Death and the King’s Horseman

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Death and the King’s Horseman












Death and the King’s Horseman is considered by many to be among the best of Wole Soyinka’ s plays, which number more than a dozen. In awarding Soyinka the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the Swedish Academy drew special attention to Death and the King’s Horseman and Dance of the Forests(1960) as evidence of his talent for combining Yoruban and European culture into a unique kind of poetic drama.

Death and the King’s Horseman play tells the story of Elesin, the king’s horseman, who is expected to commit ritual suicide following the death of the king, but who is distracted from his duty. The story is based on a historical event. In 1946, a royal horseman named Elesin was prevented from committing ritual suicide by the British colonial powers. Soyinka alters the historical facts, placing the responsibility for Elesin’s failure squarely on Elesin’s shoulders, so that he might focus on the theme of duty rather than of colonialism.

The play is well known in the United States, frequently anthologized in textbooks as an example of African drama for students and teachers who are increasingly curious about the literature of other parts of the world. Because of its mingling of Western and Yoruban elements, and because of the universality of its theme of cultural responsibility, Death and the King’s Horseman is seen as a good introduction to African thought and tradition. While it is frequently read, however, the play is seldom performed outside of Africa. Soyinka himself has directed important American productions, in Chicago in 1976 and at Lincoln Center in New York in 1987, but these productions were more admired than loved. Although respected by critics, Soyinka’s plays are challenging for Westerners to perform and to understand, and they have not been popular successes.


Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka was born in Ijebu Isara, near Akeokuta in western Nigeria, on July 13, 1934. His parents, who were from different Yoruba-speaking ethnic groups, were Christians, but other relatives observed African beliefs and deities. Nigeria was at the time a colony of Great Britain. Soyinka grew up, therefore, with exposure to both Yoruban and Western culture. At twenty he left Nigeria to attend the University of Leeds in England, a university with a strong drama program. After graduation he joined London’s Royal Court Theatre as a script-reader and then as a writer, and produced his first play, The Swamp Dwellers, there in 1959.

The next year Nigeria gained independence. Soyinka returned to his homeland, where the Arts Theatre in Ibadan had begun presenting plays by Nigerian playwrights, on Nigerian themes, for Nigerian audiences. Soyinka traveled throughout Nigeria, absorbing all he could of the Yoruba people’s rich oral literature, graphic art, dance, and pageantry. He created plays incorporating traditional Yoruban dance, music, and proverbs with political messages about the need for Nigerians to break free from the influences of Western culture. His third play, A Dance of the Forests(1960), is typical of Soyinka’s early work in several ways: it deals with conflicts between African and colonial values, it is written in English but includes Yoruban materials, and its first productions featured Soyinka as author, producer, director, and performer.

Independent Nigeria has been a troubled country, headed by greedy and corrupt leaders. In 1965, Soyinka was arrested for criticizing the government over the radio, but he was acquitted. In 1967 he criticized the government in print, and was arrested again. This time he was held prisoner without charges for more than two years, spending fifteen months in solitary confinement. After his prison experiences, his work became more political and more strident. In many of his newer plays, he turned his critical gaze away from British colonialism and toward corrupt African leaders. Other plays, including Death and the King’s Horseman(1975), examine weaknesses in Nigerian society as a whole, caused by individuals forgetting their traditions, their culture, and their duty to themselves and to each other.

Soyinka has written more than a dozen plays, as well as poetry, criticism, and an autobiography. In 1986 he became the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award increased his international stature and widened the audience for his political messages. Within Nigeria, Soyinka is a well-known intellectual and political activist, speaking and writing against government corruption. The government has made its displeasure clear, and Soyinka lived in the United States for a few years during the late 1990s after being accused of treason. “Some people think the Nobel Prize makes you bulletproof,” he said in an interview with Ciugu Mwagiru. “I never had that illusion.”


Act I

As Death and the King’s Horseman opens, Elesin Oba walks through a Nigerian village market at the close of the business day. He is followed by an entourage of drummers and praise-singers, and as he makes his way through the market he talks with the praise-singer Olohun-iyo about “the other side” and about the importance of “this day of all days.” Apparently, Elesin Oba is enjoying his last day on earth; at night he will go to join his “great forebears.” The women abandon their work of putting away the goods from their stalls and come to flirt with Elesin, who is obviously a great favorite and well known for his sexual prowess and his many conquests.

Much of the dialogue is written in rhythmic free verse. Elesin dances, and chants the story of the Not-I bird, a bird who fails to fulfill his duty. In an exchange with the crowd, laced with Yoruba proverbs, Elesin promises that when the time comes to fulfill his duty he will not delay. Led by Iyaloja, the mother of the market, the women dress Elesin in their richest cloths and dance around him. Suddenly he is distracted by the sight of a beautiful woman whom he has never seen before. Although she is already engaged to someone else, Elesin demands that he be allowed to take her to bed before he dies. Because Elesin is at the threshold between life and death, he cannot be refused. Iyaloja warns him not to be deterred from his duty, and not to bring trouble on the people who will remain. Then, as the other women prepare the young woman to be Elesin’s bride, Iyaloja leaves to prepare the bridal bed.

Act II

This act occurs during the same evening, at the home of the district officer, Simon Pilkings, a British officer stationed in the British colony of Nigeria. Simon and his wife, Jane, are listening to a tango, dancing in the shadows. Amusa, a Nigerian working for the British as a native administration policeman, arrives and is horrified to see that Simon and Jane are dressed in the clothing traditionally worn for the egungun ceremony, costumes sacred to members of a local religious cult. Simon has confiscated the robes from the cult leaders, and he and Jane plan to wear them to win a prize for best costume at a fancy-dress ball the British are holding that night. Although Amusa is a Muslim and not a part of the cult, he respects the clothes and will not speak to Simon until he has removed them.

Amusa and the house-servant Joseph explain that Elesin will commit ritual suicide that night. The alafin or king of Elesin’s people died one month before, but has not yet been buried. According to “native law and custom” Elesin, as the king’s chief horseman, must kill himself that night so the king will not be alone. Simon and Jane discuss the foolishness of native belief, and remember proudly that Simon helped Elesin’s oldest son, Olunde, leave the village to attend medical school in England, against his father’s wishes. Simon also reveals a surprise: the prince of England will be at the ball. Although Simon does not care personally what happens to Elesin, he cannot afford to have any trouble while the prince is visiting his district. To prevent Elesin’s death, Simon orders him arrested.


The third Act returns to the market, where one of the stalls has been converted into a wedding chamber. Amusa and two constables are attempting to arrest Elesin, but the women stand around them hurling insults, claiming that working for the white

man has cost Amusa his manhood. The women grab the men’s hats and batons, do a mocking imitation of British officers, and send the men away.

Elesin emerges from the wedding chamber, and shows Iyaloja the stained cloth that proves that the bride was a virgin. As he makes plans for his final moments on earth, he listens to the sound of the ritual drumming; he can tell that the king’s horse and dog have already been killed, and that soon it will be his turn to die. As he listens to the drums, he falls into a state of semi-hypnosis, and begins his passage to the next world. He dances, his limbs becoming heavier and heavier, as the praise-singer calls out to him, wishing Elesin could stay.

Act IV

The fourth Act opens at the home of the resident, the British chief officer, as the prince enters the ballroom accompanied by an orchestra playing “Rule Britannia.” The prince admires Simon and Jane’s egungun attire, then joins the dancing. Alerted by Amusa, Simon and the resident have a whispered conference in the hallway. Simon tells his superior about the “strange custom” that Elesin will be prevented from carrying out, and the men agree that there must be no trouble while the prince is visiting. Realizing that it is midnight, Simon leaves hurriedly for the marketplace, leaving Jane to enjoy the rest of the ball.

As soon as Simon is gone, Elesin’s son Olunde steps from the shadows to speak with Jane. He gently rebukes her for wearing the sacred egungun garments for a trivial purpose. He thinks the British are disrespectful people, but praises the courage British men have shown in fighting the Second World War, which is raging in Europe but almost unnoticed in Nigeria. Olunde needs to speak with Simon, and asks for Jane’s help in finding him. Word reached Olunde in England that the king has died, and Olunde knows that on this night he will be called as oldest son to bury his father. He also knows that Simon will try to prevent Elesin’s suicide, and he wants to stop Simon from making this mistake. He tries to explain to Jane that the tradition is sacred, and that it holds the universe on course even if she and Simon cannot understand it. He can calmly accept his father’s death, because he knows it is necessary.

Simon returns, and Olunde thanks him for not interfering. But there is a commotion outside, and Olunde hears Elesin’s voice. Elesin is alive, shouting accusations at the white men who have brought him shame. Against all propriety, the father and son see each other, something they are forbidden to do once the king is dead. Disgusted by Elesin’s failure, Olunde says, “I have no father” and walks away.

Act V

The final Act is set in Elesin’s prison cell. Simon comments on the peaceful night, but Elesin corrects him, telling him that because the ritual has not been enacted the world will never know peace again. Simon cannot understand the importance of Elesin’s failure, and rejects any suggestion that something is amiss. The two discuss Olunde’s fate. Simon is sure that Olunde will return to England to continue his studies. Elesin is proud that his son, who had seemed to reject his own culture, was man enough to reject him. Iyaloja comes to Elesin, reminding him of her earlier warning. She knows that Elesin, not Simon, is at fault for not carrying out his suicide, because he allowed himself to be distracted by the young woman, and Elesin accepts the blame. Iyaloja reveals that she has brought “a burden”: the body of Olunde, who has killed himself in his father’s place. When he sees his son, Elesin manages to strangle himself with his chains. The bride does her wifely duty, closing Elesin’s eyes with dirt, then leaves with Iyaloja, who coun-sels her, “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.”



Amusa is a sergeant in the native administration police, a black African working for the white British colonialists. His position is a difficult one: he is not trusted by Simon Pilkings, his superior, because Simon cannot conceive of an African as being intelligent or honest, and he is no longer trusted by the villagers because he works with the whites to enforce “the laws of strangers.” Amusa was converted to Christianity two years before the play begins, but he still feels profound respect for native beliefs. He will not speak with Simon so long as Simon is wearing the egungun garments, but Amusa does not hesitate to follow Simon’s orders and arrest Elesin to prevent his suicide.


The Bride does not speak at all during the play. Already engaged to Iyaloja’s son, the Bride is seen by Elesin and taken to bed by him; no one asks for her consent. When Elesin is arrested she sits silently beside him, and upon his death she closes his eyes in fulfillment of her wifely duty.


Iyaloja is the Mother of the market, the spokesperson and leader of the women of the village. She is the voice of wisdom in the play, the one who can see beyond Elesin’s charms to the danger he represents when he swerves from his responsibility. When Elesin asks for the young woman as his Bride, Iyaloja has no choice but to hand her over, even though the young woman is engaged to Iyaloja’s own son. Iyaloja knows the power of the forces of the universe, and she understands that refusing the request of a man who is “already touched by the waiting fingers of our departed” will “set this world adrift.” But she warns Elesin not to leave a cursed seed behind him, and she reminds him of her warning when she brings Olunde’s body to Elesin’s cell.

Elesin Oba

Elesin Oba, a man of “enormous vitality,” was the chief horseman of the dead king. As the king’s companion, Elesin enjoyed a luxurious life of rich food and fine clothing, the rewards of a man of his position. He enjoyed that life, and now that the king has been dead for a month and is ready for burial Elesin is expected to complete the horseman’s duty and commit ritual suicide. The play opens on the evening of Elesin’s last day of life; at midnight he will die. He says repeatedly that he is ready to give his life, and he knows the importance of fulfilling his responsibility. But Elesin, well known for his many sexual conquests, sees a young woman of great beauty and demands that he be allowed to take her to bed before he dies. Just after leaving the wedding chamber, Elesin begins his passage into the next world, and dances in a hypnotic dream-like trance. But when Simon’s men come to arrest Elesin, he cannot summon the strength to resist them and continue through the transitional state into the next world. Instead, he lives, and brings shame to himself and chaos to the world.


See The Praise-Singer

Jane Pilkings

Jane is the wife of Simon Pilkings, the British district officer. Although she shares most of Simon’s superior attitudes, she is, in Olunde’s words, “somewhat more understanding” than her husband. Unlike Simon, she can sense that Simon has offended Amusa and Joseph (the house servant), although she agrees with Simon that the native customs and beliefs are “horrible.” She has no active role in the main events of the play, but serves as a sounding board for Simon as he thinks things through.

Simon Pilkings

Simon is the district officer, charged with maintaining order in the one district of the British colony of Nigeria. He has no interest in learning about the Africans and their culture. He and his wife Jane socialize only with other Europeans, who have tried to transplant as much of their own food, clothing, and manners as they can to maintain their own style of life in a foreign country. Simon is sure of himself and of his way of life, and easily dismisses anything he does not understand. When he learns that Elesin intends to commit suicide on the night of the prince’s visit to the district, Simon uses his authority to stop Elesin not because he values Elesin, but because he does not want any commotion to disrupt a fancydress


  • Death and the King’s Horseman has not been filmed or recorded.

ball and the prince’s visit. Ironically, the steps Simon takes to ensure peace in the village actually help bring about chaos in the universe. Because he does not care to understand Yoruba belief, his actions do more harm than good.


The Praise-Singer (also known as Olohun-iyo) accompanies Elesin on his last journey, singing and chanting. He is devoted to Elesin, and sees into the darkest corners of his heart. Almost like a conscience, he voices Elesin’s hesitations and questions about his passage into the next world. As Elesin enters his trance to begin the transition, the Praise-Singer monitors his progress. He can sense Elesin moving away from him, and calls him back in a ritual, repetitive chant. Once Elesin is arrested and brought to his cell, the Praise-Singer is not seen nor heard again.


