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Wole Soyinka Biography

Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, in Abeokuta, 1934. Education: St. Peter's School, Ake, Abeokuta, 1938-43; Abeokuta Grammar School, 1944-45; Government College, Ibadan, 1946-50; University College, Ibadan (now University of Ibadan), 1952-54; University of Leeds, Yorkshire, 1954-57, B.A. (honors) in English. Career: Play reader, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1957-59; Rockefeller Research Fellow in drama, University of Ibadan, 1961-62; lecturer in English, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, 1963-64; senior lecturer in English, University of Lagos, 1965-67; head of the department of theater arts, University of Ibadan, 1969-72 (appointment made in 1967); professor of comparative literature, and head of the department of dramatic arts, University of Ife, 1975-85. Visiting fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge, 1973-74; visiting professor, University of Ghana, Legon, 1973-74, University of Sheffield, 1974, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1979-80, and Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1986. Founding director, 1960 Masks Theatre, 1960, and Orisun Theatre, 1964, Lagos and Ibadan, and Unife Guerilla Theatre, Ile-Ife, 1978; co-editor, Black Orpheus, 1961-64; editor, Transition (later Ch'indaba) magazine, Accra, Ghana, 1975-77. Secretary-General, Union of Writers of the African Peoples, 1975. Tried and acquitted of armed robbery, 1965; political prisoner, detained by the Federal Military Government, Lagos and Kaduna, 1967-69. Awards: Dakar Festival award, 1966; John Whiting award, 1967; Jock Campbell award (New Statesman), for fiction, 1968; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1986; Benson Medal, 1990; Premio Letterario Internazionalle Mondello, 1990. D. Litt: University of Leeds, 1973, Yale University, University of Montpellier, France, University of Lagos, and University of Bayreuth, 1989. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature (U.K.); member, American Academy. Named Commander, Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1986, Order of La Legion d'Honneur, France, 1989, and Order of the Republic of Italy, 1990; Akogun of Isara, 1989; Akinlatun of Egbaland, 1990. Agent: Morton Leavy, Leavy Rosensweig and Hyman, 11 East 44th Street, New York, New York 10017; or Triharty (Nig.) Ltd. Agency Division, 4, Ola-ayeni Street, Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria. (U.K. Correspondent: Cognix Ltd., Media Suite, 3 Tyers Gate, London SE1 3HX).



The Interpreters. London, Deutsch, 1965; New York, Macmillan, 1970.

Season of Anomy. London, Collings, 1973; New York, Third Press, 1974.


The Swamp Dwellers (produced London, 1958; New York, 1968). Included in Three Plays, 1963; in Five Plays, 1964.

The Lion and the Jewel (produced Ibadan, 1959; London, 1966). Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1963.

The Invention (produced London, 1959).

A Dance of the Forests (produced Lagos, 1960). Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1963.

The Trials of Brother Jero (produced Ibadan, 1960; Cambridge, 1965; London, 1966; New York, 1967). Included in Three Plays, 1963; in Five Plays, 1964.

Camwood on the Leaves (broadcast 1960). London, Eyre Methuen, 1973; in Camwood on the Leaves, and Before the Blackout, 1974.

The Republican and The New Republican (satirical revues; produced Lagos, 1963).

Three Plays. Ibadan, Mbari, 1963; as Three Short Plays, London, Oxford University Press, 1969.

The Strong Breed (produced Ibadan, 1964; London, 1966; New York, 1967). Included in Three Plays, 1963; in Five Plays, 1964.

Childe Internationale (produced Ibadan, 1964). Ibadan, Fountain, 1987.

Kongi's Harvest (produced Ibadan, 1964; New York, 1968). Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1967.

Five Plays: A Dance of the Forests, The Lion and the Jewel, The Swamp Dwellers, The Trials of Brother Jero, The Strong Breed. Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1964.

Before the Blackout (produced Ibadan, 1965; Leeds, 1981). Ibadan, Orisun, 1971; in Camwood on the Leaves, and Before the Blackout, 1974.

The Road (produced London, 1965; also director: produced Chicago, 1984). Ibadan, London, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1965.

Rites of the Harmattan Solstice (produced Lagos, 1966).

Madmen and Specialists (produced Waterford, Connecticut, and New York, 1970; revised version, also director: produced Ibadan, 1971). London, Methuen, 1971; New York, Hill and Wang, 1972.

The Jero Plays: The Trials of Brother Jero, and Jero's Metamorphosis. London, Eyre Methuen, 1973.

Jero's Metamorphosis (produced Lagos, 1975). Included in The Jero Plays, 1973.

The Bacchae: A Communion Rite, adaptation of the play by Euripides (produced London, 1973). London, Eyre Methuen, 1973; New York, Norton, 1974.

Collected Plays: A Dance of the Forests, The Swamp Dwellers, The Strong Breed, The Road, The Bacchae. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1973.

Collected Plays:The Lion and the Jewel, Kongi's Harvest, The Trials of Brother Jero, Jero's Metamorphosis, Madmen and Specialists. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1974.

