The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
Death and the King’s Horseman, a tragedy in five acts, is about Elesin, the King’s horseman, who is obligated to undergo a ritual suicide in order to accompany his dead king to the realm of the ancestors. The first act opens with Elesin moving through the marketplace with considerable vitality, singing and dancing, on his way to perform a duty crucial to the continued life and stability of his community. The main concern of the Praise-Singer is Elesin’s courage, but Elesin reassures him by telling the story of the “Not-I bird.” While others who see Death coming respond fearfully (“Not I”), Elesin sends the bird back to its nest and lays out the “welcome mat” for Death. He gives similar assurances to the market women.
Doubt about his willpower surfaces, however, when he demands that the women robe him in their best cloths. Eager to please and honor him, Iyaloja, the “mother” of the market, quickly agrees. Elesin then sees a beautiful young girl. His passion gets the better of him, but he rationalizes it as a desire to leave his seed behind him, to unburden himself of its weight before his journey to the afterlife. While Iyaloja is at first hesitant-the girl happens to be her future daughter-in-law, and she is not sure of Elesin’s motives-she soon grants him his wish by arranging a marriage. She cannot deny the final wish of this man Elesin, on whose death depends the safety of the community, but she warns him that if his...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Soyinka emphasizes in his prefatory note that the director of the play must, if he is to capture its meanings, work to “elicit” its “threnodic essence.” While Aristotle in his analytical definition of tragedy would relegate song and spectacle to a secondary role, Soyinka, recognizing the religious demands of drama as ritual, insists upon their role in creating the cosmic setting. If any one thing accounts for Soyinka’s method in Death and the King’s Horseman, it is ceremony. The play opens with a ritual procession, with Elesin singing and dancing his way through the first act. He demands of the market women a robing ceremony, and the act closes with a wedding. The language is metaphorically rich, and the entire act represents a spiritual service, containing not conversations among characters but stylized rhetoric: the Praise-Singer quizzing Elesin on his fitness and readiness for the journey, Iyaloja and the Praise-Singer responding joyfully to Elesin’s mastery of the situation as the market women sing a refrain, the heightened debate between Iyaloja and Elesin over his desire for the young girl, and finally her formal warning to Elesin that the wedding must not draw him back into life. Further, much of the act is in verse form. The drums that are now onstage accompanying Elesin on his procession will throughout the play beat in the background, sending messages on his progress. The marriage at the end of the act has not individual but communal...
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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,...
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Questions and Answers: Act I
1. Describe the character of Elesin Oba.
2. Who follows the Elesin Oba around in this scene, and why?
3. What is the Elesin’s role in the community? How is he supposed to keep the world in balance?
4. What is the significance of the story of the “Not-I bird”?
5. How does Iyaloja react when the Elesin decides he wants to take her future daughter-in-law as his bride?
1. Elesin is vivacious and proud, as demonstrated in his performance of the folktale of the “Not-I bird.” He has a lust for life, and his weakness for pleasure as well as his arrogance are demonstrated in the fact that he decides to take a beautiful young girl for his bride on the very night that he is appointed to die.
2. Praise singers and drummers follow him around, dancing and singing. Additionally, the market women swarm around him, admiring and pampering him and fulfilling his every wish. Because he is the king’s horseman, and hence has the crucial cultural obligation to follow the King in death and thereby maintain cosmic harmony, the community considers him a hero and treats him like royalty.
3. The Elesin is the keeper of the king’s stables. As the king’s horseman, he is the king’s companion in death as in life. The role of the Elesin is handed down from father to son, and as someone says of the Elesin, the duty runs in his blood. He keeps the world in balance by performing his cultural duty of committing ritual suicide, meeting the king at the gateway of the after-world, and accompanying the king in death.
4. The “Not-I bird” is a folktale that illustrates how common people fear Death’s calling. The Elesin tells this story in order to emphasize that he does not fear death, but rather, is willing and proud to die for his community. The story is also entertaining, and it introduces the audience to the importance of dancing, chanting, and singing in the Yoruban culture.
5. Iyaloja is initially affronted but quickly accommodates the Elesin’s wishes. However, she warns him not to commit any deeds in life that will bear negatively on those he leaves behind when he is dead. Ultimately, she appears willing to relinquish her son’s claims to the girl since it will benefit the community.
