By: Wole Soyinka
Subject Matter: Elesin; Nigeria; History
This play reminds me a lot of Things Fall Apart, a fairly well-known novel also set in Nigeria during British rule. So if you’ve read that, you’ve got a pretty solid idea about the general subject matter of this play.
According to Soyinka’s note at the beginning, Death and the King’s Horseman is “based on events which took place in Oyo, ancient Yoruba city of Nigeria, in 1946.” So it’s not a purely literary experiment, though it is Soyinka’s interpretation.
It’s a deeply postcolonial piece of literature. It’s all about the clash of cultures, and imperialism, and racism, and “the savage,” and barbarism, and misunderstanding. But this is exactly how Soyinka didn’t want his play to be explained; he claims it is “a reductionist tendency” and is much more interested in “the play’s threnodic essence.”
While I fully understand the fear of reducing this play to nothing more than another artifact of British imperialism, I don’t think you can ignore it quite so quickly. I think the context of this play makes it, and is not “a catalytic incident merely,” as Soyinka argues. If that were true, then the historicity of the event wouldn’t matter at all and wouldn’t need to be mentioned.
However, imperialism is not the only factor at work in this play. Soyinka ends his author’s note with this line: “Death and the King’s Horseman can be fully realised only through an evocation of music from the abyss of transition.” (He’s referring to the transition between life and death, I believe.)
And this I find very interesting. Sure, music plays an obvious role in the play. But read the play with those words in mind and you can see how this really works. It speaks to the Yorubas’ ability to reading stories in the drums, to the annoyance the white District Officer feels at the sound of the same drums, and to the dirge Soyinka is so quick to point to at the end of the play.
It makes me really wish I had seen this play acted and not just read, so I could hear it.
It’s a strange read. Don’t be discouraged by the first page (riddles abound in this play!). And it’s a painful read, especially with the benefit of hindsight.
But it’s also a philosophical exploration of the act of death, the most continuing and universal mysteries of them all.
For more works like this one, check out these suggestions:
(for similar themes all around)
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
(for other postcolonial literature)
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Salt by Earl Lovelace
Xala by Sembene Ousmane
(for other African drama)
Woza Albert! by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barney Simon
Changes That Heal by Henry Cloud
The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissmer