A Dance of the Forests

A Dance of the Forests Summary and Analysis of Part 4


The Forest Head and Aroni talk about their powers over the four mortals. "They had no suspicion of you?" Aroni asks, to which the Forest Head replies, "Only uncertainty. I threw dark hints to preserve my mystery and force them into an acceptance of my aloofness. It held them all except the woman." When Forest Head asks Aroni if Eshuoro will find them, Aroni assures him that he has set a trail for Eshuoro to follow them. Forest Head is pleased with this, and says, "If the child needs a fright, then the mother must summon the witch."

All of a sudden, Forest Head alludes to the fact that they will now transport back eight centuries to the court of Mata Kharibu, leader of a great empire. After Aroni waves his hand in a circle, the stage is transformed into the court.

Two thrones appear, one for Mata Kharibu, and the other for his queen, Madame Tortoise. While a page plucks an African guitar, the King is angry and derisive, while Madame Tortoise is cruel in a different way. Nearby, the court poet stands (Demoke in a former life), along with a scribe.

When Madame Tortoise says that she is sad, the court poet says that sadness is noble, and in an aside, says that he hopes that the queen's sadness will smother her. She complains that she has lost her canary. The court poet refers to the fact that he heard a servant fall from the roof two days prior, and Madame Tortoise tells him this is true. She then sends him, along with another servant to go find her a canary, and he goes.

A warrior, in chains, is brought in. It is the Dead Man in his previous life, and Mata Kharibu accuses him of having the audacity to think. The warrior pleads guilty and Mata Kharibu slaps him and then goes to behead him with a sword, when a physician runs forward to interrupt, whispering in Kharibu's ear and dissuading him from killing the warrior.

The physician goes to the warrior and tells him to think of him as a friend, as he has saved him from the wrathful king twice before. The warrior confides in the physician that he does not believe in the war, which is being fought on behalf of the queen.

The physician insists that the war is now about much more, that it is now "an affair of honor." The warrior protests, "Since when was it an honorable thing to steal the wife of a brother chieftain?" When the physician defends the king, the warrior insists that the king's actions do not reflect a desire to preside over a peaceful and good kingdom; rather, they reveal that the king is corrupt.

Not wanting to discuss it anymore, the warrior tells the physician to go to Mata Kharibu and tell him that he was mad before, but that he has returned to his senses. The physician is doubtful that this is genuine, and the warrior confirms that he is being sarcastic when he tells the physician to go to Madame Tortoise and tell her, "I will not fight her war."

The physician tries to convince the warrior that he cannot choose his wars, but the warrior is stubborn in his belief that he is doing the right thing. "You think your own life is yours to dispose of?" the physician asks, to which the warrior replies, "I have the right to choose how I mean to die."

The physician reveals that he is worried that the warrior has sewn seeds of doubt among his fellow warriors, and it pleases the warrior to see that perhaps he has the upper hand after all. "Perhaps I have started a new disease that catches quickly," he says, as the court historian—Adenebi in a former life—enters. The historian tells the warrior, "Nations live by strength; nothing else has meaning," before telling Mata Kharibu that based on his work he has found that nations thrive on the bloodshed of war. "The cause is always the accident, your Majesty, and war is the Destiny," he says.

Kharibu complains that the warrior has taken 60 of his best soldiers with him, as the warrior insists that he is not a traitor. The historian launches into a monologue about Troy, the fact that the Trojan War was fought over Helen, a woman, and says, "...history has always revealed that the soldier who will not fight has the blood of slaves in him."

The soothsayer, Agboreko in his former identity, comes in, foreseeing great bloodshed. Mata Kharibu uses this as justification for having the warrior and his compatriots killed. Suddenly, a slave-dealer steps forward and offers to take the warrior and the men off of the king's hands. When the king accepts, the physician speaks up on their behalf and tells him that the slave-dealer treats his slaves horribly. The physician tells the king to kill the soldiers, but not to put them in the hands of the slave-dealer.

Mata Kharibu grows impatient and storms out, but on his way asks the soothsayer about whether their fate is doomed. When the soothsayer tells him that the stars are unfavorable, and asks why he would proceed, Kharibu tells him, "I dare not stop. I cannot stop. The captain of my army has put a curse on me." He goes on, "Why should my slave, my subject, my mere human property say, unless he is mad, I shall not fight this war? Is he a freak?"

The soothsayer comforts his king, telling him that history will not favor the warrior, just as a smudge on the moon is not an indictment of the moon itself. When the king leaves the room, the physician goes to the slave-dealer and confronts him for his poor treatment of slaves. The slave-dealer does not understand why he is so defensive about slaves, contending that his boat is perfectly nice. When the historian agrees with the slave-dealer, the slave-dealer leaves and the historian invites the physician to come to his house for sherbet.

