The Future of Humanity as Projected in Soyinka's A Dance of the Forests

By Adekoya, Olusegun | Studies in the Humanities, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Future of Humanity as Projected in Soyinka's A Dance of the Forests


Adekoya, Olusegun, Studies in the Humanities


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. …

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