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Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka.

August 15, 2014

Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka.  Hill and Wang (1975), Paperback, 76 pages.


A powerful drama by a major African writer challenging the arrogance of Westerners who claim that others are inferior and must accept “superior” Western values.

In 1986, Wole Soyinka was the first African to be awarded the Noble Prize for Literature. When Kinna mentioned celebration of his eightieth birthday last month, I picked up this book. I was very impressed by Soyinka’s talented writing and principles.

An incident that occurred in the 1940s in an isolated Nigerian village provided the factual framework for this play. The village tradition required that when their king died, his major adviser must “commit death” and be buried with him.   Elesin, the King’s Horseman, has known all his life what his king’s death would mean for him. He is a vigorous man, not wanting to die, but accepting his fate. As the time for his ritual suicide approaches, he laughs with his people who want to give him everything he desires on his last day alive. When he spots an attractive young woman, she is given to him on the night before his death is planned. Drums beat to celebrate both the marriage and the expected funeral.   But the British District Officer hears about what Elesin is doing and determines to stop him. Olunde, Elesin’s eldest son, has been studying medicine in London.  Hearing that the king has died, he returns to his village to bury his father. He eloquently explains the importance of his father’s suicide. He asks why Westerners are determined to stop a man from an honorable act of ritual self-sacrifice when they are so eager to send millions of young men off to die defending their country.   Nothing happens as anyone would have chosen as the play ends, but Soyinka makes clear his commitment to a world where all people’s values and beliefs are respected, especially around matters of life and death.

Soyinka does not claim that the traditional practice of suicide is the “right” one.  What he does is to reveal the horror caused by claims of superiority by those who assume they are the model by which all life must be judged.  His is a scathing account of the intolerance and ignorance of colonizers.  In his “author’s preface”, Soyinka forceful attacks those who have misinterpreted his writings. He chides an American publicist who “unblushingly” wrote a blurb for a novel of his claiming was it was about the “clash between old values and new ways, between western methods and African tradition.” He strikes at the heart of colonialism and its claims of universal truth.

His play has resonance today as societies are still at each others’ throats over who gets to say what is “right,” even though colonial governments have been ended.  We still live in a world where a variety of groups claim to know best what others must do.  Soyinka has chosen to tell a story which where the traditional act is freely chosen, but it is an an act which may offend many of those who read or see his play.  The common western assumptions is that because human life is valuable, suicide must be stopped as the British in the play assume.  Soyinka forces us to see the situation differently.  Complications increase when tradition demands that the leaders of a group hurt others, as in genital mutilation or abortion. Often the victims are women.   Elesin is no victim, which is part of why this play is so moving.  I don’t see Soyinka laying down a rule that traditional rituals must always be allowed to continue.  Instead I came away from the play realizing that the imposition of western values may be the worst expression of belief in white supremacy.

I strongly urge others to read this short play. You will moved by it.  And forced to think about your own values.

Have others read this play?  What do you think of it?


Just after writing this review, I stumbled across a video about Wole Soyinka which provided me with a larger context for his work.  In it, other African authors praised him highly for his leadership in creating drama that was deeply African.  In particular, they talked about the ways he used African song and dance in plays like Death and the Kings Horseman.  They also told how he had become a hero to other Nigerians with his leadership in their fight against corrupt government and dictatorship.  I also read an article about Soyinka in the Daily Beast written by Chimamanda Adichie.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2014 3:09 pm

    Hmm, sounds very interesting. I would love to get the chance to see one of his plays performed.

    I find myself wondering about the woman ‘given’ to Elesin the night before his death. Is it wrong of me and is it imposing my Western values to find that objectionable? I think you suggest that harming others is the dividing line, but it’s not always clear-cut. I can’t tell from your description how the woman feels about it.

  2. August 15, 2014 5:50 pm

    yes, the questions are never clearcut which makes them interesting. The girl had been arranged to marry someone else and, in the play, was willing to marry and have his child instead. I sense that Soyinkra is not very sensitive to women’s needs, despite his other excellences.

    When I read plays I always feel I am missing too much–especially with this one. I can only imagine the music and dance.

  3. August 22, 2014 1:16 pm

    I studied this play in the sixth form. You’ve done an excellent exposition and review, Marilyn.

    I was actually at Soyinka’s launch of his book ‘Wole Soyinka at 80’ in Accra Ghana last month or so and I sat at the same table with Kinna and her mother Ama Ata Aidoo. 🙂

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