Death and the King's Horseman by Wole Soyinka

Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka
Table of Contents
1. Death and the King's Horseman: Introduction
2. Death and the King's Horseman: Wole Soyinka Biography

3. Death and the King's Horseman: Summary
Death and the King's Horseman: Summary and Analysis
¨ Summary and Analysis: Act I
¨ Summary and Analysis: Act II
¨ Summary and Analysis: Act III
¨ Summary and Analysis: Act IV
¨ Summary and Analysis: Act V
Death and the King's Horseman: Quizzes
¨ Questions and Answers: Act I
¨ Questions and Answers: Act II
¨ Questions and Answers: Act III
¨ Questions and Answers: Act IV
¨ Questions and Answers: Act V
Death and the King's Horseman: Essential Passages
¨ Essential Passages by Character: Elesin Oba
¨ Essential Passages by Theme: Duty
7. Death and the King's Horseman: Characters
8. Death and the King's Horseman: Themes
9. Death and the King's Horseman: Style
10. Death and the King's Horseman: Historical Context
11. Death and the King's Horseman: Critical Overview
Death and the King's Horseman: Essays and Criticism
¨ Roles of Women
¨ Death and the King’s Horseman: A poet’s quarrel with his culture
¨ Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and the King’s Horseman
Death and the King's Horseman 1
¨ Problems of Teaching an African Play to English Students
13. Death and the King's Horseman: Compare and Contrast
14. Death and the King's Horseman: Topics for Further Study
15. Death and the King's Horseman: Media Adaptations
16. Death and the King's Horseman: What Do I Read Next?
17. Death and the King's Horseman: Bibliography and Further Reading
18. Death and the King's Horseman: Pictures
19. Copyright
Death and the King's Horseman: Introduction
Death and the King’s Horseman is considered by many to be among the best of Wole Soyinka's plays, which
number more than a dozen. In awarding Soyinka the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the Swedish
Academy drew special attention to Death and the King’s Horseman and Dance of the Forests (1960) as
evidence of his talent for combining Yoruban and European culture into a unique kind of poetic drama.
Death and the King’s Horseman play tells the story of Elesin, the king’s horseman, who is expected to
commit ritual suicide following the death of the king, but who is distracted from his duty. The story is based
on a historical event. In 1946, a royal horseman named Elesin was prevented from committing ritual suicide
by the British colonial powers. Soyinka alters the historical facts, placing the responsibility for Elesin’s
failure squarely on Elesin’s shoulders, so that he might focus on the theme of duty rather than of colonialism.
The play is well known in the United States, frequently anthologized in textbooks as an example of African
drama for students and teachers who are increasingly curious about the literature of other parts of the world.
Because of its mingling of Western and Yoruban elements, and because of the universality of its theme of
cultural responsibility, Death and the King’s Horseman is seen as a good introduction to African thought and
tradition. While it is frequently read, however, the play is seldom performed outside of Africa. Soyinka
himself has directed important American productions, in Chicago in 1976 and at Lincoln Center in New York
in 1987, but these productions were more admired than loved. Although respected by critics, Soyinka’s plays
are challenging for Westerners to perform and to understand, and they have not been popular successes.
Death and the King's Horseman: Wole Soyinka Biography
Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka was born in Ijebu Isara, near Akeokuta in western Nigeria, on July 13, 1934.
His parents, who were from different Yorubaspeaking ethnic groups, were Christians, but other relatives
observed African beliefs and deities. Nigeria was at the time a colony of Great Britain. Soyinka grew up,
therefore, with exposure to both Yoruban and Western culture. At twenty he left Nigeria to attend the
University of Leeds in England, a university with a strong drama program. After graduation he joined
London’s Royal Court Theatre as a script-reader and then as a writer, and produced his first play, The Swamp
Dwellers, there in 1959.
The next year Nigeria gained independence. Soyinka returned to his homeland, where the Arts Theatre in
Ibadan had begun presenting plays by Nigerian playwrights, on Nigerian themes, for Nigerian audiences.
Soyinka traveled throughout Nigeria, absorbing all he could of the Yoruba people’s rich oral literature,
graphic art, dance, and pageantry. He created plays incorporating traditional Yoruban dance, music, and
proverbs with political messages about the need for Nigerians to break free from the influences of Western
culture. His third play, A Dance of the Forests (1960), is typical of Soyinka’s early work in several ways: it
deals with conflicts between African and colonial values, it is written in English but includes Yoruban
materials, and its first productions featured Soyinka as author, producer, director, and performer.
eNotes: Table of Contents 2
Independent Nigeria has been a troubled country, headed by greedy and corrupt leaders. In 1965, Soyinka was
arrested for criticizing the government over the radio, but he was acquitted. In 1967 he criticized the
government in print, and was arrested again. This time he was held prisoner without charges for more than
two years, spending fifteen months in solitary confinement. After his prison experiences, his work became
more political and more strident. In many of his newer plays, he turned his critical gaze away from British
colonialism and toward corrupt African leaders. Other plays, including Death and the King’s Horseman
(1975), examine weaknesses in Nigerian society as a whole, caused by individuals forgetting their traditions,
their culture, and their duty to themselves and to each other.
Soyinka has written more than a dozen plays, as well as poetry, criticism, and an autobiography. In 1986 he
became the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award increased his international
stature and widened the audience for his political messages. Within Nigeria, Soyinka is a well-known
intellectual and political activist, speaking and writing against government corruption. The government has
made its displeasure clear, and Soyinka lived in the United States for a few years during the late 1990s after
being accused of treason. ‘‘Some people think the Nobel Prize makes you bulletproof,’’ he said in an
interview with Ciugu Mwagiru. ‘‘I never had that illusion.’’
Death and the King's Horseman: Summary
Act I
As Death and the King’s Horseman opens, Elesin Oba walks through a Nigerian village market at the close
of the business day. He is followed by an entourage of drummers and praise-singers, and as he makes his way
through the market he talks with the praise-singer Olohun-iyo about ‘‘the other side’’ and about the
importance of ‘‘this day of all days.’’ Apparently, Elesin Oba is enjoying his last day on earth; at night he
will go to join his ‘‘great forebears.’’ The women abandon their work of putting away the goods from their
stalls and come to flirt with Elesin, who is obviously a great favorite and well known for his sexual prowess
and his many conquests.
Much of the dialogue is written in rhythmic free verse. Elesin dances, and chants the story of the Not-I bird, a
bird who fails to fulfill his duty. In an exchange with the crowd, laced with Yoruba proverbs, Elesin promises
that when the time comes to fulfill his duty he will not delay. Led by Iyaloja, the mother of the market, the
women dress Elesin in their richest cloths and dance around him. Suddenly he is distracted by the sight of a
beautiful woman whom he has never seen before. Although she is already engaged to someone else, Elesin
demands that he be allowed to take her to bed before he dies. Because Elesin is at the threshold between life
and death, he cannot be refused. Iyaloja warns him not to be deterred from his duty, and not to bring trouble
on the people who will remain. Then, as the other women prepare the young woman to be Elesin’s bride,
Iyaloja leaves to prepare the bridal bed.
Act II
This act occurs during the same evening, at the home of the district officer, Simon Pilkings, a British officer
stationed in the British colony of Nigeria. Simon and his wife, Jane, are listening to a tango, dancing in the
shadows. Amusa, a Nigerian working for the British as a native administration policeman, arrives and is
horrified to see that Simon and Jane are dressed in the clothing traditionally worn for the egungun ceremony,
costumes sacred to members of a local religious cult. Simon has confiscated the robes from the cult leaders,
and he and Jane plan to wear them to win a prize for best costume at a fancy-dress ball the British are holding
that night. Although Amusa is a Muslim and not a part of the cult, he respects the clothes and will not speak to
Simon until he has removed them.
Amusa and the house-servant Joseph explain that Elesin will commit ritual suicide that night. The alafin or
king of Elesin’s people died one month before, but has not yet been buried. According to ‘‘native law and
Death and the King's Horseman: Wole Soyinka Biography 3
custom’’ Elesin, as the king’s chief horseman, must kill himself that night so the king will not be alone.
Simon and Jane discuss the foolishness of native belief, and remember proudly that Simon helped Elesin’s
oldest son, Olunde, leave the village to attend medical school in England, against his father’s wishes. Simon
also reveals a surprise: the prince of England will be at the ball. Although Simon does not care personally
what happens to Elesin, he cannot afford to have any trouble while the prince is visiting his district. To
prevent Elesin’s death, Simon orders him arrested.
The third Act returns to the market, where one of the stalls has been converted into a wedding chamber.
Amusa and two constables are attempting to arrest Elesin, but the women stand around them hurling insults,
claiming that working for the white man has cost Amusa his manhood. The women grab the men’s hats and
batons, do a mocking imitation of British officers, and send the men away.
Elesin emerges from the wedding chamber, and shows Iyaloja the stained cloth that proves that the bride was
a virgin. As he makes plans for his final moments on earth, he listens to the sound of the ritual drumming; he
can tell that the king’s horse and dog have already been killed, and that soon it will be his turn to die. As he
listens to the drums, he falls into a state of semi-hypnosis, and begins his passage to the next world. He
dances, his limbs becoming heavier and heavier, as the praise-singer calls out to him, wishing Elesin could
Act IV
The fourth Act opens at the home of the resident, the British chief officer, as the prince enters the ballroom
accompanied by an orchestra playing ‘‘Rule Britannia.’’ The prince admires Simon and Jane’s egungun
attire, then joins the dancing. Alerted by Amusa, Simon and the resident have a whispered conference in the
hallway. Simon tells his superior about the ‘‘strange custom’’ that Elesin will be prevented from carrying
out, and the men agree that there must be no trouble while the prince is visiting. Realizing that it is midnight,
Simon leaves hurriedly for the marketplace, leaving Jane to enjoy the rest of the ball.
As soon as Simon is gone, Elesin’s son Olunde steps from the shadows to speak with Jane. He gently rebukes
her for wearing the sacred egungun garments for a trivial purpose. He thinks the British are disrespectful
people, but praises the courage British men have shown in fighting the Second World War, which is raging in
Europe but almost unnoticed in Nigeria. Olunde needs to speak with Simon, and asks for Jane’s help in
finding him. Word reached Olunde in England that the king has died, and Olunde knows that on this night he
will be called as oldest son to bury his father. He also knows that Simon will try to prevent Elesin’s suicide,
and he wants to stop Simon from making this mistake. He tries to explain to Jane that the tradition is sacred,
and that it holds the universe on course even if she and Simon cannot understand it. He can calmly accept his
father’s death, because he knows it is necessary.
Simon returns, and Olunde thanks him for not interfering. But there is a commotion outside, and Olunde hears
Elesin’s voice. Elesin is alive, shouting accusations at the white men who have brought him shame. Against
all propriety, the father and son see each other, something they are forbidden to do once the king is dead.
Disgusted by Elesin’s failure, Olunde says, ‘‘I have no father’’ and walks away.
Act V
The final Act is set in Elesin’s prison cell. Simon comments on the peaceful night, but Elesin corrects him,
telling him that because the ritual has not been enacted the world will never know peace again. Simon cannot
understand the importance of Elesin’s failure, and rejects any suggestion that something is amiss. The two
discuss Olunde’s fate. Simon is sure that Olunde will return to England to continue his studies. Elesin is
proud that his son, who had seemed to reject his own culture, was man enough to reject him. Iyaloja comes to
Elesin, reminding him of her earlier warning. She knows that Elesin, not Simon, is at fault for not carrying out
his suicide, because he allowed himself to be distracted by the young woman, and Elesin accepts the blame.
Death and the King's Horseman: Summary 4
Iyaloja reveals that she has brought ‘‘a burden’’: the body of Olunde, who has killed himself in his father’s
place. When he sees his son, Elesin manages to strangle himself with his chains. The bride does her wifely
duty, closing Elesin’s eyes with dirt, then leaves with Iyaloja, who counsels her, ‘‘Now forget the dead,
forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.’’
Death and the King's Horseman: Summary and Analysis
Summary and Analysis: Act I
New Characters
Praise Singer: Accompanied by various drummers, he follows Elesin Oba and sings praises of his deeds.
Elesin Oba: The horseman of the King.
Iyaloja: “Mother” of the market and acknowledged leader of the market women.
Various market women.
A beautiful young girl.
The market is closing for the day. Women are emptying the stalls, folding mats, and putting away their wares.
Elesin Oba, the king’s horseman, enters via a passage in front of the market scene, pursued by praise singers
and drummers. He is described in the stage directions as a man of enormous vitality. The primary Praise
Singer asks Elesin what tryst he is hurrying off to, and Elesin laughs at the joke. They tease each other a great
deal in this scene, speaking to each other in highly poetic language. Elesin states that the market is the home
of his spirit and that he has neglected “his” women, by which he means the market women. The Praise Singer
states that the women will cover him with expensive cloths because it is a special day. He coyly asks Elesin if
there will be a praise singer like him on the “other side.” He expresses doubt that Elesin will meet the Praise
Singer’s father, and if not he or his father, who else can sing the horseman’s deeds in such beautiful accents?
Elesin tells the Praise Singer that he is like a jealous wife and that rather than accompanying the horseman on
his journey to the other side, the Praise Singer must remain behind and sing of his honor and fame to the
world of the living. The Praise Singer promises Elesin Oba that his name will be like a sweet berry on the
world’s tongue.
At this, the horseman bids the Praise Singer to proceed with him into the market. The Praise Singer
acknowledges that the women of the market will spoil the horseman, but he also warns Elesin to be wary of
women because too much spoiling weakens a man. Elesin insists that he will lay his head in the women’s laps
tonight because he wishes to smell the air of the market one more time before he goes to meet his great
The Praise Singer then speaks poetically of the continuity of the culture and the way that the world as they
know it will keep its course. To illustrate this idea, Elesin replies by chanting and performing the story of the
“Not-I bird.” In the story of the Not-I bird, Elesin chants that Death comes calling, but the farmer, the
fearless hunter, the courtesan, the student, a kinsman, and a courier all deny that they can hear Death’s
calling, out of fear. Everyone says, “not I,” and a bird takes the phrase as its song. Elesin chants that the Not-I
bird was even heard in the forest when all other animals were crouching in fear. The Not-I was a restless little
bird that Death found nesting in the leaves. Elesin observes that while even the immortal beings were afraid of
death, he alone had the courage to tell the Not-I bird to go back to his nest. He explains that he alone is
unafraid of Death; he will not say “not-I” to Death when Death comes calling. Elesin tells his rapt audience
Death and the King's Horseman: Summary and Analysis 5
that he is the master of his fate, and when the hour comes, he will dance along the narrow path. He says that
his soul is eager, and that he will not turn aside from the path. During this time, the gathering audience has
become infected with Elesin’s humor and energy. Iyaloja and more market women have joined the audience.
The women ask him if there is nothing that will hold the horseman back. Elesin affirms that he will approach
Death confidently because he goes to keep his friend and master, the king, company. He tells the women how
he and the king shared everything, including food and thoughts. The town, the land, the world itself has been
his because of his great relationship to the king. Together, they withstood the siege of envy and the termites of
time. Elesin proudly tells his audience that life is honor, and life ends when honor ends. The women assure
him that they know he is a man of honor. This appears to offend Elesin, who insists that they stop. The
women are puzzled and nervous, wondering what they have said that was wrong. Iyaloja speaks for all the
women, telling Elesin that they are unworthy and that they ask his forgiveness. The women all kneel down. At
first, Elesin behaves as if he is too insulted to explain what the women have done wrong, but after some
coaxing from the Praise Singer, he tells his audience that words are cheap. Asking the women how should a
man of honor seem, Elesin establishes the appearance of humility and then laughs at his own joke. The
women stand up, relieved, and Elesin indicates that he was only playing; the offence was not real. Happily,
Iyaloja directs the women to robe the king’s horseman richly, in the cloths of honor, friendship, and esteem.
Together, like a chorus, the women say they truly feared they had wrenched the world adrift.
While the women adorn him in fancy cloths and dance around him, the horseman’s attention is drawn
offstage. He announces that the world is good and that he was born to keep it so. The women affirm that the
world is in his hands.
At this moment, a beautiful young girl enters along the market path. Elesin tells the women that he embraces
the world and appreciates the farewell the world has designed. He tells the Praise Singer how great his
reputation is, and the Praise Singer confirms this by referring to the horseman as a stallion. Elesin then asks
Iyaloja who the girl is, calling her a goddess. As he describes her beautiful body in the most poetic terms,
Iyaloja starts to interrupt him by calling his name. Elesin responds by reminding her that he is still among the
living, and inquires again who the radiant girl is. Iyaloja tells him that the girl already has one step in her
husband’s home. Irritated, Elesin asks her why she must tell him that. Iyaloja falls silent, and the women
shuffle nervously. Iyaloja placatingly tells Elesin that today is his day and the whole world belongs to him,
but that even those who are about to leave like to be remembered by what they leave behind. Elesin replies
that the considerate traveler likes to shed that part of his excessive load which may benefit those left behind.
He tells the women that he deserves a bed of honor upon which to lie. He expresses the desire to travel lightly
and adds that he wants to leave behind his seed in the earth of his choice, meaning that he wants to sleep with
the girl before he goes to the world beyond that of the living. Iyaloja tells the women that she dare not refuse
him this request. The women protest that the girl is betrothed to Iyaloja’s own son, but Iyaloja reminds them
that her son will do whatever she wishes; his loss can be easily remedied, but she will not perform the impiety
of denying the honorable Elesin his last request. Iyaloja sighs and tells the king’s horseman that he always
had a restless eye, but his choice has her blessing. She sends some of the market women off to prepare the
girl. But she warns Elesin to make certain that his final actions among the living do not earn him their curses.
She announces that she will go prepare his bridal chamber and then lay out his shrouds. Elesin asks why she
must be so blunt and then expresses his desire that his new bride be the one to seal his eyelids and wash his
body when the time of his death comes. The women bring out the beautiful young girl, and as she kneels in
front of the king’s horseman, the lights fade out on the scene.
