For the western viewer, "Death and the King's Horseman," by 1986 Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, is about ritual suicide in a Nigerian tribe. For an African, however, the play shows a whole view of life threatened by incomprehending, condescending Westerners.
Soyinka obviously wrote the play to dramatize the small-mindedness of the British colonial government 40 years ago, which risked riots to prevent a tribal chief from following an ancient ritual. He wanted to kill himself so he could serve his king, who had just died, in the next world.
The Brits failed to see that, for the tribesman, the chief was not ending his life but proceeding to life on another plane. To prevent him from doing so was to call into question the most profound sense of how the world works.
In directing the play, however, Soyinka has not managed to convey any of the majesty or mystery of tribal life. The bright, rich costumes and simple, affecting music tell us where we are. The actors really don't.
For much of the first act, Earle Hyman, as the chief, and Ben Halley, as a tribal wise man, converse in language that may be poetic but too often sounds rhetorical and hollow. (My apologies to the Nobel Committee.) The actors' tone is too chatty to suggest the gravity of what is being discussed.
Similarly, when the tribal women threaten the chief, they ought to carry the weight of Greek furies. They merely sound like fishwives.
Eriq LaSalle has strong moments as the chief's son, Alan Coates is sympathetic in the caricatured role of the British administrator, but overall neither side is portrayed with enough power to suggest a meaningful confrontation of rival cultures.
Most plays if they were to be seen in terms of music drama take on the aspect of operas, operettas, or Broadway musicals.
Once in a while one gets a play whose texture, sense of static contemplation, and general thematic complexity suggests more a cantata or oratorio.
Such a work is "Death and the King's Horseman," by the 1986 Nobel-laureate Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, which was opened by the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont last night. It is thoughtful, static, and epic.
It is concerned with the transcendent power of religious duty. Its dramatic strands are rich, varied, and at times twisted, arrestingly, to what at first seem to be cross purposes, until those purposes stand unravelled and revealed.
The play, which dates from 1975, is based on a real incident that happened in Nigeria in 1946, at the end of the British Colonial rule. Soyinka, for various dramatic reasons, small but pertinent, has pushed the incident back two years.
Its story is embedded in the myth and ritual of the Yoruba people, the dominant race of Southern Nigeria, where the play is set.
It opens in a town marketplace. A great king has died and is to be given a ceremonial burial. The climax of the ceremony must be the death of Elesin, the traditional "Horseman" of the King - in life, the King's closest friend and adviser.
According to the ritual and custom, Elesin will die and follow his master; his death will be willed by himself. He will commit ritual suicide simply by ceasing to live, an act of human destiny.
Yoruba religion sees the world as one of transition between that which is to come, that which is, and that which was. Such natural transitions are the heart of Yoruban culture. Elesin's death symbolizes such transitions.
The preparations are in hand. On the night of his death, Elesin, as is the custom, will take a new bride, and he chooses, against advice, a young virgin.
The ritual comes to the ears of the local British District Officer, Simon Pilkings, who with his wife is about to attend a fancy-dress ball to be held at the British Residency in honor of some visiting Royal personage.
Horrified at the idea of ritual suicide, Pilkings issues orders that such a pagan procedure be stopped.
At the ball, where with strange insensitivity the Pilkings have gone dressed in ceremonial Yoruba burial garments, Pilkings is worried by news of a disturbance in town.
He and his wife are also surprised by the arrival of Elesin's son Olunde, whom they had helped, against parental wishes, to go to England to study medicine. Olunde has, it seems, come back to play his part in his father's dance of death.
From the play's slow start - it is like a windy version of a Yeats poetic drama, with the principal characters attempting a Shakespearean stature - it moves, with the arrival of the British, into crude, cartoon-like political satire.
Here the tone changes; the high-flown poetry evaporates, and with the authenticity of the broadly comic English, we are reminded that Soyinka once spent six years on the staff of London's Royal Court Theater.
At this point the play seems to be precisely about that very "facile tag of 'clash of cultures,'" which Soyinka specifically warns against in his smuggish "Author's Note" in the program. It is almost Kiplingesque.
But then the play shows its final hand. The blowhard, uncertain, ecstatic, yet oddly worldly character Earle Hyman has been portraying as Elesin becomes clear: the man is a moral renegade.
He has not the strength to will the transition of death. The powers of present flesh, indicated by his choice of the beautiful virgin, are too much for him. It is left to his son to make the final statement.
This play in three movements - and again the musical comparison is not unintentional - is difficult to empathize with.
The concept of ritual suicide accompanying a King's death is repellent to our present European sensibility; and Soyinka's sly comparison between Yoruba ritual and the make-believe finery of a fancy-dress ball is far-fetched, for the latter is scarcely a matter of life and death.
But the play does force one to consider the inflexible morality of belief (the Spanish Inquisition, and perhaps even Adolf Hitler, subscribed to such moralities) and the threnodic theme and structure of the play eventually becomes overwhelmingly impressive.
Whatever else the play is, from the broad canvas of its opening to its final processional ceremony, it is dealing lyrically with eternal matters of the soul and human belief. And, in the end, it is that universal concern that colors the play purple, and gives it the stern note of tragedy.
