Wole Soyinka

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Oluwole Akinwande Babatunde Oludeinde Isola Soyinka
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Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka © Ekko von Schwichow

Article

Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s foremost playwright, novelist and essayist, studied in England and worked at the Royal Court Theatre in London before setting out to renew Nigerian drama in the 60s. Due to his prominent political stance his writings were banned and he was jailed, including two years of solitary confinement, but he also gained high honours. In 1986 he was the first black African winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and in 1998 he returned from the USA to Nigeria.
Wole Soyinka, actually Oluwole Akinwande Babatunde Oludeinde Isola Soyinka, the first African winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, is the versatile author of such notable plays as ‘The Lion and the Jewel’, ‘The Trials of Brother Jero’, ‘Kongi’s Harvest’, ‘The Strong Breed’, ‘Madmen and Specialists’, ‘The Bacchae of Euripedes’, ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’, , ‘Jero’s Metamorphoses’ and ‘A Play of Giants’. Staged mainly in Nigeria but also in England and the USA, these plays combine the traditions of Yoruba and European drama.

Though Soyinka has written essays about the differing uses of myth and ritual in dramas from Africa on the one hand and in dramas from Europe and the USA on the other, he is less concerned with theory than with modern and effective staging. On his return from England to Africa in 1960, he went to Ibadan and Ife, where he founded a professional and amateur drama group to stage works about modern issues. To masked Yoruba drama he added dance and music, while keeping an eye on European devices like Brecht’s alienation. In later years he also worked in university theatres in the USA and with street urchins not only in Lagos in Nigeria but also in Kingston on Jamaica. Wherever he worked, he focussed on Nigerian social, mental and spiritual relationships.

At the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war in 1967, Soyinka was falsely accused of supporting rebels in the province Biafra, then without any formal proceedings he was put into solitary confinement for 27 months, mainly in Kaduna in central Nigeria. He there scribbled notes on cigarette packets, toilet paper and between the lines of books which he furtively acquired. In 1972 some of these notes appeared in the volume ‘The Man died: The Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka’, documenting his unflinching will to survive.

After his release he became head of the drama department at Ibadan University but only a year later went into exile, publishing the magazine ‘Transition’, the leading organ of African intellectuals, in Ghana and living mainly in Europe. In 1975 he went back to Nigeria, becoming a professor of English at Ife University and influencing local and national policy-making. In these years he wrote essays, plays and poems and was a visiting professor at numerous universities like Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Cambridge.

Already in his early works like the play ‘Dance of the Woods’, written in 1960 for Nigeria’s independence celebrations, Soyinka avoided idealizing or glorifying the past. He was weary of romantic illusions and turned against the notion of negritude, put forward by Léopold Sédar Senghor in particular.

Soyinka’s first novel ‘The Interpreters’ (1965) was a complex work written solely in dialogue due to his leanings towards drama. It was taken as a stinging rebuttal of Nigerian society, and not till the 80s were readers ready to take his figures’ speech, recorded without comment, as also showing the "tragic failure of the young intelligentsia in the face of their country’s desolate social condition" (Inge Uffelmann) and accordingly to pay it homage. As in most of his other works at the time, the Yoruba god Ogun comes to the fore. Soyinka sees him as standing for the dynamic process of life, maturing through a sequence of tensions, crises, contradictions and catastrophes. Since the break-up of this primal god – as Soyinka wrote in 1967 in ‘Idanre’, a poem about Ogun’s trials and tribulations – dissonance has been the basso continuo of all existence and can be resolved into harmony only now and then, since the original consonance was lost at the birth of time.

‘Time of Lawlessness,’ (1973) Soyinka’s second novel, uses the Orpheus myth in a tale about the advertising executive Ofeyi and his girlfriend Iriyise. Ofeyi finds her in Temoko, back in jail under Subero’s supervision, then frees her from the clutches of militarists, government officials, neo-colonialists and the idle rich. Reality and fiction, the modern and the classical, the European and the African, and fact and allegory are all interwoven.

In 1981, under the title ‘Aké’, Soyinka’s childhood memoirs appeared and drew praise from critics for their clearness and accessibility. In 1989, there followed ‘Isara’, likewise about the years from 1935 to 1950 but written no longer from the point of view of a child but rather of the elder generation who had struggled to cope with sordid conditions. Finally in 1994 there appeared ‘Ibadan’, in which Soyinka describes his student years, his time as a playwright in London and his return to and stay in Nigeria up to solitary confinement in 1967. These novels are historical but not documentary. They are poetic narratives by an author who has rightly claimed: "I have a religion I staunchly nurture: the freedom of man. I bear it within me as a burning passion persistently defying the ineffaceable tendency of man to enslave others."




Author: Beate-Ursula Endriss

Bio

Wole Soyinka, actually Oluwole Akinwande Babatunde Oludeinde Isola Soyinka, was born on 13th July 1934 in Isara near Abeokuta in southwest Nigeria. Already at the age of four, he studied at the primary school headed by his father in Abeokuta. After attending further schools, he studied Greek, English and History at Ibadan University. In 1954, he turned to literature and drama at Leeds in England under lecturers including G. Wilson Knight. He gained his B.A. in 1957 then moved on in 1958 to London, where he first staged a play. Till 1960 he was a playwright there at the Royal Court Theatre, then as a Rockefeller Research Fellow he returned to Nigeria to study its local drama traditions, founded the drama group ‘The 1960 Masks’ and taught till 1967 in Ife, Lagos and Ibadan.

