Christopher J. Lee

Can African literature offer a sense of guidance through the current pandemic of COVID-19? Articles have circulated online about “pandemic literature”  and the “pandemic imagination,” with the usual suspects being listed, such as The Plague (1948) by Albert Camus, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) by Daniel Defoe, and Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel. A better option may be examples of AIDS literature, such as Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001) by the late South African writer Phaswane Mpe. However, in contrast to these suggestions, let me submit Wole Soyinka’s Madmen and Specialists.

Soyinka’s play was first performed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Connecticut in 1970, with the revised, final version of the play debuting at the University of Ibadan in 1971. The plot emerged from Soyinka’s lengthy imprisonment during the Biafran War from 1967 to 1970—a period of twenty-two months, significant portions of it in solitary confinement, as described in his prison memoir The Man Died (1972). Unlike fellow writers Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo, the latter of whom died fighting for Biafra’s independence, Soyinka did not have personal roots in Biafra, being from southwest Nigeria. Nonetheless, his sentencing was the result of political outspokenness following the military coup in January 1966, the suspension of Nigeria’s constitution, and the civil war that ensued.

Madmen and Specialists is not an obvious nominee for pandemic literature. There is no virus as a plot device. But the title alludes to my reasoning. Soyinka’s work gets at the deeper necropolitics of the current political moment—the power over life and death—that lurks behind the news coverage that has dwelled on the moral depravity of the Trump and Boris Johnson governments  as well as the fate of global capitalism more generally. Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics from 2003, which has since been elaborated in a recent book of the same title, captures a certain existential aspect of the present contagion. Soyinka’s drama offers an illustration of this mortal form of politics and what can happen when they are not actively resisted.

Madmen and Specialists is a morbid and difficult play that defies easy explanation. Critics have compared it to the theater of Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett, due to its compression, political criticism, and taste for the absurd. It accumulates an atmosphere of horror and the grotesque through elements of escalating unreason and eventually cannibalism, which both contribute to a world of seemingly postapocalyptic disorder. Indeed, there is a palpable sense of ordinary, self-conscious reasoning being lost as the story progresses, leaving egos unchained except to their own ambitions. As one of the main characters, the Old Man, says to a minor one, “You have lost the gift of self-disgust.”

There are three central characters: Bero (a medical doctor and the “specialist” of the title), Si Bero (his sister), and the Old Man (their father). There is also a group of Mendicants—Aafaa, Goyi, Blindman, and Cripple—who comprise a degenerate chorus that serves as a stand-in for Nigerian society traumatized by war. Two elder women—Iya Agba and Iya Mate—provide a contrast, symbolizing a residual sense of traditional reason amidst this setting of social deterioration. However, it is Bero who anchors the plot and who, in his professional role as a physician, is suggestive of the necropolitical theme of Soyinka’s story.

The play begins with the Mendicants passing time by throwing dice along the side of a road—a game of chance with body parts being gambled away. It is unclear at first whether there is sarcasm at work or if actual body parts are at stake. The banter among them exhibits a kind of absurdism that sets a tone of misinformation and irrationalism characterizing the remainder of the play.

The plot gains clarity once Bero returns home, from where exactly it is never stated, though it is understood to be situation of war—the character of the Priest receives him as if he were returning from “the seventh outpost of hell.” Bero’s presence is greeted as if common sense itself had arrived back on the scene. However, it soon becomes clear that his experiences away carry with them another kind of perversity. Si Bero welcomes him back with a sense of warmth, explaining how she and the two elder women continued his medical work in his absence. “We heard terrible things. So much evil. Then I would console myself that I earned the balance by carrying on your work,” she says to him. “One thing cancels out another.” Despite her explanation, Bero admonishes her for ignoring his instructions. “Control, sister, control,” he insists. “Power comes from bending Nature to your will. The Specialist they called me, and a specialist is—well—a specialist. You analyze, you diagnose, you… prescribe.”

In the same conversation with Si Bero, it is disclosed that Bero was conscripted into the intelligence service rather than serving as an army doctor—a detail that conveys, however briefly, a hint of Josef Mengele—and, shortly after the arrival of the Priest, it is further revealed that Bero has developed a taste for cannibalism. “I give you the personal word of a scientist,” he affirms. “Human flesh is delicious.” This malevolent turn is explained by Bero as their father’s doing, a transgression sanctified through the fanciful fabrication of a new god named As—a deity drawn from the presence of the literal word “as” in religious scripture, which Bero defends to his sister with a tone of seriousness and cynicism.