Camwood on the Leaves, and Before the Blackout: Two Short Plays. New York, Third Press, 1974.

Death and the King's Horseman (also director: produced Ile-Ife, 1976; Chicago, 1979; also director: produced New York, 1987). London, Eyre Methuen, 1975; New York, Norton, 1976.

Opera Wonyosi, adaptation of The Threepenny Opera by Brecht (also director: produced Ile-Ife, 1977). Bloomington, Indiana University Press, and London, Collings, 1981.

Golden Accord (produced Louisville, 1980).

Priority Projects (revue; produced on Nigeria tour, 1982).

Requiem for a Futurologist (also director: produced Ile-Ife, 1983). London, Collings, 1985.

A Play of Giants (also director: produced New Haven, Connecticut, 1984). London, Methuen, 1984.

Six Plays (includes The Trials of Brother Jero, Jero's Metamorphosis, Camwood on the Leaves, Death and the King's Horseman, Madmen and Specialists, Opera Wonyosi). London, Methuen. 1984.

From Zia with Love. London, Methuen, 1992

The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope. London, Methuen Drama, 1995.


Kongi's Harvest, 1970.

Radio Plays:

Camwood on the Leaves, 1960; The Detainee, 1965; Die Still, Dr. Godspeak, 1981; A Scourge of Hyacinths, 1990; Nineteen Ninety-Four, 1993.

Television Plays:

Joshua: A Nigerian Portrait, 1962 (Canada); Culture in Transition, 1963 (USA).


Idanre and Other Poems. London, Methuen, 1967; New York, Hill and Wang, 1968.

Poems from Prison. London, Collings, 1969.

A Shuttle in the Crypt. London, Eyre Methuen-Collings, and New York, Hill and Wang, 1972.

Ogun Abibimañ. London, Collings, 1976.

Mandela's Earth and Other Poems. New York, Random House, 1988; London, Deutsch, 1989.

Early Poems. New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.


The Man Died: Prison Notes. London, Eyre Methuen-Collings, and New York, Harper, 1972.

In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington. Seattle, University of Washington African Studies Program, 1975.

Myth, Literature, and the African World. London, Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Aké: The Years of Childhood (autobiography). London, Collings, 1981; New York, Vintage, 1983.

The Critic and Society (essay). Ile-Ife, University of Ife Press, 1981.

The Past Must Address Its Present (lecture). N.p., Nobel Foundation, 1986; as This Past Must Address Its Present, New York, Anson Phelps Institute, 1988.

Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture. Ibadan, New Horn, 1988.

Isara: A Voyage Around "Essay." New York, Random House, 1989; London, Methuen, 1990.

Ibadan—The Penkelemes Years. London, Methuen, 1994.

The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of The Nigerian Crisis. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.

The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Editor, Poems of Black Africa. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Hill and Wang, 1975.

Translator, The Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter's Saga, by D.O. Fagunwa. London, Nelson, 1968; New York, Humanities Press, 1969.



Wole Soyinka: A Bibliography by B. Okpu, Lagos, Libriservice, 1984.

Critical Studies:

Wole Soyinka by Gerald Moore, London, Evans, and New York, Africana, 1971, revised edition, Evans, 1978; The Writing of Wole Soyinka by Eldred D. Jones, London, Heinemann, 1973, revised edition, 1983, 2nd revised edition, London, Curry, 1988; Three Nigerian Poets: A Critical Study of the Poetry of Soyinka, Clark, and Okigbo by Nyong J. Udoeyop, Ibadan, Ibadan University Press, 1973; Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka edited by James Gibbs, Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1980, London, Heinemann, 1981, and Wole Soyinka by Gibbs, London, Macmillan, and New York, Grove Press, 1986; A Writer and His Gods: A Study of the Importance of Yoruba Myths and Religious Ideas in the Writing of Wole Soyinka by Stephan Larsen, Stockholm, University of Stockholm, 1983; Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing by Obi Maduakar, London, Garland, 1986; Before Our Very Eyes: Tribute to Wole Soyinka edited by Dapo Adelugba, Ibadan, Spectrum, 1987; Index of Subjects, Proverbs and Themes in the Writings of Wole Soyinka by Greta M.K. Coger, New York, Green-wood, 1988; Wole Soyinka Revisted by Derek Wright, New York, Twayne, and Toronto, Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1993; The Politics of Wole Soyinka by Tunde Adeniran, Ibadan, Nigeria, Fountain Publications, 1994; Wole Soyinka and Yoruba Oral Tradition in Death and Theking's Horseman by Bimpe Aboyade, Ibadan, Nigeria, Fountain Publications, 1994; The Poetry of Wole Soyinka by Tanure Ojaide, Lagos, Malthouse Press, 1994; Some African Voices of Our Time by Ivor Agyeman-Duah, Accra, Ghana, Anansesem Publications, 1995; Understanding Wole Soyinka: Death and the King's Horseman by A.O. Dasylva, Ibadan, Nigeria, Sam Bookman, 1996; Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Orality and History in the Work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri by Ato Quayson, Oxford, J. Currey, and Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997; Form and Technique in the African Novel by Olawale Awosika, Ibadan, Nigeria, Sam Bookman, 1997; Ogun's Children: The Literature and Politics of Wole Soyinka Since the Nobel Prize, edited by OnookomeOkome, Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1999.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: Plays—by Brecht, Chekhov, Clark, Easmon, Eseoghene, Ogunyemi, Shakespeare, Synge, and his own works; L'Espace et la Magie, Paris, 1972; The Biko Inquest by Jon Blair and Norman Fenton, Ile-Ife, 1978, and New York, 1980. Actor: Plays—Igwezu in The Swamp Dwellers, London, 1958; Obaneji and Forest Father in A Dance of the Forests, Lagos and Ibadan, 1960; Dauda Touray in Dear Parent and Ogre by R. Sarif Easmon, Ibadan, 1961; in The Republican, Lagos, 1963; FilmKongi's Harvest, 1970; Radio—Konu in The Detainee, 1965.

