Soyinka's works are concerned with the tensions between spiritual and material worlds, with beliefs as the underpinnings of social relations, and with individuals' dependence on one another. His widely performed plays often highlight the problems of daily life in Africa; best known are Death and the King's Horseman (1975) and A Play of Giants (1984), a satiric attack on contemporary Africa. His novels include The Interpreters (1965), which considers the plight of young Nigerians in an increasingly corrupt society, and Isara (1988). His essay collections—such as Art, Dialogue, and Outrage (1988, 1994) and The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness (1998)—discuss a variety of African cultural and political issues. He has also written memoirs memoirs: Ake (1983), which outlines his early life and offers insights into Nigerian culture during the late colonial period, and You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006), which covers his adult years and focuses on his political activism in opposition to Nigeria's corrupt regimes.
See studies by E. Jones (1973), J. Gibbs (1986), and K. Katrak (1986).
Akinwande Oluwole "Wole" Soyinka (born 13 July 1934) is a Nigerian writer, poet and playwright. Some consider him Africa's most distinguished playwright, as he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, the first Sub Saharan African so honored.
Soyinka was born into a Yoruba family, specifically, an Egba family in Abeokuta in 1934. He received a primary school education in Abeokuta and attended secondary school at Government College, Ibadan. He then studied at the University College, Ibadan (1952-1954) and the University of Leeds (1954-1957) from which he received an honours degree in English Literature. He worked as a play reader at the Royal Court Theatre in London before returning to Nigeria to study African drama. He taught in the Universities of Lagos, Ibadan, and Ife (becoming Professor of Comparative Literature there in 1975).
Soyinka has played an active role in Nigeria's political history. In 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War he was arrested by the Federal Government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for his attempts at brokering a peace between the warring parties. While in prison he wrote poetry which was published in a collection titled Poems from Prison. He was released 22 months later after international attention was drawn to his imprisonment. His experiences in prison are recounted in his book The Man Died: Prison Notes.
He has been an outspoken critic of many Nigerian administrations, and of political tyrannies worldwide, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. A great deal of his writing has been concerned with "the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it". This activism has often exposed him to great personal risk, most notable during the government of the Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha (1993-1998). During Abacha's dictatorship, Soyinka left the country on voluntary exile and has since been living abroad (mainly in the United States, where he was a professor at Emory University in Atlanta). When civilian rule returned in 1999, Soyinka accepted an emeritus post at Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) on the condition that the university bar all former military officers from the position of chancellor. Soyinka is currently the Elias Ghanem Professor of Creative Writing at the English department of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the President's Marymount Institute Professor in Residence at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, US.
In 2005, he became one of the spearheads of an alternative National conference - PRONACO.
In 1939 when Wole was barely five years old, World War II erupted. The home of the Soyinka family had electricity and radio (chiefly thanks to his father), so little Wọle listened with curiosity to the news from war-torn Europe. This information was almost completely dominated by Adolf Hitler, leader of Nazi Germany.
In 1940, after attending St. Peters Primary School, Soyinka went to Abẹokuta Grammar School, where he won several prizes for literary composition. In 1946 he was accepted by Government College in Ibadan, at that time Nigeria’s most elite secondary school. Upon completion of his studies there, Soyinka moved to Lagos where he found employment as a clerk. During this time he wrote some radio plays and short stories that were broadcast on Nigerian radio stations. After finishing his course in 1952, Soyinka began studies at University College in Ibadan, connected with University of London. During this course he studied English literature, Greek, and Western history.
In the year 1953-1954, his second and last at University College, Ibadan, Soyinka commenced work on his first publication, a short radio broadcast for Nigerian Broadcasting Service National Programme called "Keffi's Birthday Threat," which was broadcast in July 1954 on Nigerian Radio Times. Whilst at university, Soyinka and six others founded the Pyrates Confraternity, the first confraternity in Nigeria. He then moved to Leeds, England to attend the University of Leeds.