Life Cycle

Like many African cultures, the Yoruba have a fundamental belief that life is a continuum. The dead are not forgotten; the ancestors are honored and cherished as guides and companions. The not-yet-born are also cherished, and new babies may in fact be ancestors returning to physical life. The most highly charged moments in the life cycle are the moments of transition from one type of existence to the next that is, the passage into the physical world during birth and the passage into death. Elesin’s responsibility as king’s horseman is to enact the


  • Research the involvement of African nations in World War II. Where on the African continent were battles fought? Which nations were involved in the fighting? Does it seem reasonable that the characters in Death and the King’s Horseman would be largely oblivious to the war? How accurate and appropriate is the term “world war”?
  • The British used to have a proud saying: “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Using research and a map of the world, identify the parts of the world that were under British rule in the early 1940s, when Death and the King’s Horseman takes place. Then identify the parts of the world under British rule in 1975, when the play was written. Where does the British Empire reach today?
  • Soyinka was raised as a Christian, but his parents were also Yoruba. What evidence of this rich combination of influences is found in Death and the King’s Horseman
  • Find audio recordings of the kinds of music that are heard in this play: a tango, a Viennese waltz, the song “Rule Britannia,” and indigenous Yoruba music. How does each type of music reflect the culture that produced it?
  • Research masquerade rituals performed in West Africa, paying special attention to the traditional clothing, masks, and other objects associated with these ceremonies. How are they alike and unlike the ceremonies performed in your own religious or ethnic practice?

transition from life into death in a ritual manner, to remind the entire community through his death that life is a continuum.

The idea of death is found throughout the play. Elesin and the women of the village are preparing for his death. The clothing that the Pilkingses wear to the ball has been taken away from a group performing the egungun celebration, a ritual in which men dress as the ancestors and mingle with the living. The masqueraders take the ritual seriously, as a reminder that the ancestors are always present, and even the Muslim Amusa has respect for the stolen garments. Simon and Jane, however, cannot understand the calm acceptance of death demonstrated by the Yoruba or the respect shown for the ancestors. They perform a mocking imitation of the egungun ceremony, they try to prevent Elesin from dying, and they find Olunde “callous” and “unfeeling” because he does not mourn his father’s death.

As a person in transition, Elesin has special powers and special rights. His request for the Bride, although unexpected, must be granted, because “the claims of one whose foot is on the threshold of their abode surpasses even the claims of blood.” Iyaloja realizes that the child born of Elesin and the Bride will be extraordinary, “neither of this world nor of the next. Nor of the one behind us. As if the timelessness of the ancestor world and the unborn have joined spirits.”

Elesin, of course, does not complete his transition. Olunde dies in his place and Elesin, seeing the chaos demonstrated by the father and son reversing roles, kills himself. Simon and Jane are horrified, but Iyaloja and the Bride are placid and accepting. Iyaloja rebukes Simon for his panic, and the Bride “walks calmly into the cell” to close Elesin’s eyes in the appropriate, ritual manner. The last line of the play, spoken to the Bride by Iyaloja, repeats the idea of the continuum of life: “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.”

Culture Clash

Westerners who come to Death and the King’s Horseman without much knowledge about Yoruba culture and belief are apt to focus on the theme of the clash of cultures. Clearly, two cultures, Yoruba and British, are uneasily occupying the same geographic space, although their emotional and spiritual worlds could not be further apart. During Acts 2 and 4, for example, the British listen to a tango and orchestral music, while the sound of African drumming is continually heard in the background. Both communities call their members together during the same evening: The British hold a fancy-dress ball with the prince in attendance, and the Yoruba gather for the ritual suicide of the king’s richly robed horseman and the burial of the king and his entourage. Although the differences are interesting to observe, the two communities do not enrich each other, but remain apart.

Simon and Jane Pilkings do not understand the beliefs of the Africans, and they dismiss what they do not understand as “nonsense,” and as “barbaric” and “horrible custom.” They see no harm in wearing the sacred egungun garments to a costume party and mocking the ceremonial dance, even after Amusa and Olunde point out the disrespect in their actions. Elesin’s sense of tradition is so important to him that he is willing to die for it. By contrast, Simon’s Christianity seems to mean little to Simon, who mocks Joseph for his devout faith in “that holy water nonsense.” Nevertheless, this man of little faith feels qualified to label Elesin an “old pagan.” Simon does not understand or respect Elesin’s culture, and he uses his authority to interfere only because he does not want to be embarrassed while the prince is visiting.

It is tempting, therefore, to see Simon as the cause of Elesin’s not fulfilling his duty, to see the clash of cultures as the force that moves the universe off its course. But in an Author’s Note that accompanies the play, Soyinka indicates his displeasure with this reading, which he calls “facile.” For Soyinka, Simon’s inability to understand is clearly present, but the focus of the play is on what happens to the universe when duty goes unfulfilled. Simon is simply an instrument or a “catalytic incident merely.” Those who understand Yoruba belief can easily see the metaphysical confrontation in the play. For most Westerners, however, the recognizable conflict is between two religions, two races, two communities, and two cultures.

Duty and Responsibility

When Elesin heads toward death, he is repaying a debt. All his life he has enjoyed the company of the king, the finest clothes, “the choicest of the season’s harvest.” He has always known that he would follow the king in death, and as a man of honor he claims that he is eager for death and “will not delay.” He knows his responsibility, and he accepts it. However, he is distracted at the end by the richness of the physical world. Rather than letting go of the world he draws it to him more closely, demanding finer clothing and one last sexual encounter.

His distraction proves his downfall. The ritual suicide is delayed while Elesin takes his new bride to bed, and the delay is enough time for Simon to have him arrested. The failure is Elesin’s not Simon’s, though Elesin tries to put the blame on the “alien race.” Iyaloja rejects this interpretation. If Elesin were strong enough in spirit, Simon could not keep him from his duty. Elesin is surrounded by others who fulfill their responsibilities: Iyaloja gives her son’s bride-to-be to Elesin, Olunde travels all the way from England to bury his father and dies in his father’s place, the bride closes her dead husband’s eyes. Only Elesin fails, and the cost of his failure is high.



Death and the King’s Horseman takes place in the Nigerian town of Oyo in approximately 1943 or 1944. Nigeria became a colony of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, and into the 1940s British officers kept order and protected a small group of white Europeans who lived in the country. The white expatriates and the black Africans, members of the Yoruba people, inhabited parallel worlds, each group attempting to maintain its own traditional way of life.

The market is the center of the community, where people gather to socialize, to trade, to celebrate and to perform rituals, and it is here that Elesin comes as his last day draws to a close. The Western-style homes of the district officer and the resident are set apart from the village, but close enough that the sounds of the ceremonial drumming can be still be heard. The two communities, each holding a special event on the night of the play’s action, do not mingle. No whites are present at the ceremony


  • 1940s: Nigeria is a colony of Great Britain, governed by a white British minority bureaucracy.

    1963: Nigeria becomes an independent republic, with Nnamdi Azikiwe as first president.

    1975: A military coup brings General Olusegun Obasanjo to power. He is Nigeria’s third military dictator since 1966.

    1999: The latest in a series of military rulers, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, assumes power and invites Soyinka back from a four-year exile. The general pledges to bring Nigeria out of its long period of oppression at the hands of corrupt military rulers.

  • 1967: Soyinka begins a prison term of more than two years for criticizing the Nigerian government. He will serve fifteen months in solitary confinement.

    1974: Nobel-prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is stripped of his Soviet citizenship and forced into exile. Writer Es’kia Mphahalele is living in exile from South Africa, after being arrested for protesting apartheid. Soyinka accepts a position as a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University in England.

    2000: Solzhenitsyn, his citizenship restored, again lives in Russia. Mphahlele and Soyinka live in their home countries, where they are honored as intellectuals and political activists.

  • 1970s: African writing is not much taught in European or American schools, and is not widely read or understood outside Africa. When Soyinka is invited to be a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University, he is invited to talk about not literature, but about anthropology.

    1986: Soyinka becomes the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is both an acknowledgment of his importance to world literature and an opportunity to attract even more readers around the world.

    2000: High schools and colleges routinely offer courses in World Literature, and these courses increasingly include African and other so-called Third World literatures. Soyinka’s plays, including Death and the King’s Horseman, are frequently included in textbooks.

  • 1953: In the nation’s first official census, 43 percent of Nigerians report themselves as Muslims; 22 percent label themselves Christians; 34 percent are recorded as followers of ancestral religions.

    1999: Fewer Nigerians now practice traditional religions. Approximately 50 percent are Muslims, 40 percent are Christian, and only 10 percent adhere to ancestral beliefs.

  • 1945: Few opportunities for higher education are available for blacks in Nigeria. Formal education consists mostly of missionary schools, and does not extend beyond the secondary level.

    2000: Nigeria has an extensive system of public schools as well as many religious schools. There are several universities, and a few medical schools affiliated with teaching hospitals. Nigerians pursuing medical careers need not go abroad for their education.

marking Elesin’s passage, and the only blacks at the fancy-dress ball are servants.


In its structure, Death and the King’s Horseman appears to be based on the tragedy. The tragedy is an ancient form of drama in which an important person passes through a series of events and choices, resulting in a great catastrophe. Tragedies have been written all around the world over thousands of years, to examine the dignity of humans and their greatest strengths and weaknesses. According to the ancient Greeks, tragedy filled the audience with fear and pity, and so helped a community deal psychologically with these emotions. The structure of a tragedy may be generally divided into several distinct parts: an introduction in which the characters, setting and situation are established; the complication or rising action, during which an opposing force is introduced; the climax or turning point; the falling action, or another focusing on the opposing forces; and the catastrophe, or the unhappy conclusion.

Death and the King’s Horseman has in fact been built on this pattern. Act 1 introduces Elesin and his duty; Act 2 introduces an opposing force in the figure of Simon Pilkings, who plans to prevent Elesin’s suicide; Act 3 ends with the climax of Elesin in transition, apparently only moments away from the central action, his death; Act 4 shifts the focus back to Simon Pilkings, and ends with the revelation that Elesin’s suicide has been prevented; Act 5 contains Elesin’s musings on the disorder brought about by his failure, and presents the deaths of Olunde and Elesin.


When a play or story includes early clues to what will happen later, the writing is said to include foreshadowing. In Death and the King’s Horseman there are several hints in Act 1 that Elesin will not carry through with his plan to commit suicide. As Elesin and the Praise- Singer enter the market, for example, Elesin comments on the attractiveness of the women there. The Praise-Singer agrees, but warns, “The hands of women also weaken the unwary.” This warning creates in the audience’s mind the possibility of failure, even danger. When Elesin promises that he will be faithful and join his forbears, the Praise-Singer replies, “In their time the world was never tilted from its groove, it shall not be in yours.” Again, the possibility of failure is presented, as it will be several more times by the Praise-Singer and the women of the market as they assure each other that Elesin will not fail.

Elesin himself speaks eagerly about his determination to complete his duty. He dances and chants a long tale of the “Not-I bird,” a bird who flew away when “Death came calling.” Several critics have pointed out that Elesin seems here to be protesting too much. Why does he repeatedly assure the crowd that he will “not delay”? Why does he keep raising the specter of failure on what should be a glorious day of celebration? The foreshadowing helps prepare the audience for what will happen, prolonging and intensifying the experience of watching Elesin confront and then turn away from his duty.


Death and the King’s Horseman is set firmly in Yorubaland, and the metaphysical issues spring from Yoruba belief. However, as Nigeria and the rest of the world move “forward,” the world becomes more homogenous and Western, and ancient beliefs and customs are lost. Soyinka writes in the Author’s Note of the play’s “threnodic essence,” or the play’s mourning the loss of tradition. With Elesin and Olunde both dead, the tradition of the king’s horseman cannot continue, because it depends on the job of chief horseman being passed down from father to son. With Elesin’s failure, an important ritual has been lost.

On stage, the play both celebrates and mourns ritual. Unlike the plays of William Shakespeare, which contain almost no stage directions, Death and the King’s Horseman includes several lengthy passages in which the playwright describes what the actors are doing in addition to speaking their lines. Frequently, these stage directions describe elements of music, dance, and costume that are specific to Yoruba ritual. For example, Elesin parades into the market with an entourage of drummers and praise-singers, and the beginning of the play before a line is spoken—is a reenactment of part of the ritual of the horseman’s last day. The stage directions also mandate that Elesin dance, accompanied by drumming, as he chants the story of the “Not-I bird”; that the alari-cloth the women drape him with be bright red and that they dance around him; that Simon and Jane dance the tango, and that they perform a sacrilegious imitation of the egungun ceremony; that Elesin dances his way into a trance; and so on. These scenes are rich with sound and color, and most of them are not discussed by the characters. They form a separate layer of understanding, unavailable to those who merely read the printed script. In addition to the themes and ideas portrayed by the words the actors speak, the audience of a performance also witnesses a series of rituals enacted on stage as they used to be enacted in village markets.


A Nation in Turmoil

When Soyinka wrote Death and the King’s Horseman in 1974 he was living in exile from Nigeria, lecturing at Churchill College of Cambridge University in England. The preceding years had been difficult for Nigeria, and for Soyinka personally. In 1967, the southeastern area of Nigeria declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra, and a civil war erupted. The causes of the conflict were complex: the secessionists were mostly from the Ibo tribe, and believed that the Nigerian government favored the Hausa tribe; many in the southeast were Christian, while those in the north were predominantly Muslim; oil was being produced in the region, and there was disagreement about how the revenues would be distributed.

Soyinka believed that the government policies toward Biafra were unjust, and he said as much in letters to the editors of national publications. Soyinka was arrested in 1967 and held without charges for two years and two months. For fifteen of those months, he was in solitary confinement. While he was in prison, the war continued, and the Biafrans were pushed to a smaller and smaller area of land. Shortly after Soyinka was released from prison in 1969, the war was over and Biafra had been completely wiped out. It was the first modern war between African blacks, and it left over one million people dead and many more homeless and starving. The Nigerian economy was in ruins; although profits from oil skyrocketed, most of the money was divided up between corrupt Nigerian military rulers and European oil companies, while the average Nigerian was unemployed and underfed.

After these experiences, Soyinka directed the University of Ibadan’s Theatre Arts Department for a short time, and then lived mostly outside Nigeria for five years. He traveled throughout Europe and the United States, teaching, writing, and directing, and he spent two years as an editor in Ghana. According to many critics, his attention shifted after his imprisonment. Whereas previously he had written about the negative effects of the colonial powers on the colonized, he now addressed weakness and corruption wherever he found it. In particular, he was concerned with exploring the ways in which Africans treated each other unjustly, and the ways in which his own community had betrayed itself. Death and the King’s Horseman is a play that reflects this later vision, as Soyinka himself insists in his Author’s Note.

