Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman (1975) contains elements of a Greek tragedy. However, Soyinka has adeptly created a unique work of drama. Written in five acts, and performed without interruption, the play contains dialogue interspersed with choral songs (in free verse, to be accompanied by drums). The chorus reiterates what has been said previously, offers historical background, and provides foreshadowing. This hybrid drama – Greek choral tragedy, Yoruba efe and idan sketches, English drawing-room comedy and Vaudevillian slapstick – is a singular contribution to twentieth century theatre.
In keeping with Greek tragedy, Elesin, the play's tragic hero, becomes increasingly aware of his flaw: too great an interest in the material and sensual nature of corporeal life. Unlike the Greek tragedies, where, upon recognition of his/her flaw, the tragic hero dies, Elesin is intent, in concert with the traditional ritual, on taking his own life prior to revelation of his weakness. Ancient Yoruba tradition mandates that on the night of the king's burial, his horseman should commit ritual suicide, thus conducting himself and the king into the afterlife, in order that they should reunite with their “forebears”.
As a mechanism for prompting Elesin toward the awareness of his flaw, Soyinka introduces a diverse cast. Iyaloja is “mother” of the market, a Yoruba woman of great wisdom and insight; Simon Pilkings, a British District Officer, interferes with Elesin's “passage” and various other indigenous customs, to comic effect; Jane Pilkings, wife of Simon, is typecast as a shallow-minded Briton; Sergeant Amusa, “Native Administration” policeman, is caught between African tradition and British colonialism; and Olunde, eldest son of Elesin, reveals strength of character and loyalty to Yoruba. Though the list of characters continues, Iyaloja, Olunde, and Simon Pilkings are of paramount importance to the drama of Elesin. Through such characters, Soyinka educates audiences regarding the tragedy depicted in the play, exemplified through Elesin.
In keeping with Greek and Elizabethan tragedy, the language of this play is both noble and poetic. Elesin's speech harbours eloquent riddles and poetry; he communicates with an educated and intelligent air. As the king's horseman, a station associated with royalty, this display of refinement is expected. His riddles leave listeners dumbfounded, while his breaches in the ritual call-response format, which lead up to his “suicide”, indicate a capacity for fear. Elesin is capable of poetic story-telling, as demonstrated in his recounting of the tale of the Not-I bird, a self-revelatory fabrication gesturing toward his fear of death. The tale foreshadows Elesin's procrastination: death comes calling, yet the farmer, the hunter, the pupil, the courier, the kinsman, and the courtesan make excuses. In conclusion to the tale, the Not-I bird offers a poignant reminder: “that even those / We call immortal / Should fear to die.” (13). Each persona in the tale of the Not-I bird is a reflection of Elesin's fear of death and avoidance of duty.
Though he is antagonistic, Elesin is embroiled in conflict, both internal and external. At the beginning of Act 1 Elesin is introduced as “a man of enormous vitality, [who] speaks dances and sings with that infectious enjoyment of life which accompanies all his actions.” Everywhere he goes he is “pursued by his drummers and praise-singers”. Elesin demonstrates courage in the face of his fate:
My rein is loosened.
I am master of my Fate. When the hour comes
Watch me dance along the narrowing path
Glazed by the soles of my great precursors.
My soul is eager. I shall not turn aside. (14)
Yet, Elesin's lust for the things of this earth, and his penchant for speeches, song and dance temporarily prevent him from his duty. Though the fate of the world, as the Yoruba believe, is in Elesin's hands, he is distracted by the beauty of a young girl. Elesin desires her and uses the ritual as a means of acquiring her:
Who speaks of pleasure? […]
Our acts should have meaning […]
let me travel light. Let
Seed that will not serve the stomach
On the way remain behind. Let it take root
In the earth of my choice, in this earth
I leave behind. (20-21)
Though Elesin is adept at avoidance through riddles, he eludes Iyaloja's intelligence only temporarily. She reaches understanding quickly, replying in riddles of her own:
Elesin: Your eyes were clouded at first.
Iyaloja: Not for long. It is those who stand at the doorway of great change to whose cry we must pay heed. And then, think of this – it makes the mind tremble. The fruit of such a union is rare. It will be neither of this world nor of the next. Nor of the one behind us. As if the timelessness of the ancestor world and the unborn have joined spirits to wring an issue of the elusive being of passage … Elesin! (22)
Her cleverness is noted throughout the play as she infuses passages with poetic song:
Iyaloja (dancing round [Elesin]. Sings):
He forgives us. He forgives us.
What a fearful thing it is when
The voyager sets forth
But a curse remains behind. (16)
Great courage is portrayed in the character of Iyaloja, who, though never forgetting Elesin's nobility and privilege, is unafraid to confront him when his actions threaten communal well-being: “You wish to travel light. Well, the earth is yours. But be sure the seed you leave in it attracts no curse” (23).
