Themes and Meanings
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 when it is clearly inferior. The defeat, if there is one, must come from within.
What Simon does not even try to grasp, and what Jane begins to understand only after it is too late, is the metaphysical world of the Yoruba that makes the fancy-dress ball of the English pale in comparison. The entire play is built around the cosmic significance of Elesin’s death. Act 1, through the warnings of the Praise-Singer and Iyaloja, places a heavy burden on Elesin and makes him affirm that he knows his duty and can fulfill it. The potency of the Yoruba metaphysic is visible even in Amusa, who has converted to Islam. Elesin’s son Olunde has spent years in England studying medicine, but he returns to Nigeria when he hears of the King’s death, and he approves of his father’s traditional role. When his father fails to carry out the suicide, he performs the act himself. When Elesin fails, his own guilt and shame cause him to blame others rather than accept the failure of his own will that is the real cause. Finally, however, his son’s death makes him admit his weakness, and he attempts to recover something of his dignity when it may be too late. As Iyaloja states, his trudging through the excrement of the King’s horse in the transition passage is still the act of a man within a meaningful metaphysic.
The final scene reinforces what the play has been about-not a clash of cultures but the inadequacy of one culture to judge another. Simon Pilkings, in a weak, frustrating attempt to restore Elesin to life after Elesin has willed his own sacrificial death, reveals the pitiful helplessness of a mere public servant trying to control a cosmic event. This night, exactly one month after the King’s death, is as important to the Yoruba as the Crucifixion is to Christians. Simon simply cannot grasp it. Iyaloja and her people, however, know that the night’s events have been precarious. The future of their world is in doubt because one man, Elesin, in a ritual role, proved to be weak of will.