The road’s potentialities for both progress and destruction in Wole Soyinka’s Play The Road
Soyinka’s first work The way it offers him a mirror through which he looks, critically examines and laughs at the feeble failings and pretensions of emerging African societies. This is, of course, a very familiar concern in all genres of African literature. Wole Soyinka, therefore, is not out of place in preoccupying himself and his readers or audiences in his work. The way
The way assembles a ragtag gang of thugs, wannabe truckers, and slackers who build a slum near a used engine parts store. Presiding over this shop and influencing, if not leading, this ragtag gang, is a former lay Anglican lector and Sunday school teacher who has assumed the title of Professor. As he wanders the roads that he is apparently a teacher of, he searches for car parts among the debris emanating from accidents.
Although this work lacks a linear narrative flow, it engages the audience well in the myriad of problems that beset emerging modern African societies: poor urban planning, rural-urban migration, unemployment, poverty, vagrancy, crime, and corruption. Soyinka thus combines social commentary, bawdy comedy, and poetic philosophical inquiry with a caustic satirization of a pretentious and ruthless materialistic society.
The prevalence of coercion and repression in the functioning of modern African societies through Chief-In-Town and his recruitment of thugs to serve as bodyguards at political meetings is suggested. In this way, we can glimpse the violent political methods with which African political parties strive to stay perpetually in power, a phenomenon that seems to have persisted in Nigeria even until recently.
Corruption is portrayed, another characteristic of contemporary African societies. Corruption is embodied in the person of the cop, Particulars Joe, who takes bribes from drivers who break the law, looks for more bribes in other unexpected places. He shares hemp with political thugs even when he’s still in uniform. Ironically, whoever should be in charge of maintaining law and order is the one who initiates its violation. The society presented in the play gives the impression of turning towards anarchy without anyone trying to uphold the law. Drivers, for example, break the law by buying counterfeit licenses and driving without going through the necessary instruction and training. As a consequence, deaths frequently occur on the roads. Corruption is pervasive and runs through all areas, even through the so-called crème de la crème, whose depraved morality Samson lampoons here:
Now I want you to take the car – the long one – and
Driving along the Marina at two o’clock. all the good girls
Just out of the offices, the young and tender faces
Fresh out of school – take them to my house. Old
Bones like me must put cool tonic in their blood.
Samson, parodying the rich who are mocked by envy, blames them for the growing moral degeneracy of the young. Because since it seems normal for him, as a rich man, to behave that way, he would send his fancy car around the marina at two o’clock, when all the young girls would be out of school, so that he could pick up all the beautiful ones among them and bring them to his house to satisfy his lustful desires. One could imagine the incalculable social problems that such reckless activities create. But when we learn later about the criteria for upward mobility, we must expect the worst results. There is the case of the messenger who became a senator after earning ‘thirteen thousand’ with which he bought half the houses in Apapa.
Religion itself is of a similarly degraded and superficial nature, if not more so. Little spirituality is evident in their procedures. The professor’s display of vanity in his past life in the church indicates what drives people to fight for important positions there. Saluki aptly puts it this way: ‘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 and his claim to holiness, to the point of bowing at every mention of Jesus and wiping his forehead with an air of self-righteousness. His theft of church funds is another indication of his corruption and his insincerity with God. The professor typifies a whole set of pretentious and corrupt church officials who are drawn to the call not out of spiritual devotion but out of a shrewd desire to increase their wealth. The church has thus lost almost all its glory, thus becoming just another social club. The Professor therefore enters with a particularly pompous gait thus capturing the congregation’s attention and holding it until he reaches his pew. [p162] His vanity is further exposed by the fact that he habitually reserves a pew for himself, so much so that even if “a stranger came and sat on it, the church keeper wasted no time in kicking him out.” [p162] Thus, the entire Church is constantly submerged in ends from which not even the bishop is excluded. He is clearly envious of the increased attention gained in the congregation by the professor whose lectures topple his sermon by putting half the church to sleep. The other half manage to stay awake as the bishop continues to preach unaware of what was going on by watching the professor take notes. The materialism, exhibitionism, and falsehood that motivate people to be active in the church are thus exposed:
In the absence of spirituality to redeem such a society from the depths of materialism and corruption, decline is most imminent. This society is ruled by a special brand of ruthless materialism in which people thrive by trading off the misfortunes of others. The professor, for example, creates accidents through which he trades in the possessions of the victims. So dehumanized have they become that they are bereft of all forms of human compassion. The ties of kinship or friendship do not obstruct the course of this insensitive business. When Sergeant Burma realized that the driver of the crashed vehicle he was dismounting from was an old comrade from the front lines, it was then that he showed Christian charity well but not without helping himself as usual. Sergeant Burma only took the body of his friend to the morgue after stopping to remove all the tires from the vehicle. The social problems emanating from there are myriad, including juvenile delinquency, crime, bullying, and violence, as evidenced by the reckless activities of the Tokyo Kid and his hemp-smoking gang. This also manifests in the thieving professor and many others turning themselves in.