Soyinka has directed the play himself - a little self-indulgently perhaps with regards to the comedy, but his sense of the ritual and passion is unerring.
David Gropman's settings handle the supposedly intransigent Beaumont stage with great skill, Pat Collins's lighting suggests the African night as well as the African sun, while Judy Dearing's costumes make all the right Nigerian and Colonial noises.
Of the performances Hyman's complex rendering of the deviously heroic Elesin, the King's reluctant horseman, is superb in its sense of nervous confidence and final moral collapse.
The rest seem authentically Nigerian, from Trazana Beverley the female conscience of the Market to Eriq La Salle in the Sidney Poitier-like role (Soyinka should watch out for Hollywood stereotypes while he is so busy giving America lessons) of the nobel eldest son.
Alan Coates and Jill Larson are admirably straightforward as the British couple trapped in an alien web.
This is both a play of wonder, and a play worth wondering about; imperfect, difficult to Western ears, but poetically fascinating in its grasp of souls and their journies.
There's a lot of reading material available to those unsuspecting theatergoers who stumble into Wole Soyinka's ''Death and the King's Horseman'' at the Vivian Beaumont. The Lincoln Center Theater management has seen fit to provide not only a plot synopsis in the Playbill but also a handbill containing a second synopsis (longer but still unilluminating), descriptions of the leading characters and historical background and, finally, an author's note in which the playwright gives his own work a rave review. Is somebody trying to tell us something? I'm afraid so. Even with the elaborate documentation, ''Death and the King's Horseman'' is frequently baffling in this production, and even when it's coherent, it's stupefying. During the first half, one hears the constant sound of Playbills rustling, as the audience tries to figure out what's going on. After intermission comes a kind of resigned hush, most of the survivors having given up.
As anyone who has read Mr. Soyinka's childhood memoir, ''Ake,'' knows, he is one of the world's outstanding writers - that rare recent Nobel laureate (1986) whose prize did not prompt widespread critical dispute. What Mr. Soyinka does not seem to be is a stage director, at least when working with largely American casts. In 1984 at Yale, he mounted his brilliant, savage satire about African dictators, ''A Play of Giants,'' with all the comic verve of a window dresser arranging a department-store display of mannequins. Mr. Soyinka's staging of ''Death and the King's Horseman'' - nearly as static and more incompetently performed -eviscerates a work that could well offer some of the ''threnodic essence'' the author's note describes.
Written in the mid-1970's, the play was inspired by an actual incident in the Nigeria of 1946. The King's Horseman, a chief in the ancient city of Oyo, prepares to commit suicide so he may join his recently deceased King in the next world. Before this Yoruban ritual is carried out, however, a Colonial District Officer intervenes in the name of British notions of ''civilization.'' The inexorably tragic results of this interference, like Mr. Soyinka's use of a five-act structure, lend ''Death and the King's Horseman'' a classical shape.
In his program note, the playwright argues that it would be ''facile,'' ''prejudicial'' and ''reductionist'' to say this work is about a ''clash of cultures.'' Yet that's the way the drama comes across here. Much of the evening is lavished on detailed illustration and explanation of Yoruban cultural traditions - which stand in stark contrast to the behavior of the English twits, who are seen preparing for a decadent costume ball even as they decry the Africans' ''barbaric,'' ''savage'' and ''feudalistic'' ways. In a similar vein, the chief's honorable ritual suicide is set in didactic opposition to the white man's ''mass suicide'' of World War II - this, in spite of Mr. Soyinka's claim that he changed the story's timeframe from postwar 1946 to 1944 only ''for minor reasons of dramaturgy.''
Because of the poor acting, the virtues of the play's political arguments, metaphysical ambitions and rich language alike are rendered moot. The lead actors - Earle Hyman (the King's Horseman), Ben Halley Jr. (the village ''Praise Singer'' or ''griot'') and Trazana Beverley (leader of the women's chorus) - do Yoruban culture no favor by mangling their poetic speeches with odd phrasings, absurdly clipped final consonants and unintentional lapses into broad American accents. The bright Judy Dearing costumes aside, the singing, dancing and chanting inhabitants of the Oyo marketplace seem equally unconvincing. Whether laughing in studied unison or engaging in mock flirtations during scene transitions, these are patronizingly presented ''natives'' reminiscent of the unspontaneous extras in Dino De Laurentiis film epics like ''Hurricane'' and the remake of ''King Kong.''
The English fare even worse. (Mr. Soyinka wrote the play while at Cambridge University.) Their dialogue is standard B-movie colonialese -''You're just a savage like all the rest!'' shrieks the District Officer's wife to an educated, outspoken African - and they spend too much time cocking their ears toward the ominous beat of distant village drums. In the roles of the colony's most burdened white couple, Alan Coates and Jill Larson are so caricatured that even Rudyard Kipling might find their upper lips a bit stiff.
Whatever the other faults of the production, the much-maligned Beaumont auditorium itself is not to blame: David Gropman's parched white set, lighted with typical finesse by Pat Collins, effectively thrusts the action forward into the audience. Still, one can't so easily absolve the Beaumont's artistic director, Gregory Mosher, who previously produced ''Death and the King's Horseman'' - also under its author's direction - in Chicago in 1979. Is this what's meant by beating a dead horse?