Death and the King’s Horseman is set in the Yoruban village of Oyo in Western Nigeria during World War
II. Scene One opens at the bustling marketplace; this immediately festive scene establishes the marketplace as
the site of not just commerce but also community and even kinship. The market women have a “Mother,”
Iyaloja, and Elesin refers to all the women of the market as his mothers. In this scene, Elesin’s reputation as a
great and honorable man is revealed, and his immediate future is gradually unfolded. The word “Elesin”
Summary and Analysis: Act I 6
means “horseman,” and “Oba” means “king”—for Elesin Oba, the horseman of the king, his royal title is
also his name. He derives his identity from his important cultural role. The king has died, and it is the
Elesin’s duty to follow the king in death to the world of the ancestors. The play begins on the day that Elesin
is to die. He visits the market because it provides him familiarity and comfort. His character is robust,
entertaining, magisterial, and not lacking a certain degree of arrogance. All the women treat him with great
respect bordering on fear, as Elesin is followed about by men employed solely in making music and singing
his praises. His role as king’s horseman has such importance to the community that everyone views him as a
sort of hero; Elesin is told repeatedly that the world is in his hands, and he replies that he was born to maintain
the world as everyone knows it. Elesin is also shown to be quite clever, as demonstrated in the complicated
story of the Not-I bird, as well as in his reasoning for why he should be allowed to “marry” the beautiful girl
on such an important night. It is clear that he feels lust for the girl, but he rationalizes this by explaining that
sleeping with her will allow him to unburden himself of unnecessary seed and, at the same time, benefit the
community by impregnating the girl and leaving behind more progeny. This scene introduces one of the
central motifs of the play: the metaphysical conflict between the individual and the community, between
private desires and public duty. The community depends upon Elesin to fulfill his cultural obligations as the
king’s horseman in order to keep their world in balance. The Elesin’s self-sacrifice will bring into proper
balance the three levels of existence in traditional Yoruban cosmology: the worlds of the living, the ancestors,
and the not-yet born. The Elesin’s death will ensure harmony among these three worlds; thus, the ritual
suicide has a regenerative function in maintaining the community. This public duty comes into conflict with
the Elesin’s private desire to sleep with the beautiful girl, for Elesin’s character is also established as lusty
and enjoying the pleasures of life.
This scene contains two crucial moments of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is when something happens that
prepares the reader for some future action or event in the play. The first is when the Praise Singer warns the
king’s horseman that he must be careful around women for they can ruin (weaken) a man by spoiling him.
This warning seems to indicate that Elesin’s distraction—his desire to “marry” the beautiful girl—might
disrupt the ritual he plans to participate in later that evening. Similarly, Iyaloja warns Elesin not to commit
any last actions that will cause him to lose his honor or be remembered badly by the living. This warning hints
that all will not go as smoothly as planned with the evening’s important ritual. These two moments of
foreshadowing suggest that Elesin’s “restless” and roving eyes, his attraction to women, may turn out to be
not only his personal downfall (the loss of honor and esteem) but also the downfall of the entire community
(the upsetting of the delicate balance among the worlds of the living, dead, and unborn).
Summary and Analysis: Act II
New Characters
Simon Pilkings: The District Officer, an administrative figure in the colonial government.
Jane Pilkings: Simon’s wife.
Sergeant Amusa: A “Native Administration” policeman who is a Muslim.
Joseph: A native servant to the Pilkingses who is a Christian.
Scene Two begins with a view of the verandah, a spacious porch off the front of the District Officer’s
bungalow. Sergeant Amusa, a constable in the “Native Administration” police force, is seen climbing up the
steps of the verandah and peeking through the wide windows of the bungalow. Inside, Simon and Jane
Pilkings are dressed in native costumes complete with traditional masks, practicing the tango. When Amusa
recognizes the costumes as ritual Yoruban dress, he is visibly horrified. Startled, he upsets a flowerpot, and
Summary and Analysis: Act II 7
this attracts the attention of the Pilkingses, who stop dancing. Jane turns off the gramophone, and Simon
approaches the verandah. Recognizing Amusa, Simon asks him what is the matter. Stammering in
non-standard English, Amusa points his finger at Simon’s costume and asks why they are dressed as they are,
in clothing that belongs to a “dead cult.” Simon cannot understand why Amusa appears so bewildered and
worried. Simon tells Amusa that he is a disappointment after all, for Simon has been bragging at the club that
Amusa does not believe in any “mumbo jumbo.” Ignoring these remarks, Amusa begs Simon to take off the
outfit because it is not good for a white man to touch such a thing. Simon informs Amusa that he and Jane
plan to wear the costumes to the fancy-dress ball at the club, and that they hope to take first prize in the
contest. Amusa refuses to talk to Simon while he is wearing the traditional outfit. Jane advises her husband
that this is a matter that must be handled delicately, but Simon shrugs off this advice, telling Amusa to use
some sense and to remember that as a constable in the service of the British king’s government, he is
obligated to provide Simon with any important information or face disciplinary action. Amusa says that his
report involves death, and he cannot talk about death to a person in the uniform of death. He begs to be
released, to return to give his report later. This enrages Simon, who roars at Amusa. Amusa remains
stubbornly silent, looking up at the ceiling. Jane tries a different tact, asking Amusa what there is to be so
afraid of. She reminds him that he was the very officer who confiscated the costumes last month from the
“cult leaders,” and if the “juju” didn’t hurt him at that time, then it cannot possibly hurt him now. Avoiding
looking directly at Jane, Amusa acknowledges that he did arrest the ringleaders, but that, out of respect, he
never touched the egungun (ancestral ritual) garments and masks.
Exasperated, Simon tells no one in particular that the whole thing is hopeless because when a native acts like
this, there is nothing one can do; at this rate, they are likely to miss the best part of the ball. He tells Amusa
simply to write down his report on a notepad and then he can go. The Pilkingses retreat offstage. While
Amusa writes his report, the sound of drumming coming from the village grows louder. Amusa pauses
concernedly, then finishes his report and leaves the bungalow.
Simon returns and reads the report. Calling Jane back into the room, Simon reads the report to her: Amusa has
heard that a prominent chief, the Elesin Oba, is to “commit death” that evening as part of a native custom.
Interpreting the phrase “commit death” as murder, Simon decides to have the man, and anyone else involved,
arrested. Expressing relief that they will not have to miss the fancy-dress ball, Jane mockingly imitates
Amusa’s earlier behavior. Then she asks Simon if he should talk to the chief before locking him up. The
question irritates Simon, who seems to notice the sound of drumming for the first time, commenting that the
natives always find some excuse for making a lot of noise. He summons Joseph, their house servant. Simon
asks Joseph if he is Christian. When Joseph answers positively, Simon wants to know if his Yoruban ritual
costume bothers Joseph. Joseph tells Simon that the outfit has no power. Relieved at this apparent evidence of
“sanity,” Simon then asks Joseph to tell him honestly, as a Christian, what is going on in the village. Joseph
says that the chief is going to kill himself in keeping with native law and custom. The King died the previous
month, but before the community can bury him, the Elesin, as the King’s Chief Horseman, must also die so
as to accompany the King into the afterworld. Simon admits that he has already clashed with the Elesin some
years back when he helped the Elesin’s son go away to medical school in England. The Elesin had opposed
it, but Simon helped Olunde, the son, “escape.” Simon offhandedly mentions that he has not yet responded to
Olunde’s last letter. Jane asks if Olunde was the chief’s eldest son, and Joseph confirms this, adding that the
Elesin was so upset because the eldest son is not supposed to travel away from the land. Jane states that
Olunde would become the Elesin (king’s horseman) to the next king. Joseph agrees and tells her that if this
Elesin Oba had died before the king, then his eldest son would have had to take his place in that evening’s
ritual. This leads Jane and Simon to consider the natives. Jane notes that they are all secretive, but Simon
objects that they will yap about anything. Nevertheless, Simon tells Jane that all natives are sly, devious
bastards, upon which Joseph stiffens and requests permission to leave the room. Simon assents, telling Joseph
that he had forgotten he was in the room at all.
Summary and Analysis: Act II 8
After Joseph leaves the room, Jane gently scolds Simon, telling him that he must watch his language. The
word “bastard,” she informs him, is particularly insulting to the natives. Simon asks her since when did she
become an anthropologist? He comments that he thought the extended family system meant that there were no
bastards in the community. Suddenly the drumming increases in volume. Jane wonders if the drumming has
anything to do with what is going on in the village. Simon calls Joseph back in and asks him, again using an
insulting tone of voice and referring to Joseph’s conversion to Christianity. Visibly offended, Joseph tells
Jane that he is confused because the drumming sounds both like the death of a great chief and the wedding of
a great chief. Simon tells Joseph to go back to the kitchen, upon which Jane again begins to scold her
husband. She tells him that the missionaries that preceded the colonial administration in West Africa did a
thorough job of converting the natives to Christianity, such that they are easily offended by any negative
allusion to their faith. Jane says she would not be surprised if Joseph gave his notice. Simon tells his wife that
she is being ridiculous. Jane offers to go make supper since they are clearly going to miss the ball. Simon,
however, refuses to skip out on the night’s entertainment, saying that it is the first bit of fun that the European
club has organized in over a year. Simon summons Joseph and orders him to deliver a note to Sergeant
Amusa. Joseph sulks, and Simon relents, apologizing for his earlier unchristian comments. After Joseph
leaves the bungalow, Simon tells Jane they are going to the ball after all. He has directed Amusa to lock up
the king’s horseman in his study, where none of his accomplices will think to look for him. Then Simon
reveals to Jane that the Prince of England, who has been touring the British colonies, will be attending the ball
that night, and this is precisely why the Pilkingses cannot miss the occasion. Chatting about the ball, they
prepare to leave, and the lights fade on the scene.
Scene Two is set entirely in the District Officer’s bungalow. In contrast with the lively, communal
marketplace, the bungalow is an isolated, autonomous, single-family dwelling provided for a colonial
administrator and his wife—that is, for the British government official in charge of the colony. Jane and Simon
Pilkings are, in some ways, typical of British colonizers in their disdain for or ignorance of native culture and
traditions. For recreation they go to their club, a racially exclusive place for Europeans—mostly colonial
authorities and the occasional European explorer—to spend time with each other. The club may have native
servants, but it never allows the natives to join as members. The club typically provides the European
colonizers with a place to “escape” to, to complain about the natives, the weather, and their duties as local
authorities. While Simon expresses sheer contempt for and ignorance of the Yoruban culture, kinship system,
and spirituality, Jane appears more sensitive and fair-minded in her attention to Joseph’s and Amusa’s
feelings. Their disdain for Yoruban culture and traditions is epitomized by the fact that they have donned
egungun masks—ritual masks that represent the spirits of dead ancestors—on a whim, to win a prize at a
fancy-dress ball. They simply do not understand—or seek to understand—the seriousness of the costumes they
are wearing.
Two additional African characters are introduced in this scene, but neither of them seem to belong to the
community of the Yoruban marketplace. Sergeant Amusa is a Muslim, and this indicates that Amusa or his
family have converted from a traditional Western African religion to Islam during the historically earlier wave
of Muslim colonizers. Amusa functions as a sort of native middleman. In other words, he has a foot in both
worlds, the African and the Western. He works for the British colonial government, policing the more unruly,
less civilized natives—those who hold onto their traditional culture and religion. Scholarship on colonialism
has demonstrated that the British viewed their Muslim subjects more positively than they did those
“primitive” peoples who followed animist, polytheistic, or “pagan” spiritual traditions. Islam, like
Christianity, is a monotheistic, text-based tradition; thus, in the colonial social hierarchy, the British would
view Amusa as slightly more civilized than the unconverted villagers of Oyo, and they would be more likely
to trust him in a role of mid-level authority. And yet, Amusa demonstrates that although he upholds British
colonial law and is willing to discipline and punish the local people accordingly, he still has one foot in their
world as well. He is horrified by the disrespect of Yoruban culture and tradition that the Pilkingses
demonstrate by donning the ritual costumes for a fancy-dress ball. Though he has converted to Islam and
Summary and Analysis: Act II 9
willingly subjected himself to Western colonial power, he still fears and respects Yoruban spiritual traditions
because he retains a cultural affinity with the local community. And, no matter how Westernized or
“civilized” Amusa may become, the white colonizers will never accept him as one of their own. As a black
African, even though he appears to have repudiated his culture, Amusa will always be subject to the
dehumanizing discrimination with which the British treated the colonized peoples.
Like Amusa, the house-servant Joseph occupies a middle rung on the ladder of British colonial social
hierarchy. Having been Christianized by the missionaries that preceded European colonial powers in Africa,
Joseph rejects all traditional Yoruban beliefs and customs. This elevates him to a nearly-civilized status in the
eyes of the Pilkingses. Joseph was raised in Yoruban culture; hence, he functions as a “native informant” for
the Pilkingses. “Native informant” is a term from the field of Cultural Anthropology referring to a person
who is born and raised in one culture—typically non-Western—and who translates and explains the
non-Western culture’s traditions, beliefs, and practices to the members of another culture (usually, to Western
anthropologists). However, in spite of Joseph’s Christian faith and his role as a cultural translator or “native
informant,” he, like Amusa, will never be fully accepted by the Pilkingses or other British colonizers because
he is a black African and considered racially inferior. Also, Joseph’s uncritical embrace of the Christian faith
seems in some ways childish and naïve to Simon, who steadfastly follows a secular creed in his personal and
political life, as evidenced by his utter lack of respect for all faiths throughout the play. In the colonial
mindset, religion signifies irrationality and secularism signifies rationality. Hence, Simon’s secularism sets
him apart from (and, in his mind, elevates him above) Amusa, Joseph, and the villagers of Oyo, all of whom
follow a religion.
Summary and Analysis: Act III
New Characters
Two constables accompanying Sergeant Amusa.
A group of young girls who have been attending to the Elesin’s new bride.
Scene Three begins back in the market, where a cloth stall has been converted into a lavish tent, the entrance
of which is covered in rich cloths. The market women back onto the empty stage as a group, pursued by
Sergeant Amusa and two constables who are waving their batons. When they get closer to the tent, the women
take a determined stand and begin taunting the policemen. Amusa tells them he is there on official business.
Calling him the white man’s eunuch, a woman retorts that they too are there on official business, but it isn’t
something Amusa would understand. Another woman tugs at one of the constable’s batons and jokes that
what is in his shorts is what really matters. They laughingly tell each other that the constable has nothing
between his legs. Attempting to preserve some dignity, Amusa orders the women to clear the road. One
woman fires back pointedly that it was Amusa’s father who built the road, implying that Amusa has deserted
his culture. Another tells Amusa to go tell the white man to come himself. Amusa gestures towards the tent
and tells the women that the British colonial government has decided that this sort of ritual practice must stop.
A woman asserts that the king’s horseman will prove himself greater than the laws of white strangers tonight.
Just then, Iyaloja comes out of the tent and asks why Amusa comes to disturb the happiness of the
community. Amusa tells her that it is his duty to arrest Elesin for criminal intent. Iyaloja replies that he has no
right to prevent Elesin from performing his duty. She explains to Amusa that the Elesin is enjoying his
wedding night. At this, some of the women start jeering at Amusa again, insinuating that he knows nothing of
what should happen on a wedding night. When Amusa asks Iyaloja to stop the women from insulting him
further, several young girls push through the crowd and begin ridiculing and upbraiding him. The girls say
that Amusa is cheeky and impertinent to intrude where he is not welcome and talk so rudely to their mothers.
They surround the two constables, snatch their batons, and begin to wield them threateningly. The girls knock
Summary and Analysis: Act III 10
the hats right off the constables’ heads. Then, some of the girls begin to play-act, to the great amusement of
the market women. Aping the British as if at the club or a party, the girls outdo each other in gestures of
exaggerated politeness, overwrought English accents, and empty chatter. Two girls put on the constables’
hats, bow, and greet one another. One asks the other what she thinks of the natives. The other girl replies that
the natives are restless, even difficult, but she is coping. At the encouragement of the tittering audience of
market women, the girls continue. Still in character, one girl says that all natives are liars, and the other
agrees. The play-acting girls affectionately call each other “old chap” and discuss the weather, whisky, and
golfing. One of them bellows for Sergeant Amusa, who has been so taken by the mimicry that he actually
obeys the voice of the girl and snaps to attention. The women burst out laughing at Amusa all over again.
Finally, defeated and humiliated, Amusa and his constables retreat.
Once the policemen have left, the women clap their hands together in wonder, asking one another if they have
ever seen anything so wonderful as their daughters’ fierce defense and clever mimicry. One of the mothers
asks her daughter if she learned to do that in school. Another shudders at the memory that she nearly kept her
daughter from attending school. One woman tells the others that the next time a white man sets foot in the
market, she will just set her daughter after him! At this, a woman bursts into a joyful song, and the rest of the
women begin dancing around the girls. At this moment, Elesin appears holding a stained white cloth and
announces that the union of life is complete. The drums are heard in the distance as the new bride stands shyly
at the doorway of the tent. Paying attention to the messages transmitted by the “talking drums,” Elesin
declares that the king’s dog and favorite horse have been killed and his time of death now also approaches.
He turns to his new wife and reminds her that she must stay with him to the end, in order to close his eyes. He
tells everyone that he has chosen to live his last moments in the market because it is the heart of life, a
swarming hive where he has known love and laughter away from the palace. Continuing to speak in a tragic,
poetic manner, the Elesin falls into a state of semi-hypnosis: his eyes begin to glaze, and his voice grows
breathless. He speaks of a gateway through which he must pass. He moves down among the women and
begins to dance. The women sing a dirge—a song of grief that accompanies funeral rites. The Praise Singer,
ever faithful to the king’s horseman, asks if Elesin can hear his voice. The Elesin says he can. The Praise
Singer then begins speaking on behalf of the dead King. In the voice of the dead King, the Praise Singer
instructs Elesin that if he cannot come to the afterworld in time, to send a message with the King’s favorite
horse or dog, and the King will ride on without the Elesin. In a trance-like state, Elesin replies that he trusts no
horse or dog to deliver messages between a king and his horseman. He tells the dead King/the Praise Singer
that he will not get lost, nor will he forsake his duty. The dead King answers that he fears that Elesin will not
successfully make the journey from the world of the living to the gateway of the afterlife where the King
waits for him. With a drowsy voice, the Elesin says that he has freed himself from the earth and that strange
voices are guiding his feet. Speaking as himself, now, the Praise Singer closes the scene with a final
monologue addressed to the Elesin, who has fallen so deeply into his death-trance that he no longer shows
signs of any awareness of his surroundings as he continues to dance around. The Praise Singer’s words are
full of love, honor, and respect for the Elesin. Finally, the Praise Singer appears to break down completely in
grief while the women’s dirge grows louder. The lights fade and the scene ends.
In defiance of Amusa’s authority as a native policeman, the market women taunt him with insults of a sexual
nature. They repeatedly suggest that he is impotent and that he doesn’t understand the “official business” of
a wedding night. That the women defame Amusa’s manliness and virility by calling him the “white man’s
eunuch” suggests that the British colonial powers have symbolically castrated Amusa by making him their
pawn in the “Native Administration.” Even though Amusa wields some power as native constable, the
women clearly consider this to be a position of powerlessness, impotence, and dishonor. By insulting Amusa
in this manner, the women imply a contrast between Amusa and the Elesin, who not only is at that moment
demonstrating his virility and manliness by consummating his marriage, but also will perform a heroic duty to
the community by undertaking ritual suicide. In contrast, Amusa’s submission to colonial power has deprived
him of the capacity carry on the Yoruban culture. When the woman pointedly reminds Amusa that his father
Summary and Analysis: Act III 11
built the road that he stands on, she implies that he has deserted his culture. The women twist this
metaphorically into Amusa’s inability to sexually procreate. His subservience to the British prevents him
from being a “real man” in the Yoruban sense of the term. The emasculation of all three constables is
complete when a bunch of young girls take away their batons, surround them, and threaten and mock them.