Soyinka gives a detailed account of his early life in Aké: The Years of Childhood, which chronicles his experiences until about the age of ten.
After completing his studies, he remained in Leeds with the intention of earning an M.A. Influenced by his promoter, Soyinka decided to attempt to merge European theatrical traditions with those of his Yorùbá cultural heritage. In 1958 his first major play emerged, titled The Swamp Dwellers. One year later, he wrote The Lion and the Jewel, a comedy which garnered interest from several members of the London Royal Court Theatre. Encouraged, Soyinka left his doctoral studies and moved to London, where he worked as a play reader for Royal Court Theatre. During the same period, both of his plays were performed in Ibadan.
However, by 1960, Soyinka had received the Rockefeller Research Fellowship from his alma mater in Ibadan, and returned to Nigeria. In March he produced his new satire The Trials of Brother Jero, which established his fame as Nigeria’s foremost dramatist. One of his most recognized plays, A Dance of The Forest, a biting criticism of Nigeria's political elites, won a contest as the official play for Nigerian Independence Day. On 1 October 1960, it premiered in Lagos as Nigeria celebrated its sovereignty. Also in 1960, Soyinka established an amateur ensemble acting company which would consume much of his time over the next few years: the Nineteen-Sixty Masks.
In addition to these activities, Soyinka published various works satirizing the "emergency" in the Western Region of Nigeria, as his Yorùbá homeland was increasingly occupied and controlled by the federal government. This had usurped the democratically-elected, Yorùbá-based Action Group (AG) political party by installing the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), an amalgamation of conservative Yoruba interests backed by the largely Northern-dominated federal government. The increasingly militarized occupation of the Western Region eventually led to a disequilibrium in power, placing the more left-leaning Action Group and the Igbo-centric National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in tenuous positions, as national politics began catering exclusively to more conservative interests. This imbalance eventually led to a coup by military officers under Major Kaduna Nzeogwu.
With the money gained from the Rockefeller Foundation for research on African Theater, Soyinka bought a Land Rover and began traveling throughout the country as a researcher with the Department of English Language of the University College in Ibadan. In an essay published at this time, he criticized Leopold Senghor's Négritude as a nostalgic and indiscriminate glorification of the black African past that ignores the potential benefits of modernization. "A tiger does not shout its tigritude," he declared, "it acts."
In December 1962, his essay "Towards a True Theater" was published, and he began working for the Department of English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ifẹ. Soyinka discussed current affairs with "negrophiles," and on several occasions openly opposed government censorship. At the end of 1963, his first feature-length movie emerged, Culture in Transition. In April 1964, his famous novel The Interpreters was published in London. That December, together with other scientists and men of theater, he founded the Drama Association of Nigeria. This same year he resigned his university post, as a protest against imposed pro-government behavior by authorities. A few months later, he was arrested for the first time, accused of underlying tapes during reproduction of recorded speech of the winner of Nigerian elections, but he was released after a few months of confinement, as a result of protests by the international community of writers. This same year he also wrote two more dramatic pieces: Before the Blackout, the comedy Kongi’s Harvest, and a radio play for London BBC called The Detainee. At the end of the year he was promoted to headmaster and senior lecturer in the Department of English Language at Lagos University.
Soyinka's political speeches at that time criticized the cult of personality and government corruption in African dictatorships. April 1965 brought a revival of his play Kongi’s Harvest at the International Festival of Negro Art in Dakar, Senegal, where another of his plays, The Road, was awarded the Grand Prix. In June, Soyinka produced his play The Lion and The Jewel for Hampstead Theatre Club in London.
After becoming chief of Cathedral of Drama at University of Ibadan, Soyinka who had gained considerable respect within Nigeria would involve himself in the destabilizing political situation. In August 1967, he secretly and unofficially met Ojukwu in the Southeastern town of Enugu, with the aim of averting civil war. For his attempts at negotiating a peaceful solution to the conflict, Soyinka was forced to commence living underground.
