Prepared by Rashidi, R. Mpella

Death and the King's Horseman is a play by Wole Soyinka based on a real incident that took place in Nigeria during British colonial rule:
the horseman of an important chief was prevented from committing ritual suicide by the colonial authorities. In addition to the British intervention, Soyinka calls the horseman's own conviction toward suicide into question, posing a problem that throws off the community's balance.
Soyinka wrote the play in Cambridge, where he was a fellow at Churchill College during his political exile from Nigeria.[2] He has also written a preface to the play, explaining what he sees as greatest misconceptions in understanding it. In particular, he says that the play should not be considered as "clash of cultures.

When the play opens, the Yoruba king has just died, and Elesin Oba (the king's horseman), according to tradition, must follow his king to the great beyond. The move is important because it keeps the universe spinning. Which sounds really important if you ask us.
As Elesin enters the market to prepare for the big plunge, he seems pretty ready—but the Praise-Singer who accompanies him is a wee bit dubious that he'll be able to take things all the way. Elesin reassures him, and the women of the market start getting him outfitted properly for the big event.
However, Elesin is still interested enough in life on this side of the eternal divide to demand that Iyaloja (a.k.a. the "mother of the market") hook him up with a pretty girl he saw walking by. Even though the girl is betrothed to Iyaloja's own son, and she's worried that getting married will be a distraction from the task at hand, Iyaloja agrees—after all, he's about to make a big sacrifice for their people, so how can she turn him down?
Meanwhile elsewhere, Simon Pilkings and his wife, Jane, are preparing for a masquerade party later that evening. While they're dancing around in their costumes and getting ready, a local policeman by the name of Amusa arrives to alert them about Elesin's plans. After some deliberation (during which he manages to offend his servant, Joseph, pretty deeply), Pilkings sends word to Amusa to have Elesin arrested—he is not going to miss the masquerade ball, since the British Prince is going to be there.
Amusa goes to the market to try to prevent Elesin's ritual from going off, but the women drive him away. And so the ritual starts, and Elesin gets drawn into what seems like a deep trance.
Pilkings receives word at the ball that the ritual is still a go, so he heads out to intervene. After he bounces, Olunde, Elesin's eldest son, shows up and starts talking to Jane (who has been left behind). With the Pilkingses' help/urging, Olunde went to medical school in England, which caused a pretty big breach with his dad. Despite their estrangement and the fact that he had left home to live in the West, when he heard that the Yoruba king died, Olunde came back to fulfill the duties to his father and community that are expected in these circumstances.
By listening to the drums in the distance, Olunde concludes that the ritual has ended, and his father is now dead. However, he soon learns that Simon and his accomplices intervened before the ritual could be completed, and Elesin ends up stumbling in, handcuffed and furious. For his part, Olunde is furious at his father for not having completed the ritual before the Englishmen could intervene.
Later, Iyaloja visits Elesin in prison and taunts him for his weakness in not getting to the other side quickly enough, implying that his will wasn't strong enough. Elesin agrees that his will failed him, but he also believes he would have gotten there had it not been for the English intervention.
Iyaloja then mentions that someone else has had to intervene to help pull the ritual off and prevent total cosmic chaos after Elesin's failure. Hmm, we wonder who that could be? A large bolt of cloth is brought in, and we soon find it contains Olunde's body. Apparently Olunde sacrificed himself to try to redeem his father's failure. At this revelation, Elesin strangles himself with the chains binding him before anyone can stop him.

