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Rajur 1 Vinay Rajur 10/25/2010 The Adaptation of Greek Tragedy to African Cultural Narrative Wole Soyinkas 1975 play,

Death and the Kings Horseman, chronicles the disaster of Elesin Oba, his son Olunde, and the District Officer Simon Pilkings, which takes place in the Nigerian town, Oya, under British colonial rule. The story revolves around the ritual selfsacrifice of Elesin, which is interrupted by Pilkings, shaming Elesin and leading to Olundes decision to sacrifice himself instead. The plot develops further as the familiar protagonist of rank descends from power, reminiscent of the old Greek tragedies. However, the plot, not accidentally, diverges from the conventional telling of Greek tragedy on one major point, that being the cause of catastrophe. Traditionally this disaster or reversal is due to a severe flaw in the protagonists character; however, in this play, Elesins ruin is brought about by forces somewhat out of his control, namely the interference of British forces in his ritualistic duties. This single point of contrast enables Soyinka a great deal of leverage over his audiences perception of the play, because it removes the stereotypical sympathy for the protagonist associated with tragic works. Instead, Soyinka replaces it with thick cultural detail, shifting the audiences attachments to characters. Through manipulative methods such as these, Soyinka uses his plays as a means of conveying his own personal ideals and beliefs to his audiences. Many of the themes from the play stem from Soyinkas personal beliefs, and therefore in order to fully rationalize Soyinkas motives we must first understand his background. Soyinka was born in the southern Nigerian city of Abeokuta, while still under British colonial rule. Throughout his youth Soyinka developed a strong distaste for colonial rule and, as an adolescent, wrote several anti-colonial plays (Quaicoe, p.112). This eventually led Soyinka into becoming a

Rajur 2 prominent activist for the liberation of Nigeria from military oppression, political tyranny and social injustice. In adulthood, he was involved in numerous anti-imperialist undertakings, including a meeting in 1967 with the Biafran Secessionist leadership, just prior to the start of the Nigerian Civil War, a highly treasonous act under the rule of the Nigerian federal military (Politics, 7). Additionally, he was also a member of the Third Force, a group aimed at the aversion of internal war between the federalists and secessionists within Nigeria (Politics, 7). Afterwards the Third Force became implicated in the breaking into a radio station and the playing of a prerecorded message over the air on the behalf of free Nigeria, immediately following the rigged election of Chief S. L. Akintola to office in Western Nigeria (Quaicoe, p.113). Due to Soyinkas prominence as an activist, Soyinka was accused and placed imprisoned. Having been imprisoned several times before as well as having his home in Abeokuta robbed by armed men, Soyinka left Nigeria on self-imposed exile in Britain (Quaicoe, p.113). It was in exile that Soyinka produced some of his most important works. While there, Soyinka decided to follow in the footsteps of the Greek playwright Euripides, who while in a similar exile wrote the tragic play, The Bacchae. Over the course of the next several years Soyinka produced three major plays, including a re-interpretation of Euripides play titled, The Bacchae of Euripides: A Common Rite as well as Death and the Kings Horseman. The result of his exile was a mindset focused on rethinking the original Greek tragedies through the lens of colonial Nigeria, and this became the central theme in Death and the Kings Horseman. In Death and the Kings Horseman Soyinka manipulates key elements of Greek tragedy in this play in order to accomplish his own political and social agenda. In general, Greek tragedy can be characterized by four main attributes: 1) A hero of power or ranksomeone who has

Rajur 3 much to lose 2) flaw in the heros nature most commonly an egotistical sense of pride 3) descent from power and happiness to weakness and suffering due to the flaw and 4) a realization of the flaw only once it is too late to reverse the damage that has been done. Of these four points, however, Soyinka only truly incorporates the first and third, where Elesins suicide, given important and dignified responsibility as the Kings horseman, is interrupted resulting in his failure to carry out his sacred duty. What Soyinka replaces the second and fourth point with instead is an instigative action outside of anyones control. In other words, Elesins tragic flaw is removed, and his downfall is caused by the interference in his ritual suicide. By putting Elesins tragic fate out of his hands, Soyinka essentially removes the audiences sympathy for Elesin and replaces it with pure human empathy. Soyinkas decision removes the stereotypical sympathy of Greek tragedy that is created by the protagonists flaw and limits the audiences connection to Elesin to only empathetic notions. This in turn provides room for individual interpretation of the main events. In this light, Elesins tragedy can be seen as more than the simple outcome of tragic consequence and instead as the result of the instigative force, or as Soyinka cleverly set-up, the colonial interference. This room for personal interpretation also changes the plots dynamic, no longer tying the audience emotionally to Elesin individually, but rather to the entire culture. In fact, Soyinka makes it a point to weaken such ties. An important example of this takes place during the final scene of the play, which ends with the tragic deaths of both Olunde and Elesin. While the audience is able to witness the death of Elesin, Olundes own suicide is carried out offstage. Soyinka deliberately aims to hide these characters at their most human moments and when they are the most vulnerable and therefore easily sympathized with. Furthermore, despite the fact that Elesins