African Literature

African writers during the second half of the twentieth century faced a dilemma. Most of the traditional African forms of literature were based on oral traditional and ritual performance, and these ancient forms were becoming less and less familiar even to the local people. On the other hand, more widely popular genres like the novel and dramatic forms like the classical tragedy were based on European structures and philosophies, and did not always seem to fit African themes and beliefs. Language was also an issue: a play written in the local language would obviously capture the atmosphere and the spirit of a people better than the same story told in English, but the audience for such a play would be very limited.

Most of the African writers who are now considered major international figures traveled, taught, and produced important work in Europe and the United States, and they created works that combined European influences with African materials. With each new work they attempted to define what was “African” about African literature. Soyinka and others wrote eloquent essays in which they explored the place of Africa in world literature, and tried to determine how an African writer should make sense of various influences. Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, after several successful publications, decided to stop writing in English; since 1977 he has written his novels and plays in Gikuyu, but encouraged their publication in translation. Soyinka’s works are written in English, but retain the original Yoruba for quoting certain proverbs, as in Death and the King’s Horseman. However, in 1994 Akin Isola produced a translation of the play into Yoruba, as part of a new movement of Yoruba literature, a translation Soyinka endorsed.


Death and the King’s Horseman has been recognized from the beginning as an important work, but its critical reputation has been somewhat different in Nigeria than in Europe and the United States. Westerners have almost universally praised the play, and the Swedish Academy drew special attention to it in awarding Soyinka the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature. Within Nigeria and within the community of Africans on the political left, however, some critics have quarreled with the play’s political messages.

A central question answered differently by various critics and reviewers is the question of theme. What is the play about? Reviewers of performances of the play have tended to see the theme as the clash of cultures, focusing on the inability of the Pilkingses to understand Elesin and his responsibility. This is also how most audiences of performances have interpreted the play, as might be expected since most Western theater-goers do not bring much knowledge of Yoruba culture with them. In her study of the 1987 Lincoln Center production in New York, which Soyinka himself directed, Kacke Gotrick points out that even with Soyinka’s Author’s Note being reprinted in the Playbill and with Soyinka shaping every facet of the staging, some critics “nonetheless understood a cultural clash to be the central theme.” Gotrick observes, as others have, that “Since Soyinka’s drama relies on the Yoruba world-view, the interpreter’s degree of knowledge of this world-view becomes decisive for his or her interpretation.” The culture clash is also the theme analyzed by most Westerners who read the play, including high school and college students, as they also bring little knowledge of Yoruba to their reading experience.

Writers of scholarly articles and books, who have generally had the opportunity and the responsibility to learn more about Soyinka and about Yoruba cosmology, have been more likely to understand Soyinka’s insistence that the clash of cultures is less important than the metaphysical examination of duty and ritual, and the representation of transition, a stage of the life cycle that connects the unborn, the living, and the dead. The theme of unfulfilled duty is explored in Derek Wright’s Wole Soyinka Revisited. Wright examines the differences in plot between Soyinka’s play and the historical events on which it is based, and points out Soyinka’s own insistence that Simon Pilkings is only a catalyst. The emphasis is on the ritual that is not completed: “Elesin’s failure to die, and so keep faith with his ancestors, spells the death of the ancestral past and the betrayal of the entire community of humans and spirits existing over the whole of time.”

In his Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to his Writing, Obu Maduakor focuses on transition, the term Soyinka uses in the Author’s Note. Maduakor describes Soyinka’s cosmology, and concludes that “Elesin’s bride represents the world of the living; the seed implanted in her womb is a visitor from the world of the unborn. The dead Alafin, the ’King’ of the play, has gone to the world of the dead, and Elesin himself is a creature of the twilight world of passage.” Maduakor also traces Elesin’s story, and demonstrates how it parallels the passage of Ogun, one of the Yoruba deities, through preparation, ritual death, and rebirth.

A major focus of criticism of Death and the King’s Horseman has been providing assistance to readers who are not familiar with Yoruba culture. Much of the published criticism of the play offers little more than close reading, supported by helpful background information about the traditional role of the Praise-Singer, or the market, or the egungun ritual. An excellent example of this type of material is Bimpe Aboyade’s Wole Soyinka and Yoruba Oral Tradition in Death and the King’s Horseman, in which the writer explains the Yoruba oral traditions of the poets of the egungun, the hunters and the talking drum, and the aura of the ancestral masque. These cultural analyses are invaluable for Western readers or for African readers who are unfamiliar with Yoruba tradition.

Death and the King’s Horseman has not been without detractors. Several critics have commented on the anachronistic situation presented by the play, observing that by the 1940s the failure of the king’s horseman to commit ritual suicide would not have rocked the community. Some have found it difficult to accept that the European-educated Olunde would participate in the ritual. Other critics, particularly those in Nigeria, have written that Soyinka has romanticized the Yoruba, presenting them as more unified and tradition-bound than they are. African Marxist critics find that in emphasizing the cultural and religious differences between the British and the Yoruba, the play ignores essential class differences within Nigeria. Underlying much of the negative criticism is a sense that Soyinka’s drama, influenced as it is by his study of drama around the world and also by study of Nigeria oral tradition, is simply not “African” enough. The universality that makes his plays so respected in Europe and North America is a sign, for some, that Soyinka has in many ways betrayed his own culture.


Cynthia A. Bily

Bily teaches English at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. In the following essay she discusses the roles of women in Death and the King’s Horseman.

Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman tells the story of a man who fails to fulfill a


  • The Lion and the Jewel(1963) is one of Soyinka’ s earliest plays, and one of the first to be performed in Africa. More humorous than Death and the King’s Horseman, it depicts a clash of cultures through the story of a confrontation between a schoolteacher and the village chief. As the two men try to win the hand of a beautiful woman, they argue the values of tradition and modernity.
  • Ake: The Years of Childhood(1981) is Soyinka’s second volume of memoir. Chosen by the New York Times as one of the twelve best books of 1982, it describes the first ten years of his life. Although Soyinka was something of a prodigy, beginning school at age three and becoming a teacher at ten, his gentle self-mocking humor makes the book delightful rather than self-serving.
  • The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts(1994) by Baba Ifa Karade presents clear and simple explanations of Yoruba beliefs and ceremonies. The presentation is not meant to win converts, but rather to strip away some of the mystery and make the traditions accessible to those who would wish to practice them or just to understand them. Karade also demonstrates similarities and differences between Yoruba and other spiritual beliefs.
  • The Palm-Wine Drinkard(1953) by Amos Tutuola is a novel of a devoted West African drinker who undergoes a series of imaginative adventures. Tutuola built this humorous and dreamlike story out of traditional Yoruba folktales.
  • Things Fall Apart(1958) is the first and most widely read novel by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, Through the story of Okonkwo, a member of the Ibo tribe, it depicts the changes in village life brought about when colonialism and Christianity intrud. Okonkwo is a complex character, not a simple victim of colonialism; his downfall comes both from forces within and from without.
  • Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, a play written in approximately 1601 by William Shakespeare, is one of the most famous tragedies ever written. Prince Hamlet is the son of the king, who has just been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle. The dead king urges Hamlet to revenge his death. Hamlet proves incapable of fulfilling his duty to the dead king, bringing chaos and death to himself and many of those close to him.

responsibility. When Elesin, the king’s chief horseman, does not complete his ritual suicide so that he can accompany his dead king to the world of the ancestors, he breaks a thread of continuity that has for generations connected the worlds of the unborn, the living, and the dead. The connecting thread in this case is based on patriarchy: the kingship passes down from father to son, and so does the position of king’s horseman. Olunde, as eldest son, knows as soon as he receives word of the king’s death that his own father will die a month later and Olunde will be required to properly bury his father and then step into his role. When Olunde dies before his father, and leaves no son of his own, the thread is broken, and the ritual can no longer be performed.

Death and the King’s Horseman focuses on a man’s world, and a man’s responsibility, and women are incidental to its central ritual. The role of women in this play can be problematic for Western readers who have become attuned to Western-based forms of feminism, and who are practiced at unearthing belittling treatments of women in literature written by men. As a white Christian woman from the American Midwest, I would not presume to judge Yoruba culture, or to analyze Yoruba women under a Western lens. I do think, however, that a close look at the women characters in Death and the King’s Horseman can reveal different ways of thinking about power and influence and responsibility.

To be sure, there are moments in Death and the King’s Horseman that make a Western feminist cringe. As the play opens, Elesin comes strutting into the market bragging about his many sexual conquests. The Praise-Singer fondly remembers the time the horseman was caught with his sister-in-law and claimed, “but I was only prostrating myself to her as becomes a grateful in-law.” Later in the same Act, Elesin becomes distracted, “his attention is caught by an object off-stage” (italics mine). That “object” is soon revealed to be a young woman, the bride, whose body Elesin praises piece by piece. In Act 3, Elesin emerges from the wedding chamber with the stained cloth that proves that the bride was a virgin when he took her and that she has not dishonored him. Clearly the rules are different for men and for women. When Elesin is in his cell for the last Act and Jane Pilkings tries to make him see her husband’s motives, Elesin is pointedly rude and dismissive: “That is my wife sitting down there. You notice how still and silent she sits? My business is with your husband.”

A reader must not stop here, however. It is true that Elesin has an important position in a male world, and that he does not see women as important influences on that position. But in fact, the women in the play tend to be wiser and stronger, and they appear to be closer to the spirit world and less bound to the material world, than the men.

As Mother of the market, Iyaloja is the leader of the women, and even Elesin pays respect to her. She can see more deeply than Elesin can. She is the one who recognizes that the child of the union between Elesin and the bride will be “the elusive being of passage.” (Elesin has no high moral or spiritual purpose in asking for the bride. He simply wants sex.) Iyaloja is also the one who sees the danger in Elesin’s request, and she warns him to be careful: “be sure the seed you leave. . . attracts no curse.” Of course, Elesin does not listen to her, just as he refuses to hear Jane Pilkings. Only in the last Act is he forced to admit, “T more than deserve your scorn.”

In every pairing of a woman and her “equal” in stature, the woman emerges as the wiser. Iyaloja, the highest-ranking woman, is wiser than Elesin, the king’s horseman. The market women easily make fools of Amusa and the two constables and run them off, although the police officers come bearing batons and authority. Of the two Pilkingses, Jane is


much more observant and sensitive than Simon, although she is not able ultimately to understand the Yoruba people she lives among.

It is Jane who is able to sense and understand that Amusa’s discomfort at seeing the egungun garments misused is genuine, and she encourages Simon to remove the clothing. Jane does not, however, ultimately respect Amusa’s feelings and she carries out her plan to dance mockingly in the robes at the fancy dress ball. Similarly, she realizes that Simon has offended Joseph by making fun of holy water. Again, she does not respect the Roman Catholic faith, but she can sense Joseph’s feelings and she has something to gain by bowing to them. She does not want Joseph to remain angry because, as she tells Simon, “He’s going to hand in his notice tomorrow, you mark my word.”

Unlike his father, Olunde is willing to talk with Jane. He acknowledges her limitations when he finds her wearing the egungun mask, and tells her, “I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.” But of the two Pilkingses, he prefers to speak with Jane: “I need your help Mrs. Pilkings. I’ve always found you somewhat more understanding than your husband.” Jane does not understand Olunde’s reaction to his father’s death, and she calls him “callous” and a “savage.” But while Simon assumes he understands the Africans under his supervision and has no wish to learn more, Jane feels deeply the limits of her understanding. She begs Olunde to teach her: “Your calm acceptance for instance, can you explain that? It was so unnatural. I don’t understand it at all. I feel a need to understand all I can.” She continues, “I feel it has to do with the many things we don’t really grasp about your people.”

Elesin betrays his people by failing to fulfill his ritual responsibility. He is turned away from his duty by the relatively trivial distractions of rich robes and a pretty face. By contrast, two female characters in the play are shown to recognize their responsibility and to fulfill it completely, even when the path is a difficult one. Iyaloja, for example, is asked to give up the woman who is engaged to her own son so that Elesin may enjoy a few last moments of pleasure. She is at first displeased with the request, and the other women encourage her to speak up, but she refuses to deny Elesin what he wants. The responsibility to meet the ancestors is Elesin’s, but Iyaloja knows that her responsibility is to help him, and she will not “burden him with knowledge that will sour his wish and lay regrets on the last moments of his mind.”

The repetition of Yoruba proverbial language shows that Iyaloja’s decision is just as significant as Elesin’s. At the beginning of Act 1 the Praise-singer honors Elesin for his commitment to his duty, reminding him that “the world was never tilted from its groove, it shall not be in yours,” and “Our world was never wrenched from its true course.” Breaking faith with the ancestors is a catastrophic failure. The same language is used by Iyaloja when the other women encourage her to refuse Elesin’s request for the young woman: “don’t set this world adrift in your own time; would you rather it was my hand whose sacrilege wrenched it loose?” Both Elesin and Iyaloja are free to act, but the wrong action will have grave consequences. Elesin recognized Iyaloja’s hesitation, and scolds her for it, but she quickly sees the importance of the sacrifice and is, in the words of the stage directions, is “completely reconciled.”

The bride, too, has a duty, and she sees it through. The bride does not speak a word throughout the play, so her thoughts and feelings are not examined. We have no way of knowing whether she loved Iyaloja’s son, the man she was to have married, or what personal benefit she might look forward to in marrying a man whom she had never met, and who would be dead a few minutes after the marriage was consummated. The stage directions give no hint about her reaction to Elesin’s “proposal,” no description of joy or of protest. Elesin’s face “glows with pleasure” when the Bride comes to him, but what does her face look like? Regardless, she does what she is supposed to do: she marries Elesin and has intercourse with him.

The bride emerges from the wedding chamber and stands “shyly” by her husband’s side as he instructs her how to close his eyes after he is dead. When he is imprisoned, she sits quietly outside his cell, “her eyes perpetually to the ground.” Even when Elesin blames her for “sapping” his will, she does not protest. As Elesin proudly points out to Jane Pilkings, the bride knows her place. When Elesin is dead, she “walks calmly into the cell and closes Elesin’s eyes. She then pours some earth over each eyelid and comes out again.” What has it cost her to give herself to this man who saw her for a moment and wanted her? What will it cost her now to bear his child? The silent woman does not reveal any emotion; she sees her duty, and she performs it.

