The news came with more than two bangs. Netflix, the digital platform for motion picture distribution, has signed a production deal with Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife TV for a film adaptation of Death and the King’s Horseman, the most venerated of the scores of dramas by Wọlé Ṣóyínká, the literature Nobel laureate. The production deal also includes an original series based on The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, the much-liked novel by Lọlá Shonẹ́yìn, founder and director of the Ake Art and Book Festival. “Mo [Abudu] is at the forefront of creative storytelling in African television,” Dorothy Ghettuba, Netflix’s lead for Original Series in Africa, said in a press release. “Her passion for creating high-quality, riveting multi-genre films and TV shows that capture the imagination while showcasing the diversity and richness of Nigerian culture is evident in her impressive body of work.”
While details of the deal are not fully known, the proposition concerning Ṣóyínká’s classical drama about Yorùbá culture may be Netflix’s most daring yet in its short history with Nigeria. In just over a year since it acquired the worldwide rights to Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart, the online streaming service has made Nollywood one prominent feather in its globe-hopping cap. Consumers of Nigerian films log on to the app as frequently as they visit the cineplex, if not more so. Standard comedies of manners like The Wedding Party and The Bling Lagosians fit well with the glitzy look of this American mass-culture marketer, as does Kunle Afọláyan’s tolerably aestheticized approach to surface realism.
Producing Ṣóyínká’s sumptuous and poetically vibrant masterpiece in the same platform is another matter. It invites serious discussion. How will it look and sound? How will it be done?
As the festive mood soars with Ẹlẹ́ṣin’s impromptu wedding, that ówàmbẹ̀ sound gives way to the heavier, slower music of ritual. The dùndún could still be played, but its pace becomes subdued, inching closer…
The story of a man who fails to carry out duties for which his entire life as a chief had been prepared, Death and the King’s Horseman is based on actual events in late 1944 to early 1945 in Ọ̀yọ́ town. Olókùn-Ẹṣin Jinadu, horseman of the recently departed Aláàfin Ládìgbòlù, was expected to lead the Aláàfin’s favorite horse (and dog) through the transitional passage in a dance that ends in his committing ritual suicide. The District Commissioner, J. A. McKenzie, however got wind of the ceremony and intervened to stop it. Ọ̀yọ́ people had never experienced the truncation of this age-old tradition (prior to 1859 it was the Crown Prince who carried out this duty), and were thrown into confusion. To redeem the honour of his family and bring a semblance of equilibrium to the traumatized community, one of Olókùn-Ẹṣin’s sons named Muraina sacrificed his own life.
Before Ṣóyínká’s version, the story had inspired a beautiful opera titled Ọba Wàjà, produced in the mid-1960s by Dúró Ládiípọ̀’s theatre company, which also adapted the opera for the television. There was probably a version on film, by a German television company. It was an irresistible topic for drama. Even the great comic genius, Moses Ọlaiya Adejumọ (Baba Sala) offered a light touch in Abọ́bakú, a stage and television play (c. 1981). Although Death and the King’s Horseman is the most-staged of Ṣóyínká’s major plays, a screen version of it hasn’t forced an issue. Until now.
It is not the first time that the dramatist’s work would attract a film adaptation. Kongi’s Harvest (1971), directed by African-American actor Ossie Davis and with Ṣóyínká himself in the lead, is perhaps the best-known. It is rarely seen, however, and the production has continued to be a touchy subject for the playwright. There is also The Strong Breed, his early drama about the system of ritual carrier, out of which Jo Ramaka, the Senegalese director and writer, has created a short but intense film entitled Ainsi Soit-Il (So Be It), (1997). More recently, the writer Dàpọ̀ Adeniyi wrote and produced a film version of Ṣóyínká’s autobiography, Ake: The Years of Childhood (2015), and Nigeria’s foremost director Tunde Kelani adapted The Lion and the Jewel as Sidi Ilujinlẹ (2017).
These works accord themselves easily to cinematic adaptation, and the relative neglect of Kongi’s Harvest may be due as much to distribution and the state of filmmaking in Nigeria at the time it came out as to flaws in the production. The Ọ̀yọ́ royal drama is a different matter. The difference matters mightily, and potential producers had better mind.
