Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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The Play

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Last Updated on June 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1620

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 will weakens and he does not go through with the suicide, he will place a curse on the girl and her future child. The act ends with the girl offered to Elesin as his bride.

Act 2 takes place at the bungalow of the (English) District Officer. Simon Pilkings and his wife, Jane, are dancing a tango dressed in local egungun costumes. Sergeant Amusa interrupts them by accidentally overturning a flowerpot. He has come with a message about Elesin’s intended ritual suicide-which is against British regulations-but has been so horrified by the Pilkingses’ flagrant dishonoring of the egungun “uniform of death” that he cannot speak. He can only write down his message and leave. Preoccupied with the upcoming fancy-dress ball that evening, Pilkings seems unable to deal effectively with the problem of Elesin. Only with Jane’s prompting does he finally determine how to stop the suicide and still attend the ball: He sends a note to Sergeant Amusa telling him to arrest Elesin and lock him up in Pilkings’ own house. Pilkings voices his regret that he has still not stamped out all pagan practices. Jane reminds him of a past incident, their aid in sending Elesin’s oldest son, Olunde, to England for a medical degree-against Elesin’s strenuous protest. Tradition calls for the son of the King’s Horseman to continue his father’s ritual role during the next king’s reign. They speculate that Olunde may have wanted to leave in order to escape that future. Throughout the act drums play in the background; they have a different sound from anything Jane and Simon have heard before. Joseph, their house servant, interprets them as celebrating “the death of a great chief” and “the wedding of a great chief.” Acts 1 and 2 are obviously taking place simultaneously. Neither Jane nor Simon is adequate to the occasion, both being totally insensitive to the meanings inherent in the African world around them. They are intent instead on the ball, and Simon announces to Jane at the end of the act that the Prince of Wales has just arrived in Nigeria and will be the honored guest. Their party mood is in stark contrast to the spiritual and metaphysical event about to transpire, which they are to be instrumental in turning into a tragedy.

Act 3 opens with Amusa at the marketplace trying to move the women out of his way in order to arrest Elesin. He insists that his “official business” takes precedence; they counter that Elesin himself is engaged in “official business” which is much more important than British law. The women taunt Amusa with sexual innuendos, questioning his manhood in his obedience to white masters. The young girls in the market, who have been to British schools, enact an impromptu play that mocks superficial British manners, patronizing colonial attitudes toward Africans, and the toadyism of servants such as Amusa. They finally chase Amusa and his two constables off by threatening to pull down their shorts. The women, ecstatic over the cleverness and courage of the girls, begin a dance in their praise.

At this moment Elesin enters with proof of the consummation, declaring it “the union of life and the seeds of passage.” To the sounds of drums in the distance, Elesin announces his intention to perform the ritual suicide in the marketplace itself, which he regards as the vibrant symbol of life. The rest of the act depicts Elesin’s gradual entrance into the trance of death. As his Praise-Singer sings to him, he dances and frees himself gradually from the sounds of earth. It appears at the end of the act that the ritual will continue to its successful conclusion.

Act 4 takes place at the fancy-dress ball in honor of the Prince of Wales; it is a twentieth century imitation of a seventeenth century masque. Pilkings learns from Amusa that the market women have foiled the attempt to arrest Elesin. As the clock strikes midnight, Pilkings rushes out, fearing that he may be too late to avert what would be an embarrassing incident on this night of the Prince’s visit. Just after he leaves, Olunde appears, looking for him. He believes that Pilkings will be unable to stop the suicide and wants to make him understand its significance. The rest of the act consists mostly of a conversation between Olunde and Jane, who, he says, is more likely than Simon to accept and respect Yoruba custom. They swap statements about the British and African ways of thinking and acting. Olunde is especially critical of the British tendency to cover up realities and distort history. While Jane finds his truthfulness, especially his cool acceptance of his father’s ritual death, disturbing, even “savage,” she recovers her composure and makes an effort to understand. He explains that ever since he received the cable announcing the King’s death, he has regarded his father as dead. He seems cold only because his grief is already a month old. When the drums tell him that the ritual is complete, he is relieved, but when Pilkings returns with Elesin as his prisoner, Olunde feels humiliated, as does Elesin himself. While it was forbidden for Olunde to look upon his father during the month between the King’s death and Elesin’s own, now Olunde looks upon him with disgust, declaring, “I have no father, eater of left-overs.”

