Printer Friendly

The future of humanity as projected in Soyinka's A Dance of the Forests.

Wole Soyinka's A Dance of the Forests represents the future of humanity. This paper examines Soyinka's portrayal of a cyclic historical progression, the struggle between the Human Community and the Forest Dwellers (who represent cosmic powers and nature), the signification of creativity as a paradox of human inventiveness and destructiveness, the problem of pollution of the earth consequent upon the technological revolution, and the way that human nature is essentially the same in all generations. The play was written to commemorate Nigeria's attainment of political independence in 1960. However, it was turned down by the ceremonies committee because it was found to be too critical of the African past and too pessimistic about the future to fit properly into the program of the independence celebrations.

I will start by reviewing the action of the play. In the play, the Human Community requests the presence of their illustrious ancestors at the feast being held to celebrate the birth of their new nation and the repossession of their land after a long period of colonial rule. Aroni, the Spirit of Wisdom, asks permission of Forest Head and sends to the celebration Dead Man and Dead Woman, a husband and wife who had been sold into slavery eight centuries before. This slavery occurred because a warrior would neither lead his men to fight Mata Kharibu's unjust war to recover the trousseau of another king's wife, whom Mata Kharibu had stolen, nor gratify the sexual desire of this promiscuous queen who, incidentally, derived pleasure from sending her lovers to their untimely deaths. The dead couple are viewed as obscenities by the celebrants and the Forests and are thus driven away when the people, according to the prefatory note, "consented to dance for them" (Dance 1).

The dance, designed by Aroni, is used to perform the rites of the dead for the couple and to chastise the living for their criminal and sordid past in the hope that the living will become wiser and change their tragic destiny. But Eshuoro wants humanity to be severely punished for fumigating the forest in a desperate bid to drive away the dead couple and for tearing down the forest "for their petty decorations" (45). "Where the humans preserve a little bush behind their homes," he complains, "it is only because they want somewhere for their garbage. Dead dogs and human excrement are all you'll find in it. The whole forest stinks. Stinks of human obscenities' (46). However, Murete is emphatic that the Forest has always fought back and taken vengeance on the Human Community: "We have claimed our own victims--for every tree that is felled or for every beast that is slaughtered, there is recompense, given or forced" (46).

In line with what Oyin Ogunba identifies as the temporal tripartite structure of the play (95), I wish to examine the significations of the past, the present, and the future of humanity. African pastoralists often romanticize the precolonial African society and represent it as idyllic and heavenly. In Dance of the Forests, Wole Soyinka interrogates this idealized image of Africa and takes us to the court of Mata Kharibu, an ancient African emperor, to witness the horror of political tyranny and the bestiality of human nature.

The latest addition to Mata Kharibu's harem, Madame Tortoise, a vain courtesan, wastes human lives to feed her own vulgar fancies. She asks Demoke, a Court Poet, to fly to the roof-top of the palace--a place from which a soldier fell to his death two days before--and retrieve her canary. Instead, the poet's overtly enthusiastic novice offers to retrieve the bird, falls and breaks an arm.

When Warrior refuses to fight for Madame Tortoise's trousseau, Mata Kharibu whips out his sword in a moment of blind fury to cut off Warrior's head. Had it not been for Physician's quick intervention, Warrior would have been beheaded. Physician then uses false wit to persuade Warrior to rescind his decision and lead his men to war to recover the trousseau, which Physician jocundly calls her dowry that must be paid by her former husband. Physician represents intellectuals who press their intelligence into the service of the State to justify the latter's criminal acts and perpetuate evil. He uses all kinds of conundrums to rationalize the war. However, not even the threat that future generations will label him a "traitor" for not fighting will get Warrior to change his mind (55). Warrior believes it is the height of tyranny to steal another man's wife and then add to his humiliation by demanding that he pay a dowry on his lost wife. Warrior perceives Kharibu as a ruler who does not value the lives and the peac e of his subjects. His response to the threat reveals something portentous about the future of humanity:

Unborn generations will be cannibals most worshipful physician. Unborn generations will, as we have done, eat up one another. Perhaps you can devise a cure, you who know how to cure so many ills. (55)

