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Sacred Suicide: Re-Reading Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman Forty Years After

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka is an acknowledged classic of world theatre. It has been staged across the continents to wide acclaim. The drama has in the course of time garnered critical and popular plaudits from the literati and the general theatre aficionados. The genius abroad is that the celebrated play was written in a weekend by Wole Soyinka! In the course of the 2009 production of Death and the King’s Horseman at the Olivier National in London, Soyinka told Bunmi Akpata-Ohohe of Africa Today magazine (Vol. 15 No. 6, June 2009): “I am not a methodical writer. I’m not one of those writers who get up in the morning or middle of the night, and start writing. However, from the moment I began writing Death and the King’s Horseman, it was written over a weekend. Yes over a weekend and that was unusual for me. That does not mean I did not come back to it later.”

Death and the King’s Horseman was first published in 1975 by Eyre Methuen in Britain. Aside from the original print I have had course in the passage of time to read other editions, especially the 1984 Six Plays copy published in one volume with five other Soyinka plays, namely: The Trials of BrotherJero, Jero’s Metamorphosis, Camwood on the Leaves, Madmen and Specialists and Opera Wonyosi. This re-reading published here comes from the 2002 Norton paperback imprint published in New York, USA.

It is indeed in character that Death and the King’s Horseman is “dedicated in affectionate greeting to my father, Ayodele who lately danced, and joined the Ancestors.” No greater dedication can be made to Soyinka’s father, Essay, whom he so evocatively celebrated in his childhood memoirs, Ake – the Years of Childhood, published in 1981. Incidentally it was his father who first directed Soyinka as a child actor in the play that the future Nobel Laureate played the role of The Magician in primary school. Soyinka was in exile when his father died, and his mother warned him not to come home to Nigeria unless he was prepared to bury her too! Soyinka had to perforce stay away, only to send in a taped message played at the burial which put the security operatives in all makes of trepidation. Soyinka’s father danced in glory to join the ancestors much unlike the eponymous protagonist of Death and the King’s Horseman who meets with unmitigated tragedy that literally unhinges the cosmos.

In his Author’s Note to Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka writes: “This play is based on events which took place in Oyo, ancient Yoruba city of Nigeria, in 1946. That year, the lives of Elesin (Olori Elesin), his son, and the Colonial District Officer intertwined with the disastrous results set out in the play. The changes I have made are in matters of detail, sequence and of course characterization. The action has also been set back two or three years to while the war was still on, for minor reasons of dramaturgy.” The incident had earlier inspired the play Oba Waja by Duro Ladipo. Soyinka frowns strongly at reducing Death and the King’s Horseman to a “clash of cultures”, stressing: “The Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely. The confrontation in the play is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle which is Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind – the world of the living, the dead and the unborn, and the numinous passage which links all: transition. Death and the King’s Horseman can be fully realized only through an evocation of music from the abyss of transition.”

The trauma of Elesin hinges on an avid lover of life who must dance to death at his finest hour. When Elesin in full glory blazes into a passage through a market in its closing stages, the world beholds a man in fine fettle, emoting all that life has to offer. The Praise-singer is loud in song such that Elesin revels that he can still enjoy the praise-singing services after crossing over to the other side: “Far be it for me to belittle the dwellers of that place but, a man is either born to his art or he isn’t. And I don’t know for certain that you’ll meet my father, so who is going to sing these deeds in accents that will pierce the deafness of the ancient ones.”

The king is dead, and in the line of custom his horseman must follow him to the other world. It is the ordained obligation that the traditional world must never be wrenched from its true course, save that the horseman introduces the mystery of the Not-I bird.  Elesin wants the best before departure, demanding of the women and their leader Iyaloja to be dressed up in the finest damask, alari etc. An unrepentant lover of green things, Elesin deigns to have his last tryst with a virgin already betrothed. Iyaloja bows to the importunity of the man of the moment: “You wish to travel light. Well, the earth is yours. But be sure the seed you leave in it attracts no curse.”