The representatives of colonial authority are forced to retreat with their tails between their legs.
In this scene, too, the motif of cultural clash arises in the conflicting definitions of the terms “official
business” and “duty.” Amusa tells Iyaloja that it is his “duty” (to the British colonial government) to prevent
the suicide ritual from taking place; Iyaloja replies that it is the Elesin’s “duty” (to the community of Oyo) to
ensure that the ritual takes place. The audience is left to wonder, which version of “duty” should take
precedence? Who decides which version of “duty” is more important? In fact, in situations of colonialism,
the imbalance of power is such that the colonizers’ definition of “duty”—determined by British colonial law
and administrators like Simon Pilkings in this case—has much more authority than that of the colonized
natives. Likewise, although the Elesin successfully completes the “official business” of his wedding night, as
evidenced by the stained white cloth he carries out of the tent and displays, ultimately, the “official business”
of British colonialism holds more authority at this historical moment in time. The way that this power
imbalance might play out creates a mood of suspense and dramatic tension, as the audience is led to question
whose will is stronger—that of Pilkings or the king’s horseman.
An essential irony of colonialism is that it often creates the conditions under which the natives can liberate
themselves. For example, it is their English colonial education that enables the girls to perform so accurately
their fierce mimicry of the British. Historically speaking, the schoolgirls are the next generation of colonized
natives: they will grow up to become the educated, “Westernized,” nationalist elite. They benefit from the
educational opportunities that colonialism has brought—their command of the English language far surpasses
Amusa’s, for instance—but they are also critical and resentful of colonialism and the British occupation. Thus,
their mimicry is not a flattering adoption of English traits but rather a menacing critique of English claims to
authority over their land, culture, and people. The girls will never be accepted by the colonizers as “real”
English subjects or citizens. Their performance reinforces the fact that simply imitating the English will not
make the schoolgirls more English; rather, their parodic demonstration of Englishness suggests precisely that
they are not English, never will be, and may not even wish to be. This realization is a blow to Amusa, who
imitates the British in an attempt to empower himself. More abstractly, the girls’ performance of mimicry is a
bigger blow to the English colonial psyche, which depends for its existence on the widespread, chauvinistic
belief that English culture and society is naturally superior to non-English and especially to non-Western
cultures and societies. Through mimicry, the girls show the cultural follies of the British.
The scene ends with hints of the tragedy to come, as the king’s horseman commences his ritual transition
from the world of the living to the world of the ancestors. Elesin intends to dance himself into a death-trance,
a hypnotic condition akin to spirit-possession that is brought on by Elesin’s strong will. The Praise Singer
also plays in important role in this ritual: he becomes the voice of the dead king, questioning Elesin’s
intentions and confirming that Elesin will go through with the deed. The scene ends not with dialogue and
action—typical features of Western drama—but with music and dancing, which are prominent elements in
traditional African drama.
Summary and Analysis: Act IV
New Characters
The Prince of England and various other guests at the fancy-dress ball.
The Resident: A civilian colonial administrator who is Simon Pilkings’ superior.
Summary and Analysis: Act IV 12
Aide-de-Camp: A military assistant to the Resident.
Olunde: The eldest son of the Elesin Oba.
The fancy-dress ball is in full swing in the great hall of the Residency, a sort of “palace” for the Resident,
who functions as the colonial stand-in for British royal power. Various guests dressed in a variety of costumes
anxiously await the appearance of the crown Prince, who has been on a tour of British colonial holdings. The
Prince makes his appearance at the ball as the guest of honor. The Resident proceeds to introduce, selectively,
various couples to the Prince, including the Pilkingses. The Prince is fascinated with the Pilkingses’
traditional garb, and they proceed to show him the details of the costume and demonstrate the dance steps,
clumsily and inaccurately imitating the sounds of the egungun ritual participants. A footservant enters with a
note intended for Simon that the Resident intercepts. Having read it, the Resident interrupts the Pilkingses’
performance for the Prince and pulls Simon aside. The note, of course, refers to the ritual suicide that is to
take place. The Resident expresses his concerns: first, that Simon has not properly done his job controlling the
natives and second, that a riot might erupt on the very evening of the Prince’s visit—such an incident would
be quite a disaster since Oyo is supposed to be a secure colony of His Majesty. Just then, Amusa and the two
constables appear. The Resident mistakes them for the ring-leaders of the riot, but Simon admits that they are,
in fact, native policemen. The Resident takes in their sloppy appearance and absent-mindedly wonders what
happened to their uniform hats and sashes. Instructing Simon to send him a report first thing in the morning,
the Resident returns to attend to the Prince and other guests at the ball. Dismissing Amusa from service
because he still cannot bear to look at Simon while he is wearing the egungun outfit and mask, Simon runs out
of the hall followed by the two constables, leaving Jane behind.
A young black man dressed in a Western suit emerges from the shadows at this time. Startled, Jane asks who
he is. Olunde apologizes and explains that he seeks the District Officer. Jane recognizes him as the Elesin’s
eldest son, whom Simon helped “escape” Oyo four years ago to attend medical school in England. She greets
Olunde warmly, telling him he looks well. Olunde takes in her costume, tells her she looks well too, and asks
why she is desecrating an ancestral mask. Jane expresses her disappointment that Olunde would take such a
stance. Olunde responds that, having lived among her people for four years, he has realized that the English
have no respect for what they do not understand. Jane asks him if he did not find his stay in England at all
Olunde tells her that he has been impressed by the English people’s courage and conduct during the war. This
prompts Jane to provide Olunde with a war story of her own. Although as remote a colony as that of Oyo in
Nigeria has not been much affected by the events of World War II, there is the occasional bit of excitement.
Jane tells Olunde about the time a ship was intentionally blown up in the harbor, not through enemy action but
by the captain of the ship himself. Jane says that the captain was obligated to blow up the ship because it had
become dangerous to the surrounding ships and the city itself. The captain blew himself up with the ship
deliberately because someone had to remain on board to light the fuse. Olunde tells Jane that he finds the story
of the captain’s self-sacrifice to be inspiring—an affirmative commentary on life. Jane tells him that such a
viewpoint is nonsense, that life should never be thrown away.
Olunde changes the subject, repeating his desire to locate Simon Pilkings. He tells Jane that he has always
found her to be more understanding than her husband and that he needs her help to talk with Simon. Jane asks
Olunde if he knows what Simon is trying to do for him and for his community. Not waiting for his reply, she
asks Olunde how he happened to arrive at just this time. Olunde explains that he received a telegram a few
weeks earlier that the King had died, and he realized that he had to return home at once to bury his father. Jane
tells him that Simon is trying to prevent Olunde from having to go through the agony of losing his father.
Olunde explains that he does not view the loss of his father as an agonizing event, but rather as an act of honor
that will bring peace of mind and the veneration of the community. He tells Jane that Simon is wasting his
Summary and Analysis: Act IV 13
time. Olunde wishes to warn Simon not to prevent the ritual suicide or he will incur the enmity of the entire
community. Shocked, Jane protests that the ritual suicide is a barbaric and feudal custom. In reply, Olunde
simply points to where the guests at the ball are fawning over the Crown Prince and asks Jane what she calls
that spectacle. Jane tells him sincerely that it is British-style therapy, the preservation of sanity in the midst of
chaos. Olunde replies that others might call it decadence. He states that he admires the way that the white
races have perfected the art of survival; if only they would permit other cultures to survive in their own way as
well. Jane retorts that ritual suicide could hardly be considered cultural survival. Olunde again has a ready
reply: he tells her that the young English soldiers in the war are committing nothing less than mass suicide and
that the British media misrepresents these bloody defeats as strategic victories in order to coerce the British
people into supporting the war. Olunde has spent part of the past four years working in military hospitals in
England. He has learned the truth about the war firsthand from the wounded and dying English soldiers. Apart
from the war, Olunde tells Jane, he has seen nothing of English people that gives them the right to pass
judgment on other cultures. Jane pauses, thinks, hesitates. Then she asks Olunde not to forsake his medical
training because she believes he will make an excellent, sympathetic, and competent doctor. Olunde is
surprised that she would suggest that he might give up his medical training and informs her that after he buries
his father, he will return to England. Then he takes her outside so that they can listen to the drum sounds
swelling in the distance. He dispassionately tells her that the change in rhythm means that it is over: his father
is dead. Jane screams at Olunde that he is callous to be able to announce his father’s death with such lack of
emotion. She screams that he is just a savage like all the others. This calls the attention of the Aide-de-Camp,
who rushes out of the Residency. The Aide-de-Camp confirms that Jane is safe and needs no protection from
Olunde. Jane recovers herself, and the Aide-de-Camp, at Jane’s request, returns indoors. Olunde asks to
leave, for he would like to see his father’s body, but Jane wants to speak with him further. She desires to
understand how Olunde can so calmly accept his father’s suicide. He tells her that due to his medical training,
he has seen death too often. Jane says that it has to be more than that—it must be part of the many things the
British do not grasp about Yoruban culture, and Olunde agrees, adding that he has been mourning the death of
his father ever since he heard that the King died. In a sense, he has already come to terms with it and has come
home in order to perform the rites required of him as eldest son of the king’s horseman. Olunde tells Jane that
he did not want to do anything that might jeopardize the welfare of his people. Jane thanks him for talking
with her.
Just as she is shaking hands good night with Olunde, some footsteps and voices are heard approaching in the
background. Simon strides into view and orders his wife to find the Aide-de-Camp. Jane runs off, and Olunde
greets Simon politely. Simon is visibly speechless at first; then he tells Olunde that he had thought Olunde
was still in England. When Olunde tells Simon that he must go take care of his father’s body, Simon hedges,
telling Olunde to wait while he finds someone to escort him. The Aide-de-Camp comes out of the Residency
at that moment, asking if anything is wrong. Taking him aside, Simon tells him to get the keys to a storeroom
at the Residency and to deploy a detachment of soldiers just outside the Residency grounds so they can
prevent any possible “situation” from reaching the ears of the Prince. After a period of uncertainty in which
Olunde again tries to take his leave and Jane wonders aloud what is going on, the Elesin’s voice is heard
yelling in the background. Elesin demands that the white men take their hands off his body. Suddenly, an
explosion of rage is heard off-stage, and Elesin, wearing handcuffs, runs in the direction of Jane and Olunde.
Elesin stops dead when he sees his eldest son. Immediately grasping the dire situation, Olunde stands as still
as a statue and refuses to recognize his father, deliberately staring over the top of Elesin’s head. For several
moments father and son are frozen like this. Then, inspecting Olunde from side to side, Elesin speaks his
son’s name and begs him not to be blinded by the sight of his father. Elesin collapses at his son’s feet.
Olunde slowly looks down at the Elesin and states that he has no father. He walks off, and the Elesin lies on
the ground sobbing.
Scene Four begins with a strange reversal of the schoolgirls’ act of mimicry. The Pilkingses, wearing the
egungun masks and outfits, are clumsily performing the ancestral ritual dance to entertain the British crown
Summary and Analysis: Act IV 14
Prince. This act of mimicry differs from the schoolgirls’ not only due to its sheer artlessness but also because
the Pilkingses are arrogantly attempting to reproduce, authentically, a ritual that they have no interest in truly
understanding. All along, it has been demonstrated that they have no respect for traditional Yoruban ways of
life, and now they resemble clowns performing for an important guest who is merely charmed by their exotic
costumes. At this same moment, another traditional Yoruban ritual is taking place, which Simon must leave
the party to prevent. His intervention in Elesin’s ritual suicide occurs offstage, but his success at stopping the
ritual serves only to underscore the fact that he does not approve of or respect what he considers to be the
barbaric customs of a feudal community.
The Pilkingses’ lack of understanding of cultural difference is articulated in this scene by Jane, during her
conversation with Olunde. Olunde’s admiration for the British naval captain who sacrificed his life in
blowing up a dangerous ship remains in keeping with his perspective on the propriety of his father’s ritual
suicide. As he informs Jane, he has already come to terms with his father’s impending death. Indeed, as the
eldest son, he is obligated to perform the same ritual when the next king dies. He has a wider understanding
that sometimes an individual chooses to sacrifice himself for the sake of his community or culture. Each of
these situations—the captain’s blowing himself up with the ship and the king’s horseman’s committing ritual
suicide—involves a man of unbendable will who deliberately sacrifices himself for the preservation of the
larger community. Olunde tries to draw a similarity between the ritual suicide of the king’s horseman and the
“mass suicide” of young British soldiers going off to fight World War II. But Jane remains unable or
unwilling to understand either event, and her blanket condemnation of any form of suicide demonstrates her
narrow-minded selfishness and her incapacity to comprehend or accept other lifestyles and perspectives.
Ironically, having been rigorously educated in England, Olunde’s English is flawless and his argumentation
far superior to Jane’s. Like the schoolgirls in the previous scene, Olunde represents the educated native who
has returned home to protect and defend his culture against the destruction and oppression wrought by the
colonial occupation. His resentment of the Pilkingses is expressed palpably when he asks Jane why she is
desecrating an egungun mask by wearing it. Jane, on the other hand, reveals her true feelings about the
Yoruban people when, in an unguarded moment, she screams that Olunde is just a savage like all the others.
She reveals a common colonial British view of the non-Western peoples who populate the British empire.
Olunde’s refusal to recognize his father shows how deeply Elesin has wounded his community by failing to
complete the ritual suicide. The Elesin is a changed man. No longer held aloft on the shoulders of the people,
pursued by Praise Singers and drummers, Elesin runs into view shacked in chains. His collapse at his son’s
feet signals a transfer of power from the king’s horseman to the English-educated youth. Olunde’s pride and
his disillusionment are conveyed by his denial that he has a father. Elesin has not fulfilled his promise to the
community, and consequently, he is not worthy of his son’s recognition. Elesin is not even as honorable, in
Olunde’s mind, as the English naval captain who blew himself up with the ship.
Summary and Analysis: Act V
Elesin stands imprisoned in a cell looking out through the bars, his wrists chained together in thick iron
bracelets. His new bride sits on the ground just outside the cell; she does not look up. Two guards vigilantly
watch Elesin from deeper inside the cell. Simon enters and sits down, leaning his back against the cell bars.
For a moment everything is quiet as Simon and Elesin together contemplate the night sky. Simon comments
on the peaceful night. Elesin corrects him, asserting instead that the night is anything but peaceful. Simon has
shattered the peace of the world forever. Simon points out that he can bear to lose a night’s sleep as the price
of saving the Elesin’s life. Again the Elesin contradicts Simon, saying that he has, in fact, destroyed the
Elesin’s life. The conversation goes on like this for a while: where Simon sees the accomplishment of his
duty, Elesin sees only disaster and the shattering of cosmic harmony. Elesin reminds Simon that he stole his
eldest son and sent him away to England in order to turn Olunde into the image of an Englishman. To Elesin,
Summary and Analysis: Act V 15
this proves that Simon has always plotted to destroy the foundations of Yoruban culture, to tilt the world off
its course. Elesin states poignantly that he never guessed that white skin covered the future of his people,
preventing them from foreseeing the disruption of their world. He proudly tells Simon that when Olunde
disowned him earlier, he knew then that his son would avenge his shame. Simon informs the Elesin that he
has spoken with Olunde. Olunde sends his apology and requests to see his father one more time before he
returns to England. Simon has told Olunde to come to visit Elesin later when the town is a little quieter.
Bitterly, Elesin answers that Simon advises everyone—though on what authority, he cannot say. Hearing Jane
call him from off-stage, Simon leaves.
Elesin gazes at his new wife for a while and then speaks to her. Tenderly, he tells her that first he blamed the
white man for the catastrophe, and then he blamed the gods. Now, he wants to blame her for sapping his will
to die. Perhaps, he says, her warmth and youth were what caused his footsteps to turn to lead in the world of
the living. He might have shaken off his longing for her at the time appointed for his death, but the white man
had entered the room and defiled and disrupted the ritual. At this moment, Simon and Jane return. Jane is
asking Simon to let in a visitor to see the Elesin. Apparently, Olunde has sent a note to Jane petitioning her to
beg her husband to allow Iyaloja to visit Elesin. Simon perceives a subtle threat in the note from Olunde, who
has written that the only way to prevent rioting in Oyo tomorrow is to allow the mother of the market to see
Elesin tonight. Annoyed, Simon asks Elesin if he wants a visitor. Although he knows that the visitor is
Iyaloja, come to berate and curse him for failing to fulfill his ritual obligation to the community, Elesin
exhibits an eagerness for abuse. He bids Simon to bring Iyaloja to him. Simon returns with Iyaloja and
demands that Elesin promise as a man of honor not to try anything foolish. Bitterly, Elesin tells Simon that he
has stolen away all the honor the Elesin had; in fact, colonialism in general has stolen away the honor of the
Elesin’s people. Offended that Elesin would bring politics into this matter, Simon decides he cannot trust
Elesin or Iyaloja after all. He makes Iyaloja stand in one place, distant enough from the cell to prevent her
from passing anything to Elesin, and he calls on the guards to blow their whistles if she should move. He and
Jane go off together.
As anticipated, Iyaloja has no words of pity or compassion for Elesin—only bitter curses and scorn. She
reminds him of her earlier warning that he not commit any deeds that would taint the lives of those he leaves
behind. As the bride sobs in the background, Iyaloja asks Elesin how he could be so bold as to create new life.
She tells him his honor is nothing but hollow, impotent words. He has brought abomination upon the entire
community. Elesin initially submits, acknowledging that his powers deserted him, that his voice lost strength.
Then, he defends himself, saying that Iyaloja herself witnessed his attempts to regain control of his will upon
the white man’s intrusion on the ritual. He tells her he could do nothing to save himself at that moment.
Iyaloja counters that Elesin has betrayed the community that treated him like royalty. She reminds him how
the people fed him the finest foods and called him leader, only to have been misled by him. Elesin can hardly
take more of this; he tells her he has heard enough, that he is burdened by shame. He tells her that he needs
understanding—even he does not understand what has taken place. He states that an alien hand polluted the life
source of the culture and shattered his mind’s resolution; his will was squelched by an alien race because, at
the crucial moment, the blasphemous thought occurred to him that the gods may have had a hand in the
intervention of the stranger. Iyaloja tells him that he can make any excuse he likes but excuses are not fitting
for someone perceived as a hero and a leader. Elesin abstractly beseeches the world to forgive him. Iyaloja
then informs him that she has brought with her a burden and asks him a question in a riddle: in the cycle of
life, should a parent shoot wither up in order to feed sap to its young? Elesin affirms that the parent shoot
should give up its sap for its young. Iyaloja then informs him that sometimes the cycle of life is reversed.
Clearly agitated now, she steps beyond the space that Simon had delineated for her. The guards whistle, and
the Pilkingses race in asking what has happened.
