‘Death & The King’s Horseman’ by Wole Soyinka is a play based on real-life events and sheds interesting cultural insights and beliefs of the people of Yoruba. For anybody who is a resident of a former British colony, parts of the play will seem incredibly entertaining, maybe not as much for readers who don’t have the historical context of what it means to grow up in a country that still hasn’t been able to shake off its colonial hangover.
The story is about Elesin, the horseman of a Yoruba king, and he is expected to carry out ritual suicide to follow the King in the afterlife. The tribe believes the king’s soul would be lost if he isn’t accompanied by the horseman and that can have disastrous consequences for his people. When the British officers learn about Elesin’s plan to kill himself, they decide to foil the ritual by arresting him.
The play isn’t sub-divided into acts, and is only four scenes long. Scene one is all about Elesin parading through the market with drummers and praise singers, as they prepare for his final journey. While it’s an interesting set-up, scene one felt a little dull, perhaps because its overladen with metaphors, and Yoruban sayings (in English), so it’s hard for non-African readers to grasp the in-depth meanings of what’s being said. It doesn’t help that Elesin isn’t a very likable character, even as he prepares to die, he uses his position to exploit a young woman, to have one last sexual jaunt, before his last eternal journey. There’s a lot of sexually charged double entendre that the characters exchange, even though it might seem like philosophical musings to casual readers who aren’t interested in reading between the lines.
It’s from scene two that Soyinka’s story really comes to life, and where we first start to see the subtle tensions between the white ‘masters’ and their underlings. Some of the most interesting characters in the play are introduced in this section, like Mr Pilkings, the arrogant (and maybe even atheist) district officer who orders his men to ensure Elesin does not commit ritual suicide. His wife is more sensitive to local customs and sentiments, and it’s actually in the British couple that we seen an interesting contrast of character. From scene two on, I found myself laughing out loud at several points and enjoying Soyinka’s wit and observations of the human behavior. The contempt for the British man’s absurd sense of justice is palpable through the pages. Like there’s one scene, where Elesin is informed how the officers have ‘shoot at sight’ orders if his followers try to brew trouble and he laughs on how they are willing to kill more people so that one man doesn’t kill himself. Yes, irony is strong in this one.
On one hand, Soyinka illustrates the British empire’s failure to understand or respect local traditions and customs, at the same time, he also highlights how the locals fail to evolve by clinging to primitive customs, hampering their own progress. ‘Death & The King’s Horseman’ powerfully portrays the power of community and rituals. Elesin’s son who was shown to be studying as a doctor in England, in in full support of his father’s suicide and is even ashamed when he learns that officers interrupted the ritual. It also serves as a strong reminder of how education cannot change deeply ingrained beliefs of a people. Well, that still hasn’t changed has it?
The climax felt a little rushed and abrupt and for some reason I was perhaps hoping for more. While, I haven’t read any of Soyinka’s other works, this short play is brilliant in bits and makes the reader curious about his other works.
It’s a 4/5 from me.
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