Elesin and Iyaloja's relationship is complementary. Elesin needs Iyaloja to orchestrate his last wishes and to prompt him toward his duty. It is Iyaloja who ultimately reunites Olunde with his father, ensuring Yoruba redemption from the resulting chaos of Elesin's flawed character, and interference by Pilkings. The Praise-Singer's last speech describes the fall of Elesin and the tentative salvation of his people:
Elesin, we placed the reins of the world in your hands. You sat with folded arms while evil strangers [Pilkings] tilted the world from its course and crashed it beyond the edge of emptiness. Your heir has taken the burden on himself. [T]his young shoot has poured its sap into the parent stalk, and we know this is not the way of life. Our world is tumbling in the void of strangers, Elesin. (75)
Olunde takes his own life, respectful of Yoruba tradition, in an attempt to set their world on its rightful course. Regarding Olunde's sacrifice, Iyaloja speaks to Pilkings: “[I]t is what you brought to be, you who play with strangers' lives, who even usurp the vestments of our dead, yet believe that the stain of death will not cling to you. The gods demanded only the old expired plantain but you cut down the sap-laden shoot to feed your pride. There is your board, filled to overflowing. Feast on it” (76).
While Death and the King's Horseman is tragic, it retains strong elements of political satire. Satire is an excellent tool, used to make readers laugh indulgently and superficially, only to realize, belatedly, an important message. Much of that satire resembles Vaudevillian set-pieces; a prime example of this is the portrayal of Sergeant Amusa. The reader first encounters Amusa in Act 2: “The dance goes on for some moments and then the figure of a ‘Native Administration' policeman emerges […] with what is obviously a long standing bewilderment [h]e stiffens […] his expression one of disbelief and horror. In his excitement he upsets a flower pot” (23).
The image of this Muslim man, made ridiculous in the uniform of the colonial police, respectful of revered tribal customs, though differing from his own, is poignant. Through Amusa, audiences are aware that regardless of tribal differences, the Africans in this play are heightened in status when compared to the cultural vandalism of the British. Specifically, the weird sight of the Pilkings in egungun costume dancing a tango:
Amusa (without looking down): Madam, I arrest the ringleaders who make trouble but me I no touch egungun. That egungun itself, I no touch. And I no abuse ‘am. I arrest ring leader but I treat egungun with respect. (25)
Amusa's attitude is respectful of difference. Similarly, Soyinka draws a cultural parallel between the Africans and the British through the dialogue between Olunde and Jane Pilkings:
Jane: The ship had to be blown up because it had become dangerous to the other ships, even to the city itself. Hundreds of the coastal population would have died. The Captain blew himself up with it. Deliberately. Simon said someone had to remain on board to light the fuse.
Olunde: It must have been a very short fuse.
Jane (shrugs): I don't know much about it. Only that there was no other way to save lives. No time to devise anything else. The captain took the decision and carried it out.
Olunde: Yes … I quite believe it. I met men like that in England.
Jane: Oh just look at me! Fancy welcoming you back with such morbid news. Stale too. It was at least six months ago.
Olunde: I don't find it morbid at all. I find it rather inspiring. It is an affirmative commentary on life.
Jane: What is?
Olunde: That captain's self-sacrifice. (51)
In further conversation with Jane, Olunde endeavors to explain the paternalistic nature of British colonialism.
The fact that Soyinka wrote Death and the King's Horseman while at Cambridge University, where white English people would be his primary audience, is a political statement. Through character depiction, an audience will react to the image of the British with indignation. How is it that a society presuming cultural superiority is filled with such destructive conceit? This questioning is orchestrated by Soyinka to point an accusatory finger outward, into the audience. Not only are the British inflicting their presence physically, they are also forcing their ways into sacred Yoruba traditions:
Pilkings [to Jane]: Amusa's report. Listen. ‘I have to report that it come to my information that one prominent chief, namely the Elesin Oba, is to commit death tonight as a result of native custom. Because this is criminal offence I await further instruction at charge office. Sergeant Amusa.'
Jane: Did I hear you say commit death?
Pilkings: Obviously he means murder.
Jane: You mean a ritual murder?
Pilkings: Must be. You think you've stamped it all out but it's always lurking under the surface somewhere. (26)
Too often human nature is to quell that which seems foreign, made excusable under the guise of progress:
Olunde: I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand (50).
Death and the King's Horseman has spawned a literary critical industry through its complexity and controversial subject matter. Through this play, audiences are not only given a historical education, they are approached with a responsibility to acknowledge past wrongs inflicted upon a people.