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...
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