In Professor Adeboye Babalola”s rendition of Ijala(Hunter’s chants), entitled: ‘Salute to the Elephant’, the mammoth animal is eulogized in hyperbole ,the striking aspect of the poem is the metaphoric images that conjure the uniqueness of the elephant’s standing in the animal world.
While our great Eagle on the Iroko, the monumental Chinua Achebe has departed this world in flesh, and while Clark Bekederimo, the bard of the Songs of Goat has also joined the Eagle (Achebe) in the world of spirits, the last of the Troika, who we refer to as human incarnation of Adeboye Babalola’s Ijala, who has just celebrated his 87 is very much with us.
The name Wole Soyinka is synonymous with literature, and has for long belonged in the global pantheon of literary- elect.In addition to being one of the living legends of the global cultures, he has been a towering giantin the world of letters, literature and the intellectual tradition, and a renowned activist, humanist and human rights campaigner.
Soyinka has made his mark as dramatist, and it can be argued more poignantly that as the Western culture can boast of a Shakespeare and the Spanish world Federico Garcia Lorca, Soyinka is Africa’s equivalent of William Shakespeare, the bard of Avon.
Confining Soyinka to a rarefied field of literature only is a wrong reading of the man who turned 87 last week, for if polymath and eclectic can be enough words- qualifiers for a peculiar brand of rounded scholarship,then no one has a claim to them than Soyinka, the playwright that fashioned out with poetic overtones the drama of existence that earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, the first African to win the coveted prize. His polymath status is everywhere evident in his writing, and in his polemics and intellectual exchanges with giants of the letters such as Ali Mazrui among others.
Speculations of a Nobel prize for either Soyinka or Achebe had since the 70s been part of literary coffee shop banter, and in 1984, it was believed one of them would clinch it until the honour went to Jaroslav Seifert, a Czechoslovakian writer, “for his poetry which endowed with freshness, sensuality and rich inventiveness provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man.
Once again, the Black world mourned, whined and felt cheated; then came 1985, again, the prize went to the obscure French man Claude Simon. The Nobel Prize for Literature that we so much coveted for one of our own greatshas had a drama of its own.
In 1964, the 59-year-old author Jean-Paul Sartre declined the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he was awarded in October of that year. Sartre known for his absurd work said he always refused official distinctions and did not want to be “institutionalised.”
M. Sartre was interviewed by journalists outside the Paris flat of his friend Simone de Beauvoir, authoress and playwright.
Finally, that honour came the way of the African world in 1986 when Soyinka was named the winner.
Soyinka has featured more prominently in the intersections between politics and radical writing as Antonio Gramsci would call it, and while his dramatic writing explores the mystery and complexities of his Yoruba background, his activism, commentaries and interventions in governance have been a scaring, scathing commentaries on maladministration in Nigeria in particular and Africa in general.
His first major play, The Swamp Dwellers (1958), was followed a year later by The Lion and the Jewel, a comedy that attracted interest from several members of London’s Royal Court Theatre.
Encouraged, Soyinka moved to London, where he worked as a play reader for the Royal Court Theatre.During the same period, both of his plays were performed in Ibadan. They dealt with the uneasy relationship between progress and tradition in Nigeria.
In 1957, his play The Invention was the first of his works to be produced at the Royal Court Theatre. At that time his only published works were poems such as “The Immigrant” and “My Next Door Neighbour”, which were published in the Nigerian magazine Black Orpheus.
This was founded in 1957 by the German scholar Ulli Beier, who had been teaching at the University of Ibadan since 1950.
Soyinka received a Rockefeller Research Fellowship from University College in Ibadan, his alma mater, for research on African theatre, and he returned to Nigeria. After its fifth issue (November 1959), Soyinka replaced Jahnheinz Jahn to become coeditor for the literary periodical Black Orpheus (its name derived from a 1948 essay by Jean-Paul Sartre, “Orphée Noir”, published as a preface to Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, edited by Léopold Senghor).