Iyaloja’s hint of a curse paradoxically immanent in the seed of the future foreshadows the tragedy of the son bearing the burden of the father.

Against the backdrop of the unfolding tragic circumstances, the happy-go-lucky District Officer Simon Pilkings willfully plays tango with his wife Jane, donning the costume of ancestral spirits. The bifurcation of European bacchanalia and African gravity lends to Death and the King’s Horseman a tension that is well-nigh beyond knee-jerk resolution. Sergeant Amusa cannot bear to look at Pilkings and Jane toying with the venerated cloth, crying: “Sir, it is a matter of death. How can man talk against death to person in uniform of death?”

It is indeed instructive that it’s while clowning with the egungun mask that the word reaches Pilkings about the impending ritual suicide of Elesin as being propelled forth by the drumming rending the air. Pilkings dutifully leaves instructions for Sergeant Amusa to arrest the ringleader of the suicide mission who plans to “commit death” without bothering with the ruinous end of the ill-advised charge. Pilkings’ houseboy Joseph, a Christian convert, divulges the forces at play in the land to his master thus: “It is native law and custom. The King die last month. Tonight is his burial. But before they can bury him, the Elesin must die so as to accompany him to heaven.”

Soyinka adroitly illuminates the colonial master’s inheritance of the groundwork of the early missionaries in the instance of Joseph’s shock at Pilkings’ denigration of the Christian holy water that leads to Jane’s utterance: “It isn’t my preaching you have to worry about, it’s the preaching of the missionaries who preceded you here. When they make converts they really convert them. Calling holy water nonsense to our Joseph is really like insulting the Virgin Mary before a Roman Catholic.”

Elesin’s death dance is poised on the knife-edge of his wedding to his new bride, leading to the doubts as per the drumming being for a funeral or a wedding. Poised to make his arrest no matter what, Sergeant Amusa runs into the blockage of the girls and the women led by Iyaloja. The animated girls in the play-within-the-play arrest the attention of Sergeant Amusa so completely that he answers “Yessir” while snapping to attention when the girls bellow: “Sergeant!” It is all great fun even as tragedy looms in the background.

The third act of the vintage five-act drama showcases the trademark Soyinka tragic trance as in no other play. The trance witnessed in, for instance, Madmen and Specialists ascends a notch higher in Death and the King’s Horseman as the Praise-Singer urges on Elesin to transcend the void between the living and the dead: “How shall I tell what my eyes have seen? The Horseman gallops on before the courier, how shall I tell what my eyes have seen? He says a dog may be confused by new scents of beings he never dreamt of, so he must precede the dog to heaven. He says a horse may stumble on strange boulders and be lamed, so he races on before the horse to heaven. It is best, he says, to trust no messenger who may falter at the outer gate; oh how shall I tell what my ears have heard? But do you hear me still Elesin, do you hear our faithful one?” In the trance of dance Elesin is a vessel in transport, yielding as though to the call from the other world, from the abyss. His awareness of his surroundings can no longer be guaranteed. However, after the compelling high of the trance it’s all downhill for the King’s Horseman.

In the course of the masque being staged by Pilkings for the visiting Prince of England, the ritual suicide of Elesin resurfaces as a crucial emergency. Then Elesin’s son, Olunde, who had been away in Britain studying Medicine makes a sudden appearance back home, having been apprised of the king’s death and very much aware of the burden on his father’s head as the king’s horseman. Pilkings had facilitated Olunde’s study trip abroad much to the chagrin of Elesin which led to the father placing a curse on his son. But instead of his stay abroad making Olunde to adopt the western away he turns out to be more rooted in his African mores as his heated exchange with Pilkings’ wife Jane depicts: “No I am not shocked Mrs Pilkings. You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.”

