Death and the King's Horseman

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Death and the King’s Horseman is a stage play written by Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. Set in colonial Nigeria and combining elements of traditional Yoruba ritual forms and classical Greek tragedy, the play revolves around the attempts of a Yoruban village chiefe to commit ritual suicide against the efforts of the local British magistrate. Although not widely performed today, Death and the King’s Horseman is considered to be one of Soyinka’s most famous and best regarded works.


Plot Summary

The play opens with Elesin Oba, a local village chieftan as he walks through the local market, followed by a praise-singer. The king has died recently, and, as a horseman to the king, Elesin is to commit ritual suicide so that he may accompany him to the afterlife. The market women shower Elesin with praises and garb him. A young girl catches Elesin's eye, and although she is already betrothed, Elesin convinces the market women that he should be allowed to consummate a marriage with her on his final night. The second act begins immediately following the first, and we are introduced to the British District Officer, Simon Pilkings and his wife, Jane. They are dressed in traditional Yoruba egungun costumes in preparation for a European-style costume ball. Their costumes frighten Amusa, Pilking's African sergeant, who comes bearing news of Elesin's planned suicide. Pilkings badgers his Catholic servant Joseph to explain the meaning of the ritual drummings, which seem to celebrate both a marriage and a death.

Amusa arrives at the market to arrest Elesin, but he and his deputies are chased off by the women of the market, who satirize British conversation quite successfully. Elesin and his new bride emerge to announce the consummation of their marriage and the beginning of the final steps of his suicide begin in ritualistic fashion. Meanwhile, at the ball, Pilkings and his wife are successful in attracting the attention of His Royal Highness, the Prince of England, but are interrupted by a message from Amusa warning that the market women are beginning to riot. Pilkings goes to address the situation, while his wife encounters Olunde, the chieftain's son, who had previously left for England to study medicine. Jane and Olunde engage in a conversation about the contradictions that exist in European and African societies, and Olunde's decision to uphold his cultural heritage, despite his desire to study Western medicine. As Olunde prepares to leave, Pilkings and an enchained Elesin arrive on the scene, leading to a confrontation between father and son.

In the final scene of the play, Elesin is imprisoned in a cell, watched by Pilkings, police officers, and his young wife. Pilkings attempts to solicit Elesin's thanks for saving his life, but the chieftain insists that, by interrupting the ceremony, Pilkings has thrown the natural order of the world into chaos. Their conversation is eventually interrupted by the arrival of Iyaloja, the matriarch of village women, who scolds Elesin for failing to uphold his honor and fulfulling his duty, implying that the failure of the ritual suicide was not entirely due to Pilkings's intervention. Pilkings accuses Iyaloja of unnecessarily agitating the fallen chieftain, and tries to get her to leave. However, she instead announces the impending arrival of a "burden" brought on by Pilkings. This burden proves to be the corpse of Olunde, who has committed the ritual suicide in his father's place. When Pilkings uncovers the body, Elesin hangs himself in his cell with his chains. However, it is implied that, since his son has taken his position in the king's funerary party, Elesin will be forced to eat only the scraps leftover from the banquet in the afterlife.

Biography of Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka speaking at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University on Darfur in 2006.[1]

Early Life

Wole Soyinka was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1934 with the given name Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka. His father was the headmaster of a local missionary school, and Soyinka was exposed to literature at an early age. He cites the intellectual atmosphere created by the presence of his father and his friends as a major influence on his later academic career. [2] Soyinka attended the University College at Ibadan in 1952 before moving on to the University of Leeds and began becoming involved in theatre.

Literary Career and Political Activism

Although his earliest plays (The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel) were published while Soyinka was still in England, Soyinka would return to Nigeria on a Rockefeller Research Fellowship to pursue theatre. As his reputation as a dramatist rose, Soyinka became increasingly active in the politics of the nascent Nigerian state. He was especially critical of African strongmen and government corruption, but also critiqued the "Negritude" movement founded by the Senegalese poet Leopolld Senghor.