He produced his new satire, The Trials of Brother Jero. His work A Dance of The Forest (1960), a biting criticism of Nigeria’s political elites, won a contest that year as the official play for Nigerian Independence Day. On 1 October 1960, it premiered in Lagos as Nigeria celebrated its sovereignty.
The play satirizes the fledgling nation by showing that the present is no more a golden age than was the past. Also in 1960, Soyinka established the “Nineteen-Sixty Masks”, an amateur acting ensemble to which he devoted considerable time over the next few years.
He wrote the first full-length play produced on Nigerian television. Entitled My Father’s Burden and directed by Segun Olusola, the play was featured on the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) on 6 August 1960.
He published works satirising the “Emergency” in the Western Region of Nigeria, as his Yorùbá homeland was increasingly occupied and controlled by the federal government. The political tensions arising from recent post-colonial independence eventually led to a military coup and civil war (1967–70).
With the Rockefeller grant, Soyinka bought a Land Rover, and he began travelling throughout the country as a researcher with the Department of English Language of the University College in Ibadan.
In an essay of the time, he criticised Leopold Senghor’s Négritude movement as a nostalgic and indiscriminate glorification of the black African past that ignores the potential benefits of modernisation.
He is often quoted as having said, “A tiger doesn’t proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.” But in fact, Soyinka wrote in a 1960 essay for the Horn: “the duiker will not paint ‘duiker’ on his beautiful back to proclaim his duikeritude; you’ll know him by his elegant leap.”
In Death and the King Horsemen he states: “The elephant trails no tethering-rope; that king is not yet crowned who will peg an elephant.”
In December 1962, Soyinka’s essay “Towards a True Theater” was published. He began teaching with the Department of English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ifẹ. He discussed current affairs with “négrophiles,” and on several occasions openly condemned government censorship.
At the end of 1963, his first feature-length movie, Culture in Transition, was released. In April 1964 The Interpreters, “a complex but also vividly documentary novel”, was published in London.
That December, together with scientists and men of theatre, Soyinka founded the Drama Association of Nigeria. In 1964 he also resigned his university post, as a protest against imposed pro-government behaviour by the authorities.
A few months later, in 1965, he was arrested for the first time, charged with holding up a radio station at gunpoint (as described in his 2006 memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn, and replacing the tape of a recorded speech by the premier of Western Nigeria with a different tape containing accusations of election malpractice.
Soyinka was released after a few months of confinement, as a result of protests by the international community of writers. This same year he wrote two more dramatic pieces: Before the Blackout and the comedy Kongi’s Harvest. He also wrote The Detainee, a radio play for the BBC in London.
His play The Road premiered in London at the Commonwealth Arts Festival, opening on 14 September 1965, at the Theatre Royal.At the end of the year, he was promoted to headmaster and senior lecturer in the Department of English Language at University of Lagos.
Soyinka’s political speeches at that time criticised the cult of personality and government corruption in African dictatorships. In April 1966, his play Kongi’s Harvest was produced in revival at the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.
The Road was awarded the Grand Prix. In June 1965, he produced his play The Lion and The Jewel for Hampstead Theatre Club in London.After becoming chief of the Cathedral of Drama at the University of Ibadan, Soyinka became more politically active.
Following the military coup of January 1966, he secretly and unofficially met with the military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in the Southeastern town of Enugu (August 1967), to try to avert civil war.As a result, he had to go into hiding.
He was imprisoned for 22 months as civil war ensued between the Federal government of Nigeria and the Biafrans. Though refused materials such as books, pens, and paper, he still wrote a significant body of poems and notes criticising the Nigerian government while in prison.
Despite his imprisonment, in September 1967, his play The Lion and The Jewel was produced in Accra. In November The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed were produced in the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York City.
He also published a collection of his poetry, Idanre and Other Poems. It was inspired by Soyinka’s visit to the sanctuary of the Yorùbá deity Ogun, whom he regards as his “companion” deity, kindred spirit, and protector.
