My final review for the Africa Reading Challenge:
You are a learned man and I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss the historical implications of this… mutiny… if one can really call it that… We were so near to the greatness of Troy and Greece… I mean this is war as it should be fought… over nothing… do you not agree?
A Dance of the Forests premiered in 1960 during the celebrations of Nigeria’s independence from the British Empire, and it is the first play Wole Soyinka wrote and also the first of his plays that I read. It’s a challenging but also rewarding play with none of the flaws and excesses one expects from a young writer. The tone is not the one of a novice but of a wise writer who has spent a lot of time thinking about the great issues of human existence.
This is also a remarkably unusual play: it draws copiously from Yoruba religion – half the characters are either spirits or gods – and it juxtaposes a mythical glorious African past with a prescient vision of a corrupt post-colonialist society. On top of that, it’s a dense text, with careful attention to form, with a slow drip of information. I had to re-read some passages a few times to properly grasp what was going on. After a re-read recently, I’m still not sure I fully understand it. The play is filled with observations about religion, tradition, history, honour, freedom, forgiveness, courage, love. And it mixes dialogue with poetry, acting with dancing. Was young Soyinka ambitious? Oh yes.
The Human Community is celebrating the Gathering of the Tribes and has requested the presence of illustrious dead people from their past, the ‘builders of empires’ and descendants of their ‘great nobility’ in order to celebrate all that is ‘noble in our nation.’ But things don’t go according to plan. “We asked for statesmen and we were sent executioners,” a human complains. The spirits send two restless souls to the surface, a Dead Man and a Dead Woman, victims of this same glorious past, to confront the descendents of their killers. Those descendants are Rola, a prostitute rumoured to have led two lovers to kill themselves over her, Demoke, a murderous carver who made a totem for the feast but also offended Eshuoro (a Trickster spirit in the Yoruba religion), and Adenebi, a corrupt clerk. Guiding those three through a magic-filled dreamscape is the gentle, patient Obaneji (in fact Forest Head, the father of the gods) for a reckoning with the gods and the spirits.
My first impression of the novel was how little it had to do with the 20th century tradition. I find no marks of Pirandello, Beckett, Ionesco, Albee or Pinter in this play, neither the absurd nor the realistic drama. Instead it harkens back to A Midsummer’s Night Dream and the ancient Greek plays because of the way the gods interfere with the mortals’ lives and how debts of murder pass from generation to generation to be collected by spirits.
The world of this play is one of rituals, traditions and where the spiritual exists in everything. Demoke, for instance, has carved the sacred tree araba into a totem; araba is the symbol of Eshuoro. Demoke was afraid of heights, so he carved the tree only up to a certain height and then decided to cut down the top. His apprentice, a follower of Eshuoro, climbed up above his master in provocation, so Demoke pulled him down to his death. Now he’s doubly guilty of murder and offending a spirit. Like him, the other two mortals are running away from guilt.
In a play where the spiritual and the material interweave so freely anything can happen. The forest is a magical place where the laws of time are suspended. This gives the author freedom to pursue some interesting experiments with the play’s form. For instance, at one point Forest Head shows a spirit a scene from the past; this interruption of the main plot acts as a play within the play; but there’s a continuity between the events depicted in the past and the ones happening in the present. This also allows the actors to star in multiple roles.
In this play within the play, the reader is brought to Mata Kharibu’s ancient kingdom, where a soldier (the Dead Man) refuses to fight in an unjust war. The war has started over a trifle. Mata Kharibu, having stolen the woman of another man (like Helen of Troy, to which the play directly alludes), now decides that the slighted man must return her wardrobe to her. When he refuses, Mata Kharibu declares war. The soldier’s refusal introduces a new idea in the world: he’s thought for himself and decided that he doesn’t want to serve an unjust master. He’s dangerous because the germ of freedom may contaminate the other soldiers, loyal to him. The woman is Madame Tortoise (the ancestor of Rola). In the court we find also the Court Poet (Demoke – he remains an artist throughout history, it seems) and the Historian (Adenebi), who finds no precedent for the soldier’s crime. Madame Tortoise tries to seduce the soldier into killing Mata Kharibu and sharing the power with her, but he refuses. So he’s punished for his moral convictions, along with his wife (the Dead Woman).
History repeats itself in the present; it’s no wonder Rola says “this whole family business sickens me. Let everybody lead their own lives.” The author is perhaps warning against the danger of historical amnesia; the creation of a new nation, with its promises of freedom, can look like a clean start, but, he warns, it is important to understand the past in order to forge a better future, lest the new beginning, contaminated by the errors of the past, leads to nowhere. Those who like to seek new knowledge outside what was prescribed by the school text books know that an educational system always paints a country’s past in a better light than reality. Writers, by their typical position of questioning, work to wrest us from the harmful complacency of nostalgia.
Consider. Demoke in the present kills a follower of Eshuoro; the Court Poet implicitly throws off the roof a novice vying for the attentions of Madame Tortoise. In the past, the rebellious soldier is sold to a slave-dealer, along with 65 soldiers loyal to him, with the help of the corrupt Historian. In the present, Adenebi reacts nervously when Obaneji relates an incident involving a bus that burned down with 65 people in it: the bus could only contain 40 people, but the owner had bribed a clerk to declare the bus fit to take in 70, so when a fire broke out inside the overcrowded bus, nicknamed Incinerator, there were only five survivors. Obaneji, disguised as tolerant court clerk, wonders if Adenebi might know the corrupt clerk involved:
Obaneji: You see, I want to close my files on this particular lorry – the Incinerator. And my records won’t be complete unless I have the name of the man who did it – you know, the one who took the bribe. Do you think you can help me there?
Adenebi: Since you are so clever and so knowledgeable, why don’t you find that out yourself?
Obaneji: Please… it is only for the sake of records…
Adenebi: Then to hell with your records. Have you no feeling for those who died? Are you just an insensitive, inhuman block?
This roundabout way of implying facts is one of the aspects I enjoyed the most from the play. Adenebi’s moral indignation is also astute piece of psychological insight: shifting the blame from himself to Adenebi; he probably didn’t even think any harm would come from the bribe; it’s Obaneji who’s at fault for wanting to know the truth, who’s cruel for wanting to understand. This rationalization is amusing to me because it’s so pervasive in daily life that most people don’t even notice it. I know I’ve thought like Adenebi a few times. This is a small but fine example of the power of fiction: to make obvious these important little human ticks that we like to ignore about ourselves.
It’s impressive that Soyinka wrote this play when he was twenty-six-years old: it’s a mature text, both in content and form; Soyinka already shows a developed sense of life full of humanity, of wisdom, of mocking compassion for the follies of people, and peppered with dark humour. May I be this wise when I’m an old man!