Playwright Wole Soyinka was commissioned to write A Dance of the Forests as part of the celebration of Nigeria’s independence. Soyinka returned to Nigeria for the first time in 1959 after having spent four years attending college in England. Upon return he plunged into researching the folklore of the Yoruba and the results of that study wound up being exhibited in the play.
The story tells tells of a group of petty, squabbling mortals summoning up spirits of the dead deemed sacred by the Yoruba to take part in a festival. In their misapprehension of Yoruba history, they have assumed these spirits will bear a certain wisdom and nobility lacking in themselves, only to discover that the spirits are just as susceptible to pointless bickering.
The play was written with a very specific intent: to create a metaphor the Nigerian people could connect with and easily associated with their present good fortune. The expectation that merely achieving independence could be the end of their problems had to be addressed before the excitement turned to apathy. At the same time, A Dance of the Forests also served to warn the people against the danger viewing their pre-colonial past through a sentimental prism that distorted the reality.
When Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, A Dance of the Forests was singled out as one the works which confirmed his status as “one of the finest poetical playwrights that have written in English.”