In 1968, the Negro Ensemble Company in New York produced Kongi’s Harvest. While still imprisoned Soyinka translated from Yoruba a fantastical novel by his compatriot D. O. Fagunwa, entitled The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter’s Saga.
In October 1969, amnesty was proclaimed, and Soyinka and other political prisoners were freed. For the first few months after his release, Soyinka stayed at a friend’s farm in southern France, where he sought solitude.
He wrote The Bacchae of Euripides (1969), a reworking of the Pentheus myth.He soon published in London a book of poetry, Poems from Prison. At the end of the year, he returned to his office as Headmaster of Cathedral of Drama in Ibadan.
In 1970, he produced the play Kongi’s Harvest, while simultaneously adapting it as a film of the same title. In June 1970, he finished another play, called Madmen and Specialists.
Together with the group of 15 actors of Ibadan University Theatre Art Company, he went on a trip to the United States, to the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut, where his latest play premiered. It gave them all experience with theatrical production in another English-speaking country.
In 1971, his poetry collection A Shuttle in the Crypt was published. Madmen and Specialists was produced in Ibadan that year. Soyinka travelled to Paris to take the lead role as Patrice Lumumba, the murdered first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, in the production of his Murderous Angels.
In April 1971, concerned about the political situation in Nigeria, Soyinka resigned from his duties at the University in Ibadan, and began years of voluntary exile. In July in Paris, excerpts from his well-known play The Dance of The Forests were performed.
In 1972, his novel Season of Anomy and his Collected Plays were both published by Oxford University Press. His powerful autobiographical work The Man Died, a collection of notes from prison, was also published that year.
He was awarded an Honoris Causa doctorate by the University of Leeds in 1973. In the same year the National Theatre, London, commissioned and premiered the play The Bacchae of Euripides, and his plays Camwood on the Leaves and Jero’s Metamorphosis were also first published. From 1973 to 1975, Soyinka spent time on scientific studies.
He spent a year as a visiting fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge University 1973–74 and wrote Death and the King’s Horseman, which had its first reading at Churchill College (which Dapo Ladimeji and Skip Gates attended), and gave a series of lectures at a number of European universities.
In 1974, his Collected Plays, Volume II was issued by Oxford University Press. In 1975 Soyinka was promoted to the position of editor for Transition, a magazine based in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, where he moved for some time.
He used his columns in Transition to criticise the “Negrophiles” (for instance, his article “Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Transition”) and military regimes. He protested against the military junta of Idi Amin in Uganda. After the political turnover in Nigeria and the subversion of Gowon’s military regime in 1975, Soyinka returned to his homeland and resumed his position at the Cathedral of Comparative Literature at the University of Ife.
In 1976, he published his poetry collection Ogun Abibiman, as well as a collection of essays entitled Myth, Literature and the African World. In these, Soyinka explores the genesis of mysticism in African theatre and, using examples from both European and African literature, compares and contrasts the cultures.
He delivered a series of guest lectures at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana in Legon. In October, the French version of The Dance of The Forests was performed in Dakar, while in Ife, his play Death and The King’s Horseman premièred.
In 1977, Opera Wọnyọsi, his adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, was staged in Ibadan. In 1979 he both directed and acted in Jon Blair and Norman Fenton’s drama The Biko Inquest, a work based on the life of Steve Biko, a South African student and human rights activist who was beaten to death by apartheid police forces.
In 1981 Soyinka published his autobiographical work Aké: The Years of Childhood, which won a 1983 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
Today, Soyinka is an elder statesman, a bard, and one of the last of African sage lamenting the rudderless state of African governance.
Soyinka was born in 1934 into a Yoruba family in Abeokuta. In 1954, he attended Government College in Ibadan, and subsequently University College Ibadan and the University of Leeds in England. After studying in Nigeria and the UK, he worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London.