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Rituals, the repetitious actions and routines that humans follow, are borne from human need, as shown in both Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. The depth and breadth of the human need that is the catalyst of these actions can define how the ritual is carried out and what impact the ritual will have; it can be as small as an individual impact, larger when a familial impact, or even greater when a societal or cultural impact.
Oftentimes, the actions that lead to the fulfillment of the ritual are the product of duty. While both Death of a Salesman and Death and the King’s Horseman address the concept of ritual, through the vehicle of duty, they differ in the form of ritual they represent and the fulfillment of said duty.
Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman differ in regards to the ritual they represent, with the former play focusing on an individual ritual while the latter is focused on a social ritual; each provides a glimpse into the duty that leads to the completion of said ritual.
Death of a Salesman focuses on the ritual of trying to achieve the American Dream. Willy Loman, the protagonist of the play, defines the American Dream as being a success in the workplace; workplace success, in his mind, allows a man to provide all that he can for his family and gives him, as well as his children, the chance to move up in the social structure of the world.
As the main worker of the family, he sees it as his duty to provide for both his wife, Linda, and his sons, Happy and Biff. His duty is to not only provide financially but also societally, supplying a solid starting point for both of his sons as they grow and enter the workforce since he sees the key to this as “contacts, Ben, contacts!” (86). Conversely, Death and the King’s Horseman focuses on a ritual that is societally focused. Elesin Oba, the protagonist of this play, is the King’s Horseman and, as such, he is obliged, upon the death of the King, to commit suicide as a way to join his King in the afterlife. This is a Yoruban practice that the people believe will allow the world to continue to be in balance. If Elesin were to not complete his ritual, it would be to the detriment of the entire society. His duty is to follow the traditions that have been established, with Elesin explaining that “… Life is honour. It ends when honour ends” (44); this is his duty to fulfill.
While Willy and Elesin both have had duties to perform throughout their lives as pathways to their rituals, there is a contrast between their experiences in doing their duties. Willy claims to know the secret to success in his duties, telling his sons that one needs to “Be liked and you will never want” (33). He is unable to see that there is more to life and, by association, to his duty than just being popular; this blindness to reality has not only affected his life’s path but, because of this very mantra that he has fed to his boys, Biff has struggled to find his place in the world as well, spending his youth riding the wave of popularity. Because of his misplaced values, Willy’s duty to his family, as breadwinner, is a daily ritual that he is no longer successful at; a salesman of his type and age has become obsolete. Despite warning signs that his American Dream is out of reach, such as the changing architecture of his neighborhood and diminished sales he is making, he continues to think it is attainable, even after Biff tells his father, “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” (133). On the other hand, Elesin has enjoyed love and support from the community that he has served. In the completion of his duties to the King, while he was still alive, Elesin earned the very popularity that Willy Loman was always chasing. Iyaloja, mother of the market, says to Elesin, when speaking on behalf of the women of the market, that “We know you for a man of honor. You are not one who eats and leaves nothing on his plate for children” (20). It is this very popularity, and the care he receives from the community as a by-product, that slows him down as his final ritual time approaches. He becomes, to a certain extent, a bit too prideful and enjoys the respect the job of King’s Horseman brings him, leading him to not complete his duties in a timely manner. He becomes too preoccupied by sating his carnal desires and this lag in action prevents the ritual from taking place. As the Praise-Singer tells him, “Elesin, we placed the reins of the world in your hands yet you watched it plunge over the edge of the bitter precipice.” (75).
The failure to complete their respective rituals is caused by varying influences. In Willy’s case, he fully believes that he cannot achieve the success he strives for only because he never becomes a prosperous man. His own character and obsession with the American Dream, and his inability to successfully fulfill the ritual is what causes him to fail. As he falters in his daily duties, his ability to maintain a grasp on reality begins to slip; there is a direct correlation between these two components of his life. He begins to relive moments of his past when he felt he was successful in his journey towards the ritual’s attainment. Until the very end of his life, Willy tried to serve out his duties, leaving Happy to say, “He had a good dream. It’s the only dream to have—to come out number-one man. He fought it out here…”(139). In the end, Willy blames only himself for his shortcomings, leading to his suicide. Elesin, on the other hand, believes that he was prevented from completing his ritualistic suicide due to the intervention of the British imperialist government, who are not willing to recognize the importance of this death. He tells Simon Pilkings, the local District Officer who has stopped his suicide, that he “… did not save my life district officer. You destroyed it” (62). He is unable to recognize his contributions to his failure.
Although different types of rituals are portrayed in these two plays and the path to completing the protagonists’ duties are accomplished in different ways, both of these plays show how the fulfillment of the ritual is actually carried out by the protagonists’ sons, both of whom are estranged from their fathers, to different degrees. Death of a Salesman ends with Willy committing suicide, having convinced himself that he will never attain the American Dream; he is unable to see all that he has actually accomplished, not the least of which is having a loving family. By the end of the play, his sons are finally able to see all that Willy did for them and are able to see that his accomplishing the ritual of dream fulfillment was really for them. This leads Happy to say, “He fought it out here, and this where I’m gonna win it for him” (139). He is going to stop being a womanizer and focus on attaining workplace success, in his father’s honor. Olunde, Elesin’s son who had become estanged when he went to England to study medicine, returns home when he hears that the King has died, knowing that his father’s suicide would quickly follow. When asked by Jane Pilkings why he came back for a father who had disowned him, Olunde explains that, “I didn’t want to do anything wrong, something which might jeopardise the welfare of my people” (57). Olunde has a clear understanding of the gravity of the situation and the intense importance of his father’s ritual. When, as a result of his imprisonment at the hands of Simon Pilkings, Elesin is unable to commit suicide, it is Olunde who takes up the mantle of responsibility for the completion of the ritual and commits suicide. His actions are explained by Iyaloja thus: “There lies the honor of your household and of our race. Because he could not bear to let honor fly out of doors, he stopped it with his life. The son has proved the father Elesin, and there is nothing left in your mouth to gnash but infant gums” (75).
Death of a Salesman and Death and the King’s Horseman are two dramas that possess a road of duties that lead to the realization of a ritual. This path is paved, in the case of Elesin, with royal devotion, cultural tenets, selfishness, and imperialism, while Willy faces societal advances, obsolescence, mental breakdown, and desperation. Each face lapses in judgment as they face their duties, thus sealing their fate as tragic heros. Both men’s deaths, in the end, are by their own hand, with their rituals being the cause of their downfall.
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