Notes on Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman
This play deals in part with the inability or refusal of one culture to understand another that it has subordinated, but more importantly it deals with the reflection of a culture on its own traditions and values at a moment of crisis.
Briefly, we should note the joyous quality of this scene, the celebratory and processional quality of it. This is what Eleshin has lived for: this day. He and others around him know the significance of the day, and rejoice in the experience and understanding of it. It’s reaffirmative of life and their entire culture, reaffirmative of the continuity between the living and the dead, and it will keep the world centered.
3036-43. Sgt. Amusa is horrified when he sees Pilkings wearing a Yoruba mask. Amusa is supposed to have converted to Islam, but he is still astonished to see Pilkings disrespecting the culture from which he comes. It's obvious that the mask retains its power for him: "Sir, it is a matter of death. How can man talk against death to person in uniform of death? Is like talking against government to person in uniform of police." Much of this scene consists of Pilkings showing just how uncomprehending and insensitive he is regarding his colonial subjects. Amusa has collaborated in the repression of his people by helping to stamp out their customs, and Pilkings insults the man nonetheless. He also insults Joseph the servant, who is a Christian, on 3038. And on 3039, it seems that Joseph is the one who makes it clear precisely what may be going on in the Yoruba town: "You mean the chief who is going to kill himself?" This is news to Jane and Simon Pilkings. On 3041, Pilkings reveal something I find interesting about his attitude, and strangely, it turns out later that it would probably have been better for him to follow his own instincts rather than try to stop what's going on. He says, "I don't have to stop anything. If they want to throw themselves off the top of a cliff or poison themselves with the sake of some barbaric custom what is that to me? If it were ritual murder or something like that I'd be duty bound to do something." He sees the King and is Chieftain-servant as nuisances and doesn't really care what happens to them. All the while, the Brits are preparing for the evening's entertainment – a ceremonial ball in honor of his Royal Highness, who is visiting the colony.
3043-47. The first half of the scene is devoted to something like a ritual humiliation of Amusa, who is clearly doing the bidding of his Imperial superiors. It is he who has tipped off the Europeans about what is happening here in the market. The women make potent jokes about his manhood or lack thereof, and it stings him to the quick. We notice that under stress, his speech alters markedly from the limited but standard British that he must speak around his employers to the mixed dialect of his own people. The little girls in particular are fun to listen to while they parody the British manner of talking and acting. That is on 3045-46. The older women rejoice in this little performance, seeing in it a great deal of strength and intelligence.
3047-51. This half of the scene, by contrast to what has gone before, is a celebration of Eleshin's masculinity as he prepares for his end. He performs the act of generation with his bride, and then begins to dance and go into a trance with the assistance of the Praise-Singer. There is a question and answer session between those two as the women dance around them. This session seems to be meant to explain the true nature of what is happening and about to happen, and it attests to the readiness of Eleshin to carry out his final action. It is not difficult to catch the sense of connection between the members of this world and the next: the Praise-Singer's words about those who inhabit the other realm do not simply exalt them, but instead an implicit demand is made that they should treat Eleshin with honor.
3051-53. This scene opens with some British ceremony to contrast with the ritual preparation we have encountered in the first three scenes. The Resident shows himself to be a man of very little comprehension regarding Yoruba culture, even as an air of emergency is struck up at the very outset of the scene. All he can do is prattle on about how the natives like bright colors and hats.
3054-55. More interesting is the conversation between Jane Pilkings and Olunde, which is both painful and illuminating: Jane thinks that going to Oxbridge must by now have dashed out all of the ancient culture in this young Nigerian man, but it quickly becomes clear that she is mistaken. Olunde asks, "And that is the good cause for which you desecrate an ancestral mask?" And he goes on to say "I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand." This is on page 3054. This mask is itself an emblem for the power of the ancestors and the importance of a meaningful death in this culture. It is a culture in which the dead are not finally dead and their spirits may even be alive in the bodies of their descendents. The death mask is not a trivial cover for pleasantries but rather a conduit that links the living to the dead. Furthermore, when Jane tells him about the British man who blew himself up going down with the ship in the harbor, the anecdote only serves to show how differently the two cultures regard death. Olunde thinks the British Capt.'s actions were justified, but Jane is horrified by them. Much of this Jane seems to regard as arrogance, which is a typical charge leveled by colonial masters against their subjects.
3056-57. Olunde tries to explain what he has learned in Great Britain and from his own reflections as he matures. He tries to explain that his father Eleshin is "protected" by his own traditions and by what has already passed in the mind's eye. Apparently this is an important concept in Yoruba culture: Eleshin has already seen himself going through the ritual action he must perform; in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, he is already a dead man or rather he has passed on to another realm. He does not need protection from European authorities. Olunde's next point on 3056 is that what the white races are good at is survival, pure and simple. In other words, they can talk all they want about commerce, Christianity and civilization as did Dr. Livingston, but they are simply using others to survive. And a lot of their energy, he goes on to explain, is thrown into covering up this fundamental truth. White culture is a culture that thrives upon lying to itself about what it is up to. Olunde has learned the truth about European war from those who suffered through it in his studies as a medical student. We see that Olunde does not accept Europe's right to define his people in comparison to what the West offers as its own story.
