Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright, poet and essayist born on 13 July 1934 in Abeokuta, Nigeria. In 1986, he became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Here are some of his most notable, must-read works.
Soyinka had always been known for his literary verve from a young age, winning several prizes for literary composition at Abeokuta Grammar School, before moving to an elite secondary school, Government College in Ibadan. After his studies at the college in 1952, he enrolled into University College Ibadan (which at the time was affiliated with the University of London), where he studied English literature, Greek, and Western history. However, he relocated to England in 1954 where he finished his degree at the University of Leeds.
In 1969, Wole Soyinka and other political prisoners were freed at the end of the civil war in Nigeria. After his release, he sought solitude at a friend’s farm in southern France where he penned Poems from Prison (later called A Big Airplane Crashed Into The Earth) which was subsequently published in London, as well as The Bacchae of Euripides, a reworking of the Pentheus myth.
This poetry collection was produced in 1971 and, like the aforementioned collection, was inspired by his imprisonment for 22 months during the Nigerian Civil War. It explores the inner workings of Soyinka’s mind as it shuttles between life to death, fuelled by the fear of death, and the knowledge that his fellow prisoners were dying slowly while in solitary confinement. It also dwells on conceptions and symbolic actions in relation to their social, historical and literary contexts.
This was one of Soyinka’s first plays performed in Nigeria in 1959 at the Ibadan Arts Theatre. Through two main characters – Lakunle, the school teacher, an advocate for Western ideas, and Baroka, the chief who is stuck in his traditional ways – Soyinka explores the conflict between modernity and tradition in Africa as both men fight for the beautiful Sidi, the Jewel mentioned in the title.
Proceeding The Lion and the Jewel, this play was produced in 1960 in the dining hall of Mellanby Hall, University College Ibadan. This thought provoking piece follows the antics of Brother Jero, a false prophet with a weakness for women who attempts to manipulate his followers.
This is one of his most widely known and loved plays produced in 1975. In this dramatic ensemble, Soyinka tells the story of a king’s horseman who is prevented from committing a ritualistic suicide in a Nigerian village by a visiting Briton during the British colonial rule. The play explores the implications of this interruption in traditional practice. American productions of the play launched in Chicago in 1976 and at the Lincoln Center in New York in 1987.
Produced to coincide with Nigeria’s independence celebrations in October 1960, the play symbolically warns Nigerians to strive to prevent repeated mistakes from reoccurring. Regarded as highly controversial at the time due to its portrayal of high class and elite Nigeria as superficial and corrupt, it remains one of his most influential works.
Produced in 2001, this play is a satire of General Sani Abacha’s administration. This is illustrated through the intriguing personality of the protagonist, General Basha Bash, who takes over the country in a military coup and then quickly disregards his military uniform for royal robes, crowning himself king.
In this memoir of his boyhood, we get an insight into the life of Wole Soyinka before and during World War II when he lived in a Yoruba village in Nigeria called Ake. In this memoir, he is presented as a curious child with a love for books and trouble. He was raised in a Christian household quite contradictory to his traditionalist grandfather’s practices who introduced him to Yoruba spirituality.
The plot of this play is centred on the confrontation between good and evil forces. The ultimate example of evil is perpetuated by Dr. Bero, the main character, who imprisons his father as a pretense to protect him from going senile. It’s been regarded as one of Soyinka’s most pessimistic plays yet.