For starters it is nearly unique among the major plays in having no antecedent. Kongi’s Harvest is only a more serious variation on the theme of The Lion and the Jewel, and the beach-side character Brother Jero sooner morphed into the forbidding Dr. Bero of Madmen and Specialists. It is likely, as one or two critics have argued, that Ṣóyínkà first tried out some of the ideas in Death and the King’s Horseman in the engrossing drama of The Strong Breed. Both texts feature an individual taking up a duty, a mortal task, on behalf of a community. But it is hard to see much continuity in character between Eman and Ẹlẹ́ṣin.
More important, however, is the question of how to do justice to Ṣóyínká’s preference for evoking a metaphysical meaning from the play, and reject the simplistic notion of a drama based on the clash of cultures.
In the famous Author’s Note to Death and the King’s Horseman, he writes that the “confrontation in the play is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle which is Ẹlẹ́ṣin and the universe of the Yorùbá mind—the world of the living, the dead and the unborn, and the numinous passage which links all transition. [The play] can be fully realized only through an evocation of music from the abyss of transition.”
Ṣóyínká’s most outstanding gifts are for drama and poetry, and what gifts those are, without doubts among the most versatile in the history of modern theatre. In his plays, especially the major ones, he goes for archetypal characters, individuals as embodiments of communally inherited unconscious ideas, practices, or patterns of thought. The film medium, on the contrary, works as a mixture of drama and narrative, and films that use archetypes usually come across as the popular genre called “psychological thrillers.” Soyinka’s two works of prose-fiction would make excellent cinema, in the right hands. The producers of a film adaptation of Ẹlẹ́ṣin’s ordeal are faced with three options.
They could go for a film that upholds Ṣóyínká’s astringent requirements for producers to evoke a “threnodic essence” in realizing the play, or one that stays with surface realism, treating the drama as a piece of standard narrative, or one that plays with a combination of both. The third option is perhaps most preferable for two reasons. Whatever its pretensions to cultural rejuvenation, a Netflix production would be commercial, or at least work with an accessible template of meaning-making that today’s digital natives can cope with. At the same time, it is in this play that the dramatist’s sophisticated grasp of dramatic techniques has fused most satisfyingly with the best in Yorùbá ritual and secular music, and any attempt to minimize this fact would wreck a cinematic adaptation.
Four elements—acting, spectacle, music, and narrative —have to be mixed with sensitivity to the historical context of the story and its reception in the age of digital media.
A producer who finds this basic point appealing can’t stop there. Four elements—acting, spectacle, music, and narrative —have to be mixed with sensitivity to the historical context of the story and its reception in the age of digital media. These various elements may be individually composed but will, of course, be built together to manifest seamlessly in the world of the film.
Regarding acting, an elementary question arises: what is Ẹlẹ́ṣin’s character? In the scheme of things in Ọ̀yọ́ kingdom, the horseman is a minor functionary of the ruling class—the guardian of the king’s stable. It is a matter of supreme irony, the critic Adébáyọ̀ Williams has pointed out, that such a lowly figure would be invested with the duty of championing the culture. But such are the ways of institutions.
In Ẹlẹ́ṣin’s world, to acquire chiefly office was the height of an elder’s achievements, and the culmination of that life was an honorable death, in the eyes of the society. In that world, death is not so much the end of life as another realm of existence, connected to the past and the future. On the night of his final honour, however, Ẹlẹ́ṣin fails to rise to the occasion. From the moment he begins the long-winded but enchanting tale of the Not-I Bird, and follows this with his petulant demand for new clothes and a new bride, Ẹlẹ́ṣin lays himself open to suspicion. When Ṣóyínká insists that “the colonial factor…is merely a catalytic event,” he draws attention to this fact. The tragedy could have been triggered by other circumstances than the intervention of the colonial officer; something in the manner of Ẹlẹ́ṣin’s conduct, prior to the intervention, might have already doomed his undertaking.
To overlook this dimension of the evolving drama would be to misunderstand the case that the play intends to make. “It is not the fact of hubris, and the attendant reverses that occupy our responses,” Ṣóyínká once said of the passions of King Ṣàngó, the basis of the play Ọba Kòso (1964) another opera by Ládiípọ̀. “It is not even the character of the hero, its development, baseness or nobility but a collision of the superhuman or supernatural forces in existence, and their resolution in favour of the healing process for a bruised communal psyche.”
