Wednesday, February 17, 2010

World theater

Excitingly global moments in Religion & Theater today. E, one of our colleagues from the literature department, talked about "Death and the King's Horseman" - she directed the second production of the play ever, in Barbados, after having been in Nigeria at the time Wole Soyinka was establishing himself. ("Don't think you can do postcolonial studies without leaving the United States," she warned.)

The play is off-puttingly difficult for first-time readers, but she showed several ways in, such as that the story is not just about British colonial Nigeria but Soyinka's frustration at being invited to Cambridge by well-meaning dons who regretfully placed him in the Anthropology department as "there is no such thing as African literature"! (I'll show you Yoruba literature, I'll show you its depth, and its distinctive and profound tradition of tragedy!) And she showed us how the play explores a number of competing conceptions of death in Yoruba culture, a death relativized (to an extent) by reincarnation, which may indeed mean that the ancestors are not only present in some general way but might be reincarnated in you, and a quite different meaningless death which is the shadow of the losses to slavery; meanwhile all these views are condemned as "primitive" by the colonizer, whose religion promises eternal life if you reject the "deathiness" of your traditions...

Hearing about this from a white English woman who had spent time in Africa and the West Indies brought the global context in which Soyinka writes into our classroom. Even more came from my visiting Japanese friend H - have I mentioned that she's an actor and theater director? - who came to the class. She told me that Soyinka's play (which she saw in rehearsal in London in the mid-'70s, and again a decade ago in a Russian production in Tokyo) is highly regarded in Japan, where its concern with honorable suicide in the service of a lord is a familiar theme (indeed, one of the main themes of kabuki!). She and E communed over the insufficiency of language and thinking to convey what Soyinka's after; what's needed is live performance and, even more, dance and music (drumming).

Did any of this make the play more accessible to our students? I hope so, but we'll have to see. It is a lot to ask them to understand foreign concepts of death (and undeath, for the dead are present in the world, and on the stage, in masks, etc.), but we do have a whole semester to get them to see theater as broader than western concepts of performance. Religion too. Our next unit is on Noh drama, so I'm sure to use the Japan-Soyinka connection and keep on plugging understandings of religion that are neither theistic nor merely humanistic.

I leave you with one of the pivotal speeches in "Death and the King's Horseman," in which a wise woman explains the "death of death" on which everything depends. (An "elesin" is the "horseman" who leads a dead king through the transition back to rebirth; without the elesin, the king can't find his way, and the whole community's survival is in jeopardy. But his voluntary "committing death" also shows humanity's metaphysical superiority to death.)

It is the death of war that kills the valiant,
Death of water is how the swimmer goes
It is the death of markets that kills the trader
And death of indecision takes the idle away
The trade of the cutlass blunts its edge
And the beautiful die the death of beauty.
It takes an Elesin to die the death of death . . .
Only Elesin . . . dies the unknowable death of death . . .
Gracefully, gracefully does the horseman regain
The stables at the end of day, gracefully . . .

(Norton Critical Edition, 35)
(Egungun mask pics from here, here and here)

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