Death and the King’s Horseman is considered by many to be among the best of Wole Soyinka’ s plays, which number more than a dozen. In awarding Soyinka the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the Swedish Academy drew special attention to Death and the King’s Horseman and Dance of the Forests(1960) as evidence of his talent for combining Yoruban and European culture into a unique kind of poetic drama.
Death and the King’s Horseman play tells the story of Elesin, the king’s horseman, who is expected to commit ritual suicide following the death of the king, but who is distracted from his duty. The story is based on a historical event. In 1946, a royal horseman named Elesin was prevented from committing ritual suicide by the British colonial powers. Soyinka alters the historical facts, placing the responsibility for Elesin’s failure squarely on Elesin’s shoulders, so that he might focus on the theme of duty rather than of colonialism.