Women characters in Death and the King’s Horseman may be subservient to men, but they are strong, and they are the only hope for the future. By the end of the play, the men have made a mess of things. Elesin and Olunde are dead, and Simon will have some explaining to do in the morning. The opening image of the play is of Elesin and his entourage parading into the market in a loud and colorful celebration of male power. The play ends with Iyaloja admonishing the bride, “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.” Their eyes squarely on motherhood and the future, Iyaloja and the bride walk off stage, accompanied by the sound of women’s voices.

Source: Cynthia A. Bily, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.

Wole Ogundele

In this essay, Ogundele argues that the actions of Elesin represent the “form and functioning state of his culture.”

In the “Author’s Note” to his play Death and the King’s Horseman(1975), Wole Soyinka, while instructing the play’s future producer on its correct stage interpretation, incidentally also describes the kind of tragedy he has written: its “threnodic essence,” he says, is largely the metaphysical confrontation “contained in the human vehicle which is Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind....” This description does more than guide the producer: its terms (metaphysical confrontation, human vehicle, universe of the Yoruba mind) suggest that the experience enacted is fundamentally that of the ritual.

Death and the King’s Horseman (DKH) is of course about the acting out of a people’s collective religious emotions and desires at a crucial moment in its politico-cultural history, all framed and structured in a ritual. It is also about the disruption of that ritual by its chief celebrant who is motivated by his own private feelings that are not in conflict with the public ones, ones that in fact derive from that same occasion. With its emphasis on the use of the human body—through dance, music, songs, and chants, a reported sexual act, and two deaths—to complement dialogue that expresses those feelings, values, and beliefs, the play’s subject is also textured by aesthetic rituals. To these we may still add the playwright’s statement in an interview with Chuck Mike that DKH is the second in his “trilogy of transition.” All these internal and external evidences fully support any categorizing of the play as a ritual drama.

This certainly is how Alain Severac reads it in his essay “Soyinka’s Tragedies: From Ritual to Drama.” In that essay, however, Severac argues that “the drama [of DKH] remains separate from the ritual” because, in his opinion, it does not complete the third movement of the tripartite “pattern of tragic conflict (challenge of transitional abyss; disintegration; achievement of new order) as suggested by Soyinka.” Because of this perceived non-completion of the tripartite movement, Severac judges the play to be deficient in its service to (its) society.

I agree that in his theoretical and speculative essays on African (Yoruba) worldview, Soyinka discovers the tripartite pattern of tragic conflict in the myths and rituals of Yoruba deities (most especially in that of Ogun) and gives each stage equal stress. But then, the essays are on the traditional myths, belief systems, and ethics of the people, as well as the religious rites that validate them. Those rites are also performed during sacred periods when the priests are incarnations of the deities. Yet no matter how extensively they use ritual elements or how closely they approximate rituals, Soyinka’s plays are actually about mortals acting in secular time. The myths and rites, plus the values and beliefs they express, are present in the plays, possibly as defenses against reality, but more certainly as ideals by which the reality that is their primary concern is measured (and of which it is seen to fall short). The priest who, while incarnating a god, acts out all the stages of the tragic conflict in full view of his people is serving them: he is reinforcing the sacred dimension of their collective life and also giving therapy. But the (secular) dramatist who uses his plays to question the creeds is also serving: by showing why a new order cannot yet follow the plunge into the abyss and the disintegration stages, he is nudging his society towards self-scrutiny, change, and self-liberation.


This essay, however, is not a rejoinder to Severac’s, nor does it seek to justify DKH as a full-fledged ritual drama; rather, it seeks to demonstrate that the play is a full-fledged, autonomous, secular tragedy and that, being so, it interrogates the cultural values and ethics which make its action possible, in the process revealing those cultural premises to be gravely flawed. DKH may be a play of metaphysical confrontation, but that confrontation is firmly grounded in historical fact, not in myth. As such, an historical approach to how it questions the culture as well as how it reveals the contradictions in the ethics of that culture at that point in time is useful. There are other reasons for this approach. The play is possibly Soyinka’s most historical one so far: its protagonist is based on a real figure and his equally factual action; the Second World War background and the real visit of the Prince to Nigeria during that war are necessary to its plot; written within five years of the Nigerian Civil War, a parallel between olokun esin’s behavior in Oyo in 1946 and the lifestyle of the nation’s leadership during and immediately after that war could have suggested itself to the poet’s mind.. . .

Although this approach is fraught with the danger of intentional fallacy, it at least relates the play, in a general way, to contemporary political culture in Africa; it also allows us to see the fictional ritual as ambivalent and problematic, just as the real one had become in Oyo by 1946. A ritual can serve to affirm the status quo or be used to question it; but a religio-political and state ritual, such as was to be re-enacted in Oyo in 1946, is not likely to be available for the latter purpose. A dramatist working as a free, creating agent can, however, appropriate and use it to express his own dissentient vision: he can appear to be going along with the ideals and values embodied in the ritual while, underneath, he is actually exposing its inadequacies and making it condemn itself. The resultant play may or may not have a tragic plot, but it can hardly do without the dramatic weapon of irony. DKH is such a play, and in it ritual functions more technically than symbolically to create meaning.

We may now return to Soyinka’s description of the play’s tragic essence and to its constituents: metaphysical confrontation, the universe of the Yoruba mind which places the (historical) world of the living at the center; and the human vehicle Elesin. In other words, here are present all three crucial ingredients of tragedy: a cosmic order and man’s place in it; the individual’s relation to his society and his place in it; the individual in relation to himself All genres of drama deal with the second element and may or may not touch on the other two; it will be a poor tragedy that does not explore the third, or in which the first is neither implicit nor explicit, in one form or another.

Except in the scene (off-stage) where he goes in to consummate his marriage, Elesin on the stage is perpetually surrounded by crowds, a visual feature which emphasizes the centrality of his relation to society and his place in it—as an individual as well as a man whose personality is defined by his social identity. It is, therefore, perhaps better to base our analysis on the latter two elements.

Oral history tells us that originally, the olokun esin (Master of the Horse) did not have to die along with his king for any reason at all, political or metaphysical. The first olokun esin to die did so willingly. The reason, the oral historians say, was that that particular olokun esin and the king were uncommonly close friends. Such was the friendship that the olokun esin enjoyed all the rights and privileges that the king himself had, plus all the good things of life available in the empire. When the king died, this particular olokun esin thought that the only way to demonstrate his love and loyalty to his friend, the dead king, was to die, too. Thus was established the political custom in which a man had all the social rights, privileges, and power of a king without the necessary political and moral restraints of that state.

True history or not, we can detect behind this picturesque story the bold outlines of the warrior ethic in a heroic age. The heroic society gives to the hero the best in life: all the wealth, prosperity, and freedom to satisfy all his desires; in return, he willingly pays with his life on the battlefield. By dying in war so that his community can survive, he fulfills his obligation totally. Such death is, therefore, part of his social life, a fulfillment of his own side of the bargain. As long as the heroic society lasts, such an ethic is only paradoxical; once the society goes, its retention becomes an intolerable contradiction: the community lavishly sustains a man only to ask him to die willingly at a moment’s notice.

The Oyo empire collapsed and, with it, the heroic society and culture. The military responsibilities of the olokun esin dwindled, finally to be rendered a mere honorific office by colonial conquest. Of the many ways in which colonialism brought about cultural alienation, one is especially relevant here. The colonial religion preached an alternative cosmic order in which ritual self-immolation on behalf of society is neither desirable nor necessary. With the power of this new cosmic order manifested in its victorious political power that was evident to everybody, the spiritual mooring of the colonized was no longer secure: absolute conviction in the old ways was no longer possible. That the old cultural values and norms could not support fully the emergent psychology no doubt played a part in the decision of the historical olokun esin not to die in 1946.

Precisely because the obligation to die was now no longer a military but spiritual affair, the two aspects of the warrior ethics, which had hitherto been complementary, were now discrete entities. The rights and privileges attached to the office might still be embraced—but the reciprocal obligation recoiled from. The colonial presence made this possible—even without the physical intervention of any district officer. Furthermore, the life abundant still enjoyed by olokun esin now made self-immolation a most unattractive prospect, posthumous honor notwithstanding. The warrior ethic had degenerated into opportunism. In building the action of DKH around the 1946 cultural fiasco in the Oyo community, Soyinka was exploring how that degeneration came about and why.

A conventional reading of the play would blame Elesin alone for his failure to die. This is to view the play purely as a ritual performance in which the celebrant-protagonist allowed his attention to be fatally diverted. This in fact is how Iyaloja interprets the failure; but then, she is the spokesperson of the injured party. Rather, the play as a whole is more concerned with the inevitability of that failure—plus its causes and effects—than with finding a villain. This reading of the play as tragic drama therefore shows that Elesin’s character and action up to the point when he should have died and his inability to die are consistent with each other, and that this consistency is a revelation of the ambiguities and shortcomings of his culture at this point in history. He is as much an effect of that culture as he is a cause of its smashing “on boulders of the great void.” With all the above in mind, we may go on to examine Elesin’s moral and social behavior and relationships.

For a play so thematically complex and profound, DKH has a surprisingly simple structure. But regarding the characterization of Elesin, this simple structure has to be followed twice: once forward, then backward. Act I establishes firmly his heroic character and social identity; by the longer second half of Act III, his marriage is already consummated and he embarks on his journey through the metaphysical abyss, a liminal figure. But then he surfaces again completely human at the end of Act IV, and we have to trace the causes of his failure back into the character established earlier. However, the forward movement first.

Acts I and II are justly famous for their dramatic power and extraordinary poetic impact, much of which are concentrated on the character and characterization of Elesin. From the moment he enters as “a man of enormous vitality” who “speaks, dances and sings with that infectious enjoyment of life.. . ,” we are in the presence of a character of epic proportions. Elesin’s vitality is not just enormous, it is elemental. His life has been totally dedicated to the fulfillment of all sensual desires and appetites. In all his hedonistic life, Elesin has known only happiness, or anger, but never moral doubt. His acceptance of life as he met it is complete, passionate, impulsive. The life he leads is as dynamic as it is flamboyant and theatrical, for he can express himself completely in words and deeds. Power, joy, triumph rule his life—and death. This last he is now embracing as triumphantly as he has lived:

My rein is loosened.
I am master of my Fate. When the hour comes
Watch me dance along the narrowing path
Glazed by the soles of my great precursors.
My soul is eager. I shall not turn aside.

His passage through the market is the crowning, valedictory performance of that theatrical life; his death is a consummation of his power.

These are the constituents of Elesin’s public character; they do not, however, explain fully either the heroic bluster with which he enters the market or the adulatory reception he gets from the women. That explanation lies in the social-metaphysical ambience of the culture: Elesin, too, “died” the day his king died; the remaining thirty days left for him are just the preparatory period for his burial. Thus, although still corporeally here, his body is assumed to be already in the liminal state, half-possessing the metaphysical authority and potency of a redoubtable ancestor. His life is already complete, his person in the process of being transformed into the passage that connects this world and the next; all that remains now is for him to let his soul pass through.

That remaining action will prove his heroic will-power and mastery over culture and nature (death) and have beneficial effects on the world he is leaving behind. Thus, although it involves dying, it is an action that calls for celebration. To this extent, the ritual action conforms with Soyinka’s description of ritual tragedy in Yoruba cosmology as set out in his essays.

But Elesin delays, postpones, this “happy tragic action” by first having a wedding. If now we read the play in the secular, questioning spirit in which it is written and therefore choose to define an action as tragic owing to its (ironic) effects on the protagonist’s subsequent fortunes (plus the moral quality of heroic suffering attendant on those plunging fortunes) as well as on the society, we find its tragic action (and error) lies in Elesin’s postponement of a death for a wedding, not in his inability to die. The failure to die comes as a consequence of his decision to have a wedding—and consummate it—before his metaphysical transition. That decision in turn shows that his mind and body are still firmly rooted in this world; the white man has nothing whatsoever to do with it; and it is perfectly in character. We may now proceed to examine more closely how Elesin’s character leads him to take this fateful decision and action; in this, we follow Aristotle’s Poetics, read in conjunction with his Ethics.

Elesin’s character so far reveals that he has all the virtues necessary for happiness; but as Aristotle noted, virtues alone do not make for happiness—virtues have to be exercised in action for that to come about. But every action is a risk because it does not depend on our virtues alone: other circumstances, including hitherto unsuspected traits in our own makeup, may conjoin and take the action out of control. Once the action has been initiated, these other forces are set in motion and can produce totally unwanted effects. Thus, tragedy results, turning what was formerly a virtue into a defect. Elesin’s sexual prowess, which all along has made him a hero among women, is, for lack of propriety, exercised once too often. With this, the moral complexion of his character changes: what before was heroic self-assertiveness now becomes irresponsible self-indulgence, with catastrophic consequences for all. His character explains the act, but nothing whatsoever justifies it, least of all the occasion. His rationalization of it (that he is shedding an excessive load “that may benefit the living”) convinces no one; rather, the act is the culmination of his life-long habit of sensualizing the essentially spiritual destiny he was born to serve. The compulsive possession of the girl is, in other words, a matter of private lust and exercise of power by a man who has always had his way. But although lust and power are now selfishly exercised, they no doubt are approved of by the ethos of the culture, one of whose cardinal values is the pleasure-principle.

That ethos (I am using Clifford Geertz’s definition: “the tone, character, and quality of.. . life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood”) explains why the grim ritual about to take place is turned into a frolicsome occasion. It in turn explains Elesin’s act of hamartia. At the beginning, Elesin enters the market “pursued by his drummers and praise-singers.” Borne aloft by the combined intoxicants of music, dance, spell-binding chants, and admiring women, Elesin’s passage, which should have been a progression in inward withdrawal, gathers more and more momentum in aggressiveness. The momentum might have seen him through the combat with death, for which he needs all his heroic energy; but it is deflected into breaking a hymen. Having wasted much of his “vital flow” in this enterprise, it is not surprising that the reserve is insufficient for the main battle shortly afterwards. From now on, disasters follow in ever greater magnitude; an action started as a ritual performance to secure the world in its metaphysical moorings completes itself in tipping that world over into the void. The ethical and dramatic processes by which this happens is complex but can he outlined. In effect, what Elesin attempts to do is to reconstruct and reinvent the ritual by adding the marriage to it and thereby inscribe his own personality into its processes. And has has been noted, that personality is essentially a sensual one—one that is perpetually seeking to aestheticize the ethical and the spiritual. In this, he is aided by his knowledge of the nature of Yoruba public ceremonies: their flexibility which allows for personal intervention and improvisation so that a bold man can “dance” at the edge of propriety. In such an ethically fluid situation, only the outcome of such “playing” with the festival process and turning it into a spectacle of personal power display can determine whether the boundaries have been transgressed.

