Based on an actual brouhaha that went down in 1946, Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman (1975) is about a dude named Elesin who—you may not be shocked to learn—has been serving as the king's horseman in the city of Oyo in Nigeria.
Now, since there are a couple of different monarchies floating around this tale, we have to clarify that we mean the Yoruban king—by which we also mean not the British one. See, the area is under British control, so the British government has quite a presence… and a whole lot of power. Add a general disinterest in understanding the Yoruban people they rule over and, well, we've got ourselves a nice little recipe for disaster. And sure enough, disaster ensues. Big time.
Based on the above, you probably get why people generally think about the play in terms of culture clash. However, Soyinka has tried to steer people away from riding that interpretive horse too hard—in fact, he wrote a preface basically telling readers and theatergoers alike that they should be focusing on the play's spiritual and existential elements, not the culture clash that unfolds. Unfortunately, though, most people don't heed Soyinka's call even though, as the writer, he was kind enough to tell us all his intentions. Oops.
So grab a copy of Death and the King's Horseman and get ready to dive in… and find out whether the spirituality or the cultural misunderstandings grab your attention more.
If you think the problems of some horseman in 1940s Nigeria are totally different than your own… well, you're probably right there. However, kings and colonialism aside, Death and the King's Horseman poses a question for the ages.
Are you ready for this? Because seriously—it's a doozy.
Okay. Here goes: When is it okay to choose to die? Or, to put it differently, is it ever okay to choose to die?
This is the kind of question that keeps doctors up at night, families fighting, and that pretty much everyone has an opinion on. And what it boils down to, time and again, is two sides of a moral coin: one side that thinks life is precious and should be preserved at all costs, and another side that thinks there can be dignity in death, be it to end life before it gets terrible or for some other (at times religious—as is the case in the play) reason.
So while you may not ever find yourself explaining to some Brits the ways in which their behavior is offensive, at the heart of Death and the King's Horseman lies one of the biggest conundrums humans face. Which just goes to show you how death, morality, and the afterlife are always going to be topics that inspire oodles of anxiety—and super strong opinions.
Check out this bio of Wole Soyinka to get some background on Soyinka. And in case you were wondering, yes, he is Yoruban.
Want to Dig a Little Deeper?
Here's a more detailed biography on Soyinka, put together by the lovely people over at Stanford.
The New York Times Wasn't Impressed in 1987
Their beef isn't so much with Soyinka's play as it is with the production, but still: This is a scathing review if we've ever seen one. And Soyinka directed. Ouch.
Soyinka Explains It All
The author offers his reflection on the play—and its enduring influence—in 2009.
Soyinka Wants Boko Haram to "Bring Back Our Girls"
A near lifelong political activist, Soyinka has strong words for his government about Boko Haram.
Soyinka Speaks on Boko Haram
Watch CNN's Christiane Amanpour interview Soyinka about the kidnapping of two hundred Nigerian girls.
Check out this interview with Soyinka about… well, a lot of stuff. It's nearly an hour long, after all.
A Nobel Man
Listen to (or read) Soyinka's Nobel lecture.
Soyinka Does Podcasts
Check out a podcast with Soyinka produced by the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2012.
Soyinka in Watercolor
Here's a painting of the writer and activist himself.
The Play Comes to Life
Check out what staging looked like for the 2009 production of Death and the King's Horseman at the National Theatre in London.