Simon tells Iyaloja that it is time for her to leave and that she will not be allowed to return. Iyaloja informs
Simon that she has brought a “burden” to the gates outside. Elesin tells Simon to go the gates and bring
inside whatever he finds there. Iyaloja says darkly that the community has sent a new messenger on to meet
Summary and Analysis: Act V 16
their dead King in the after-world. At this moment, the Aide-de-Camp runs in and reports to Simon that a
group of women are approaching, chanting as they climb the hill to the Residency. Jane says that Olunde
mentioned something about this in his letter. Recollecting the difficult position of the horseman’s son, Simon
says that he must get Olunde out of the town as soon as possible. Iyaloja tells him that Olunde will come soon
enough to bid farewell to his father. The Aide-de-Camp asks Simon what he should do about the “invasion”
of women. Then he observes that the women appear to be peaceful. Simon agrees to let them in. Addressing
Simon as “ghostly one,” Elesin tells him he has a message to send to the dead King and expresses his
gratitude that he can at least perform this deed. The women enter, singing a dirge and swaying from side to
side. They carry on their shoulders a long wrapped object, which they place on the ground where Iyaloja was
standing earlier. The Praise Singer and the drummers accompany them, playing and chanting. Elesin asks to
be let out of the cell so that he may perform his duty, but Simon asserts that he will not allow it. The Praise
Singer begins speaking in the voice of the dead King again, asking Elesin Oba why he has not come to meet
him at the gates of the after-world. In the background, the sound of the women’s dirge rises and falls,
punctuating the Praise Singer’s intonations. The dead King instructs Elesin to release his “shadow,” the
substitute messenger, to fulfill the Elesin’s rightful duty. Iyaloja moves forward and unwraps the long object
lying on the floor. She tells the Elesin to look upon the new courier and companion of the dead King. Rolled
up in the cloth is Olunde’s dead body. Iyaloja tells Elesin that Olunde could not bear to lose his family’s
honor and has prevented such a loss with his own death. The son has taken on the role of the father. The
Praise Singer intones that Elesin has sat with folded arms and watched while evil strangers have tilted the
world off its course, so his son and heir has taken the burden on himself. Elesin has been listening to and
watching the proceedings silently. Suddenly he flings one arm around his neck and swiftly strangles himself
with the chains on his wrists. Though the guards rush forward to prevent this, Elesin dies instantly. Simon
races into the cell to attempt to resuscitate the body while the women’s dirge continues in the background.
Iyaloja asks Simon why he strains himself at such a thankless task. Exhausted and resigned, Simon ceases to
work on Elesin’s dead body and asks if this is what Iyaloja wanted. Iyaloja tells him that it is he who has
brought about this turn of events. As Simon bends to close Elesin’s eyes, Iyaloja screams at him to stop. She
turns to the bride and calls to her. The girls picks up a little earth, calmly walks into the cell, and pours it over
Elesin’s eyelids. Iyaloja’s last words are addressed to no one in particular. She commands: Forget the dead,
forget the living, and think only about the unborn. Iyaloja and the bride leave together. The lights fade upon
the women who are left behind, and the sound of the dirge increases in the darkness.
At the commencement of Scene Five, Elesin accuses Simon of many things. He says that Simon has shattered
the peace of the night, has ruined Elesin’s life, has plotted to destroy the Yoruban culture, and even that
Simon has no authority to advise anyone in Oyo to do anything. These accusations can all be interpreted as
indictments against the unethical British occupation of Western Nigeria and against colonialism in general.
From the perspective of the colonized, here represented by Elesin, colonialism both destroys the individual
and rocks the foundations of the indigenous culture. Elesin’s statement that he never thought that white skin
would cover the future of his people suggests that colonialism has such deep impact on the culture of the
colonized peoples that their future is forever altered. This impact can be seen, for instance, in the behavior and
attitudes of the schoolgirls and Olunde, all of whom have been given an English education that changes how
they perceive the world and interact within it. Figuratively speaking, for native children, receiving a colonial
education can be seen as taking on white skin, a veneer of English culture beneath which lies a deeper
affiliation with the indigenous culture. Over time, as Elesin (or perhaps Wole Soyinka) fears, future Yoruban
generations may experience the fading of that affiliation and the loss of shared cultural memory.
The question of who is at fault for Elesin’s failure to complete the ritual becomes relevant when considering
the evils of colonialism. It is easy for audiences to point to the cultural conflict and imbalance of power as the
primary reason that the Yoruban world is tilted off its axis. The turning point in the play has occurred
offstage, so it is unclear what exactly happened in the bridal/death chamber to cause the ritual suicide to be a
failure. Elesin admits that even he does not understand it. One interpretation is that the intrusion of Simon
Summary and Analysis: Act V 17
Pilkings at the crucial point in the ritual was the cause for Elesin’s failure. This interpretation seems to place
all the blame for the upsetting of the Yoruban cosmological world on the European colonizers. However, the
author Wole Soyinka himself has rejected this perspective. In prefaces to and commentaries on this play,
Soyinka asks his readers not to make the mistake of reductively analyzing the play as simply a cultural
conflict between British colonizer and indigenous colonized peoples. Another interpretation is that the Elesin
was weakened at the last moment by the beauty of his bride and his longing to stay with her and continue to
enjoy the pleasures of life. Yet, when Elesin tells his new wife that he could blame her for preventing him
from completing his journey to the land of the ancestors, his words are full of ambiguities. A final
interpretation of the reason for Elesin’s failure lies in his characterization. From the beginning, he has been
established as full of vitality and love of life. Perhaps he did not want to leave the world of the living and
travel to the world of the ancestors. In other words, Elesin’s personal weakness caused him to fail in his duty
to the community. In classical Greek tragedy—which Soyinka admits to being deeply influenced by—this is
called hamartia, or the hero’s personal frailty, flaw, or mistaken judgment that causes the tragic outcome of a
story. Elesin’s tragic flaw in this case could be his fondness for living or his arrogance.
It is noteworthy that Elesin’s character has changed from Scene One to this final scene. In the beginning of
the play, he conducts himself in a proud and magisterial manner. He dances about freely, triumphantly singing
and arrogantly performing the folktale of the “Not-I bird.” By Scene Five, however, he has become one of
very people he scorned in the folktale. By the end, his fear of death and unwillingness to die instantly demote
his status in the world. The members of the community, represented by the scornful and enraged Iyaloja, look
upon Elesin as a failure. Though he does not understand what has happened, Elesin views himself as a failure.
Silenced and weighed down by the colonizer’s shackles, he is full of shame and sorrow. Though he is still
alive, Elesin’s voice and vitality have abandoned him.
Olunde’s rejection of his father in Scene Four reinforces the profundity of Elesin’s failure. In order to
redeem his family honor, and in an attempt to preserve cosmic harmony, Olunde performs the ritual suicide in
place of his father. The community accepts this action and appears to honor it by performing all the rites
necessary to send this new substitute messenger off ceremoniously to the meet the dead King at the gateway
to the after-world. Just before Olunde’s death is revealed to Elesin and the Pilkingses, the Praise Singer, again
speaking as the dead king, reproaches Elesin for not fulfilling his duty and instructs Elesin to release his
“shadow.” Having grown up in the shadow of his heroic father, Olunde has literally become the shadow of
the king’s horseman, a replacement companion to the dead king. Olunde has taken on the burden that the
father was supposed to bear. The word “burden” is used in this scene several times, with varied meanings.
The market women literally carry the heavy burden of Olunde’s corpse on their shoulders. But the
community must also bear the burden of the knowledge that their culture is irreparably damaged by what has
taken place. The town of Oyo must continue to bear the burden of British colonialism. Further, it could be
argued that Elesin cannot bear the burden of knowing that his son has died in his place, and so Elesin kills
himself at the end of the play. And finally, Simon Pilkings must live with the knowledge that, as part of the
colonial administration, he is partially responsible for what he considers the unnecessary death of two
Yoruban men. Even today, the burden of colonialism remains something that the peoples of former colonizing
nations, and those formerly colonized, must bear.
Death and the King's Horseman: Quizzes
Questions and Answers: Act I
Study Questions
1. Describe the character of Elesin Oba.
2. Who follows the Elesin Oba around in this scene, and why?
Death and the King's Horseman: Quizzes 18
3. What is the Elesin’s role in the community? How is he supposed to keep the world in balance?
4. What is the significance of the story of the “Not-I bird”?
5. How does Iyaloja react when the Elesin decides he wants to take her future daughter-in-law as his bride?
1. Elesin is vivacious and proud, as demonstrated in his performance of the folktale of the “Not-I bird.” He
has a lust for life, and his weakness for pleasure as well as his arrogance are demonstrated in the fact that he
decides to take a beautiful young girl for his bride on the very night that he is appointed to die.
2. Praise singers and drummers follow him around, dancing and singing. Additionally, the market women
swarm around him, admiring and pampering him and fulfilling his every wish. Because he is the king’s
horseman, and hence has the crucial cultural obligation to follow the King in death and thereby maintain
cosmic harmony, the community considers him a hero and treats him like royalty.
3. The Elesin is the keeper of the king’s stables. As the king’s horseman, he is the king’s companion in
death as in life. The role of the Elesin is handed down from father to son, and as someone says of the Elesin,
the duty runs in his blood. He keeps the world in balance by performing his cultural duty of committing ritual
suicide, meeting the king at the gateway of the after-world, and accompanying the king in death.
4. The “Not-I bird” is a folktale that illustrates how common people fear Death’s calling. The Elesin tells
this story in order to emphasize that he does not fear death, but rather, is willing and proud to die for his
community. The story is also entertaining, and it introduces the audience to the importance of dancing,
chanting, and singing in the Yoruban culture.
5. Iyaloja is initially affronted but quickly accommodates the Elesin’s wishes. However, she warns him not to
commit any deeds in life that will bear negatively on those he leaves behind when he is dead. Ultimately, she
appears willing to relinquish her son’s claims to the girl since it will benefit the community.
Questions and Answers: Act II
Study Questions
1. Why is Sergeant Amusa horrified that the Pilkingses have donned Yoruban ritual dress?
2. What is the “European club,” and how is it significant?
3. Why is Simon Pilkings in Africa?
4. How are Simon and Jane Pilkings similar? How are the different?
5. What do Joseph and Sergeant Amusa have in common with each other?
1. Although Sergeant Amusa is a Muslim and a native policeman, he was born and raised in Yoruban culture,
which he respects as a meaningful and viable way of life. He is horrified that the Pilkingses have so little fear
of and respect for the Yoruban religion and cultural tradition.
2. The European club is a club exclusively for Europeans in colonial Nigeria. It is significant because its
existence demonstrates that the European colonizers did not want to interact with the Africans they ruled
Questions and Answers: Act I 19
daily. For recreation they turned exclusively to each other, and the type of recreation they chose, such as the
fancy-dress ball, shows that they tried to recreate familiar aspects of European life in the colonies. The club is
also significant because it demonstrates the type of racial discrimination regularly practiced by the European
3. Simon Pilkings is in Africa because he works for the British colonial administration as the District Officer
of Oyo. He lives there with his wife and works with native policemen to rule the natives and administer
British colonial law.
4. While Simon makes no effort to understand Yoruban culture or respect Yoruban people, Jane acts more
benevolently toward Sergeant Amusa and Joseph. She advises her husband to treat the matter of the egungun
costumes delicately—something Simon is not inclined to do. Rather than yelling orders at the native servants
and underlings, Jane asks them questions with what appears to be genuine interest and concern. Jane also
reprimands her husband for his harsh language while Simon mocks Jane for taking anthropological interest in
the customs and lifestyle of the people of Oyo.
5. Joseph and Amusa are both Yoruban, and as black Africans, they share the burden of colonial racism.
Though both speak English and have been Westernized, or “civilized,” in different ways, neither will ever be
fully accepted as equals to the Europeans who come through Africa to convert them to Christianity or to rule
them under colonialism.
Questions and Answers: Act III
Study Questions
1. Why do the market women insult Amusa’s manliness?
2. How do the schoolgirls overpower Amusa and his constables?
3. What is the significance of the schoolgirls’ mimicry of Englishness?
4. Explain the competing definitions of “official business” and “duty” in this scene.
5. How does Elesin commence the suicide ritual, and who will assist him?
1. The market women insult Amusa’s manliness because they perceive that he has deserted his culture.
Rather than contribute to the Yoruban community by building roads, as his father did, or continue the culture
by participating in Yoruban beliefs or raising a Yoruban family, Amusa has joined forces with the colonial
authorities. The women metaphorically equate this choice to abandon Yoruban culture and community with a
lack of true manliness.
2. At first the school girls overpower the constables because there are more of them, and because they quickly
steal the batons and back the constables into a corner. However, their tactics become less physical and more
psychological when they begin making fun of the British, Amusa’s superiors whom he obeys and tries to
3. Through mimicry, the school girls defeat and humiliate the three constables. On a deeper level, the mimicry
is significant because it demonstrates that the girls are resentful and critical of the British rulers although they
first learned to mimic English people by attending colonial schools.
Questions and Answers: Act II 20
4. Both the native policeman and Elesin believe they are doing their duty, but these concepts of duty conflict.
The native policemen derive their sense of duty out of their occupations under the colonial government. Their
official business is to prevent the ritual suicide from happening by taking Elesin into custody. Elesin derives
his sense of duty from the pivotal cultural role of king’s horseman that he has inherited from his father as
well as from his obligations to his community to preserve cosmic harmony. His official business is divided
between consummating his marriage and leaving behind an heir, and performing the ritual suicide.
5. Elesin wills himself into the hypnotic condition of the death-trance by dancing and chanting. He has asked
his new bride to close his eyes. The Praise Singer also assists by talking with Elesin in the voice of the dead
king and then by praising the deeds and life of the Elesin as he dances around.
Questions and Answers: Act IV
Study Questions
1. How is the Pilkingses’ mimicry of the egungun ritual different from the schoolgirls’ mimicry of the
2. How is it significant that the Resident does not recognize Amusa and the constables as part of the native
police force?
3. What World War II story does Jane relate to Olunde? Why can’t Jane comprehend the ship captain’s
4. How does Olunde respond to Jane’s story, and why? What does this say about Olunde?
5. Why does Olunde deny that he has a father at the end of Scene Four?
1. The schoolgirls’ mimicry of the British demonstrates their cleverness and their resentment. The
Pilkingses’ act of mimicry is clumsy and artless. The schoolgirls have something to gain from acting
British—better treatment by the colonizers and the potential to rebel successfully. In contrast, the Pilkingses
are arrogantly attempting to reproduce, authentically, a ritual that they have no interest in truly understanding.
They gain only entertainment from their performance.
2. That the Resident doesn’t recognize the three West Africans as part of the native police force suggests that
he views all Africans—all black people—as essentially similar in their inferiority to the Europeans. This is
significant because it demonstrates the extent of the racism of colonialism. The colonizers cannot distinguish
among individual Africans and see them as unique human beings; rather, all Africans are alike, and all need to
be feared and controlled.
3. Jane tells Olunde about a World War II naval ship that has been blown up in the harbor by its captain in
order to save the other ships and the town nearby from potential hazard. She cannot comprehend the naval
captain’s duty to go down with the ship because, as she ignorantly tells Olunde, death is always unnecessary.
She simply cannot conceive of self-sacrifice for the preservation of the community.
4. Having been raised as the son of the king’s horseman, Olunde has always understood that self-sacrifice for
the greater good is an honorable and occasionally necessary action. He responds very positively to Jane’s
story because the ship’s captain has played a heroic role that is similar to that of his father. This reaction
suggests that Olunde has a strong sense of honor and self-sacrifice himself.
Questions and Answers: Act III 21
5. Like the rest of the community, Olunde believed that his father would fulfill his duty to the community. He
is so shocked and disgusted to find his father still alive that he can hardly stand to look at him. Understanding
that the honor of his family is at stake, as well as the harmony of the cosmos, he denies that he has a father.
Questions and Answers: Act V
Study Questions
1. What does Elesin accuse Simon of? What does he mean when he says that white skin covers the future of
his people?
2. Who is at fault for Elesin’s failure to fulfill his duty?
3. How has the Elesin’s character changed from Scene One to Scene Five?
4. What “burden” is brought to the cell? Who has to bear this burden?
5. Why does Olunde take upon himself the cultural obligation of the king’s horseman?
1. Elesin accuses Simon of having ruined his life and destroyed his people’s culture. When he states that
white skin covers the future of his people, he means that colonialism will continue to negatively affect his
culture. Living under the unethical authority of the British, various members of the community have taken on
a veneer of Englishness—Amusa, the schoolgirls, even Elesin’s eldest son—and this will alter the future of the
2. Simon is partially at fault, due to his role as colonial District Officer. He believes it is his duty to disrupt the
ritual suicide, and he succeeds. More generally, colonialism may be said to be at fault; if the British were not
in Western Nigeria, Yoruban cultural traditions would have persisted unchanged. Elesin himself is partially at
fault, due to his weakness for the pleasures of life and his fear of death. His bride may also be to blame, for
being young and beautiful and tempting Elesin to remain alive.
3. At the beginning of the play, Elesin enjoys high status in his community for his heroic role as the king’s
horseman. Pampered by women and followed about by praise singers, Elesin is proud, fun-loving, and
energetic. By the end of the play, the king’s horseman has become a failure, to himself, his family, and the
community. Demoted in status, scorned by the people of Oyo, and shackled in the colonizer’s chains, Elesin
has lost all his power and vitality. He is sunk in shame and self-disgust.
4. The market women literally shoulder the burden of Olunde’s corpse. But the term “burden” takes on many
meanings in this scene. Olunde bears the burden of redeeming his family’s honor and preserving the delicate
balance of the three worlds of Yoruban cosmology—the worlds of the unborn, the living, and the ancestors.
Elesin must bear the burden of personal failure and public contempt. The community must bear the burden of
being a colonized and subjugated people. Simon Pilkings must bear the burden of knowing that he is partially
responsible for the deaths of two natives.
5. Olunde performs ritual suicide in place of his father. He takes on this cultural obligation because he is the
rightful heir to the heroic role as Elesin’s eldest son. He kills himself both to redeem the honor of his family
and to preserve harmony among the three worlds of Yoruban cosmology.
Questions and Answers: Act IV 22
Death and the King's Horseman: Essential Passages
Essential Passages by Character: Elesin Oba
Essential Passage 1: Act 1
Where the storm pleases, and when, it directs
The giants of the forest. When friendship summons
Is when the true comrade goes.
Nothing will hold you back?
Nothing. What! Has no one told you yet?
I go to keep my friend and master company.
Who says the mouth does not believe in
‘No, I have chewed all that before?’ I say I have.
The world is not a constant honey-pot.
Where I found little I made do with little.
Where there was plenty I gorged myself.
My master’s hands and mine have always
Dipped together and, home or sacred feast,
The bowl was beaten bronze, the meats
So succulent our teeth accused us of neglect.
We shared the choicest of the season’s
Harvest yams. How my friend would read
Desire in my eyes before I knew the cause—
However rare, however precious, it was mine.