The court poet returns to Madame Tortoise with a canary. When she tells him she no longer wants the bird, the poet says, "it is the privilege of beauty to be capricious." She asks him where the novice he was accompanying is, the poet tells him that the novice fell and broke his arm. They stare at one another seriously, and the poet says, "The roof is dangerous, Madame. Did not a soldier also fall from the same spot?" She mocks him, before dismissing him and ordering him not to displease her.

When the poet has left, Madame Tortoise dismisses everyone except the warrior. She confronts him about the fact that he will not fight for her, and he warns her not to anger him, saying that while he does not hate her, she has caused him and his men a great deal of undeserved dishonor. She taunts him about the man who jumped off the roof on her behalf, because he was so in love with her.

Madame Tortoise tries to seduce the warrior, telling him that she alone can save him from death and that if he falls in love with her, he can take the throne from Mata Kharibu. When he doesn't take the bait, Madame Tortoise becomes displeased, reminding him, "Men have killed for me. Men have died for me."

Suddenly, the warrior's wife (who will become the Dead Woman), rushes on, pregnant. The queen is displeased to see that the warrior prefers his wife to her, and orders her guard to castrate the warrior, to make him a eunuch, who will guard over "the harems of other Mata Kharibus, drooling on wares they cannot taste."

The wife of the warrior clutches her stomach, gasping, as the stage goes black. Back in the forest, Aroni and Forest Head watch this memory, as Eshuoro approaches, insisting that the warrior was a fool and asking what they have proven. As Eshuoro complains about the death of Demoke's apprentice, the Forest Head warns him to watch his tongue and Ogun comes in.

Ogun tells Eshuoro that Demoke did his bidding and is above reproach. As Ogun taunts him more, Eshuoro becomes completely incensed and jumps on Ogun, but the Forest Head holds them apart without even touching them. "Soon, I will not tell you from humans, so closely have their habits grown on you," he says.

Ogun asks Aroni to let Demoke go, but Aroni insists that he needs him most of all. Ogun defends Demoke, saying that he has only ever done his bidding.

When Eshuoro leaves, the Forest Head summons someone called the Questioner and the stage turns into "a dark wet atmosphere dripping moisture, and soft, moist soil." Nearby there is a palm tree and Aroni disappears as the Forest Head sits on a stump and is approached by the Questioner. The Dead Woman enters.

The Questioner asks the Dead Woman who sent her and the Dead Woman replies that it was a woman without a womb. "Was it before your time?" the Questioner asks, and scolds the Dead Woman for dying even though she was pregnant. "You should have lived for him," he says, and the Dead Woman says that because she is a woman, she was weak.


After much confusion and chaos, we find that Aroni and the Forest Head are in full control of what is going on. When they speak to one another, they discuss the fact that the assemblage of mortals is completely intentional. Additionally, they reveal that they have made it so that Eshuoro will follow them to the festivities to scare the mortals. What has seemed like a variety of chaotic competing interests is in fact being presided over and controlled by these forest spirits.

The play takes a turn when the onstage events actually transport back in time 8 centuries to the court of Mata Kharibu. After so many allusions to the past lives of the characters, the theatrical world brings us back to the actual events that have led to the unfinished business with the dead couple. The chaos of the forest is replaced with the order of the court, and we see the ways in which each of the four mortals mistreated the two dead people—a captain in Mata Kharibu's court, and his wife.

In the court of Mata Kharibu, we see the conflict between the merciless king and the Dead Man, who was once a soldier in his court. The main point of contention between them is the fact that the soldier had the audacity to think, which is distasteful to the king. When charged with having thought, the soldier can only perform humility, saying, "I plead guilty to the possession of thought. I did not know that it was in me to exercise it, until your Majesty's inhuman commands." In this, we see that the strict hierarchies of the kingdom are so stringent and violent as to be almost absurd, that some men are allowed to think while others are not.

While the first part of the play uses highly figurative language and symbolic spiritual tropes to signify the world of the forest, the court of Mata Kharibu transports the reader into a much more recognizable monarchical structure, in which unjust kings execute dissenters and courtly subjects cower at the power of the king. This sequence provides a great deal of context for the preceding events in the forest, in that it reveals once and for all the corrupt identities of the courtly subjects who will eventually become the four mortals collected by Aroni. We also see the context for the dead couple's suspension between the world of the living and the dead; as dissenters in the court of Mata Kharibu they were horribly mistreated for standing up for what they believed in, and suffer grave injustices that are left unresolved.

While the play is an indictment of an African nostalgia that ignores the problems of the past, Wole Soyinka's work, and this play in particular, is held up as a masterful example of his incorporation of traditional Yoruba ritual performance modes. These elements include the use of masquerade, dance, poetry, music, and the depiction of possession. Thus, the events onstage are not simply symbolic or figurative, but represent and recreate actual modes of performance that hearken back to Nigerian history and traditions of the culture itself.