Tradition and Leadership Roles in Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman

African drama, like all other versions of drama and theatrical performances, has its roots in the age-long tradition of mimesis and role playing which emanated from Man’s quest to perform certain rituals to appease nature to change the course of certain natural phenomena. This led to the birth of earliest forms of religion. History has shown that Africans have a long history of such performances and sacrificial rituals (de graft and Olaniyan: 2007). However, with the coming of modern time ala colonialism and neocolonialism, history, as fragile and instable as it is, is being suppressed to conform to the wishes of certain personalities and groups (Jeyifo 2007). The whole history of Africans has been subjected to rewriting, and often grotesque, distortions either by the colonialists or Africans themselves. However, a crop of African playwrights and writers set forth on a mission to correct those historical fallacies especially through the use of theatre which is considered the easiest and non-elitist way of transmitting message to larger society.

Indeed, the accessibility and mien of drama could not be more aptly described than in the following words of Sebastian Mercier as quoted in Jeyifo (1985):

The theatre is a lie; the thing to do is to bring it as close as possible to the greatest truthfulness. The theatre is a painting; the thing to do is to make this painting useful, that is to say, to make it accessible to the greatest possible number of people so that the picture which it represents will serve to link men together… (780).

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Soyinka: Background to Myth and Rewriting of African History
Though generally seen as a non-committed writer, some of Soyinka’s works have betrayed this popular opinion about him though often in a subtle manner. One of those works is Death and the King’s Horseman in which the playwright subjects many postulations and heresy about Africa under close scrutiny and succeeds; not only in debunking the fabricated postulations but also goes the extra mile to turn existing assumption on its head. Understanding Soyinka’s craft in Death and the King’s Horseman requires a recall of the writer’s artistic antecedent and experience.

The play itself, as Soyinka admits in its preface, was a product of a real life incidence which he remodeled into a fictional work. However, the deeper reading of text extends its relevance beyond the transmutation of a factual account into a fictional work of theatre. Taken together, Death and the King’s Horseman, is more of an extended metaphor; a deliberate attempt at cleansing history by way of acting out history and, at the same time, reacting to popular imperial historical account about Africa and their barbarism.

As Ogunba (1994) once remarks, Death and the King’s Horseman is one of Soyinka’s works that are greatly indebted to Soyinka’s early life at both Ake and ISara where he observed happenstances that were later to shape not only his life but that of his generation at the height of incompatibilities between different beliefs and ideologies. It was at this time that little Soyinka garnered considerable information about both Christianity (at Ake) and the traditional Yoruba religion (at Isara), the experiences that were to shape the author’s art and philosophy in later life. Coupled with the experience about society (especially the primitive Isara), Soyinka also underwent a rigorous political tutelage under Reverend Ransome-Kuti, then principal of Abeokuta Grammar School, whom Ogunba (op cit) describes as “easily the most impressive person in young Soyinka’s world at the time”. The sum of information garnered by Soyinka through both deliberate tutelage (as did Ransome-Kuti) and child inquisitiveness, Soyinka comes to relay in some of his works on colonial period including the Death and the King’s Horseman which, according to Ogunba, would have been commended by Ransome-Kuti, if he were alive, for its “flawless anti-colonial logic of argument” (7).


Death and the King’s Horseman cover

Of Re-acting and Reaction
According to Soyinka (2007), the Yoruba drama which he represented in Death and the King’s Horseman, has an old history and ontological grounding with beliefs and worships among the Yoruba people:

Yoruba tragedy plunges straight into the ‘chthonic realm’, the seething cauldron of the dark world will and psyche, the transitional yet inchoate matrix of death and becoming… the Yoruba does not for that reason fail to distinguish himself from the deities, between himself and the ancestors, between unborn and his reality, or discard his awareness of the essential gulf that lies between one area of existence and another. (Soyinka: 2007, 365 – 66).

In Death and the King’s Horseman Soyinka attempted to re-produce the experience of the African society with colonialism amidst cultural chasm that existed between the two people (black Africans and white Europeans) as well as the incompatibilities between the ideologies and philosophies of Africans and the Europeans. To achieve this, Soyinka use both African and European characters in the text to explore his ideas on leadership, tradition and the differences between people.

Principally, the playwright explores leadership styles on two fronts: the meaning and weight of leadership according to the Yoruba (represented by Elesin Oba) and leadership in the eyes of the Europeans (represented by Samuel Pilkings). While Elesin thinks that leadership is about responsibility which should be discharged even at the expense of one’s life, Pilkings takes his responsibility less serious and risks lives and peaceful coexistence of people for his personal fun and enjoyment.

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Despite reservation of every living creature about death and love for life, Elesin Oba whose position requires him to kill himself with the death of the Oba is gleefully willing to commit the ritual suicide to save the people of what will happen to society when that rite is not performed. See, for example, how Elesin willfully dance his last in the market and pronouncing words like these without any remorse:

This night I will lay my head upon their lap
and go to sleep…

This is the last air I wish to breathe as I go
to meet my great forbears. (p.10).

The willed suicide, for Elesin, is not the end of life but rather a transition to another, more desired, life: “A life that will outlive fame and friendship” (15).