Elesin, the king’s horseman, enters the market on the last day of his life. By tradition and by law, the king’s
horseman must commit suicide one month following the king’s death, on the day of his burial, in order to
accompany him to the afterlife. Elesin prepares to enjoy this last day before he gives his life. Elesin has long
been a loyal servant to the king, a close companion and protector. He has not asked for more than was given
him, but rejoiced in the honor of serving. When the king was in want, Elesin was in want. When the king lived
in plenty, so did Elesin. The king knew what was in Elesin's heart before Elesin himself did. Thus gladly does
Elesin face his own death, knowing that he will spend eternity in the afterlife with his king and his friend.
Essential Passage 2: Act 1
Elesin Oba…
What! Where do you all say I am?
Still among the living.
Death and the King's Horseman: Essential Passages 23
And that radiance which so suddenly
Lit up this market I could boast
I knew so well?
Has one step already in her husband’s home. She is betrothed.
ELESIN [irritated]:
Why do you tell me that?
[IYALOJA falls silent. The WOMEN shuffle uneasily.]
Not because we dare give you offence Elesin. Today is your day and the whole world is
yours. Still, even those who leave town to make a new dwelling elsewhere like to be
remembered by what they leave behind.
Who does not seek to be remembered?
Memory is Master of Death, the chink
In his armour of conceit. I shall leave
That which makes my going the sheerest
Dream of an afternoon. Should voyagers
Not travel light? Let the considerate traveler
Shed, of his excessive load, all
That may benefit the living.
Elesin has seen a young girl and immediately decides that his last act will be to marry her, sleep with her, and
hopefully leave one last child behind as his legacy and duty to the community. Iyaloja, the “mother of the
market” or community wise woman, pauses at this request, because the girl is betrothed to her son. Yet she
knows that the king’s horseman, on the last day of his death, is to be granted whatever he wishes. Despite the
remonstrations of the market women, Iyaloja says nothing to Elesin. However, she does warn him that he
should keep in mind all that he is leaving behind. Not just a child but a reputation is an important legacy, and
this legacy is not to be thrown away lightly on a whim, should it turn out to be that this is what Elesin’s
fascination with the girl would be. Elesin ignores her warning or does not catch the full meaning. He simply
desires to have one last woman. Iyaloja's warning, however, will come back to haunt him.
Essential Passage 3: Act 5
My young bride, did you hear the ghostly one? You sit and sob in your silent heart but say
nothing to all this. First I blamed the white man, then I blamed my gods for deserting me.
Now I feel I want to blame you for the mystery of the sapping of my will. But blame is a
strange peace offering for a man to bring a world he has deeply wronged, and to its innocent
dwellers. Oh little mother, I have taken countless women in my life but you were more than a
desire of the flesh. I needed you as the abyss across which my body must be drawn, I filled it
with earth and dropped my seed in it at the moment of preparedness for my crossing. You
were the final gift of the living to their emissary to the land of the ancestors, and perhaps your
Essential Passages by Character: Elesin Oba 24
warmth and youth brought new insights of this world to me and turned my feet leaden on this
side of the abyss. For I confess to you, daughter, my weakness came not merely from the
abomination of the white man who came violently into my fading presence, there was also a
weight of longing on my earth-held limbs. I would have shaken it off, already my foot had
begun to lift but then, the white ghost entered and all was defiled.
Elesin has been imprisoned by Pilkings so that he will not have the chance to commit the suicide that is
required of the king’s horsemen by custom. Outside of his cell, his young bride of one day sits silently. Elesin
frets that his failure to commit suicide has brought shame to his people and has also disrupted the cosmos. A
higher law has been broken, he believes, than the white man’s injunction against suicide. Elesin tries to place
the blame on others than himself. He would like to blame the white man and his infiltration of Africa, but he
cannot completely. He would like to blame the gods for letting the white man stop him. Finally, he would like
to blame his young wife, whose charms led him from his purpose of following his king, yet he begins to
realize that the blame rests solely with him. He did not kill himself, because he too highly valued his life. He
was reluctant to leave, but he believes that he would have shaken off the pull to remain earthbound if only the
white man had not interfered.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Elesin is in a transitional period in African history during the middle part of the twentieth century.
Colonialism is fading painfully away, yet a new Africa has yet to appear. Elesin belongs to the old Africa,
clinging to the old traditions no matter how contrary they are to the laws of the ruling British. Not only is the
ritual sacrifice that is required of him a remnant of the old tradition, but his very personality and standard of
living in relation to the others in his community belong to the old Africa as well.
The male-dominated society of Yoruba has created Elesin to be a conqueror of women. He has frequently
done so and is vocally proud of his conquests. It is this that has helped to make Elesin a man and has inflated
his self-opinion. Thus, as he comes into the market, the women are presented to him as possible prizes rather
than viable members of the community. Yet within Yoruba culture at that time, such objectification was as
much a part of daily life as the ritual suicide that is required of Elesin. The male prowess in which he glories
is made of greater importance in his mind than his duty to his king. Before he dies, he will impregnate one
more woman so that his “glory” may continue after him, even though he has at least one son already. His
family line is assured, yet his pride shines forth.
Iyaloja tactfully tries to point this out to Elesin. She is in a difficult position because the girl Elesin desires is
her prospective daughter-in-law. As one of the matriarchal heads of the community, she shows more depth of
wisdom than does Elesin. She puts herself and her family aside in order to safeguard peace in the community
and in the universe (since it is believed that Elesin’s death will please the gods and not disrupt the way of life
of the Yoruban people). In the face of Elesin’s selfishness, Iyaloja is unselfish. Yet she must warn him that
the legacy he leaves behind is not what he thinks he is leaving. It is his selfishness in insisting on marrying the
young girl rather than his selflessness in sacrificing his life that will be Elesin's lasting legacy.
When Elesin finally faces the destiny that is now his, he tries to place blame anywhere and on anyone but
himself. The white man is an easy target, and perhaps a justifiable one. At the very least, it is a difference in
the two cultures that has led to this tragedy. Elesin also thinks about blaming the gods, yet cannot bring
himself to do this. It is when he tries to blame his new young wife that he begins to see that it was himself,
and himself only, who bears the blame. By thinking of his own legacy rather than that of his king, Elesin
failed in the duty that was required of him, forcing his son Olunde to take his place.
Elesin’s suicide is the result of his loss of face, not the fulfillment of his destiny. That destiny has already
been fulfilled by Olunde. Pilkings’s attempt to stop the ritual suicide only results in Elesin’s shameful
Essential Passages by Character: Elesin Oba 25
suicide. Elesin’s death is a hint that the end of the old Africa is fast approaching. Rather than one of honor
and respect, the ending will be filled with shame, both for the colonized and the colonizers. The ensuing
conflict, like Elesin’s death, is the result of a deep lack of respect for traditions on both sides. Yet the new
Africa must emerge, though it would prove to be a painful birth. As Iyaloja says in the last line of the play,
“Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.”
Essential Passages by Theme: Duty
Essential Passage 1: Act 2
The government say dat kin’ ting must stop.
Who will stop it? You? Tonight our husband and father will prove himself greater than the
laws of strangers.
I tell you nobody go prove anyting tonight or anytime. Is ignorant and criminal to prove dat
kin’ prove.
[entering from hut. she is accompanied by a group of YOUNG GIRLS who have been
attending the BRIDE] What is it Amusa? Why do you come here to disturb the happiness of
Madam Iyaloja, I glad you come. You know me, I no like trouble but duty is duty. I am here
to arrest Elesin for criminal intent. Tell these women to stop obstructing me in the
performance of my duty.
And you? What gives you the right to obstruct our leader of men in the performance of his
Amusa, who is a sergeant in the British police force, is in a difficult position as an African in the service of the
British. Under orders from Pilkings, he has come to arrest Elesin so that the king’s horseman will not commit
suicide. Amusa interrupts the wedding celebrations of Elesin and his new young bride, evoking the ire of the
market women. The women try to prevent Amusa from carrying out his orders, stating that Elesin, their
“husband and father,” will prove himself greater than the British laws against suicide. Interrupted by Iyaloja,
the market mother, Amusa is initially glad to see her, believing that she will be the voice of reason in this
trying situation. Yet Iyaloja proves otherwise, stating that Amusa has no right to prevent the ceremony or the
ritual suicide of Elesin. It is Elesin who is to be allowed to do his duty, not Amusa.
Essential Passage 2: Act 4
…Mind you there is the occasional bit of excitement like that ship that was blown up in the
Essential Passages by Theme: Duty 26
Here? Do you mean through enemy action?
Oh no, the war hasn’t come that close. The captain did it himself. I don’t quite understand it
really. Simon tried to explain. The ship had to be blown up because it had become dangerous
to the other ships, even to the city itself. Hundreds of the coastal population would have died.
Maybe it was loaded with ammunition and had caught fire. Or some of those lethal gases
they’ve been experimenting on.
Something like that. The captain blew himself up with it. Deliberately. Simon said someone
had to remain on board to light the fuse.
It must have been a very short fuse.
JANE [shrugs]:
I don’t know much about it. Only that there was no other way to save lives. No time to
devise anything else. The captain took the decision and carried it out.
Yes…I quite believe it. I met men like that in England.
Olunde, Elesin’s son, has returned from England where he has been attending medical school. Olunde went
to England against his father’s wishes, and there is still much animosity on the part of Elesin that Pilkings
would try to make his son over to fit in with the white man’s world, though to the limited degree allowed to a
person of color. Olunde had left England on hearing of the king’s death, knowing the duty that was required
of his father. By chance or by design, he arrives on the day of his father’s predetermined suicide. Mrs. Jane
Pilkings and her husband Simon are discussing the voyage to Africa during a time of war. Jane mentions a
British sea captain who died by purposely blowing himself up with his ship to prevent its endangering the
coastal town. Olunde, though he says that he has known men in England who would commit such brave acts,
seems confused that the man did not try to save his own life when it should have been unnecessary to remain
on the ship to die. Both Jane and Olunde seem oblivious to the parallel in this situation with the ceremonial
suicide of Elesin.
Essential Passage 3: Act 5
The night is not at peace, ghostly one. The world is not at peace. You have shattered the
peace of the world forever. There is not sleep in the world tonight.
It is still a good bargain if the world should lose one night’s sleep as the price of saving a
man’s life.
Essential Passages by Theme: Duty 27
You did not save my life, District Officer. You destroyed it.
Now come on…
And not merely my life but the lives of many. The end of the night’s work is not over.
Neither this year nor the next will see it. If I wished you well, I would pray that you do not
stay long enough on our land to see the disaster you have brought upon us.
Well, I did my duty as I saw it. I have no regrets.
No. The regrets of life always come later.
Elesin has been imprisoned on the night of his scheduled ritual suicide. Pilkings, following the law of the
British Commonwealth and also moral law as he sees it, has arrested Elesin to prevent him from taking his
own life. Suicide, for whatever reason, is against the laws of God and man, to Pilkings way of thinking. As
Elesin waits in his cell, Pilkings comes for a visit. It is a quiet night, and Pilkings remarks on the peacefulness
of it. Yet Elesin argues that it is not peaceful at all, because his duty to follow his king in death has been
disrupted. To Pilkings, the disruption is worth it since a man’s life will be saved. To Elesin, however, he sees
that one life is saved at the cost of many, that his failure to commit suicide as required by his tradition will
result in cosmic chaos. Pilkings dismisses this argument however, and asserts that at least he did his duty as he
saw it, without regrets. Elesin remarks that the regrets have not been escaped so easily. They will manifest
themselves later, both in Pilkings's life and in the lives of the Yoruban people.
Analysis of Essential Passages
The concept of duty is foundational to Death and the King’s Horseman, but the fulfillment of duty is defined
differently by the British and the Africans. Duty—the obligation to fulfill the responsibilities placed on you by
a higher law—has the same definition for both cultures, but how the justification of how that duty is carried out
presents the tension in the piece. The duty required of Elesin and the duty of Pilkings are mutually
contradictory, and thus it is impossible for both to fulfill their duties as desired.
The character of Amusa represents the inner conflict derived from trying to combine both cultures' duties. As
an African, Amusa is in touch with the traditions of his people, though he has forsaken the animistic beliefs
for the Muslim faith. By accepting a position in the British police force, Amusa was forced to make a choice
of whose duty he is pledged to fulfill first. This puts him in an impossible situation, not being fully accepted
by either culture. Soyinka shows this by having Amusa, of all the characters, using a “pidgin” form of
English, one in which he pronounces the English language with a strong African accent. No other African
characters are thus represented, since they have placed themselves securely within the African culture.
Amusa, by “abandoning” the duty to his African conditions, thus is unable to properly communicate in his
new culture, positioning himself as a bit of an outsider.
Pilkings believes that, in preventing Elesin from taking his own life, he is following the dictates of a higher
moral law—the sanctity of life. Believing that Elesin’s ritual sacrifice is barbaric, Pilkings endeavors to
“enlighten” the African to the Western traditions that forbid suicide. Yet, in an odd juxtaposition, Jane
Pilkings relates to Olunde a nearly identical tale of a British ship captain who willingly gives his life for the
good of his people. Deliberately choosing to remain on the ship and thus being blown up with it, the captain
did indeed perform a type of “ritual suicide.” By laying down his life willingly, he saved the lives of many.
Essential Passages by Theme: Duty 28
Elesin, in his eyes, is doing the same thing by killing himself in order to follow his master into the afterlife.
By tradition, the failure to do so will bring calamity on the people. It is for this reason that Elesin tells Pilkings
that he has not indeed saved one life, but has instead condemned many to death.
The duty of self-sacrifice is inherent in Western culture, not just in African, as the ship captain’s death
demonstrates. The difficulty lies in the fact that Elesin is procuring by his death a higher good that is not
visible to people. The ship captain’s death was such that it was evident to all that his sacrifice did indeed save
the lives of many. It is the focus of the Western culture on the visible and the temporal that leads to the
conflict with the African focus on the transcendental. The “higher law” for both is in fact the same, yet the
benefits and consequences of that law, and the location of their evidence, are what lead to the lack of
understanding and respect between Pilkings and Elesin. Elesin assures Pilkings that he will indeed live to have
regrets over his choice of stopping Elesin’s suicide (which in the end he did not do), and Olunde’s death is
the first proof of that. As Iyaloja states at the end, the focus is now to be on the unborn, on whether or not
some new understanding, rather than regrets, can grow from Elesin’s willingness to lay down his own life for
that of another.
Death and the King's Horseman: Characters
Amusa is a sergeant in the native administration police, a black African working for the white British
colonialists. His position is a difficult one: he is not trusted by Simon Pilkings, his superior, because Simon
cannot conceive of an African as being intelligent or honest, and he is no longer trusted by the villagers
because he works with the whites to enforce ‘‘the laws of strangers.’’ Amusa was converted to Christianity
two years before the play begins, but he still feels profound respect for native beliefs. He will not speak with
Simon so long as Simon is wearing the egungun garments, but Amusa does not hesitate to follow Simon’s
orders and arrest Elesin to prevent his suicide.
The Bride does not speak at all during the play. Already engaged to Iyaloja’s son, the Bride is seen by Elesin
and taken to bed by him; no one asks for her consent. When Elesin is arrested she sits silently beside him, and
upon his death she closes his eyes in fulfillment of her wifely duty.
Iyaloja is the Mother of the market, the spokesperson and leader of the women of the village. She is the voice
of wisdom in the play, the one who can see beyond Elesin’s charms to the danger he represents when he
swerves from his responsibility. When Elesin asks for the young woman as his Bride, Iyaloja has no choice
but to hand her over, even though the young woman is engaged to Iyaloja’s own son. Iyaloja knows the
power of the forces of the universe, and she understands that refusing the request of a man who is ‘‘already
touched by the waiting fingers of our departed’’ will ‘‘set this world adrift.’’ But she warns Elesin not to
leave a cursed seed behind him, and she reminds him of her warning when she brings Olunde’s body to
Elesin’s cell.
Elesin Oba
Elesin Oba, a man of ‘‘enormous vitality,’’ was the chief horseman of the dead king. As the king’s
companion, Elesin enjoyed a luxurious life of rich food and fine clothing, the rewards of a man of his position.
He enjoyed that life, and now that the king has been dead for a month and is ready for burial Elesin is
expected to complete the horseman’s duty and commit ritual suicide. The play opens on the evening of
Elesin’s last day of life; at midnight he will die. He says repeatedly that he is ready to give his life, and he
knows the importance of fulfilling his responsibility. But Elesin, well known for his many sexual conquests,
sees a young woman of great beauty and demands that he be allowed to take her to bed before he dies. Just
Death and the King's Horseman: Characters 29
after leaving the wedding chamber, Elesin begins his passage into the next world, and dances in a hypnotic
dream-like trance. But when Simon’s men come to arrest Elesin, he cannot summon the strength to resist
them and continue through the transitional state into the next world. Instead, he lives, and brings shame to
himself and chaos to the world.
See The Praise-Singer
Jane Pilkings
Jane is the wife of Simon Pilkings, the British district officer. Although she shares most of Simon’s superior
attitudes, she is, in Olunde’s words, ‘‘somewhat more understanding’’ than her husband. Unlike Simon,
she can sense that Simon has offended Amusa and Joseph (the house servant), although she agrees with Simon
that the native customs and beliefs are ‘‘horrible.’’ She has no active role in the main events of the play, but
serves as a sounding board for Simon as he thinks things through.
Simon Pilkings
Simon is the district officer, charged with maintaining order in the one district of the British colony of
Nigeria. He has no interest in learning about the Africans and their culture. He and his wife Jane socialize
only with other Europeans, who have tried to transplant as much of their own food, clothing, and manners as
they can to maintain their own style of life in a foreign country. Simon is sure of himself and of his way of
life, and easily dismisses anything he does not understand. When he learns that Elesin intends to commit
suicide on the night of the prince’s visit to the district, Simon uses his authority to stop Elesin not because he
values Elesin, but because he does not want any commotion to disrupt a fancy- dress ball and the prince’s
visit. Ironically, the steps Simon takes to ensure peace in the village actually help bring about chaos in the
universe. Because he does not care to understand Yoruba belief, his actions do more harm than good.
The Praise-Singer (also known as Olohun-iyo) accompanies Elesin on his last journey, singing and chanting.
He is devoted to Elesin, and sees into the darkest corners of his heart. Almost like a conscience, he voices
Elesin’s hesitations and questions about his passage into the next world. As Elesin enters his trance to begin
the transition, the Praise-Singer monitors his progress. He can sense Elesin moving away from him, and calls
him back in a ritual, repetitive chant. Once Elesin is arrested and brought to his cell, the Praise-Singer is not
seen nor heard again.
Death and the King's Horseman: Themes
Life Cycle
Like many African cultures, the Yoruba have a fundamental belief that life is a continuum. The dead are not
forgotten; the ancestors are honored and cherished as guides and companions. The notyet- born are also
cherished, and new babies may in fact be ancestors returning to physical life. The most highly charged
moments in the life cycle are the moments of transition from one type of existence to the next that is, the
passage into the physical world during birth and the passage into death. Elesin’s responsibility as king’s
horseman is to enact the transition from life into death in a ritual manner, to remind the entire community
through his death that life is a continuum.
