Thirty days after the King’s death, on the day of his burial, Elesin has to commit ritual suicide. He is to lead the King’s favourite horse and dog into the ancestor’s world. This ritual will ensure the harmony between the living and the ancestor’s world.
On the same day, the British Prince will be at the ball which District Officer Pilkings and his wife will be attending. When Pilkings hears of what Elesin will be doing, he intervenes and makes it his mission to stop him from committing what he calls a crime. Elesin doesn’t get to perform the ritual and is instead caught and bound in the Officer’s old slave cell. Elesin has to face the shame and betrayal to his people, as well as the corrective measure that his son takes.
This is a brilliant work of post-colonial theatre that achieves a great deal with the way it widely opens the window for us to look into the Yoruba culture, spirituality, politics, power, and the reclaiming of history.
The main characters play such significant roles in highlighting the main themes of the play. Elesin shows how the failure of a leader to carry out their duty has catastrophic implications for its leader. Elesin, a man who has been preparing for this moment, whose life has been anchored to this duty, eventually fails and not only because of the Officer’s interference but also because of his attachment to material things.
The Pilkings couple exemplifies the disrespect of indigenous people’s cultures and traditions by colonizers. Elesin’s duty to perform a ritual suicide, which parallels the British ship’s captain blowing himself up to save others, is not regarded by the Pilkings in that way. If it’s African it’s barbaric but if it’s British it’s traditional. This is the same with the way they disrespect the egungun costumes but place such importance on the ball.
Death and the King’s Horseman is a play with a colossal magnitude of artistic and political importance. It reflects not only Nigerian history and the cracks in it where stories need to be reclaimed but of Africa as well. Through this work, Soyinka reminds us of the necessity of drama and theatre as a powerful social and artistic tool. It invites a critical interrogation of colonial effects on African societies, then and now.
Not only does Death and the King’s Horseman bring to attention issues that need to be dissected and thoroughly discussed, but one has to also appreciate the language and style of writing used by Soyinka – rich, eloquent, and exquisite.
It’s a masterpiece and undoubtedly worth your time.