This may have been impossible for his spectators to judge, but it is not for the readers of the play: we know that Elesin’s motives for improvising on and reconstructing the ritual are morally suspect. Now, as is implicit in Aristotle, initiating an action is one thing, guaranteeing its successful eventual outcome quite another. The risk is greater because the purity of motive for an action cannot in itself ensure its success. So in drama, the failure of an action whose initial motivation was morally suspect reduces the tragic stature of the actor, for it makes us feel somewhat that the punishment is well deserved. Elesin therefore suffers from the delusion of his own invincibility. He thinks that he is totally free to invent the rules as he goes along, still arriving at the appointed end. He also assumes that his power to control things—including his power of self-control—is limitless. He has forgotten, or neglected, the fact that rituals have taboos. Observance of such taboos, especially ones that have to do with the sensual appetites, gives the power of mastery over the self and other forces; to break the taboos, however, is not only to frustrate the desired end, but also positively to invite disaster.

Yet to ask how Elesin came under the delusion of total power and freedom, to the point where he wreaks so much havoc on himself and his community, is to implicate that community as well as its ethos which sanctions certain forms of morally ambiguous action in its leaders. If Elesin is guilty of self-indulgence, the community indulged him. When Iyaloja confronts a disgraced and humiliated Elesin, she lashes out: “We called you leader and oh, how you led us on.” Her tone here should be a mixture of anger and regret, for the leading on is mutual. Earlier (Act I), when Elesin’s predatory and indiscriminate sexuality is praised, the women chorus “Ba-a-a-ba O!” in ecstatic admiration. In other words, this behavior is expected of him—and encouraged. It is characteristic of his class and sanctioned by the ethos of his culture, both of which he is product and, because of his exalted position, producer. When he makes his impulsive demand for the girl, the women do not judge that demand improper; they protest only that the girl is betrothed. Ultimately they reason that the union is honorable, desirable even, considering the end that they hope it would serve. The contrived marriage therefore has its source in the ethics and metaphysics of the culture. The action is equivocal, but the ethical preference for satiation over abstinence leads all into mistaking an egotistic demand for an altruistic gesture. Elesin’s action is not the private sin of betrayal that Iyaloja later makes it out to be, but a collective error resulting from the interplay of character, the pressure of the occasion, and the ethical values of the culture. The error reveals that the ethical values are now gravely flawed.

We may account for this negative state of affairs by going back to the warrior ethic. As outlined earlier, the ethic operates in a heroic society that needs to send out its men to die in its defense. As the warriors become a special class, their special privileges and status become part of the social definition of that class, even in times of peace. In the post-empire, post-heroic Oyo society, the military obligation became transformed into a politico-religious one performed by the olokun esin alone. This change in character and significance of the warlord’s obligation also implies that more spiritual than physical resources are needed. In other words, a ritual suicide requires the dousing of the fires of desire and withdrawal from the world (though not its denial). The ritual that Elesin is called upon to go through is oriented to the other world and therefore requires strictly controlled and austere actions; yet his progress through the market—a metaphor for his journey through life so far—is nothing but spontaneous and sensual, a warrior-rake’s progress, not an ascetic’s. The ascetic’s telos has thus been superimposed on and mixed with the warrior’s lifestyle. Having spent all his life as a sensualist, he is now asked to spiritualize his body plus all its appetites. His tragic error and subsequent inability to die are therefore inevitable. And the failure suddenly reveals that, in the culture, not only has a wide gulf separated the religious from the ethical and both from the political, but also that all three are set one against the other. Thus, Elesin’s having his way with the girl and over Iyaloja’s feeble protest is a victory for the culture’s political order (subjugation of women), achieved at the expense of its spirituality. And because it lacks any spirituality, the act is banal. At this point in its history, it has squeezed out much of the spiritual predisposition conducive to a strategic renunciation of the world.

If his charmed audience in the market could have listened more attentively, it would have detected the melancholy undertone of longing and regret in Elesin’s very sensuous description of the sensual life he has lived:

The world is not a constant honey-pot.
Where I found little I made do with little.
Where there was plenty I gorged myself.
We shared the choicest of the season’s
Harvest of yams. How my friend would read
Desire in my eyes before I knew the cause

However rare, however precious, it was mine. Put simply, Elesin overdramatizes his eagerness to go in order to hide his reluctance—even from himself. Pilkings might be a bungling do-gooder, but he perceives this underlying psychological truth about the culture when he reminds Elesin of the saying among his people:

The elder grimly approaches heaven and you ask
      him to bear your
greetings yonder; do you really think he makes the
       journey willingly?

Which truth Elesin himself admits to his unfortunate bride a few moments later.. ..

Related to the reluctance to let go of the honey-pot that Elesin’s life has been is another cultural contradiction dramatized in the play: the true position of women. Iyaloja’s towering role easily blinds us to women’s essentially inferior position in the culture. In spite of her, or even with her active connivance, Elesin’s relationship with the women shows a distorted application of the warrior ethic. In the heroic society the warrior is the protector of his community’s women, but the ravisher of those of enemy communities. In the absence of that enemy community, Elesin lays siege on the chastity of the women of his own community. He rationalizes his demand for the girl, and after a few tense, awkward moments, Iyaloja is persuaded. The political meaning of her consent is simply that it is not Elesin but the girl who is being sacrificed so that their (Elesin and Iyaloja’s) world may stay on its ancient course. Literally, the act violates the girl’s purity; symbolically, it violates the ethical sanctity and pure form of the ritual and of the culture behind it. We are not sure that Iyaloja fully realizes this even in her moment of discovery, revealed later in the great speech on Elesin’s betrayal of sacred trust. This speech can be read ironically, the irony being the playwright’s on Iyaloja. A pointer to this is that she has nothing to say to the girl, who, incidentally, remains voiceless throughout—and nameless: she is denied this least of personal/social identities. In the name of the metaphysical destiny and the political status quo, both ride rough-shod over an individual’s happiness and integrity, because the culture says that that individual herself is expendable. Iyaloja’s consent to Elesin’s demand is a betrayal of her son and it comments on the reality of the society-individual relationship in the culture. But more significantly, it is part of the youth-senescence conflict in the play.

Youth-senescence conflict is recurrent in Soyinka’s drama, taking different forms: father-son (or their surrogates); conservative authority-rebellious youth, etc. These conflicts usually end up in either a stalemate or a defeat of youth, or in general anarchy. Soyinka’s criticism has not yet paid much attention to this motif and its wider psycho-social meanings and dimensions. This is not the place for that, however. Suffice it to remark here that in DKH the displacement of the girl’s fiancee and usurpation of his role by tyrannical senescence is avenged with devastating tragic irony later, and with more catastrophic consequences for the community: Olunde displaces his own father and usurps his role where it matters most to the culture (the two halves of this compound irony, one occurring near the beginning and the other close to the end, also provide poetic justice and aesthetic balance in the play). He does more: he takes revenge on behalf of the young man (and all young men) who has been dispossessed of his fiancee. Olunde’s act completely destroys Elesin’s masculinity, heroic stature, and status: all of his manhood and therefore occupation.

This analysis has so far concentrated on the internal workings of the culture—and therefore on the internal logic of the tragic action of the play. Where does the external (colonial) factor come in then, if at all? It is true that the District Officer intervenes to “stop” Elesin; but as the author, the play, and this analysis so far all insist, that intervention is superfluous. It does no more than provide Elesin with a lame—and soon discarded—excuse. The colonial factor does not come in directly. But since the internal workings of its own culture provide an opposite and alternative metaphysics, ethics, and worldview, the colonial presence in the vicinity alone is enough to undermine the self-confidence of the native culture and expose the limited power of its symbols. In the play, the metaphysical power of the native culture is symbolized in the egungun cult, its political power represented by the Elesin lineage. (At death, Elesin too, of course, becomes an ancestor to be incarnated in the egungun.)

There are two parallel sequences of action going on in the play: one at the market place, the other at the District Officer’s bungalow (later moved to the Residency). But instead of keeping the sequences apart until the climax, the playwright juxtaposes an event in one sequence with one in the other, so that the two otherwise unrelated events can provide reverse mirror images of one another. At any rate, this effect is produced in the sudden transition of scenes between Acts I and II. In Act I we have the great celebrative affirmation of the power of the metaphysical/political universe of the native culture; Act II goes straight into showing that the Pilkingses have turned the dress of the dreaded egungun cult into a mere fancy-dress. Surely Soyinka intends to show more than another instance of desecration here: the juxtaposition is an implicit and objective comment on the limitations of the metaphysical power which that cult symbolizes, Amusa’s terror notwithstanding. Indeed, considered within the strict ironic objectivity of the play, Pilkings is right to be disappointed in Amusa’s continued belief in “any mumbo-jumbo.” After all, Amusa himself had helped arrest the cult leaders—with impunity. In addition to incarnating the dead, the egungun cult also performed judicial functions; the colonial police is the new egungun cult—the representatives of the new power—in fancy dress:

RESIDENT. . . Hey, didn’t we give them some
colourful fez hats with all those wavy
things, yes, pink tassels.. . .

The old egungun was arrested by the new with impunity, and Pilkings, the leader of the new cult, further undermines its metaphysical power when he assimilates its symbol into his own secular culture. And, most ironic of all, all these parallel and mutually contradictory actions have in common the element of transformation. Of course, the old culture avenges itself by having the new egungun (i.e., the Native Authority Police) desecrated in turn in the market, but there is no doubt where greater damage has been done.

The questioning and undermining of the potency and self-confidence of the one culture by mere presence of the other is also there in the tangle between Elesin and Pilkings over Olunde. What is important here is not that Olunde escapes to England, but that Pilkings wins with impunity—just as he wears the egungun dress with impunity. The point is not lost on Joseph:

Oh no, master is white man. And good christian. Black man juju can’t touch master.

The conflict itself plus its long-term outcome also constitute a complete tragic irony that is the complementary opposite of the other self-contained unit of the usurpation motif noted earlier. Pilkings’s victory at first threatens to put an end to the great symbolic action of ritual suicide which the Elesin lineage must carry on. But when Olunde suddenly returns and willingly takes his reluctant father’s place, that victory appears only temporary. Olunde’s suicide may have redeemed family honor and racial pride, demonstrated the pristine strength of the heroic ethic, and thwarted Pilkings’s design of making a fine doctor of him, but it makes the latter’s victory total and permanent: there is no living son to initiate into the secret power of the lineage. With his death the ritual bridge that links the world with those of the unborn and the dead is cut at both ends.

But perhaps the playwright’s deliberate selection and arrangement of events to portray the culture ironically is most evident in the Prince’s visit, which “just happens” to be on the night Elesin is “committing death.” In the chronology of events in the play, the masque at the Residency and Elesin’s passage through the metaphysical abyss are taking place simultaneously. However, although separated in space, the two events are brought together—for comparison and contrast—in the impromptu debate between Olunde and Jane Pilkings. This debate is so subtle and economical in the way in reveals Olunde’s character, so complex in its relation to all that comes before and after, that this writer considers it crucial to any deep understanding of the play.

After four years in England, Olunde returns expecting only to see—and bury—his father’s body. But we have to understand why a man who escaped from the “fatal” clutch of tradition and who is being educated for higher things in the metropole should still acknowledge the claim of tradition; his character, too, has to be further established, in preparation for his resolute act later on. Hence the impromptu debate. In it Olunde manages to reveal what he has learned from British conduct in the war: moral courage on the part of a leadership that can unhesitatingly sacrifice itself on behalf of society when that society’s survival is at risk. This was exemplified recently in the action of the captain of the warship, and right now in the Prince’s visit. Olunde’s witnessing of these acts of moral and physical courage in the British leadership has strengthened his belief in the rightness of what his father has to do. But Olunde has been away for four years and has also been disowned by his father. He is, in other words, an exile. It is from this position that he finds the intellectual conviction to perform the act which his father, a complete insider, is unable to do. His act shows tremendous will-power and even proves the pristine, if residual, strength of the culture’s worldview. But its conviction is part-intellectual and part-derived from outside; to that extent it lacks the spontaneous purity and intuited certainty with which Elesin should have performed it.

The debate also further reveals the essential aspect of Olunde’s character that has troubled the Pilkingses, and which his resolute act later confirms. Strong-willed, austere, introspective and deep, he shows traits of self-renunciation and asceticism which are more suitable for the great task of the Elesin lineage. In this regard, his being the polar opposite of (and therefore foil to) his father is further ironic commentary on the state of the culture: in its present actuality, such spiritual qualities, like the girl’s purity, are wasted. The colonial factor, then, serves in the play no more than as a historical mirror which reflects the moribund and impotent state of the native ethics at this time in history.

In conclusion, the argument of this essay may be summarized as follows: The drama of DKH centers on Elesin’s actions and the conditions which make them possible, all of which together constitute the actual form and functioning state of his culture at that point in time. The irreconcilable contradictions between its different cardinal ideals, and between those ideals and reality, have become so strong that they overwhelm and destroy the major ritual that symbolizes and guarantees its political power. In fiction, if not in reality, tragedy is often the form in which such a situation plays itself out. After the exhaustion, the way is clear for a new beginning. Thus, paradoxically enough, it is Elesin’s ritual-negating actions, and not Olunde’s salvaging gesture, which make possible that new beginning. This essential function of tragedy tells us that Soyinka, above everything else, is in this play most concerned with the need for a new ethical beginning more appropriate for the new historical and social circumstances. This is the symbolic import and message of the new life taking root in the innocent girl’s womb. That child is Elesin’s. So, then, in more ways than one, Elesin is in truth “the human vehicle” of “the metaphysical confrontation” that is necessary for the renewal of “the universe of the Yoruba mind.”

Source: Wole Ogundele, ’“Death and the King’s Horseman’: A poet’s quarrel with his culture,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1994, p 47.

Adebayo Williams

In the following essay, Williams uses the concept of the political unconscious in its examination of the political function of rituals.