All the so-called humanizing disciplines represented in the play--history, fine art, and poetry--do not, in any fundamental way, change the bestial nature of men and women. Similarly, the sciences, especially curative medicine, have not removed the curse of death and human moral defects. According to Dead Woman, "We've been dying since the beginning; the living try but the gap always widens" (4-5). The gap is the gulf of transition. "This gulf," Soyinka wrote, "is what must be constantly diminished by the sacrifices, the rituals, the ceremonies of appeasement to those cosmic powers which lie guardian to the gulf" (Myth 144). The whole enterprise of culture is geared towards enhancing life and banishing death.

Adenebi, a Court Historian, searches through history and finds no precedent for Warrior's refusal to fight. He tells Mata Kharibu: "It is unheard of. War is the only consistency that past ages afford us. It is the legacy which new nations seek to perpetuate. Patriots are grateful for wars. Soldiers have never questioned bloodshed. The cause is always the accident your Majesty, and war is the Destiny. This man is a traitor" (57). Unfortunately, the playwright's prophetic warning was not heeded by the political leadership in the newly independent Nigeria and consequently a war of secession broke out in the country in 1967 and did not end until 1970.

War, in Historian's view, brought greatness to Troy and always brings out the best in humanity. He advises that Warrior be treated as a slave. Physician pleads with the monarch not to deliver men who once served him faithfully into the hands of Slave-Dealer whose galley is likened to a coffin. His plea hints at the horror of trans-Atlantic slave trade and the inhuman condition in which the slaves were transported to the New World. An out-and-out cynic, Slave Dealer himself wonders why Physician should show concern for the health of traitors condemned to a fate worse than death. In light of Slave-Dealer's comment, Mata Kharibu's cruel command that Warrior and his sixty men be drowned if by sunset a boat cannot be found to take them away is, after all, not as terrible as it seems to be. To get his boat approved to take the men away, Slave-Dealer offers Historian a bribe of money which the latter gladly accepts.

The play also examines the nature of power. Mata Kharibu is so mortally afraid of losing his imperial power that he banishes thought in his domain. Historian perceives the quest for power and conquest as a constant factor in history. "Nations," according to Historian, "live by strength; nothing else has meaning" (57). This observation is reinforced by Soothsayer's comment that "it is in the nature of men to seek power over the lives of others" (61). But, as tyrannical as Mata Kharibu is, he is controlled by his new queen, which raises the question of women's, to use Nigerian slang, "bottom power."

Soyinka calls into question both the notion that women are affectionate and have the milk of tenderness flowing in their breasts and the myth of male superiority. Madame Tortoise is not only capricious but devilish. She uses and changes men, in her own words, "as I select a new pin every day" (64). Only one fate awaits those lovers of hers whose time is over: death. It is a pity that she has lost interest in the king who is desirous of recovering her trousseau and moved her heart on to another man, Warrior. She tells Warrior: "Mata Kharibu is a fool. You are a man and a leader, soldier. Have you no wish to sit where Mata Kharibu sits?" (64). The image she presents is that of a temptress and a fiend, the figure of the beautiful damsel without mercy. She boasts: "I am the one who outlasts you [men] all" (64). Warrior proves that he is a man of honor and keeps his marital vow. Madame Tortoise is so utterly humiliated by her failure to seduce Warrior and by his refusal to kill for her that she offers him a Hobso n's choice: he can either be sold into slavery or be gelded and kept in the palace as a eunuch, guarding the harem of Mata Kharibu and "drooling on wares" that he "cannot taste" (65). The pleas for mercy by Warrior's pregnant wife fall on deaf ears.

All gender stereotypes are questioned in the flashback scene through the device of image-inversion, and human nature is represented as ambivalent. The past was marred by excessive bloodshed over trivial issues, lust of the flesh, the quest for power over other people's lives, vain and vaulting ambition, and too much cruelty. Olusegun Adekoya mentions that as depicted in the play, the present is only a repeat of the past. The playwright resorts to the dramaturgic device of role-doubling to demonstrate that historical progression is cyclic and that human nature does not radically change.