The final act finds Elesin in chains, behind bars in an old jail once used for slaves bound for the Americas. His recent bride is seated outside, and guards inside the cell watch Elesin’s every move. Pilkings arrives to console him. It is clear that he still does not comprehend that in following his British duty he has committed a sacrilege. Elesin rejects Pilkings’ consolation and tries to explain what happened to him during this most important night of his life. The ritual called for him to die at exactly the proper moment, when the moon “reached a certain gateway in the sky,” but his will failed him. He does not know whom to blame. When Pilkings leaves, hearing urgent cries from his wife, Elesin explains to his bride that his mind wanted to blame first Pilkings, then the gods, and now the temptation of the bride herself. He did not want to give up the pleasures of earth.

Pilkings returns with Jane, debating whether to accede to Olunde’s written request that Iyaloja be allowed to see Elesin. Pilkings’ fear is that she will give a weapon to Elesin, permitting him to go through with the suicide. Relying on Elesin’s “honour” and forbidding Iyaloja to step beyond a designated line, he agrees to the conference. Thus begins her scornful rebuke, in which she accuses Elesin of reversing the order of nature-the father saving himself to feed on the world while destroying his children and allowing their king to wander unprotected in the passage to the other world. Iyaloja finally has her women carry in their “burden.” The Praise-Singer, who accompanies it, insists (as Iyaloja had before him) that he gave Elesin adaquate warning. When Iyaloja removes the cover from the “burden,” Olunde’s dead body is revealed. Olunde, in substituting himself for his father, has become Elesin’s father and thus has reversed the cycle of nature. Neither Iyaloja nor the Praise-Singer knows whether the son’s sacrifice will save their world. If it does not, the blame will fall entirely on Elesin. The Horseman then tries to recapture what honor he can by strangling himself with his chain. Still unable to understand any of this, Pilkings enters the cell and tries to revive Elesin’s dead body. Iyaloja then turns her scorn on him. His attempts at resuscitation are in vain. Though Elesin’s entry into the death passage is late and “clogged with droppings from the King’s stallion,” his body is nevertheless “no pauper’s carrion abandoned on the road,” and she now blames Pilkings for his role in Elesin’s failure. It is the young bride, not Pilkings, who has the right to close the Horseman’s eyes. The hope for the future, it is suggested, is in her “unborn” child.

Dramatic Devices

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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 significance: It is a ritual to celebrate the union of the three worlds—the dead, the living, and the unborn.

Such ritual qualities dominate in acts 1, 3, and 5. They present the stages of Elesin’s journey. The first ends with his marriage, the third with his entrance into the trance of death, the fifth with his actual death by strangulation and with the wake lamenting the death of his son. Acts 2 and 4 are almost devoid of ritual. Their function is to provide contrast-to emphasize that the play is not a conflict of equals but an exposure of the alien culture’s inadequacy to sit in judgment. Instead of ritual, Soyinka presents (in act 2) an uninformed and distasteful mockery of Yoruba ritual, as the Pilkings stand onstage doing the tango in the sacred egungun costumes. In act 4, the setting is a masque at the residence: a superficial imitation, with no spiritual significance, of an entertainment from seventeenth century England.

