Death and the King’s Horseman is in many respects typical of Soyinka’s work from the beginning of his career. He inevitably, for example, focuses on his own culture even in plays in which the colonizing culture is present. His constant argument is that his own culture has a repleteness that does not need the West to complement it or interpret it. Such meanings usually reside, for him, in Yoruba myth and ritual. A constant theme is the tension between the personal and communal roles of the individual, though Soyinka often expresses this theme as part of the larger cosmic picture, which includes the dead and the unborn, the gods, and the realm of transition that joins them all. One recurring crime against the cosmic order is perversion of will-the individual placing his own happiness and preservation above that of the community, or the parent willing his own survival over that of his children. One finds it in Soyinka’s two novels, The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), and in such plays as Madmen and Specialists (pr. 1970) and Death and the King’s Horseman. Soyinka’s works seldom, if ever, offer an easy plan for dealing with the present; they end in ambiguity and doubt. While certain principles of behavior may seem superior to others, the capacity of individuals to grasp those principles or to exercise the will to maintain them remains uncertain. Human beings seem more capable of destruction than of creation, more capable of vacillation than of firmness.
If one looks at Death and the King’s Horseman within the context of the 1970’s, it would appear that Soyinka had, by 1975, recovered somewhat from the terrible experiences of the 1967-1969 Nigerian Civil War and his two-year detention during it. He was obviously scarred by the war’s genocide and by the constant threat of his own death. The pain, bloodiness, and madness of Season of Anomy, Madmen and Specialists and The Man Died have given way to greater equanimity of perspective. A play written in self-imposed exile in England, it shares some of the literary qualities of Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians. Soyinka has had the leisure and distance to reflect philosophically on his country’s cultural plight. Nevertheless, in two particular ways his prison experience has left its mark on Death and the King’s Horseman. Just as Soyinka was frequently himself on the edge of the transitional abyss (as recorded in his prison memoirs, The Man Died), so the journey across the abyss is the challenge facing Elesin and through him his entire society. Just as Soyinka for two years had to exercise tremendous acts of will to oppose the authorities who would destroy him or his good name—at least three times fasting himself into madness-so Elesin calls upon himself, and is called upon by his society, to exercise a similar effort of will to enter the trance of death. One can perhaps go further and say that Soyinka has subsequently applied the lesson of Elesin to his own life, becoming even more committed to the political and cultural liberation of Africa. He regarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he received in 1986, not so much a personal award as a symbolic recognition of Africa and its culture. He insisted in his Nobel lecture, as he does in Death and the King’s Horseman, that the West should cease to distort history according to its own provincial assumptions and requirements and begin to accept African cultures as self-subsisting entities.