Madame Tortoise, an adulteress and, at one time, a wayward queen, is now Rola, a Courtesan who still derives pleasure from evil. She thinks that she has found a new catch in Dead Man. To his question: "Madam please, will you take my case," she quickly responds "Even before you ask it," swinging her hips (4). But, on moving closer, she is filled with disgust at the sight of the man and expresses her sense of repulsion: "You look disgusting. I suppose you are not even a man at all" (4). She does not stop there; she threatens to get people to flog him the next time he dares to accost her in his filthy condition.

When the dead couple appear the second time she takes Demoke by the arm and says, "Those obscenities again. Let us wander off by ourselves. The others can deal with them" (8). Demoke insists on questioning the dead couple but Rola pleads passionately with him to come with her. Apparently, she wants to seduce him and add his name to her list of wasted lovers. When Obaneji (Forest Head) asks her death-wish, she, according to the stage direction, "swings round suddenly, embraces him and tries to kiss him" (19). Obaneji yanks her off and she sings a song of abuse and calls him an impotent man. Obaneji reveals that the graveyard is filled with Rola's lovers. Demoke, in a sudden moment of illumination, calls her by her legendary name Madame Tortoise, whose vulgarity inspired his carving of the totem around which the tribe would dance at the Gathering of the Tribes. Adenebi's remark that Rola is bestial, like the totem, is confirmed by Demoke's declaration that "Madame Tortoise is the totem" (23). The totem represen ts evil, the dark side of culture and of human nature. Brazen and unrepentant, Rola says, "I owe all that happened to my nature. I regret nothing" (23). She confesses that she uses men to acquire wealth but denies that their criminal acts are committed on her behalf. Rather, men kill simply to boost their own egos. She perceives her dead lovers as people who invested foolishly. An agent of death and destruction, she is as fatalistic as war.

Rola, and her historical counter-part Madame Tortoise, represent a hardcore capitalist who believes very much in individualism. She finds the practice of primitive communalism and the extended family system an unacceptable anachronism: "... So I told her to get out. Get out and pack your things. Think of it. Think of it yourself. What did she think I was? I can't take anyone who happens to wander in, just because she claims to be my auntie. My auntie!" (5). To Obaneji's remark that the family "never used to be a problem," she replies rather curtly that "It is now" (6). She is so angry that she even contemplates going back to burn her house: "I've a mind to go back and set fire to it. If I haven't got a house, they can't stay with me" (6). Her thoughts are out-and-out evil.

But, as devilish as she is, her character is still in tune with the paradoxical essence of human nature. She boasts: "You want me to wallow in self-disgust. Well, I won't. I wasn't made the way you think women are" (22). Adenebi remarks on her brazenness and shamelessness. However, when Demoke identifies her as Madame Tortoise, she "falls on her knees, still sobbing" (22).

Demoke, a Court Poet in the past, is a Carver in the present. Throughout history he remains an artist. It is possible that he probably caused the fall of Novice because he would not want Novice to earn the good graces of her royal highness, Madame Tortoise. This same type of crime is repeated in the present when he plucks down Oremole, his apprentice, from carving the top of the araba tree chosen for the totem. Oremole is not a better carver, but unlike Demoke, he is not prone to giddiness at high altitudes. Demoke cannot endure the humiliation of carving the bottom of the tree while his apprentice works above him, covering him with wood shavings. As he puts it, "Demoke's head is no woman's cloth, spread / To receive wood shavings from a carpenter" (27-28). It was believed by the Romantics that artists are more sensitive than other human beings, which perhaps explains why Demoke is the first of the three human representatives to be pricked by a guilty conscience.

Artists may have a refined sensibility and cultivate excellent aesthetic taste but they are still subject to the imperfect nature of humanity. They can neither heal themselves nor salvage the appalling world situation with their knowledge of art and beauty. The base feeling of jealousy moves Demoke to kill his apprentice and he confesses that a portion of the revolting totem has to do with himself. He practices the art of self-criticism and has a keen sense of the depraved nature of humanity. Creativity involves a measure of violence. In fact, it is not possible to create without causing a certain degree of destruction. It is, therefore, possible to interpret Oremole's death as sacrificial. After the sacrificial rite has been performed, Demoke's spirit is set free and he carves three days and nights without taking a rest. It is a marvelous feat and we are made to believe that the carver is possessed by Ogun, the god of carvers.