Imprisonment and Exile

When Nigeria was thrown into civil war in 1966 following consecutive coups by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu and General Yakubu Gowan, Soyinka became involved in attempts to broker peace with secessionist Biagran rebels. However, Soyinka's role in secret talks with the Biafran leader Victor Banjo led him to be branded a traitor by the Nigerian government and imprisoned for 22 months.

Following his release at the conclusion of the civil war, Soyinka traveled to Europe and the United States before returning to Nigeria in 1975. It was during this time that he penned some of his most famous works, including Death and the King's Horseman and the autobiographical Ake: The Years of Childhood. However, his continued criticism of the Nigerian government made it difficult for him to stay in his home country. Despite wining the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, Soyinka was forced flee Nigeria in 1994, and was charged with treason by the government of Sani Abacha in 1997, and continues to be critical of former president Olusegun Obasanjo.[3]

Historical Context

A map of the region traditionally encompassing Yorubaland.[4]

The Yoruba are the predominant ethnic group of Nigeria, and one of the largest in West Africa. Traditionally, Yorubaland extends from the southern coast of Nigeria into modern day Togo and Benin. The eponymous Yoruba language is in the same West African language family as Igbo, Edo, and Idoma. Although the language exists in many local dialects, a cultural center developed around the city of Oyo, whose dialect quickly became the lingua franca.[5] From the 11th to the 18th century, Oyo serves as the capital of a large Oyo empire. [6]

In the early 1800's, British explorers begin venturing south from the Sahara to Lake Chad and northern Nigeria. In 1825, the first British explorers land on the coast by Lagos and begin trekking northwards along the Niger River. Although initial attempts to establish trade routes through Nigeria are unsuccessful, by 1851, the British Navy has sacked Lagos to depose of a pro-slavery monarchy, and the region is formally declared a British colony ten years later, and is awarded in a charter to the Royal Niger Company.

The company's inability to eliminate the unsavory practices of slave trading and human sacrifice leads to increased government involvement, and by 1900, the Royal Niger Company's charter is revoked, and the British government assumes direct control of Nigeria. To pacify the diverse peoples of Nigeria and unite them in a single entity, the British High Commissioner Frederick Lugard adopts a policy of indirect rule, allowing each region to retain a native chief who is cooperative with British rule and manages the day-to-day governance of the area.[6]

In his introduction, Soyinka notes that Death and the King’s Horseman is based on a historical event. Duro Ladipo, a Yoruba dramatist who wrote in his native language, penned a traditional Yoruba drama based on the story of Olori Elesin entitled Oba Waja (The King is Dead) in 1964, likely influencing Soyinka's own interpretation ten years later.

Yoruba Deities and Cosmology

A group of egungun dancers dressed in traditional costumes made of cloth and various embroidered and painted textiles[7]

Yoruba religion is pantheistic, with hundreds of spirits and gods, known as orisha, of varying power and significance. While some of these spirits are believed to correspond to cosmological phenomenon such as the creation of the world or thunder and lightning, others have more mundane or everyday associations and are best described as spirits of nature. Additionally, the Yoruba believe the spirits of the dead continue to live on, and great individuals may become deified as gods after death. Derek Wright describes Yoruba faith exhibiting "animist pragmatism," in which phenomenon can have both scientific and spiritual explanations.[8]

The orisha, or individual gods may be onceived either as deified ancestors or as natural forces, and as minions or manifestations of the same divine energy source: they are all shards of the original godhead, and all humans carry a fragment of an orisha that determines their essence and makes them responsive to that particular god. Underlying Yoruba pragmatism is a deep conviction of the fundamental unity of all beings and the interpenetraation of all earthly substance, what Soyinka calls "integrated essentiality" or "the animist interfusion of all matter and consciousness."
The totalist worldview of the Yoruba has no difficulty in conceiving of lightning both as a stream of electrons and as an expression of the god Sango's will, or of smallpox as a microscopic virus and the work of the god Shopona, and instictively absorbs science and technology into religion and mythology, treating phenomena that are radically dissimilar to the European mind as part of the same fabric of existence.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade brought Yoruba beliefs to the New World, where deities such as Ogun became incorporated into Haitian Voudoun.[9]

