Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama)
Death and the King’s Horseman is about the potential and imminent collapse of the African world because of an African failure of will. It is not about a clash of cultures in which the victor is the West. Soyinka makes the point in his introductory note to the play that the “clash of cultures” tag has become a catchall for African literature. Its main inadequacy is that it “presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter.” Soyinka insists that this play cannot fit into that category. He has certainly made a conscious effort not to place on equal terms the British culture, which condemns Elesin and the Horseman ritual, and the Yoruba, which considers the ritual crucial to its survival.
He further makes the point that a director must not make Pilkings into “the victim of a cruel dilemma.” Throughout the play Pilkings quite clearly has a bureaucratic mentality and is blinded by British prejudices and sycophantic concerns. He wears the egungun costume, sacred to the Yoruba, to a fancy-dress ball, in the face of clear evidence that he is being offensive-even Amusa, a Muslim, and Joseph, a Christian, find his wearing of the costume repugnant. Soyinka purposefully makes the representatives of British culture inferior to the Yoruba. There can be no “clash” of cultures when one culture does not even comprehend the other. The one cannot defeat the other...
(The entire section is 604 words.)
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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 notyet- 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 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...
(The entire section is 1082 words.)