift for irony and satire and for accurately matching the language of his complex characters to their social position and moral qualities.

From 1960 to 1964 Soyinka was coeditor of Black Orpheus, an important literary journal. From 1960 onward he taught literature and drama and headed theatre groups at various Nigerian universities, including those of Ibadan, Ife, and Lagos.

Soyinka's novels are The Interpreters (1965), in which a group of young intellectuals function as artists in their talks with one another as they try to place themselves in the context of the world about them, and Season of Anomy, which appeared in 1973.

Soyinka's volumes of poetry include Idanre and Other Poems (1967), Poems from Prison (1969; republished as A Shuttle in the Crypt, 1972), and Mandela's Earth and Other Poems (1988). His verse is characterized by a precise command of language and a mastery of lyric, dramatic, and meditative poetic forms. He wrote a good deal of Poems from Prison while he was jailed in 1967-69 for allegedly conspiring to aid the attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria. The Man Died (1972) is his prose account of his arrest and imprisonment. Soyinka's principal critical work is Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), a collection of essays in which he examines the role of the artist in the light of Yoruba mythology and symbolism.

Soyinka was the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His autobiography, Ake: The Years of Childhood, was published in 1981 and a companion piece, Isara: A Voyage Around Essay, in 1989.

Derek Wright, Wole Soyinka Revisited (1993), discusses Soyinka's life and works. Analyses of his writings include James Gibbs (ed.), Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka (1980); Obi Maduakor, Wole Soyinka (1987); James Gibbs and Bernth Lindfors (eds.), Research on Wole Soyinka (1993); and Tanure Ojaide, The Poetry of Wole Soyinka (1994).


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