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Questions and Answers: Act II
1. Why is Sergeant Amusa horrified that the Pilkingses have donned Yoruban ritual dress?
2. What is the “European club,” and how is it significant?
3. Why is Simon Pilkings in Africa?
4. How are Simon and Jane Pilkings similar? How are the different?
5. What do Joseph and Sergeant Amusa have in common with each other?
1. Although Sergeant Amusa is a Muslim and a native policeman, he was born and raised in Yoruban culture, which he respects as a meaningful and viable way of life. He is horrified that the Pilkingses have so little fear of and respect for the Yoruban religion and cultural tradition.
2. The European club is a club exclusively for Europeans in colonial Nigeria. It is significant because its existence demonstrates that the European colonizers did not want to interact with the Africans they ruled daily. For recreation they turned exclusively to each other, and the type of recreation they chose, such as the fancy-dress ball, shows that they tried to recreate familiar aspects of European life in the colonies. The club is also significant because it demonstrates the type of racial discrimination regularly practiced by the European colonizers.
3. Simon Pilkings is in Africa because he works for the British colonial administration as the District Officer of Oyo. He lives there with his wife and works with native policemen to rule the natives and administer British colonial law.
4. While Simon makes no effort to understand Yoruban culture or respect Yoruban people, Jane acts more benevolently toward Sergeant Amusa and Joseph. She advises her husband to treat the matter of the egungun costumes delicately—something Simon is not inclined to do. Rather than yelling orders at the native servants and underlings, Jane asks them questions with what appears to be genuine interest and concern. Jane also reprimands her husband for his harsh language while Simon mocks Jane for taking anthropological interest in the customs and lifestyle of the people of Oyo.
5. Joseph and Amusa are both Yoruban, and as black Africans, they share the burden of colonial racism. Though both speak English and have been Westernized, or “civilized,” in different ways, neither will ever be fully accepted as equals to the Europeans who come through Africa to convert them to Christianity or to rule them under...
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Questions and Answers: Act III
1. Why do the market women insult Amusa’s manliness?
2. How do the schoolgirls overpower Amusa and his constables?
3. What is the significance of the schoolgirls’ mimicry of Englishness?
4. Explain the competing definitions of “official business” and “duty” in this scene.
5. How does Elesin commence the suicide ritual, and who will assist him?
1. The market women insult Amusa’s manliness because they perceive that he has deserted his culture. Rather than contribute to the Yoruban community by building roads, as his father did, or continue the culture by participating in Yoruban beliefs or raising a Yoruban family, Amusa has joined forces with the colonial authorities. The women metaphorically equate this choice to abandon Yoruban culture and community with a lack of true manliness.
2. At first the school girls overpower the constables because there are more of them, and because they quickly steal the batons and back the constables into a corner. However, their tactics become less physical and more psychological when they begin making fun of the British, Amusa’s superiors whom he obeys and tries to emulate.
3. Through mimicry, the school girls defeat and humiliate the three constables. On a deeper level, the mimicry is significant because it demonstrates that the girls are resentful and critical of the British rulers although they first learned to mimic English people by attending colonial schools.
4. Both the native policeman and Elesin believe they are doing their duty, but these concepts of duty conflict. The native policemen derive their sense of duty out of their occupations under the colonial government. Their official business is to prevent the ritual suicide from happening by taking Elesin into custody. Elesin derives his sense of duty from the pivotal cultural role of king’s horseman that he has inherited from his father as well as from his obligations to his community to preserve cosmic harmony. His official business is divided between consummating his marriage and leaving behind an heir, and performing the ritual suicide.
5. Elesin wills himself into the hypnotic condition of the death-trance by dancing and chanting. He has asked his new bride to close his eyes. The Praise Singer also assists by talking with Elesin in the voice of the dead king and then by praising...
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Questions and Answers: Act IV
1. How is the Pilkingses’ mimicry of the egungun ritual different from the schoolgirls’ mimicry of the British?
2. How is it significant that the Resident does not recognize Amusa and the constables as part of the native police force?
3. What World War II story does Jane relate to Olunde? Why can’t Jane comprehend the ship captain’s action?
4. How does Olunde respond to Jane’s story, and why? What does this say about Olunde?
5. Why does Olunde deny that he has a father at the end of Scene Four?
1. The schoolgirls’ mimicry of the British demonstrates their cleverness and their resentment. The Pilkingses’ act of mimicry is clumsy and artless. The schoolgirls have something to gain from acting British—better treatment by the colonizers and the potential to rebel successfully. In contrast, the Pilkingses are arrogantly attempting to reproduce, authentically, a ritual that they have no interest in truly understanding. They gain only entertainment from their performance.