  • Elesin Oba, the late king's horseman, is entering the market with his drummers and praise singers in tow.
  • He banters with the Praise-Singer back and forth, and they discuss Elesin's plans to go over to "the other side." It appears that Elesin will soon die. The Praise-Singer mentions being willing to follow, as necessary…
  • The Praise-Singer then talks about how super awful it would be if the world got knocked off its course, and Elesin assures him that this won't happen.
  • To reassure him, Elesin tells/chants the story of something called the Not-I bird, which flew around to people who were about to die. Elesin describes the way a bunch of people basically told the bird to go away, saying "Not I" when it came to recruit them to the other side. So, that's how the bird got that name: Everyone said "Not I" when he came around.
  • Elesin, however, says that he saw the bird that morning, and he sent the bird back to its nest happy, thereby implying that Elesin will not be trying to escape death. Which is supposed to set the Praise-Singer's mind at ease as well, it seems.
  • As Elesin has been dancing and chanting, some women have arrived, including someone named Iyaloja.
  • When Elesin and the Praise-Singer take a break from their back and forth, the women start talking to Elesin about how honorable he is. For some reason, though, Elesin acts extremely offended by this.
  • We're not the only ones confused—the women are, too. They're not sure how they managed to offend Elesin.
  • However, they soon realize he's kidding about being mad, and they prepare some suitable clothes for him to wear for whatever is about to happen.
  • We then learn some more about Elesin and his career and reputation as the king's horseman… and ladies' man.
  • Fittingly, a beautiful girl walks in.
  • Elesin asks Iyaloja about her. It turns out she's engaged to Iyaloja's son, but since Elesin wants to, er, get to know her better, he doesn't like this intel.
  • Eventually, Iyaloja decides that she'd best give in to Elesin's request and let him have her son's betrothed as a bride—after all, he is about to sacrifice himself so the world doesn't fall off its axis. She sends the women off to tell the girl.
  • Like the Praise-Singer, Iyaloja seems a little worried that Elesin is going to bail on going over to the other side, and that his upcoming marriage might distract him from his duty, but he brushes her fears off.
  • The women return with the girl, who kneels in front of Elesin.
  • Act 2 picks up in the bungalow of the District Officer Simon Pilkings and his wife, Jane; they are tangoing and wearing costumes in preparation for some big party that night.
  • Amusa, who is described as a "native administration policeman," comes in to tell Simon something, but he gets too freaked out by Simon and Jane's get-ups to come out with it right away. It seems that they are wearing costumes confiscated from local egungun men, who used them for a masquerade representing the reincarnated spirits of their ancestors. Despite the fact that Amusa has ostensibly converted to Islam, he still seems to treat the costumes (and customs around them) with respect… and is nervous that Simon and Jane don't.
  • Because Amusa is too freaked out to tell Simon what he came to tell him, Simon tells him to write it down on a pad of paper. Then he and Jane leave.
  • When Simon comes back to see what Amusa came to tell him, he calls Jane back in and reads the note.
  • Although he initially gets the precise details a little funky because of the way Amusa phrased things, Simon gets the gist: some kind of death is going to occur that night. At first, he thinks that means a murder, and since this kind of thing is illegal under the English administration there, he figures Amusa thought they should know.
  • They call their servant, Joseph, in to ask him what he knows about all this. He has the lowdown, and clarifies that the event actually involves a local chief sacrificing himself.
  • Simon is bummed by the news—and, in particular, the info regarding which chief is involved. It seems that he and Elesin have history; they clashed when Simon helped get Elesin's son into med school in England.
  • Joseph asks to leave, but they soon have him back in to answer questions about the drumming they're hearing in the background. Joseph is finding it hard to interpret the music, though, since it kind of sounds like wedding drums and the kind of drums you'd use to herald the death of a chief.
  • While they're talking, Simon offends Joseph by being sacrilegious, and Jane is concerned that their servant is now going to quit. Simon ends up apologizing.
  • Anyway, back to the rumors of ritual death happening that night: To deal with the issue, Simon sends a note back to Amusa via Joseph.
  • Although Jane had kind of given up on going to their own masquerade that night, Simon tells her to get her costume back on, explaining that he's as instructed Amusa to arrest the chief and lock him up to prevent the ritual from going off.
  • Also, Simon reveals that he's so supercharged about the ball because the Prince is in town and attending.
  • Amusa and a couple of constables have arrived in the market to stop Elesin's suicide. However, when Amusa and the gang get there, they are greeted by some women who taunt Amusa and demand that he leave. Iyaloja isn't thrilled by their behavior.
  • Elesin then comes in, apparently fresh from consummating his marriage.
  • He indicates he's now ready to head off to the great beyond, and then Elesin and the women start dancing, the Praise-Singer starts talking back and forth with Elesin, and the drummers drum. Elesin falls into a kind of hypnotic state/trance.
  • Now we're at a masque, which is basically a European costume party. The Pilkingses, the Prince, the Resident, and the Resident's aide-de-camp are there; the Prince and the Pilkingses are chatting. Congrats, Simon.
  • A footman comes in with a note for Pilkings, which the Resident snatches and reads before the servant can interrupt Simon's conversation with the Prince. He then extricates Simon tactfully from the convo so he can tell him about the note.