Ancestor worship plays an important role in Yoruba religion, best illustrated through the practice of egungun, a festival meant to worship and honor the dead. Because the Yoruba believe that the spirits of their ancestors play a constant influence in their lives, the egungun are both respected and feared. The men of the village dress in elaborate costumes that disguise their identities and infuse them with the power of the egungun, performing dances and singing praises and hymns. However, the physical costume is believed to hold no influence - it is only when it is worn by an oje, or seasoned artist, that the ogungun comes to life.[7]

Oludare Olajubu argues that egungun are a form of oral poetry, as the chants and dances follow a well defined structure. He defines multiple types of egungun peformers: alabebe, egungun who only dance; paaraka, egungun who chase after children and youths, alagbo, those involved in ritual prayers, and onidan, those who combine dancing with poetry recitation and drama. Among the onidan, there are multiple archetypes portrayed, such as Iya Omo, the mother, or Oyinbo, the white man who speaks with a difficult-to-understand nasally voice.[10]

Gods of the Yoruba Pantheon

In the Yoruba pantheon, Olorun or Olodumare is the chief god, the almighty creator and giver of life. However, the Yoruba do not explicitly worship or make sacrifices to Olorun, and there are no shrines in his honor. Olorun is considered to be too overwhelming and inaccessible for mere mortals to understand or appreciate.[9]

In an alternative creation myth, the world was created by a pair of gods, Obatala and his wife Odudua. In some stories, Olorun created the world and left it to Obatala to govern, while in others, their roles are reversed. Traditionally, Obatala is scene as a sculptor-god who shaped human's bodies, while Olorun gave them the breath of life.

Although he is not considered the most powerful of their deities, Shango, the god of thunder and lightning, is the primary focus of worship in Yoruba culture. Legend states that Shango was formerly a mortal king of Oyo, their ancient capital (and the setting of “Death and the King’s Horseman”). After inadvertently killing his family with a magical charm that could create lightning, Shango hanged himself and was reincarnated as a god. His chief wife is Oya, the personification of the Niger River.

Ogun is the patron god of war, hunting, and metallurgy, but also poetry, simultaneously representing the creative and destructive aspects of society. In traditional Yoruba courts, witnesses swear oaths on Ogun’s name – it is believed that if one violates such an oath, Ogun’s retribution will be swift and terrible. Soyinka identifies himself and his writing with Ogun, as the duality of the blacksmith god illustrate that all social change has positive and negative aspects. Soyinka considers his writing to be realist, and resists attempts to classify his works as optimistic or pessimistic about Nigeria’s political and social prospects, as he explains in an interview with John Agetua:[11]

You must know of course about my fascination with the symbol figure of my society -- Ogun. He represents this duality of man; the creative, destructive aspect. And I think this is the reality of society, the reality of man, and that one would be foolish not to recognize this. I cannot sentimentalize revolution. I recognize the fact that it very often represents loss. But at the same time I affirm that it is necessary to accept the confrontations which society creates, to anticipate them and try to plan a programme in advance before them.

The realism which pervades some of my work and which has been branded pessimistic is nothing but a very square, sharp look. I have depicted scenes of devastation, I have depicted the depression in the minds even of those who are committed to these changes and who are actively engaged in these changes simply because it would be starry-eyed to do otherwise. I think one should not promise what is not there. Only one thing can be guaranteed and that is the principle of accepting the challenges of life, of society in the same way as nature does. Those who are expecting a one dimensional statement from me as a writer are looking for a cheap injection of optimism in their nervous system. What I'm saying is that we must all accept the negative potential of action and then transcend this. And this is why I use Ogun as a representative symbol because it represents the Promethean reality of our existence.

