September 27, 2004

The Whole Soyinka

The idea of liminality is one of the most prominent themes in Death and the King's Horseman. Even in the opening, before any words are said, the audience is exposed to the closing of the marketplace, at a time when day is not quite over, yet it is not yet evening. This in-between stage starts the play off with a feeling of uncertainty, and the concept that the future is not predictable, that anything could happen. Obviously, the main character, Elesin, is in a liminal stage as he expects to pass from the world of the living into the world of the dead; however, many of the other characters are also in a similar state. For example, in the first scene, we learn that the entire community is deeply affected in much the same way that Elesin is. The young girl who becomes Elesin's bride is especially in a liminal stage, as her life has been completely changed in just a few moments - from being betrothed to Iyaloja's son to being married to the chief of their village. The Praise-Singer is also in a state of uncertainty, because his master is departing for a different world, and he is not sure of what will become of him. He pleads with Elesin to be permitted to accompany him into death - "I have prepared my going - just tell me: Olohun-iyo, I need you on this jouney and I shall be behind you."

On the 'Western' side of things, we are introduced in scene two to Mr. and Mrs. Pilkings, who are in something of a liminal stage, as they are preparing for the grand ball with His Royal Highness the Prince. This anticipation is soon overshadowed, however, by the announcement by Pilkings' sergeant that the chief of the village is about to commit suicide. This realization of Elesin's impending death becomes a catalyst for the rest of the action of the play; because the idea that 'anything can happen' was introduced right from the very beginning, now the play takes a turn from ordinary events into the world of the liminal, where nothing is predetermined and the characters are faced with situations that they have never been in.

Since the news of Elesin's death is what causes all of the action in Death and the King's Horseman, death is one of the most important concepts within the play. The ideas held by the Yoruba people regarding death will come as a shock to most audiences from the United States or Europe. It is these greatly differing views of death that cause the conflict of the action - were the two groups to effectively communicate, to come to an understanding of each other's cultures, the events of the play would not have occurred. Unfortunately, there is no effective communication between the cultures, except for Olunde. Olunde tries to explain to Jane about his people's traditions in scene four, that his father's death is desired and not a bad thing. However, Jane, and her husband Pilkings, do not understand what Olunde is trying to tell them. In this play, death is worth investigation because of theatre's power of suggestion - an audience can be immersed in a play so that it feels real, so that when death is introduced, it will cause people to think seriously on the topic, since they have 'almost' been there themselves, having seen the show.

So, since this idea of liminality is present right from the very beginning of the play, and acts as a catalyst to propel the action of the play forward, it follows that the concept of death behind the liminality is the main topic of the play. For the word 'Death' to be included as the first word of the title says that it is meant to be the point behind the show - the liminality surrounding Elesin's death being the true focus of all the subject matter and analysis.

Posted by holm0567 at September 27, 2004 11:29 PM