Adenebi, a Historian in the past, is a Council Orator in the present. In his previous existence, he used his knowledge of history to justify the art of warfare and took a bribe of money from Slave-Dealer who wanted his galley declared fit for the condemned soldiers. Again, the crime is repeated in the present. An unnamed council official takes a bribe of money to change the capacity of a passenger lorry from forty to seventy. The lorry hits another vehicle as it is taking some members of the living to the Gathering of the Tribes, somersaults and catches fire. Of its seventy passengers just five people escape being burned to death. Using the sorrowful mood of mourning for the dead passengers as a smokescreen, Adenebi refuses to cooperate with Obaneji who wants to find out the name of the criminal. There is a sneaking suspicion that the Council Orator is responsible for the criminal act. When Agboreko comments that all secrets will ultimately be out, Council Orator's fright gives him away.

Agboreko, a soothsayer in the past, is an Elder of Sealed Lips in the present. The efficacy of his divination is doubtful. A keeper of tradition, he tosses off many proverbs to ridicule the futility of the attempts by the living to drive away the dead. The Forest Dwellers, in his opinion, have a legitimate case against the Human Community for the multifarious acts of desecration and pollution of the earth, for nobody "ever lay back in his house and watched the creepers grow over him" (40). But he enters a syllogism which proves to be a non sequitur: "If they are the dead and we are the living, then we are their children. They shan't curse us" (41). This statement is proven wrong as Dead Man curses them when he discovers that the living are still as criminal as when he and his wife were sold into slavery: "May you be cursed again. May you be cursed again" (26).

Taken together, Agboreko's conflicting prophecies portray him as confused. The last mockery of his magical art is his mistaking the sound of the lorry with that of the Chimney of Ereko, which is driven into the forest to fumigate it for thunder. He casts afresh his divination kernels and still claims that it is thunder. The prestidigitator is portrayed as a fraud and a charlatan. The new nation would do well to abandon him and look elsewhere for solutions to its problems. As the lorry bears down on the human gathering in the forest, the people run for their lives. Agboreko himself finally yields to the implacable force of the lorry, the terror of industrial power, and makes, according to the stage direction, "a not very dignified exit" (42). But, in spite of the march of science and technology, the old way has not totally died out. The Human Community still holds on to all manner of superstitious beliefs and provides mystical explanations for things that appear inscrutable. The implication of the previous ex amples is simply that the humanities--art, history, poetry, and religion--have no solution to the problem of human depravity. Hence the mistakes of the past are replicated by the present generation.

The Chorus of the Future, the dance proper, is a series of negative prophecies. Before the dance's commencement, Dead Woman is relieved of the burden of pregnancy which she has been bearing for centuries and Half-Child is delivered. Half-Child symbolizes the uncertainty of life generally, the inescapability of death, and the eternal birth-death-rebirth cycle of human civilizations, institutions, and inventions. The figure of the Half-Child signifies that, whatever technological changes occur in the future, human beings will continue to die and suffer the curse of imperfection. Their inventions will likewise remain imperfect. Obi Maduakor, like many other commentators on the play, associates the Half-Child with abiku, a child that is born several times by the same woman and dies as many times as it is born, and interprets it as "a symbol of the doom of repetition" (180). The piteous plea by Dead Woman "Child, your hand is pure as sorrow / Free me of the endless burden" is enough proof that Half-Child constitu tes a veritable curse on its mother (81).

Spirit of the Palm begins the Chorus of the Future with a hint at the problems of human perversity and the pollution of the Earth:
White skeins wove me, I, Spirit of the Palm
Now course I red.
I who suckle blackened hearts, know
Heads will fall down,
Crimson in their bed! (73)

Spirit of the Palm prophesies death on a horrendous scale and nature's withdrawal of its resources as a means of punishing humanity for all its acts of desecration.