  • As he's leading Simon away, the Resident gives an order to his aide-de-camp.
  • We don't know what's in the note yet, beyond the fact that it was labeled "Emergency." The Resident wants to know if something serious is going on, and Pilkings explains the ritual that Elesin and the others are participating in. Apparently the Resident has sent his aide to get Amusa for more details, so Simon sends his wife after the aide to follow up and speed them back.
  • After giving Pilkings a hard time for his handling of this situation up to this point, and commanding him to keep things under control and file a report the next day, the Resident returns to the party.
  • Pilkings then dismisses the aide-de-camp. When Amusa still can't look at him in his costume, Pilkings dismisses him for the night as well, and heads out to intervene, leaving Jane at the party.
  • After all the men leave, Jane is standing there on her own when Olunde, Elesin's son, arrives.
  • They're glad to see each other at first, especially since Olunde is looking for Simon, but the conversation soon sours when Jane realizes Olunde's time in England has made him less pro-English, rather than more. Oops. They go back and forth as Olunde offers some reflections on England and the English.
  • He explains that he got word of the king's death and knew that his father would have to die, per tradition, so he's come back to fulfill his duty of burying his father. Jane is totally baffled that Olunde would accept his father's death that easily and not want Simon to stop it.
  • They hear the drums change, and Olunde takes this to mean that the deed is done; Jane is horrified at how casual Olunde is about the idea that his father is now dead.
  • Hearing Jane getting upset, the aide-de-camp runs in. Thinking Olunde is to blame, he starts getting in his face and being super insulting. Jane eventually gets him to back off and leave again, assuring him she's better now.
  • Jane and Olunde then discuss his reaction to believing his father dead, and Jane seems to genuinely try to understand.
  • Then Simon comes back and is surprised to find Olunde there. He asks Jane to go get the aide-de-camp. (The aide-de-camp must be getting tired from all this coming and going.)
  • Olunde tells Simon he has no hard feelings about Simon's attempts to stop the ritual from happening—but he also says he's glad Simon didn't succeed, because the results would have been catastrophic. Simon doesn't really seem to know how to react to this one.
  • Olunde tries to scurry off to see his father's body before it's cold, but Pilkings asks him to wait, since there were armed policemen outside who had been told not to let people pass. He says he'll send Olunde over to somewhere he refers to as "the place" with the aide-de-camp and some other men.
  • The aide-de-camp comes back at that moment. Simon pulls him aside and asks him to get the keys to a cellar in the Residency's annex (which is where enslaved people were housed in the slave trading days).
  • The two men also discuss logistics for making sure the Residency is well guarded that night. Apparently they are worried about rioting, and Simon mentions that he's taking "the prisoner" down (presumably to the cellar) himself. Wait… what prisoner?
  • Olunde is still trying to get Pilkings to let him leave to be with his father's body, but Simon puts him off, saying that he's still dealing with that situation and Olunde will just have to chill out for now. He scuttles out, and Jane and Olunde are left there confused.
  • Then they hear Elesin yelling, which is obviously kind of a surprise, since, you know, he is supposed to be dead.
  • Elesin runs in, having tried to escape his captors; he's handcuffed and pretty angry about having his plans thwarted.
  • He's shocked at finding his son there. Olunde is angry, ostensibly because his father failed to complete his task, and tells Elesin that he doesn't have a father anymore. Olunde leaves, and Elesin is upset.
  • This act opens in the cell where Elesin is being held prisoner. His bride is there (nope, she doesn't get a name). Simon enters.
  • Elesin and Simon chat. Elesin laments the damage that Simon's intervention has caused to his people, as well as the universe as a whole.
  • While they're talking, they hear Jane shouting for her husband from elsewhere—Simon runs off to find her.
  • While they're gone, Elesin kind of sorts through what he thinks happened when he was prevented from fulfilling his duty. At first, he thought his gods had failed him, and then he thought perhaps his marriage (and by this, he probably means consummating his marriage) drained him of strength and willpower.
  • He definitely seems to think he would have overpowered the "weights" keeping him from the afterlife, if he hadn't been interrupted at that exact moment.
  • Then Jane and Simon come back. Jane wants Simon to let Iyaloja in to talk to Elesin.
  • Once this is finally permitted, Iyaloja taunts Elesin for his weakness and failure to complete his duty; she alludes to the dire consequences of this failure.
  • After lots of discussion between Elesin and Iyaloja, women bring in a bolt of cloth covering something or someone.
  • It's not immediately clear who or what is in the cloth, but Elesin refers to it as a "courier." Apparently, he needs to speak to the courier to fulfill what he can of his remaining duty. He's not allowed to get close to the bolt, though, so he asks them to uncover what is within so he can give "it" a message.
  • Iyaloja removes the cover and reveals Olunde's body lying there. It seems that Olunde sacrificed himself to complete his father's mission.
  • At the sight of his son's body, Elesin strangles himself with his own chain.
  • Iyaloja shames Simon for his continued failure to understand their customs and for trying to help Elesin, now that he's dead. She also yells at him for trying to close Elesin's eyes. She then sends the bride to close and put dirt on Elesin's eyelids, as is customary.



