Soyinka’s early play The Road offers him a mirror through which he looks at, examines critically as well as laughs at the faults foibles and pretensions in emergent African societies. This is of course a very familiar concern in all genres of African Literature. Wole Soyinka is therefore not out of place in preoccupying himself and his readers or audiences with it in his play The Road
The Road assembles a ragtag band of thugs, would-be lorry drivers and layabouts who construct a shantytown near a used motor parts store. Presiding over this store and influencing if not leading this motley gang is a former Anglican lay-reader and Sunday School teacher who has assumed the title of Professor. As he wanders the roads of which he is the professor apparently, he searches for auto parts from wreckages emanating from accidents.
Though this play lacks a linear narrative flow it engages the audience well on the myriad issues bedeviling emerging Modern African societies: poor urban planning, rural-urban migration, unemployment, poverty, vagrancy, delinquency and corruption. Soyinka thus combines social commentary, bawdy comedy, and poetic philosophical inquiry with a caustic satirizing of a heartlessly materialistic and pretentious society.
The prevalence of coercion and repression in running modern African societies is suggested .through Chief-In-Town and his recruitment of thugs to serve as bodyguards for political meetings. We are thus given a glimpse into the violent political methods by which African political parties endeavour to keep themselves perpetually in power, a phenomenon which seems to have persisted in Nigeria even up to recently.
Corruption, another feature of contemporary African societies, is portrayed. Corruption is embodied in the person of the policeman, Particulars Joe, who receives bribes from drivers who contravene the law, looks out for more bribes in other unexpected places. He shares hemp with the political thugs even whilst still in uniform. Ironically he who should be at the helm of maintaining law and order is the one who initiates its violation. The society presented in the play then strikes one as veering on anarchy with no one trying to uphold the law. Drivers, for instance, violate the law by buying forged licenses and driving without going through the necessary instruction and training. As a consequence deaths occur frequently on the roads. The corruption is pervasive, seeping through all areas even through the so-called crème de la crème whose depraved moral Samson satirizes here:
Now I want you to take the car – the long one – and
Drive along the Marina at two O’clock. All the fine girls
Just coming from offices, the young and tender faces
Fresh from school – them lift to my house. Old
Bones like me must put fresh tonic in his blood.
Samson in parodying the wealthy whom he mock-envies, blames the growing moral degeneration of the young on them. For as it seems normal for him as a wealthy man to behave so, he would send his sleek car cruising along the Marina at two o’clock when all the young girls would be out of school so that he could collect all the fine ones among them and lift them on to his house to gratify his lecherous desires. One could imagine the untold social problems such reckless activities create. But when we learn later of the criteria for upward mobility we should expect the worst outcomes. There is the case of the messenger who became a senator after winning ‘thirteen thousand’ with which he bought half the houses in Apapa.
Religion itself is of an equally if not more debased and superficial nature. Little spirituality is evident in its procedures. Professor’s display of vanity in his past life in the church indicates what propels people to fight for important posts there. Saluki thus aptly puts it: ‘Dat one no to church, na high society.’ The Professor had been a showy man in his church life placing more emphasis on his speech delivery and his pretence of holiness even to the extent of bowing at every mention of Jesus and self-righteously wiping his brow. His pilfering of church funds is another hint of his corruption, and his insincerity to God. The professor typifies a whole set of pretentious and corrupt church officials who are lured on to the call not by spiritual devotion but a cunning desire to increase their wealth. The church has thus lost almost all of its glory – thus becoming like yet another social club. The Professor therefore enters it with a particularly pompous gait thus capturing the congregation’s attention and keeping it until he arrives at his pew. [p162] His vanity is further exposed by his habitually reserving a pew for himself so much so that if even ‘a stranger went and sat in it, the church warden wasted no time driving him out.’ [p162] Thus the whole church is constantly engulfed in bouts from which even the Bishop too is not excluded. He is clearly envious of the greater attention won from the congregation by Professor whose lessons knock his sermon out flat leaving half the church asleep. The other half manages to remain awake whilst the Bishop continues preaching impervious to what was going on by watching Professor taking notes. The materialism, exhibitionism and falsity motivating people to be active in church is thus exposed:
In the absence of spirituality to redeem such a society from the depths of materialism and corruption, decay is most imminent.. This society is ruled by a special kind of heartless materialism in which people thrive on trading on other’s misfortunes. Professor for instance, creates accidents through which he trades on the possessions of the victims. So dehumanized have they become that they are shorn of all forms of human compassion. Ties of kinship or friendship do not obstruct the course of this callous business. When Sergeant Burma realized that the driver of the crashed vehicle from which he was strippling parts was an old comrade from the front, it was only then he showed Christian charity alright but not without helping himself as usual. Sergeant Burma only took his friend’s body to the mortuary after he had stopped to remove all the tyres from the vehicle. The social problems emanating therefrom are myriad including juvenile delinquency, crime, thuggery and violence as evident in the reckless activities of Tokyo Kid and his gang of hemp-smokers.. This is also manifested in the thieving Professor and many others indulge in.
