Two Minds, One World: Soyinka and Walcott Meet.

Author:Adekoya, Olusegun
Position:Wole Soyinka's "A Dance of the Forests" and Derek Walcott's "Ti-Jean and His Brothers" - Critical essay

History makes similes of people, but these people are their own nouns. -Walcott He is a profound artist only to the degree to which he comprehends and expresses this principle of destruction and re-creation. -Soyinka Critical essays on A Dance of the Forests (subsequently abridged to A Dance)abound. Critics of African literature, native and foreign, such as OlusegunAdekoya, Mary T. David, James Gibbs, BiodunJeyifo, Eldred Jones, Ketu H. Katrak, Stephen Larsen, Obi Maduakor, M. M. Mahood, Gerald Moore, OyinOgunba, TejumolaOlaniyan, Adrian Roscoe, and Derek Wright, have provided perceptive readings of various aspects of the play. They all agree that the play is complex, a dark forest of symbols that are replete with meaning on a national and global level. There is equally an abundance of critical essays on Ti-Jean and His Brothers(subsequently abbreviated to Ti-Jean). Mahfouz A. Adedimeji, SegunAdekoya, Albert OluAshaolu, Edward Baugh, Paula Burnett, Cecil Gray, Louis James, and Mervyn Morris have written persuasively on deployment of allegory, folktale tradition, and wit in the play.

A preponderance of critical exegeses of A Dance and Ti-Jean notwithstanding, a comparative analysis of the two plays along the line of extension of African cultures and oral traditions deserves attention. The present study seeks to fill the gap and increase an understanding of the African world. Richard A. Long in "Black Studies: International Dimensions" defines the principle of the African continuum:

The principle of the African continuum is that historically radiating from the Black Core, the Black peoples of the world have carried with them modes of dealing with and symbolizing experience, modes discovered and refined through millennia in Africa itself, and that these tactical and symbolic modes constitute a viable nexus of Black culture, one of the major traditions of humanity. (424) Writing in the same vein in "The African Presence in Caribbean Literature," Edward KamauBrathwaite posits, "African culture not only crossed the Atlantic, it crossed, survived, and creatively adapted itself to its new environment" (73). Of the four kinds of written African literature in the Caribbean identified by Brathwaite, Ti-Jean belongs in "the literature of African expression, which has its root in the folk, and which attempts to adapt or transform folk material into literary experiment" (81).

In an interview with Edward Hirsch, Walcott asseverates, "our music, our speech--all the things that are organic in the way we live--are African" (285). "The storyteller tradition," he goes on to add, "is still very prevalent in the Caribbean. The chant, the response, and the dance are immediate things to me; they are not anachronistic or literary" (286). Ti-Jean, he avers, in "Derek's Most West Indian Play," "was the most West Indian thing I had done" (7). A Dance, we assert, is Soyinka's greatest appropriation of ritual properties of the Yoruba world, the closest in his dramatic oeuvre to the tradition of the Yoruba traveling theater.

Both plays begin with a prologue. A Black Caribbean etiological tale, Ti-Jean provides an explanation in its prologue for the dark patch of the Moon. A signification of the defeat of power by wit and a mockery of omniscience, it belongs in a category of animal tales in which a small, weak but exceedingly smart animal outwits a big, powerful but extremely foolish animal. In an interview with Paula Burnett, Walcott says:

there's always one figure in the folk imagination who is kind of a protestant figure, an elusive figure, who is not part of the cosmology and upsets the hierarchy somehow, either by defiance, or by wit, or by solving challenges. Like most West Indian jokes, which are based on African stories, [there is] somebody always challenging Tiger, always making an idiot out of Tiger... and in a sense the Tiger represents a kind of deity. And this person who is sceptical and smart and avoids the power of the Tiger is really a kind of protest against... or query or scepticism [of]... omniscience or power. (qtd. in Burnett, DerekWalcott 95) Frog, the narrator, opens the tale with "Greek-crack, Greek-crack" (85) and ends it with its Creole form "creek. Crack" (166), which combined conjures up the dual cultural cum literary heritage of the play and its author. Alluding to TheFrogs by Aristophanes, it evokes the opening strategy of an African folktale,suggests coughing that clears the narrator's throat, and requests audience attention.

Tired of causingevils and vices from which he does not suffer, Devil in Ti-Jean sends Bolom (a spirit of an aborted fetus), his servant, to Mother, a poor, old Black widow, to deliver a message that whoever among her three sons fails to make him feel anger and rage, as humans do, will die, while any of them who makes him feel human will be richly rewarded. The first two sons Gros Jean and Mi-Jean fail the test and Devil consumes them, but Ti-Jean passes it and receives blessings. Therefore, God puts him with his hunting dog and the bundle of sticks left for him by Devil on the Moon to "light the evil dark" (86).

A Dance, like Ti-Jean, begins with a prologue. Aroni, a lame spirit that carries about a bundle of sticks made of wisdom, informs the audience in the prologue that there is a Feast, the Gathering of the Tribes, to which the living have requested the spirit world to send some of their illustrious ancestors to grace the grand occasion. Aroni seeks and gets permission of Forest Head (Almighty God) to respond to the request and send the living two ancestors, Dead Man, a captain in the army of a tyrannical African king called Mata Kharibu, and Dead Woman, the captain's wife, who in previous life were linked to four of the living. The celebrants reject the two guests sent to them and drive them away. Aroni receives them; and forest dwellers, spirit beings, consent to give them a dance, a befitting burial, so to say, to which Forest Head lures three members of the human community.

They are Demoke, a carver (in previous life a court poet), Adenebi, a council orator (in previous life an historian), and Rola, a courtesan in the past and the present. Demoke has carved Oro's sacred tree as a symbol of the Gathering of the Tribes and in the process caused the death of Oremole, his apprentice, two crimes for which Eshuoro, the spirit that used to dwell in the carved tree, seeks to take vengeance on him, while Ogun, God of War and the carver's patron God, defends his servant. Conceived as part of Nigeria's Independence Celebrations in 1960, the play was rejected by the Independence Ceremonials Committee who found its gloomy mood to be disharmonious with the festive atmosphere of the occasion.

Set in a human habitat and a forest that combine to present an animistic world, either play portrays the cosmos as a field of forces that attract and attack each other. In Ti-Jean, thunder accompanies the appearance of Devil with his troop of fiends and the sky turns red (80), engendering fright in Mother and her three sons. The opening of A Dance is similarly eerie as the soil at an empty clearing in the forest appears to be breaking and heads of Dead Woman and Dead Man push their way up (3). The gristly appearance of the dead couple sets the human characters on edge. Feelings of guilt assail Demoke, Adenebi and Rolaand they become tetchy. There is a slight difference between the two human habitats. In Ti-Jean, it is a village and in A Dance, a town. As represented in Soyinka's translations of D. O. Fagunwa's novels The Forestof a Thousand Daemons and Inthe Forest of Olodumare, the forest is symbolic of the incomprehensible. Both plays portray the cosmos as composed of three worlds of the living, the dead, and the unborn with emphasis on their interconnection. Soyinka wrote in Myth, Literatureand the African World, "life, present life, contains within it manifestations of the ancestral, the living and the unborn" (144).

In Ti-Jean, the living are represented by Mother, her three sons, and the animal characters, the dead by Gros Jean and Mi-Jean who pass behind a red curtain of flame that signifies hellfire (159), and the unborn by Bolom. In A Dance, the town dwellers and the Court of Mata Kharibu constitute the living; the forest dwellers, Dead...

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