Death and the Kings Horseman is a novel derived from significant historical events. The play depicts not only the story of British colonialism that Nigerians endured in the early to mid 1900’s, but also the transformation away from traditional African theater. With great influence from his studies in the United Kingdom, the author Wole Soyinka, is able to bring influence from the western world theater together with African style theater. This created today’s modern African theater, which spoke directly of African concerns and transformed historical events with the introduction of literary drama.
Through the use of culture, language, and theme development Soyinka is able to clearly illustrate the struggles that bore on Nigerians and their culture at this time. Cultural attacks, ignorance, and societal participation allow for historical events to be better understood and audiences to see the historical development that occurred. Theater within the African culture is used for many different reasons compared to that of the western world. Here it is used as a form of “communication, interaction to and from the people’s culture, and as traditional performances within weddings, harvest and coming of age ceremonies. (SITE) The integration of music, dance and story telling techniques has become an important part of African theater. This allows the writer to reach a wider audience, when taking into consideration that even today many Africans are illiterate and unable to gain access to expensive forms of mass media, (Methuen x). The historical event this play discusses, can be seen as an educational tool to teach and inform those from different African colonies the historical significance of British colonization from generation to generation.
The integrations of background sounds and music within the play, not only aid in keeping culture within the story, but are also a way to insure historical understanding, and importance within African colonies. Specifically in Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka uses drums as a background noise in order to identify the actions that are about to occur. It is his way of not only foreshadowing, but also allowing the audience to engage with the play, and become fully immersed in the story.
Scenes in which drums are used to set a mood also differ depending on who is included in dialogue. In cases where Pilking is conversing with Jane, the drums are often used to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the culture as well as a portrayal of ignorance from the “white people”. Often times, within African theater the issue of language barriers occur. Many groups often write their material within their native tongue, however “the power and tone of language need to be used appropriately in order to convey a message. (SITE) Soyinka being a poet, polemicist, essayist and novelist understood the importance of such. It is with these language skills that he is able to transform the historical events and bring about literary drama. To insure that the “English reflects the cadences and patterns of African speech”(Methuen xl), Soyinka uses several different kinds of speech. “The traditional Yoruba people use a weighty poetic language, rich in proverbs and saying which are intrinsic to many African languages” (Methuen xli).
This is seen in Scene one with the recital of the “Not-I” bird and in Scene tree with the increasingly poetic exchange between the Praise-singer and Elesin leading up to the trance. This use of language allowed for a more powerful understanding of the religious and historical importance of the play. Keeping some of the language to the native tongue, allows for expressions to be understood as they are meant to be, while showing respect to what the community has undergone.
Keeping cultural expressions within the play also allow a way to depict how different the beliefs between the colonials and the Yurubans really were. Within the language and speech of the play it is also noticed that emphasis is made on religious belief, continuous reference to words such as myth, history, and story telling coming solely from the Yoruba natives dialogue. It is with this that the underlining themes of the play allow us to see how colonization is portrayed and the different ideologies of life are depicted.
The theme of the significant individual is strongly developed throughout the play. This theme touches upon individuals each having an individual role in the world. It is meant to demonstrate how leaders can have influence on major events. Within Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka is able to demonstrate the religious importance of an individuals role, the cause and effect of a leader failing his people and in this case the effects of doubt that have been brought upon the entire Yoruba society due to the complete disregard of religious beliefs nd fight for power of the British colonials. This brings about the transformation of historical events. The Yoruba society being built on religious belief and the sacrifices leaders make for others was now turned upside down leaving the Yorunbans unaware of what to expect next. However this was due to the British colonials, having invaded their country, and trying to impose their belief within a culturally opposite society. This created even more hostility and misunderstanding within the Yoruba society.
When colonials were informed of the “willed suicide”, the society was no longer under silent attack. Pilking became even more racist, and showed a lack of respect towards all Yoruba religious beliefs to insure he got what he wanted. It began with ignorance for the culture, calling certain traditions stupid and laughing when others around him believed them. However it rapidly grew to a complete disrespect of the Yoruba people. It is here that Yoruba religious tradition were ignored and interfered, creating a fear of the unknown within their society.
The event of “willed suicide” was portrayed as wrong, and unacceptable, Pilking tried to change the meaning of the ceremonial ritual, making it an illegal action rather then one of courage and part of the life course. Soyinka continues to describe the white mans call for power, the ignorance of the laws within the Yoruba culture and the enforcement of the “white mans” law. The historical significance of a struggle for power continues as the sergeant tries to enter the ceremonial grounds to arrest Elesin in his life quest, through sexist remarks and ridicule to the woman guarding the pathway, in a fight for power.
It is through different literary forms, poetic devices and the appropriate use of language that the Yoruba peoples historical struggle for power was depicted in Death and the Kings Horseman. Their cultural and religious belief were put to the test when approached by racist “white man” in a search for power. With literary drama techniques Soyinka was able to transform this historical event throughout his play in order to portray the truth to his audience.