Kongi’s rule and the road share destructive potentials. Kongi could be seen as representing the modern paranoid dictator. Instead of being a procreative force he engenders and spreads destruction, decapitating his opponents and showing no genuine interest in the fertility rites of the soil and of the flesh. Thus in Hemlock he is regarded as a monster which should have been scorched before it achieved its full destructive proportions. This destructive potential is also invested in the road which normally brings progress and development to hitherto remote and inaccessible areas. The road is presented as a cunning and timely monster patiently and quietly waiting to pounce on an unwary victim and gobble it up ravenously. The road users – drivers, their touts, their passengers and general hangers-on are perpetually exposed to death on the roads for as is suggested: ‘The road and the spider lie gloating, then the fly buzzes along like a happy fool,’ [p178] The happy fool who buzzes along oblivious of the fact that it is running happily into a gruesome end represents aptly the gruesome fate awaiting the hapless road-users. The precariousness of their existence is further amplified through Kotonou’s rhetorical but grim catalogue of departed heroes whose passing heroism is ironic for their death has no noble cause.
Where is Zorro who never returned from the North
Without a basket of guinea-fowl eggs? Where is
Akanni the lizard? I have not seen any other
Tout who would stand on the lorry’s roof and
Play the samba at sixty miles an hour.
Where is Sigidi Ope? Where is Sapele Joe
Who took on six policemen at the crossing
And knocked them all into the river?
Overshot the pontoon, went down with
His lorry [p 157]
All these devotees of the road after a whole life living off it and worshipping it have been consumed by it and thus transformed into ironic though legendary heroes. One such scene is vividly captured by Professor with all its horrors: ‘come then, I have a new wonder to show you… a madness where a motorcar throws itself against a tree – Gbram! And showers of crystal flying in broken souls.’ Then moving on to an even grimmer note, he emphasizes ‘the quick onset of physical decay after death.’ Which he is quick to admit ‘is a market of stale meat, noisy with flies and quarrelsome with old women.’ [p.158-9]
Much further on in racy language, Say Tokyo Kid recalls an accident scene:
You know, just last week I pass an accident in
The road. There was a dead dame and you know
What her pretty head was spread with? Yam
Porrage. See what I mean? A swelldame is gonna
Kin smear her head in yam porrage. [p 172-3]
Professor also exploits the hazards of the road for his own personal gratification irregardless of the resulting suffering. He cares less as to whether those he issues licenses to are qualified to drive or not thus being another contributing factor to the increasing dangers on the road.
The road’s destructiveness – devouring human lives in huge numbers – is indeed a reflection of the destruction and dog-eat-dog acquisitiveness we see in all the characters. And again they could be seen as mirroring a cruel and corrupt society which makes no room for creation or development. Through biting satire Soyinka registers his distaste for such ugly aspects of modern African societies..
The ending of the play leaves no hope in us for the purging of such societies. The Professor’s perennial searching for a perverted version of the Word is a clear indication of the reversed values of the modern African society. In the end he attains the way – death. This suggests that the road of modern society, just like the physical road, can only lead to destruction, Thus before dying the Professor passes on his insight:
Be even like the road itself. Flatten your
bellies with the hunger of an unpropitious day, power
your hands with the knowledge of death….Breathe
like the road. Be the road. Coil yourself in dreams,
lay flat in treachery and deceit and at the moment
of a trusting step, rear your head and strike the
traveler in his confidence, swallow him whole, or break
him on the earth. Spread a broad sheet for death with
the length and the time of the sun between you until the
one face multiplies and the one shadow is cast by all
Jones Eldred Durosimi, The Writings of WOLE SOYINKA Heinemann
Moore Gerald WOLE SOYINKA Holmes and Meier Pub. 1971
Soyinka Wole The Road in COLLECTED PLAYS2 Oxford University