In feudal societies, ritual was part of the cultural dominant. In other words, ritual was part of a complex and insidious apparatus of cultural and political reproduction employed by the dominant groups. It is to be expected, given the superannuation of the feudal mode of production in Western societies, that the phenomenon of ritual itself would have lost much of its power and social efficacy. There is a sense in which this development cannot be divorced from the gains of the Enlightenment and the triumph of rationality. From the eighteenth century, scientific reasoning seemed to have gained ascendancy over the imaginative apprehension of reality. This ascendancy, which also reflected the triumph of the bourgeois world-view in Europe (along with its radical impatience for ancient myths and rituals) received perhaps its classic formulation from Karl Marx. According to him, “all mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in and through the imagination, hence it disappears as soon as man gains mastery over the forces of nature”....

Yet this notwithstanding, it is also obvious that within the context of post-colonial cultural politics, the entire concept of ritual has become a casualty of linguistic imperialism—a Eurocentric, unilinear notion of historical development which negates the other by a forcible evacuation of its space. Thus, in the industrial and scientific age, ritual has acquired the pejorative connotation of a meaningless exercise, a mundane routine. But if any meaningful intellectual encounter between Western societies and the emergent post-colonial cultures of the Third World is to take place, such “emptied” spaces must be recontested with a view to directing people’s attention to this profoundly subtle hegemonic assault. To do this is to problematize the very concept of ritual. The first step in this process would be to return ritual to its sacred origins, that is, to see it as an aspect of symbolic thinking which Mircea Eliade regards as sharing the same substance with human existence. Ritual, then, in the words of Ake Hulkrantz, is a “fixed, usually solemn behaviour that is repeated in certain situations. Anthropologists like to call the latter ’crisis situations,’ but there is not always any crisis involved. It would be better to speak of sacred situations in Durkheim’s spirit”....

For people in pre-industrial societies, rituals served as a vehicle for reestablishing contact with the ontological essence of the tribe. On the sacred nature of rituals, Eliade is again invaluable when he notes that “rituals are given sanctification and rationalization in a culture by being referred to supposedly divine prototypes. Rituals periodically reconfirm the sacredness of their origins and reestablish ’sacred’ (as opposed to ’profane’) time for the community performing the rituals”.. . .

As can be seen from this line of argument, rituals are expressions of human needs and desires; they are also instrumental in satisfying such needs and desires. Since human needs are varied, there will be several prototypes of rituals to take care of them. Whatever the form ritual might take, it is clear that human sacrifice is its most severe and extreme form. Several rationales have been advanced to explain the phenomenon of human sacrifice. They range from the need for a reactualization of direct relations between a people and their god to a drive towards the seasonal regeneration of sacred forces. Although the precise function of this undeniably harsh ritual might vary from place to place, it too is a function of social needs.

Many African writers have had recourse to ritual in refuting assumptions about Western cultural superiority. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for example, the suicide of Okonkwo is part of a complex ritual of atonement and reassertion of the collective will. In Arrow of God, the main crisis is triggered by the imminent repudiation of the sacred ritual of yam-eating. On another level, there is an ideological simulation of ritual suicide in the fate that befalls Clarence, the protagonist in Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King and in the horrific mutilations that abound in Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence. All these episodes constitute nothing less than the deployment of ritual in a desperate cultural offensive. The mythicization of historical events and prominent figures by some African writers is part of this renewed attempt to discover an authentic African heritage.

But of all these writers, none has been more consistent and unapologetic in the enlistment of ritual for ideological purposes than Wole Soyinka. Soyinka is, by critical consensus, a writer of forbidding depth and complexity. A substantial part of this complexity derives from his deep communion with the cultural paradigms of his people, the Yoruba:

their mores, their myths, and above all their rituals. In an insightful appraisal of Soyinka’s work, Stanley Macebuh has noted that “for him ’history’ has not been so much a record of human action as a demonstration of the manner in which social behaviour so often symbolizes a sometimes voluntary, sometimes unwilling obedience to the subliminal impulse of the ancestral memory.” It is not surprising, then, that ritual should play such a crucial role both as an ideological strategy and as a formal category in most of Soyinka’s works. A random sample is instructive: the death of Eman, the protagonist of The Strong Breed; the killing of the Old Man in Madmen and Specialists; the sacrifice of Pentheus in his adaptation of Euripides’s The Bacchae; the mental and physical destruction of Sekoni in The Interpreters; and the annihilation of the Professor in The Road. All of these incidents have strong ritualistic overtones.

I have analyzed the political implications of Soyinka’s penchant for the mythic resolution of actual contradictions as well as the shortcomings of the historicist opposition to this position (Williams “Mythic Imagination”). It is in Death and the King’s Horseman that we find Soyinka’s most explicit deployment of ritual both as an organizing principle and as a surgical instrument for prizing open a people’s collective consciousness at a crucial moment of their historical development. The crisis in the play stems from an acute political and psychological threat to the ritual of human sacrifice. This is indeed a critical moment of history, and since the play is a refraction of an actual historical event, it is bound to provide the playwright with an appropriate forum for seminal reflections on a communal impasse. Yet it is important to unravel the deeper ideological necessity behind the ritual in Death and the King’s Horseman, that is, the actual collective “narrative” of which it is socially symbolic or, to employ the terminology of structural linguistics, the communal “langue” behind the author’s “parole.” To do this is to inquire into the political reality of the “political unconscious” behind both the social text itself and the playwright’s textualization of it in his play.

The idea of a political unconscious as a corollary for the collective consciousness is not a new one. Its hazy outlines can be glimpsed in the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In fact, Freud’s concept of repression (i.e., the specific mechanism by means of which individuals and societies alike suppress hostile and intolerable truths as a strategy for containing or postponing confrontations with


reality) actually foreshadows the theory of the political unconscious.

The political unconscious is inseparable from a theory of culture, for culture, being the material, intellectual, and spiritual totality of a people’s way of life, normally sets the pace and the terms for whatever passes into the realm of the political unconscious. But culture itself is always an unstable totality mediated by a whole range of countervailing forces. In a diachronic sense, these forces are often hostile accretions from an earlier cultural mode or developments within the society whose sheer incompatibility with the dominant order might be symptomatic of newer modes struggling to come into existence. Raymond Williams has described these forces as the residual and the emergent.

But the diachronic analysis does not exhaust the possibilities of the countervailing forces. Existing synchronically with the dominant order are tendencies that portend fractures within this order. By virtue of the fact that it is often a reaction to urgent existential dilemmas, the political unconscious is clearly involved with these synchronic forces. Although it is tempting to see the political unconscious as one more instrument for furthering the hegemonic ambitions of the dominant classes, this is not necessarily the case, because the political unconscious has a Utopian dimension, enabling it to serve social needs that transcend class barriers. A particular ritual might well serve the political interests of the dominant class, but it can at the same time serve the psychological needs of the dominated class, and in a situation of revolutionary rupture within society, it is possible for the psychological to prevail over the political.

It has been suggested that Freud himself was prevented by a combination of historical and ideological circumstances from realizing the true significance of his great discovery and from pressing it to its logical conclusion. Imprisoned within the self-legitimizing snares of a stable and relatively prosperous bourgeois society, denied the beneficial insight of a major historical rupture within his society, Freud was content with transferring political and social unease to psychological categories. In other words, Freud himself was a victim of the political unconscious.

In recent times, the most accomplished theorist of the political unconscious is Fredric Jameson, the influential American Marxist scholar. Drawing sustenance from disparate sources including Levi-Strauss, Freud, Foucault, Greimas, Lyotard, and Althusser, Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act makes a rigorous case for an overtly political interpretation of all works of art. His thesis is that, since narrative is nothing but a specific mechanism through which the collective consciousness (as expressed through the “parole” of the artist) represses harsh historical contradictions, the overriding task of criticism is to confront the political unconscious of the narrative with the Real.

Two important points emerge from Jameson’s approach to the problem. First, he ascribes a collective function to narrative. Appropriating Wittgenstein’s seminal insight into the social nature of language, he posits that we cannot imagine a story or indeed its narrator without at the same time imagining the society from which both of them spring. Second, in a direct polemical riposte to conventional Marxists, Jameson avers that the repression of uncomfortable truths is not just a function of the hegemonic classes in human societies, but that it is also adopted by the oppressed as a strategy for survival. In an interesting gloss on this point, William Dowling notes that “for Jameson as a Marxist this is not, of course, some dark, paranoid fantasy: it is the nightmare of history itself as men and women have always lived it, a nightmare that must be repressed as a condition of psychological survival not only by the master but also by the slave, not only by the bourgeoisie but also by the proletariat”....

Jameson’s indebtedness to Levi-Strauss’s “The Structural Analysis of Myth” is obvious. In his study of the facial decorations of the Caduveo Indians, Levi-Strauss advances the thesis that the cultural artifact is nothing but the symbolic resolution of a real contradiction, a strategy for containing on the imaginary plane an intolerable concrete dilemma—in this case, the contradictions inherent in a rigidly hierarchical society. Equally obvious is Jameson’s indebtedness to Althusser’s celebrated definition of ideology as “the imaginary representation of the subject’s relationship to his or her real conditions of existence”... .

For Althusser as for Jameson, ideology is not the monstrous concoction of oppressive classes in oppressive societies; it is a trans-historical and supra-class phenomenon. Ideology is “not just mystification (that is, something that obscures the real relations of things in the world) but essential mystification; one could not imagine a human society without it.” Althusser’s original insight into the dynamics of ideology and Jameson’s judicious appropriation of it, constitute a mortal blow to what the latter, in a different context, has dismissed as the “luxury of old-fashioned ideological critique.” Taken together, Althusser and Jameson can be seen to have opened up new frontiers for radical aesthetics and for the possibility of profoundly subtle and sophisticated analyses of an author and his text’s insertion within what Althusser has described as the “interpellation”.. . .

The political unconscious, then, is the realm of collective day-dreaming or mass fantasy. It is hardly a simple affair, since it involves active struggles on the psychological and political planes. Indeed, it becomes extremely problematic when it involves artistic refractions of what lies within the political unconscious. An artist’s relationship with his or her society is often complex, more so if the artist is as politically aware, as culturally conscious, and as intellectually combative as Soyinka.

Jameson’s cautionary note is instructive. For him, “daydreaming and wish-fulfilling fantasy are by no means a simple operation, available at any time or place for the taking of a thought. Rather, they involve mechanisms whose inspection may have something further to tell us about the otherwise inconceivable link between desire and history”....

To be sure, Jameson is not without his critics. Some accuse him of confusion and eclectic opportunism both in his theorization of the concept of the political unconscious and in his application of it. According to some of his critics, he often relapses into a theological Marxism by treating arguable hypotheses as “apodictic categories.” Robert Kantor and Joel Weinsheimer make the same point. In perhaps the most sustained statement of these objections, Brom Anderson charges Jameson with “a profoundly apolitical millenarianism.” Such objections notwithstanding, the theory of the political unconscious remains a powerful weapon for plotting the dynamics between the surface characteristics of a work of art and its deeper ideological structure.

Within Soyinka’ s corpus, Death and the King’s Horseman has achieved the status of a classic. Critics with a formalist bias have hailed its superb characterization, its haunting beauty, and above all its lyrical grandeur, although an oppositional critic such as Biodun Jeyifo has objected to the lyrical beauty of the play on the ideological ground that it seduces us into accepting what he considers to be Soyinka’s reactionary worldview in the play. Kyalo Mativo has even gone so far as to observe that “when great form is not in service of great content, it is fraud.” I have addressed these objections elsewhere (“Marxian Epistemology” and “Marxism”), but whatever the case might be, even the objections reinforce the consensus view that the play is possibly the most intensely poetic of all Soyinka’s dramatic writings.

Written during a period of exile and existential anguish, the play derives its powerful dynamics from Soyinka’s first attempt to grapple directly on the creative level with the “colonial question”—a question that obsessed his literary peers on the continent for over two decades. The playwright’s contemptuous dismissal of “hidebound chronologues” notwithstanding, Death and the King’s Horseman is the creative equivalent of a return of the repressed. In this play, Soyinka manages to capture the power and glory of the ancient Yoruba state in its dying moment. At the same time, he poses a serious intellectual challenge to those who would deny a conquered people their unique mode of apprehending and making sense of reality.

Death and the King’s Horseman represents an attempt to confront on a creative level the arrogance and cultural chauvinism of Western imperialism. Soyinka himself has taken umbrage at the “reductionist tendency” that views the dramatic tension in his play as having arisen from “a clash of cultures.” According to him, this “prejudicial label.. . presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter” (“Author’s Note”). The bitterly polemical tone of this rebuttal illustrates the extent to which Soyinka’s threnodic temperament is affronted by mundane cultural equations. Yet by exploring the sacred terror of ritual suicide within the context of the cynicism and cultural dessications of the colonialists, Soyinka is engaged in nothing less than a sublime cultural battle. By counterposing the notion of honor in the ancient Yoruba kingdom (as seen in the tragic career of its principal custodian of culture) against the cynical presumptions and calculations of the colonial officials, Soyinka exposes the absurdity inherent in all assumptions of cultural superiority.

Death and the King’s Horseman opens with a grand panorama of the Yoruba market place. Here, Soyinka deploys all his artistic power to paint a picture of grandeur and vitality. According to an old Yoruba saying, “The world is a market place; heaven is home.” Apart from its obvious economic importance, the market occupies a signal cultural, political, and spiritual position in the Yoruba cosmos. First, it is a site of political and cultural ferment. Second, it doubles as that numinous zone in which the distinction between the world of the dead and that of the living is abolished. The ancient Yoruba saying captures this crucial contiguity. In most Yoruba towns, the evening market is regarded as the most important, and before the advent of electricity, it was a most eerie sight indeed. Moreover, the market serves as a barometer for the spiritual and psychic health of the community. The most important communal rites are carried out there. It was therefore a stroke of genius to focus on the market place at the beginning of the play. But even here there is a profound irony, for what is going on between the indigenous culture and the alien culture runs counter to the natural logic of the market—a forum for buying and selling. We are confronted with the bizarre phenomenon of a culture that insists upon forcing its hardware on another culture without making a commensurate purchase in return.

