Dance and Language in Death and the King’s Horseman

While the second act continues some the themes of music and dance from the first act, it has a marked difference in tone. This difference is seen through the different presentation of music and dance. Whereas music and dance among the Nigerians in the first act was something natural and free – shown in Elesin’s dancing entrance into the market and his sudden break into song to tell the story of the Not-I bird – it is more formal and artificial with the European couple Simon and Jane. Firstly, their music is produced by a gramophone, a man-made machine. Secondly, the couple is practicing a tango, a very formal dance, to perform at a ball later. Compared to the image of Elesin dancing wildly through the market with a group of drummers and praise-singers in his wake, it shifts the mood straight away to one that is more reserved and structured. Elesin’s natural movement appears to exude an innate rhythm: “The drummer moves in and draws a rhythm out of his steps” (11). Yet, when we move on to Simon and Jane, music and dance has become something external to their ordinary life, something to be performed at certain times.

As well as demonstrating differences between the Europeans and Nigerians, music and dance also introduce the insensitivity of Jane and Simon to the Nigerian people and their culture. They wear some form of dress associated with a “dead cult” as part of their dance routine, trivializing it as “fancy dress” (24) and demeaning Amusa’s distress over this as “mumbo-jumbo” (24) and a “little joke” (25). They then degrade the music of the Nigerian ceremony by complaining that “They always find an excuse for making a noise” and “all bush drumming sounded the same” (27). This casual disregard for the details of Yoruba culture shows that, although Jane and Simon do not seem to hold malicious contempt for the people, they nonetheless do not hold much respect for their customs.

The tone shifts in act two also through Soyinka’s use of language. Demonstrating the musicality of the Yoruba culture, the language of the first act is very lyrical and symbolic, including frequent riddles and songs. Elesin’s speech is characterized by phrases such as, “When the hour comes/ Watch me dance along the narrowing path/ Glazed by the souls of my great precursors” (14), and “The sap of the plantain never dries./ You have seen the young shoot swelling/ even as the parent stalk begins to wither” (20). In contrast to this poetic language is the simple speech of the Europeans. In the second act, Soyinka uses more stage directions for the tone of the characters’ voices, such as “wearily” (27), “thoughtfully” (29), “stiffly” (29), and “stubbornly” (32), suggesting that their simple speech reveals less about their characters, and that their cultural identity can be better understood by the manner in which they speak rather than only by the words they use. This difference echoes the contrast between how dance is portrayed in both acts: like each of their forms of dance, the language of the Yoruba people is visibly expressive, while the language of the Europeans communicates through details of manner.


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