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Death and the King's Horseman: A Play

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  2,777 ratings  ·  176 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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3.76  · 
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 ·  2,777 ratings  ·  176 reviews

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Aug 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: drama, nobels
What a delight to read a play again, after quite a while!

Death and the King's Horseman is a classical tragedy, with a distinct dramatic event that triggers the plot. Set in colonial Nigeria, the external conflict circles around the two different value systems of British administrators and local dignitaries. However, Wole Soyinka himself insists in an interview accompanying the play that the setting is secondary, and the individuals are at the centre of attention. The drama could unfold without t
Nov 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Wole Soyinka has written a powerful drama which treats of culture clash, ancient and modern custom, racial assumptions, entitlements, the clash of the sexes and of religions as well as of history. There is also the unsubtle history of colonialism and British superiority with condescension sprinkled throughout the dramatic interactions.

Off stage, before the action of the drama, in Yoruba, Nigeria, a King has died. Elesin Oba, the king's chief horseman, is now expected to join his king in death--
Czarny Pies
Aug 01, 2017 rated it liked it
Death and the King's Horseman tells the story of a man who wants to stay in the realm of the living when he already belongs to the realm of the dead. The results are tragic for himself and for his nation. Bravo to Simon Gikandi, editor of the Norton Critical Edition that I read. His outstanding selection of analytical and expository articles enabled me to properly appreciate Soyinka's brilliant play. The text is dense. The characters are all clearly drawn and the dialogues are superb. The play r ...more
✨    jamieson   ✨
University reading. An interesting play revolving around Yoruba culture based on a true story. I found some of the dialogue difficult to read but it would be an AMAZING play to see live.
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
Dioni (Bookie Mee)
First published at:

Death and the King's Horseman is a play by Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian and the first African to be honored the Nobel Prize in Literature. The play was published 1975, and Soyinka won the prize in 1986. I was reading this together with my GR book group. It also adds nicely to my Nobel project and my intention to read more plays.

The play is inspired by a real life incident that took place in Nigeria during the British occupation: the horsema
Susie Nazzaro
Apr 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
An incredibly subtle statement on culture, imperialism, and tradition that masterfully explains the complexities of cultural interaction and do gooders in the context of the British colonial empire in Africa. This is the story of a British colonial officer in Africa who is appalled at a tradition that the King's horseman commits suicide to be alongside the dead king, and intervenes to stop the suicide with tragic consequences. It is very hard to write this story without caricatures and over-simp ...more
Jul 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Bettie
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
Apr 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
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;
Mar 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
One of my co-workers is involved in an online romance with someone from Nigeria.
It is the season.
During the cursory conversation where I discovered this, I thought rather often that I should be reading more Soyinka.
So I did.
Much of the play was rather familiar and I suspect I read this some time ago. The plot is pretty simple--native religious rites are halted by the colonialists for reasons of alleged civilization and, also, as a fumble for propriety. The fated Horseman is a remarkable char
Jan 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 04, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Wow! A powerful play based on a real-life event. To quote from Soyinka's Author's Note at the beginning of my edition,
"   The bane of themes of this genre is that they are no sooner employed creatively than they acquire the facile tag of 'clash of cultures', a prejudicial label which, quite apart from its frequent misapplication, presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous one, on the actual soil of the latter. ... It is thanks to this k
Sep 28, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: plays, nigeria, fiction
Tragedy. I can't say it was about a "clash of cultures", as crude as that term is, because I don't know enough about Yoruba to say, even with the generous introduction. But I think more about the centrality of religious belief and the spirituality of sacrifice in this play. What the King's Horseman felt he had to do versus what he did, versus what the Horseman's own son felt he had to do.
Dec 09, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: literature, plays
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
Donya Villarreal
Sep 11, 2009 rated it it was ok
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.
Sep 24, 2015 rated it it was ok
Just something I had to read for class.
Missy J
Egungun (Yoruba masquerade)

One of the biggest reading highlights of 2016 for me was Nigerian literature. I've read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart years ago. But this year, I came across The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma and I'm currently doing a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's books-marathon, which I'm enjoying immensely. I wasn't aware that Nigeria has a rich literary culture. So before the year ends, I wanted to read Wole Soyinka's play Death and the King's Horseman: A Play.
[...]they acquire the
Meera Nair
A play based on the natives of Yoruba, Death and the King’s Horseman marks the journey of Elesin Oba (the chief Horseman of the King) who is meant to sacrifice his life and follow the dead King into the afterlife. Filled with ritualistic nuances and a strong emphasis on the conflicts between colonizer and colonized, the play portrays Elesin’s conviction to perform the ritual and ultimate failure in sticking to his words. Simon Pilkings, a British Officer, not only intervenes in the sacrificial r ...more
Ami Nicholson
Aug 04, 2014 rated it liked it
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
James F
Feb 04, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: drama
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
Kyle Storie
May 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is an incredible play! Soyinka truly reinvented plays with this work. Its shifts in dialogue from very elevated figurative language when the Nigerians are speaking to the more colloquial and basic jargon of the British who colonized the country is fascinating. It explores themes of race, principles and the practice of willing oneself to die. I recommend this play to anyone who has the time to really analyze and understand the language.
Anup Joshi
Jul 31, 2018 rated it liked it
Good one !
Mar 13, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.
I didn't like this while I was reading it but my opinion has improved upon reflection. I think it would be better to see this play rather than read it.
Robert Sheppard

When we think of African Literature that has universal impact and importance for all people inside and outs
John Pistelli
As good a modern play as any I am familiar with. Soyinka brilliantly seizes on a literary possibility granted him by a painful history: he synthesizes the festal form of traditional Yoruba drama—which he explains at length in an essay included in this volume, "Theatre in Traditional African Cultures"—with European modes (particularly the ironic-tragic pageantry of Euripides in the market scenes and Shavian social satire when treating the dangerously bumbling English colonizers).

The plot: the ti
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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."