Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, known as Wole Soyinka, is a Nigerian playwright, poet, and essayist. His works are often political, especially in their detailing of Colonial and post-Colonial Africa and criticism of governmental tyranny and military dictatorships — "the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it," he has stated. Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
Soyinka was born on July 13, 1934 to a Yoruba family in Abeokuta in southwestern Nigeria. He is the second eldest of six children. His father was an Anglican minister and his mother owned a shop in the market; she was also an activist within the local women's community. Soyinka was raised Anglican, and, as the majority of the community practiced the indigenous Yorùbá religion, was also influenced by Yorùbán beliefs (in his later life, Soyinka proclaimed himself to be Atheist). This Yorùbán influence is prevalent in many of his works.
Soyinka studied at the University College Ibadan from 1952-1954. During his time there, he was one of the founders of the Pyrates Confraternity, the first confraternity in Nigeria, which sought sought to defy corruption and elitism and support justice. In 1954, he moved to England to study at the University of Leeds and studied there under his mentor, Wilson Knight, from 1954-1957. Upon graduating, Soyinka remained in England with the artistic goal of fuzing traditional European theatre with Yorùbá culture. He completed his first major play, The Swamp Dwellers, in 1958. His next work, The Lion and the Jewel, garnered interest at the Royal Court Theatre. He moved to London and worked as a play reader at the Royal Court. His two plays were produced in Ibadan, Nigeria and his next play, The Invention was produced at the Royal Court Theatre to acclaim.
He returned to Nigeria to teach at the University College in Ibadan, from which he had received a Rockefeller Research Fellowship to continue his research in African theatre. New works during this time include The Trials of Brother Jero (1959) and A Dance in the Forest (1960). His play for television, My Father's Burden, was aired on the Western Nigerian Television in 1960. He also created a theatre company, Nineteen-Sixty Masks.
In 1962, Soyinka began teaching at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ifẹ, which he resigned two years later in opposition to pro-governement agenda being pushed into academia. With a group of theatre artists and scientists, he helped found the Drama Association of Nigeria in December, 1964.
Soyinka was arrested for the first time in 1965 for holding up a radio station at gunpoint and replacing the government sanctioned tape — a speech by the premier of Western Nigeria — with one containing accusations of election malpractice and corruption. He was imprisoned for a few months, then released after numerous protests against his confinement by the international writing community. Soyinka produced numerous new plays that year following his imprisonment: Before the Blackout, Kongi's Harvest, The Detainee (a radio play for the BBC), and The Road, which premiered in London at the Theatre Royal on September 15, 1965.
Following posts at the University of Lagos and University of Ibadan, Soyinka was forced to flee the country following the military coup of 1966. He was soon after imprisoned for 22 months during the Nigerian Civil War. During his incarceration, he continued to write a significant number of poems and works critical of the Nigerian government, and his plays continued to be produced abroad to increasing acclaim.
Following the conclusion of the War, Soyinka was released in October 1969. He retreated for a time to France, where he wrote The Bacchae of Euripedes, an adaptation of the classic Greek tragedy. In 1970, he published a new play, Madmen and Specialists, which premiered at the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut with a company of 15 actors from the University of Ibadan, where he had been reinstated. He later resigned his post in 1972, concerned once more about the political situation in Nigeria, and began a voluntary exile which would last the next few years.
In 1973, the National Theatre produced Soyinka's Bacchae by Euripedes. Two new plays were also published that year — Camwood on the Leaves and Jero's Metamorphosis. His next play, Death and the King's Horseman, centered around true events during the period of British colonialism in Nigeria; the first reading of the play was staged at Churchill College in England. Soyinka gave lectures at many prominent European universities during this time, and continued his criticism of military dictatorships, including Idi Amin's despotic regime in Uganda.
After a political turnover in 1975, Soyinka returned to Nigeria and reassumed his teaching post at the University of Ife. His next play, Opera Wọnyọsi, an adaptation of Brecht's Threepenny Opera, was staged in Ibadan in 1977.
Over the following decades, Soyinka continued to teach, lecture, write many books, poems, and plays, and continue his political activism. He wrote A Scourge of Hyacinths in 1991, From Zia With Love in 1992, and The Beatification of Area Boy in 1994. He fled Nigeria again in 1994, and was later charged with treason by the government of General Sani Abacha. Soyinka assumed presidency of The International Parliament of Writers - created in 1993 to support writers in exile - from 1997-2000. His play King Baabu premiered in Lagos in 2001.
Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, becoming the first African to be honored in that category. He has also been awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1983), the Agip Prize for Literature (1986), the Royal Society of Literature's Benson Medal (1990), the Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award (2009), the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement (2013), the International Humanist Award (2014), and the European Theatre Prize's "Special Prize" (2017). In 1986, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In 1994, he was appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African culture, human rights, freedom of expression, media and communication. He was also given a chieftaincy title of the Akinlatun of Egbaland by the Oba Alake of the Egba clan of Yorubaland in 2005. In addition to all these honors, Soyinka has also been honorary degrees and/or fellowships by the following institutions: University of Leeds; Churchill College, Cambridge; Royal Society of Literature; Harvard University; SOAS University of London; and Princeton University.
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