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How white man beheads the African god in Soyinka’s Death and King’s Horseman

By Sam Omatseye

The movie Elesin Oba has attracted quite some buzz. Many are comparing it with Anikulapo, thereby launching a flurry of critical sparring into the Nigeria celluloid space. It has enriched it with an intellectual spice we rarely see in this country. Not many are doing it with rigour, but it makes some of us more than a little happy that both films are giving us a window on culture through the move narrative. I would like this enthusiasm to extend to books.

It is cheering though that one of the films derives from one of the best books ever written anywhere. Death and King’s Horseman is believed by many to be Soyinka’s best work, even though not everyone will accede to that claim. This author will pick his childhood memoirs Ake and his 1960 play, A Dance of the Forests. But not matter.

The purpose of this essay is to interrogate whether the gods accept Elesin’s (the king’s horseman) death. Or whether his son’s death, that is Olunde, expiates his father’s sin in the eyes of the Yoruba pantheon. Does the faith of the son save a father’s fate? Are they not deaths that do not make sense? Is Soyinka not exposing the absurdity of ritual futility? Is Elesin’s suicide not the suicide of the gods?

Before going that path, I want to say that making a judgment on the better work between both films raises critical challenges. One, Anikulapo is an original score. It is not based on any written story. It expertly excavates Yoruba, or African, myths. We cannot say same of Elesin Oba, which draws its resources from a written work, a staged work, a familiar tale in the people’s imagination. So, it creates a great problem for Biyi Bandele – God bless his soul – as he tries to bring alive on the screen what many have read in their closets and classrooms and watched on stage. Again, Elesin Oba is based on a true story during colonial Nigeria.

But Biyi has a great task to convince the audience of his art, not on the content of the tale but his interpretation, and his ability to infuse into it an original tension, suspense, feel and sensibility that will enable a story we all know look new. Critics call it defamiliarize. Did Biyi defamiliarize the story so we look at it and say, this is fresh?

That is the challenge for any writer, be they novelists, poets, dramatists or even memoirists. I think, from that point of view, Elesin Oba falls short. The play does well in invoking the “atmospherics” of the Yoruba village, the custom and costumes, the tunes and tunic. We see with absorbed glee the architecture of thatched houses, the colours and belly of the streets of Oyo kingdom. We take in the flavours of their accents. We see the rhetorical exchanges, the march of culture, the majestic rhythms of the dances on the streets. While denuding it of some of Soyinka’s long and enthralling perorations, it does not fail in replacing it with a realistic beauty of the Yoruba dialogue, the enchantment of words, the rhythms of proverbs, the spice of accents. One can say, Bandele triumphs there by not making the viewer yawn over the ponderous pomp of the play’s poesy, especially in the first half of the work.

Elesin Oba begins with an original scene with the king’s horseman in epicurean ecstacy with food, drinks and nubile girls. He cavorts like tales from Roman emperors and princes like Caligula and Commodus. The most affecting was the song and dance. It’s the director’s fine mettle.

But the play lacks any new tensions, any surprises, any audacious new ideas. That is why, as a film, the kudos goes for Anikulapo. Bandele did not bring a new story, a new twist. It was a “creative” regurgitation of the play. But it was a good effort, nonetheless. Anikulapo had all the “atmospherics” of Elesin Oba but adds a play of tension, an immersion in the psychology of hubris, in the royal intrigues of wives, in the sexual wiles and predation of women, the amnesia that plagues loyalty, the mystique of love, the vanity of power and the fragility of marital fidelity.

But thanks to Bandele, the film brings one back to the play itself, and the question of ritual suicide not only in Yoruba culture but in the nature of culture anywhere.

What does the white man do to the African culture at that moment when its police stop the ritual suicide of the Elesin. It is, perhaps, the biggest moment in African literature that shows the tyranny of colonial power. The ritual act of suicide is supposed to show the meeting of the material world and the spiritual, the living and the dead. It is supposed to seal the integrity of the Yoruba, nay African, cosmos that sees no difference between flesh and spirit, the intercourse being a quotidian routine of the race. So, what the colonialists do at that moment in the Elesin’s lack of transition is a dagger at the African god. Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna to obey a deity, but the white man, in Elesin’s liminal hour, beheads the Africa god. They interrupt the transition as an act of spiritual insolence. They subject the African supernatural time to the European temporal impunity. It is not only that they succeed in interrupting it, they abolish it.

Elesin is a man of the flesh. That shows that even in our society we have already developed an Achille’s hill of the flesh. Elesin does not want to go without the last assertion of lascivious indulgence. His final lush swoon. A luscious, transitional sigh. He wants a girl, a virgin, though betrothed. It is one last act of presumptuous tyranny, of ambushing another man’s bride, of cuckolding an innocent.

He is too much of a man of the world to be loyal to his deceased king. The link to the gods is tenuous. The white man eyes this underbelly and strikes.