For Olunde, it does not stand to reason that the English people should condemn the ritual suicide of the Yoruba people while extolling the self-sacrifice of the ship captain who blew himself up in the course of World War II as a measure to save the lives of the coastal population of Britain. Olunde rails against the European misplaced belief “that everything which appears to make sense was learnt from you.” There is no meeting-ground between Olunde and Jane who would have none of the barbaric culture: “However cleverly you try to put it, it is still a barbaric custom. It is even worse – it’s feudal! The king dies and a chieftain must be buried with him. How feudalistic can you get!” Mrs Pilkings simply cannot put his finger on the abiding bond between Olunde and his father, wondering thus: “But he had disowned you. When you left he swore publicly you were no longer his son.” For the education of the questing lady, Olunde replies: “I told you, he was a man of tremendous will. Sometimes that’s another way of saying stubborn. But among our people, you don’t disown a child just like that. Even if I had died before him I would still be buried like his eldest son.”

It’s indeed unthinkable for Olunde that his father is still alive. Through the change in the beat of the drums Olunde becomes somewhat assured that it’s all over, that his father had died as tradition demands. The tension of the drama seizes the day when Olunde suddenly hears the voice of his father. Then he beholds the handcuffed man and instantly freezes into a statue. Olunde is looking but not seeing while his distraught father collapses at his feet. The only words Olunde can utter are fraught with omen: “I have no father, eater of left-overs.”

Lamentation becomes the lot of the disgraced king’s horseman who wails to his new bride thusly from his cell of bondage: “First I blamed the white man, then I blamed my gods for departing me. Now I feel I want to blame you for the mystery of the sapping of my will. But blame is a strange peace offering for a man to bring a world he has deeply wronged, and to its innocent dwellers. Oh little mother, I have taken countless women in my life but you were more than a desire of the flesh. I needed you as the abyss across which my body must be drawn. I filled it with earth and dropped my seed in it at the moment of preparedness for my crossing. You were the final gift of the living to their emissary to the land of the ancestors, and perhaps your warmth and youth brought new insights of this world to me and turned my feet leaden on this side of the abyss. For I confess to you, daughter, my weakness came not merely from the abomination of the white man who came violently into my fading presence, there was also a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs. I would have shaken it off, already my foot had begun to lift but then, the white ghost entered and all was defeated.”

The so-called “civilizing” mission of the British goes all wrong when two lives are lost instead of just one. The son Olunde takes the bullet as it were for his dishonorable father, killing himself. Uncovering the shawl wrapping the dead Olunde, Iyaloja stresses the point for the benefit of the incarcerated Elesin: “There lies the honour of your household and our race. Because he could not bear to let honour fly out of doors he stopped it with his life. The son has proved the father Elesin, and there is nothing left in your mouth to gnash but infant gums.” For the Praise-Singer, Elesin’s woe marks the end of the world as it is known: “Elesin, we placed the reins of the world in your hands yet you watched it plunge over the edge of the bitter precipice. You sat with folded arms while evil strangers tilted the world from its course and crashed it beyond the edge of emptiness…”

Too late, in a sudden access of will, according to the playwright’s stage direction, “Elesin flings one arm round his neck, once, and with the loop of the chain, strangles himself in a swift, decisive pull.” Father and son are thus gone, leaving only the seed in the womb of Elesin’s new bride. It is incumbent on the Bride to close the eyes of Elesin and pour some earth over each eyelid of the dead man. Iyaloja has the final word for the young widow: “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.”

Death and the King’s Horseman is total theatre encompassing lofty poetry, song and dance, the metaphysical, psychic intuition, myth, politics and the vast gamut of knowledge of life and death and the afterlife. Ever since it was published in 1975, Death and the King’s Horseman has been hailed as a masterpiece by eminent critics across the globe, and I can only end here with the words of the distinguished American scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr., in his 1981 essay “Being, the Will, and the Semantics of Death”: “Soyinka has invented a tragic form, and registered it in his own invented language, a fusion of English and Yoruba. Surely this is his greatest achievement. For, in the end, Death and the King’s Horseman itself stands as a mythic structure, as a structure of reconciliation.”

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is the author of God of Poetry, Satan's Story, A Play of Ghosts and The Missing Link. A 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing nominee, he wrote the text for Scottish photographer Owen Logan's caricature of Michael Jackson's visit to Nigeria entitled Masquerade. He lives in Lagos and is married with children.

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