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Wole Soyinka (Olu Wole Akinwale Soyinka) Biography

(1934– ), (Olu Wole Akinwale Soyinka), The Swamp-Dwellers, The Lion and Jewel

Nigerian dramatist, poet, and novelist, born in Abeokuta, educated at the universities of Ibadan and Leeds. His first play, The Swamp-Dwellers (1958), was followed by the most successful of his early plays, The Lion and Jewel (1959), a sardonic comedy dramatizing the clash between Lakunle, a young, priggish schoolteacher of Westernized disposition, and Baroka, an ageing but physically agile and politically wily traditional chief, in their courtship of Sidi, the belle of the village. Mime and dance, inspired by traditional Yoruba theatre, pervade the play in performance. A Dance of the Forests (1960), produced in Lagos as part of the Nigerian independence celebrations, is an extravaganza of folk myth and African history. The Trials of Brother Jero (1960) introduced the conman Jero, one of Soyinka's finest comic creations; in Jero's Metamorphosis (1974) he becomes more sinister than comic, in line with the dramatist's bleak view of Nigerian society under military rule. Plays targeted against African dictators include Kongi's Harvest (1965) and A Play of Giants (1984). Chicanery, corruption, and deception at various levels of society were satirized in Opera Wonyosi (1977), adapted from Brecht's The Three-Penny Opera (1928). Most of his dramatic works are published in Collected Plays (2 volumes, 1973, 1974) and Six Plays (1984). In The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972) Soyinka gives an impassioned account of his period in solitary detention for allegedly pro-Biafran activities during the Nigerian Civil War (196770). His bitterly anti-war satire Madmen and Specialists (1970), the poems in A Shuttle in the Crypt (1971), and his second novel, Season of Anomy (1973), are all informed by Soyinka's reaction to the conflict. Yoruba mythology and religious ritual are powerful undercurrents of poetic symbolism in his drama, particularly in The Road (1965) and Death and the King's Horseman (1975), a tragedy which focuses on Elesin, the ‘king's horseman’: shortly after the death of his master, the King of Oye, he is prevented from committing ritual suicide by the colonial District Officer, a disastrous humiliation for both himself and his society. The situation is ultimately redeemed by the courageous self-sacrifice of his son. The play fuses both ancient Greek and Yoruba concepts of tragedy, which Soyinka discussed in Myth, Literature and the African World (1976), the fullest statement of his aesthetics. More recent plays include From Zia With Love; and A Scourge of Hyacinths (1992) and The Beatification of Area Boy (1995). Critical comments are collected in Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (1988). His use of traditional symbols, transformed by a modernist sensibility, is particularly evident in his two novels, The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), his densely allusive poetry, and his adaptation of The Bacchae of Euripides (1973). His books of poetry include Idanre and Other Poems (1967), Ogun Abibiman (1976), and Mandela's Earth (1989). Ake (1981) is about his childhood, and Isara: A Voyage Around Essay (1989) an affectionate portrait of his father. An autobiographical work is Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946–1965 (1994). Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Souvenirs to St Joan of the Stockyards (Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe)