Wole Soyinka (born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka in 1934) is Africa’s most distinguished playwright, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. A Yoruba, he studied first at the University College of Ibadan, then at Leeds University in England, where he came under the influence of the brilliant Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight. The fifties were a period of great experimentation in the theater, both in France and England, and Soyinka was involved with various productions in Great Britain before returning to Nigeria, having been commissioned to write a play to celebrate that nation’s independence in 1960 (A Dance of the Forests). It was a lyrical blend of Western experimentalism and African folk tradition, reflecting a highly original approach to drama. He has always emphasized his African roots, dubbing his early theater troupe “Masks,” to acknowledge the role Yoruba pageantry has played in his work.
From the beginning he was a political figure, During the Nigerian Civil War he was not sufficiently anti-Biafran to suit the government and was put into solitary confinement for two years, being released only after an intense international campaign. This experience is movingly recounted in his book, A Man Died. He has written many plays, both for the theater and for radio production, poetry, and prose fiction. He was granted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. His political stands earned him–like most other prominent Nigerian writers–exile from his homeland for a number of years.
He is also a vigorous critic of contemporary literature and has engaged in heated debates with other Africans who have accused him of writing in an obscure idiom that owes more to European traditions than Nigerian ones. In turn, he has argued against the Négritude movement, stating that “The Tiger does not boast of his tigritude.” A passionate attachment to his Yoruba roots combined with a fearless experimentalism has continued to make him a controversial figure. Much of his later writing has been satire directed against corrupt African leaders such as Bokassa and Amin, whose predecessors in various African states were targets of such plays as Madmen and Specialists. In 1973 Soyinka wrote a much more serious sequel to The Trials of Brother Jero entitled Jero’s Metamorphosis which objected to the extreme measures taken by the Nigerian government against criminals.
Biblical passages are given here from the King James translation, which would have been the one familiar to Soyinka and his audience.