Atonement is a major theme of the play. The Dead Man and Dead Woman are brought back to the land of the living so that the four mortals who mistreated them in the past will recognize their former sins and atone. While the mortals spend a great deal of the play unaware of this, they eventually realize that the purpose of the Dead Man and Dead Woman's visitation is to teach them a lesson, and by the end, they go through a kind of conversion, understanding that they have sinned before.
Corrupted power is another major theme in the play, particularly as it represented in the characters of Mata Kharibu and Madame Tortoise. As we are taken back to the palace of the king, we see that Madame Tortoise exploits her beauty and her power over men in order to stir up discord. Mata Kharibu is also corrupted by his immense power, as demonstrated by the fact that he is demanding that his soldiers fight against their better judgment, and the fact that he mercilessly punishes free thinking. Wole Soyinka tells a story that reveals to the reader that all power is corruptible, and that just because people are given authority does not mean that they are good or ethical people.
Wounds & Trauma
The play depicts the ways that people carry around trauma and wounds from the past, that everyone has some sensitive part of their biography that haunts and hurts them. The Forest Head knows this and attempts to bring these wounds to light in hopes that those who have been hurt in the past can move on.
The play does not follow an exactly linear structure, in spite of the fact that it all takes place in the course of a day. As we learn rather quickly, the narrative concerns the sins of the past, and each mortal character has multiple identities, representing both who they are in the present as well as who they once were in the past. The present is layered onto the past as if to suggest that nothing from our history is ever fully gone, that we descend from patterns and events that precede us and continue to affect us in the present. The plot of the play concerns the ways that human beings must overcome their pasts and learn from them.
The play takes place in a forest, and throughout, various elements of the natural world come to life to take part in the reckoning that is taking place with the mortals. The Forest Head is a spirit who presides over the forest, and during the welcoming of the Dead Man and Dead Woman, various spirits of different natural elements are called upon to speak their piece. These include Spirit of the Rivers, Spirit of the Palms, Spirits of the Volcanos, and others. All of these elements of nature are personified through verse, showing us the connection between the human and the natural world.
One of the unresolved features of the Dead Woman is the fact that she was killed while pregnant with a child. She returns to the world of the living still with a pregnant belly, and during the welcome ritual, the fetus appears as a Half-Child, who is caught between being influenced by the spirit world and remaining with his mother. The Half-Child is a tragic figure, as he was never given the relief of life, and when he is given a chance to speak he says, "I who yet await a mother/Feel this dread/Feel this dread,/I who flee from womb/To branded womb cry it now/I'll be born dead/I'll be born dead." The figure of the child is a tragic one, standing in as the ultimate symbol for the wrongs done to the Dead Man and Dead Woman, and the unresolvedness of their plight.
Another major theme, as well as a formal element of the play, is ritual and tradition. Throughout, we see the characters going through traditional motions in order to understand more about their circumstances. These rituals include the ceremony for the self-discovery of the mortals, in which the mortals must relive their crimes, the Dead Man and Dead Woman must be questioned, and the mortals revealing their secret wrongs.
Another ritual that gets performed is the Dance of Welcome, in which the spirits of the forest perform and deliver monologues. Then the Dance of the Half-Child determines with whom the unborn child will go. Often, rituals, dances, and formal representations stand in for literal events. Indeed, the entire play can be seen as a stringing together of the different formalized rituals that make up the narrative.
A Dance of the Forests Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Dance of the Forests is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.