Some Reflections On Wole Soyinka

by Biodun Jeyifo

Last semester, I taught Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel for the first time in about thirty years. Though I do like the play a lot, it is not one of my favourite Soyinka plays, not one of his dramatic writings that I regard as some of the best plays ever written. I believe that the last time that I actually read The Lion and the Jewel was around the late 1990s when I was completing the first draft of what would eventually become my full-length book on all the writings of Soyinka titled Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, Postcolonialism. At any rate, when I re-read and taught the play recently, I was in no small measure tantalised by the fact that though I had long reached and passed the age of 60, I was startled by the realisation that I am much older than Baroka, the quintessential “old man” of all of Soyinka’s plays! To be exact, I felt at one at the same time shocked and elated: shocked that I am now and have been for some time Baroka’s elder; elated by the rather deeply personal and existential proof of the old, hallowed Latin proverb concerning the relationship between art and life: ars longa, vita brevis. The phrase literally means “art is long, life is short”. The central meaning that has traditionally been ascribed to the view that while life, lived human life, is short, art lasts for ever. Additionally, the phrase also implies that the life of the artist and the epoch in which he or she lived is preserved permanently in his or her great works. In other words, let life be as short as it usually biologically is; great art makes life imperishable. More on these later in this short tribute to WS at 80. For now, back to my disbelief that I m now the “elder” of Baroka.

Biodun Jeyifo

Definitely, speaking for myself and those of my generation of writers, critics, actors, artistes and “groupies” who have been close to WS, from now on, any time that a discussion of the characters of Soyinka’s plays comes to a conversation about the crafty “lion’ of Ilujinle, some self-referential vibes will go through us when he is, yet again, identified as an “old man”! WS, why didn’t you make Baroka 80? A futile, perhaps even fatuous wish! For the fact is that Baroka will always be 60 anytime he is performed or read in the play. If Soyinka had made him 70 in 1963 when the play was published, he would still be 70 today. He will always be, now and forever, any age that Soyinka had given him when he wrote the play – 70, 80 or 90, any age he was given at his imaginative “birthing” by WS.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing of all in what I am here calling Baroka’s “birthing” by WS is that Soyinka was a young man in his early 20s when he wrote the play and yet he wrote compellingly, memorably about an old man of 60. Let us set aside the fact that he wrote a self-serving craftiness with not a small amount of conservative power lust into Baroka’s captivating senescence. The point remains as indisputable as it is also astonishing that in his early 20s WS could enter so completely into the emotional, psychic world of an old man. To this we should counterpoise the fact that Lakunle, the young man who at that stage in Soyinka’s career was much closer in age to WS was made the butt of the jokes of all the other characters of the play and the hapless victim of Baroka’s wily stratagems. WS will have to both believe and forgive me for saying this, but since my very first reading of The Lion and the Jewel I have always thought that Soyinka took sides with Baroka against Lakunle not only because the foppish and naive village schoolteacher was everything WS did not want truly radical and progressive members of his generation to be but also because WS was looking well into the future and seeing himself in those aspects of Baroka that defy age when it comes to matters concerning members of the opposite sex! As a teacher of literature for five decades now, I know that characters should not be confused, not be conflated with their authors, but I am giving my honest opinion here. [If a libel suit is served on me for making this “aspersion”, I will have Femi Falana tie up the lawsuit in an endless, irresolvable knot in the law courts!]

More seriously, it strikes me now – and only now – that some of the greatest and most memorable characters of Soyinka’s plays are old men whom the playwright wrote into imperishable imaginative existence when he was a young man well under the age 40. Some of these are Forest Head of A Dance of the Forests; Professor of The Road; Oba Danlola of Kongi’s Harvest; Old Man of Madmen and Specialists; and Elesin Oba of Death and the King’s Horseman. Parenthetically, I might add here that there are two and only two old women in all of Soyinka’s plays that match the towering presence of the old men in the plays in which they appear and these are Iya Agba in Madmen and Specialists and Iyaloja in Death and the King’s Horseman. But maleness as such is not part of the essence of the old men of Soyinka’s great plays, with the exception perhaps of only Elesin Oba in Death and the King’s Horseman. Neither is age in and of itself the thing that stands out in the characterisation of the old, senescent protagonists of Soyinka’s great plays. It is something very tragic and at the same time very exhilarating, something in fact deeply aporetic: they all bear the burden of ironic truths and a dazzling wisdom which neither saves them personally nor those who surround them in the hope that they will fulfil the messianic hopes they inspire.

Now I first read all these plays and came across these characters when I was myself a young man, at a time when the formless, apolitical and post-adolescent, non-conformism of my teenage years was being gradually supplanted by a lifelong devotion to socialism in our country, our continent and our world. In that context, these characters of Soyinka’s great plays confused but also endlessly fascinated me. On the one hand, the characters all stood for or in the end inscribed a radical anti-messianism in social contexts that had a surfeit of evil, cruelty and suffering and therefore had a great, overwhelming need to be changed for the better. But on the other hand, the characters each took an unsparing and savagely corrosive look at the evil in themselves and in their world and refused totally to be “saviours”, even at the cost of being destroyed themselves.

In a way, Soyinka can be described as a consistently non- or anti-didactic playwright but he does have some plays and many poems that can be described as quasi-didactic; plays like the “Jero” plays, The Beatification of an Area Boy and the sketches and revues of the “Before the Blackout” series. But the thing that confounded me when I first read and/or watched Soyinka’s plays in performance was the fact that it was the group of radically non-messianic and anti-didactic plays that far more fascinated me than the other group. Which is why, in the years of my young intellectual and political adulthood, when, without exactly knowing it, I was on my way to achieving a complex understanding of the role of contradiction and aporia in life, art and politics, those great plays of Soyinka and their larger-than-life “old men” characters were of immense help.

WS is now biologically 80. But vicariously, through a life in art of ferocious and stunning imaginative power he had been 80 and older for many decades now. By the law of averages, he should have departed this life a long time ago. Sani Abacha was not the only dictator who sought mightily to terminate his life, Idi Dada Amin of Uganda having also been one who sought to end what he regarded as his torments at the hands of WS by plotting to have his life cut short. And the accounts are fully documented that Soyinka was not supposed to survive his detention by Gowon’s regime during the Nigeria-Biafra war. But Abacha went further than any other megalomaniacal user of the weapon of killing implacable foes by having told confidantes that he would like to be the first ruler in history to have the satisfaction of hanging a Nobel Laureate. Abacha it is that died; WS is 80. And ko tii si iku lo ju e, ahusubitrue!

–Biodun Jejifo is Professor of African and American Studies and Comparative Literature, Harvard University.