In 1964 he founded the Drama Association of Nigeria then in 1966 received the John Whiting Award and in 1968 the Jock Campbell Award for ‘The Interpreters’. In 1967 he was put into solitary confinement in Kaduna till October 1969. On release he became the Head of the Department of Dramatic Art at Ibadan University, but in 1971 he left Nigeria and began publishing the magazine ‘Transition’ in Ghana. From 1973 to 1974 he also lectured in Cambridge and Sheffield and received honorary doctorates from the universities of Leeds and Yale in New Haven. In 1975 he went back to Nigeria and was elected as the general secretary of the Union of Writers of African Peoples. Since 1976 he has been a professor at Ife University.

From 1984 to 1988 Soyinka was the president of the International Drama Institute in Paris, was in 1986 the first African writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, and since 1987 has been a visiting professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Even in Nigeria he has received many awards like the title ‘Akoogun of Isara’ in 1989. In 1990 he was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour, whereupon he got married for the third time. In 1994 he fled from Nigeria once more, then taught as a visiting professor at American universities. On the dictator’s death in 1998 he returned to Nigeria.

Works

Climate of Fear: The BBC Reith Lectures

Published Written,
2004

Samarkand and Other Markets I have known

Published Written,
2003

King Baabu

Published Written,
2001

The burden of memory, the muse of forgiveness

Published Written,
1999

The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal narrative of the Nigerian Crisis

Published Written,
1996
New York 1996

Ibadan — The Penkelemes Years

Published Written,
1994
London 1994

Continuity and Amnesia. A Collection of Essays

Published Written,
1990
Abeokuta 1990

Isara. A Voyage Around Essay

Published Written,
1989
New York, Ibadan 1989

Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems

Published Written,
1988
New York 1988

Art, Dialogue and Outrage. A Collection of Essays

Published Written,
1988
Ibadan 1988

Blues for a Prodigal

Film / TV,
1985
Nigeria 1984/5 (Text & Director: Wole Soyinka)

Requiem for a Futurologist

Published Written,
1985
London 1985

A Play of Giants

Published Written,
1984
London 1984

Six Plays (s.o.)

Published Written,
1984
London 1984

Die Still, Rev. Dr. Godspeak!

Production / Performance,
1982
Premiere: BBC African Theatre, London 1982 Audiodrama

Aké. The Years of Childhood

Published Written,
1981
London 1981

Opera Wonyosi

Published Written,
1981
London 1981

Myth, Literature and the African World

Published Written,
1976
London 1976

Ogun Abibiman

Published Written,
1976
London 1976

Death and the King’s Horseman

Published Written,
1975
London 1975

Collected Plays 2

Published Written,
1974
London 1974

The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite

Published Written,
1973
London 1973

Camwood on the Leaves

Published Written,
1973
London 1973

The Jero Plays (The Trials of Brother Jero; Jero’s Metamorphosis)

Published Written,
1973
London 1973

Season of Anomy

Published Written,
1973
London 1973

Collected Plays 1

Published Written,
1973
London 1973

The Man died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka

Published Written,
1972
London 1972

A Shuttle in the Crypt

Published Written,
1971
London 1971

Before the Blackout

Published Written,
1971
Ibadan 1971

Madmen and Specialists

Published Written,
1971
London 1971

Kongi’s Harvest

Film / TV,
1970
Nigeria 1970 (Director: Ossie Davis)

Poems from Prison

Published Written,
1969
London 1969

The Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga

Published Written,
1968
London 1968

Idanre and Other Poems

Published Written,
1967
London 1967

Kongi´s Harvest

Published Written,
1967
London, Ibadan 1967

Kongi´s Harvest

Published Written,
1967
London, Ibadan 1967

The Interpreters

Published Written,
1965
London 1965

The Detainee

Production / Performance,
1965
Premiere: BBC London 1965 Audiodrama

The Road

Published Written,
1965
London, Ibadan 1965

You in Your Small Corner

Film / TV,
1964
Premier: Nigeria 1964

Five Plays

Published Written,
1964
(s.o.), London, Ibadan 1964

A Dance of the Forests

Published Written,
1963
London, Ibadan 1963

A Dance of the Forests

Published Written,
1963
London, Ibadan 1963

The Lion and the Jewel

Published Written,
1963
London, Ibadan 1963

Three Plays: The Swamp Dwellers; The Trials of Brother Jero; The Strong Breed

Published Written,
1963
Ibadan 1963

The House of Banigegi

Production / Performance,
1961
Premiere: Nigeria 1961

Camwood on the Leaves

Published Written,
1960
Premiere: Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation 1960

My Fathers Burden

Film / TV,
1960
Premiere: Nigeria 1960

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

1989 - Global Histories

Theme days

(19 February 09 - 22 February 09)

IN TRANSIT 2004

The Third Body

(02 June 04 - 13 June 04)