What makes Death and the King’s Horseman so powerful as drama is the myriad of narratives, fables, songs, chants and dances that simultaneously celebrate and elegise the terror of death. In this respect, the play reminds us of similar cultural forms and attitudes surrounding death in many of the world’s civilisations, from ancient traditions documented in the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead to the Mexican Day of the Dead. To continue to be able to observe and celebrate these traditions or not – that is the central axis of the plot of Death and the King’s Horseman, which stretches the boundary between ancient ritual and modern performance (with long passages of trance and possession that few modern plays contain).

Every decade or so, it seems to fall to a non-English dramatist to belt new energy into the English tongue – Penelope Gilliat

Published in 1975 while Soyinka was a professorial fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, Death and the King’s Horseman is a drama in five scenes, meant to be performed without interruption. It is based on a real-life incident that occurred in the 1940s, at a time when Britain retained colonial control of the Yoruba cultural heartland that had become part of Nigeria in 1914 when the Northern and Southern Protectorates of the country were amalgamated. With the death of the Yoruba king, the Commander of the King’s Stables (known as Elesin or Horseman) is expected to commit ritual suicide and be buried with the dead king in appropriate ritual festivities. Indeed, most of the festivities do take place, but not the suicide that was to follow it.

Thinking this a ‘barbaric’ act, Simon Pilkings, the British colonial ruler, intervenes and prevents Elesin from taking his own life. However, as in the British Raj in India where the banning of the custom of “sati” or ritual suicide through widow burning sparked revolts from the colonised, the community ends up in turmoil over Elesin remaining alive, with hostility from the Yoruba people directed more at Elesin than at Pilkings.

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But it’s not just that it considers death in a way highly specific but also universal – Death and the King’s Horseman is a world-shaping work because it reanimated the English language with new purpose in a form called “Anglophone”. Originally a term for nations that meant “being English-speaking”, its definition has been expanded. The term refers to what it means around the world when one is English-speaking in relation to other languages with which English mixes and collides to invent new and expanded communities of speakers of the language at home and abroad.

It is in this sense that some countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Oceania and the Pacific region are known as “Anglophone” countries. In an Anglophone work of drama or fiction, the characters may be fictively speaking in English when in actuality they would have been speaking in other languages, complicating traditional separations between “English” and “Non-English”. Death and the King’s Horseman is a master-text of this tradition of world Anglophone literature, fusing Yoruba proverbs and idioms with a cannibalised version of the Queen’s tongue to create a new, hybrid linguistic entity.

Though published the year before, Death and the King’s Horseman had its world debut performance in Nigeria in 1976, followed by subsequent productions in the UK, the United States and other places around the world. And indeed, the play very quickly became a classic of Anglophone drama – a work written in English but emerging from a culture on which English was imposed, much as how great Irish writers have almost always written in the English language and not Gaelic. It followed in the path of previous works by Soyinka. “Every decade or so, it seems to fall to a non-English dramatist to belt new energy into the English tongue,” Penelope Gilliat, an influential critic of the London stage, wrote when an earlier Soyinka play, The Road, premiered in 1965. “The last time was when Brendan Beehan’s The Quare Fellow opened at Theatre Workshop. Nine years later, in the reign of Stage Sixty at the same beloved Victorian Building at Stratford East, a Nigerian called Wole Soyinka has done for our napping language what brigand dramatists from Ireland have done for centuries: booted it awake, rifled its pockets and scattered the loot into the middle of next week”.

Soyinka’s play is fundamentally not about a clash of cultures – it’s about the reality of death and the language we use to engage with it

The type of Anglophone writing we read in Death and the King’s Horseman is a harmonious cultural and linguistic fusion, not to be confused with the crude cultural appropriation we see Pilkings and his wife engage in. At one point in the play, they host a masquerade ball of their own and appropriate Yoruba Egungun masks into their own outfits – a thoughtless, colonialist act of desecration. In colonisation there’s always a push-pull between the efforts of the coloniser to destroy the culture of the colonised while taking some pieces of that culture they find enticing for their own – just look at white fashion models wearing Native American head-dresses on catwalks in a country where Native American cultural identity has all but been destroyed. That self-serving colonialist separation of Christian from pagan, civilisation from barbarism, modernity from anti-modernity and rationalism from irrational superstition is the central conflict Soyinka adroitly constructs in Death and the King’s Horseman.

