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Drama originated from the Greek word “dran” (to do). It is the imitation of action in performance. In Africa, Nigerian dramatic enactment started from ritual worshipping; which is a theory of the origin of drama.

Ritual is a traditional doctrine that has to do with the validation of myths or historical events which has been passed from one generation to another.  This is a ceremonial or customary act in every tribe in different forms, the process of which contains songs, incantations, recitations, dance, wrestling and music.  The flow of human life is re-enacted by speech and actions involved.  It is then necessary to carry out this research to examine how Africa especially Nigerian writers reflect this theoretical origin of ritual impulse in their writings with a particular case study of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the king’s horseman and Ola Rotimi’s “Kunrunmi”. This Research projects is arranged to throw more light into traditional concepts in some writings of ” Wole Soyinka” death and the Kings Horseman and Ola Rotimi’s “Kunrunmi”.

It is therefore necessary to carryout this research to highlight the importance of ritual and dance activities to include traditional influence on writers.

It would also focus on related literature review that could consult in form of journals, novels and unpublished dissertations.





The word ritual is commonly used as ceremonies or customary acts which are often repeated in the same form.  Rituals can be re-enactments of Myths or historical events that have been passed down from generations to generations.

The process of which contains songs, incantations, recitations, fights, dance and music.

Ritual has two other forms known as ‘rite’ and ‘passage’.  Rite concerns itself on

religion.  Yoruba traditional life is religion oriented.  Eldred D. Jones believes that

some knowledge of Yoruba culture is necessary for any study of plays based upon Yoruba ideals.  ‘Kunrunmi’ together with ‘Death And The Kings Horseman’ have elements of Yoruba religious beliefs and cosmology. Cosmology refers to the creation of nature and existence of supreme beings, for which these rites are circle of the ‘Old plantain’ and opening up a new lease of life both for himself and his society? This is exemplified by Elesin himself when he tells his new bride:

“Our spirits shall fall in step

Along the great passage” —-[pg2]

“Rites of passage” in tradition terms can be the naming ceremony of a new born child, circumcision, marriage, coronations.


The idea over the years has varied in African literary circle.  There is this confusion between western identification/definition of dance and African traditional dance in plays.  Dance in western terms means adjustment of bodily movements to music.  The movements can exist independently of dramatic coherence in the play. For instance a play where there is a court scene and dance is evident; would seem highly inappropriate in relation to the seriousness of a law court. But if expressions are done by words of mouth, in form of a song there would be some measure of seriousness passed across to the audience. In most African plays the dance is an integral of the voiced action.

African dance according to ‘Demas Nwoko’ is an artistic language which the people already speak when the movements are stylized, structured, acrobatic, carried out. The Yoruba are surrounded by spirits with whom the lives of mortals interact. A rough estimate was given by Soyinka to be a thousand and one.

In these plays, we have the likes of Obatala, Oya, Ogun, Sango, and Sopona etc. as supreme beings; who are invoked and consulted to take charge of their lives. ‘Elesin’ refers to Ogun when he remarks:

“No, not even Ogun —of—the farm toiling

Dawn till dusk on his tuber patch—–

Not even Ogun with the finest hoe ever

Forged at the anvil”—[pg1]

The poetic language of ‘Elesin’ in the play gives credence, to the high esteem with which these demi-gods are held.  ‘Kunrunmi’ and ‘Elesin Oba’, conjure the help of their ancestors to enable them accomplish their tasks. Kunrunmi as an upholder of his tradition and Elesin on the other hand, serves as a cleansing medium for the spiritual ills of his society, once he dies with the Oba.

There is also ritual as ‘passage’; which is a ceremony marking a new stage in one’s life. The new stage of life that Elesin’s society expected was that once he carries out the ritual, the end would be suicide. This would serve as a sacrifice and companion for the dead Alaafin to the world beyond; thereby completing the gymnastic, and structured into music or mime. The importance of dance is presented in Soyinka’s ‘Death and the Kings Horseman’ .In the market scene that marks Elesin’s last public appearance, the praise singer sings for Elesin. He falls into a trance. The dance movement of  Elesin implies his attachment to his tradition and bears out the importance of his impending suicide. We as readers identify with his impending act, because we feel how important or how deep this aspect of custom is to Elesin’s people. The dance motive in this play is extensive as exemplified by Elesin’s animated movements in the midst of women, to the praise singer’s songs and drumbeats. The dance done by the women in celebration, while dressing Elesin up in the first scene; the tango of Pilking and Jane or the descriptions of the ballroom scene.


Music has a definition that refers to the arrangement of sounds in patterns to produce a pleasing effect. This effect only comes about as a result of reception by our auditory sense or sense of feeling. But in textual context which we are concerned with, our senses come “to ply and the written songs or recitations, produce a degree of pleasing effect; hence we can identify them.

John Mbiti, a professor in Makerere University from his lecture on “Oral traditions” during Festac 1977 summarizes music under African traditional poetical item. He further states that these include -songs, lullabies, ballads, recitations etc. He points out that African poetry is expressed in form of songs and these are very common. There are songs of love, songs of praise to leaders, warriors, friends, animals and events. There are songs used while people are working together in fields, at home, rowing boats, parties, hunting expeditions and satirize. For instance in ‘Kunrumi’; Fanyaka and the warriors express publicly their annoyance in Kurunmi’s tyranny as they render these sarcastic lines.

