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In Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, national interest, culture take centre stage


A scene from Death and the King’s Horseman’s performance

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Indian sage and political activist, describing the extent colonialists wanted their colonies to do away with their cultures, by destroying cultural artefacts and making them change their thinking, said: “A nation’s culture resides in the heart and in the soul of its people.”

Though Gandhi and Wole Soyinka, author of Death And The King’s Horseman, are of different creed and clime, they are both products of the same colonial heritage.

Thus, an interrogation of the African’s cultural heritage was the subject of Death And The King’s Horseman presented by the Live Theatre Lagos in conjunction with Radisson Blu Anchorage, last week, at the Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture hall, Ikeja, Lagos.


Set in the early 1940s of Oyo Kingdom, the drama opens with the Elesin Oba (Patrick Diabuah) showing resentments at the way the community handles his welfare.

As Oyo tradition demands, Elesin Oba must commit death before the late Alafin (King) is buried. This belief is predicated on the view that Elesin’s spirit will precede and clear the way for the transition of Alafin’s spirit to the great beyond.

When the news of Elesin Oba wanting to fulfil his traditional obligation for the late Alafin gets to Mr. Pilkings, the British Colonial Administrator, he quickly sends the police to stop and arrest him. He describes the age-long act, as quaint and repugnant. Pilkings’ arrest of the torchbearer at the point of execution of act — the rites of passage — set off multiple tragic trajectories and dislocations in the kingdom.

Olunde, the first son of the Elesin Oba, a medical student in England, who returns home to bury his father, as tradition demands, commits suicide to fill the void created by his father’s inability to commit death as required by tradition for the soul of the late oba to have a companion in the journey to the world beyond. The Elesin Oba also takes his own life in captivity, when the reactive natives present the corpse of his son to him.

Directed by KelvinMary Ndukwe and produced by Oluwanishola Adenugba, the play explores themes, which include communal responsiveness and responsibility, arrogance, self-sacrifice, self-preservation, selfishness, national interests and sacrilege.

The characters interpreted their roles very well. They showed mastery of their lines in words and with their body languages.


The stage light properly illuminated the performance arena as well as showed the different periods — night and day — and even the coloured moon. This aided comprehension and made clear the various happenings and scenes.

The costume and music were apt. The costume tells the period and cultural environment, while the music, though in Yoruba, gives the story the needed punch, advising the living on the need to lead a clean life. Perhaps, for space, the director used minimal casts, yet the production came out fine.

However, one cannot fail to see the antithesis of culture –– acculturation or imposition of a belief.

Here, Pilkings, a personification of British government and culture, tried to use the machinery of colonial powers to truncate a practice that has unified the people for generations, made them what they are and allowed for peace and tranquillity in the community.

His actions showed the duplicity of the colonial masters, who during the WWI coerced people, especially blacks to fight and die on their behalf, so that they could remain relevant in world politics, but would not see any good in a person who chose to sacrifice his life to save his community from chaos. This is so, because without the sacrifice, nothing works in the community –– no planting, trading, marriage and even births for both man and animal; life would be at a standstill.


The play highlights the tragic consequences associated with diminished sensibility and understanding of intercultural behaviour, communication and tolerance between the British colonial rulers and the people of Oyo.

Also, Pilkings could be a representation of any person or group of persons who see either their culture or other people’s culture as nonsensical that must not be dealt with.

These philistines sometimes go to the extent of destroying cultural artefacts either through legislations or otherwise.

However, the overall lesson is not only embedded in the human sacrifice, as shown by Olunde, because across the globe people are still killing themselves, either through suicide bombing or other means as a way to draw attention to a cause or to effect a particular change in the society.

Rather, it should be generalised to include the way people view life and death, knowing that every mortal must surely die and as such need to lead a good life and die for a cause that would outlive one.

Calling on Africans, including those in the Diaspora to be conscious of their culture, think home and relate to their people, Soyinka used Olunde to tell Africans that irrespective of their qualifications and statuses, they should never neglect their roots.

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