Eshu, also known as Legba, is the trickster god of Yoruba mythology. In Death and the King's Horseman, Soyinka refers to him as "Esu-Elegbara."[12]

Blending European and African Influences

Traditional Yoruban Drama

Although Yoruban folk theatre was not formally standardized until the efforts of Hubert Ogunde in the 20th century, traditional Yoruban religious festivals have existed for centuries. Derek Wright notes that traditional Yoruban drama tend to be social occassions, involving the entire community in a "humanistic celebration of life."[8] The most basic form of a Yoruba festival performance is question-and-response between the animated ancestral spirits and their living descendants present. The masked egungun are not actors representing orisha spirits - rather they have been possessed and transformed into the deities they are meant to personify. As Wright explains:[8]

The ritual bipartism featured in the model of the egungun runs deep in Yoruba thinking about drama. On the one hand there is the secular masquerader, his grotesquely imitative mask a link between himself, his role, and his audience; on the other hand is the religious celebrant, his abstractkly expressive mask a sign of the bond between man and spirit. The former, like the Greek hypokrites,studies and dons his mask in the hope of finding himself in the role; the latter hopes to lose himself, to be dissolved in the personality of the invading god or spirit, and to approximate to its otherworldly being through the dance of possession.

Interpreting Death and the King's Horseman

Soyinka considers his theatrical form to be a blending of "the festival-folk hybrids of Hubert Ogunde and Ladipo with the more tecnically sophisticated literary drama."[8] In an interview with The Guardian, Soyinka explains that his inspiration for writing Death and the King’s Horseman came while residing as a fellow at Churchill College and experiencing rebellious sentiments against a marble bust of Winston Churchill, the college namesake and national hero, but also an important figure in British colonialism. As Soyinka explains, “I had an overwhelming desire to push it and watch it crash.”[13]

However, Soyinka cautions against interpretations of his work as simply a “clash of cultures.” Rather, he suggest that the goal of his play is to transcend the “us-versus-them” framework of cultural exchange and allow for mutual understanding between European and African cultures. Soyinka notes that African vs. European and traditional vs. modern mentalities enforce an artificial equality between the two cultures being compared.[14] As he warns in the Guardian interview:[13]

I find it necessary to caution the would-be produce of this play against a sadly familiar reductionist tendency. At the time, the tendency – in the theatre, the cinema, and the novel – was to present everything that dealt with things outside of western culture as being understandable only as a ‘clash of cultures’. This covered everything and it encouraged analytical laziness.

Role of Theatre in Soyinka's Work

Although he has penned novels, poems, and essays, Soyinka considers himself to primarily be a playwright. He believes that theatre occupies a unique position amongst the arts, as it can foster greater degrees of reflection and dialogue between the medium and the audience. The dynamism of theatre allows it to rapidly respond to an ever-changing world. Additionally, Soyinka refers to theatre's ability to engage an entire audience or community at once in a single shared experience. He argues that this makes theatre an ideal medium as instrument of social change or revolution. In the following video clip, Harry Kiesler of the University of California - Berkeley discusses with Soyinka his opinion on art, literature, and theatre.[15] A transcript of a selected portion of the interview follows.

Kriesler: You said that, “Theatre is more than text. Theatre is the most revolutionary art form.” What did you mean?
Soyinka: Well simple, because it’s so prone to self-transformation. It changes all the time; it responds to atmosphere. There’s kind of a dynamic quality to theatre, and that dynamic quality expresses itself in relation to, first of all, the environment in which it is being staged, and the audience, the nature of the audience, the quality of the audience, the space, the mutual space of interaction between audience and stage. And no two performances are ever the same. Theatre can respond immediately – what I call guerilla theatre, for instance, some people call it living theatre, some people call it newspaper theatre, whatever it is, street theatre – it can respond immediately both to events and the changing pattern of events. It responds to the changing dynamics of the situation.
Kriesler: And it’s really the tension between the performers on stage and the audience, watching with the hope of some kind of a transformation that comes about.
Soyinka: That nebulous territory, which is constantly being traversed by lines of force from both sides. I think that’s what really creates the magic of theatre.
Kriesler: And for you – and let me quote you – I think you said that, “Theatre is the most social of the art forms.” What did you mean by that?
Soyinka: Well, let’s look at painting for instance. You go into a gallery and you respond to the artworks in the gallery, but it’s a one-to-one. Yes, you can discuss a painting with a nearby observer or afterwards, and that’s quite normal. In that sense, there’s a social extension of this individual communication between a painting and an individual – a concept. The same thing happens; there’s a kind of absorption by every individual on different levels of emotion, response to a concept. But theatre, because of its nature – both text, images, multimedia effects – has a wider base of communication with an audience. That’s why I call it the most social of the various art forms.

