Wole Soyinka / African Popular Theatre

Wole Soyinka: A Quest For Renewal  By Mary T. David.  Madras: B I Publications, 1995, pp. 237, Rs.240.
African Popular TheatreBy David Kerr.  London: James Currey, 1995, pp. 278, £35 hb, £11.95 pb.

Mary David’s contribution to the growing number of critical texts on Wole Soyinka is both comprehensive – she ranges over the plays, poetry, novels and critical essays – and distinguished by a closely argued and referenced case for what she sees as Soyinka’s constant concern in all of his work for “healing and regeneration”.  This is a theme, she suggests, to which the author’s critical imagination constantly turned.  Dr David is advancing this view not only in order to offer a more total response to Soyinka’s writing than many of his critics, but also to defend Soyinka against the “critical storm raging in Nigeria in the late 70s and early 80s” that complained that “his work lacked social commitment and class perspective”.  Mary David finds this criticism intriguing and “in stark contradiction” both to the writer’s actions in everyday life and to the resonating commitment in his work to integrity and positive action. The fact that he is as much concerned with the soul of the nation as with its stomach is surely not to be registered as a failure of concern or a posture that subverts positive action.  Between her opening chapter in which she explores the “Yoruba Heritage and a Christian Home” and the penultimate chapter “Regeneration as Social Concern”, Dr David carefully examines all of Soyinka’s work and discusses the manner in which, she suggests, both his aesthetic and social vision are determined by a search for spiritual renewal.  Those who argue this case on Soyinka’s behalf (not that he needs support: his own robust counter-attacks are memorable) can be accused of joining the author in an irrelevant mythic trawl.  The strength of Mary David’s study is that its close analysis of the text identifies the fundamental social commitment in all Soyinka’s work.  Elesin in Death and the King’s Horseman fails, she argues, because he relinquishes his role as “voyager, quester”.  Quite simply his will fails and his people are imperilled.  That failure of will is a failure of political will against which so much of Soyinka’s writing is an awful warning.

David Kerr’s study of popular theatre in Africa is prefaced by quite unnecessary modesty in which he apologises for lapses in information and interpretation.  In fact he has produced one of the most intriguing, comprehensive and informative studies of African theatre that exists and we are all in his debt.  Pre-colonial and Colonial theatres are explored and close studies are offered of Concert Party and Yoruba Opera, the Travelling Theatre movement, Theatre for Development, theatre involved in the South African liberation struggle etc.  One of the most exciting and informative features of the book is the manner in which it offers a genuinely pan-African view and creates reference and relationships in terms of popular theatre practice across boundaries both of time and place.  Kerr has included a significant number of illustrations, which in themselves inform our understanding.  (The “Prince of Wales inspecting an animal mask from the Gold Coast in 1925” is a collector’s item in political satire!).  This is a study that belongs on every booklist for courses in African theatre; it is written with informed enthusiasm and is not only required reading for anyone concerned with African politics, history and performance, but also pleasurable reading.

Reviewed by: Martin Banham, University of Leeds

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 60 (1995), p. 59]