* * *

Early in his career, Wole Soyinka produced two novels which distill several of the Nobel laureate's key themes. Both The Interpreters and Season of Anomy focus on the tensions and contradictions of post-colonial Nigerian society. They explore the social and political consequences of the uncomfortable coexistence of African and Western European values within a single cultural framework. Soyinka's characters try to affect various temporary (and often unsatisfying) resolutions in their lives, and to reconcile past to present, tradition to modernity, local life to global economies.

Soyinka's writing style has been criticized as overly erudite and unnecessarily allusive; in both his dialogue and his narration, he tends to blend references to Yoruba traditions (which would be inaccessible to Western readers and which require him to include a glossary in The Interpreters) and to European art and philosophy (which would be largely foreign, his critics have suggested, to his Nigerian readership). Soyinka's cultural politics push him to discover and to recover a distinctively African form of literary self-expression; however, his thought and writing have also been indelibly informed by Western traditions. The difficult, abstract textures of his prose emerge from a fluctuating position he establishes between these two cultural systems, as he attempts to negotiate his own uneasy compromise. In fact, that lack of ease or stability gives his writing its energy and its vital interest.

The Interpreters opens with a complex nightclub scene which sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Six friends, who represent various functions in contemporary Nigerian society (such as journalist, engineer, artist, and teacher), get drunk and discuss their lives. The dialogue, in keeping with their situation, is highly fluid, restless, and ironic. The time frame shifts from present to past, establishing resonances but also suggesting the interconnectedness of memory and action. Soyinka's narrative remains somewhat non-linear throughout the book, preferring to follow multiple threads of event and history. Various voices and perspectives interpenetrate, creating a verbal web rather than a monolithic, disciplined plot. Like his character Egbo, who cannot reconcile the demands of his native heritage with contemporary life, Soyinka tends to float between worlds, exploring the manifestations and consequences of that medial state without necessarily resolving his dilemma. The novel is often bitterly satiric, particularly through the character of Sagoe, whose pseudo-philosophy of "voidancy" (a scatology run amuck, not unlike that of Jonathan Swift) offers an ongoing misanthropic commentary on the corruption and absurdity of Nigerian society. Little escapes the novel's incisive harshness. Sekoni, the one idealist, is killed at the novel's midpoint, and the second half of the text finds no alternatives for social recovery or happiness. Symbolically, a schoolgirl whom Egbo has made pregnant offers some hope for new life, but she remains nameless and lost to Egbo himself. The Interpreters traces the dissolution and despair often brought about by post-colonial states of cultural hybridity and uncertainty.

While Season of Anomy also remains uncertain at its conclusion, it takes up the duplicitous situations of post-colonial life and attempts to suggest tentative social, political, and imaginative resolutions. The title refers both to the anarchy that comes with the violent political upheavals in the novel and to the yearly cycles of death and rebirth in nature. The narrative follows the attempts by Ofeyi, a marketing genius who works for a nameless cartel controlling the government, to subvert his employers' social and economic power by introducing a counter-philosophy he discovers at the agricultural community of Aiyéró, which is collectivist, peaceful, native, and benign. The five parts of the novel trace the slow vegetal spread of the indigenous "way of life" of Aiyéró, which leads to violence as ideologies of greed and corruption collide with grass-roots philosophy. The revolution appears to fail, although Soyinka also suggests that "spores" have been released among the people and that the possibility of betterment remains. The figure of Suberu, the prison guard who has thoughtlessly served the interests of corruption but later chooses to follow Ofeyi, represents such potential conversions. Iriyise, Ofeyi's kidnapped lover whom he sees as intimately and symbolically tied to the land and to Aiyéró, becomes sick and then lapses into a coma from which she has not emerged at the novel's close; her eventual rescue represents the possible healing of Africa in the wake of terrifying social upheavals, while her lack of consciousness suggests that all is not yet well. Soyinka's novel has been criticized for over-simplifying the political conflicts in post-colonial Nigeria, but he aims, at least, to advocate in his fiction a positive, forceful change for African society.

—Kevin McNeilly

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