Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Critical Overview

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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...

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of material is Bimpe Aboyade’sWole 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.


Essays and Criticism