In Death and the King's Horseman, sacred tradition and colonialism come to a head in Nigeria

What happens when sacred rituals that are integral to Yoruba society are interrupted by a colonial power? Does life go on? Or will this spiritual wrong be righted? Nobel laureate and playwright Wole Soyinka answers these questions in his 1975 play Death and the King's Horseman.

The 1975 Nobel prize-winning play is based on actual events in British-occupied Nigeria

Based on events in British-occupied Nigeria, Wole Soyinka’s play shares the story of a community striving to uphold its culture in the face of colonial power. (Getty/Soulpepper Theatre Company)

In traditional Yoruba society, the performance of certain sacred rituals is thought to keep the world in order. 

In his 1975 play Death and the King's Horseman, Nobel prize winner Wole Soyinka explores the consequences of disrupting this metaphysical balance. 

Set around the Second World War, when the British colonial authorities still ruled Nigeria, the play centres on the king's horseman, who is set to commit ritual suicide because the king has just died.

"The king is waiting to continue on his journey to the ancestral land. But he needs his king's horseman to come [with him] so that they can continue the roles that they had," said Tawiah M'Carthy, the director of a new audio production of the play mounted by Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company, in partnership with The Stratford Festival.  

The story looks at what happens when that tradition is interrupted by the British, who see it as barbaric.

Through each of the characters in the play, Soyinka delves into the nature of tradition, duty, and the devastating ripple effects of colonial interference.

As part of Soulpepper's Around the World in 80 Plays series, IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed spoke to M'Carthy about the play's message and how it continues to resonate today. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

Why do you think that the [British] have such a strong reaction to this news that this suicide is about to take place? 

I think it's because they think they know better. It's a bigger conversation about what they were doing on that land anyway. And I will speak from the experience of Ghana: What [were they] doing on that land? Taking the resources and disrespecting the people and the land itself. Because to them, the people of that land fell lower on the totem pole. They did not know things. They needed to be educated and civilized.

Olunde [the horseman's son] also points out the fact that the British have their own deadly rituals like war. He talks about "white races wiping out one another." Do you see a hypocrisy here?

I do. I think it's clear. And also it's the beauty of what Soyinka was able to do with the play, in placing it time-wise, because this was happening in their world [too]. Yes, I think there is hypocrisy to it, and I also think there is hypocrisy to the whole notion of the dominance of the British culture on that land. 

Tawiah Ben M’Carthy is a Ghanaian born, Toronto based theatre artist. He has worked with various arts organizations across the country including Canadian Stage, Shaw Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, The National Arts Center and Buddies in Bad Times. (Submitted by Tawiah M’Carthy)

Both the horseman and the district officer seem quite resolved. The horseman is committed to his duty to death, and the district officer is committed to reforming what he sees as a barbaric culture. How important is the sense of "duty" in this story?

I think it's part of the underlying themes of the play for me: duty and our roles within our communities. I think at the end of the day, they are both resolved in what they have to do to keep their communities functioning in the way it's supposed to function. 

So the resolve that comes from them is them understanding the role that they play within their individual spaces. And I think that's why it makes it so difficult to actually just go, "Oh, this person is a villain and that person is the villain." I think if you're able to do that so easily, then you're actually not taking the time to actually understand the complicated conversations that are happening within the play. 

Do you think there's any sense in which the themes of this play are continuing to play out today?

Oh, yes, in so many ways. I describe culture as a way of life. And when we think of the Indigenous people of this land, when we think about Black lives, when we think about immigrants, when we think about the LGBTQ2S+ community, trans lives, disabled lives, there's so many ways in which the dominant culture is constantly interrupting other cultures. And I think this is a reminder of that. 

If you don't have the time to sit to understand and respect, don't interrupt. The very minute we think of ourselves as more important than the other, we already start causing harm. Because even our thinking, it shifts the way we interact with those people from the other cultures. 

So if anything, I've always thought of this play as being timeless. And even talking now — I'll use Ghana as an example. We talk about foreign influences and resources still being taken out of the land, and also the way African bodies are treated outside of the continent, and it's still going on.

Click HERE for a full list of credits for the audio play Death and the King's Horseman.

* Written and produced by Tayo Bero. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Around The World in 80 Plays is an audio drama series mounted by Soulpepper Theatre Company that takes listeners on a trip around the world. IDEAS will be your guide on that journey with radio documentaries exploring the cultural and historical context from these countries. Find more episodes from this series here.

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