Drama Review – Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka

I relished this 1975 masterpiece written by Africa’s lone Nobel Laureate. Soyinka crafted a brilliant rumination on the culture clash between the British and indigenous Nigerians. Like many great theatrical presentations, real events influenced the tale’s development. Based on the playwright’s ingenious structure of his drama, I wondered if Death and the King’s Horseman more suspenseful than the actual occurrence.

Soyinka did an exceptional job capturing the voices of his characters. In fact when I began reading the play, I felt like I was reading Shakespeare. The first scene opened with characters using a number of Yoruba words and expressions. I had to keep referring to the footnotes at the bottom of the page to follow the dialog. The play commenced with the following exchange.

Praise Singer: Elesin o! Elesin Oba! What tryst is this the cockerel goes to keep with such haste that he must leave his tail behind?

Elesin: A tryst where the cockerel needs no adornment.

Had the playwright and the editors of the Norton Critical Edition not included the glossary, I would’ve been in for a very long afternoon.

The playwright deftly switched to the Queen’s English in the scenes with the District Officer and his wife. Their first lines were as follows.

Pilkings: Is there anyone out there?

Jane: I’ll turn off the gramophone.

When I read this bit of dialog, I connected with the play better. It also concretized for me the true chasm between Yourba culture and that of the British. This disparity served as the central theme of the play, and, of course, actions reinforced it. I do have to give Soyinka major kudos for showing that difference through the dialog. I struggle to write basic English clearly. The fact the author could write two different dialects so well made Death and the King’s Horseman truly memorable.

I mentioned earlier that at times reading this play brought to mind Shakespeare. Having to refer to footnotes wasn’t the only reason. Check out the language in this passage. The leader of the market women delivered it.

Iyaloja: It is the death of war that kills the valiant,
Death of water is how the swimmer goes
It is the death of markets that kills the trader
And death of indecision takes the idle away
The trade of the cutlass blunts its edge
And the beautiful die the death of beauty.
It takes an Elesin to die the death of death…
Only Elesin…dies the unknowable death of death…
Gracefully, gracefully, does the horseman regain
The stables at the end of the day, gracefully…(Page 35)

While the playwright didn’t present these lines in Iambic Pentameter, “the Bard” would still be very proud.

Elesin’s eldest son, Olunde, also delivered some interesting thoughts on the topic. He compared the concept of ritual suicide to that of sending troops into battle during World War II.

Olunde: Is that worse than mass suicide? Mrs. Pilkings, what do you call what those young men are sent to do by their generals in this war? Of course, you have also mastered the art of calling things by names which don’t remotely describe them. (Page 44)

The play’s theme centered on an ancient tradition. Following the death of the king, custom held that the king’s horseman (in this case Elesin) must commit ritual suicide. The British officials discovered this and prevented Elesin from fulfilling his obligation. While I’m not a big supporter ending one’s life due to a ceremonial practice, the playwright did a fantastic job of delineating the dichotomous cultural views on the subject. At one point the British imprisoned Elesin so he couldn’t fulfill his duty. The District Officer threatened the use of deadly force to prevent anyone from freeing him. Iyaloja delivered the following sarcastic line on the subject.

Iyaloja: To prevent one death you will actually make other deaths? Ah, great is the wisdom of the white race. (Page 59)

I really liked reading Death and the King’s Horseman. While Soyinka chose a controversial subject, at least in the West, the text didn’t degenerate into glib expressions or formulaic scenes. While an undergrad I took two classes in African History. I wish that this play had been required reading. It would’ve helped me better understand the cultural expanse between Africans and Europeans.

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