Although it is in fact Pilkings and his men who interrupt Elesins ceremony, Soyinka in his Authors Note stresses the fact that Pilkings is neither a forced to act by some higher authority nor acting as Elesins enemy. In Soyinkas words Pilkings is nothing more than a catalytic incident merely (Soyinka, p.3).

Rajur 4 death occurs onstage, Soyinka expedites the scene, showing his death in a swift, decisive manner (Soyinka, 62). By limiting the audiences exposure to these sympathetic moments, Soyinka leaves only empathy for his characters. However, Soyinka also controls for both whom the audience is able to empathize with as well as how they are able to do so. At the start of the play, Soyinka quickly dives straight into extremely colloquial discourse between Elesin and the tribes people. He includes such a plethora of cultural references in so short a time that, to those even the least bit unfamiliar with Yoruba culture and society, much of the first scene is nearly incomprehensible. This continues up until the British District Officer and his wife make their first appearance, during which, a more familiar and typical sounding dialogue occurs. This is Soyinkas method of controlling for empathy. When looking at the audiences of his plays, written in English and performed in Britain and the United States, Soyinkas efforts at alienating the Yoruba people in his play become clear. Soyinkas reason in alienating his own audience from the protagonist of his play is to portray the one-sided nature of colonialism, where ignorance of the native culture is prominent. In this way Soyinka is able to convey his own ideals through his work. However, one of Soyinkas more controversial statements in his play is about the apocalypse of the Yoruba, which is initiated by the British colonists. In the play, Soyinka attempts to create an entire cultural apocalypse out of the failure of a single man. Yet to many, very rarely does apocalypse hinge on the actions of a single man. As a critic of Soyinkas, Biodun Jeyifo, questions How can the personal disaster or tragic destiny of one character come to express the collective destiny of a people or race?(Ideology, 168). Jeyifos perspective on the tragic nature of Soyinkas play also emphasizes the fact that neither the force of Elesins personality [nor] the inevitability of his actions are truly evoked, leading Jeyifo to believe that

Rajur 5 Elesins fate is forcedly and incorrectly extrapolated to the entire Yoruba population (Ideology, 169). Yet, what another critic of Soyinkas, Adebayo Williams, argues is that the cultural dependence and responsibility placed on Elesins suicide easily connect his single destiny with that of the whole population. In his writing, Williams believes that since death plays a role in all major societies, it is feared by both the strong and the weak, it transcends simple manmade lines of division, such as race or class, and in this play, Elesins suicide stands as a projection of a peoples collective consciousness (Williams, 192). In Williams view, therefore, Elesins failure constitutes the collective doom of his people, while Jeyifo argues that the terms of the peoples dependency on Elesin are never made clear, Williams shows how death, the unifier of all people, intertwines the apocalyptic fate of an entire population with the calamity of a single man. In order to better understand this debate, several facts about Yoruba culture must be explained. Most importantly, while Yoruba society is generally monarchical and hierarchical, decision making power is distributed relatively equally between everyone (Drewal, 72). Although there is some recognition of rank, it is superseded by an individuals responsibilities and authority. However, above all in Yoruba culture is the honor and dignity associated with rituals. According to Yoruba belief, the past is connected to the present and so the present is derived from the past. Therefore when rituals are performed regularly and according to the tenets from the past, they come to symbolize the continuity of time and the cyclic nature of Yoruba life, death and rebirth (Drewal, 69). With this knowledge in mind, when Elesin was interrupted in his ritualistic duties, he changed the destiny of his people, because he not only abandoned his duty as guide to the previous king in his afterlife, but also forever broke the balanced cycle of life and death for all Yoruba people. Therefore Williams argument supports