Spirit of Darkness prophesies bad political leadership for the nations of the world. Catastrophic wars will be the end result of the misrule by blind leaders:
They'll be misled
And the shutters of the leaves
Shall close down on the doomed
And naked head. (74)

Spirit of Precious Stones declares that those who exploit gold and diamond in the pit are only courting death" (74). The pit symbolizes eternal damnation. Competition for subterranean resources has often been the cause of many calamitous wars in the world. As human activities result in the increasing depletion of the Earth's resources, it is expected that the competition for those resources will get stiffer and more ruthless.

Spirit of the Pachyderms laments the death and destruction visited on Africa and Asia by Europeans hunting for ivory:
Blood that rules the sunset, bathe
This, our ivory red
Broken is the sleep of giants
Wanton raiders, ivory has a point
Thus, thus we bled. (75)

The contamination caused by the colonial contact is expressed cryptically as the bathing of ivory with blood. It changes the white ivory to red, a color that symbolizes violence. The image of blood recalls the murderous acts committed by the ivory hunters whose archetypal example is Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Spirit of the Rivers draws attention to the problems of desertification and pollution:
I who mock the deserts, shed a tear
Of pity to form palm-ringed oases
Stain my bowels red. (75)

The disturbance of the world's eco-biological system has led to diverse disastrous consequences, such as the problems of global warming as well as endangered animals and plant species. The price humanity is paying for technological development is indeed heavy. The Chorus of the Waters warns that the waters shall turn into blood and admonishes humanity to put their house in order before it is too late: "Let the Camel mend his leaking hump/Let the squirrel guard the hollows in the Stump" (76).

The impending doom is made audible and represented in the drama by "a slow rumble, gathering force" (75). "The distant noise grows more insistent" (76). It is also made visible and graphic: "What appears to be a cloud of dust begins to rise steadily, darkening the scene" (76). The Spirit of the Sun, whose red pit symbolizes death and destruction wants to speak, but darkness veils its piercing eye. The Spirit of Volcanoes, the spirit of erupting mountains, declares that the darkness is not his handiwork. As he puts it, "I have not belched I These twenty hours or more" and "spewed hot ashes in the air" (77).

The ominous darkness is ultimately traced to ants who symbolize the workers of the world. They have come to protest being trodden underfoot and exploited with labor by greedy capitalists who deny them freedom. In the words of their leader:
  The world is old
But the rust of a million years
Has left the chains unloosened. (77)

Society and the means of production undergo a series of transformations but the miserable condition of the ants (toiling workers) remains unchanged. One of them states that they are victims of civilization: "We are the headless bodies when / The spade of progress delves" (78). They are sacrificed for "the good to come" (76), a phrase that recalls the pigs' justification of their privileged position and the enormous burden placed on the other animals in George Orwell's Animal Farm. Workers who build civilization are denied the comforts provided by their labor. The tragic paradox is central to the Marxian concept of alienation. But the circle of alienation is now complete and the ants rise up in anger to destroy the destroyers of the world, the capitalist exploiters, in a bloody revolution.

Half-Child plays and loses a game of sesan with Figure in Red who represents the spirit of death. The loss is a gloss on the fate of all souls. The three human witnesses who have made the fearful pronouncements are unmasked so that they can, in the words of Forest Head, "See the rest with their natural eyes, their human sight" (79). First Triplet, the lower trunk of a body with arms, symbolizes the Machiavellian principle that any means, however amoral or crude, can be justified when employed to reach a desired goal. Second Triplet, a drooling over-blown head, exposes politicians as cheats and liars who deceive the electorate and make false promises in order to win votes: "I am the Greater Cause, standing ever ready, excusing the crimes of today for tomorrow's mirage" (79). the future of humanity is imaged as a tantalizing mirage that recedes as history progresses. Bloody and fanged, Third Triplet, an emblematic figure that represents the future, asks: "I find I am Posterity. Can no one see on what I have been nourished?" (80). The answer to the question is blood. With this riddle, Third Triplet confirms Historian's view that war is the destiny of humanity.

