Wole Soyinka: an appreciation – Martin Banham

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 45 (November 1986), pp. 1-2]

Wole Soyinka: an appreciation

Martin Banham

After the award of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature to Wole Soyinka,  Martin Banham, Director of the Workshop Theatre, who was a contemporary of Soyinka at Leeds and who presented him on the occasion of his Honorary Degree, wrote the following appreciation of the Nobel Laureate’s work:

Since he published his first short story, ‘Madame Etienne’s Establishment’ in the Leeds University journal The Gryphon in March 1957, Wole Soyinka has gone on to produce over fifteen plays, two novels, an autobiography of his childhood, a record of his prison experiences (when detained without trial in Nigeria), volumes of poetry, major critical essays and a host of other various works. He has established himself not only as one of the foremost writers of post-independence Africa, but also as one of the most creative and exciting playwrights in the English language.
His plays, in their theme and tone, reflect the world in which Soyinka has lived, which, for him, has become increasingly harsh. In the early plays (sometimes known as ‘the Leeds plays’ because initial drafts were made during his time here) he offers a gentle satire (The Lion and the Jewel) and a sensitive concern with the tensions of a rapidly changing Nigerian world (The Swamp Dwellers). By the 1970s the satire has become fierce and the tone full of anger, and sometimes contempt. In plays like Madmen and Specialists he uses the image of cannibalism to attack the military politicians of his country, and in A Play of Giants he projects a grotesque picture of corruption and violence as he depicts some of modern Africa’s more awful dictators holding the United Nations to ransom. Other substantial plays have shown the conflicts between traditional rulers and modern politicians (Kongi’s Harvest), offered parables on the integrity of politicians and the political will (Death and the King’s Horseman), used Yoruba myth and lore to examine the destructiveness and moral dilemmas of contemporary society (The Road, and The Strong Breed), and revived his formidable Swiftian powers as a satirist to expose the corrupt, the power-seekers and the plain ridiculous.
But though Soyinka’s plays have their roots in his own Nigerian society, their relevance is universal. Soyinka’s deliberate choice of English as his language of communication (the matter of which language to use being one which causes considerable anguish and debate amongst African artists) is in itself a statement concerning the intended audience for his work. He addresses an international audience and his subject is the universal one of the oppression and subjugation of the individual by a corrupt state. The strength of his work for the stage is not only in his extraordinary and creative command of English, but also in his stagecraft. Soyinka draws on the rich performance traditions of the Yoruba to make his plays vivid and stimulating in performance. As a director himself, he creates theatre that works.
The very articulateness of his comment has made Soyinka many enemies. His obstinate determination to speak and show the truth as he sees it has caused him considerable personal suffering, including a heart-breaking period of exile during which his father died, and the years of detention without trial which are described in The Man Died. He is persona non grata in several African countries whose rulers he has pilloried. Equally, some younger writers and intellectuals have felt him to be elitist in his manner and concerns, too far removed from the day to day business of politics. That this accusation concerned Soyinka is evidenced by his Guerilla Theatre Unit of the University of Ife, devoted to ‘hit and run’ pieces to be performed in the streets.
His novels, poetry and critical works extend his formidable range. Like his plays, they do not always offer an easy read; they demand effort and imagination, and are worth both. They give access to the ideas not only of a great contemporary writer but also to a scholar who attempts, often via the images and allusions of the Yoruba, to urge us to action in the name of common humanity. In his poem Idanre he could almost be describing his quest and his style when he talks of


Evolution of the self-devouring snake to spatials
New in symbol, banked loop of the ‘Mobius Strip’
And interlock of re-creative rings, one surface
Yet full comb of angles, uni-plane, yet sensuous with
Complexities of mind and motion.