Who’s afraid of Elesin Oba?

The Nigerian film Elesin Oba (The King’s Horseman) was released on Netflix last month to widespread acclaim. The movie is an adaptation of Wole Soyinka, the country’s Nobel laureate and foremost playwright’s, most famous work, the 1975 Death and The King’s Horseman.

The Nigerian film Elesin Oba (The King’s Horseman) was released on Netflix last month to widespread acclaim. The movie is an adaptation of Wole Soyinka, the country’s Nobel laureate and foremost playwright’s, most famous work, the 1975 Death and The King’s Horseman. It was directed by Soyinka protégé, Biyi Bandele, who tragically died in August before the film’s Netflix release. A versatile artiste, Bandele, had previously directed the 2013 adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 Biafra novel, Half of A Yellow Sun, which was the largest grossing Nigerian movie of all time, before the release of Kemi Adetiba’s 2016 The Wedding Party. Bandele had previously also adapted Chinua Achebe’s 1958 classic, Things Fall Apart, for the stage in 1997.  His last work, Elesin Oba, is thus a fitting tribute to the illustrious career of a 54-year old director whom Soyinka described as “a unique talent…fired with creative zeal and sense of inspiration…a great loss to the creative world.”

The Play: Death and The King’s Horseman
Wole Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horseman was written – largely over a weekend – while the playwright was in exile at Cambridge University’s Churchill College in England in 1972/1973. The play pays homage to Yoruba theatre which was born out of the rituals of royal burial ceremonies. The work was partly inspired by the prejudiced British attitudes that Soyinka encountered in Britain, further triggered by the bust of arch-imperialist, Winston Churchill, which he walked past daily in the college.

The drama was based on real-life events in colonial British-ruled Nigeria in December 1944, when the Alafin of Oyo, Oba Siyenbola Oladigbolu died and his “Master of the Horse”, Olokun Esin Jinadu, failed to perform the ritual of following him into the Afterlife through ritual suicide. The Horseman was arrested by the British colonial officer upon learning of the planned death. Instead, Jinadu’s son, Murana, killed himself to avoid bringing shame to his family and community.

One of Soyinka’s most insightful biographers, James Gibbs, describes the five-scene play set in the marketplace in which Elesin Oba – surrounded by drummers and praise-singers – is exuberantly and joyfully dancing himself to death. Covered in elegant cloth by the market women, we see the egotistical Horseman’s obsession with libidinal earthly pleasures.

He convinces Iyaloja (mother of the market women) to let him marry a young virgin  – her son’s fiancé – as a way of spreading his seed and leaving a legacy before proceeding to join his dead monarch. Iyaloja reluctantly grants Elesin’s final wish, with a warning that he would be cursed if he failed to carry out his deadly duty.

Totally disrespecting traditional African customs, the British District Officer, Simon Pilkings, and his wife Jane, dress up in egungun (masquerade) costume to attend a ball at which the visiting Prince of Wales is present. Pilkings had earlier assisted Elesin’s son, Olunde, to win a scholarship to an English medical school.

As the Horseman tarries to fulfil his destiny, flamboyantly exhibiting the evidence of having deflowered his bride, he enters a deep trance and lingers in the gulf between the living and the dead, accompanied by musical elegies. His prevarication allows time for Pilkings to arrest Elesin in order to prevent him from carrying out what the intellectually shallow and culturally insensitive colonial officer and his similarly condescending wife consider a “barbaric” act.  As Elesin is imprisoned, Iyaloja comes to taunt and condemn him for having betrayed his King whose spirit will now roam the earth, and be prevented from entering the Afterlife. The Horseman has thus brought shame to the entire community. This chain of events results in further tragedy.

The Play: Performance and Palavers
One of Soyinka’s main goals in the play was to contrast the African embrace of death – based on the Yoruba cosmology of the interrelated trinity of the living, the dead, and the unborn – as a triumph in fulfilling a sacred ritual, with the Western perception of death as an unmitigated tragedy. His consistent reference to his patron deity Ogun – the god of iron, warfare, and creativity – is again present in this play as it was in A Dance of the Forests and The Road (both 1963). Just like Arab suicide bombers, Soyinka felt that the Western mind often struggles to grasp the idea of self-sacrificing ritual murder.

The Nobel laureate has directed his play three times: in Ile-Ife (1976), Chicago (1979), and New York (1987), preferring to see the work as a clarion call for a dialogue of cultures rather than a reductionist “clash of cultures.” The play was recently performed at Terra Kulture in Lagos in 2021. It has, however, historically attracted Nigerian critics, with the Westernised middle-class often rejecting the championing of “regressive” African traditions, and the worshipping of “pagan” African gods. Marxists criticised its “bourgeois elitism,” while “modernists” noted that British missionaries like Mary Slessor had stopped “barbaric” practices like the killing of twins in Calabar in the 1870s. Soyinka mounted a characteristically trenchant defence in a 1978 essay “Who’s Afraid of Elesin Oba?” in which he criticised the “vulgar Marxism” of Biodun Jeyifo and Femi Osofisan, complaining that “our intellectuals tend to construct a false or adumbrated reality of their own social milieu. The more ‘historical’ their claims the less factually history-conscious their analysis.”

James Gibbs sees the play as having been inspired by some of the work of William Shakespeare whom Soyinka greatly admires. There are similar Shakespearean themes of honour and suicide (Henry IV and Romeo and Juliet) in Death and the King’s Horseman. The didactic style and exuberant songs employed by German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, is another important influence. Many consider Death and the King’s Horseman to be Soyinka’s finest play, with Gibbs describing it as “a major contribution to twentieth century drama.”

The Film: Elesin Oba
Biyi Bandele’s film, Elesin Oba, sticks closely to the plot and prose of Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. The marketplace and music are omnipresent, while the colourful costumes and cinematography enhance the spectacle. Elesin Oba is played by the impressive Odunlade Adekola, while Shaffy Bello is outstanding as Iyaloja. The vain Horseman is susceptible to flattery by “Olohun-iyo” and other praise-singers. As Iyaloja cautions him: “the earth is yours. But be sure the seed you leave in it attracts no curse.”

Elesin Oba, however, desecrates his sacred duty through his uncontrolled sexual urges. He dishonours his community’s cultural norms by simultaneously staging a wedding and a funeral. The times are further put out of joint, as the social order is disrupted by the alien force of British rule.

In stark contrast, Elesin’s son, Olunde, demonstrates that, even with his Western education, he has a deeper commitment to his communal traditions than his father, vociferously defending the Horseman’s duty to commit suicide by comparing it to the sacrifices made by British soldiers during the ongoing Second World War.

Biyi Bandele clearly sought to celebrate Soyinka’s poetic English prose through the movie. It seems, however, that Elesin Oba – like Hubert Ogunde’s 1980 classic, Aiye – could have lent itself better to an all-Yoruba script with English subtitles rather than mainly Yoruba songs and limited Yoruba dialogue. This would have vividly demonstrated that a rich, ancient African language was capable of carrying world culture, and may have attracted more attention to itself as a contender for best foreign film awards. Nevertheless, Patrick Ezema described the movie as “a perfectly executed depiction of Yoruba culture,” while John Anderson celebrated it as “a film of grand acting, flamboyant colour, vaulting ambition and global conflict.”


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