In his essay "Theatre in African Traditional Cultures: Survival Patterns," Soyinka argues that dramatic theatre can play an important role in a culture's attempt to survive destruction by an outside invasive force. He notes the role that egungun played in Oyo culture's resistance of Islamic influences from the north, and the subsequent attempts of Muslim (and later Christian) imperialists to eliminate traditional Yoruba ritual dance. Furthermore, Soyinka suggests that the medium of drama can shift in response to the needs of the times, contracting to become festival performance or oral poetry as needed.[16]

Performances and Critical Reception

The Washington Shakespeare Company's 2006 adaptation of Death and the King's Horseman, starring Felipe Harris, Ian Armstrong, and Nanna Ingvarsson [17]

Although not often performed in the West, notable productions of Death and the King’s Horseman include an interpretation by the Washington Shakespeare Theatre directed by John Vreeke in 2006 and a production the National Theatre in London in 2009. Soyinka himself has directed two productions of the play – one in Chicago in 1979 and a Lincoln Center adaptation in 1987.

However, while Soyinka’s play has been praised for its literary merits, productions of Death and the King’s Horseman have received far less critical acclaim. Because of its unique blend of African and Western theatrical traditions, it is less accessible to lay audiences unfamiliar with Yoruban culture, a difficulty that Soyinka himself has acknowledged. He tells the Guardian’s Andrew Gumbel about the challenges he faced as director of the Chicago production of Death and the King’s Horseman, even when working with African-American actors.[13]

I told them they were just as ignorant of African culture, African politics, African rhythms as everyone else. When I told them they couldn’t dance, that shocked them. They took it as the greatest insult.

Some reviewers have criticized the degree to which Soyinka has decided to forgo balance in his depiction of the two cultures, citing the unambiguous superiority of Olunde’s arguments over the district officer’s wife’s in their conversation.[18]

However, theatre critics do praise Soyinka’s ability to portray both sides earnestly, especially how he gives the character of Jane Pilkings enough material and sensitivity for a capable actress to work with.[19]


  1. Ken Gewertz. "Soyinka decries lack of outrage over Darfur 'pogrom'."
  2. "Topical Excerpts from Interviews with Wole Soyinka." Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts.
  3. Eldred Durosimi Jones. Wole Soyinka. Twayne Publishers: New York, 1973.
  4. Ron Johnson. Humboldt State University
  5. J.S. Eades. "The Yoruba Today."
  6. 6.0 6.1 "History of Nigeria" History World.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Egungun Masquerade." Brighton and Hove Museums.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Derek Wright. "Soyinka and the Yoruba Worldview." Wole Soyinka Revisited
  9. 9.0 9.1 Hal Horton. "Yoruba Religion and Myth." Postcolonial Web.
  10. Oludare Olajubu. "Iwi Egungun Chants: An Introduction" Research in African Literatures. Spring 1974
  11. John Agetua. When the Man Died: Views, Reviews, and Interview on Wole Soyinka's Controversial Book.
  12. Wole Soyinka. Act I, "Death and the King’s Horseman."
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Andrew Gumbel. “Wole Soyinka on how he came to write Death and the King's Horseman.” Guardian. 8 April 2009.
  14. Wole Soyinka. Author’s Note. Death and the King’s Horseman.
  15. Conversations with History: Wole Soyinka. UC Berkeley.
  16. Wole Soyinka. Art, Dialogue, and Outrage. Pantheon Books: New York, 1988
  17. Jayne Blanchard “'Horseman's' culture clash.” Washington Times. 17 February 2006.
  18. Rich See. "Death and the King's Horseman.” DC Review.
  19. Brad Hathaway. “Yoruba Culture Valued in Revival.” Connection. 3 March 2006.
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