When the play opens, we learn that our protagonist is a dead man walking. According to tradition, as the late king's horseman, Elesin must now commit suicide to join his king. The entire play revolves around his preparations for this event… and the attempts of local British authorities to derail it, of course.

A Brave and Honorable Chief?

If Iyaloja and the other "women of the market" are to be believed, Elesin has a rep for being an honorable dude; they tell him "We know you for a man of honour" (1.45), a phrase that ends up being a refrain as Elesin prepares for his journey to the afterlife.
That said, there seems to be some concern that Elesin, brave as he is, will fall short of the finish line when it comes time to actually die. For example, the Praise-Singer finds Elesin's behaviors and questions a little suspicious leading up to the event:
ELESIN: I embrace it. And let me tell you, women—
I like this farewell that the world designed,
Unless my eyes deceive me, unless
We are already parted, the world and I,
And all that breeds desire is lodged
Among our tireless ancestors. Tell me friends,
Am I still earthed in that beloved market
Of my youth? Or could it be my will
Has outleapt the conscious act and I have come
Among the great departed?
PRAISE-SINGER: Elesin-Oba why do your eyes roll like a bush-rat who sees his fate like his father's spirit, mirrored in the eye of a snake? And all these questions! You're standing on the same earth you've always stood upon. This voice you hear is mine, Oluhun-iyo, not that of an acolyte in heaven. (1.74-75)
The Praise-Singer seems to think that Elesin's questions and eye rolling mean he's nervous—which would obviously make the Praise-Singer anxious, since Elesin's waffling could jeopardize not just the whole tradition, but the very balance of the universe. Yikes.
The Praise-Singer isn't the only one with doubts about Elesin, and Iyaloga also gets worried about his resolve when he indicates he wants to get married on his final day on earth, possible indicating he's too interested in earthly, er, pleasures to move on to the other side.
Elesin justifies his desire to marry and procreate as part of a desire to "travel light" (1.98) to the afterlife, but Iyaloja still slips in some words of warning/guidance just in case. She says:
"The living must eat and drink. When the moment comes, don't turn the food to rodents' droppings in their mouth. Don't let them taste the ashes of the world when they step out at dawn to breath the morning dew." (1.122)
Iyaloja's warnings rub Elesin the wrong way, and he replies, "This doubt is unworthy of you Iyaloja" (1.123). But is the doubt unworthy of Iyaloja, or is Elesin totally worthy of doubt? Because the thing is, he does end up failing to cross over before the ritual is interrupted, and he does blame his bride for his inability to move quickly to the afterlife. So it looks like, perhaps, the concerns Iyaloja and the Praise-Singer voice about Elesin's intentions and strength are not so far-fetched after all.

