- LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0043
- LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0043
Wole Soyinka (1934–) is primarily a playwright but also a memorialist and a poet. He is also an activist and an accomplished playwright. The development of his work cannot be understood without reference to Nigeria’s history. Soyinka was born in Abeokuta in western Nigeria. He attended the University of Ibadan before being admitted to Leeds University where he earned a degree in drama. On graduation, he was offered a job at the Royal Court Theater as a dramatist and started producing his own plays. Soyinka returned to Nigeria on the eve of its independence and was commissioned to write the play, A Dance of the Forests, which was eventually pulled out of the official program. This was the beginning of his career as a playwright and as a public intellectual. Between 1960 and 1967 he produced several plays and won a prize at the Dakar Festival in 1966. Soyinka’s attempts at mediation and his appeals for peace and dialogue at the beginning of the civil war led to his arrest and imprisonment for twenty-six months (August 1967–October 1969). Soyinka was released at the end of the war and became a voice for African writers as editor of Transition—the liberal journal of arts and culture located in Accra, having moved from Kampala—and as general secretary of the Union of African Writers. In this capacity he was one of the promoters of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in Lagos in 1977. In the years following his return to Nigeria, Soyinka held several academic positions with the first starting in 1975. At the same time, he was very active in civic causes as an advocate of speech and academic freedom and also of road safety. In 1986 Soyinka received the Nobel Prize for literature. Soyinka’s work is organized around an anti-totalitarian theory of power, promoted in numerous essays and lectures, which structures his dramatic universe. His work is mainly a strong advocacy for a division between private and public domains, spiritual and temporal powers (i.e., the separation of church and state), and of religion and politics and a total refusal of what he calls theocratic intrusion into politics. As an activist, he campaigns for causes that are based on general principles of Kantian morality, secularism of the state, a sound use of the syncretic and satirical heritage of Yoruba culture, a good dose of lucidity and personal courage, and a capacity to take risks. Soyinka is not an intellectual total; that is, he does not provide a total world view with ready-made dialectical explanations. He is not Sartre, not even Senghor. He is much better: he is a poet citizen, a radical activist, who puts himself on the line but does not aspire to be king of the intellectual stage nor president. He claims to be “temperamentally unsuited” to politics but is nonetheless very often involved in political fights (Soyinka 2012b, p. 5, cited under Global Writer? (1998–)). Discussion of his career is divided into several sections: a Dramatist in Penkelemes Years (1956–1967), the War and Beyond (1967–1975); a Poet and a Citizen (1976–1986); an African Nobel (1986–1998), and Global Writer? (1998–). His works are distributed in these categories, which, of course, are overlapping and do not constitute a linear sequence. These topics cover his works and suggest the reading of his last book of memoirs to be the best introduction to his oeuvre.
Soyinka attracted critical attention very early. Following his work from an inside perspective, Nigerian scholars such as Biodun Jeyifo (Jeyifo 2001), Olu Obafemi (Obafemi 1996), and Yemi Ogunbiyi (Ogunbiyi 1988) have engaged in a critical dialogue with him for decades. This feedback has been an essential element in the dialogic conception of his work. Gibbs 1980 and Gibbs and Lindfors 1993 provide material and insight to understand this context. His dramatic work is also the object of continued interest by theater specialists from his alma mater Leeds, as demonstrated by Njogu 2014 and Soyinka 2005.
Gibbs, James, ed. Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1980.
A very useful collection of articles on Soyinka before the Nobel Prize.
Gibbs, James, ed. Special Issue: Wole Soyinka. Literary Half Yearly 28.2 (1987).
See especially pp. 1–49 on reactions to the prize in India and Italy. Also includes Eldred Jones on a personal choice, Jeyifo on the will of Ogun, James Gibbs, Soyinka on Zimbabwe, and a question and answer section.
Gibbs, James, Ketu Katrak, and Henry L. Gates. Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources (Bibliographies and Indexes in Afro-African and African Studies). Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986.
A useful list showing the formidable amount of references already available in the pre-Internet age.
Gibbs, James, and Bernth Lindfors, eds. Research on Wole Soyinka. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1993.
A collection of selected articles, mainly taken from Special Issue: Wole Soyinka, edited by James Gibbs, Research in African Literatures 14.1 (1983). See in particular Norma Bishop, “A Nigerian Version of a Greek Classic, Soyinka’s Transformation of The Bacchae” (pp. 115–126).
Jeyifo, Biodun, ed. Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
A collection of essays. See especially Joachim Fiebach’s “Wole Soyinka and Heiner Muller: Different Cultural Contexts, Similar Approaches” (pp. 128–139) and Niyi Osundare’s “Wole Soyinka and the Atunda Ideal: A Reading of Soyinka’s Poetry” (pp. 187–200).
Njogu, Kimani, ed. Special Issue: Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka. African Theatre 13 (2014).
Includes an unpublished radio play, A Rain of Stones, by Wole Soyinka (pp. 93–109). Several articles deal with the production of his plays; see “Encounters with Soyinka,” by Tunji Oyelana (pp. 17–23).
Obafemi, Olu. Contemporary Nigerian Theatre. Cultural Heritage and Social Vision.: Bayreuth African Studies 40. Bayreuth, Germany: Bayreuth University, 1996.
A general study of drama in Nigeria written by a practicing dramatist and scholar. A large section of the book is dedicated to the political theater in the 1980s. Interesting comparisons of the reception of Soyinka’s plays in the Nigerian context.
Ogunbiyi, Yemi, ed. Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: 1700 to the Present. 2 vols. Lagos, Nigeria: Guardian, 1988.
A critical selection from the Guardian Literature, the literary supplement of the Lagos newspaper. A very useful tool to understand the critical context and reception of Soyinka’s work. Volume 1 includes the section Reflections on Wole Soyinka and the Nobel Prize (pp. 163–189) and volume 2 collects essays on Soyinka’s theater, poetry, and novels (pp. 92–105).
Soyinka, Wole. Soyinka, Blackout, Blowout, and Beyond, Satirical Revue Sketches. Edited by Martin Banham. Oxford: Currey, 2005.
Includes texts of the most important revue sketches and personal recollections by friends and colleagues. A most balanced and interesting assessment of Soyinka’s theatrical work in Nigeria since the 1960s. Book publication of a 2005 special issue of African Theatre, edited by Martin Banham.
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