This sounds compelling, but its sense should not be misconstrued. A story based on actual events needs strong, distinctive characters. In the play’s opening scene, Ẹlẹ́ṣin appears as “a man of enormous vitality [who] speaks, dances and sings with that infectious enjoyment of life that accompanies all his actions.” Here’s a unique personality, naturally gifted with lyricism, but also egotistic, selfish, vain, with an ingrained sense of entitlement. Besides the fact of Ẹlẹ́ṣin’s middling status in the royal hierarchies, the tragedy that befalls Ọ̀yọ́ arises in part from the character of this culture-hero.
He can dance, though, and so the spectacle should be worth the viewer’s time while it lasts. Between the period costume, the settings (market, the Residence, and a few households in town) and the staged sequences, Ẹlẹ́ṣin’s lyrical gifts should create plausible cinematic illusions.
His poetic, fragmented tale of the Not-I Bird near the beginning of the play points in two directions. It foreshadows his failure (Not I would die tonight) but also shows the abrupt, entranced, steps he will take as he dances himself closer and closer to the abyss of transition where his ritual death is expected to occur. The viewer has to be drawn suggestively into this world. It is a world beyond mere make-belief, one in which sustained music has enough powers to possess the dancer the way a performance-enhancing substance changes perception.
The series of characters and situations that he acts out in the tale can be visualized as a series of dance moves or acted, photo-montaged sequences. He inches closer to the market, gets nearer the appointed time of the sacred ritual. It is evident from Ládiípọ̀’s opera (and Ṣóyínká’s Ẹlẹ́ṣin reveals this in the final act) that a sustained recitation of magic spells should accompany the dance. But he already signals dissemblance, and the subsequent acts of indulgence—the selfish demand for beautiful, expensive clothes and the successful commandeering of a new bride—belatedly show that he will not rise to the occasion.
When the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan put up a performance of the play in 1987 to celebrate the Nobel award, theatre director Carol Dawes, visiting from London, expressed surprise that white actors were not cast in the Pilkingses’ parts. Nollywood now has the global reach to attract professional actors to fill all the white roles. The same goes for the market-women who, like Ẹlẹ́ṣin, have to be able to sing and dance. And act.
These women serve as the chorus to Ẹlẹ́ṣin, but that should be reserved for a stage performance. On film, their presence remains indispensable, and would be more compelling when recast as narrative. If retained in a film adaptation—and it is unimaginable that a director would fail to see its entertainment value—the scene of the Girls and Sergeant Amusa concentrates the narrative force of the women, old and young.
Olóhùn-Iyọ̀ (Praise-Singer) is the central focus of the music, his role enhanced by two kinds musical accompaniment. The percussion at the beginning would be social—dùndún, ṣẹ̀kẹ̀rẹ̀, omele and àdàmọ̀. In Ọbá Wàjà, Ládiípọ̀ uses highlife music briefly and includes a Ghanaian bar scene, where the horseman’s son reads the newspaper breaking news of the death of Aláàfin.
As the festive mood soars with Ẹlẹ́ṣin’s impromptu wedding, that ówàmbẹ̀ sound gives way to the heavier, slower music of ritual dance. The dùndún could still be played, but its sound becomes subdued, drawing closer to àgẹ̀rẹ̀ tones, and progressively subordinated to gbẹ̀du and gong. The part of the Praise-Singer is best played by someone who can chant, someone gifted with a melodious voice. Or perhaps two; a man and a woman whose performance could be structured in antiphony, both switching between ìjálá, oríkì and rárà. Fortunately, the lineage oríkì of Olókùn-Ẹṣin exists in print and can be used. At any rate, after Olunde’s death, the need for percussive music disappears, and the film’s “threnodic essence” is bespoke by a voice singing orin-arò (dirge), whether or not the owner is visible.
Leftist critics of Ṣoyinka’s cultural politics argue that at the time of the Ọ̀yọ́ incident, Western education had enough history behind it in Nigeria not to make a stronger impression on the action than Olunde’s quite compelling rhetorical displays. Other critics, tradition-minded, have pointed out that Islam had been practiced in Old Ọ̀yọ́ for at least a century before the empire fell in the 1830s. These sociological issues didn’t much bother Ṣóyínká because his dramatic interests were legitimately in the immanent questions of cultural self-understanding. But the details have their uses. They provide a contemporary cinematic adaptation with the opportunity to expand the scope of the play and give it the kind of narrative depth suited to the form.