Ladies Man

Elesin seems to have spent some serious time being quite the ladies man. But don't take our word for it—just ask him. At one point, Elesin exclaims:
"As Horseman of the King, the juiciest
Fruit on every tree was mine. I saw,
I touched, I wooed, rarely was the answer No."
Well then. Looks like somebody was pretty popular with the ladies, and pretty used to getting what he wants from them. We can tell how popular Elesin is among the local women when he feigns being mad at them and they are beside themselves trying to figure out why, and then are super relieved when he reveals it was all a gag. They then leap into action getting him outfitted in proper attire and ready for the ritual in which he will sacrifice himself. Because, you know, they love him.

Doting Father (Not)

Of course, every hero has flaws and personal drama, and Elesin is no exception, even before he fails to achieve his mission. We learn pretty quickly that Elesin is estranged from his oldest son, Olunde, because the kid wanted to attend medical school in England.
Apparently Elesin even locked Olunde up to prevent him from leaving, but the local District Officer, Simon Pilkings, busted him out and facilitated his passage. As a result, Elesin had disowned Olunde for breaking from his family's customs and leaving the community.
However, the tables end up being turned when Elesin fails to complete his duty, and Olunde is so ashamed that he disowns Elesin as his father. Olunde then sacrifices himself to help complete the ritual that Elesin couldn't complete, thereby bringing about a pretty complete role reversal. We know Elesin adores his son because he immediately kills himself upon realizing what's happened, but unfortunately for these two and their relationship, it's too little, too late.
Simon Pilkings is a local District Officer in Nigeria. Apparently part of his job is maintaining (British) law and order, which means interfering with Elesin's plan to commit ritual suicide.
God Save the Queen, Er, the King's Horseman
Part of the reason Simon is so gung-ho to prevent Elesin's suicide is that the British prince has come to visit. All the local British folks are trying to put their best foot forward, which means not having a "pagan" ritual going on while Mr. Princey Pants is roaming about.
Culture Shock
Simon seems like he means well enough, but he's kind of a bull in a china shop when it comes to navigating cultural differences and conflict. First off, there's the whole not understanding/wanting to stop Elesin's suicide. Without stopping to consider the significance of the ritual—and what preventing it might mean for the Yoruba—Simon throws all his effort into trying to keep it from going off. You know, so his people won't get mad or be uncomfortable. Stay classy, Simon.
He also seems to be talented at combining cultural misunderstanding and stereotypes with blasphemy against his own beliefs and traditions. For example, when he's trying to find out of the drumming in the distance is related to Elesin's ritual, he gets impatient with his servant's inability to give him a simple answer, and ends up shocking the man with his irreverence:
"What do you mean you don't know? It's only two years since your conversion. Don't tell me all that nonsense also wiped out your tribal memory." (2.109)
Can we say stay classy again? We're going to: Stay classy, Simon. Joseph is highly offended by Simon's blasphemy—he majorly dumps of Joseph's religious beliefs—but after Jane intervenes and explains to Simon why what he said was so objectionable, he ends up apologizing. So… we guess being able to admit he is wrong = a point in Simon's favor? It seems like more of a half-point, if you ask us.
With Friends Like These…
There's no doubt that Simon has good intentions, but his total inability, and general unwillingness, to understand the indigenous culture of the place he's living has created other problems along the way—and in fact, as with the ritual suicide, Elesin is involved.
Partway through the play, we learn that Simon was instrumental in helping Olunde, Elesin's eldest son, get into medical school in England. Simon certainly thought he was doing a good thing, but it caused a huge brouhaha with Elesin, who disowned his son for leaving their community to practice Western medicine in England.
The eldest son has very specific duties in Yoruba culture, so it's no wonder Elesin was peeved—importantly, though, Simon had zero awareness of any of that, and instead was just focused on giving Olunde the best opportunities possible… according to his own, British-based understanding of what that looks like.


