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.