When Wole Soyinka became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, his work was cited for its strongly mythic blending of African—specifically Yoruban—ritual with Western dramatic forms, a blending that is particularly evident in Death and the King’s Horseman. The play is based on an actual event in Nigerian colonial history. In 1946, British officials intervened to prevent a ritual suicide such as Elesin Oba attempts in the play. In the traditional Yoruba cosmology, which by the 1940’s was already eroded by the introduction of Christianity, the dead king must be joined by his courier, who acts as a mediator between the living and the dead. Insofar as the continuity of living and dead is central to Yoruba concepts of community, Elesin’s failure to carry out his suicide threatens the social order.
The play begins with an evocation of African ritual. The scene in the marketplace appears completely out of time: There are no white people, no mention whatever of the colonial circumstances, and the ritual suicide being undertaken is one that has occurred repeatedly in Yoruba history. It is into this world that the first intimations of Elesin’s lack of will are introduced. The audience witnesses his desire for the young woman, who represents life. Despite Elesin’s protestations, his fear of death is evident. Only after this theme has been established does the play shift, in act 2, to a more familiar Western pattern of realistic drama, when it moves to the topic of the colonial powers.
The British colonial officer and his wife demonstrate their inability to comprehend spiritual values not only by their profaning of profoundly religious symbols for use as costumes at a masked ball but also by Simon Pilkings’s blasphemous references to Christianity before his devout servant Joseph. It is their obliviousness to the sacred that enables them to bring about Elesin’s failure. His understanding of his spiritual role makes his failure tragic. The role of the colonial district officer, Pilkings, in stopping the suicide, tempts the audience to see the play as enacting the cultural conflict between African traditions and the usurping colonial power. Soyinka warned against such a reductive reading and in fact altered events to make the colonial intervention less significant than it was in the historical antecedent. Further, by moving events from the postwar period to 1944, he creates parallels between sacrifices undertaken by the British and the sacrifice that Elesin fails to make.
Soyinka complicates matters by presenting two models of sacrifice among the British: the naval captain who destroys his damaged munitions ship to preserve the city and the prince who risks his life to bolster morale among the colonists. Matters are further complicated by Olunde’s decision to substitute for his father, despite his manifest lack of belief in the tradition that calls for this sacrifice. At the beginning of the play, the Western-educated Olunde expects, after the burial of his father, to resume his medical studies rather than to inherit his father’s ritual role.
Instead of a limited political tract on the colonial suppression of Yoruba customs, then, Soyinka presents a more complex metaphysical conflict within the soul of his protagonist. Much of the play’s first act is given to Elesin’s song about the “Not-I bird,” the desire to deny death that, he claims, afflicts all human beings but himself. At the moment of truth, however, Elesin proves as vulnerable to fear as the rest of humanity; called upon to die for the sake of his community, he chooses to live for himself.
The play’s merging of Western and traditional motifs and its tendency to complicate apparently clear lines of division reflect Soyinka’s conviction that there is no pure literature, that all art reflects the combination and complication of various traditions. The inability to cast the play into a simple cultural category marks its continuity with other great works of modernist art. In Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka appropriates Western forms to speak for Africans.