Character Analysis

Jane is married to Simon Pilkings, the District Manager in the area where the play takes place. Like her husband, she is well meaning but more than a little clueless about the culture and customs of the indigenous folks where they live. Unlike her husband, though, she actually makes an effort to learn about these topics, and she seems to end up translating quite a bit for her hubs.

Cultural Sensitivity 101

For instance, when Simon manages to offend their servant, Joseph, with a reference to holy water being "nonsense," Jane is the one who clues Simon into the fact that Joseph is really upset, and why. She says:
"It isn't my preaching you have to worry about, it's the preaching of the missionaries who preceded you here. When they make converts they really convert them. Calling holy water nonsense to our Joseph is really like insulting the Virgin Mary before a Roman Catholic. He's going to hand in his notice tomorrow you mark my word." (2.119)
Sure, she's still giving all the credit for the strength of Joseph's beliefs to the missionaries (rather than Joseph himself) and implying that his beliefs are "like" that of a real Christian (rather than being the beliefs of a real Christian), none of which exactly screams understanding of Joseph as his own human being. But she at least understands that her husband has been offensive and tries to get him to understand why he might want to apologize, so that's something, right?
Also, unlike her husband, Jane demonstrates actual curiosity about the customs of the Yoruba people. When Olunde returns, Jane draws him into a conversation to learn more about the ritual her husband is trying so desperately hard to stop.
Of course, her efforts at understanding and inclusiveness only go so far. When Olunde is super calm in announcing he believes his father dead, she is appalled, exclaiming, "How can you be so callous! So unfeeling! […] You're just a savage like all the rest" (4.127). And when she does, we see that her treatment of Yoruban people as sub-human doesn't just pertain to servants, but even to young men whose education her family has actively been involved in.
Jane is almost immediately sheepish about her reaction, and moves on to trying to understand Olunde's perspective. He tries to chalk up his blasé attitude about his father's death to his medical training, but she is dubious: "No. It has to be more than that. I feel it has to do with the many things we don't really grasp about your people. At least you can explain" (4.149). Olunde concedes that these "ungrasped" things could be part of the picture as well. Maybe now would be a good time to explain the whole keeping-the-universe-in-balance component of the rite? Just a thought…
In short, Jane seems to try a bit harder than her husband to understand Yoruban customs and religion, but she only does so much better than he does, and the results are, at best, mixed.
Character Analysis
Olunde is Elesin's eldest son. Although he 's left home to pursue his medical studies in England, he returns when he hears that the king has died, since he knows this means his father must die, too. When we meet him, he's come home to take care of the business that eldest sons have to take care of in such circumstances.
So he's dutiful, right? But get this: Apparently Olunde's departure to England caused some pretty serious conflict between him and his father; in fact, his father disowned him. And yet he still shows up pronto upon news of the king's death. He's like super dutiful, then.
And you know that education that Olunde's sacrificed so much for? Well, as it turns out, it's left him with a bad taste about England in his mouth—and he says as much when Jane asks whether he is "shocked" by seeing her in the egungun costumes she and Simon have worn to the ball. He says no, but then adds:
"No I am not shocked Mrs. Pilkings. You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand." (4.67)
Youch—what a burn. We're going to go ahead and add outspoken to Olunde's list of attributes.
Initially, Olunde intends to return to England to continue his studies after everything with his father is squared away—but, as he explains Yoruban tradition to Jane, we get the sense that he still has a lot of respect for the rituals and customs of the people he grew up with. And because of this attention to tradition and custom, Olunde is super angry when his dad fails to carry off the ritual suicide.
How angry is Olunde? Angry enough that he ends up committing suicide to try to make things right, cosmologically speaking. It's unclear whether he's successful in that aim, but what is clear is this: The sense of duty is strong in this one.
Character Analysis
She is known as the "Mother of the Market" and, as such, seems to be the leader of the market women. She starts out being pretty deferential to Elesin and his needs as he prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice.
