Death and the King's Horsemen

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A: Wole Soyinka Pf: 1976, Ife, Nigeria Pb: 1975 G: Trag. in 5 scenes; prose and verse S: Town of Oyo, western Nigeria, during the Second World War C: 9m, 3f, extrasFollowing Yoruba religious practice, Elesin Oba is about to commit ritual suicide in order to accompany his late chief, the Alafin of Oyo, on his journey to the spirit world. On the way to his death, Elesin, who is escorted by a group of praise-singers and drummers, encounters a beautiful young woman in the marketplace. Although she is engaged to the son of the market-woman Iyaloja, Iyaloja gives her blessing to Elesin's marriage to her before he dies. Meanwhile, the British District Officer Pilkings and his wife throw a fancy-dress ball to welcome the arrival of the Prince of Wales, and unwittingly commit sacrilege by dressing in egungun masquerade costumes, to be worn only when invoking the spirits of the dead. The ball is attended by Olunde, Elesin's eldest son, whom the Pilkings took from his native home to send to medical school in England. Far from being grateful, Olunde now feels alienated from his own community but equally not accepted by the white Europeans. At the ball he argues with Jane Pilkings about the colonial attitudes of the British. When Pilkings learns of the ‘barbaric’ ritual of Elesin's suicide, he orders the arrest of Elesin and the dispersal of the worshippers. However, the market-women, led by Iyaloja, hold back the soldiers long enough for Elesin and his bride to be wed. Elesin enters a trance, but does not die owing to ‘a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs’. Elesin is arrested by the police, and Olunde confronts him angrily for reneging on his duty to the gods. Olunde offers himself instead for ritual sacrifice, and, when his corpse is carried in accompanied by a dirge from the worshippers, Elesin finally finds the strength to take his own life.

A: Wole Soyinka Pf: 1976, Ife, Nigeria Pb: 1975 G: Trag. in 5 scenes; prose and verse S: Town of Oyo, western Nigeria, during the Second World War C: 9m, 3f, extras

Death and the King's Horsemen, arguably the best play to emerge from West Africa, became the internationally most successful of Soyinka's plays and set him on the road to winning the Nobel Prize. While Western audiences tend to read the play as one about colonial intervention in native African tradition, Soyinka insists that this is merely a ‘a catalytic incident’. Indeed, the timescale is confused: the incident on which the play is based occurred in 1946, the play is set in the Second World War, and yet there had been no Prince of Wales since 1936. The focus of the piece is on the confrontation between the Western-educated Olunde, like Soyinka no longer truly a part of his own community and yet not accepted by the whites, who finds a path back to himself, to the spirits of the dead, and to his native soil by fatally embracing ancient ritual. It remains ambiguous, however, whether Olunde's sacrificial act will restore harmony.


Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

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