Wole Sonyika has to be one of the finest masters of tale-telling of all time, and Death and the King’s Horseman is a superb introduction to his work.
The play is very short, and yet there is so much inserted in its small torso. It starts with the death of a king, and ends with the demise of the king’s horseman and his only son. When the play is not tragic, it is a mocking account of our continent’s weaknesses. Throughout the play we suffer with the people of this ancient Yoruba City.
They have tragically lost their king, King Oyo. The king’s horseman, Elesin, in keeping with tradition has to commit suicide to lead his master to the world of the dead, and thus preserve the harmony between the living and their ancestors. The city mourns its king, and patiently looks to Elesin to what the other kings’ horsemen have done for generations.
Elesin is the play’s central figure and prime villain. His position, as the King’s horseman in the Yoruba society, comes with inherent priviledges. It is almost the equivalent of a chief. Elesin’s intemperance is much impressed in the play. He has an insatiable weakness for the many trappings of power. ‘In all my life as Horseman of the King, the juiciest fruit on every tree was mine. I saw, I touched, I wooed, rarely was the answer No.’ However companion to the question of priviledge is the issue of duty and responsibility.
Elesin is more than happy to embrace the benefits of his position but recoils from honouring his duties. With all the other hidden meanings of Death and King’s Horseman, this is the message that burns deeply in the readers’ mind. One can’t miss the obvious and unflattering parallels between Elesin and some of the leaders of Sonyika’s homeland, and indeed the rest of the continent. As Elesin prepares to take his life, his love for pleasures of the flesh strongly asserts itself once again as he is distracted by the sight of a beautiful young woman.
Even though Elesin is informed that the girl is engaged and ‘has one step already in her husband’s home’, he still wants her. ‘…tell me who was that goddess through whose lips I saw the ivory pebbles of Oya’s river-bed Iyaloja, who is she? I saw her enter your stall:’ He sees her as a deserved ‘bed of honour to lie upon’ and a convenient digression from the rigours of his duties. Elesin’s obsession with life’s cheap thrills weakens him.
He cowardly vacillates between life and death. When he fails to commit suicide he dishonours himself and permanently stains his name. This leads to tragedy as his son, Olunde, decides to take his own life. In keeping with a man devoid of honour, Elesin blames others for his shame. Elesin imperiously chatters incessantly throughout the play. It is as if he hopes his tattle will cure him of his inner conflict and fear.
However in his words we see ourselves. His speech gives ample evidence of man’s vices and their consequences. The other major character in the play is Iyaloja. She is the most powerful of the market women. She is regarded by them as the matriarch, the upholder of Yoruba values. However Iyaloja’s character is a monument to hypocrisy, and shows brilliantly that societies are often partners to their leaders’ hedonism. The beautiful young girl in the market that distracted Elesin from his trance of death was betrothed to Iyaloja’s son.
And yet she is the one who acceded to Elesin request to have her, as he failed to summon the powers that would lead him to the other world. In the end Iyaloja, in another classic moment in the play, is the first to say to Elesin: ‘You have betrayed us,’ as if oblivious to her complicity in his shame. While it was Elesin who sat fire to the Yoruba house, Iyaloja was certainly his, witting or unwitting, accomplice. In the end Elesin kills himself, not out of duty but out of shame.
He exits or rather flees life, and the play, as a tragic and an immoral figure without any redeeming qualities. Perhaps by killing off Elesin’s character, Sonyika is merely stating that our continent’s rebirth is doomed without purging ourselves of those whose character is sullied by vice. Death and the King’s Horseman has many secrets and pearls, and they will continue to be revealed as often as the book is read.
In Elesin’s soliloquies Wole Sonyika exposes the challenges of power that is unchecked, and in his solipsism delivers an indictment we cannot confute. The play is certainly not about ritual suicide. The latter is merely used as a symbol for duty and responsibilities. There are other issues and conflicts that loom in the play’s pages: of religion, traditions, and the endless duel for supremacy between the coloniser and the colonised. This is a beautiful play written by a magnificent writer, and in it Wole Sonyika skilfully magnifies and illuminates the warts on our visage.