When he is pretending to be mad at her and the other women, for example, Iyaloja's pretty much beside herself trying to figure out how she offended him—and, even after she realizes he was just kidding around about not being properly outfitted, she leaps into action to get him some snazzy attire for his last day on earth.
Also, despite her reservations about distracting Elesin with marriage and sex as he prepares for death, she ensures that Elesin gets to marry a local girl that caught his eye. Even though this girl is betrothed to her own son. (Good luck explaining that one at dinner, Iyaloja.)
However, when Elesin fails to carry out his duty to the late king and his community, Iyaloja's attitude turns around. So instead of being deferential and sympathetic, she mocks and berates Elesin when she visits him in the prison where Simon Pilkings has placed him to prevent any further suicide attempts. She's his fan, but only so long as he's upholding his duty.
To this end, Iyaloja does absolutely nothing to soften the blow when Olunde kills himself. In fact, she really seems to revel in building up suspense regarding the package or "burden" she brought with her before eventually having the body carried in and revealed to Elesin. It's a pretty cruel way to go about things, if you ask us. But then again, the stakes of Elesin's failure are astronomically high. Literally. It's enough to transition Iyaloja from completely subservient and deferential to Elesin to taunting and outright mean.
Character Analysis
Sergeant Amusa
A member of the "native police," Amusa is the one who comes to Simon to alert him that Elesin is going to commit suicide as part of a Yoruba ritual. Although he has converted to Islam, he still maintains a healthy fear of, and respect for, Yoruba tradition, so he gets super tweaky when he arrives at the Pilkings residence to find Simon and Jane wearing costumes confiscated from local egungun men.
Simon gets really frustrated with Amusa for maintaining such "superstitions" despite his conversion, but Amusa is firm in not wanting (or perhaps, being able) to talk to the Pilkingses while they're outfitted like that.
The Praise-Singer's primary function in the play is to dialogue with Elesin and, through their banter, draw out information about Elesin's state of mind and commitment to the task of committing ritual suicide. We don't find out much about him or his inner life, but we do know he's a bit doubtful that Elesin will achieve his goal. And, of course, he's right.
Aide-de-Camp a.k.a. Bob
His primary goal is, as his title implies, to aid the Resident and his fellow British administrators. Like his fellow Englishmen, he isn't super sensitive to the indigenous residents of the area and their traditions, and he gets very aggressive and offensive with Olunde, dropping a racial epithet with ease just because something Olunde says gets Jane emotional. Simmer down, Bob.
Joseph is a servant to the Pilkingses. He has converted to Christianity, so he is pretty offended by Simon's fondness for blasphemy.
She doesn't really get much to do in the play (heck, she doesn't even get a name), but she's the girl Elesin sees wandering around in the market and decides he's going to marry on his last day on earth. She is kind of there in the background for a lot of the action.
H.R.H. The Prince
He doesn't play a major role in the action, but the fact that he's visiting the area makes Simon extra upset about the prospect of Elesin pulling off a ritual suicide, since he doesn't want anything wonky happening to upset the applecart while the royal is around. In this way, he's probably indirectly responsible for the intensity of Simon's botched intervention.
The drummers are a pretty constant presence in the play, as their music is key to the rituals taking place. By listening to their music, characters like Olunde and Joseph try to figure out what kind of ritual is being performed and where the characters are at within the ritual.
Women and Young Girls
The women and young girls of the market help assist Elesin in preparing for his big crossover to the afterlife. To that end, when Amusa comes to try to prevent Elesin from achieving his goal, they taunt the policeman and, along with others, drive him away.
Dancers at the Ball
The dancers are just mentioned in passing, as they are simply in the background. But they're there, and since we're here to give you all the details you need, well, now you know they're there.
Constables who help Amusa go to confront Elesin/the women
They don't really do much besides help Amusa confront Elesin and the women. Go team.
The Resident
He is a local British administrator who is hosting the Prince. He chews Simon out for his handling of the Elesin suicide situation, since he's pretty concerned that such shenanigans (if successful) could ruin the royal visit.
Where It All Goes Down
Oyo, an ancient Yoruba city/kingdom, Nigeria
The play is based on a real incident that took place in Oyo in 1946. Although Soyinka warned critics against emphasizing culture clash in their readings of the play, it's hard not to notice all the tension going on between the British residents of Oyo and the Yoruba population and their traditions.