The second act—there are only two—takes place primarily in “the surgery” in the basement of the house, a provisional analogy to hell and its underworld. Bero is hiding his father, the Old Man, there. This is a world of men and argument. Bero and the Old Man quarrel throughout the second act with the Mendicants serving as their audience. Toward the end of the first act, Bero told his sister that the Mendicants are, in fact, former patients of their father. As Bero relays, “Father’s assignment was to help the wounded readjust to the pieces and remnants of their bodies…. Instead he began to teach them to think, think, THINK! Can you picture a more treacherous deed than to place a working mind in a mangled body?”

Bero consequently becomes the voice of reason in the second act as a generational struggle unfolds. The plot devolves into a heated argument about family, belief, and, ultimately, power. “You are certified insane,” Bero says at one point in confrontation with his father. “Your fate creates no anxiety in anyone. Take a look at your companions—your humanity.” The Old Man’s curt reply is, “I do not harbor illusions. You do.” In a more poignant moment of filial loyalty, albeit tempered with anger, Bero explains to his father, “They would have killed you, you know that? If I hadn’t had you hidden away they would have killed you slowly.” The Old Man, however, interprets Bero’s motives for protecting him as more self-interested, designed to conceal Bero’s own errors. “I am the last proof of the human in you,” he replies. “The last shadow. Shadows are tough things to be rid of.”

Amidst this family quarrel, there is discussion of the broader African context. The Blindman gives a speech in the second act, saying, “What though the wind of change is blowing over this entire continent, our principles and traditions—yes, must be maintained. For we are threatened. Yes, we are indeed threatened.” This moment is intended to be half serious, half farcical. Soyinka’s own dramaturgical notes instruct that “the speech should be varied with the topicality and locale of the time.” What is unmistakable, however, is the embedded irony in this monologue, whether it is delivered with sarcasm or sobriety. Unlike many postcolonial stances, Soyinka’s work stresses how the source of moral decline is internal, not external—undoubtedly a veiled commentary on Nigeria’s politics of the time.  

Yet, within this frenzy of words and dispute, Madmen and Specialists is ultimately a story of “broken bodies” and “wandering souls” to use Soyinka’s descriptive words. It is about malignant masculinity, the politicization of expertise, and the channeling of trauma into false idols, which can result in further cycles of madness and the atrocities that can follow. There is no evenly paced climax or life-affirming resolution—the Old Man is shot by Bero, with the play abruptly ending thereafter. The two-act structure itself suggests a logic of amputation—a cutting off of a third act and with it any sense of a reassuring finality or future.

It is for these reasons—the madness, the disorder, the absence of leadership, and, finally, the unanswerable despair—that leads me to think of Madmen and Specialists during this time of COVID-19 and global uncertainty. Soyinka’s play is an allegory of what happens when politics is reduced to a necropolitical essence, to decisions over who gets to live and who gets to die. It is clear that Soyinka is working through the trauma of the Biafran War and his time in prison in both inward and outward ways. On the one hand, he is careful to avoid the seductions of easy political criticism. At one point the Old Man rejects such maneuvers, remarking, “The pious pronouncements. Manifestos. Charades. At the bottom of it all humanity choking in silence.” On the other hand, Soyinka understands the importance for writers and artists to engage in such harrowing issues, even in the face of identifiable risks to recapitulate trauma. As one of the elder women, Iya Agba, says in the first act, “Poison has its uses too. You can cure with poison if you use it right. Or kill.”

To be clear, Madmen and Specialists is not an encouraging story of political will, as in Camus’s novel, nor is it a story of about the stigma of disease, as in Mpe’s novel. The confusion and anarchism that Soyinka lets reign ultimately symbolizes the inconclusiveness of attempting to reason through unreason, the inability or futility of rationalizing something that is irrational—whether a despotic government or, in this moment, a global viral pandemic in the face of political folly and ineptitude. The death of Bero’s father ends their argument, but only in a physical sense, not an intellectual one. An arrival at a comforting truth remains elusive, which is to say there may not be one—only the pessimistic fact of irreparable disaster. This may be the only truth we can hold on to at this moment. As Iya Agba says to Bero at one point, “Your mind has run further than the truth. I see it searching, going round and round in darkness. Truth is always too simple for a desperate mind.”

Christopher J. Lee is an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He has published five books on different aspects of colonialism, decolonization, and insurgent politics, including Making a World after Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives (2019 [2010]) and Frantz Fanon: Toward a Revolutionary Humanism (2015). His next book is an edited collection of writing by the South African writer and activist Alex La Guma (1925-85) entitled Culture and Liberation: Exile Writings, 1966-1985 (London and Calcutta: Seagull, 2021).