"The End of Nigerian History": Wole Soyinka and Yoruba Historiography

By Odom, Glenn A. | Comparative Drama, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

"The End of Nigerian History": Wole Soyinka and Yoruba Historiography


Odom, Glenn A., Comparative Drama


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. …

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