The British residents clearly don't understand the culture of the indigenous Yoruba—and yet they have a ton of control over day-to-day life (including all that law and order jazz), so they end up barreling over these traditions in their attempts to shape the environment to fit their own vision of what is right or proper.
In a prime example of this kind of barreling, Simon Pilkings tries to stop Elesin's suicide because it doesn't fit with the British notion of morality and propriety. He reacts according to his own values, without really ever stopping to consider those of the Yoruba people.
Cultural insensitivity is also behind Simon and Jane's decision to use some indigenous clothing with heavy-duty spiritual significance as costumes for a masquerade ball. If that doesn't signal that you're using someone else's lives and culture as a playground, what does?
The play toggles between the market, where the traditions of the Yoruba are affirmed and celebrated, and British-controlled locations like the Residency and the Pilkingses' bungalow (where the Yoruba are decidedly not affirmed), so the structure itself plays out this tension between two different worlds and their intersection.
So while Soyinka might claim that the spiritual stuff is really the heart of the action, the culture clash is an important part of the setting/backdrop. There's just no two ways about it.
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Long Live the King! Er, Wait…
Elesin Oba is a Yoruban chief and, until recently, the king's horseman. However, the king recently died, and Yoruban tradition demands that Elesin follow his king to the great beyond. So, when the play opens, he is enjoying one final day before he fulfills that duty. And to make sure he really enjoys himself, he arranges to get married to a random beauty he sees roaming about the market.
Iyaloja, the woman who brings about the match, is a little concerned that Elesin will be distracted from his duty by marriage (okay, and sex), and the Praise-Singer following him around seems to have some concerns as well. Elesin informs them both that he's more than ready to do his duty to the king and his people, though, so for now, everything appears to be copacetic.
Rising Action
Plays would be way too short if things went according to plan, right? The local British authorities hear about the upcoming Yoruban ritual and are less than enthusiastic about it; Simon Pilkings, the local District Officer, sends word to the police to stop Elesin. Naturally, the Prince (the British one) is visiting while all this is going on and will be attending a ball at the Residency that evening, so Simon does not want anything wacky happening—and ritual suicide, in his eyes, is pretty wacky indeed.
The Pilkingses attend the ball at the Residency as planned, but Simon soon gets word that local policeman Amusa did not get far with his orders to stop Elesin. As a result, Simon has to rush out to deal with the situation himself. You who what they say: If you want something done right…
Left behind, Jane ends up chatting with Olunde, Elesin's son, who has just returned from his medical training in England after getting word that the king had died. Despite the fact that he left the community and angered his father with his plans to go to England and pursue a Western education, Olunde came back immediately to fulfill his duty to his father as part of this ritual.
When he hears the drums in the distance stop, Olunde believes that his father has achieved his goal and is now dead. However, Simon and others return soon after, and it's clear something funky is still going on… and then, Elesin stumbles in, handcuffed and very much alive.
Seeing that his father failed to make it to the other side before the British could intervene, Olunde is angry and shuns him, saying he has no father anymore. Ouch.
Falling Action
A World Upside Down
Thinking they've done a really good thing in saving Elesin from (in their view) a barbaric custom, the British folks are pretty puzzled by the intense anger and disappointment Elesin, Olunde, and Iyaloja feel in the wake of their intervention.
Iyaloja comes to visit Elesin in prison and basically chews him out for failing to achieve his goal. Elesin tries to analyze what went wrong, pondering the possibility that his new wife made him a bit too fond of life right before he had to abandon it. He claims that he ultimately would have gotten it together and crossed over, had the British not intervened when they did… but who knows?
The Sins of the Father…
To try to right the wrong Elesin committed, Olunde ends up sacrificing himself (that's polite for committing suicide), and his body is delivered to Elesin in prison. Upon seeing his son's body wrapped up in a bolt of cloth, Elesin takes the chains binding him and strangles himself before anyone can get in his way. It's unclear, though, whether Olunde's sacrifice (and Elesin's final gesture) will make any difference in terms of averting cosmic disaster. Sigh.


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