The play Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka examines colonialism by depicting the clashing of cultures and exposing the dangers of ethnocentrism. The story takes place in Nigeria, following several main characters: an Englishman named Pilkings and his wife, Jane, and Elesin Oba. As the late King’s horseman, Elesin Oba must commit suicide on the thirtieth night of the community’s mourning for the King. Pilkins is horrified by this tradition and attempts to prevent it by any means possible. The play exposes the reader to daily life in Africa, as depicted by the social hub of the market, as well as the various aspects of culture (cognitive, affective, behavioral).
As the day of Elesin Oba’s ritual suicide approaches, all the characters are forced to reassess their cultural norms and values. Jane is the best example of this. She confronts Olunde, Elesin’s son, asking why he is so nonchalant in regards to the death of his father. In doing so, she accuses their custom of being barbaric and feudalistic, proceeding to call Olunde a savage. In response, Olunde asks her to consider her own culture’s customs of self-destruction, such as the mass suicide of young men sent by generals to war. Jane says that she wants she wants to understand all that she can. Although Jane supports her husband in his efforts to prevent the death of Elesin, she is more aware of the delicate cultural circumstances than he is and even contemplates her own ethnocentrism.
One distinguishable quality of this play is that there are no simply “good” or “bad” characters. Even Pilkins, depicted as the “villain” of the story, is striving to do the right thing by saving Elesin’s life. Pilkins’ flaw was attempting to change the culture’s behaviors without fully understanding them. He did not stop to consider the significance of the ritual or how it influenced the emotional state of the culture. His intervention hindered the mourning process of an entire community. Pilkings could have learned something from his wife; Jane did not agree with the suicidal custom, but at least she attempted to understand it by seeing it through Olunde’s perspective. Had Pilkins approached this issue from a different perspective, perhaps the result would have been an opportunity for cross-cultural communication rather than the disruptive interference of a sacred custom.
What is immoral in one culture is sacred in the other. Sometimes it is necessary for people to intervene in another culture for the sake of human life and dignity, but discerning the necessity is difficult, especially when the culture is not disturbed by a custom that appears inhumane to foreigners. The death of Olunde could be interpreted to represent a post-colonial society in which indigenous cultures must go to extreme lengths to maintain their roots. Iyaloja’s words to Pilkings challenge the concept of colonialism:
“It is what you brought to be, you who play with strangers’ lives, who even usurp the vestments of our dead, yet believe that the stain of death will not cling to you. The gods demanded only the old expired plantain but you cut down the sap-laden shoot to feed your pride. There is your board, filled to overflowing. Feast on it.”
Through a disturbing yet enthralling plot, Soyinka begs one to question what defines culture and what defines humanity, and where to draw the line between the two.