However, his involvement in the developing national crisis did not end here. Wọle returned to Ẹnugu to meet with one Victor Banjọ, a Yorùbá who had been swayed to the Biafran side. Banjọ intimated to Soyinka a message of critical importance in regards to Biafra's goals, which he claimed were "national liberation" for the whole of Nigeria. For these efforts, Banjọ sought the support of Western military leaders; in particular, he delivered Banjo's message directly to Lieutenant Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, who had recently been appointed to commanding officer for the Western Region. Four evenings after Soyinka returned to the West, Biafran forces invaded the Midwest region, an area which previously maintained de facto neutrality; this altered the terms and conditions of the war drastically, as the Biafrans had turned into both secessionists and expansionists.
Following the occupation of the Midwest, Soyinka met Obasanjo face-to-face to relay the goals of the Biafrans to the man in control of the West. Unfortunately Ọbasanjọ's decision to side with the Nigerian federation had already been made. The invasion of the Midwest eventually sparked counter-attacks into the Midwest by federal government forces, signaling the commencement of civil war. Ọbasanjọ disclosed his meeting with Soyinka to his superiors, who declared Wọle a traitor and convened search parties to obtain Soyinka for arrest, which they eventually did. Soyinka was then incarcerated until the end of the unfolding civil war.
He endured imprisonment for 22 months as his country slid into civil war between the federal government and the Biafrans. Though he was refused basic materials, such as books, pens, and paper, for continuing his creative work during much of his imprisonment, he did manage to write a significant body of poems and notes criticizing the Nigerian government. Despite his imprisonment, in September 1967, his play The Lion and The Jewel was produced in Accra, and in November The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed were produced in the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York. He also published a collection of his poetry entitled Idanre and Other Poems. Idanre, considered by many to be a masterpiece, was inspired by Soyinka’s visit to the sanctuary of the Yorùbá deity Ogun, whom Soyinka regards irreligiously as his companion deity, kindred spirit, and protector.
In 1968, also in New York, the group Negro Ensemble Company showed Kongi’s Harvest. While still imprisoned, Soyinka translated from Yoruba a fantastical novel by his compatriot D.O. Fagunwa, called The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter's Saga.
In 1970 he produced the play “Kongi’s Harvest”, while simultaneously creating a film by the same title. In June 1970, he concluded another play, called “Madman and Specialists”. With the intention of gaining theatrical experience, along with the group of fifteen actors of Ibadan University Theatre Art Company, he went on a trip to the famous Eugene O’Neil Memorial Theatre Centre in Waterford, Connecticut in the United States, where his latest play premiered. In 1971 his poetry collection A Shuttle in the Crypt was published. While “Madmen and Specialists” was exposed afresh in Ibadan, Soyinka took the lead role as the murdered first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, in the Paris production of "Murderous Angels". His powerful autobiographical work The Man Died, a collection of notes from prison, was issued the same year. In April, concerned about the political situation in Nigeria, Soyinka resigned from his duties at the University in Ibadan, and began a few years of voluntary exile. In July, in Paris, fragments of his famous play “The Dance of The Forests” were performed.
In 1972 he was declared an Honoris Causa doctorate by the University of Leeds. Soon thereafter, another of his novels, Season of Anomy, came out, in addition to his Collected Plays, published by the Oxford University Press. The same year National Theatre of London, which actually commissioned the play, put on a performance of “The Bacchae of Euripides”. In 1973 the plays "Camwood on the Leaves", and "Jero's Metamorphosis" were first published. From 1973-1975, Soyinka devoted himself to scientific activity. He underwent one year probation at Churchill College of Cambridge University, and gave a series of lectures at a number of European universities.
In 1974 “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, Accra (where he moved for some time). Soyinka utilized his columns in Transition to once again attack the “negrofiles” (in his essay “Neo-Tarsanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Transition”), and military regimes, protesting 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 he returned to his homeland and re-assumed his position of the Cathedral of Comparative Literature at the University of Ife.