Just as Soyinka juxtaposes ritual against secular action, so he pairs Yoruba and British characters in formal opposition to each other. The Yoruba king who has died, for example, has an English counterpart in the Prince of Wales. While the Prince’s subjects do not want to disturb his sleep, the Yoruba are concerned with the eternal peace of their king-he must not go unaccompanied to the world of the dead. Both remain in the background, but while the Prince presides over a masque, the King presides over a people and a tradition. Pilkings is a similar foil to Elesin. They both fail in their responsibilities, but one is engaged in social and political niceties, the other in cosmic and cultural survival. The two women, Jane and Iyaloja, have similar roles, the support and encouragement of the central male characters, and both find that they must eventually question the fitness of the men for their assigned roles. More sensitive and perceptive than Pilkings, Jane tries to moderate his bureaucratic zeal; more loyal and self-confident than Elesin, Iyaloja must prod him into his trance and reprimand him for a loss of will. Finally, Elesin has a son, Olunde, who is vital to the life of the community. Soyinka suggests no such familial (or cultural) counterpart on the British side, no symbol of fertility and continuity. While Soyinka does individualize his characters, they function most significantly as symbols in a formal, stylized scheme.

Just as Olunde and Elesin enter to ritualize the ending of act 4, so Pilkings and his wife Jane enter the Yoruba world in act 5 to secularize it-but are instead overwhelmed by it. Their ordinary language is drowned out by the ceremonial richness of word and deed. As Pilkings tries to revive Elesin, “the women continue their dirge, unmoved.” His final question “Was this what you wanted?” he asks “in a tired voice.” British bumbling gives way to the “threnodic essence” that Soyinka wanted to portray.

Historical Context

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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, most of the money was divided up between corrupt Nigerian military rulers and European oil companies, while the average Nigerian was unemployed and underfed.

After these experiences, Soyinka directed the University of Ibadan’s Theatre Arts Department for a short time, and then lived mostly outside Nigeria for five years. He traveled throughout Europe and the United States, teaching, writing, and directing, and he spent two years as an editor in Ghana. According to many critics, his attention shifted after his imprisonment. Whereas previously he had written about the negative effects of the colonial powers on the colonized, he now addressed weakness and corruption wherever he found it. In particular, he was concerned with exploring the ways in which Africans treated each other unjustly, and the ways in which his own community had betrayed itself. Death and the King’s Horseman is a play that reflects this later vision, as Soyinka himself insists in his Author’s Note.

African Literature
African writers during the second half of the twentieth century faced a dilemma. Most of the traditional African forms of literature were based on oral traditional and ritual performance, and these ancient forms were becoming less and less familiar even to the local people. On the other hand, more widely popular genres like the novel and dramatic forms like the classical tragedy were based on European structures and philosophies, and did not always seem to fit African themes and beliefs. Language was also an issue: a play written in the local language would obviously capture the atmosphere and the spirit of a people better than the same story told in English, but the audience for such a play would be very limited.

Most of the African writers who are now considered major international figures traveled, taught, and produced important work in Europe and the United States, and they created works that combined European influences with African materials. With each new work they attempted to define what was ‘‘African’’ about African literature. Soyinka and others wrote eloquent essays in which they explored the place of Africa in world literature, and tried to determine how an African writer should make sense of various influences. Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, after several successful publications, decided to stop writing in English; since 1977 he has written his novels and plays in Gikuyu, but encouraged their publication in translation. Soyinka’s works are written in English, but retain the original Yoruba for quoting certain proverbs, as in Death and the King’s Horseman. However, in 1994 Akin Isola produced a translation of the play into Yoruba, as part of a new movement of Yoruba literature, a translation Soyinka endorsed.

Literary Style

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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 greatest strengths and weaknesses. According to the ancient Greeks, tragedy filled the audience with fear and pity, and so helped a community deal psychologically with these emotions. The structure of a tragedy may be generally divided into several distinct parts: an introduction in which the characters, setting and situation are established; the complication or rising action, during which an opposing force is introduced; the climax or turning point; the falling action, or another focusing on the opposing forces; and the catastrophe, or the unhappy conclusion.