3058-59. Olunde reveals that he himself thinks as his father does. He says to Jane, "and anyway, my father has been dead in my mind for nearly a month. Ever since I learnt of the King's death. I've lived with my bereavement so long now that I cannot think of him alive. On that journey on the boat, I kept my mind on my duties as the one who must perform the rites over his body. I went through it all again and again in my mind as he himself had taught me." What the both of them need to do goes beyond individual human will or weakness or grief – it is, as he says, an action to be taken for the welfare of his people.
3060-61. The confrontation between Olunde and his disgraced father is wrenching to contemplate. Olunde says only, "I have no father, eater of left-overs." The man he sees before him does not match the man he has come to contemplate and accept in his mind's eye. Neither does Eleshin think any better of himself. He has failed in what he has spent his entire life preparing to do, and that's all that matters to him now. Jane is at least sympathetic, though I don't think she really understands what's going on. This scene, which began with British pomp and pleasantry, now shows no trace of ceremony at all – just the stark confrontation between father and son.
3061-65. Eleshin tries to explain to Pilkings exactly what he has done by preventing the ritual sacrifice. It is not merely a personal tragedy, but the world is no longer able to sleep, it is not at peace. Eleshin says that there was a particular moment related to the location of the moon that was to be his sign to move on to the next realm. The spirits had given him notice to prepare and be on his way. Yoruba religion is not particularly hierarchical, with a transcendent God or set of gods, but instead relations between this world and the other are transactional and constant. In other words, the two realms communicate. I think that's the case with a lot of cultures – it certainly would be a good description of the way the Greeks regarded the realm of Hades, this world, and Mount Olympus above. Each realm has its own prerogatives but is in communication with the others. There is no more center or security now: Eleshin says, "The world is set adrift and its inhabitants are lost. Around them, there is nothing but emptiness." He sees Olunde as his avenger – the young man has learned the white man's ways, and will find some means to make things, if not right, then at least not so unbearable. On 3063, Pilkings attempts to wield Yoruba sayings against Eleshin, but fails.
3164-65. Even so, as Eleshin explains to his own bride, there is a sting in what Pilkings had said. He tells his bride, "You were the final gift of the living to their emissary to the land of the ancestors, and perhaps your warmth and youth brought new insights of this world to me and turned my feet leaden on this side of the abyss. For I confess to you, daughter, my weakness came not merely from the abomination of the white man who came violently into my fading presence, there was also a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs. This is something like a Garden of Gethsemane moment, wherein Jesus was tempted to let the cup pass, tempted to avoid the sacrifice he knew in his heart must be made. Except that Jesus passed that test – his humanity did not keep him from accepting the heroic burden. Eleshin is very hard on himself; he feels that he has utterly failed in his duty towards his people and his king. He does not use the white man Pilkings as a means of escaping this disgrace. On 3065, Iyaloja is allowed into Eleshin's presence, and humiliates him but at the same time explains accurately the consequences of his failure.
3066-67. Iyaloja insists that Eleshin has revoked his own heroic status, and become a coward and slave to the European colonists. His life had been spent preparing for this moment of following the King as his loyal horseman, and because that was so he was treated royally, eating the best food, dressing in great style, and garnering tremendous respect from everyone around him. His whole life was a celebration in preparation for ceremonial death. He has now rendered his life meaningless. At the bottom of 3066, Eleshin again explains what he thinks is the source of the weakness that struck him down: "It is when the alien hand pollutes the source of will, when a stranger's force of violence shatters the mind's calm resolution, this is when a man is made to commit the awful treachery of relief, commit in his thought the unspeakable blasphemy of seeing the hand of the gods in this alien rupture of his world." He almost saw the intrusion of Pilkings as divine intervention. The question that Iyaloja asks Eleshin is filled with terrible import to him: "Whose trunk withers to give sap to the other? The parent shoot or the younger?" Iyaloja knows that Olunde will sacrifice himself because Eleshin has failed to do his duty. The younger man must lose his vigor and even his life to make up for what the father has done.
3068-71. The only thing left is for the death of Olunde to be attested. His body is the burden of which Iyaloja had spoken rather cryptically moments before. Eleshin must impart a secret message to the body of his son. There is no comfort for Eleshin in any of this, I suppose, for Iyaloja says to him, "The son has proved the father Eleshin, and there is nothing left in your mouth to gnash but infant gums." As Iyaloja explains directly after Eleshin strangles himself before anyone can stop him, even in the other realm, he will be treated as a lesser man than his son. There is no final redemption, no real relief at the point of death for this unhappy man. He has become the emblem of a disrespected culture. In the end, I believe Wole Soyinka is not writing only to protest imperial domination of his homeland, though that would by no means be an illegitimate thing to do. The tragedy that Eleshin suffers is indeed related to that domination, but it is not simply caused by it. His suffering and disgrace also have to do with Yoruba culture itself, for it is first and foremost within that culture that he has failed. And the weakness he describes is, I think it's fair to say, universal in its nature. It is the stuff that led Nikos Kazantzakis to write The Last Temptation of Christ. And what is that last temptation? Simply the desire to live one's life, not to be a hero, to give in to the attractions of this world. This is a harsh burden that many cultures, perhaps all of them, would impose upon the distinguished.