was born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka in Abeokuta, Nigeria on July
13, 1934. The son of a canon in the Anglican Church, Soyinka
grew up in an Anglican mission compound in Aké. However,
his parents were careful to balance this colonial, English-speaking
environment with regular visits to his father's ancestral home
in Isara. He would later chronicle these years in his autobiographical
work, Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981) as well
as in Isara, a Voyage Around "Essay" (1989).
Soyinka attended the University of Ibadan (1952-54) before
earning a BA in English from the University of Leeds. From 1957
to 1959, he served as a script-reader, actor and director at
the Royal Court Theatre, London, and while there, developed three
experimental pieces with a company of actors he had brought together.
Although African writers have traditionally viewed English, French,
and other European languages as the tongue of the colonial power,
the tool of stigma and imperialism, Soyinka made the decision
to write in English in order to gain access to an international
In 1960, Soyinka returned to Nigeria and founded the 1960
Masks, a theatre company that would present his first major play,
A Dance of the Forests, in which the spirit world and
the living world clash over the future of a half-born child.
Although A Dance of the Forests exhibits a fairly serious
tone, much of Soyinka's early work satirized the absurdities
of his society with a gently humorous and affectionate spirit.
As the struggle for independence in his country turned sour,
however, Soyinka's work began to take on a darker tone.
In October of 1965, Soyinka was arrested for allegedly seizing
the Western Region radio studios and making a political broadcast
disputing the published results of the recent elections. In December
of that same year, he was acquitted. He then served as director
of the Drama School of Ibadan University in Nigeria until 1967,
when he was arrested for writings sympathetic to secessionist
Biafra. This time, he was imprisoned for twenty-two months. In
Madmen and Specialists (1970), written shortly after his
release from prison, Soyinka's protest grows much more powerful,
perhaps as much a tribute to the playwright's suffering as to
his growth as an artist. Madmen and Specialists dramatizes
what the NEW YORK TIMES calls, "a police state in which
only madmen and spies can survive, in which the losers are mad
and the winners are paranoid about the possibility of another
rebellion." In another powerful piece, Death and the
King's Horseman (1975), the Elesin--chief minister to the
dead King--fails to properly exercise his act of ritual suicide,
thus jeopardizing the delicate and mystical balance between the
dead, the living, and the unborn.
Soyinka served as head of the Department of Theatre Arts at
the University of Ibadan (1969-72) and head of the Department
of Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife (1975-85). In 1978,
Soyinka founded another theatre company, the Unife Guerilla Theatre.
Based out of the University of Ife, this company presented plays
and sketches in parks, markets, and on street corners, attacking
corruption and political oppression.
Soyinka's other plays include Kongi's Harvest (1967),
The Lion and the Jewel (1964), The Trials of Brother
Jero (1964), The Bacchae of Euripides (1973), Opera
Wonyosi (1977), A Play of Giants (1985), Requiem
for a Futurologist (1985) and Beautification of Area Boy
(1994). He is also known for his novels, autobiographical works,
poetry, and criticism, and in 1986, he became the first African
writer ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.