There is no shortage of prophecy in the Yoruba spiritual world. This prophecy, however, is not teleological in the sense that it lacks a distinct end point toward which it is developing. In other words, there is no apocalypse in the various Yoruba legends, fables, tales, and religious texts, oral or written. Without a fixed end point, the relationship between past, present, and future in the Yoruba cosmology shifts in a specific, yet fluid manner. In Myth, Literature, and the African World, Wole Soyinka, a Yoruba, convincingly argues that "the difference ... between European and African drama as one of man's formal representation of experience is not simply a difference of style or form, nor is it confined to drama alone. It is representative of the essential differences between two worldviews, a difference between one culture whose very artifacts are evidence of a cohesive understanding of irreducible truths and another, whose creative impulses are directed by period dialectics." (1) In that Soyinka is comparing "irreducible truths" to "period dialectics" perceptions of time are clearly at stake in the definition of African theater. Curiously, then, in a metaphysics without an end point, Soyinka's work seems intimately concerned with the end of time, the end-times, and endings more broadly figured. In A Dance of the Forests, a play he wrote to be performed on the eve of Nigerian independence in 1960, Soyinka's peculiarly self-conscious metatheatrical deployment of time replaces teleology and progression not with "repetitive time," which the play also questions, but with a void or the end of man's ability to conceptualize the future in relation to the past or present: Soyinka's endings remain obscure, but are a regular subject of discussion in the play. Soyinka refers to drama as a "formal representation of experience," and thus this paper explores the relationship between the void created by the lack of signification of temporal concepts in A Dance of the Forests, Yoruba conceptions of time, and political manipulations of time in Nigeria. In other words, if Dance is to be understood as a formal representation of experience, then this representation is of Soyinka's experience of time as a colonial Yoruba and potential citizen of the newly independent Nigeria. Specifically, Soyinka magnifies the fluidity contained in traditional Yoruba views of time in order to combat the forced static control implied by pre-independence political discourse. The fluidity of time in traditional Yoruba thought provides Soyinka a fertile ever-shifting ground from which he can level a critique of any totalizing understanding of temporal realities and the political situations that these understandings underpin. The absence of a forced teleology in the Yoruba cosmology leaves the ending always in doubt, and, when magnified by Soyinka, always open to the possibility, although not the consummation, of new interpretation. While this particular examination is linked to a single play, the methodology employed below provides a foundation for an explanation of African genres in terms that, while still recognizable from an Aristotelian cast, are distinctly African in nature.
I. The Never-Ending Yoruba Tale
Soyinka's work consistently rewrites the Yoruba cosmology, amplifying and erasing certain elements of traditional belief. Given that the Yoruba were not, historically, a unified group, there is also a degree of variation even within and among those sources considered more "traditional" than Soyinka. The explanation of the Yoruba view of time, then, is not a philosophical attempt to isolate an authentic African view of time, but, instead, to demonstrate that the complexity of time found in Dance is not foreign to the Yoruba "experience." The critical debate between an attempt to "solve" the paradoxes of Yoruba time and the insistence of the vitality of these paradoxes acts as a homology for the critical debates that surround Dance: Soyinka's work, like the traditional Yoruba concept of time, preserves a variety of paradoxes, despite critical or political pressure.
While the end point of Yoruba time may be absent, the itan, or traditional Yoruba tales, provide several versions of the way the world began, each of which involve divine intervention. (2) This divine intervention in the flow of human time does not extend beyond the present, and, as such, there is an immediacy to eternity that is absent in Western conceptions of time. As Soyinka says in The Fourth Stage: Through the Mysteries of Ogun to the Origin of Yoruba Tragedy, "Past, present and future being so pertinently conceived and woven into the Yoruba world view, the element of eternity which is the god's prerogative does not have the same quality of remoteness or exclusiveness which it has in Christian or Buddhist culture." (3) The immanent encroachment of eternity on human perception though leads to a rather complex explanation of Yoruba time.
In "The Labyrinth Conception of Time as Basis of Yoruba View of Development" Sophie Oluwole discusses the complexity of Yoruba time as expressed in oral texts. For instance, "Ti won ban pa Oni, ki Ola tele won ki o lo wo bi won o ti sin i" (When today is being dispatched, tomorrow should be in attendance to see where the corpse is laid) and "Ogbon odun ni, were eemiil" (Wisdom this year is folly next time). (4) The first of these truisms implies that the future will continue to repeat the present, and that knowledge of one is knowledge of the other. The second quotation, however, refutes this idea by reminding the reader of the fluidity of rime and the fact that things change. Oluwole uses a variety of other proverbs to argue that a simple notion of circularity or progress cannot account for the entirety of the African perception of time, but, aside from noting the complexity, does not provide further explanation.
Other scholars attempt to sort out the complexity and marshal evidence from the Yoruba world into clearly delineated categories. For example, the Yoruba concept of ori (destiny) positions the individual relative to time. In The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful, Barry Hallen cites a proverb that explains the Yoruba attitude toward ori as follows: "When a person 'misses his or her road' (si lona) and has someone to redirect him or her, he or she says that it is his or her destiny (ori) which has directed him or her to the person who shows him or her the road." Conversely, however, some people "choose" to follow bad destinies. (5) These two ideas of destiny are not immediately compatible. Paradoxically, destiny can at once transcend man and be shaped by man. Man's future is prefigured but subject to change. Hallen makes an attempt to reconcile these concepts by saying that those who choose bad destinies were destined to do so. Hallen repeatedly expresses his frustration that the seers (onis egun) do not view these ideas of ori as contradictory or as in need of explanation.
Other scholars of Yoruba historiography actually claim that the Yoruba people view time as uncategorizably complex and simultaneously subject to active manipulation of past, present, and future. Rather than attempting to "correct" the paradoxes, these scholars highlight them in order to determine not only how the Yoruba people conceptualize time, but also how this concept is put into ideological motion. In these cases, the contradictions are not mistakes to be glossed over, but rather vital portions of an ideological struggle. For example, J. D. Y. Peel's article "Making History: The Past in the Ijesho Present" (1984) makes a compelling argument that the Yoruba conception of time is inextricably bound to politics. This article follows Peel's extensive collection of oral histories of Illesha (a Yoruba town in which live the Ijesha, a Yoruba people). Peel says that the political meaning of these stories results from placing them within their immediate historical context and examining their effects on history and the history of that particular social context: "a great deal of the essential dialectic of 'making history' must be lost if indigenous concepts of time and the past are only analysed in an ethnographic present, that is as the product of a socio-cultural context, rather than also of a sequence of historical conjunctures" (6) In other words, the Yoruba stories used to tell history are governed by historical phenomena, and neither these phenomena nor the stories make any effort to hide this governance. That history is historiography in this case is an argument that relies on an understanding of the Yoruba conception of time as radically fluid and subject to constant manipulation. Historiography changes to fit the vicissitudes of history, which is, itself, being rewritten by historiographic practice.
Peel explains this complexity in terms of "stereotypic reproduction" using the transmission and modification of itan in contemporary Illesha as his example. The story of the history of the city changed over time, and the retelling of the history of the story changed over time. More importantly, the argument that accompanies the itan shifted, sometimes retroactively, depending on the telling. "Stereotypic Reproduction" is the general anthropological term applied to societies that "strive to make history repeat itself." (7) Peel provides the Yoruba proverb "baba ni jingi" (your father is a mirror) as an example of this …