It is not a well-known fact, but the upwardly-mobile politician Ọbafẹmi Awólọ́wọ̀ published an obituary of Aláàfin Ládìgbòlù in West Africa (March 1945), in the wake of the Olókùn-Ẹṣin debacle. Whatever the details of that tribute, what is relevant is the material fact of the political class that Awólọ́wọ̀ represented in the 1940s. In the latter half of that decade, the Arthur Richards Constitution created a path to the emergence of the country’s federal structure that in turn propelled the drive to independence. Awólọ́wọ̀ acquired such political capital that, as the Premier of the Western Region, ten short years after his tribute, he was able to depose Aláàfin Adeníran Adeyẹmí II, who succeeded Ládìgbòlù.
And who can forget that the same period brought out, in Abẹ́òkúta, a different kind of debacle? This was the saga of Abẹ́òkúta Women’s Union’s battle with the Native Authority and its colonial backers over excessive taxation. Teenage Ṣóyínká himself played a minor role in that drama, as he narrates in Aké. It is not a stretch to see his aunt, Mrs. Fúnmiláyọ̀ Ransome-Kuti, leader of that struggle, as a prototype for Iyálọ́jà in the play, particularly in her war of words with the colonial officer.
There is also the matter of Islam. In “Ẹlẹ́ṣin’s Homecoming,” a fine essay on Akinwumi Iṣọ̀lá’s translation of Death and the King’s Horseman, the literary scholar Dan Izevbaye notes that both the historical Olókùn-Ẹṣin (Jinadu) and Ṣoyinka’s fictional Amusa being Muslims “would perhaps partly account for the source of the psychological strength that encouraged Ẹlẹ́ṣin to defy tradition,” apart from the metaphysical question of failure of will.
Narrative possibilities abound in these historical data. On the level of the screenplay, an attention to the political ferment in Lagos and Ibadan and across West Africa should complement and even strengthen the ritual elements of the drama. Ṣóyínká chose to make Olunde a medical student in Britain, and a contemporary writer is at liberty to develop his political connections with the Lagosian educated elite, rather than the “commies and anarchists” that Pilkings berates. This kind of invention is meaningful in a number of ways.
For one, it introduces a seemly narrative pattern consistent with the times. In another sense, it affords the drama a look into the world of Ọ̀yọ́ and its diegetic possibilities that Ṣóyínká suppressed in the effort to play up the metaphysical conflict. It would be refreshing to see nightclub scenes, hear highlife music, and encounter other modern aspects shaping late-colonial life. Finally, it can speak to these times in brashly political tones. Imagine the name “abọ́bakú,” the title of Adejùmọ̀’s comedy. That’s what the denizens of Ọ̀yọ́ would call Ẹlẹ́ṣin, but in common parlance it means “sycophant.” Hardly is there a more fitting metaphor for Nigerian politics of the Fourth Republic.
In early 2000, I caught the tail-end of a show on Galaxy TV in which Ṣóyínká and Aláàfin Lamidi Adeyẹmi III appeared to be running for cover from a rainstorm. It didn’t look like a live event, but the storm was so out of season and powerful that the taping had ́succumbed to it as well. I had no idea what to make of the scene, other than to presume that the Aláàfin probably hosted Ṣóyínká to a state function in acknowledgement of his role in the struggle against the military rule.
However, some years ago, during an event in Abẹ́òkúta, Ṣóyínká provided the context for the storm that turned him and his host into instant sprinters. His narration is in the video at this link:
So, after all, I wasn’t hallucinating when I saw the broadcast on Galaxy TV. What Ṣóyínká says in the video should, at least, make the contemporary producer of his play as film reflect on the evocative powers of music.
Akin Adesokan is a Nigerian writer, scholar and novelist with research interests into twentieth and twenty-first century African and African American/African Diaspora literature and cultures. He is currently the associate professor of comparative literature at Indiana University Bloomington. He exerts influence on Nigerian cultural environment through commentary, advocacy, and writing. Adesokan’s novel, Roots in The Sky, won the Association of Nigerian Author (ANA) award for prose in 1996.