The Lion and the Jewel is one of Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s most famous works. While it is a light and amusing comedy, it is also renowned for its complex themes and allegorical structure; it is also notable for its insights into Yoruba culture and traditions.
Soyinka wrote the play while living in London. It was first performed in Africa at the Ibadan Arts Theatre in 1959 and garnered positive reviews. The Times Literary Supplement stated, “In this richly ribald comedy, The Lion and the Jewel, poetry and prose are also blended, but with a marvelous lightness in the treatment of both. The big set-piece of miming in the opening scene, where the villagers re-enact the visit of the white photographer, and the seduction of the village jewel Sidi by the old Lion of a chief, are two of the pinnacles of Mr. Soyinka's achievement to date.” West Africa called Soyinka “...a brilliant dramatist-the most important in Nigeria, if not in all of Black Africa. He is helped by a profound command of the English language, reflected sometimes in the dazzling brilliance, at other times in the intense poetic quality of his writing...”
The first staging in London took place at the Royal Court Theatre in 1966. Artistic Director Bill Gaskell was very dedicated to Soyinka’s work, telling a peer about his experience with another of his works, The Trials of Brother Jero: “[it] had a vitality and immediacy which very few of our new plays have. Wole is a real Court writer in the true sense of the word." The play was billed as “Wole Soyinka’s comedy with music” and featured the work of notable director Desmond O’Donovan and set designer Jocelyn Herbert. It was covered extensively in the press.
A review of a current staging of the play praised its themes: “Soyinka's The Lion and the Jewel is, without a doubt, a funny and magical piece of work: full of folk fantasy, folk wisdom. But it's also got its share of folk cruelty. And more than that--its share of hard political reality as well. Written in 1962--when Soyinka was a young man helping to build the Nigerian republic that would be established in 1963 only to be wrecked three years later (remember Biafra?)--Lion expresses something beyond an anthropologist's affection for tribal traditions. It expresses the simultaneously admirable and ugly ruthlessness of a tribal chief's will to survive.”
The Lion and the Jewel was published in book form in 1963. It is still performed relatively often in both Africa and the West.