2. That the Resident doesn’t recognize the three West Africans as part of the native police force suggests that he views all Africans—all black people—as essentially similar in their inferiority to the Europeans. This is significant because it demonstrates the extent of the racism of colonialism. The colonizers cannot distinguish among individual Africans and see them as unique human beings; rather, all Africans are alike, and all need to be feared and controlled.
3. Jane tells Olunde about a World War II naval ship that has been blown up in the harbor by its captain in order to save the other ships and the town nearby from potential hazard. She cannot comprehend the naval captain’s duty to go down with the ship because, as she ignorantly tells Olunde, death is always unnecessary. She simply cannot conceive of self-sacrifice for the preservation of the community.
4. Having been raised as the son of the king’s horseman, Olunde has always understood that self-sacrifice for the greater good is an honorable and occasionally necessary action. He responds very positively to Jane’s story because the ship’s captain has played a heroic role that is similar to that of his father. This reaction suggests that Olunde has a strong sense of honor and self-sacrifice himself.
5. Like the rest of the community, Olunde...
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Questions and Answers: Act V
1. What does Elesin accuse Simon of? What does he mean when he says that white skin covers the future of his people?
2. Who is at fault for Elesin’s failure to fulfill his duty?
3. How has the Elesin’s character changed from Scene One to Scene Five?
4. What “burden” is brought to the cell? Who has to bear this burden?
5. Why does Olunde take upon himself the cultural obligation of the king’s horseman?
1. Elesin accuses Simon of having ruined his life and destroyed his people’s culture. When he states that white skin covers the future of his people, he means that colonialism will continue to negatively affect his culture. Living under the unethical authority of the British, various members of the community have taken on a veneer of Englishness—Amusa, the schoolgirls, even Elesin’s eldest son—and this will alter the future of the culture.
2. Simon is partially at fault, due to his role as colonial District Officer. He believes it is his duty to disrupt the ritual suicide, and he succeeds. More generally, colonialism may be said to be at fault; if the British were not in Western Nigeria, Yoruban cultural traditions would have persisted unchanged. Elesin himself is partially at fault, due to his weakness for the pleasures of life and his fear of death. His bride may also be to blame, for being young and beautiful and tempting Elesin to remain alive.
3. At the beginning of the play, Elesin enjoys high status in his community for his heroic role as the king’s horseman. Pampered by women and followed about by praise singers, Elesin is proud, fun-loving, and energetic. By the end of the play, the king’s horseman has become a failure, to himself, his family, and the community. Demoted in status, scorned by the people of Oyo, and shackled in the colonizer’s chains, Elesin has lost all his power and vitality. He is sunk in shame and self-disgust.
4. The market women literally shoulder the burden of Olunde’s corpse. But the term “burden” takes on many meanings in this scene. Olunde bears the burden of redeeming his family’s honor and preserving the delicate balance of the three worlds of Yoruban cosmology—the worlds of the unborn, the living, and the ancestors. Elesin must bear the burden of personal failure and public contempt. The community must bear the burden of being a...
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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 Westernstyle 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 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...
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Compare and Contrast
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...
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Topics for Further Study
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?
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What Do I Read Next?
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...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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 incorporation of Christian and Yoruba elements, but the discussions of later plays, including...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Birbalsingh, E. M. “Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman,” in Presence africaine. CXXIV (1982), pp. 202-219.
Gibbs, James. Wole Soyinka, 1986.
Izevbaye, D. S. “Mediation in Soyinka: The Case of the King’s Horseman,” in Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, 1981. Edited by James Gibbs.
Jain, Jasbir. “The Unfolding of a Text: Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman,” in Research in African Literatures. XVIII (1986), pp. 252-260.
Jones, Eldred D. The Writing of Wole Soyinka, 1983.
Katrak, Ketu H. Wole Soyinka and Modern Tragedy: A Study of Dramatic Theory and Practice. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Extended study of the roots of Soyinka’s art in Yoruba ritual and Western dramatic traditions. Argues that the play dramatizes the common fear of death that can be allayed only with ritual suicide, while criticizing the tradition itself and seeking a mythic revision suitable for the modern world.
Last, Brian W. “Death and the King’s Horseman: A Note,” in World Literature Written in English. XXI, no. 1 (1982), pp. 37-42.
Ogundele, Wole. “Death and the King’s Horseman: A Poet’s Quarrel with His Culture.”...
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