Some memories standout from the only time I watched a staging of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. Discounting the terrible cold of the theatre, or Toyin Oshinaike’s vain struggle at embodying the majestic hubris of Elesin Oba, the memory that stood out the most was of a relatively young audience wondering the hell what was going on.
Today’s average Nigerian is not a theatregoer. They are likely to have seen a play or two in school or church, played in some, but this acquaintance hardly ever translates to a future longing for theatre as in Terrakulture. The more fundamental longing for visual entertainment is sated by film, which is more readily available, a snip to access and a dream to share. All of this generates theatrical expectations that petrify, at the very best, in the thrill of spectacle.
Armed therefore with vague notions of Yorubaness, drawn to this play more for Soyinka’s celebrity than any theatrical expectations, the dense poetry of many patches of the play’s dialogue seemed rather impenetrable. But for Soyinka’s peerless facility with humour, but for the more obvious drama of Pilking’s disastrous entanglement with Oyo tradition, the play might have been a complete disappointment to this audience. It’s no wonder many simply prefer to see Horseman as a clash between tradition and unmitigated influence. And here lies the trouble.
For those with more than passing familiarity with what many consider Soyinka’s magnum opus, Netflix’s announcement that it was partnering Mo Abudu to adapt Horseman to film caused a bit of a stir.
For one, Horseman is a bold choice. In many ways, it is Abudu territory. Its preoccupations are the concerns of that society’s upper crust—the traditional and colonial elite. Where the underclasses appear, it is to produce a few good laughs. Since the first condition of good-and-greatness is the lavish spectacle, Abudu will relish the opportunity to put on one of her regulation high-society mixers, this time with the bonus of British aristocracy. It gets tougher from here.
Let it be said that Abudu is probably the one Nigerian producer with enough clout to pull off a production like this. Abudu is adept at facilitating cultural spectacle alright but Horseman is not the blockbuster romantic comedy you might readily associate her with, or to which bogus spectacle can be appended. It is the Things Fall Apart of African drama (that went to school), a play of great standing pulled from the hirsute extravagance of a reputed dramatist, whose nuances need to be teased out by the kind of critical scrutiny not commonly associated with the Nigerians that chase box office acclaim.
The belated suicide of the Alaafin’s horseman made headlines in 1946. In 1964, Duro Ladipo premiered Oba Waja, a Yoruba play premised on that incident. In 1975, Soyinka premiered Horseman. Three roads, it would appear, forked before Abudu (and Netflix) in retelling the story of that suicide, from which they chose the most rugged, most rewarding (and most expensive) terrain. (I am reminded now of the fact that Tony Tetuila was paid for the use of a Yoruba folk song, a foreign corporation’s owó ọmọ́gọ̀.)
There is the bare fact of Soyinka’s celebrity, relative to both Ladipo and the historical incident. Then there is Soyinka’s narrative achievement, the scale of which only becomes apparent once Horseman is compared to Oba Waja, whose artistry is in spectacle not narrative. Before Soyinka’s intervention, the incident is significant because it appears to be the perfect illustration of a run-of-the-mill colonial clusterfuck. Because of Soyinka’s narrative innovations, the happy coincidence of indigenous rumblings and colonial intervention become apparent. The producers must drink from the stream of complexity springing from this coincidence.
In practical terms, it quickly becomes apparent that Olunde, not Elesin, is the dramatic centre of Horseman. Olunde does not seem well-served by Soyinka’s linear style, but the artist dies in the adapter blind to suggestion. To an extent, there is a fascinating consistency to Olunde: he bests his father twice, both times with the help of Simon Pilkings and his Lady Macbeth. But the value of Olunde is in the character of each triumph. Between the sacrilege of defying his father to travel to England, and that of returning to die in his place, a lot has changed. This latter Olunde is irreconcilable with the former. What has happened?
There’s an old George Lamming essay I always return to illustrate the point. In it, a Trinidadian civil servant has travelled to England—the natural habitat of this present whiteness—for the first time and observes white men doing grunt work in the London docks. This is a radical moment, for back in the West Indies, to be white is to be above drudgery. “England,” Soyinka once wrote, “was a revelation. The British, it turned out, were not the gods they tried to be in Nigeria.”
There was poverty in England. Leeds was filthy. I hadn’t known that there could be so much filth in the world—the walls were grimy. Since the expatriates enjoyed a grand style of living in Nigeria, we had thought they kept up the same standard in their home. Now we discovered that they had citizens who were just as impoverished, just as wretched as their counterparts in other parts of the world.
But having now seen that they are the equal of whiteness, the sojourner must still contend with a racist ambience, as George Lamming calls it elsewhere, without the buffer of indifference, of distance, of community. In theory as in practice, these are two equal subjectivities contending on unequal terms. The sojourner suffers a thousand indignities, silent, brash, suggested, including the denial of shelter as in this most well-known of Soyinka’s poems. House for rent; no coloured, no dogs. Their cognition is frazzled from warring against itself. It’s the kind of autoimmune reaction that produced Negritude and led a promising Olunde to his death. This is Olunde’s backstory.
(In fact, I have recently begun to read Olunde as Soyinka himself. Olunde’s backstory will emerge between Telephone Conversation and Ibadan but that’s not even the point. Soyinka’s political activity in the 1960s verges on the suicidal and appears to be the result of a sense of self and nation heightened by his sojourn in England in the 1950s. Olunde dies to mend the rent sanctity of Oyo tradition much in the same way Soyinka put himself in harm’s way in pursuit of Nigerian salvation. That he does not die a literal death is a minor miracle.)