Ritual suicide is not peculiar to Yorubaland. It is strange to whites in the play but not to Caucasian history. From the time of Augustus Caesar, or even before then, evidence abound of ritual suicides imported to Europe, though it was called Roman Empire then. Many see Sepuku today as the Japanese version. Indians do have them often. We have honour suicides in the Middle East. Elesin wants to go but does not want to go, it is what Shakespeare describes as “to be or not to be.” It is not like Antigone in Sophocle’s play of that title when the young woman does not hesitate to kill herself with his prospective lover Haemon. Again, Sophocles creates Antigone’s sister as a temperament of doubt because the sister does not want to follow the path of Antigone who dies for the dead. Both conflicting characters inhabit Elesin Oba. Elesin is more like Antony in Shakespeare’s play of wits Antony and Cleopatra where Antony hesitates to kill himself but asks his servant to do it. He delays his own dissolution. But he does it.

Again, Elesin is arrested, and he is in the white man’s jail. Olunde, on the other hand, comes back from England after graduating as a medical doctor to show fealty to tradition. His dialogue with the district officer’s wife shows that he does not embrace the white man’s culture uncritically, and remembers his roots. He is a disillusioned native from the white man’s land. But is it enough that he dies on behalf of his father? Is his death authentic? The man in suit, immersed in the white man’s herbs, tries to play genuine local. He has lost something of his essence as a man of the culture. It is the Elesin who should die, and it is not just a normal death but a ritual death. Olunde dies not a ritual death but a replacement suicide. When Elesin sees this, he hangs himself. It is like Judas Iscariot’s death. It is impotent mea culpa. He becomes a son of perdition. He goes to perdition of the African world, not to the bosom of the gods. It would compromise the premise of the sacrifice and the rites. The Iyaloja’s contempt demonstrates this.

Is there such a thing as a replacement suicide? Olunde is the son of Elesin and not Elesin. His death is only aspirational, not authentic. The play shows that the white hit the bull’s eye of the African power. You disable the gods first. After that the culture is gone. So, when the white brings Christian faith, it is not out of love for Christ, but out of a mission to conquer. They are no messengers of Christ but desecrators, counterfeit evangelists. They gave us Mary Slessor even though the Church of England says Africans have no souls.

Elesin hangs himself in a white man’s jail. Is that a path to the gods? Is the white man now the one to tell the gods the path home? It would mean that the white man instructs the gods, if they do not kill them. That is the consolation. When Nietzsche asserts the death of God, he does not acknowledge that there was God in the first place. He means the human minds that make him have now outgrown him or abandoned him. A play like Death and the King’s Horseman shows how gods die. Sometimes it is foreigners who kill or whittle down their powers by destroying the armies of their subjects. We have seen this all over the West African countries, especially during the era historians describe as “West African resistance” that record the fall of stalwart kingdoms from Dahomey to Benin. That is the chilling message of Soyinka’s Death and King’s Horseman. It is the story of the abolition or, at least, demystification of the African pantheon. When the mystique disappears, the enemy struts in. That is one of the big themes of Achebe’s Arrow of God.

The white man kills the African god as a tool to conquer the African mind. Anyone who conquers your god, conquers your mind. That happens when Elesin interrupts the gods as they call home one of their sons. And the gods do nothing about it. Or is it divine self-annulment?

We must not underplay the power of self-agency in executing the divine agenda. Gods depend on humans to have power over humans. Elesin betrays the gods. By that, he might even be a human hero, except that the humans that take the credit are not his people but those who conquer him and allow him to die. Olunde who wears suits is not able to go that path, being caught between two contending powers.

For those who argue that Elesin or Olunde die and return to the gods forget that the ritual is what makes it a province of the divine. Neither do it, and neither show they have the god’s backing. Do the gods change the rules? If they do, it means they have become material and therefore human. Hence my point that the gods have been humanised. When Jesus dies, for instance, the ritual of Christian worship endures because the story of his resurrection, the mystery of his miracles after death and his rise the third day keep the mystique alive. Just as Apostle says, if Jesus does not rise again, the faith is of no effect. The Christian faith sees to this. We do not see such redemptive skein in the African tale. When Jephthah’s daughter in the Bible is the one to sacrifice, she takes the initiative that she wants to bewail her virginity. It continues the ritual plot. But it is not a sacrifice about divine grandeur but human obedience. No more mystique is therefore required. No big statement about divine authenticity is required. She is not going to heaven. She is dying. In Elijah’s case, he is demonstrated to have gone into heaven or transformed, just like Enoch. It sustains the mystique just as Jesus will do to the witnesses of his apostles as he ascends into heaven. If Jesus’ story ends with Judas Iscariot’s act, then no more Christ and no Christianity. Elesin and Olunde stories end in the material world. So do the gods.

These are questions readers of Soyinka’s great play should ponder even as some watch the creative “regurgitation” of the play on film.

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