Wole Soyinka: Yoruba Plays for All Tribes
Weales, Gerald, Hollins Critic
In 1963, Wole Soyinka prepared the script and performed the narration for a television documentary, Culture in Transition, designed to introduce American audiences to Nigerian art and literature. It included a reading from Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the first African novel to become well known in the United States; the work of several young poets, including Christopher Okigbo and John Pepper Clark; a scene from one of Duro Ladipo's Yoruba folk operas; and an extensive excerpt from Soyinka's then most recent play, The Strong Breed. The documentary quickly disappeared from the television screen, found its way onto sixteen-millimeter film and began a half-life in college and high school auditoriums. By the time I caught up with it a decade later, Soyinka had ceased to be the interesting Nigerian writer and editor, director and performer, the logical choice as narrator for such a film, and had become a poet and playwright with a well-deserved international reputation. Yet, Nigerian still. The audience with which I saw Culture in Transition was mostly Nigerian and as I moved up the aisle after the film, I spoke to the man beside me, a graduate student in economics, about the play's being more complicated than the performance made it seem. "Oh, yes," he said. "It would be much better in Yoruba."
"But he wrote it in English."
"I know, but it is a Yoruba play. You can't really do that in English." Sometimes, reading, say, one of Ulli Beier's English adaptations of an Obotunde Ijimere play, I suspect the incipient economist of having stumbled onto a general truth about translation; yet I cling to the suspicion that his casual remark also contains, somewhat obliquely, an ironic truth about Soyinka. Soyinka grew up in a Nigeria in which secondary and university education was modeled on the English system, taught in English, and, properly primed, he went off to the University of Leeds where he earned a B.A. (Honors English). He went on to become a lecturer in English literature at various of the Nigerian universities and his contribution to The Morality of Art, a Festschrift for his teacher G. Wilson Knight, indicates that he can hold his own with the most eminent of the English critics; in fact his command of the jargon of myth-and-ritual aesthetics is so impressive that, knowing his skill at parody, I half hoped he was having them on even while he was giving serious attention to the myths that figure in so much of his own work. He began his career in the theater in the late 1950s as a play reader for the Royal Court Theatre in London, and his most recent play is an adaptation, The Bacchae of Euripides, which was written on commission for the National Theatre of Great Britain. His easy familiarity with Western culture is apparent, implicitly or explicitly, in everything he writes, but it is perhaps nowhere more effective than in the "Four archetypes" section of A Shuttle in the Crypt, in which one Biblical, three literary heroes become metaphorical points of reference for the political and psychological preoccupation of the poet in prison. At last report, he was a fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge.
Still, the embryonic economist is right. Soyinka, who is one of the most sophisticated writers of English in the world today, is a Yoruba author. I do not mean anything so narrowly biographical as the fact of his birth, the child of Yoruba-speaking parents in Abeokuta, or so bibliographical as his having translated D. O. Fagunwa's Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale as The Forest of a Thousand Daemons. Nor is it simply that Yoruba begins to invade his English plays with the Yoruba songs he writes for The Road and Kongi's Harvest and a Yoruba exchange such as that between Particulars Joe and Say Tokyo Kid in The Road, which, if it took place in the streets of Philadelphia, would be called playing the dozens. It is more important that so many figures from the Yoruba cosmology have roles in A Dance of the Forests, that the Ogun mask figures prominently in The Road, that the festival of the new yam is at the heart of Kongi's Harvest. …