In Death and the King’s Horseman, Wole Soyinka tells the dramatized version of true events that happened in the Yoruban city of Oyo in 1946. A Colonial District Officer interrupted a traditional ritual suicide which then led to the death of both the original man committing suicide and his son who committed suicide to take his place. Although Soyinka changes some of the details, such as changing the year and adding a wedding, the heart of the story remains the same. Because of the interference of a colonist who didn’t truly understand the culture and the significance of the suicide, two lives were lost instead of one. The actions of each character, major and minor, in the play are motivated by the sense of duty. Neither Elesin Oba nor Pilkings appear to be fully committed to fulfilling their duty, but they attempt to do it nonetheless. The minor characters all also have opinions on the resolution of the two main characters’ resolution to fulfill their duties.
In the opening act of the play, Elesin Oba (here out referred to as Elesin) stands in the marketplace as he discusses life, his imminent fate, and a new bride with his praise-singer . According to Moses Adebayo Aremu, a scholar published in the Journal of Pan African Studies, the play opens with the praise-singer “warning or rebuking Elesin to beware of his hedonistic attitude, carnal lust, and Epicureanism” (121) in the back and forth proverbs about the cockerel. The praise-singer and Iyaloja express their doubts about Elesin’s willingness and readiness to go through with the ritual suicide many times throughout this first act. Iyaloja expresses her doubts most bluntly at the end of the act when she says, “The living must eat and drink. When the moment comes, don’t turn the food to rodents’ droppings in their mouth” (Soyinka 17). She continues in this vein for several exchanges, requesting that he be kind to the living spirits when he is gone, and to be sure “the seed you leave in [the earth] attracts no curse” (18). Elesin is offended at her doubts and implications, but he pretends that he is not. It is not simply the praise-singer and Iyaloja, however that have doubts. The women of the market question Elesin when they call out, “You will not delay? Nothing will hold you back?” (10). The praise-singer and Iyaloja both sense Elesin’s apprehension at the upcoming task, and they reprimand him for traits that they feel might jeopardize his willingness to go along with the ritual.
On the other hand, Elesin is eager to show off how honorable he is and how eager he is to perform his duty, but there is tension. When the praise-singer and he are discussing how the presence of white colonialists interfered with Yoruba before, Elesin is adamant that he will not let them interfere. The praise-singer says, “If that world leaves its course and smashes on boulders of the great void, whose world will give us shelter?” and Elesin replies, “It did not in the time of my forebears, it shall not in mine” (6). He also implies several times during the conversation that it is the gods will that the whites will not interfere. He moves on to manipulate the crowd with the knowledge of what the night will bring. He snaps at them, “Stop! Enough of that! … I am bitterly offended” (11). He turns it into a joke, laughing as they bring him rich cloths to wear. After spotting a young woman and essentially demanding that he be allowed to marry her before he dies that night, he claims, “I deserve a bed of honour to lie upon” (15). The women, multiple times throughout the act, say, “We know you for a man of honour,” (11). Elesin is boastful throughout the whole act. He describes himself as having eyes that are hawks, as being the master of his Fate, and as having an honor that is a legacy to the living. According to Summer Pervez in her article Performing British Power: Politics and Perfromance Space, by the end of this act, “Elesin’s hesitations are evident to the reader” (65).
The second act takes us out of the sphere of the Yorubans and into District Officer Pilking’s bungalow, “a colonial site of power” (Pervez 65). In this act, Pilkings receives news of the upcoming ritual suicide, bemoans possibly missing the ball, and harasses his Yoruban servants. He exerts his power over Amusa, a native policeman, by attempting to force Amusa to deliver news to himself and his wife while they desecrate sacred masks. He says, “I order you to report your business at once or face disciplinary action” (19). Amusa refuses, and eventually writes down the report after they’ve left the room. After showing that Pilkings has absolutely no respect for the culture of the Yoruban people, he misinterprets Amusa’s note to mean that they will be doing a ritual murder. His wife, Jane, is immediately disappointed. “Oh. Does that mean we are not getting to the ball at all?” Pilkings responds, “No-o. I’ll have the man arrested… I’ll send Joseph with instructions” (20-21). Instead of doing his duty and investigating what’s going on, he decides that he would rather go to the ball because the prince will be attending. His wife guilts him into at least asking a few questions before arresting Elesin. “But don’t you want to talk first to the man? … It seems hardly fair just to lock up a man-and a chief at that-simply on the… uncorroborated word of a sergeant” (21). Pilkings is determined not to miss the ball, but Jane reminds him of his duty. “You know this business has to be stopped Simon. And you are the only man who can do it” (25). His sense of duty catches up with him, though, and he apologizes for severely offending Joseph, his steward-boy, because he wants Joseph to deliver a message to Amusa. The apology is very difficult for Pilkings, but he does it because he needs the job to get done. This whole act is a balancing act between showing that Pilkings has no respect for anything and showing that when it comes down to it, he will do his duty.
In the fifth and final act of the play, Pilkings has stopped Elesin from committing suicide and locked him up in a cell for the remainder of the night. It is in this act, mostly clearly, that the audience can see the two men’s conflicting senses of duty. Pilkings has succeeded. Elesin has failed. Elesin blames everyone but himself for his failure to complete the ritual. “First I blamed the white man, then I blamed my gods for deserting me. Now I feel I want to blame you…” (53). He does eventually admit that blaming everyone else won’t solve the issue, but it is not until Iyaloja enters and severely reprimands him that the audience can see his full shame at his failure. Elesin says, “I more than deserve your scorn” (55) and Iyaloja gives it to him. For three whole pages, she lays into him because he has neglected his duties. He has failed. He attempts to redeem himself by committing suicide after finding out that his son has committed the ritual suicide in his place. In this way, he ends the play by fulfilling his duty, but he is too late.
Pilkings experiences the opposite situation in that he feels successful at the start of the final act, but by the end of it, he has failed. He begins the act by attempting to be in camaraderie with Elesin, but Elesin is having none of it. “You did not save my life, District Officer. You destroyed it” (50). Still, Pilkings continues to feel successful. “I did my duty as I saw it. I have no regrets” (51). He feels righteous in his interference with a man and a culture that he does not understand. As more and more people arrive at the prison cell, Pilkings becomes more irritable. The play culminates in the double suicide of father and son. Pilkings has failed. Instead of preventing the death of one man, he has caused the death of two.
Death and the King’s Horseman is a powerful drama that deals with many complicated issues including death, colonialism, right to die, and self-determination. The characters in it are complex and have their own reasoning for each action that they do or do not take. Soyinka’s skill as a playwright allows the audience to know that he dislikes Pilkings and still form their own opinions. Both men in the play inevitably fall from grace largely from their own faults. Pilkings felt that he had the right interfere with a suicide he didn’t understand, and Elesin didn’t have the willpower to go through with the suicide. They both attempted to do their duties, but when the heart isn’t in it, they fail.
Aremu, Moses Adebayo. “Proverbs As Cultural Semiotics In Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman.” Journal Of Pan African Studies 8.5 (2015): 115-125. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.
Pervez, Summer. “Performing British Power: Colonial Politics And Performance Space In Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman.” Philosophia Africana: Analysis Of Philosophy And Issues In Africa And The Black Diaspora 11.1 (2008): 61-73. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.
Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. London: Eyre Methuen, 1975. Print. 1 Apr. 2016.