The crisis in the play is thus predicated on what is known in economics as a trade imbalance or as a trade deficit between the conqueror’s culture and that of the conquered. The praise-singer, in a moving dialogue with Elesin, captures the angst and spiritual anguish of his people:

Our world was never wrenched from
Its true course.. . . [I]f that world leaves
its course and smashes on the boulders
of great void, whose world will
give us shelter?

Behind the unease and anguish of this intensely poetic lamentation lie the sympathies of the playwright himself. His very choice of images, “wrench,” “boulders,” and “void” betrays a starkly apocalyptic mood.

Against this turbulent background one must situate the vexatious dynamics that transform Elesin, an otherwise minor cultural functionary of the ruling class, into a world-historic role as the deliverer of his people. Precisely because his suicide is supposed to compel respect for the integrity and inviolability of a besieged culture, Elesin’s routine function takes on a major historical and political burden. For the people, the success or failure of the ritual therefore becomes a matter of life and death. Here is the classic example of a particular ritual that, under historical pressure, transcends its original cultural signification to assume a greater political and spiritual significance.

Yet, if historical circumstances compel a particular ritual to serve purposes more complex than its original ones, how can the same circumstances transform a minor figure into a major historical personage? Indeed, the reverse is often the case. Karl Marx’s brilliant comparison of the two Bonapartes comes to mind: “[The French] have not only a caricature of the old Napoleon, they have the old Napoleon himself, caricatured as he must appear in the middle of the nineteenth century.” In an interesting gloss on this passage, Terry Eagleton observes: “Bonaparte is not just a parody of Napoleon; he is Napoleon parodying himself. He is the real thing dressed up as false, not just the false thing tricked out as real. What is in question now is not a regressive caricature but a caricaturing regression”.. . .

So it is with Elesin. And this is the source of the collective and individual tragedy in Death and the King’s Horseman. Elesin’s consciousness has been shaped by the dialectic of his material and political circumstances. If he appears weak, vacillating, self-pitying, self-dramatizing, and self-indulgent, it is because the old Empire has exhausted itself. If he is cynically preoccupied with pleasure and the spoils of office, if he is skeptical about the credibility of his destiny, his attitude is not unrelated to the fact that the hegemony of the empire had long ago been fissured by internal contradictions as well as by the antagonistic logic supplied by the conquering invaders. As evident in the play, the crumbling empire has already been thoroughly infiltrated by the “other” empire and its various fetishes of political authority and cultural power: batons, bands, balls, cells, gramophones, etc. In a rather resentful categorization of the opulence of the Residency, Soyinka comes close to the truth when he describes it as being “redolent of the tawdry decadence of a far-flung but key imperial frontier”....

In its dying moment, the empire can only produce an Elesin, a pathetic but ultimately subversive caricature of his illustrious forebears. In the light of this insight, it is difficult to agree with Jeyifo when he asserts that “the play never really dramatises either the force of Elesin’s personality or the inevitability of his action.” In actuality, there is no force to dramatize; it is absent from Elesin’s personality. It is paradoxical that a Marxist critic should slip into the bourgeois notion that history and literature are no more than the study of the acts of great men. A genuinely materialist aesthetics must not be fixated on great personalities; on the contrary, it must strive to relocate personalities within the social and historical forces which engendered them in the first instance. The character of Elesin is an acute reflection of these forces at play.

In this context, it would be utopian to expect him, a critically misendowed man, to surmount the overwhelming historical and social forces ranged against him. To expect such an act is to expect the impossible. That the playwright fails to recognize this fact demonstrates the extent to which his own imagination has been colored by the lingering efficacy of the ideological apparatus of the old Yoruba state. Indeed, in an attempt to resist the mundane forces of concrete history, Soyinka is compelled to look beyond Elesin to his son, Olunde, who is perhaps the most sensitively drawn character in the play. He is the ideological spokesman for the playwright, who is obviously in profound sympathy with the young man’s aspirations. Olunde’s material and historical circumstances are quite different from his father’s. He is armed with immense personal courage and conviction; and his considerable intellect has been honed by a sustained contact with the alien culture in all its contradictions and foibles. He is therefore a perfect match and counterfoil to the arrogance and chauvinism of the colonial administrators. As he tells Mrs. Pilkings: “You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.” In another cutting riposte, he exclaims with bitter irony, “You believe that every thing which appears to make sense was learnt from you”.. . .

Consumed by his contempt and hatred for the hypocrisy and cant of Western civilization, bewildered by his father’s lack of honor, Olunde chooses suicide as a means of redeeming the honor of his society and of expiating what must have seemed to him as his father’s abominable cowardice and treachery. But rather than alleviating the burden of the people, Olunde’s suicide only compounds their misery. The praise-singer again captures this moment of historic stress:

What the end will be, we are not
gods to tell. But this young shoot has
poured its sap into the parent stalk,
and we know this is not the way
of life. Our world is tumbling in
the void of strangers.

Yet despite the enormous integrity of Olunde’s self-sacrifice, it is difficult to identify the point at which his role as a cultural hero ends and where his role as the rearguard defender of a backward-looking political order prevails. But Soyinka does not leave us in doubt as to his conviction that, if suicide is the ultimate option available to Africa’s revolutionary intelligentsia in the struggle for a cultural revalidation of the continent, it must be embraced without flinching.

This position engenders profound ideological difficulties. To start with, it lays itself open to the charge of promoting a cult of romantic suicide. To leftwing critics, Olunde, by terminating his own life, has succumbed to the whims of a reactionary culture and a flagrantly feudalistic ethos. Indeed, for critics of this persuasion, there might be something paradoxically progressive in Elesin’s refusal to honor his oath. Jeyifo is precise and uncompromising on this point. According to him, “The notion of honour (and integrity and dignity) for which Soyinka provides a metaphysical rationalisation rests on the patriarchal, feudalist code of the ancient Oyo kingdom, a code built on class entrenchment and class consolidation”.. . .

It is necessary at this point to probe further, to “problematize” these various antithetical positions. The first step towards accomplishing this goal will be to counterpose Jameson’s doctrine of the political unconscious against Jeyifo’s instrumentalist Marxist objection to Soyinka’s ideological thrust. As it is, the Elesin ritual is a projection of a people’s collective consciousness. Elesin’s suicide is designed to facilitate the smooth transition of the departing king from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Even for departing royalties, solitude might be a terrifying prospect in what Soyinka himself often somberly refers to as the “the abyss of transition.” As the Iyaloja, the unwavering matriarch of culture and tradition, explains:

He knows the meaning of a king’s passage;
he was not born yesterday. He knows
the peril to the race when our dead
father who goes as intermediary,
waits and waits and knows he is
betrayed.... He knows he has condemned our
       king to wander in
the void of evil with beings who are enemies
       of life....

In Yoruba culture, a king never “dies.” A king wandering “in the void” is therefore an abomination, a serious threat to life and communal well-being. Thus, insofar as Elesin’s suicide is conceived to usher the departed king into his new kingdom, it is a crucial ritual of continuity, well-being, and hope; hence, the collective anxiety about the dire consequences of its abortion. Yet as Jameson has contended, a political unconscious always coexists uneasily with even the most apparently innocent manifestations of a people’s collective consciousness. The question then becomes: What is the political unconscious behind Elesin’s ritual and Soyinka’s fabulization of it? In other words, what is the historical contradiction for which the Elesin ritual is supposed to be a symbolic resolution?

On one level, the ritual suicide of Elesin is supposed to take the sting out of the trauma of death by enacting the drama of a privileged carrier who willingly undertakes the journey to the unknown. This act in itself might serve to assuage the people’s collective anxiety about being forsaken as a result of the departure of the father of the “tribe.” On another level, the ritual might well signify a symbolic conquest of death itself. For in the absence of viable oppositional forces in the community, Death becomes the distinguished scourge and ultimate terror of the ruling class: unconquerable, unanswerable, firm, unsmiling.

The Elesin ritual, then, magically transforms death into an ally of the rulers. In death, the power and grandeur of the rulers remain. The transition of individual kings is thus immaterial: the kingdom remains unassailable. Erich Auerbach regards the poetry of Homer as performing analogous functions for the ancient Greek aristocracy. According to him: “... rather than an impression of historical change, Homer evokes the illusion of an unchanging society, a basically stable order, in comparison with which the succession of individuals and changes in personal fortunes appear unimportant.” Similarly, the Elesin ritual is designed to reconcile the people of the ancient Oyo empire to the supremacy, invincibility, and divine nature of what is essentially a feudal society. It is a socially symbolic act insofar as it negotiates the painful reality of death for the ruling class. Hence, the ritual suicide is one of those insidious strategies of survival and containment that Althusser has characterized as an ideological apparatus of the state. It is the political unconscious behind the Elesin ritual in Death and the King’s Horseman.

Seen from this perspective, Jeyifo’s objection is not without merit. Death and the King’s Horseman does provide metaphysical rationalization for a patriarchal and feudalist code. The play’s complicity with this order is obvious in the sense that the playwright accepts the ritual as a communal necessity. But it is not just the dominant classes that fear death. The terror of death is a common denominator in all societies; it is therefore a supra-class phenomenon. Returning to Althusser’s definition of ideology, this particular maneuver of the ruling class is an essential mystification, ultimately beneficial to the entire society.

It is this utopian dimension of the Elesin ritual that Soyinka’s leftwing critics have failed to comprehend. While recognizing the power and urgency of negative hermeneutics within the Marxist critical enterprise, Jameson argues that the ultimate task of Marxist criticism is to restore the Utopian dimension to the work of art, that is, to view the work of art as an expression of some ultimate collective urge while not overlooking “the narrower limits of class privilege which informs its more immediate ideological vocation.” Jameson’s conclusion bears quoting at length:

Such a view dictates an enlarged perspective for
       any Marxist analysis of culture,
which can no longer be content with its
       demystifying vocation to
unmask and to demonstrate the ways in which a
       cultural artifact fulfils a
specific ideological mission, in legitimating a
       given power structure.. . but
[which] must also seek through and beyond this
       demonstration of the
instrumental function of a given cultural object, to
       project its simultaneously
utopian power as the symbolic affirmation of a
       specific historical and
class form of collectivity.

Jameson’s theory has nothing to do with Durkheim’s conservative notion of religious and ritual practice as a symbolic affirmation of unity in all collective entities. The failure of Durkheim’s theory stems from its fixation on the utopian impulse, a fixation that overlooks the division of all societies into dominant and dominated groups. The obverse of this inadequate approach is any criticism that simply rewrites or allegorizes a work of art in terms of Marx’s insight into history as an arena of conflicts between opposing classes.

In the final analysis, what Soyinka accomplished in Death and the King’s Horseman was to counterpose the dominant culture of the ancient Oyo kingdom against the equally hegemonic culture of the white invaders. His strategy is a brilliant, decolonizing venture. In an age characterized by new forms of cultural domination that result from the economic marginalization of the third world, such an approach might well represent a more pressing project than analyzing the class content of indigenous cultures. In a perceptive critique of Jeyifo’s position on Death and the King’s Horseman, Gareth Griffins and David Moody conclude:

The issue here is less the correctness of Soyinka’s
       choice of subject or of the
revolutionary character of the “class” of his
       protagonists than the project
which the choice of subject and protagonist serve.
       It seems to us that
Soyinka’s is a profoundly de-colonising project,
       and that Jeyifo has lost
sight of this in his demand that an alternative
       (although not actually
opposed) project be undertaken by African writ-
      ers.. .. However, the route
forward in Nigeria, as in all post-colonial societies,
      is in part through a
preservation of what Soyinka has called “self-
      apprehension.”. . .

In Death and the King’s Horseman, then, the playwright is an unabashed horseman (“Elesin” in the Yoruba language) of a besieged culture, fighting a desperate battle against the cultural “other.” In such turbulent circumstances, he could not direct his gaze at the inequities of the traditional hierarchy, lest his resolve be weakened; neither could he bring himself to recognize that the culture he was defending had already succumbed to the alienating necessity of history, lest the rationale for mustering a stiff resistance disappear. This conflict is the political unconscious of the writer himself, and it shows its classic manifestation—Soyinka’s prefatory protestations notwithstanding—in this imaginary resolution of a concrete cultural dilemma.

By the same token, his radical critics are also complicit horsemen of the cultural and post-colonial “other.” For by insisting on the decadent and oppressive nature of the indigenous culture, they are in ideological collusion with that genetic evolutionism and naively unilinear historicism that seeks to justify the cultural, economic, and political atrocities of colonialism as the inevitable consequence of historical “progress.” This is the corollary of the teleological fallacy which regards any capitalist formation as an automatic advancement on all indigenous economic formations. It is the cardinal sin of the founding father of Marxism himself. That Karl Marx, despite his initial unease, eventually made his peace with a flagrantly bourgeois notion of historical development shows the extent to which his own sensibility was steeped in the ideological constellations of the nascent capitalist age.

Eagleton has defined succinctly Marx’s epistemological impasse. According to him, “In his effort to theorize historical continuities Marx finds the evolutionist problematic closest to hand, but it is clear that it will not do. For you do not escape a naively unilinear historicism merely by reversing its direction.” This lapse of consciousness in all its smug Eurocentric complacency demonstrates how all master narratives, including Marxism, are dogged by a political unconscious which derives from the logic of their own insertion into the historical process. It is the urgent task of all genuinely revolutionary post-colonial discourses to smuggle themselves into this gap in colonial narratives with a view to exploding their internal contradictions. Death and the King’s Horseman fulfils this historic obligation. Whatever its complicity with the indigenous ruling class might be, the importance of Soyinka’ s classic for a viable postcolonial cultural and political praxis lies in this achievement.

Source: Adebayo Williams, “Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of ’Death and the King’s Horseman,’” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 24, no. 1, Spring, 1993, p. 67.

Tanure Ojaide

In the following essay, Ojaide discusses the problems of teaching an African play to English students.

Set in the colonial era (1946), written by Nigerian Wole Soyinka when a fellow at Cambridge, England in the early 1970s, and published in 1975, Death and the King’s Horseman is not typical of works written in Africa in the 1970s, which generally deal with sociopolitical protest against government corruption. It is more like works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which express cultural con-flict between the African and European (Western) worlds.