Forest Head holds humanity responsible for their destiny and suffering. He tells Dead Woman: "Child, there is no choice but one of suffering" (69). To the three human representatives, he makes the following remark: "You have as always, decided your own fates. Today is no different from your lives. I merely sit and watch" (80). Although worried by his "long-rumored ineffectuality," Forest Head is wary of intervening in human affairs (82). By luring the three humans into the forest to witness the dance of welcome for the dead couple, he is "hoping that when I have tortured awareness from their souls, that perhaps, only perhaps, in new beginnings..." (82). The hope of humanity acquiring a new nature is uncertain, and Forest Head knows that his action of gentle rebuke amounts to sheer futility. Dead Woman observes that "A hundred generations has made no difference" (26). Her husband says as much:
Three lives I led since first I went away
But still my first possesses me
The pattern is unchanged. (70)

The playwright's tragic vision shares affinities with the Christian Apocalypse but, unlike the latter, is firmly grounded on contemporary history. All over the world people live in a climate of fear. Ours is the age of environmental pollution, moral decadence, and spiritual disquiet. Corruption is as rife in the new nation as in the court of Mata Kharibu. The playwright despairs of any perfect resolution of conflicts and contradictions. Neither religion nor science is offered as a solution. Even God is not sure of the possibility of human redemption. In the end we are left with a paradoxical neither-nor situation.

As portrayed in the play, the spirits are not immune to error. They are quarrelsome and vengeful and generally behave like human beings. Forest Head tells the quarrelling Eshuoro and Ogun: "Soon, I will not tell you from the humans, so closely have their habits grown on you" (67). The universe of the play is one of "cosmic totality" (Myth 3). The physical is not separated from the spiritual. As in the animist world, the living, the dead, and the unborn commingle. Indeed, the drama "denies periodicity to the existences of the dead, the living and the unborn" (3). The image of God (Forest Head) presented in the play differs significantly from that of the Christian God whose abode is not terrestrial but celestial and remote.

Although the technological revolution increases human efficiency and leisure-time, it causes environmental pollution and aggravates psycho-social problems. Its fruits are sweet-sour and there is no choice but to continue to consume them. Nothing better illustrates the paradox of human and technological progression than the use of nuclear power to work machines and destroy enemies in war. Eshuoro has the last laugh and takes vengeance on Demoke for desecrating the forest and for killing Oremole. He sets fire to the totem while its carver, Demoke, is mounted on it. Perhaps the weapons of war invented by humans will be used to exact punishment on them for their abominable acts, which are all committed in the name of progress. Demoke's is an unwilling sacrifice and, therefore, may not atone for the sins of humanity.

The wisdom garnered by the three witnesses cannot lead to human regeneration, precisely because of the problem of forgetfulness. As Forest Head puts it, "they forget too easily" (50). The Chorus of the Future, like the entire play, is to remind humanity of their "destructive path of survival" and the weaknesses of their nature (79). Although the depiction of human and technological progression in the play is paradoxical, it leans toward the tragic side. Nevertheless, change is possible, for human beings have free will. However, the dialectic of change cannot be broken in any finite sense. Human beings will continue, as of old, to tread a paradoxical path as they press ahead to meet, in the words of Aroni, their "cursed future" (79). The vision sculpted in the play is apocalyptic.


Adekoya, Olusegun. "Eternal Return in A Dance of the Forests." Cultural Studies in ife, ed. Biodun Adediran. Ile-Ife: The Institute of Cultural Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, 1995.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Middlesex: Penguin, 1973.

Maduakor, Obi. Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing. Ibadan: Heinemann, 1991.

Ogunba, Qyin. The Movement of Transition. Ibadan: Ibadan UP, 1975.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1946.

Soyinka, Wole. A Dance of the Forests. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1963.

_____. Myth, Literature and the African World, 1st paperback ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978.

Olusegun Adekoya teaches African Literature in the Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. His important critical essays in African Literature continue to generate serious debates in African cultural discourse. He is currently working on a book of criticism of Wole Soyinka's poetry.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Department of English
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Wole Soyinka
Author:Adekoya, Olusegun
Publication:Studies in the Humanities
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Previous Article:The rewards of literature, or, my Henry James.
Next Article:Beyond essentialism (1).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters