A Clash of Perspectives

Julia Gilliam

In the author’s note at the start of the play, Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka proclaims that his play is not about a “clash of cultures” and that the “Colonial Factor is an incident” (p. 5). As a Western reader his “Author’s Note” appears almost condescending and smug, when he refers to the “perverse mentality” (p.5) of describing his play as a clash of cultures. I believe I found his commentary to be so frustrating because when performing a close reading of this text it is impossible not to recognize the differences and tensions between the colonists and the Yoruba tribe. I agree that the play is not simply a story about the clash of cultures, however the techniques and language that Soyinka uses within his play contradict with his statement, that the Colonial factor is merely an incident. Were the colonial factor to be represented as just an incident, then why would so much detail and attention be given to the contrasting culture?

Throughout the play it is impossible to ignore that the colonial influences do in fact affect the cultural identity of the Nigerian people. In the final act, Act V, the tension between the two cultures is almost tangible. In this act, Elesin and Iyaloja refer to Pilkings over and over as a “white man” or a “ghost”. Whether or not Pilkings is the reason that Elesin was unable to fulfill his duty, the disrespectful way in which the two characters refer to him show that they do feel anger toward him and his lack of understanding for their culture. Also, in speaking to Pilkings, Elesin says, “who would have known that the white skin covered our future” (p. 51). This metaphor that Soyinka crafted suggests that the African culture is being invaded and affected by the white colonists.

In addition to the evidence of cultural tension within the fifth act, the way in which sets up a shift in the narrative or speaking style as the acts switch from the tribal people to the colonists, especially between Acts I and II, it makes a statement about the strength and power of the Yoruba tribe. Why would Soyinka have bothered to include the colonist at all if this story were not in some way about the way in which the cultures were affected by one another? In examining the plot it can be argued that Elesin’s inability to do his duty and die was because of his pride and lust, but then it is important to ask the question: Would Olunde have met the same fate had it not been for the influence of the colonist culture? Soyinka’s inclusion of the character Olunde complicates his claim that in this story the colonial factor is a mere incident. Numerous times in the fourth act, Olunde makes claims to Jane like: “I have discovered that you [colonists] have no respect for what you do not understand (p.41).” This use of language hints directly at the presence of cultural tension.

In looking at the conflict between Soyinka’s author’s note and the actual reading of the textual language, it is also important to look at history and consider the influences that Soyinka and his writing may have faced during the post-colonial era. In writing this post I keep coming back to the question of how to read a 20th century text like this. As Western readers, with different perspectives or understandings than Soyinka and nowhere near the number of experiences that he had, should we read the play as he wants or intended it to be interpreted or as the literature and language seem to represent?

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