Teaching Death and the King’s Horseman at the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria before teaching it at both Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I have had the opportunity of exposing the play to a diverse student population. Ironically African literary works are classified in the West as postcolonial, but never construed so by African writers and their primary audience of Africans. In Maiduguri, as I expect in other African universities, the postcolonial discourse invented by critics in the Western academy has not caught up with teachers of African literature. African critics of African literature in Africa and some more nationalistic ones abroad speak of “post-independence African literature” instead of the postcolonial. A Nigerian poet and scholar teaching in the United States, I favor the “post-independence” classification, which emphasizes the people’s responsibilities to themselves over the never-ending “postcolonial,” which seems paternalistic by comparison. Writers in Africa have moved from putting blame for their fate on colonialists to taking their fate in their own hands, a sort of self-criticism.

The focus of this note is to articulate my experience of teaching Death and the King’s Horseman at both Whitman College and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to bring out problems of the teacher and students, which are sometimes symbiotic, and share strategies and techniques I adopted to make the play accessible. In my experience, racial, cultural, feminist, and ideological tendencies, among others, tend to condition student responses to the play.

I have encountered two types of responses in my teaching of Death and the King’s Horseman in America, whose academy, with others in the West, has been promoting postcoloniality. These problems are both general and specific. General problems have to do with the reception of any African literary work in America, and the specific relates to Death and the King’s Horseman as a text.

The first general problem concerns teaching an African play in English to students used to the Euro-American literary tradition. I complicated issues in both colleges by calling Wole Soyinka “our W. S.,” which reminded students of the English “W. S.,” William Shakespeare. In the spring 1992 class, mainly of sophomores and seniors, a British female student and the remaining American students saw


everything in the light of Shakespeare, the touchstone of English drama. My strategy was to show Soyinka as having a double heritage of African and Western dramatic traditions. I had to explain that Soyinka is very familiar with classical Greek drama and that he studied at Leeds under the famous Shakespearean scholar Wilson Knight, who became his mentor. But in addition, the African drama in traditional terms integrates music, poetry, and dance with conventional aspects of festival or ritual. I made the students aware of Greek, Shakespearean, and modern concepts of tragedy and had to approach Death and the King’s Horseman from the angle they understood, while showing how the play is different in being African. The tragedy in the play has on one level to do with a son superseding his father in doing his duty; this involves Olunde dying in the place of his father to save his family from disgrace. In traditional African culture, a son buries his father, not the other way around. Elesin’s son dies before him. So he symbolically eats leftovers, and will have to ride through dung to the afterworld. That is his tragic failure. Seeing this, students are able to extend their knowledge of concepts of tragedy.

The second general problem I have to tackle in Death and the King’s Horseman concerns language. Soyinka has his own indigenous African language, Yoruba, before English. A Yoruba writing in English poses problems to the American reader because of what Abiola Irele calls “the problematic relation. . . between an African work in a European language and the established conventions of Western literature.” While Soyinka is able to blend Yoruba thoughts into English effortlessly, students have problems with the indigenous background of his voice. Familiar with African language systems and proverbs, I have to decode the language of the play for the students. I explain the nature and function of ritual language and the significance of proverbs in African sociocultural discourse. This language issue directly leads to problems and strategies specific to Death and the King’s Horseman as a unique text.

A white student at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte asked: “Is it okay to commit wrong acts in the name of tradition?” This question, illustrative of students’ initial ignorance of other cultures, shows the difficulty of teaching a “postcolonial” non-Western text to American students. Students ask: “What are praise-singers?” They do not know how to pronounce the names of characters. In both Whitman College and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte the students unanimously found Act 1 difficult. A black female student at Charlotte has expressed this difficulty succinctly: “I felt thrown into the midst of a cultural event, knowing absolutely nothing.” The ritualistic language poses a difficulty to the students for the first time. The symbolism of the market, which is central to the play, is not discerned when it should be, nor is that of the egungun costume.

Students need background materials about the Yoruba people and/or traditional Africa—especially the place of traditional religion in the lives of the people—to give them a gradual induction into the world of the Old Oyo Kingdom in which the play is set. (Showing a feature film on African culture can help with this.) The living and the dead in traditional Africa are closely related, and the social set-up in Africa is such that the community takes precedence over the individual: the sacrifice of an individual for the harmony of the group is traditional in many areas. A brief historical survey of Old Oyo, British colonization of Nigeria and other parts of Africa with its “Indirect Rule” system, and World War II will also be helpful, as students will then be in a position not only to know the cultural background but also the historical setting of the play. After all, modern African literature directly reflects African history. Once students know the sanctity of the egungun cult and its costume, it will be easier for them to understand the colonialist insensitivity to African culture as displayed by the wearing of the cultic dress by the District Officer and his wife, the Pilkings.

The cultural dimension of the play raises both general and specific problems. How will American students grasp the full meaning of an African play which has so much to do with culture? Soyinka chooses the mystical mode in Death and the King’s Horseman. To American students reading the play, he seems to be talking a mystical language to a secular people not used to the African sense of religious ritual. My strategy at Charlotte in two different African literature courses, after my experience at Whitman College, is to explain the mystical nature of African life. Without doing this, the mystical focus of the dramatist on the “numinous passage” and “transition” will be lost on students, black and white, male and female.

Olunde killing himself in place of his father is not a total surprise to the African reader as it is to the Euro-American. Like the Pilkings, my students tend to believe that Olunde as a medical student who has been educated abroad would not kill himself, in fact, would not support the customary practice of the king’s horseman ritually killing himself so as to accompany his master-king to the spirit world. However, if students are exposed to the Yoruba world-view, as I have been through study and living with them, they would understand that Olunde would not abandon his culture for any other one. Generally, the Yoruba are absorptive and borrow from other cultures what can strengthen theirs. Olunde’s stay in England and his medical training only convinced him more about his father’s responsibility of self-sacrifice. His experience of war casualties in English hospitals, the captains’ self-sacrifice, and the British Prince’s braving the seas in war time for a “showing-the-flag tour of colonial possessions” reinforce his faith in his culture and people. He has to perform the ultimate sacrifice for his family honor and the harmony of the Oyo State.

The culture conflict in the play evokes racism in the United States. The play has consistently specially appealed to Southern African-American students. When the play is taught in a Colloquium course that includes John Edgar Wideman’s Fever, black students are thrilled by Olunde’s intelligence and high self-esteem. They like Olunde, a black man, who is more than a match for Jane Pilkings, who had at first appeared condescending to him. The students relish Olunde’s statements to Jane that “I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.” The racist remarks of both Simon Pilkings and his aide-de-camp remind African-Americans of racism in America. A white colleague, Dr. Susan Gardner, with whom I co-taught a course that included Death and the King’s Horseman, complained of the stereotypical way the British characters are portrayed. I agreed with her and the students, but explained that Simon Pilkings is portrayed as a typical district officer rather than as an individual. Jane is more individualized. The cultural and racist concerns bring out different perspectives that are valid readers’ responses to the text.

A feminist or women-oriented dimension is strongly brought out in the play, so that gender matters very much in determining responses. My female students, black and white, like the market women’s teasing of Amusa. Black female students relate Amusa to Uncle Tom and feel he deserves his humiliation. The entire class (and female students in particular) are ecstatic at the girls’ mimicking of the English accent and mannerisms. Women generally, black and white, like Iyaloja who seems to be in command of events, especially at the end when she chastises Elesin for failing to perform his duty. Her dominant character is also borne out by her forbidding Mr. Pilkings from closing dead Elesin’s eyes and asking the Bride to do it.

Identification makes students respond to the play in their own ways. The part in Act 4 where Olunde talks with Jane Pilkings elicits this. The exchange especially appeals to black students, male and female, with a nationalistic inclination. It is as if Olunde, an educated African confronting Western imperialism, is speaking for them as African-Americans who have been dominated by whites. There is also the appeal to African-American women of a black male, Olunde, who is not only intelligent, “sharp” and “smart,” but also talks of his family honor. Seeing in him an ideal of a black male who is not easy to come by in America, they talk passionately of him.

Similarly, black and white women students prefer Jane to her husband Simon Pilkings. It seems they see in her the humane and sensitive aspects of womanhood that are lacking in Simon. In both instances, there is solidarity on the basis of race and gender. Black and white male students have not shown any liking for Simon Pilkings, who is portrayed as symbolic of the colonial administrator rather than just a male character.

The most difficult and perhaps debatable aspect of the play in my teaching at both Walla Walla and Charlotte for some three years is that many students cannot understand why Iyaloja, the market women, the Praise Singer, Olunde, and others blame Elesin for not doing his duty when already arrested. I link this problem to notions of tragedy and time in cultural perspectives. To many students, Elesin goes very far in the trance and has no way of killing himself once arrested. I counter this argument with: “But he kills himself in spite of chains when he really wants to!” In other words, earlier he hadn’t the will to die because of his attachment to material things—market, fine clothes, and a young woman. To understand the play as a tragedy, I impress it on my students that Elesin’s failure is not refusing to die, but not dying at the appropriate moment. It is a ritual and there is a time for everything. However, Elesin delays and provides the opportunity for his arrest and the excuse not to die. Interestingly, white students sympathize with Elesin, saying it is difficult for any human being willingly to take his or her life. Black students tend to feel that Elesin knows from the beginning what his position as the King’s Horseman entails, and that since he has enjoyed the privileges of the position he should, as the custom demands, perform his duty properly. Students tend to defend or condemn Elesin.

I have adopted a part-seminar part-lecture strategy of teaching the text, which encourages students’ questioning and my own as well. In lecture I may explain, for instance, that African time follows the rhythm of nature, like the moon, and is not precise as Western Swiss-watch time. Still, frequent inquiry as to why we should blame Elesin for not dying after being arrested, since the ritual was disrupted by Amusa and his fellow police, has led me to look more critically at the passage of time in this play whose classical structure entails a unity of time. It appears to me that there is a structural problem about the time that Elesin is supposed to die. There is a gap that the content of the play as it stands does not fill. While drums tell when Elesin is supposed to die, a time that the position of the moon is expected to manifest, and Olunde knows, there is the question as to whether Elesin was already arrested or not at that crucial time. Soyinka might have deliberately made it vague for suspense or unconsciously to leave gray areas in this play of the “numinous passage,” but it constitutes a problem for readers.

At both Whitman College and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, resurrects the American experience in the students. After all, every reader responds to a text based on prior experience. As I explained earlier, training in the Western critical canon makes my students compare Soyinka with Shakespeare. What I find most interesting is that many of my students who are black, Southern, and raised in an evangelical atmosphere compare Elesin to Christ and Martin Luther King, Jr. to understand the meaning of sacrifice.

Teaching Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman especially here in the South, I have developed strategies and techniques that will alert my students to other dimensions of interpretation and understanding from which their culture alone would have excluded them. Their inquisitive questions and exchanges with me and among themselves have also widened my perspectives of the book as an African literary classic. Directing the students’ response to the text from what they are already familiar with helps them to comprehend it fully. While my personal background as a Nigerian would help, I do not recommend an essentialist approach, but feel any teacher with some effort can make the play an enjoyable learning experience for students.

Source: Tanure Ojaide, “Teaching Wole Soyinka’s ’Death and the King’s Horseman’ to American college students,” in College Literature, Vol., 19, No. 3, October-February, 1992, p. 210.


Gotrick, Kacke, “Soyinka and Death and the King’s Horseman, or How Does Our Knowledge or Lack of Knowledge of Yoruba Culture Affect Our Interpretation?,” in Signs and Signals: Popular Culture in Africa, edited by Raoul Granqvis, University of Umea, 1990, pp. 137, 139.

Maduakor, Obi, Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing, Garland, 1986, p. 273.

Mwagiru, Ciugu, “A Crusader’s Return,” in World Press Review, Vol. 46, no. 2, February 1999, p. 35.

Wright, Derek, Wole Soyinka Revisited, Twayne, 1993, p. 73.


Aboyade, Bimpe, Wole Soyinka and Yoruba Oral Tradition, in Death and the King’s Horseman, Fountain Publications, 1994.

A brief examination of the importance of oral tradition in Nigerian culture, and as a source for the play. Aboyade, himself a Yoruban, describes the egungun celebration, explains the role of the praise-singer, and considers the way in which Elesin and his people would understand honor.

Durosimi Jones, Eldred, The Writing of Wole Soyinka,3d ed., Heinemann, 1988.

The first edition of this volume, issued in 1973, was part of the Twayne World Authors Series, and for many years was considered the best book-length study of Soyinka. The third edition is still strong on the early years and early works, and on Soyinka’s incorporation of Christian and Yoruba elements, but the discussions of later plays, including Death and the King’s Horseman, are brief.

Gibbs, James, ed., Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka,Three Continents Press, 1980.

A collection of critical essays on Soyinka’s plays, poetry, memoir and criticism from a variety of perspectives. The book is now somewhat dated, and many of these essays may be difficult for the general reader, but the essays are consistently insightful and the collection is thorough.

Gotrick, Kacke, “Soyinka and Death and the King’s Horseman, or How Does Our Knowledge or Lack of Knowledge of Yoruba Culture Affect Our Interpretation?,” in Signs and Signals: Popular Culture in Africa, edited by Raoul Granqvist, University of Umea, 1990, pp. 137-148.

Gotrick delineates the two major interpretations of the play as Elesin’s failure or as a clash of cultures and concludes that readers and viewers are likely to choose an interpretation based on their level of “Yoruba competence.” The analysis is based on the 1987 New York production, and the article includes three photographs from that production.

Levy, Patricia, Nigeria, Marshall Cavendish, 1996. Part of the Cultures of the World series, this volume is intended for middle school and high school students. Accessible but substantial, it gives an objective overview of Nigeria’s history and geography, and explores the religions, languages, arts and festivals of the major ethnic groups. The many colored pictures illustrate dramatically the ways in which Nigeria is like and unlike North America.

Maduakor, Obi, Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing, Garland, 1986.

This volume is intended to make Soyinka more accessible to Western students by explaining the playwright’s world view, his use of mythology, and his use of language. Maduakor analyzes Death and the King’s Horseman as a play about transition from one spiritual world to another, paralleling the passage of the hero-god Ogun.

Wright, Derek, Wole Soyinka Revisited, Twayne, 1993.

An excellent introduction to Soyinka’s life and work, with an emphasis on Yoruban traditions and themes as they inform Soyinka’s writing. Wright’s discussion of Death and the King’s Horseman focuses on the changes Soyinka made to the actual historical events, demonstrating how these changes reinforce the themes of interrupted ritual and substitution.