Words and reconciliation

But the play is fundamentally not about a clash of cultures, not about a confrontation between superstructures of worldviews and structures of belief, and definitely not a drama on the irreconcilable antagonism of two different races or peoples – as Soyinka vigorously insists in his own foreword to the play. For all its brilliant and fascinating use of African and European idioms of ritual and courtly performances, the play’s shattering artistic and intellectual force lies in deeply personal, existential crises and anxieties around the phenomenon, the reality of death – and, especially, the language we use to engage with death. In other words, it is not as a sort of shaman, not as an intercessor between this world and the next, that the force of Elesin Oba’s personality as protagonist is secured; rather, it is on the basis of his language, his words, his spoken and performed narratives and oratory that we are asked to either judge him or suspend judgment of him. And since Death and the King’s Horseman is in English, Elesin has to make his case in that language – even though in real life he would have used Yoruba, his mother tongue.

And what a case he makes! What flawless beauties of language, what sublimities of rhetoric, what heights of oratory he climbs! It is all putatively and recognisably English – except that through it all can be felt the distinctiveness of his Yoruba mother tongue since no English of England remotely speaks the language in this manner. This is why Elesin Oba’s Anglophone English is so infinitely richer than the English of the English themselves. And this is why this exemplary differentiation does not lead to an exoticisation of Elesin Oba: Soyinka makes us privy to the fabulous and elaborate speech acts by and through which Elesin must justify his existence both before and after the aborted ritual suicide. This leads us to what I consider the greatest impact of the play: its status as an exemplary text of Anglophone world drama in which the English spoken and performed by the Africans, the natives, is infinitely richer, more lyrical, more sublime than the English of the whites, the Europeans, the mother-tongue autochthones.

English was always a hybrid language – Soyinka’s introduction of Yoruba idiom into English is a natural evolution

Death and the King’s Horseman takes us far beyond the “English” and “non-English” binarism that English speakers often engage in; it takes us into the far more complex and fascinating conception and practice of Anglophone literature in which every writer who uses the English language is at least somewhat Anglophone. What we thought of as English before the 19th Century was a hybrid, anyway, a mixture of ancient Germanic, Latin and French, let alone the Celtic languages immediately surrounding England. Indeed for most of their history the English themselves had been, not pristinely, but at least somewhat relationally, Anglophone. That is to say, relational to the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh on the British Isles. And later, English was relational to all the other languages spoken and written in the British Empire – and many words spoken by Indians, Africans and Native Americans ended up in English. This was as much a crucial aspect of power relations between coloniser and colonised in the Empire as it was also a dimension of the creation and contestation of imposed identities during and after the end of Empire.

But until around the 1960s when the word “Anglophone” began to appear in the dictionaries of the language, this fact was neither well-known by the general public nor made the object of attention by experts in the unfolding histories of the language. Death and the King’s Horseman marks the moment of transition when this relationality of all written, spoken and performed English in the world to other languages was fully revealed. Think about how many times Irish writers writing in English about characters who had not (yet) lost their Irish Gaelic necessarily wrote for a contemporary Irish audience that has almost completely lost the mother tongue and thus speaks only in English.

Death and the King’s Horseman marks a turning point in linguistic history at which what appears as English, as Anglophone English, is really an echo chamber in which languages subjugated by English assert important dimensions of their distinctiveness as living languages. Of course, a lot of plays, poems and novels continue to be written, published or performed as if the long Anglophone revolution has not taken place. But, to borrow from Raymond Williams, that is the nature of all long revolutions.

Biodun Jeyifo is a professor of African and African-American studies and comparative literature at Harvard University.

BBC Culture’s Stories that shaped the world series looks at epic poems, plays and novels from around the globe that have influenced history and changed mindsets. A poll of writers and critics, 100 stories that shaped the world, will be announced in May.

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