The idea of death is found throughout the play. Elesin and the women of the village are preparing for his
death. The clothing that the Pilkingses wear to the ball has been taken away from a group performing the
egungun celebration, a ritual in which men dress as the ancestors and mingle with the living. The
masqueraders take the ritual seriously, as a reminder that the ancestors are always present, and even the
Muslim Amusa has respect for the stolen garments. Simon and Jane, however, cannot understand the calm
Death and the King's Horseman: Themes 30
acceptance of death demonstrated by the Yoruba or the respect shown for the ancestors. They perform a
mocking imitation of the egungun ceremony, they try to prevent Elesin from dying, and they find Olunde
‘‘callous’’ and ‘‘unfeeling’’ because he does not mourn his father’s death.
As a person in transition, Elesin has special powers and special rights. His request for the Bride, although
unexpected, must be granted, because ‘‘the claims of one whose foot is on the threshold of their abode
surpasses even the claims of blood.’’ Iyaloja realizes that the child born of Elesin and the Bride will be
extraordinary, ‘‘neither of this world nor of the next. Nor of the one behind us. As if the timelessness of the
ancestor world and the unborn have joined spirits.’’
Elesin, of course, does not complete his transition. Olunde dies in his place and Elesin, seeing the chaos
demonstrated by the father and son reversing roles, kills himself. Simon and Jane are horrified, but Iyaloja and
the Bride are placid and accepting. Iyaloja rebukes Simon for his panic, and the Bride ‘‘walks calmly into
the cell’’ to close Elesin’s eyes in the appropriate, ritual manner. The last line of the play, spoken to the
Bride by Iyaloja, repeats the idea of the continuum of life: ‘‘Now forget the dead, forget even the living.
Turn your mind only to the unborn.’’
Culture Clash
Westerners who come to Death and the King’s Horseman without much knowledge about Yoruba culture
and belief are apt to focus on the theme of the clash of cultures. Clearly, two cultures, Yoruba and British, are
uneasily occupying the same geographic space, although their emotional and spiritual worlds could not be
further apart. During Acts 2 and 4, for example, the British listen to a tango and orchestral music, while the
sound of African drumming is continually heard in the background. Both communities call their members
together during the same evening: The British hold a fancy-dress ball with the prince in attendance, and the
Yoruba gather for the ritual suicide of the king’s richly robed horseman and the burial of the king and his
entourage. Although the differences are interesting to observe, the two communities do not enrich each other,
but remain apart.
Simon and Jane Pilkings do not understand the beliefs of the Africans, and they dismiss what they do not
understand as ‘‘nonsense,’’ and as ‘‘barbaric’’ and ‘‘horrible custom.’’ They see no harm in wearing
the sacred egungun garments to a costume party and mocking the ceremonial dance, even after Amusa and
Olunde point out the disrespect in their actions. Elesin’s sense of tradition is so important to him that he is
willing to die for it. By contrast, Simon’s Christianity seems to mean little to Simon, who mocks Joseph for
his devout faith in ‘‘that holy water nonsense.’’ Nevertheless, this man of little faith feels qualified to label
Elesin an ‘‘old pagan.’’ Simon does not understand or respect Elesin’s culture, and he uses his authority to
interfere only because he does not want to be embarrassed while the prince is visiting.
It is tempting, therefore, to see Simon as the cause of Elesin’s not fulfilling his duty, to see the clash of
cultures as the force that moves the universe off its course. But in an Author’s Note that accompanies the
play, Soyinka indicates his displeasure with this reading, which he calls ‘‘facile.’’ For Soyinka, Simon’s
inability to understand is clearly present, but the focus of the play is on what happens to the universe when
duty goes unfulfilled. Simon is simply an instrument or a ‘‘catalytic incident merely.’’ Those who
understand Yoruba belief can easily see the metaphysical confrontation in the play. For most Westerners,
however, the recognizable conflict is between two religions, two races, two communities, and two cultures.
Duty and Responsibility
When Elesin heads toward death, he is repaying a debt. All his life he has enjoyed the company of the king,
the finest clothes, ‘‘the choicest of the season’s harvest.’’ He has always known that he would follow the
king in death, and as a man of honor he claims that he is eager for death and ‘‘will not delay.’’ He knows
his responsibility, and he accepts it. However, he is distracted at the end by the richness of the physical world.
Rather than letting go of the world he draws it to him more closely, demanding finer clothing and one last
Death and the King's Horseman: Themes 31
sexual encounter.
His distraction proves his downfall. The ritual suicide is delayed while Elesin takes his new bride to bed, and
the delay is enough time for Simon to have him arrested. The failure is Elesin’s not Simon’s, though Elesin
tries to put the blame on the ‘‘alien race.’’ Iyaloja rejects this interpretation. If Elesin were strong enough in
spirit, Simon could not keep him from his duty. Elesin is surrounded by others who fulfill their
responsibilities: Iyaloja gives her son’s bride-to-be to Elesin, Olunde travels all the way from England to bury
his father and dies in his father’s place, the bride closes her dead husband’s eyes. Only Elesin fails, and the
cost of his failure is high.
Death and the King's Horseman: Style
Death and the King’s Horseman takes place in the Nigerian town of Oyo in approximately 1943 or 1944.
Nigeria became a colony of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, and into the 1940s British officers kept
order and protected a small group of white Europeans who lived in the country. The white expatriates and the
black Africans, members of the Yoruba people, inhabited parallel worlds, each group attempting to maintain
its own traditional way of life.
The market is the center of the community, where people gather to socialize, to trade, to celebrate and to
perform rituals, and it is here that Elesin comes as his last day draws to a close. The Westernstyle homes of
the district officer and the resident are set apart from the village, but close enough that the sounds of the
ceremonial drumming can be still be heard. The two communities, each holding a special event on the night of
the play’s action, do not mingle. No whites are present at the ceremony marking Elesin’s passage, and the
only blacks at the fancy-dress ball are servants.
In its structure, Death and the King’s Horseman appears to be based on the tragedy. The tragedy is an ancient
form of drama in which an important person passes through a series of events and choices, resulting in a great
catastrophe. Tragedies have been written all around the world over thousands of years, to examine the dignity
of humans and their greatest strengths and weaknesses. According to the ancient Greeks, tragedy filled the
audience with fear and pity, and so helped a community deal psychologically with these emotions. The
structure of a tragedy may be generally divided into several distinct parts: an introduction in which the
characters, setting and situation are established; the complication or rising action, during which an opposing
force is introduced; the climax or turning point; the falling action, or another focusing on the opposing forces;
and the catastrophe, or the unhappy conclusion.
Death and the King’s Horseman has in fact been built on this pattern. Act 1 introduces Elesin and his duty;
Act 2 introduces an opposing force in the figure of Simon Pilkings, who plans to prevent Elesin’s suicide;
Act 3 ends with the climax of Elesin in transition, apparently only moments away from the central action, his
death; Act 4 shifts the focus back to Simon Pilkings, and ends with the revelation that Elesin’s suicide has
been prevented; Act 5 contains Elesin’s musings on the disorder brought about by his failure, and presents the
deaths of Olunde and Elesin.
When a play or story includes early clues to what will happen later, the writing is said to include
foreshadowing. In Death and the King’s Horseman there are several hints in Act 1 that Elesin will not carry
through with his plan to commit suicide. As Elesin and the Praise- Singer enter the market, for example,
Elesin comments on the attractiveness of the women there. The Praise-Singer agrees, but warns, ‘‘The hands
of women also weaken the unwary.’’ This warning creates in the audience’s mind the possibility of failure,
Death and the King's Horseman: Style 32
even danger. When Elesin promises that he will be faithful and join his forbears, the Praise-Singer replies,
‘‘In their time the world was never tilted from its groove, it shall not be in yours.’’ Again, the possibility of
failure is presented, as it will be several more times by the Praise-Singer and the women of the market as they
assure each other that Elesin will not fail.
Elesin himself speaks eagerly about his determination to complete his duty. He dances and chants a long tale
of the ‘‘Not-I bird,’’ a bird who flew away when ‘‘Death came calling.’’ Several critics have pointed out
that Elesin seems here to be protesting too much. Why does he repeatedly assure the crowd that he will ‘‘not
delay’’? Why does he keep raising the specter of failure on what should be a glorious day of celebration?
The foreshadowing helps prepare the audience for what will happen, prolonging and intensifying the
experience of watching Elesin confront and then turn away from his duty.
Death and the King’s Horseman is set firmly in Yorubaland, and the metaphysical issues spring from Yoruba
belief. However, as Nigeria and the rest of the world move ‘‘forward,’’ the world becomes more
homogenous and Western, and ancient beliefs and customs are lost. Soyinka writes in the Author’s Note of
the play’s ‘‘threnodic essence,’’ or the play’s mourning the loss of tradition. With Elesin and Olunde both
dead, the tradition of the king’s horseman cannot continue, because it depends on the job of chief horseman
being passed down from father to son. With Elesin’s failure, an important ritual has been lost.
On stage, the play both celebrates and mourns ritual. Unlike the plays of William Shakespeare, which contain
almost no stage directions, Death and the King’s Horseman includes several lengthy passages in which the
playwright describes what the actors are doing in addition to speaking their lines. Frequently, these stage
directions describe elements of music, dance, and costume that are specific to Yoruba ritual. For example,
Elesin parades into the market with an entourage of drummers and praisesingers, and the beginning of the play
before a line is spoken—is a reenactment of part of the ritual of the horseman’s last day. The stage directions
also mandate that Elesin dance, accompanied by drumming, as he chants the story of the ‘‘Not-I bird’’; that
the alari-cloth the women drape him with be bright red and that they dance around him; that Simon and Jane
dance the tango, and that they perform a sacrilegious imitation of the egungun ceremony; that Elesin dances
his way into a trance; and so on. These scenes are rich with sound and color, and most of them are not
discussed by the characters. They form a separate layer of understanding, unavailable to those who merely
read the printed script. In addition to the themes and ideas portrayed by the words the actors speak, the
audience of a performance also witnesses a series of rituals enacted on stage as they used to be enacted in
village markets.
Death and the King's Horseman: Historical Context
A Nation in Turmoil
When Soyinka wrote Death and the King’s Horseman in 1974 he was living in exile from Nigeria, lecturing
at Churchill College of Cambridge University in England. The preceding years had been difficult for Nigeria,
and for Soyinka personally. In 1967, the southeastern area of Nigeria declared itself the independent Republic
of Biafra, and a civil war erupted. The causes of the conflict were complex: the secessionists were mostly
from the Ibo tribe, and believed that the Nigerian government favored the Hausa tribe; many in the southeast
were Christian, while those in the north were predominantly Muslim; oil was being produced in the region,
and there was disagreement about how the revenues would be distributed.
Soyinka believed that the government policies toward Biafra were unjust, and he said as much in letters to the
editors of national publications. Soyinka was arrested in 1967 and held without charges for two years and two
months. For fifteen of those months, he was in solitary confinement. While he was in prison, the war
continued, and the Biafrans were pushed to a smaller and smaller area of land. Shortly after Soyinka was
Death and the King's Horseman: Historical Context 33
released from prison in 1969, the war was over and Biafra had been completely wiped out. It was the first
modern war between African blacks, and it left over one million people dead and many more homeless and
starving. The Nigerian economy was in ruins; although profits from oil skyrocketed, most of the money was
divided up between corrupt Nigerian military rulers and European oil companies, while the average Nigerian
was unemployed and underfed.
After these experiences, Soyinka directed the University of Ibadan’s Theatre Arts Department for a short
time, and then lived mostly outside Nigeria for five years. He traveled throughout Europe and the United
States, teaching, writing, and directing, and he spent two years as an editor in Ghana. According to many
critics, his attention shifted after his imprisonment. Whereas previously he had written about the negative
effects of the colonial powers on the colonized, he now addressed weakness and corruption wherever he found
it. In particular, he was concerned with exploring the ways in which Africans treated each other unjustly, and
the ways in which his own community had betrayed itself. Death and the King’s Horseman is a play that
reflects this later vision, as Soyinka himself insists in his Author’s Note.
African Literature
African writers during the second half of the twentieth century faced a dilemma. Most of the traditional
African forms of literature were based on oral traditional and ritual performance, and these ancient forms were
becoming less and less familiar even to the local people. On the other hand, more widely popular genres like
the novel and dramatic forms like the classical tragedy were based on European structures and philosophies,
and did not always seem to fit African themes and beliefs. Language was also an issue: a play written in the
local language would obviously capture the atmosphere and the spirit of a people better than the same story
told in English, but the audience for such a play would be very limited.
Most of the African writers who are now considered major international figures traveled, taught, and produced
important work in Europe and the United States, and they created works that combined European influences
with African materials. With each new work they attempted to define what was ‘‘African’’ about African
literature. Soyinka and others wrote eloquent essays in which they explored the place of Africa in world
literature, and tried to determine how an African writer should make sense of various influences. Ngugi wa
Thiong’o of Kenya, after several successful publications, decided to stop writing in English; since 1977 he
has written his novels and plays in Gikuyu, but encouraged their publication in translation. Soyinka’s works
are written in English, but retain the original Yoruba for quoting certain proverbs, as in Death and the King’s
Horseman. However, in 1994 Akin Isola produced a translation of the play into Yoruba, as part of a new
movement of Yoruba literature, a translation Soyinka endorsed.
Death and the King's Horseman: Critical Overview
Death and the King’s Horseman has been recognized from the beginning as an important work, but its critical
reputation has been somewhat different in Nigeria than in Europe and the United States. Westerners have
almost universally praised the play, and the Swedish Academy drew special attention to it in awarding
Soyinka the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature. Within Nigeria and within the community of Africans on the
political left, however, some critics have quarreled with the play’s political messages.
A central question answered differently by various critics and reviewers is the question of theme. What is the
play about? Reviewers of performances of the play have tended to see the theme as the clash of cultures,
focusing on the inability of the Pilkingses to understand Elesin and his responsibility. This is also how most
audiences of performances have interpreted the play, as might be expected since most Western theater-goers
do not bring much knowledge of Yoruba culture with them. In her study of the 1987 Lincoln Center
production in New York, which Soyinka himself directed, Kacke Gotrick points out that even with Soyinka’s
Author’s Note being reprinted in the Playbill and with Soyinka shaping every facet of the staging, some
Death and the King's Horseman: Critical Overview 34
critics ‘‘nonetheless understood a cultural clash to be the central theme.’’ Gotrick observes, as others have,
that ‘‘Since Soyinka’s drama relies on the Yoruba world-view, the interpreter’s degree of knowledge of this
world-view becomes decisive for his or her interpretation.’’ The culture clash is also the theme analyzed by
most Westerners who read the play, including high school and college students, as they also bring little
knowledge of Yoruba to their reading experience.
Writers of scholarly articles and books, who have generally had the opportunity and the responsibility to learn
more about Soyinka and about Yoruba cosmology, have been more likely to understand Soyinka’s insistence
that the clash of cultures is less important than the metaphysical examination of duty and ritual, and the
representation of transition, a stage of the life cycle that connects the unborn, the living, and the dead. The
theme of unfulfilled duty is explored in Derek Wright’s Wole Soyinka Revisited . Wright examines the
differences in plot between Soyinka’s play and the historical events on which it is based, and points out
Soyinka’s own insistence that Simon Pilkings is only a catalyst. The emphasis is on the ritual that is not
completed: ‘‘Elesin’s failure to die, and so keep faith with his ancestors, spells the death of the ancestral
past and the betrayal of the entire community of humans and spirits existing over the whole of time.’’
In his Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to his Writing, Obu Maduakor focuses on transition, the term Soyinka
uses in the Author’s Note. Maduakor describes Soyinka’s cosmology, and concludes that ‘‘Elesin’s bride
represents the world of the living; the seed implanted in her womb is a visitor from the world of the unborn.
The dead Alafin, the ’King’ of the play, has gone to the world of the dead, and Elesin himself is a creature of
the twilight world of passage.’’ Maduakor also traces Elesin’s story, and demonstrates how it parallels the
passage of Ogun, one of the Yoruba deities, through preparation, ritual death, and rebirth.
A major focus of criticism of Death and the King’s Horseman has been providing assistance to readers who
are not familiar with Yoruba culture. Much of the published criticism of the play offers little more than close
reading, supported by helpful background information about the traditional role of the Praise-Singer, or the
market, or the egungun ritual. An excellent example of this type of material is Bimpe Aboyade’s Wole
Soyinka and Yoruba Oral Tradition in Death and the King’s Horseman, in which the writer explains the
Yoruba oral traditions of the poets of the egungun, the hunters and the talking drum, and the aura of the
ancestral masque. These cultural analyses are invaluable for Western readers or for African readers who are
unfamiliar with Yoruba tradition.
Death and the King’s Horseman has not been without detractors. Several critics have commented on the
anachronistic situation presented by the play, observing that by the 1940s the failure of the king’s horseman
to commit ritual suicide would not have rocked the community. Some have found it difficult to accept that the
European-educated Olunde would participate in the ritual. Other critics, particularly those in Nigeria, have
written that Soyinka has romanticized the Yoruba, presenting them as more unified and tradition-bound than
they are. African Marxist critics find that in emphasizing the cultural and religious differences between the
British and the Yoruba, the play ignores essential class differences within Nigeria. Underlying much of the
negative criticism is a sense that Soyinka’s drama, influenced as it is by his study of drama around the world
and also by study of Nigeria oral tradition, is simply not ‘‘African’’ enough. The universality that makes
his plays so respected in Europe and North America is a sign, for some, that Soyinka has in many ways
betrayed his own culture.
Death and the King's Horseman: Essays and Criticism
Roles of Women
Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman tells the story of a man who fails to fulfill a responsibility.
When Elesin, the king’s chief horseman, does not complete his ritual suicide so that he can accompany his
Death and the King's Horseman: Essays and Criticism 35
dead king to the world of the ancestors, he breaks a thread of continuity that has for generations connected the
worlds of the unborn, the living, and the dead. The connecting thread in this case is based on patriarchy: the
kingship passes down from father to son, and so does the position of king’s horseman. Olunde, as eldest son,
knows as soon as he receives word of the king’s death that his own father will die a month later and Olunde
will be required to properly bury his father and then step into his role. When Olunde dies before his father,
and leaves no son of his own, the thread is broken, and the ritual can no longer be performed.
Death and the King’s Horseman focuses on a man’s world, and a man’s responsibility, and women are
incidental to its central ritual. The role of women in this play can be problematic for Western readers who
have become attuned to Western-based forms of feminism, and who are practiced at unearthing belittling
treatments of women in literature written by men. As a white Christian woman from the American Midwest, I
would not presume to judge Yoruba culture, or to analyze Yoruba women under a Western lens. I do think,
however, that a close look at the women characters in Death and the King’s Horseman can reveal different
ways of thinking about power and influence and responsibility.
