After the high of M. Butterfly, I wasn’t sure how another play would measure up or meet my expectations. I feel like I set Death and the King’s Horseman up for failure, but on the other hand, it just didn’t have the same sparkle or verve that Hwang’s play had had. At the same time, it was a very different but intriguing reading experience.
Elesin Oba is the king’s chief horseman, whose son has been sent to England to study by diplomat Simon Pilkings. When the king dies, Elesin is expected to commit ritual suicide, as a means of accompanying his ruler to heaven. His son would therefore take his place as king’s horseman. But the collisions of Africa and The West intercede: Pilkings decides to get involved to save Elesin’s life. And then, Elesin’s son returns home to take his father’s place. The drama hinges around Yoruba culture and western cultural appropriation, as well as the binds of duty, family, and honor.
While reading the play, I felt as if Soyinka had incorporated elements of classic Greek drama (the chorus, call-and-response, poetry in monologue) into his contemporary Nigerian play. He also skillfully highlighted the clash of cultures, particularly in the way Pilkings and his wife Jane used a death mask as a costume for a party. Their failure to see the inappropriateness of their dress and behavior is a skillful example of the “ugly American” that sometimes typifies these kinds of stories. While this play was not my favorite, it was an interesting read and something that gave me much to contemplate.