Soyinka, Wole Entries

Death and the King's Horseman


Of all the Norton Critical Editions I've read recently (and it seems like I'm busting right through my back-log over the past few weeks!), the one whose extra materials I found most useful is Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman. Which is kind of ironic, since a big theme in this post-colonialist Nigerian drama is the cultural arrogance of western white folks who think that because they've been educated in England, they know best how to interpret and control the cultural traditions of the "natives" colonized by the Crown. As I perused the appendices of my scholarly volume, all working to foster an understanding of Nigerian culture and "background sources" in the predominantly-white US undergraduate population, I'll admit to a rueful smile. What would Soyinka think of the book I'm holding in my hands? Obviously, I don't know the answer, but my bet is that he would feel, as he did about many things, somewhat ambivalent. Son of Westernized Anglican schoolteachers and educated in the most toney of Nigerian prep schools before leaving for University in England, Soyinka identified as "truly bi-cultural"; out of this background came a deep grounding in the Western canon, as well as the Yoruba beliefs of his grandfather, and an acquaintance with the ways in which the English thought of their own subjective perceptions as "natural" and "universal," and anything else as barbaric. Perhaps this background explains some of the reason that, in contrast to many of his liberation-era contemporaries, Soyinka wasn't primarily interested in educating white folks about Nigeria, but about making Nigerian literature that referred to its own subjective universe. From the introduction:

Soyinka has no patience for those who argue that works of art are most effective when they are clear, direct and didactic ... [He] was unhappy with the romanticism, naïveté, and idealization of the African image in classic African novels such as Camara Laye's The Dark Child. He understood the political imperative behind such works - namely, the desire by a whole generation of African writers to counter the European image of Africa - but was categorical in his belief that idealization was not a substitute for what he considered to be literary truth. However, in explaining why he had disavowed and attacked movements that celebrated African or black identity, Soyinka was keen to insist that he was not against the idea of the African world as such ... He wanted the African world ... to be taken for granted as a self-evident cultural experience. As far as Soyinka was concerned, the artist's commitment was not to a particular idea of Africa, a set of political or ideological commitments, but the self-apprehension of the African world.

I have to say, I was cheering Soyinka on here, and I hadn't even started reading his play yet. I've always found it so awkward - almost dirty-feeling - to be reading a novel about a non-US culture, and suddenly get the feeling that its primary goal is to educate US/European/first-world readers about The Other. I mean, novels where the narrator (or even the speaking character!) takes time out to explain every culture-specific term she uses: how unnatural is that? It makes it really difficult to craft believable characters, because who stops in the midst of their dinner preparations to think to themselves, "Now I'll open the refrigerator: a large metal box in the corner of my kitchen, which keeps my food cold via an electric current running through coils near the floor"? This kind of aside is so disruptive to the narrative, and so inaccurately representative of how peoples' minds actually work. (And yeah, that's a comic exaggeration, but I've read examples almost as bad! Even in novels as acclaimed as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, I got this vibe.) In actual life, people take for granted their everyday surroundings and cultural contexts, and I applaud Soyinka for creating characters who do so as well. At the same time, it does make the learning curve on his play a sharp one for anyone coming to it from the Western tradition.

Nevertheless, an aficionada of English literature is never wholly at sea. Death and the King's Horseman opens in an almost Shakespearean manner: Elesin, the primary horseman of the late king, engages in verbal parry and thrust with his "Praise-Singer" in a way that reminded me of a kind of reverse take on Lear's relationship with his Fool. They're bantering about Elesin's planned transition to the land of the spirits and ancestors; the king he served has died, and it's now his duty (along with the King's favorite horse and his trusty dog) to join his master. Central to the play's tragedy is the different metaphysical realities of Yoruba people and their English colonizers: for the English, an act they understand as "suicide" is both a crime and a sin, as well as the end of a life, whereas in the Yoruba cosmos (according to my Norton, at least), Elesin is merely helping the natural order of the world continue on its course by helping the spirit of his King through the door to the world of gods and spirits. Elesin greets his impending transition with cocky joy; he radiates strength and will, dancing with and around the market women, and singing a long song about the foolishness of those who attempt to evade Death. His Praise-Singer is his straight-man and his counter-point as he teases the women, and claims, on his prerogative as an honored man about to pass to the next world, one last young bride:

ELESIN      All you who stand before the spirit that dares
The opening of the last door of passage,
Dare to rid my going of regrets! My wish
Transcends the blotting out of thought
In one mere moment's tremor of the senses.
Do me credit. And do me honour.
I am girded for the route beyond
Burdens of waste and longing.
Then let me travel light. Let
Seed that will not serve the stomach
On the way remain behind. Let it take root
In the earth of my choice, in this earth
I leave behind.

In contrast to this vital, cocksure young horseman, we are introduced to the colonial bureaucrat Simon Pilkings, all set to attend a fancy-dress ball with his wife Jane (in ceremonial "death cult" attire confiscated from the natives, no less) when he gets word of the rumor that a local chief is about to take his own life. Because the Prince is visiting the colony, and because Simon wants to show he is in charge, he takes it upon himself to "save" Elesin from his impending death; tragedy ensues.

Despite certain references and metaphysical contexts of Yoruba life that might be unclear to Western readers, it's obvious that Soyinka is drawing heavily on the traditions of the Western canon as well. The contrast between Elesin's nobility and Pilkings's essential pettiness, for example, is communicated brilliantly through the differences in their modes of speech: whereas Elesin delivers most of his speeches in the nobility of blank verse, Simon's and Jane's speech is utterly banal prose, peppered with bourgeois British colloquialisms:

PILKINGS      You know the Prince is on a tour of the colonies don't you? Well, he docked in the capital only this morning but he is already at the Residency. He is going to grace the ball with his presence later tonight.
JANE      Simon! Not really.
PILKINGS      Yes he is. He's been invited to give away the prizes and he has agreed. You must admit old Engleton is the best Club Secretary we ever had. Quite quick off the mark that lad.
JANE      But how thrilling.

Without giving away too much of the plot and the tragic denouement, I'll just say that the final scene of the play does interesting things with this dichotomy that's been set up between the blind demands of bureaucracy and the individual's ability to be noble within the context of his or her own society. Soyinka apparently despised and fought against the tendency of critics to interpret his play as merely a chronicle of an oppressive colonial encounter, and pleaded with his audiences to look beyond the historical details of the play to the metaphysical truths within. I think the most universal message that I got out of Death and the King's Horseman is that even the traits we hold most intrinsic to our personalities - our confidence that we will react a certain way in a certain situation, our vitality, the decrees of our moral compass that X is right and Y is wrong - are dependent, not only on our general background and upbringing, but on our immediate circumstances, and can be altered forever in a single moment.

Death and the King's Horseman, like all plays, loses a lot by being read on paper rather than watched in performance. I don't read a lot of drama, for exactly this reason: plays yearn to be interpreted by a company, and reading them to myself always comes off as flat. Soyinka's work suffers perhaps more than most drama in this regard, because his Yoruba characters use music and dance as important modes of character expression - modes that are obviously not present in my head. Still, I am glad I read this play and some of its accompanying materials, and I would leap at the chance to see a good performance of it live.

(Death and the King's Horseman was my ninth and 800-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography