A Dance of the Forest

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The Drama of Existence: Myths and Rituals in Wole Soyinka’s Theatre Rosa Figueiredo, Polytecnic of Guarda, Portugal

Abstract: The citation for Soyinka’s 1986 Nobel prize for literature reads: “Who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones, fashions the drama of existence”. The “wide cultural perspective” mentioned refers to the fact that Soyinka’s writings, especially the dramas for which he is best known, are at once deeply rooted in traditional African expressive and performance forms like myths and rituals, dance and mime, music and masquerade and are also greatly influenced by such diverse Western dramatic and theatrical modes as classical Greek drama, Shakespearean and Jacobean theatre, and modern European and American antirealist and avant-garde forms and techniques. Keywords: Theatre, Rituals, Myths, Soyinka

Wole Soyinka is, no doubt, Africa´s leading playwright, but the African audiences for his major plays are very small indeed. He addresses himself to the reflection of an African sensibility and the creation of an African drama, but his plays have nonAfricans amongst their most ardent admirers. Some African critics accuse him of a reactionary sensibility and intellect; yet his political activities, for which he has suffered imprisonment and exile, seem to stem from a deep concern for the common man seen as mercilessly exploited by tyrants, bureaucrats and opportunists. First of all, he is very specific about the role of the audience in a live theatre performance: the members of the audience are part of the space of the performance and therefore metaphysically part of the conflict taking place. The audience participate in this much deeper metaphysical sense throughout the ‘ritual’ – which is the word Soyinka uses for the drama in performance – because they are an integral part of the space in which the performance of the conflict takes place; and he refers to the audience as a ‘chorus’ who give the protagonist strength in ‘the symbolic struggle with the chthonic presences’(MLAW, 38). Soyinka therefore sees the use of the stage space as affective, not merely effective, because it affects the audience in certain emotional and physical ways. Therefore the use of the stage space moves from being metaphorical to being metaphysical. This metaphysical awareness on the part of the audience is, for Soyinka, most clearly seen in those performances of ‘ritual’ theatre where a fundamental anxiety manifests itself in members of the audience over whether or not the protagonist will survive confrontation with the forces of chaos which now exist in the arena of performance space.

International Journal of Arts and Sciences 4(1): 105-113 (2011) CD-ROM. ISSN: 1944-6934 © InternationalJournal.org

In the analysis of Soyinka’s Myth, Literature and the African World which is for readers of Soyinka’s plays, a sourcebook on his philosophical, poetic and critical precepts, a kind of “poetic manifesto”, there is one element which we need to consider before moving on to an understanding of Soyinka’s first major play A Dance of the Forests: music and its metaphysical significance. Music, dance and masquerade are crucial to nearly all Soyinka’s plays and especially to A Dance of the Forests. Music, the playwright writes in MLAW “is the intensive language of transition” (MLAW 36). And as ‘the language of transition’ it lies at the heart of his metaphysics; it is the actual means of communication to the audience both of the disintegration and the retrieval of self; it actually translates the actor and the audience to that state of awareness of the journey through the abyss. Soyinka also endorses the affective and cohesive properties of the theatre: It is a truism that the theatre is simply but effectively in its operational totality, both performance and audience; and there exists already in this truth a straightforward dynamic of drama which is not to be found in painting, a technique whose only end can be change, not...
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