The award of the Nobel Prize for literature to Wole Soyinka in 1986 is considered to be a watershed in the world of African and Black arts.
In its citation for the award, the Swedish Academy for Literature, which selects the winner of the Nobel award, called attention to Soyinka’s broad cultural perspective, the poetic overtones of his work, and his concern with the drama of existence. From among Soyinka’s many works, the Swedish academy singled out Death and the King’s Horseman as “a genuinely, dramatically convincing work full of many ideas and meanings, of poetry, satire, surprise, cruelty, and lust.” In this play, the Swedish Academy noted, “the relationship between the unborn, the living, and the dead, to which Soyinka reverts several times in his works, is fashioned here with strong effect.”
The awarding of the Nobel Prize was also the culmination of a long journey that began when Soyinka started writing plays as an undergraduate at the University of Leeds in the north of England and as a play reader at the famous Royal Court Theatre in London in the late 1950s.
By the time he won the Nobel Prize, Soyinka had published almost thirty books of drama, poetry, fiction, memoir, and autobiography. During this time, he came to be recognized as a towering giant of African letters, the continent’s leading playwright, and one of its most influential cultural voices. In Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka brought together his mastery of all traditions of European drama and his keen understanding of African ritual theater. You can see find Soyinka’s Nobel Address here.
Gikandi (2003) provides the highlights of Soyinka’s writing career in his introduction to the Norton Critical Edition of Death and the King’s Horseman. This authoritative edition contains essays on Yoruba culture and metaphysics—an essential background to the play and its complexities—and select criticism on key themes in the play by leading scholars. Professor Gikandi, the Chair of the English Department at Princeton, is currently working on a second edition of the play, which will contain new essays on Soyinka’s use of death as a trope, his rethinking of tragedy, the relationship between gender and the politics of life and death, and on the performative dimension of the play. He welcomes any questions you may have on the play.
Biodun Jeyifo powerful testimony to Wole Soyinka and the English language can be found here.
Soyinka presented the Toni Morrison lectures at Princeton University in 2016 and here are videos of the three lectures: “Sweet are the Uses of Diversity,” “In Praise – and Dread – of Trees,” and “As It was in the Beginning.”
In addition to numerous journal articles and book chapters, Soyinka is the subject of several book length studies. The most authoritative is Jeyifo (2003).
Death and the King’s Horseman is one of the most performed of Soyinka’s plays both in his native Nigeria and abroad and selection of performances can be found on YouTube. Here is a clip from the production directed by Mike Anyanwu and performed by the National Troupe of Nigera in 2016. Here is a live performance from members of Live Theater Lagos directed by Kelvinmary Ndukwe in 2019.
Soyinka, Wole. “Sweet are the Uses of Diversity.” Talk presented for Toni Morrison Lectures at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, April 2016.
Soyinka, Wole. “In Praise – and Dread – of Trees.” Talk presented for Toni Morrison Lectures at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, April 2016.
Soyinka, Wole. “As It was in the Beginning.” Talk presented for Toni Morrison Lectures at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, April 2016.
Soyinka, Wole. “This Past Must Address Its Present.” Talk presented for Nobel Laureate Lecture at the Swedish Academy, Stockholm, Sweden.December, 1986.
Gikandi, Simon. Introduction to Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka, vii-xxiv. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 2002.
Jeyifo, Biodun. “This Wole Soyinka Play Showed the Future of English.” BBC Culture. BBC, May 9, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20180509-this-wole-soyinka-play-showed-the-future-of-english.
Jeyifo, Biodun, Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics and Postcolonialism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.