Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Death and the King’s Horseman is as good a modern play as any I am familiar with. In this 1975 Nigerian drama, Wole Soyinka brilliantly seizes on a literary possibility granted him by a painful history: he synthesizes the festal form of traditional Yoruba drama—which he explains at length in an essay included in this volume, “Theatre in Traditional African Cultures”—with European modes, particularly the ironic-tragic pageantry of Euripides in the market scenes and Shavian social satire when treating the dangerously bumbling English colonizers.
The plot: the title character, Elesin, is obliged to follow his king into death; when the English district officer, Pilkings, hears of Elesin’s intention to commit ritual suicide (an act that coincides with the Prince’s visit to Nigeria on a tour of the colonies), he resolves to put a stop to it. Predictably, Pilking’s high-handed interference brings on chaos and destruction—though Elesin himself is not blameless, arrogantly claiming a young bride on the eve of his death, an act that creates further complications. This is a simple but mysterious tragic action, obeying the unities of time, but richly elaborated in a language that can seemingly do anything, from the scabrous lyricism of the praise-singer to the well-intentioned hauteur of the district officer’s wife to the exuberant sexual taunting of the market girls to the chastened anti-colonial sensibility of the king’s horseman’s English-educated son. Brief quotations will not give an adequate sense of the play’s vitality and variety, so I will simply recommend that you read it.
This Norton Critical Edition, edited by Simon Gikandi, is immensely useful. It contains an essay on Yoruba cosmology that provides context for Elesin’s actions as well as the aforementioned history of traditional African theater by Soyinka. There is also an example of Yoruba drama—Duro Lapido’s The King Is Dead—to demonstrate the indigenous materials Soyinka was adapting to his hybrid drama. As for the literary criticism gathered here, two standouts are Anthony Appiah’s essay that gently upbraids Soyinka for reifying “Africa” in a partial and culturally nationalist way (i.e., making Yoruba culture into a romanticized “traditional Africa” while contemptuously dismissing Christianity and Islam) and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s lucid explanation of the play’s complex affiliations and disaffiliations with European tragedy. A 1992 article by Tanure Ojaide on teaching the play in American classrooms offers a concrete illustration of the cultural translations necessary to make Soyinka’s vision legible even in the postcolonial academy, though Ojaide does include some hair-raising language about African-American students and about gender that would probably not pass by an editor today.
I was most entertained—if that is the word—by a confrontation between a Marxist critic and Soyinka himself. The critic, Biodun Jeyifo, complains that the play “rationalizes the rule of the dazzling FEW (Elesin) over the deceived MANY (the women, the retinue, Amusa, etc.).” Unlike Appiah’s persuasive challenge to Soyinka’s romantic nationalism, this polemic (in my view) flattens the play’s complexity and irony—as if Elesin were a simply positive figure! Soyinka replies with an energetic rebuke (originally published in a volume edited by Jeyifo himself, I note) that is one of the best writerly replies to reductive ideological criticism I’ve ever read, and here I’ll end:
In other words, the desire to ‘put off Death’, ‘to come to terms with Death’, to ‘communalise’ Death so as to make it more bearable for the individual, ‘to humour Death’ (a quasi-magical propitiation), these are all social and individual devices and of course they make for untidiness in ‘scientific’ systems, so they have to be wished away. Now the actual forms which such devices take can of course be translated in terms of property and productive relations, etc., the most direct expressions of which have been the slaughter of slaves and retainers, mummification, domestic animal cult, egungun and other court-oriented cults, etc., etc. The poet, especially the mythopoet, is not entirely satisfied with that secondary level of forms of inventiveness or appropriation, however, and while he deals in concrete manifestations, may choose not to further reduce the original primordial fear by new extra epochal analytical games. For that is to move away from the mythopoeic source—and for no discernible illuminating results for the specific poetic enterprise. Nobody, I hope, will tell us that the fear of—or at the very least, the resentment of, sense of unpleasantness about, etc.—Death is simply due to the failure of the individual or society to as yet exist within an egalitarian environment. My suspicion is that this need to communally contain Death will always be there. Whether indeed the desperation with which this primary (human) hostility to death is sublimated under historico-materialist incantations is not in itself a superstitious device for evading the end of the material self is a question that can only be resolved by a deep probing of the critic’s deeper sub-conscious. Certainly it leads easily to a tendency towards ‘vulgar Marxist criticism’ or, in this context, superstitious Marxism.