In 1976 the poetry collection Ogun Abibiman appeared, and a collection of essays entitled Myth, Literature and the African World, in which Soyinka explores the genesis of mysticism in African theatre and, using examples from the literatures of both continents, compares and contrasts European and African cultures. At The Institute of African Studies at the University of Legon in Ghana, he delivered a series of guest lectures and became a professor at the University of Ife. In October, the French version of “The Dance of The Forests” was performed in Dakar, while in Ife “Death and The King’s Horseman” premiered.
In 1977 one of his greatest plays, an adaptation of Bertold Brecht's "Three Penny Opera" called “Opera Wọnyọsi”, was staged, and in 1979 he both directed and acted in Jon Blair and Norman Fenton's drama “The Biko Inquest”, a work based on the story of Steve Biko, a South African student and human rights activist beaten to death by Apartheid police forces. In 1981 Wọle Soyinka’s first autobiographical novel Ake: The Years of Childhood was released.
Soyinka founded another theatrical group (after Nineteen-Sixty Masks), called Guerrilla Unit, its aim being to cooperate with local communities analyzing their actual problems and then responding to some of their grievances in dramatic sketches. In 1983 the play “Requiem for a Futurologist” had its initial performance at the University of Ife. In July one of Soyinka's musical projects, the Unlimited Liability Company, issued a long-play record titled “I Love My Country”, where a number of famous Nigerian popular musicians play songs composed by and provided with lyrics by Wọle Soyinka. In 1984, he directed his new movie "Blues for a Prodigal", which premiered the same year as a new play, “A Play of Giants”.
The years 1975-1984 were for Soyinka a period of increased political activity. During that time he was among the authorities at The University of Ife; among other duties, he was responsible for the security of public roads. He continuously criticized the corruption in the government of democratically-elected President Shehu Shagari, and often found himself at odds with his military successor, Mohammadu Buhari. In 1984 a Nigerian court banned The Man Died and in 1985 the play "Requiem for a Futurologist" went into print in London.
In the midst of several violent and repressive African regimes, Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, as one “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence” becoming the first African laureate. His Nobel acceptance speech was devoted to South African freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela. Soyinka's speech was a humane and characteristically outspoken criticism of apartheid and the politics of racial segregation imposed on the indigenous population by the Nationalist South African government. In 1986, he received another award - the Agip Prize for Literature.
In 1988, his new collection of poems Mandela's Earth, and Other Poems was published, while in Nigeria another collection of essays entitled Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture appeared. The year 1990, the second portion of his memoir called Isara: A Voyage Around Essay was released. In July 1991 the BBC African Service transmits his radio play “A Scourge of Hyacinths”, and the next year (in June 1992) in Siena (Italy), his play “From Zia with Love” has its premiere. Both the performances are very bitter political parodies, based on events which took place in Nigeria in the 1980’s. In 1993 Soyinka was awarded an honourary doctorate from the Harvard University. The next year appears another part of his autobiography Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (A Memoir: 1946-1965). The following year brings the publication of the play “The Beatification of Area Boy”. On 21 October 1994 Soyinka is appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African Literature and Communication. In November 1994 Soyinka flees from Nigeria through the border with Benin and then to the United States. In 1996 his book The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis is first published.
In 1997 Wọle Soyinka was charged with treason by the government of General Sani Abacha. In 1999 a new volume of poems of Wọle Soyinka entitled Outsiders was released. His newest play, released in 2001, "King Baabu" is another strong, political satire on the theme of African dictatorship. In 2002 a collection of his poems Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known is printed by Methuen. And in 2004 Bankole Olayebi publishes A Life is Full, an illustrated biography of Wọle Soyinka, with more than 600 photographs dating from 1934. In April 2006, his memoirs, titled "You Must Set Forth at Dawn", were published by Random House. In 2006 he cancelled his keynote speech for the annual S.E.A. Write Awards Ceremony in Bangkok to protest the Thai military's successful coup against the government.
In April 2007 Wole Soyinka called for the cancellation of the Presidential elections held two weeks earlier in his native Nigeria because of the widespread fraud and violence that characterised the process.
April 1968: Kongi's Harvest, produced by Negro Ensemble Company, New York.
February 1969: The Road produced by Theatre Limited, Kampala, Uganda; Poems from Prison, London.
August 1970: Completes and directs Madmen and Specialists with Ibadan University Theare Arts Company in New Haven, Connecticut (at Yale?); play tours to Harlem; directs plays by Pirandello and others; Kongi's Harvest (film).
1971: A Shuttle in the Crypt (poems); March: revives Madmen and Specialists in Ibadan; acts Patrice Lumumba in John Littlewood's French production of Conor Cruise O'Brien's Murderous Angels, Paris; testifies before Kazeem Enquiry on violation of students' rights.
1972: Publishes his prison notes, The Man Died, London; July: produces extracts from A Dance of the Forests in Paris.
1973: Honorary Ph. D., University of Leeds; Season of Anomy (novel); Collected Plays I; August: National Theatre, London, produces Bacchae of Euripides, which it commissioned.
1973-74: Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge, and Visiting Professor of English, University of Sheffield; Collected Plays II.
1975: Edited Poems of Black Africa, London and New York; "Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Tradition" (essay); attacks Idi Amin in Transition.
1976: Ogun Abibiman (poems); Myth, Literature, and the African World; Visiting Professor, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon; Professor, University of Ife; September: Nairobi High School production of A Dance of the Forests; October: French production of A Dance of the Forests, Dakar, Gambia; December: produces Death and the King's Horseman, Ife.
1978: "Language as Boundary" (essay).
1981: Aké: The Years of Childhood (autobiography); Opera Wonyosi, an adaptation of Brecht's Three Penny Opera; "The Critic and Society: Barthes, Leftocracy, and Other Mythologies" (essay).
1982: Blues for the Prodigal (film) released; "Cross Currents: The 'New African' after Cultural Encounters" (essay).
1983: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
December 1983: Die Still, Rev. Dr. Godspeak (radio play); Requiem for a Futurologist (play) produced at Ife university; Blues for a Prodigal (film); "Shakespeare and the Living Dramatist" (essay); (July) - Unlimited Liability Company (phonograph recording).
1984: A Play of Giants (play).
1985: Requiem for a Futorologist published; "Climates of Art" (Herbert Read Memorial Lecture), Institute of Contemporary Art, London.
1986: Nobel Prize for Literature. "The External Encounter: Ambivalence in African Arts and Literature" (essay), A Play of Giants (play), Fellow, Society for the Humanities, Cornell University; Agip Prize for Literature; 1986 (October); Awarded of Nigeria's second highest honour, Commander of the Federal Republic, CFR.;
1987: Six Plays; Childe Internationale (play) republished.
1989: "The Search" (short story).
1991: Sisi Clara Workshop on Theatre (Lagos); A Scourge of Hyacinths (radio play) BBC African Service; "The Credo of Being and Nothingness" (The First Rev. Olufosoye Annual Lecture in Religion, delivered at the University of Ibadan on 25 January 1991; published.
1992: From Zia With Love.
1993: honorary doctorate, Harvard University.
1994: Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (A Memoir: 1946-1965) (autobiography); Memories of a Nigerian Childhood; Flees Nigeria (November).
1995: The Beatification of Area Boy.
1996: The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis.
2004: Reith Lecturer for BBC Radio 4, discussing A Climate of Fear
2005: Together with Nigerian elder statesman Chief Anthony Enahoro, he convened an alternative national confab under the aegis of PRONACO (Pro -national conference group). On 26 November 2005 he was conferred with the chieftaincy title of Akinlatun of Egbaland by the Alake (King) of the Egba people of Yorubaland where he hails from.