Death and the King’s Horseman has in fact been built on this pattern. Act 1 introduces Elesin and his duty; Act 2 introduces an opposing force in the figure of Simon Pilkings, who plans to prevent Elesin’s suicide; Act 3 ends with the climax of Elesin in transition, apparently only moments away from the central action, his death; Act 4 shifts the focus back to Simon Pilkings, and ends with the revelation that Elesin’s suicide has been prevented; Act 5 contains Elesin’s musings on the disorder brought about by his failure, and presents the deaths of Olunde and Elesin.

When a play or story includes early clues to what will happen later, the writing is said to include foreshadowing. In Death and the King’s Horseman there are several hints in Act 1 that Elesin will not carry through with his plan to commit suicide. As Elesin and the Praise- Singer enter the market, for example, Elesin comments on the attractiveness of the women there. The Praise-Singer agrees, but warns, ‘‘The hands of women also weaken the unwary.’’ This warning creates in the audience’s mind the possibility of failure, even danger. When Elesin promises that he will be faithful and join his forbears, the Praise-Singer replies, ‘‘In their time the world was never tilted from its groove, it shall not be in yours.’’ Again, the possibility of failure is presented, as it will be several more times by the Praise-Singer and the women of the market as they assure each other that Elesin will not fail.

Elesin himself speaks eagerly about his determination to complete his duty. He dances and chants a long tale of the ‘‘Not-I bird,’’ a bird who flew away when ‘‘Death came calling.’’ Several critics have pointed out that Elesin seems here to be protesting too much. Why does he repeatedly assure the crowd that he will ‘‘not delay’’? Why does he keep raising the specter of failure on what should be a glorious day of celebration? The foreshadowing helps prepare the audience for what will happen, prolonging and intensifying the experience of watching Elesin confront and then turn away from his duty.

Death and the King’s Horseman is set firmly in Yorubaland, and the metaphysical issues spring from Yoruba belief. However, as Nigeria and the rest of the world move ‘‘forward,’’ the world becomes more homogenous and Western, and ancient beliefs and customs are lost. Soyinka writes in the Author’s Note of the play’s ‘‘threnodic essence,’’ or the play’s mourning the loss of tradition. With Elesin and Olunde both dead, the tradition of the king’s horseman cannot continue, because it depends on the job of chief horseman being passed down from father to son. With Elesin’s failure, an important ritual has been lost.

On stage, the play both celebrates and mourns ritual. Unlike the plays of William Shakespeare, which contain almost no stage directions, Death and the King’s Horseman includes several lengthy passages in which the playwright describes what the actors are doing in addition to speaking their lines. Frequently, these stage directions describe elements of music, dance, and costume that are specific to Yoruba ritual. For example, Elesin parades into the market with an entourage of drummers and praisesingers, and the beginning of the play before a line is spoken—is a reenactment of part of the ritual of the horseman’s last day. The stage directions also mandate that Elesin dance, accompanied by drumming, as he chants the story of the ‘‘Not-I bird’’; that the alari-cloth the women drape him with be bright red and that they dance around him; that Simon and Jane dance the tango, and that they perform a sacrilegious imitation of the egungun ceremony; that Elesin dances his way into a trance; and so on. These scenes are rich with sound and color, and most of them are not discussed by the characters. They form a separate layer of understanding, unavailable to those who merely read the printed script. In addition to the themes and ideas portrayed by the words the actors speak, the audience of a performance also witnesses a series of rituals enacted on stage as they used to be enacted in village markets.

Compare and Contrast

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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 Soyinka is invited to be a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University, he is invited to talk about not literature, but about anthropology.

1986: Soyinka becomes the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is both an acknowledgment of his importance to world literature and an opportunity to attract even more readers around the world.

2000: High schools and colleges routinely offer courses in World Literature, and these courses increasingly include African and other so-called Third World literatures. Soyinka’s plays, including Death and the King’s Horseman, are frequently included in textbooks.

