Presentation Speech by Professor Lars Gyllensten, of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Wole Soyinka, born in Nigeria in 1934, writes in English and is chiefly recognized as a dramatist. His many-sided and vital literary works also include some important collections of poems and novels, an interesting autobiography and a large number of articles and essays. He has been, and is, very active as a man of the theatre and has staged his own plays in England and Nigeria. He has himself taken part as an actor and energetically joined in theatrical debates and theatre policies. During the civil war in Nigeria in the middle of the 1960s he was drawn into the struggle for liberty because of his opposition to violence and terror. He was imprisoned under brutal and illegal forms in 1967 and was released over two years later – an experience that drastically affected his outlook on life and literary work.
Soyinka has depicted his childhood in a little African village. His father was a teacher, his mother a social worker – both Christian. But in the preceding generation there were medicine men and others who believed firmly in spirits, magic, and rites of anything but a Christian kind. We encounter a world in which tree sprites, ghosts, sorcerer and primitive African traditions were living realities. We also come face to face with a more complicated world of myth, which has its roots far back in an African culture handed down by word of mouth. This account of childhood gives a background to Soyinka’s literary works – a self-experienced, close connection with a rich and complex African heritage.
Soyinka made an early appearance as a dramatist. It was natural for him to seek this art form, which is closely linked with the African material and with African forms of linguistic and mime creation. His plays make frequent and skilful use of many elements belonging to stage art and which also have genuine roots in African culture-dance and rites, masques and pantomime, rhythm and music, declamation, theatre within the theatre etc. His first dramas are lighter and more playful than the later ones – pranks, ironical and satirical scenes, pictures of everyday life with telling and witty dialogue, often with a tragicomical or grotesque sense of life as keynote. Among these early plays can be mentioned A Dance of the Forests – a kind of African “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, with dryads, ghosts, spirits, and gods or demi-gods. It is about creativeness and sacrifice, with the god or hero Ogun as one of the performers. This Ogun is a Prometheus – like figure – the demigod of iron and artistic skill but also of war and battle, a double figure combining both creation and destruction in his being. Soyinka has often reverted to him.
Soyinka’s dramas are deeply rooted in an African world and culture. But he is also a widely read, not to say learned writer and dramatist. He is familiar with western literature, from the Greek tragedies to Beckett and Brecht. Also outside the field of drama he is well versed in the great European literature. A writer like James Joyce, for instance, has left traces in his novels. Soyinka is an author who writes with great deliberation, and especially in his novels and poems he can be avant-gardistically sophisticated.
During the war years, his time in prison and afterwards, his writing takes on a more tragic character. The psychological, moral and social conflicts appear more and more complex and menacing. The book-keeping of good and evil, of destructive and constructive forces, becomes increasingly ambiguous. His dramas become equivocal – dramas which in the shape of allegory or satire take up moral, social, and political matters for mythical-dramatic creation. The dialogue is sharpened, the characters become more expressive, often exaggerated to the point of caricature, demanding denouement – the dramatic temperature is raised. The vitality is no less than in the first works – on the contrary: the satire, the humour, the elements of grotesquery and comedy, and the mythical fable-making come vividly to life. The way in which Soyinka makes use of the mythical material, the African, and the literary schooling, the European, is very independent. He says he uses the myths as “the aesthetic matrix” for his writing. It is thus not a question of a folkloristic reproduction, a kind of exoticism, but an independent and co-operative work. The myths, traditions, and rites are integrated as nourishment for his writing, not a masquerade costume. He has called his wide reading and literary awareness a “selective eclecticism” – i.e. purposeful and sovereign choice. Among the later dramas special mention can be made of Death and the King’s Horseman – a genuinely, dramatically convincing work full of many ideas and meanings, of poetry, satire, surprise, cruelty, and lust. Superficially it is about a conflict between western morals and convention on the one hand, and African culture and tradition on the other. The theme moves around a ritual or cultic human sacrifice. The drama goes so deeply into human and superhuman conditions that it cannot be reduced to something that teaches us about breaches between different civilizations. Soyinka himself prefers to see it as a metaphysical and religious drama of fate. It is about the conditions of the human identity and realization, the mythical pact of life and death, and the possibilities of the unborn.
To Soyinka’s non-dramatic works belong the autobiographically inspired accounts The Man Died, from his time in prison, and the novel The Interpreters, from intellectual circles in Nigeria. The novel Season of Anomy is an allegory with the Orpheus and Eurydice myth as framework, a somewhat complicated, symbolic-expressionistic story with a background in brutal social and political conditions of oppression and corruption. Outstanding among the poems are collections with motifs from his time in prison, some of them written during his imprisonment as a kind of mental exercise to help the author survive with dignity and fortitude. The imagery in these poems is compact and rather hard to penetrate, sometimes, however, with a laconic or ascetic concentration. It takes some time to get to know them intimately, but they can then yield a strange emanation that gives evidence of their background and role in a harsh, difficult period in the poet’s life – moving testimony to courage and artistic strength.
As already mentioned, it is chiefly the dramas that stand out as Wole Soyinka’s most significant achievement. They are of course made to be acted on the stage, with dance, music, masques, and mime as essential components. But his plays can also be read as important and fascinating literary works from a richly endowed writer’s experience and imagination – and with roots in a composite culture with a wealth of living and artistically inspiring traditions.
Dear Mr. Soyinka, In your versatile writings you have been able to synthesize a very rich heritage from your own country, ancient myths and old traditions, with literary legacies and traditions of European culture. There is a third component, a most important component in what you have thus achieved – your own genuine and impressive creativity as an artist, a master of language, and your commitment as a dramatist and writer of poetry and prose to problems of general and deep significance for man, modern or ancient. It is my privilege to convey to you the warm congratulations of the Swedish Academy and to ask you to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature from the hand of His Majesty the King.
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