Mild drama ensued when in 2015 the Ooni of Ife, Oba Sijuwade Adetona, died. No sooner had the monarch’s death been announced than his abobaku absconded—gallows humour at its best. It drew immediate parallels to an infamous double bill from 1946, the difference being that Elesin did not abscond—not really. Not one of his sons thought it wise to step into breach either.
But the same lust for life that caused the Ooni’s abobaku to take flight is the principal source of Elesin’s catastrophic vacillation. Soyinka may have played down the interior life of his characters to play up the mythic dimensions of the story, but these are not luxuries that film, particularly in 2020, will afford. The terrible humanizing agony of Jesus at Gethsemane is a famous vacillation to which we can refer to truly grasp the predicament of Elesin. Jesus, like Elesin, is fated to die. Jesus checked on his snoozing followers as he wrestled a terrible fate that would later lead to that bitter accusation—“Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani!”—at Golgotha. Elesin does much the same thing in a different way. Elesin’s outward fortitude, his bombast and hubristic excess (hijacking a maiden betrothed to another), is tinged with the lethargy collapsing his internal constitution. Like Jesus, he is aware the cup will not pass, but it does not stop him wondering. Did he feel a tiny bit of relief at Pilkings’ intervention? Possibly. He lays eyes on his estranged son, which, in his present circumstances, is both fleetingly satisfying and entirely forbidden. The spectre of personal disgrace and communal failure is tinged with longing, even if just for a moment. And when Olunde dies, Elesin’s position becomes untenable. What is there to live for anymore? Because it is a crucial beam in the cinematic scaffolding of Horseman, Elesin’s internal conflicts must be assumed and heightened.
And Elesin’s angst is not all down to the weakness of flesh. At the highest levels, the Yoruba conception of death and the afterlife was as much mythical as it was pragmatic politics. In the seventeenth century, when Oyo still stretched from great river to great sea, the Aremo, the Alaafin’s oldest son, was required to die, as many courtiers are, in the aftermath of his father’s death. The Aremo already wielded too much influence in the life of the Alaafin and the Oyo Mesi, the powerful house of chiefs, evolved this morbid provision in its eternal constitutional struggle with the crown.
Two centuries later, Atiba, the Alaafin of a much-shrunken Oyo kingdom, would convince his chiefs not only to abrogate the rule but to crown Adelu, his Aremo, his successor. Atiba sought and obtained the consent of Ibadan, which had now grown into the predominant military force in Yorubaland in the aftermath of the Oyo empire. Kurunmi, Kakanfo of Yorubaland and the charismatic despot of Ijaye, another one of Oyo’s splinters, was apoplectic when Adelu was crowned. First, he was not consulted. Second, Adelu was to die not be crowned. Kurunmi maintained his hardline stance until Ibadan destroyed Ijaye. Adelu, the walking dead, remained Alaafin.
Playing Elesin on stage is difficult enough, as my own admittedly limited experience of Horseman on stage proves. It is easy to become leaden, to strike the wrong balance between triumph and despair. When I spoke about the film adaptation to Jimi Solanke, the first actor to play Elesin, his immediate worry was for the portrayal of Elesin and the cultural depth of some of his actions. This old-time depth might be lost on the Netflix audience, with, as we have said, only vague notions of Yorubaness. My Elesin would be a more relatable man of learning, keenly aware of the swing of history.
Adaptation in any guise is critique. Even the green that a brown chameleon becomes in greenery is an appraisal of its immediate situation. To adapt a work is to establish a degree of creative license over it, to explore its chameleonic tendencies, sometimes even to completely break its back. It is license that Nigerian adapters seem oblivious to.
Take “Hello, Rain”, C.J. Obasi’s cinematic adaption of “Hello, Moto”, a confounding Nnedi Okoroafor tale billed as a short story. Obasi’s film is a visual triumph but it also replicates all the fatal narrative flaws of “Hello, Moto”, making it as much a failure as the story is. Then there is Walking with Shadows, the Funmi Iyanda-produced adaptation of Jude Dibia’s novel of the same name. Fifteen long years have passed between book and film but neither Iyanda nor her creative posse seize the opportunity to explore the novel’s suggestions and shortcomings. The result, again, is a beautiful but failed picture. Plato be praised.
My personal preference would be to milk the 2015 story of the Ooni’s abobaku. We never quite knew what became of him but this story would dispense with the colonial tangle and drop Elesin in the middle of a tussle between the traditional institution and the justifiable uproar of a horrified people. All of a sudden, Horseman cannot be read as an apocalyptic clash of white and black cultures, to Soyinka’s eternal relief. There is a clash alright, but it is, as is more obvious in Things Fall Apart, one discourse, left for dead and interred, plunging a sordid hand through the suffocating complacency of the other. (You wonder why Enoch took so violently to Christianity.) This broke-back Horseman cannot even claim white intervention as catalyst.
But this adaption is still much in the future. The Spike Lee of Chi-Raq or Suzan-Lori Parks of Native Son is not here just yet. And even if there is, the prevailing temperament of the industry stifles them, as does the complacent tastes it cultivates. For now, it’s enough to be content with the spectacular nostalgia of a period piece.
–About the author: Kayode Faniyi is a writer, culture critic and corporate communications consultant. He has a degree in Microbiology from the Obafemi Awolowo University and is co-editor of A Possible Fiction, a forthcoming anthology of Nigerian literature. https://kayodefaniyi.wordpress.com/