Soyinka’s treatment of the ritual aspect of the play; the sacrificial suicide, is, in a way, a subtle statement about what Williams refers to as “very handy (way) in rebutting Western assumptions of cultural superiority over Africa.” Which, contrary to the Western interpretation, is “expression of human needs and desires” as well as another means of “reactualisation of direct relations between a people and their god to a drive towards the seasonal regeneration of the forces of the sacred” (p 90).

Therefore, because the people, too, are happy of what Elesin prepares to do and consider it something sacred and beneficial to the society at large, they accord him so much respect and reverence. For what he sets to do, the market women crown him: “The town, the very land was yours.” They also consider it a taboo to offend such a ‘great man’ and ‘responsible leader’. “If we offend you now, we have mortified the gods. We offend heaven itself. Father of us all, tell us where we went astray” (16).

However, on the other hand, Soyinka portrays British style of leadership as an irresponsible one as shown through the character of Mr. Pilkings. On pages 24 – 25 we have seen how Captain Amusa, the Native Authority police come to Mr. Pilkings desperately wanting to report something important to him and he meets Mr. and Mrs. Pilkings dancing. Instead of listening to what Amusa has to say, Pilkings shuns him and continues preparation for a party with the visiting Prince.


PILKINGS: It’s hopeless. We’ll merely end up missing the best part of the ball. When they get this way there is nothing you can do. It’s simply hammering against a brick wall. Write your report or whatever it is on that pad and get yourself out of here… (25).

When he is later informed of the exacerbation of the situation, Pilkings still refused to take action or properly coordinate but rather asks Amusa to go and arrest Elesin. These are pointers to differences in leadership style between the two persons and by extension between Africans and Europeans.

Another equally important theme which also draws the contrast between the characters of African natives and the white colonialists is the issue of tradition and differences between the two people in the text. Soyinka has portrayed Africans as highly traditional, religious and deeply conservative as seen in the character of Amusa and by extension the Yoruba characters in the play. However, the Europeans appear to be culturally insensitive and inconsiderate of religion.

Though Captain Amusa is a Muslim he is considerate of traditional beliefs and customs and respects them. He still believes in the powers of egungun masquerade though it is a symbol of pagan belief. When Amusa sees the Pilkings in egungun costume he is shocked as he believes it has supernatural powers that should not be played with. The episode below reveals the extent to which Amusa respects tradition which Pilkings has no regards for:

AMUSA: (stammers badly and points a shaky finger at his dress): Mista Pirinkin… Mista Pirinkin…
PILKINGS: What is the matter with you?
JANE: (emerging) Who is it dear? Oh, Amusa…
PILKINGS: Yes it’s Amusa, and acting most strangely.
AMUSA: (his attention now transferred to Mrs. Pilkings) Mammadam… you too!
PILKINGS: What the hell is the matter with you man!
JANE: Your fancy darling. Our fancy dress.
PILKINGS: Oh hell, I’d forgotten all about that. (Lifts the face mask over his head showing his face. His wife follows suit.)
JANE: I think you’ve shocked his big pagan heart bless him.
PILKINGS: Nonsense, he’s a Moslem. Come on Amusa, you don’t believe in all this nonsense do you? I thought you were a good Moslem.
AMUSA: Mista Pirinkin, I beg you sir, what you think you do with that dress? It belong to dead cult, not for human being.
PILKINGS: Oh Amusa, what a let do you are. I swear by you at the club you know – thank God for Amusa, he doesn’t believe in any mumbo-jumbo. And now look at you!
AMUSA: Mista Pirinkin, I beg you, take it off. Is not good for man like you to touch that cloth.

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Apart from the above episode, there are other instances which suggest a gulf between people in terms of tradition. The principal example here is the move by Pilkings to stop Elesin from killing himself which, as Williams (1994) affirms, forms build-up to the crises in the play. While Pilkings consider the ritual suicide a barbaric custom that should be stopped. Elesin and the natives are not at all happy by the action of Pilkings because, according to them, Elesin’s suicide is a blessing and honour to him and the society in general as it will ensure that the late King arrives the great beyond with full hononur. Similarly, to the chagrin of Jane and Simon Pilkings, Elesin’s son, Olunde, who has spent good time in London does not condemn the ritual suicide as primitive and barbaric, as they think he would, but rather moves to the extent of killing himself to save the family the shame of not accompanying the corpse of the deceased Oba.

Abdulaziz Abdulaziz reviews Death and the King’s Horseman

In Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka not only attempt to re-tell an African real story using his own perception and views about the African and European societies but also succeeds in exploring how differences in worldviews can generate conflict (not the masculine ogre!) between people. The playwright shows how the misunderstanding of African culture and tradition brewed misunderstanding and unnecessary rumpus between colonial administrators and the natives. Soyinka, it can be concluded, gives Africans an upper hand over the Europeans in this text through his depiction of insensitivity, inefficiency and uncivilized conducts of Mr. Simon Pilkings as District Officer.

Tradition and Leadership Roles in Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman was originally published in the 2011 edition of ANA. It is published here in partnership with Association of Nigerian Authors.

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