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Soyinka’s 1960 play: Leave the dead some room to dance…

By Chimdi Maduagwu

The living are ever disappointed in themselves and thus crave for a return to the past. This appears escapist but it has become normal. That is why we hear statements like “the good old days.” In his play, to commemorate Nigerian independence, A Dance of the Forest, Soyinka makes the living to formally ask for the presence of all creatures at a celebration identified as “The Gathering of the Tribes.”

Wole Soyinka

This is so because the living idealizes the past. I think they do so because of lack of self-confidence. In the drama, the living have asked for their illustrious ancestors but they get disappointed in the personages who come to join them in their celebration. In short, rather than get their expectation of the “illustrious ancestor,” some obscene creatures come to represent their past in the celebration.

The celebration, “The Gathering of the Tribes,” is a symbolic representation of Nigerian independence celebration. These dead ancestors, “…instead of being the idealized figures of the tribal imagination… turn out to be full of ancient bitterness and resentment and are shunned by everyone as “obscenities.” (Introductory comment on A Dance of the Forest).

The living despise them because they appear in unacceptable forms, manifesting diverse elements of ugliness. However, Forest father, the head and somewhat, the convener of the celebration, engineers a realistic meeting of the living and the dead. At this meeting, the living see themselves in the dead; some form of continuity that is seemingly incomprehensible to the living.

The truth is that the living is the amazing replication of the dead. One very interesting point raised here is the question of representation for the people. Indeed, who represent the people? The Gathering of the Tribes is like a parliament, a community town council in the old village squares, and the court of the people where, in the pre-colonial times, democratic justice is demonstrated.

The expectation of the living, in respect to representations from the past (illustrious ancestors) are defeated and that seems to be the general trend in “political representation” in the new independent state of Nigeria. 55 years + 5 after the production of this play, there is still a need to broach the issues raised in the play once more in order to reexamine the society, in relation to the living now; side by side with the dead (who probably were the living at the time the play was written);

and the dead (at the time the play was written) who have now joined the pool of the ancestors, against the background of celebrations and representations. Five years ago, The Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos organized a conference to commemorate Nigeria’s Golden Jubilee. The theme of the conference was “Another Gathering of the Tribes.”

Nigerians gather, either physically or otherwise, every year on October 1, to remember their constitutional independence; however, in the year 2010, the gathering was different at the Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, Nigeria.

In that gathering, papers were presented by panels and groups of scholars and individual Scholars, Researchers, Activists, Social Crusaders, Community Leaders, premised on Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forest, and penetrating the various aspects of the Nigerian nation, 50 years after political/constitutional independence. Ideas expressed drew upon various components of the Humanities like Literature, Language, History, Culture, Sociology, Philosophy, Religion, Politics, Economy, Education etc.

In selecting appropriate presentations for that conference, consideration was given to issues pertaining to, but not restricted to: Generational Bitterness – consistent and perennial problems of hate, dislike, disdain and contempt between generations. (The tendency for succeeding generations to despise, dissociate from, or out rightly condemn the previous generations, even though they have always been the same?).

Dr. Chris Osegenwune of the Department of Philosophy, University of Lagos, focused his attention on “Generational Bitterness,” and presents an argument, based on Soyinka’s Philosophical treatise, The Credo of Being and Nothingness, that intolerance and lack of respect for the superior logic in issues concerning religion have contributed immensely to problems of hate, dislike, disdain, terrorism, dogmatism, vengeance, revenge and other enduring tensions including excruciating conflicts and wars, the ultimate end of which is social and political instability.

He further argues that Soyinka’s position is in line with the fundamental questions of philosophy in connection with human existence especially the metaphysics of being and nothingness. While considering the notions of being and nothingness, this presenter reconstructs Soyinka’ Treatise into an instrument capable of managing “monstrous features” of the society for posterity.

In support of the existential importance of Soyinka’s works to the social, aesthetic and philosophical growth of Nigeria, Solomon Azumurana and Chimdi Maduagwu touch on very important and deep aspects of the writer’s (Soyinka’s) consciousness towards the overall development of the being and the society.

Azumurana specifically writes on Existential Complexities, and by this he means that Soyinka’s genius presents complex approaches to human existence. In his opinion, Soyinka’s view of human existence transcends the “simplistic” philosophical postulations of Kierkegaad, Descartes, Martin Heidegger, Paul Sartre, and the Platonic-Aristotelian concept of existence.”

It is premised on Yoruba philosophy in which consideration is given to “conceptual aspects of time; religion, sensitivity …explaining the metaphysical order of his world. …life, contains within it manifestations of the ancestral, the living and the unborn.” (Cited in Akporobaro et al 283).

The complexity Azumurana identifies in Soyinka postulation of an intricate relationship between the living, the dead and the unborn; the present, the past and the future, the humans, the spirits and the objects all point to difficulties in the total comprehension of human existence.

My personal view, in the whole issue is that Soyinka’s early works, including A Dance of the Forest are dominated by the writer’s vision of “the being.” For this reason, he embarks on the explication of the being. Drawing freely upon the pantheon of Yoruba gods, Soyinka approaches several aspects of human existence.

In fact, the godheads in the Yoruba world view have become ready objet d’art and creative tools for an organic re arrangement and restructuring of the entire universe. Soyinka personally acknowledges in Myth, Literature and the African World that the gods of the pantheon are magnanimous for “… their self-sacrifice on the altar of literature… and possibly further service on behalf of human society and its quest for the explication of being” (35).

The complications in Soyinka’s 1960 play on Nigeria; A Dance of the Forest, is seen as an anchorage for his visions in most of his early works. The play serves many observers as a fulcrum for the organization of a seemingly unorganized society and the inherent difficulties in doing so.

According to Nnenna Nwosu of the Department of European Languages, University of Lagos; Nigeria, is indeed a collection of forests. She posits that every aspect of life in Nigeria constitutes an autonomous forest and those who are either in the leadership class or their followers are dancers.

The Forest father and the various super beings, created or recreated by Wole Soyinka, as well as the ordinary helpless beings, whose day to day lives depend on the super beings, are all pointers to the day to day existence in Nigeria. Nwosu identifies the “classroom and the library” as her own forest and insists that she must dance and in response to the call of the forest head, also leave room for the dead to dance.

The presentations thus are a demonstration of various dance steps of scholars in the Humanities as they gather again to appraise Nigeria. They have equally yielded to the call of the Forest father and have given room, not only to the dead, but also the unborn, the gods, the spirits and the deities to dance.

In A Dance of the Forest, there is a careful attempt to let the present negotiate with the past, so as to initiate ways of reconciliation of the unending clashes between them. However, the attempt fails.

The failure appears to emanate from the present and its obstinacy, because it has refused to accommodate the past, represented by the “Dead Pair,” but this is not entirely true because the past does not seem to show consideration for the traits of the present. The present has asked for illustrious ancestors. The past does not seek to understand what it means by that, rather it goes ahead to present what it considers befitting for the present.

(Faculty of Arts University of Lagos held a Conference to appraise Nigeria at 50 in December 2010)     

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