Monday, February 08, 2010

You are not here

Here's another diagram from Religion & Theater, this a map of the religious world of Nigerian play- wright Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horse- man.

The play is about a man whose hereditary role is to be "horseman" (elesin) to the king: when kings dies, the horsemen (as also the king's horse and dog) precede them into the other world. This means, they die before the king is buried. But what makes the king's horseman more important, in his way, than even the king is the fact that he goes freely. As another character says, it is not the horseman who dies but death. And through this voluntary dying, the horseman proves for all that human beings are stronger than death.

The story is based on an actual event in 1946, when British colonial administrators prevented a king's horseman from performing the act for which he was born, and it's tempting to see the play as about a confrontation of cultures - Elesin Oba and entourage vs. Simon Pilkings, the District Officer and his wife Jane. Indeed, many critics have praised the play for just this. Soyinka wants nothing of it, and the text starts with a note saying so:

[T]he facile tag of ‘clash of cultures [is] a prejudicial label which ... presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter. … The Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely. The confrontation in the play is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle which is Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind—the world of the living, the dead and the unborn, and the numinous passage which links all: transition. (Norton Critical Edition, 3; map above is on 70)

How do we prevent a culture-clash reading, how do we present the play as metaphysical (and not a metaphysics-clash either)? It's not easy. I tried today to suggest that students imagine the story with a different catalytic incident than an English colonial administrator - say, a Muslim ruler a few centuries ago; who the disrupter is really doesn't matter that much. That sounded to some students like I was trying to avoid the colonialism question, I think, so I'll try to make the point another way on Wednesday. Look at this map of the Yoruba cosmos, I'll say, pointing to the one at the top of this post; where do the Brits fit here?

Nowhere, of course. That doesn't mean Pilkings and his ilk are not in Yorubaland, getting in the way of things. But unless and until things are prevented from taking their proper course, they're not really there - not as Brits. They're not from some other world - there is no other world for them to be from. They're intruders, that's all, who don't belong here, and cause nothing but harm. To avoid a culture clash reading and its implicit imperialism, we need to understand them as characters in the Yoruba world, not establish a truce between them and the Yoruba on the territory of the play.

The play signals the metaphysical insubstantiality of the Brits by having the colonial administrator and his wife first appear in traditional Yoruba clothes and masks - impounded from egungun mourners for the dead king, in fact - which they think will make an amusing impression at a dress-up ball at the European club. At first, they just look ridiculous (indeed, they're rehearsing a tango!). But eventually we learn that they look like the dead or not- quite- dead whom egungun dancers embody, lost, liminal beings...

At the National Theatre in London last year, an even more radical effort was made to desubstan- tialize the Brits: they were played by African actors in whiteface!

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