Rajur 6 this fact that because all of Yoruba life and death is connected the disruption of one affects all, and so the disaster of one is the apocalypse of all. The disruption in transition becomes the critical point, about which the Yoruba world falls into calamity. This single tipping point in the plot is the capture of Elesin. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, this essential part of the play is given no description and is not depicted, and merely its aftermath is shown. While this may appear to some to demonstrate this scenes insignificancewhich has some truth to itit is in fact Soyinkas technique of emphasizing the metaphysical confrontation of the play. The actual scene itself is not as important as its main point and by avoiding depiction of this scene, Soyinka allows the essence of the plays focus on the apocalypse of the Yoruba to not be diluted by the details of the scene and allows for any notions for preventative actions to be avoided (contributing to the deterministic sense of both the play and Yoruba belief). By avoiding explicit depiction of the scene, Soyinka is able to channel the plays energy towards the aftermath of this tipping point, and the loss of continuity within the Yoruba world, or as Soyinka refers to it as, an abyss of transition (Soyinka, p.3). What Soyinka means exactly by this is complicated, because the phrase has a double meaning, but either translation points towards the destruction of the Yoruba as a result of colonial forces. One interpretation of the phrase, as previously implied, is a reference to the loss of continuity in Yoruba culture. Without the proper ceremony to lay their previous king to rest, the Yoruba people cannot transition to the next leader and so their cyclic chain of command is broken, and possibly destroyed for good. Through a second interpretation, however, the phrase could also stand for the metaphorical lack of transition that occurred when Britain forcibly united the many disparate tribes native to Nigeria. In this sense, an abyss of transition would represent the lack of unity when the process is forced and artificial (Quaicoe, 108). After

Rajur 7 British colonial rule had taken root in Nigeria, the colonialists essentially clustered together the native tribes and, once they had been centralized to a general location, the colonialist forced democracy upon them. Yet there was no unity, due to the fact that the separate tribes had never unified on their own, and so the result was military oppression, political corruption and civil war. In his plays, Soyinka attempts to consolidate themes from his experience with colonialism into his plays, and the abyss of transition in Death and the Kings Horseman could represent the lack of transition between tribal rule and colonial rule. By manipulating the genre of Greek tragedy adapting it to cultural narrative, Soyinka provides himself with a powerful tool for spreading his (at that time) radical political and social visions for the future. His deep involvement in activism in Nigeria endangered him, forcing him to seek refuge in exile. Yet Soyinka maintained his efforts at spreading his beliefs through his plays. Death and the Kings Horseman contains many subtleties that convey Soyinkas ideas; however, it is Soyinkas removal flaw from Elesin that makes his work truly effective in controlling his audience. By limiting exposure to Elesin, the audience can only relate to him on a purely human level. This alienation of Elesin demonstrates the colonists alienation from the natives they were ruling over. This play, in a sense, is actually told from the British point of view yet it incorporates such cultural detail that it is truly an effective and thorough work of art.

Rajur 8 Works Consulted: 1) Drewal, Henry John. Pemberton, John III. Abiodun, Rowland. The Yoruba World. Death and the King's Horseman (Norton Critical Editions). 1 ed. Simon Gikandi. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. 66-73. Print. 2) Jeyifo, Biodun. Ideology and Tragedy. Death and the King's Horseman (Norton Critical Editions). 1 ed. Simon Gikandi. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. 164-172. Print 3) Jeyifo, Biodun. Politics, Poetics and Postcolonialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Cambridge University Press. 2004. The University of Cambridge. Web.24 October, 2010. 4) Liukkonen, Petri.Wole Soyinka (1934- ) in full Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka. Kirjasto.sci.fi. Ari Pesonen. Kuusankosken Kaupunginkirjasto, 2008. Web. 24 October, 2010. 5) Quaicoe, Lloydetta Ursula. Rethinking Greek Tragedy in African Contexts-a Study of Ola Rotimi and Wole Soyinka. MA Thesis. Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland, 1996. Memorial University Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Web.24 October, 2010. 6) Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King's Horseman (Norton Critical Editions). 1 Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. Print. 7) Williams, Adebayo. Ritual and the Political Unconscious: The Case of Death and the Kings Horseman. Death and the King's Horseman (Norton Critical Editions). 1 ed. Simon Gikandi. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. 187-195. Print