To be sure, there are moments in Death and the King’s Horseman that make a Western feminist cringe. As
the play opens, Elesin comes strutting into the market bragging about his many sexual conquests. The
Praise-Singer fondly remembers the time the horseman was caught with his sister-in-law and claimed, ‘‘but I
was only prostrating myself to her as becomes a grateful in-law.’’ Later in the same Act, Elesin becomes
distracted, ‘‘his attention is caught by an object off-stage’’ (italics mine). That ‘‘object’’ is soon revealed
to be a young woman, the bride, whose body Elesin praises piece by piece. In Act 3, Elesin emerges from the
wedding chamber with the stained cloth that proves that the bride was a virgin when he took her and that she
has not dishonored him. Clearly the rules are different for men and for women. When Elesin is in his cell for
the last Act and Jane Pilkings tries to make him see her husband’s motives, Elesin is pointedly rude and
dismissive: ‘‘That is my wife sitting down there. You notice how still and silent she sits? My business is
with your husband.’’
A reader must not stop here, however. It is true that Elesin has an important position in a male world, and that
he does not see women as important influences on that position. But in fact, the women in the play tend to be
wiser and stronger, and they appear to be closer to the spirit world and less bound to the material world, than
the men.
As Mother of the market, Iyaloja is the leader of the women, and even Elesin pays respect to her. She can see
more deeply than Elesin can. She is the one who recognizes that the child of the union between Elesin and the
bride will be ‘‘the elusive being of passage.’’ (Elesin has no high moral or spiritual purpose in asking for
the bride. He simply wants sex.) Iyaloja is also the one who sees the danger in Elesin’s request, and she
warns him to be careful: ‘‘be sure the seed you leave . . . attracts no curse.’’ Of course, Elesin does not
listen to her, just as he refuses to hear Jane Pilkings. Only in the last Act is he forced to admit, ‘‘I more than
deserve your scorn.’’
In every pairing of a woman and her ‘‘equal’’ in stature, the woman emerges as the wiser. Iyaloja, the
highest-ranking woman, is wiser than Elesin, the king’s horseman. The market women easily make fools of
Amusa and the two constables and run them off, although the police officers come bearing batons and
authority. Of the two Pilkingses, Jane is much more observant and sensitive than Simon, although she is not
able ultimately to understand the Yoruba people she lives among.
It is Jane who is able to sense and understand that Amusa’s discomfort at seeing the egungun garments
misused is genuine, and she encourages Simon to remove the clothing. Jane does not, however, ultimately
respect Amusa’s feelings and she carries out her plan to dance mockingly in the robes at the fancy dress ball.
Similarly, she realizes that Simon has offended Joseph by making fun of holy water. Again, she does not
respect the Roman Catholic faith, but she can sense Joseph’s feelings and she has something to gain by
Roles of Women 36
bowing to them. She does not want Joseph to remain angry because, as she tells Simon, ‘‘He’s going to
hand in his notice tomorrow, you mark my word.’’
Unlike his father, Olunde is willing to talk with Jane. He acknowledges her limitations when he finds her
wearing the egungun mask, and tells her, ‘‘I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not
understand.’’ But of the two Pilkingses, he prefers to speak with Jane: ‘‘I need your help Mrs. Pilkings.
I’ve always found you somewhat more understanding than your husband.’’ Jane does not understand
Olunde’s reaction to his father’s death, and she calls him ‘‘callous’’ and a ‘‘savage.’’ But while Simon
assumes he understands the Africans under his supervision and has no wish to learn more, Jane feels deeply
the limits of her understanding. She begs Olunde to teach her: ‘‘Your calm acceptance for instance, can you
explain that? It was so unnatural. I don’t understand it at all. I feel a need to understand all I can.’’ She
continues, ‘‘I feel it has to do with the many things we don’t really grasp about your people.’’
Elesin betrays his people by failing to fulfill his ritual responsibility. He is turned away from his duty by the
relatively trivial distractions of rich robes and a pretty face. By contrast, two female characters in the play are
shown to recognize their responsibility and to fulfill it completely, even when the path is a difficult one.
Iyaloja, for example, is asked to give up the woman who is engaged to her own son so that Elesin may enjoy a
few last moments of pleasure. She is at first displeased with the request, and the other women encourage her
to speak up, but she refuses to deny Elesin what he wants. The responsibility to meet the ancestors is Elesin’s,
but Iyaloja knows that her responsibility is to help him, and she will not ‘‘burden him with knowledge that
will sour his wish and lay regrets on the last moments of his mind.’’
The repetition of Yoruba proverbial language shows that Iyaloja’s decision is just as significant as Elesin’s.
At the beginning of Act 1 the Praise-singer honors Elesin for his commitment to his duty, reminding him that
‘‘the world was never tilted from its groove, it shall not be in yours,’’ and ‘‘Our world was never
wrenched from its true course.’’ Breaking faith with the ancestors is a catastrophic failure. The same
language is used by Iyaloja when the other women encourage her to refuse Elesin’s request for the young
woman: ‘‘don’t set this world adrift in your own time; would you rather it was my hand whose sacrilege
wrenched it loose?’’ Both Elesin and Iyaloja are free to act, but the wrong action will have grave
consequences. Elesin recognized Iyaloja’s hesitation, and scolds her for it, but she quickly sees the
importance of the sacrifice and is, in the words of the stage directions, is ‘‘completely reconciled.’’
The bride, too, has a duty, and she sees it through. The bride does not speak a word throughout the play, so
her thoughts and feelings are not examined. We have no way of knowing whether she loved Iyaloja’s son, the
man she was to have married, or what personal benefit she might look forward to in marrying a man whom
she had never met, and who would be dead a few minutes after the marriage was consummated. The stage
directions give no hint about her reaction to Elesin’s ‘‘proposal,’’ no description of joy or of protest.
Elesin’s face ‘‘glows with pleasure’’ when the Bride comes to him, but what does her face look like?
Regardless, she does what she is supposed to do: she marries Elesin and has intercourse with him.
The bride emerges from the wedding chamber and stands ‘‘shyly’’ by her husband’s side as he instructs
her how to close his eyes after he is dead. When he is imprisoned, she sits quietly outside his cell, ‘‘her eyes
perpetually to the ground.’’ Even when Elesin blames her for ‘‘sapping’’ his will, she does not protest. As
Elesin proudly points out to Jane Pilkings, the bride knows her place. When Elesin is dead, she ‘‘walks
calmly into the cell and closes Elesin’s eyes. She then pours some earth over each eyelid and comes out
again.’’ What has it cost her to give herself to this man who saw her for a moment and wanted her? What
will it cost her now to bear his child? The silent woman does not reveal any emotion; she sees her duty, and
she performs it.
Women characters in Death and the King’s Horseman may be subservient to men, but they are strong, and
they are the only hope for the future. By the end of the play, the men have made a mess of things. Elesin and
Roles of Women 37
Olunde are dead, and Simon will have some explaining to do in the morning. The opening image of the play is
of Elesin and his entourage parading into the market in a loud and colorful celebration of male power. The
play ends with Iyaloja admonishing the bride, ‘‘Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind
only to the unborn.’’ Their eyes squarely on motherhood and the future, Iyaloja and the bride walk off stage,
accompanied by the sound of women’s voices.
Source: Cynthia A. Bily, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001. Bily teaches English at Adrian
College in Adrian, Michigan.
Death and the King’s Horseman: A poet’s quarrel with his
In the ‘‘Author’s Note’’ to his play Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), Wole Soyinka, while
instructing the play’s future producer on its correct stage interpretation, incidentally also describes the kind of
tragedy he has written: its ‘‘threnodic essence,’’ he says, is largely the metaphysical confrontation
‘‘contained in the human vehicle which is Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind. . . .’’ This
description does more than guide the producer: its terms (metaphysical confrontation, human vehicle, universe
of the Yoruba mind) suggest that the experience enacted is fundamentally that of the ritual.
Death and the King’s Horseman (DKH) is of course about the acting out of a people’s collective religious
emotions and desires at a crucial moment in its politico-cultural history, all framed and structured in a ritual. It
is also about the disruption of that ritual by its chief celebrant who is motivated by his own private feelings
that are not in conflict with the public ones, ones that in fact derive from that same occasion. With its
emphasis on the use of the human body—through dance, music, songs, and chants, a reported sexual act, and
two deaths—to complement dialogue that expresses those feelings, values, and beliefs, the play’s subject is
also textured by aesthetic rituals. To these we may still add the playwright’s statement in an interview with
Chuck Mike that DKH is the second in his ‘‘trilogy of transition.’’ All these internal and external evidences
fully support any categorizing of the play as a ritual drama.
This certainly is how Alain Severac reads it in his essay ‘‘Soyinka’s Tragedies: From Ritual to Drama.’’ In
that essay, however, Severac argues that ‘‘the drama [of DKH] remains separate from the ritual’’ because,
in his opinion, it does not complete the third movement of the tripartite ‘‘pattern of tragic conflict (challenge
of transitional abyss; disintegration; achievement of new order) as suggested by Soyinka.’’ Because of this
perceived non-completion of the tripartite movement, Severac judges the play to be deficient in its service to
(its) society.
I agree that in his theoretical and speculative essays on African (Yoruba) worldview, Soyinka discovers the
tripartite pattern of tragic conflict in the myths and rituals of Yoruba deities (most especially in that of Ogun)
and gives each stage equal stress. But then, the essays are on the traditional myths, belief systems, and ethics
of the people, as well as the religious rites that validate them. Those rites are also performed during sacred
periods when the priests are incarnations of the deities. Yet no matter how extensively they use ritual elements
or how closely they approximate rituals, Soyinka’s plays are actually about mortals acting in secular time.
The myths and rites, plus the values and beliefs they express, are present in the plays, possibly as defenses
against reality, but more certainly as ideals by which the reality that is their primary concern is measured (and
of which it is seen to fall short). The priest who, while incarnating a god, acts out all the stages of the tragic
conflict in full view of his people is serving them: he is reinforcing the sacred dimension of their collective
life and also giving therapy. But the (secular) dramatist who uses his plays to question the creeds is also
serving: by showing why a new order cannot yet follow the plunge into the abyss and the disintegration
stages, he is nudging his society towards self-scrutiny, change, and self-liberation.
Death and the King’s Horseman: A poet’s quarrel with his culture 38
This essay, however, is not a rejoinder to Severac’s, nor does it seek to justify DKH as a full- fledged ritual
drama; rather, it seeks to demonstrate that the play is a full-fledged, autonomous, secular tragedy and that,
being so, it interrogates the cultural values and ethics which make its action possible, in the process revealing
those cultural premises to be gravely flawed. DKH may be a play of metaphysical confrontation, but that
confrontation is firmly grounded in historical fact, not in myth. As such, an historical approach to how it
questions the culture as well as how it reveals the contradictions in the ethics of that culture at that point in
time is useful. There are other reasons for this approach. The play is possibly Soyinka’s most historical one
so far: its protagonist is based on a real figure and his equally factual action; the Second World War
background and the real visit of the Prince to Nigeria during that war are necessary to its plot; written within
five years of the Nigerian Civil War, a parallel between olokun esin’s behavior in Oyo in 1946 and the
lifestyle of the nation’s leadership during and immediately after that war could have suggested itself to the
poet’s mind. . . .
Although this approach is fraught with the danger of intentional fallacy, it at least relates the play, in a general
way, to contemporary political culture in Africa; it also allows us to see the fictional ritual as ambivalent and
problematic, just as the real one had become in Oyo by 1946. A ritual can serve to affirm the status quo or be
used to question it; but a religio-political and state ritual, such as was to be re-enacted in Oyo in 1946, is not
likely to be available for the latter purpose. A dramatist working as a free, creating agent can, however,
appropriate and use it to express his own dissentient vision: he can appear to be going along with the ideals
and values embodied in the ritual while, underneath, he is actually exposing its inadequacies and making it
condemn itself. The resultant play may or may not have a tragic plot, but it can hardly do without the dramatic
weapon of irony. DKH is such a play, and in it ritual functions more technically than symbolically to create
We may now return to Soyinka’s description of the play’s tragic essence and to its constituents:
metaphysical confrontation, the universe of the Yoruba mind which places the (historical) world of the living
at the center; and the human vehicle Elesin. In other words, here are present all three crucial ingredients of
tragedy: a cosmic order and man’s place in it; the individual’s relation to his society and his place in it; the
individual in relation to himself All genres of drama deal with the second element and may or may not touch
on the other two; it will be a poor tragedy that does not explore the third, or in which the first is neither
implicit nor explicit, in one form or another.
Except in the scene (off-stage) where he goes in to consummate his marriage, Elesin on the stage is
perpetually surrounded by crowds, a visual feature which emphasizes the centrality of his relation to society
and his place in it—as an individual as well as a man whose personality is defined by his social identity. It is,
therefore, perhaps better to base our analysis on the latter two elements.
Oral history tells us that originally, the olokun esin (Master of the Horse) did not have to die along with his
king for any reason at all, political or metaphysical. The first olokun esin to die did so willingly. The reason,
the oral historians say, was that that particular olokun esin and the king were uncommonly close friends. Such
was the friendship that the olokun esin enjoyed all the rights and privileges that the king himself had, plus all
the good things of life available in the empire. When the king died, this particular olokun esin thought that the
only way to demonstrate his love and loyalty to his friend, the dead king, was to die, too. Thus was
established the political custom in which a man had all the social rights, privileges, and power of a king
without the necessary political and moral restraints of that state.
True history or not, we can detect behind this picturesque story the bold outlines of the warrior ethic in a
heroic age. The heroic society gives to the hero the best in life: all the wealth, prosperity, and freedom to
satisfy all his desires; in return, he willingly pays with his life on the battlefield. By dying in war so that his
community can survive, he fulfills his obligation totally. Such death is, therefore, part of his social life, a
fulfillment of his own side of the bargain. As long as the heroic society lasts, such an ethic is only
Death and the King’s Horseman: A poet’s quarrel with his culture 39
paradoxical; once the society goes, its retention becomes an intolerable contradiction: the community lavishly
sustains a man only to ask him to die willingly at a moment’s notice.
The Oyo empire collapsed and, with it, the heroic society and culture. The military responsibilities of the
olokun esin dwindled, finally to be rendered a mere honorific office by colonial conquest. Of the many ways
in which colonialism brought about cultural alienation, one is especially relevant here. The colonial religion
preached an alternative cosmic order in which ritual self-immolation on behalf of society is neither desirable
nor necessary. With the power of this new cosmic order manifested in its victorious political power that was
evident to everybody, the spiritual mooring of the colonized was no longer secure: absolute conviction in the
old ways was no longer possible. That the old cultural values and norms could not support fully the emergent
psychology no doubt played a part in the decision of the historical olokun esin not to die in 1946.
Precisely because the obligation to die was now no longer a military but spiritual affair, the two aspects of the
warrior ethics, which had hitherto been complementary, were now discrete entities. The rights and privileges
attached to the office might still be embraced—but the reciprocal obligation recoiled from. The colonial
presence made this possible—even without the physical intervention of any district officer. Furthermore, the
life abundant still enjoyed by olokun esin now made self-immolation a most unattractive prospect,
posthumous honor notwithstanding. The warrior ethic had degenerated into opportunism. In building the
action of DKH around the 1946 cultural fiasco in the Oyo community, Soyinka was exploring how that
degeneration came about and why.
A conventional reading of the play would blame Elesin alone for his failure to die. This is to view the play
purely as a ritual performance in which the celebrant-protagonist allowed his attention to be fatally diverted.
This in fact is how Iyaloja inter prets the failure; but then, she is the spokesperson of the injured party. Rather,
the play as a whole is more concerned with the inevitability of that failure— plus its causes and effects—than
with finding a villain. This reading of the play as tragic drama therefore shows that Elesin’s character and
action up to the point when he should have died and his inability to die are consistent with each other, and that
this consistency is a revelation of the ambiguities and shortcomings of his culture at this point in history. He is
as much an effect of that culture as he is a cause of its smashing ‘‘on boulders of the great void.’’ With all
the above in mind, we may go on to examine Elesin’s moral and social behavior and relationships.
For a play so thematically complex and profound, DKH has a surprisingly simple structure. But regarding the
characterization of Elesin, this simple structure has to be followed twice: once forward, then backward. Act I
establishes firmly his heroic character and social identity; by the longer second half of Act III, his marriage is
already consummated and he embarks on his journey through the metaphysical abyss, a liminal figure. But
then he surfaces again completely human at the end of Act IV, and we have to trace the causes of his failure
back into the character established earlier. However, the forward movement first.
Acts I and II are justly famous for their dramatic power and extraordinary poetic impact, much of which are
concentrated on the character and characterization of Elesin. From the moment he enters as ‘‘a man of
enormous vitality’’ who ‘‘speaks, dances and sings with that infectious enjoyment of life. . .,’’ we are in
the presence of a character of epic proportions. Elesin’s vitality is not just enormous, it is elemental. His life
has been totally dedicated to the fulfillment of all sensual desires and appetites. In all his hedonistic life,
Elesin has known only happiness, or anger, but never moral doubt. His acceptance of life as he met it is
complete, passionate, impulsive. The life he leads is as dynamic as it is flamboyant and theatrical, for he can
express himself completely in words and deeds. Power, joy, triumph rule his life—and death. This last he is
now embracing as triumphantly as he has lived:
My rein is loosened.
I am master of my Fate. When the hour comes
Watch me dance along the narrowing path
Death and the King’s Horseman: A poet’s quarrel with his culture 40
Glazed by the soles of my great precursors.
My soul is eager. I shall not turn aside.
His passage through the market is the crowning, valedictory performance of that theatrical life; his death is a
consummation of his power.
These are the constituents of Elesin’s public character; they do not, however, explain fully either the heroic
bluster with which he enters the market or the adulatory reception he gets from the women. That explanation
lies in the social-metaphysical ambience of the culture: Elesin, too, ‘‘died’’ the day his king died; the
remaining thirty days left for him are just the preparatory period for his burial. Thus, although still corporeally
here, his body is assumed to be already in the liminal state, half-possessing the metaphysical authority and
potency of a redoubtable ancestor. His life is already complete, his person in the process of being transformed
into the passage that connects this world and the next; all that remains now is for him to let his soul pass
That remaining action will prove his heroic will-power and mastery over culture and nature (death) and have
beneficial effects on the world he is leaving behind. Thus, although it involves dying, it is an action that calls
for celebration. To this extent, the ritual action conforms with Soyinka’s description of ritual tragedy in
Yoruba cosmology as set out in his essays.
But Elesin delays, postpones, this ‘‘happy tragic action’’ by first having a wedding. If now we read the play
in the secular, questioning spirit in which it is written and therefore choose to define an action as tragic owing
to its (ironic) effects on the protagonist’s subsequent fortunes (plus the moral quality of heroic suffering
attendant on those plunging fortunes) as well as on the society, we find its tragic action (and error) lies in
Elesin’s postponement of a death for a wedding, not in his inability to die. The failure to die comes as a
consequence of his decision to have a wedding—and consummate it—before his metaphysical transition. That
decision in turn shows that his mind and body are still firmly rooted in this world; the white man has nothing
whatsoever to do with it; and it is perfectly in character. We may now proceed to examine more closely how
Elesin’s character leads him to take this fateful decision and action; in this, we follow Aristotle’s Poetics,
read in conjunction with his Ethics.
