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Death and the King's Horseman: A Play

3.73 of 5 stars 3.73  ·  rating details  ·  1,461 ratings  ·  81 reviews
Based on events that took place in Oyo, an ancient Yoruba city of Nigeria, in 1946, Wole Soyinka's powerful play concerns the intertwined lives of Elesin Oba, the king's chief horseman; his son, Olunde, now studying medicine in England; and Simon Pilkings, the colonial district officer. The king has died and Elesin, his chief horseman, is expected by law and custom to comm ...more
Paperback, 80 pages
Published April 17th 2002 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published January 1st 1975)
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From BBC Radio 3 - Drama on 3:
In celebration of Wole Soyinka's 80th birthday, a drama based on a real event in 1940s Nigeria. A colonial district officer intervenes to prevent a local man committing ritual suicide

Death And The King's Horseman is considered to be Professor Soyinka's greatest play. In awarding Soyinka the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the Swedish Academy drew special attention to Death and the King's Horseman as evidence of his talent for combining Yoruban and European cultu
A somber and threnodic theme runs through this play. It demonstrates how men's lives are bound up in the cultural bubble in which they were conceived and brought forth; this cuts across races, tribes, ethnicities and epoch.
Many today would consider themselves modern, independent and learned as compared to those who lived say 1000years ago. But the truth is if they had been living 1000years ago their world outlook would only mirror and conform to that particular period. Which raises the question;
Not a clash of colonial cultures but a deadly collision of pride, religion and philosophy. Two men, both bent on the correctness of their ways, destroy lives in order to prove that they alone know the meaning of tragedy. Although Soyinka has an opinion on which is right, he leaves that thought to settle in the dust of the play's feverish, enchanted desire. What's most amazing is the playwright's ability to call up real human emotion where so many others would let stock characters play their part ...more
Of all the Norton Critical Editions I've read recently (and it seems like I'm busting right through my back-log over the past few weeks!), the one whose extra materials I found most useful is Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman. Which is kind of ironic, since a big theme in this post-colonialist Nigerian drama is the cultural arrogance of western white folks who think that because they've been educated in England, they know best how to interpret and control the cultural traditions of th ...more
Be sure to read the author's note, because if you don't, you might take it as an East vs. West, colonial vs. tribal, new vs. old story as it would appear on first reading. But in his note, Soyinka states that the "threnodic essence" of the work is a theme even more universal: "the numinous passage which links all: transition." Change is indeed common to us all, and as my mother-in-law points out, change is usually perceived as bad. Yet change is something we all must come to terms with, and sinc ...more
European and African culture clash over the impending ritual suicide of a chief. Characters from the two cultures consistently show a desire NOT to understand one another. Ideas about death saturate the play and reveal deep roots to the cultural differences. In the end, though, I felt that the Yoruba culture was striking in its similarities to the world's better known cultures. The play left no doubt that the Yoruba culture is a patriarchy unconcerned about denying rights and choices from women ...more
Mar 05, 2012 Kelsey rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: travelers
A play that really evokes ideals of cultural clash, despite the author's notes stating that his story is not focused on cultural clash. What is the lesson to be learned from this play? I am not sure but the play brings up several question, such as when can one's ideal lead to objectifying and tampering another's culture? Is it better to step in a situation you see as not moral, or turn a blind eye-while both have consequences. If you call something by a different name does it truly change the me ...more
James F
This is perhaps Soyinka's best play, and certainly his most influential; the work cited by the Nobel Committee in awarding the 1986 prize, it has become a classic in African Literature. It is based on an actual event, which occurred in 1946, although Soyinka has backdated it a couple years to the middle of World War II and made other changes in the interests of a more effective drama. The plot concerns a man, the King's Horseman, whose duty is to die to accompany the King of Oyo to the underworl ...more
Ami Nicholson
After reading the Author's Note, I had high hopes for this play. I really appreciated the blunt nature with which Soyinka described his work, and I found his assertion that it was not a story about colonialism or a clash of cultures interesting. The first of many problems with this story is that it is indeed a story about prejudice and colonialism. The entire theme of the play centers around a clash of cultures. Soyinka is Nigerian, and wanted the reader to focus more on the Yoruba culture and t ...more
This major theme I detected in this play is emasculation.
In act I, Elesin Oba is being celebrated in the market place with song and dance, because it is his last day to live. The women of the marketplace crowd around him and dance for him, when he notices an alluring woman he doesn’t recognize. He demands that he take her to bed before he dies, despite the fact that she is engaged. The mother of the marketplace, Iyaloja, reminds him not to be distracted from his responsibilities and to not caus
Donya Villarreal
I didn't care for the beginning, which used poetic language.....I was somewhat lost through Act I. Thank goodness, this was the only place I struggled. All in all, it had a good message: don't judge that which you don't understand.
Mar 13, 2009 Matt rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: drama
A thought-provoking, exciting, and multi-layered play -- it was definitely challenging, though, and I know it would be well worth re-reading; I enjoyed discussing it in my literature class.
MY KINSMEN WOE ME WITH THEIR WORDS: her eyes were new laid eggs glowing in the dark

the waters of the bitter stream are hone to a man whose tongue has savoured all.
the regrets of life always come later.