1953: In the nation’s first official census, 43 percent of Nigerians report themselves as Muslims; 22 percent label themselves Christians; 34 percent are recorded as followers of ancestral religions.

1999: Fewer Nigerians now practice traditional religions. Approximately 50 percent are Muslims, 40 percent are Christian, and only 10 percent adhere to ancestral beliefs.

1945: Few opportunities for higher education are available for blacks in Nigeria. Formal education consists mostly of missionary schools, and does not extend beyond the secondary level.

2000: Nigeria has an extensive system of public schools as well as many religious schools. There are several universities, and a few medical schools affiliated with teaching hospitals. Nigerians pursuing medical careers need not go abroad for their education.

Media Adaptations

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Death and the King’s Horseman has not been filmed or recorded.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading
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 Death and the King’s Horseman, are brief.

Gibbs, James, ed., Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, Three Continents Press, 1980. A collection of critical essays on Soyinka’s plays, poetry, memoir and criticism from a variety of perspectives. The book is now somewhat dated, and many of these essays may be difficult for the general reader, but the essays are consistently insightful and the collection is thorough.

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 Granqvist, University of Umea, 1990, pp. 137-148. Gotrick delineates the two major interpretations of the play as Elesin’s failure or as a clash of cultures and concludes that readers and viewers are likely to choose an interpretation based on their level of ‘‘Yoruba competence.’’ The analysis is based on the 1987 New York production, and the article includes three photographs from that production.

Levy, Patricia, Nigeria, Marshall Cavendish, 1996. Part of the Cultures of the World series, this volume is intended for middle school and high school students. Accessible but substantial, it gives an objective overview of Nigeria’s history and geography, and explores the religions, languages, arts and festivals of the major ethnic groups. The many colored pictures illustrate dramatically the ways in which Nigeria is like and unlike North America.

Maduakor, Obi, Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing, Garland, 1986. This volume is intended to make Soyinka more accessible to Western students by explaining the playwright’s world view, his use of mythology, and his use of language. Maduakor analyzes Death and the King’s Horseman as a play about transition from one spiritual world to another, paralleling the passage of the hero-god Ogun.

Wright, Derek, Wole Soyinka Revisited, Twayne, 1993. An excellent introduction to Soyinka’s life and work, with an emphasis on Yoruban traditions and themes as they inform Soyinka’s writing. Wright’s discussion of Death and the King’s Horseman focuses on the changes Soyinka made to the actual historical events, demonstrating how these changes reinforce the themes of interrupted ritual and substitution. the early years and early works, and on Soyinka’s


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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.” Research in African Literatures 25, no. 1 (Spring, 1994): 47-60. Treats the play from a social and political perspective, focusing on the social conditions influencing Elesin’s moral position.

Ralph-Bowman, Mark. “‘Leaders and Left-Overs’: A Reading of Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman.” Research in African Literatures 14, no. 1 (February, 1983): 81-97. Emphasizes the spiritual aspects of the play, portraying Elesin as a failed Christ figure whose actions constitute blasphemy and Olunde as a redemptive figure, upholding his culture despite exposure to the West.

Richards, David. “Owe l’esin oro: Proverbs Like Horses: Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature. XIX, no. 1 (1984), pp. 86-97.

Whitaker, Thomas R. “Wole Soyinka.” In Post-Colonial English Drama, edited by Bruce King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Describes the play as a revision of Yoruba folk opera, under the influence of Western tragedy and Ibsen-like realism. Argues that all moral positions in the play are made problematic by the mingling of Western and African traditions.

Williams, Adebayo. “Ritual and the Political Unconscious: The Case of Death and the King’s Horseman.” Research in African Literatures 24, no. 1 (Spring, 1993): 67-79. Applies to the play the concept that ritual acts carry out political functions through a kind of collective unconscious. Argues that Elesin’s suicide acts to reinforce the ruling class.

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Critical Essays