The Kongi government and the road share destructive potentials. Kongi could be considered to represent the modern day paranoid dictator. Instead of being a procreative force, he begets and spreads destruction, decapitating his opponents and showing no genuine interest in the fertility rites of soil and flesh. Thus, in Hemlock he is seen as a monster that should have been singed before reaching his full destructive proportions. This destructive potential is also reversed in the way that normally brings progress and development to hitherto remote and inaccessible areas. The road presents itself as a cunning and well-timed monster that waits patiently and silently to pounce on an unsuspecting victim and gobble it up voraciously. The road users – the conductors, their touts, their passengers and their hangers-on in general – are perpetually exposed to death on the tracks because, as suggested: “The track and the spider lie rejoicing, then the fly buzzes like a happy fool.” [p178] The happy fool whizzing along unaware of the fact that he is happily at a dire end aptly represents the dire fate that awaits hapless road users. The precariousness of their existence is further amplified through Kotonou’s rhetorical but grim catalog of departed heroes whose passing heroism is ironic because their deaths have no noble cause.
Where is the Fox that never came back from the North?
Without a basket of guinea fowl eggs? Where is
Akanni the lizard? I have not seen any other
Anyone who climbed on the roof of the truck and
Play the samba at sixty miles an hour.
Where is Sigidi Ope? Where is Sapele Joe?
Who confronted six policemen at the crossing?
And he threw them all into the river?
He overstepped the pontoon, fell with
his truck [p 157]
All these devotees of the path after a lifetime of living by and worshiping it have been consumed by it and thus transformed into ironic yet legendary heroes. One such scene is vividly captured by the Professor with all the horrors of it: ‘Come then, I have a new marvel to show you… a madness where a car is thrown into a tree-Gbram! And rains of crystal flying in the broken souls.’ Then, turning to an even more somber note, he emphasizes “the rapid onset of physical decay after death.” Which he is quick to admit ‘is a rancid meat market, noisy with flies and rowdy with old women’. [p.158-9]
Much later in pungent language, Say Tokyo Kid recalls an accident scene:
You know, last week I had an accident in
The way. There was a dead lady and you know
What was her pretty head smeared with? sweet potato
studying. See what I mean? A great lady is going to
Kin smears his head in yam porrage. [p 172-3]
The professor also exploits the dangers of the path for his own personal gratification, regardless of the resulting suffering. It cares less whether or not those it licenses are qualified to drive, which is another contributing factor to the increasing dangers on the road.
The destructiveness of the road, which devours human lives in large numbers, is in fact a reflection of the destruction and greed that we see in all the characters. And again, they could be seen as a reflection of a cruel and corrupt society that leaves no room for creation or development. Through biting satire, Soyinka records his disgust at such ugly aspects of modern African societies.
The end of the play leaves no hope in us for the purge of such societies. The Professor’s perennial search for a perverted version of the Word is a clear indication of the inverted values of modern African society. In the end he reaches the path: death. This suggests that the path of modern society, just like the physical path, can only lead to destruction. Thus, before dying, the professor transmits his vision:
Be even like the road itself. flatten your
bellies with the hunger of an unfavorable day, power
your hands with the knowledge of death…. Breathe
as the way be the way. roll up in dreams,
lay in treason and deceit and at the time
With a confident step, I raised my head and hit the
traveler in his trust, swallow him whole, or break
him on earth. He spreads a wide sheet for death with
the longitude and time of the sun between you until the
a face is multiplied and the shadow is cast by all
Jones Elder Durosimi, The writings of WOLE SOYINKA Heinemann
gerald moore WOLE SOYINKA Holmes and Meier Pub. 1971
Soyinka Wole The way in COLLECTED GAMES2 Oxford University