what you have no intention of eating should not be held up to your nose.

how boldly the lizard struts before the pigeon when it was the eagle itself he
promised us he would confront.

yet another error into which you people fall. you believe that everything which
appears to make sense was learnt
Robert Sheppard

When we think of African Literature that has universal impact and importance for all people inside and outs
"it is the death of war that kills the valiant,
Death of water is how the swimmer goes
It is the death of markets that kills the trader
And death of indecision takes the idle away
The trade of the cutlass blunts its edge
And the beautiful die the death of beauty."

*Jane and Olunde having a conversation about the war and tribal culture. Soyinka uses one to play off the madness and hypocrisy of the other; Olunde's argument is smart, an injection of shocking truth into the play.

*The inversion of the fath
Joseph Soler
Who knew a short, one act play could have so much remarkable depth. This play does. There is so much nuance, so much to contemplate, and NO, like Soyinka himself says in his wonderful Foreword, this is NOT a play about a clash of cultures, but it IS about imperialism, arrogance, and a fundamental crisis of personal existence and honor.
The blurb compares this to plays such as Antigone, but I think it falls short of that in its imitations. At times I felt the lines were too disconnected, too alienating (both topic wise and lyrically) to the reader--although I totally think this may be a culture difference. As someone who just finished reading a collection of Sophocles and Euripides, I feel that this play is an imitation. It's too many jangles and not enough meaning--towards the end the idea of transitioning, of death, slowly st ...more
Amy Layton
Very intense and quick read. Perfect for a study in post-colonialism. This play expertly discusses the division between two cultures that don't understand each other and don't necessarily want to understand each other. Each character wonderfully represents an aspect of concepts such as la mestiza and colonialism.
Feverish, cacophonic, and questioning. Pride, lust, duty, honour -- these are but just some of the themes explored within this taut play. Exceedingly human.

The Methuen edition comes with useful notes and contextual information. I found it of immense help in understanding the context of the play.

A very interesting play that explores the states of life, death and the unborn in the context of colonial Nigeria. Characters can frustrate, entertain and despair the audience, all in one scene. I really loved the use of energy throughout the play and I'd love to see it performed.
An interesting play, touching on a variety of subject matter from the culture clash of Africa and the West to the dangers of blind tradition. Soyinka works hard to make his story as even-handed as possible, but in the end there is something unsatisfying since the conflict hinges on upholding a tradition that is inescapably barbaric. The show plays out like a Greek Tragedy, and with his chorus of women and pounding drums, it's hard not to wonder if Soyinka is alluding to the Bacchae, and like the ...more
Sheldon L
Excellent play describing the interplay between the colonizer's interpretation of indigenous culture and the native culture's insight on Eurocentrism.
Soyinka's play reminded me a lot of Nietzsche's Madman Aphorism and his "The Birth of Tragedy."

Excellent read of post-colonial enthusiasts provided that they are willing to be receptive to rumination on cultural concepts.
There are elements of this play that really appeal to me, but overall I am not a huge fan of literature engagee. I prefer somewhat more subtle works. That being said, however, I do like the way that this play sets up the resistance to English colonialism as a cultural resistance centered in sites of cultural essentialism, and how the play seems to acknowledge the problematics of essentialism. There are, I feel, contradictory readings of this play, each of which has a degree of validity, which ma ...more
Tackela Baugh
Reminded me a bit of 'Things Fall Apart' and I loved every minute of it. I relished the suspense, wanting desperately for Elesin Oba to die at the time of his choosing. I lamented that it did not go according to plan, even when I suspected it. Olunde's death was indeed tragic because I felt he had such promise. It is ironic though, that the promise I focused on was the fact that he was going to be a doctor, that he spoke as well as the English man and crossed the boundaries of culture in a seaml ...more
Rather heavy handed and dull this play tells a good story, but should be seen on stage. The text by itself does not stand up well although the central conflict was interesting.
Rachael MacLean
A favorite play of mine as a piece of literature. Soyinka is an incredible writer. I've never seen it in production but I really hope to some day!
Jared Della Rocca
Early on, I had some difficulty getting into the work. The play itself doesn’t seem to identify the setting, so I had to go to the back cover which explained it was based on events that occurred in Nigeria in 1946. With that information, I began to see the colonial/colonized relationship and seeing the play through that lens provided explanation for the actions and responses of the main characters. Soyinka shines a bright light on the superiority felt by the colonizer and the ignorance it carrie ...more
Janine Mator
"Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn."
Loved reading this play!
Wow, I was very impressed. This play is excellent! Well done Mr. Soyinka!
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Awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature for his work that "in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence."
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