Fayanka: land property

Warriors: Kurunmi

Fayanka: The air we breathe

Warriors: kurunmi

Fayanka: The gods of our fathers

Warriors: kunrunmi



Abah! [pg4]

Elesin’s dedication to the bird in Death and the Kings Horseman depicts dedication to animals as Mbiti points out above. The dirge rendered by the women for Elesin Oba is a song done for the passing on of an important person.

B.W Andrzezewski and J.M. Lewis [oxford 2001] in Somali poetry, point out that African life is empty without songs and music. A person is constantly confronted with songs from birth to death. Songs sound in the air to celebrate the birth of a child, song mark his initiation rites, marriage, bridal greetings, death and burial.




He was born in Abeokuta of  Ijegba parentage in 1934. He attended the University College Ibadan and the University of Leeds; where he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in English.

From 1954 to 1959, Soyinka was involved in the production and writing of plays and presenting radio programs in England. His first major plays are “Swamp Dwellers” and “The Lion and The Jewel” produced in England. He returned to Nigeria in 1959, took up a lecturing job in Ibadan and formed the 1960 “Mask Drama Company.

Between 1960 and 1980, he wrote and produced a number of his other plays in England, America and Nigeria. “Trials of Brother Jero” was first produced at the Greenwich new theatre U.S.A.; “Kongi’s Harvest”, “Camwoodon the Leaves”-

March 1965 and “Detainee” -September 1965

The whiting drama prize was presented to him in 1967. The same year he was detained by the Federal Military Government of Nigeria, following his attempts to a peaceful resolution to the Nigerian Civil War.

Between 1969 and 1973, he wrote some of his novels and poems; while as a visiting professor in Yale, some of his plays were published in 1973 and 1980.Among which is “Death and the Kings Horseman” in 1975. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in October 1986. He became the first Nigerian and

African literary artist to receive this award.


Emmanuel Gladstone Olawale Rotimi was born in Sapele in present day Delta State, to a Yoruba father and Ijo mother. He attended Methodist Boys high School Lagos from 1952 to 1957. He went to the United States of America where he did his undergraduate studies in drama, at Boston University from 1959 to 1963. During which he took a three year course and ended up with a master’s degree in Fine Arts at Yale University. He returned to Nigeria in 1966. He was a research fellow from 1966 to 1969, at the institute of African Studies within this time; he wrote and published two major articles: “The Drama in African Ritual” and ”Traditional Nigerian Drama”. His play “The Gods Are Not To Blame” is a sensitive adaptation of the “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles in the Nigerian conception of basic drama.

Over the years, Ola Rotimi has gained the reputation of being a director, playwright, and actor. He is also a competent theatre critic, scholar, and teacher. He has written other plays like “Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again”, “Ovieranmwen Nogbaise” and “Kurunmi”.

If going by the description of Soyinka’s and Rotimi’s plays as being an overall design of a festival, then the efficiency of ritual, music/song, and dance can be understood as their plays are essentially an imitation of life. An imitation of Yoruba traditional life is what these men have taken a deep scholarly interest in. This has endowed them with a range of ideas mingled with a wide experience outside their culture. And this has contributed in no small measure to the subject matter of their plays.


The basic tennets of farming [clearing, hoeing, sowing, reaping of harvest]. This is evident in Soyinka’s plays. He uses harvest as an aspect that dictates the larger pattern of Yoruba life style. When harvest is bountiful, it is believed that the positive forces of life are in motion; while a bad harvest suggests negation of life. There are also crops and trees which are traditional Yoruba crops -yams, kola, oil palm, pepper. These crops are used during festivals and most of the time; they are part of the items used as libations d ring rites. Palm wine which is a product of the palm is a very important influence especially for Soyinka who Alain Ricardo pays tribute to, in “Salutations to the W ne Lover”, an article in Dapo Adenugba’s edited dedication “Before Our Very Eyes”.

Dapo Adenugba in his article “Dramatists In Search Of a Language” points The Nigerian dramatist is not far from the above mentioned influences as these are all part of their traditional African heritage that is merged with western ideals in their dramatic creations. These influences to mention a few, ranges from out that Nigerian dramatists like Soyinka and Rotimi tried to create a new theatre language which borrows effectively from indigenous oral traditions; sensitively used within the scope of modern drama.

The Yoruba culture which is a major influence in the artistic lives of Soyinka and Rotimi, is rich in ceremonies especially festival and a range of simple ceremonies of regular worship of deities, through family ceremonies like naming, marriages, death etc. Oyin Ogungba comments further that “by far the most significant traditional elements in these plays “Kogi Harvest, Kurunmi, Death and the Kings Horseman, The Gods Are Not To Blame” are the overall design of a festival. The prevailing mood is that of a preparation for an event, which produces so much excitement or tension in the whole populace that everyone thinks of no other thing but that events and the resources of the whole society is geared towards that event. Take the preparation of Elesin oba for the world beyond, the whole society is involved, in such a way that no one dares refuse.


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