Elesin’s character so far reveals that he has all the virtues necessary for happiness; but as Aristotle noted,
virtues alone do not make for happiness— virtues have to be exercised in action for that to come about. But
every action is a risk because it does not depend on our virtues alone: other circum stances, including hitherto
unsuspected traits in our own makeup, may conjoin and take the action out of control. Once the action has
been initiated, these other forces are set in motion and can produce totally unwanted effects. Thus, tragedy
results, turning what was formerly a virtue into a defect. Elesin’s sexual prowess, which all along has made
him a hero among women, is, for lack of propriety, exercised once too often. With this, the moral complexion
of his character changes: what before was heroic self-assertiveness now becomes irresponsible selfindulgence,
with catastrophic consequences for all. His character explains the act, but nothing whatsoever justifies it, least
of all the occasion. His rationalization of it (that he is shedding an excessive load ‘‘that may benefit the
living’’) convinces no one; rather, the act is the culmination of his life-long habit of sensualizing the
essentially spiritual destiny he was born to serve. The compulsive possession of the girl is, in other words, a
matter of private lust and exercise of power by a man who has always had his way. But although lust and
power are now selfishly exercised, they no doubt are approved of by the ethos of the culture, one of whose
cardinal values is the pleasure-principle.
That ethos (I am using Clifford Geertz’s definition: ‘‘the tone, character, and quality of. . . life, its moral and
aesthetic style and mood’’) explains why the grim ritual about to take place is turned into a frolicsome
occasion. It in turn explains Elesin’s act of hamartia. At the beginning, Elesin enters the market ‘‘pursued
by his drummers and praise-singers.’’ Borne aloft by the combined intoxicants of music, dance,
Death and the King’s Horseman: A poet’s quarrel with his culture 41
spell-binding chants, and admiring women, Elesin’s passage, which should have been a progression in inward
withdrawal, gathers more and more momentum in aggressiveness. The momentum might have seen him
through the combat with death, for which he needs all his heroic energy; but it is deflected into breaking a
hymen. Having wasted much of his ‘‘vital flow’’ in this enterprise, it is not surprising that the reserve is
insufficient for the main battle shortly afterwards. From now on, disasters follow in ever greater magnitude;
an action started as a ritual performance to secure the world in its metaphysical moorings completes itself in
tipping that world over into the void. The ethical and dramatic processes by which this happens is complex
but can he outlined. In effect, what Elesin attempts to do is to reconstruct and reinvent the ritual by adding the
marriage to it and thereby inscribe his own personality into its processes. And has has been noted, that
personality is essentially a sensual one—one that is perpetually seeking to aestheticize the ethical and the
spiritual. In this, he is aided by his knowledge of the nature of Yoruba public ceremonies: their flexibility
which allows for personal intervention and improvisation so that a bold man can ‘‘dance’’ at the edge of
propriety. In such an ethically fluid situation, only the outcome of such ‘‘playing’’ with the festival process
and turning it into a spectacle of personal power display can determine whether the boundaries have been
This may have been impossible for his spectators to judge, but it is not for the readers of the play: we know
that Elesin’s motives for improvising on and reconstructing the ritual are morally suspect. Now, as is implicit
in Aristotle, initiating an action is one thing, guaranteeing its successful eventual outcome quite another. The
risk is greater because the purity of motive for an action cannot in itself ensure its success. So in drama, the
failure of an action whose initial motivation was morally suspect reduces the tragic stature of the actor, for it
makes us feel somewhat that the punishment is well deserved. Elesin therefore suffers from the delusion of his
own invincibility. He thinks that he is totally free to invent the rules as he goes along, still arriving at the
appointed end. He also assumes that his power to control things—including his power of self-control— is
limitless. He has forgotten, or neglected, the fact that rituals have taboos. Observance of such taboos,
especially ones that have to do with the sensual appetites, gives the power of mastery over the self and other
forces; to break the taboos, however, is not only to frustrate the desired end, but also positively to invite
Yet to ask how Elesin came under the delusion of total power and freedom, to the point where he wreaks so
much havoc on himself and his community, is to implicate that community as well as its ethos which
sanctions certain forms of morally ambiguous action in its leaders. If Elesin is guilty of self-indulgence, the
community indulged him. When Iyaloja confronts a disgraced and humiliated Elesin, she lashes out: ‘‘We
called you leader and oh, how you led us on.’’ Her tone here should be a mixture of anger and regret, for the
leading on is mutual. Earlier (Act I), when Elesin’s predatory and indiscriminate sexuality is praised, the
women chorus ‘‘Ba-a-a-ba O!’’ in ecstatic admiration. In other words, this behavior is expected of
him—and encouraged. It is characteristic of his class and sanctioned by the ethos of his culture, both of which
he is product and, because of his exalted position, pro ducer. When he makes his impulsive demand for the
girl, the women do not judge that demand improper; they protest only that the girl is betrothed. Ultimately
they reason that the union is honorable, desirable even, considering the end that they hope it would serve. The
contrived marriage therefore has its source in the ethics and metaphysics of the culture. The action is
equivocal, but the ethical preference for satiation over abstinence leads all into mistaking an egotistic demand
for an altruistic gesture. Elesin’s action is not the private sin of betrayal that Iyaloja later makes it out to be,
but a collective error resulting from the interplay of character, the pressure of the occasion, and the ethical
values of the culture. The error reveals that the ethical values are now gravely flawed.
We may account for this negative state of affairs by going back to the warrior ethic. As outlined earlier, the
ethic operates in a heroic society that needs to send out its men to die in its defense. As the warriors become a
special class, their special privileges and status become part of the social definition of that class, even in times
of peace. In the post-empire, post-heroic Oyo society, the military obligation became transformed into a
politico-religious one performed by the olokun esin alone. This change in character and significance of the
Death and the King’s Horseman: A poet’s quarrel with his culture 42
warlord’s obligation also implies that more spiritual than physical resources are needed. In other words, a
ritual suicide requires the dousing of the fires of desire and withdrawal from the world (though not its denial).
The ritual that Elesin is called upon to go through is oriented to the other world and therefore requires strictly
controlled and austere actions; yet his progress through the market— a metaphor for his journey through life so
far—is nothing but spontaneous and sensual, a warrior-rake’s progress, not an ascetic’s. The ascetic’s telos
has thus been superimposed on and mixed with the warrior’s lifestyle. Having spent all his life as a sensualist,
he is now asked to spiritualize his body plus all its appetites. His tragic error and subsequent inability to die
are therefore inevitable. And the failure suddenly reveals that, in the culture, not only has a wide gulf
separated the religious from the ethical and both from the political, but also that all three are set one against
the other. Thus, Elesin’s having his way with the girl and over Iyaloja’s feeble protest is a victory for the
culture’s political order (subjugation of women), achieved at the expense of its spirituality. And because it
lacks any spirituality, the act is banal. At this point in its history, it has squeezed out much of the spiritual
predisposition conducive to a strategic renunciation of the world.
If his charmed audience in the market could have listened more attentively, it would have detected the
melancholy undertone of longing and regret in Elesin’s very sensuous description of the sensual life he has
The world is not a constant honey-pot.
Where I found little I made do with little.
Where there was plenty I gorged myself.
We shared the choicest of the season’s
Harvest of yams. How my friend would read
Desire in my eyes before I knew the cause
However rare, however precious, it was mine. Put simply, Elesin overdramatizes his eagerness to go in order
to hide his reluctance—even from himself. Pilkings might be a bungling do-gooder, but he perceives this
underlying psychological truth about the culture when he reminds Elesin of the saying among his people:
The elder grimly approaches heaven and you ask
him to bear your
greetings yonder; do you really think he makes the
journey willingly?
Which truth Elesin himself admits to his unfortunate bride a few moments later. . . .
Related to the reluctance to let go of the honeypot that Elesin’s life has been is another cultural contradiction
dramatized in the play: the true position of women. Iyaloja’s towering role easily blinds us to women’s
essentially inferior position in the culture. In spite of her, or even with her active connivance, Elesin’s
relationship with the women shows a distorted application of the warrior ethic. In the heroic society the
warrior is the protector of his community’s women, but the ravisher of those of enemy communities. In the
absence of that enemy community, Elesin lays siege on the chastity of the women of his own community. He
rationalizes his demand for the girl, and after a few tense, awkward moments, Iyaloja is persuaded. The
political meaning of her consent is simply that it is not Elesin but the girl who is being sacrificed so that their
(Elesin and Iyaloja’s) world may stay on its ancient course. Literally, the act violates the girl’s purity;
symbolically, it violates the ethical sanctity and pure form of the ritual and of the culture behind it. We are not
sure that lyaloja fully realizes this even in her moment of discovery, revealed later in the great speech on
Elesin’s betrayal of sacred trust. This speech can be read ironically, the irony being the playwright’s on
Iyaloja. A pointer to this is that she has nothing to say to the girl, who, incidentally, remains voiceless
throughout—and nameless: she is denied this least of personal/social identities. In the name of the
metaphysical destiny and the political status quo, both ride rough-shod over an individual’s happiness and
Death and the King’s Horseman: A poet’s quarrel with his culture 43
integrity, because the culture says that that individual herself is expendable. Iyaloja’s consent to Elesin’s
demand is a betrayal of her son and it comments on the reality of the society-individual relationship in the
culture. But more significantly, it is part of the youth-senescence conflict in the play.
Youth-senescence conflict is recurrent in Soyinka’s drama, taking different forms: father-son (or their
surrogates); conservative authority–rebellious youth, etc. These conflicts usually end up in either a stalemate
or a defeat of youth, or in general anarchy. Soyinka’s criticism has not yet paid much attention to this motif
and its wider psycho-social meanings and dimensions. This is not the place for that, however. Suffice it to
remark here that in DKH the displacement of the girl’s fiancée and usurpation of his role by tyrannical
senescence is avenged with devastating tragic irony later, and with more catastrophic consequences for the
community: Olunde displaces his own father and usurps his role where it matters most to the culture (the two
halves of this compound irony, one occurring near the beginning and the other close to the end, also provide
poetic justice and aesthetic balance in the play). He does more: he takes revenge on behalf of the young man
(and all young men) who has been dispossessed of his fiancée. Olunde’s act completely destroys Elesin’s
masculinity, heroic stature, and status: all of his manhood and therefore occupation.
This analysis has so far concentrated on the internal workings of the culture—and therefore on the internal
logic of the tragic action of the play. Where does the external (colonial) factor come in then, if at all? It is true
that the District Officer intervenes to ‘‘stop’’ Elesin; but as the author, the play, and this analysis so far all
insist, that intervention is superfluous. It does no more than provide Elesin with a lame—and soon
discarded—excuse. The colonial factor does not come in directly. But since the internal workings of its own
culture provide an opposite and alternative metaphysics, ethics, and worldview, the colonial presence in the
vicinity alone is enough to undermine the selfconfidence of the native culture and expose the limited power of
its symbols. In the play, the metaphysical power of the native culture is symbolized in the egungun cult, its
political power represented by the Elesin lineage. (At death, Elesin too, of course, becomes an ancestor to be
incarnated in the egungun.)
There are two parallel sequences of action going on in the play: one at the market place, the other at the
District Officer’s bungalow (later moved to the Residency). But instead of keeping the sequences apart until
the climax, the playwright juxtaposes an event in one sequence with one in the other, so that the two otherwise
unrelated events can provide reverse mirror images of one another. At any rate, this effect is produced in the
sudden transition of scenes between Acts I and II. In Act I we have the great celebrative affirmation of the
power of the metaphysical/political universe of the native culture; Act II goes straight into showing that the
Pilkingses have turned the dress of the dreaded egungun cult into a mere fancy-dress. Surely Soyinka intends
to show more than another instance of desecration here: the juxtaposition is an implicit and objective
comment on the limitations of the metaphysical power which that cult symbolizes, Amusa’s terror
notwithstanding. Indeed, considered within the strict ironic objectivity of the play, Pilkings is right to be
disappointed in Amusa’s continued belief in ‘‘any mumbo-jumbo.’’ After all, Amusa himself had helped
arrest the cult leaders—with impunity. In addition to incarnating the dead, the egungun cult also performed
judicial functions; the colonial police is the new egungun cult—the representatives of the new power—in fancy
RESIDENT . . . Hey, didn’t we give them some
colourful fez hats with all those wavy
things, yes, pink tassels. . . .
The old egungun was arrested by the new with impunity, and Pilkings, the leader of the new cult, further
undermines its metaphysical power when he assimilates its symbol into his own secular culture. And, most
ironic of all, all these parallel and mutually contradictory actions have in common the element of
transformation. Of course, the old culture avenges itself by having the new egungun (i.e., the Native Authority
Police) desecrated in turn in the market, but there is no doubt where greater damage has been done.
Death and the King’s Horseman: A poet’s quarrel with his culture 44
The questioning and undermining of the potency and self-confidence of the one culture by mere presence of
the other is also there in the tangle between Elesin and Pilkings over Olunde. What is important here is not
that Olunde escapes to England, but that Pilkings wins with impunity—just as he wears the egungun dress with
impunity. The point is not lost on Joseph:
Oh no, master is white man. And good christian.
Black man juju can’t touch master.
The conflict itself plus its long-term outcome also constitute a complete tragic irony that is the complementary
opposite of the other self-contained unit of the usurpation motif noted earlier. Pilkings’s victory at first
threatens to put an end to the great symbolic action of ritual suicide which the Elesin lineage must carry on.
But when Olunde suddenly returns and willingly takes his reluctant father’s place, that victory appears only
temporary. Olunde’s suicide may have redeemed family honor and racial pride, demonstrated the pristine
strength of the heroic ethic, and thwarted Pilkings’s design of making a fine doctor of him, but it makes the
latter’s victory total and permanent: there is no living son to initiate into the secret power of the lineage. With
his death the ritual bridge that links the world with those of the unborn and the dead is cut at both ends.
But perhaps the playwright’s deliberate selection and arrangement of events to portray the culture ironically
is most evident in the Prince’s visit, which ‘‘just happens’’ to be on the night Elesin is ‘‘committing
death.’’ In the chronology of events in the play, the masque at the Residency and Elesin’s passage through
the metaphysical abyss are taking place simultaneously. However, although separated in space, the two events
are brought together—for comparison and contrast—in the impromptu debate between Olunde and Jane
Pilkings. This debate is so subtle and economical in the way in reveals Olunde’s character, so complex in its
relation to all that comes before and after, that this writer considers it crucial to any deep understanding of the
After four years in England, Olunde returns expecting only to see—and bury—his father’s body. But we have
to understand why a man who escaped from the ‘‘fatal’’ clutch of tradition and who is being educated for
higher things in the metropole should still acknowledge the claim of tradition; his character, too, has to be
further established, in preparation for his resolute act later on. Hence the impromptu debate. In it Olunde
manages to reveal what he has learned from British conduct in the war: moral courage on the part of a
leadership that can unhesitatingly sacrifice itself on behalf of society when that society’s survival is at risk.
This was exemplified recently in the action of the captain of the warship, and right now in the Prince’s visit.
Olunde’s witnessing of these acts of moral and physical courage in the British leadership has strengthened his
belief in the rightness of what his father has to do. But Olunde has been away for four years and has also been
disowned by his father. He is, in other words, an exile. It is from this position that he finds the intellectual
conviction to perform the act which his father, a complete insider, is unable to do. His act shows tremendous
will-power and even proves the pristine, if residual, strength of the culture’s worldview. But its conviction is
partintellectual and part-derived from outside; to that extent it lacks the spontaneous purity and intuited
certainty with which Elesin should have performed it.
The debate also further reveals the essential aspect of Olunde’s character that has troubled the Pilkingses, and
which his resolute act later con- firms. Strong-willed, austere, introspective and deep, he shows traits of
self-renunciation and asceticism which are more suitable for the great task of the Elesin lineage. In this regard,
his being the polar opposite of (and therefore foil to) his father is further ironic commentary on the state of the
culture: in its present actuality, such spiritual qualities, like the girl’s purity, are wasted. The colonial factor,
then, serves in the play no more than as a historical mirror which reflects the moribund and impotent state of
the native ethics at this time in history.
In conclusion, the argument of this essay may be summarized as follows: The drama of DKH centers on
Elesin’s actions and the conditions which make them possible, all of which together constitute the actual
Death and the King’s Horseman: A poet’s quarrel with his culture 45
form and functioning state of his culture at that point in time. The irreconcilable contradictions between its
different cardinal ideals, and between those ideals and reality, have become so strong that they overwhelm and
destroy the major ritual that symbolizes and guarantees its political power. In fiction, if not in reality, tragedy
is often the form in which such a situation plays itself out. After the exhaustion, the way is clear for a new
beginning. Thus, paradoxically enough, it is Elesin’s ritual-negating actions, and not Olunde’s salvaging
gesture, which make possible that new beginning. This essential function of tragedy tells us that Soyinka,
above everything else, is in this play most concerned with the need for a new ethical beginning more
appropriate for the new historical and social circumstances. This is the symbolic import and message of the
new life taking root in the innocent girl’s womb. That child is Elesin’s. So, then, in more ways than one,
Elesin is in truth ‘‘the human vehicle’’ of ‘‘the metaphysical confrontation’’ that is necessary for the
renewal of ‘‘the universe of the Yoruba mind.’’
Source: Wole Ogundele, ‘‘‘Death and the King’s Horseman’: A poet’s quarrel with his culture,’’ in
Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1994, p 47.
Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and
the King’s Horseman
In feudal societies, ritual was part of the cultural dominant. In other words, ritual was part of a complex and
insidious apparatus of cultural and political reproduction employed by the dominant groups. It is to be
expected, given the superannuation of the feudal mode of production in Western societies, that the
phenomenon of ritual itself would have lost much of its power and social efficacy. There is a sense in which
this development cannot be divorced from the gains of the Enlightenment and the triumph of rationality. From
the eighteenth century, scientific reasoning seemed to have gained ascendancy over the imaginative
apprehension of reality. This ascendancy, which also reflected the triumph of the bourgeois world-view in
Europe (along with its radical impatience for ancient myths and rituals) received perhaps its classic
formulation from Karl Marx. According to him, ‘‘all mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the
forces of nature in and through the imagination, hence it disappears as soon as man gains mastery over the
forces of nature’’. . . .
Yet this notwithstanding, it is also obvious that within the context of post-colonial cultural politics, the entire
concept of ritual has become a casualty of linguistic imperialism—a Eurocentric, unilinear notion of historical
development which negates the other by a forcible evacuation of its space. Thus, in the industrial and
scientific age, ritual has acquired the pejorative connotation of a meaningless exercise, a mundane routine. But
if any meaningful intellectual encounter between Western societies and the emergent post-colonial cultures of
the Third World is to take place, such ‘‘emptied’’ spaces must be recontested with a view to directing
people’s attention to this profoundly subtle hegemonic assault. To do this is to problematize the very concept
of ritual. The first step in this process would be to return ritual to its sacred origins, that is, to see it as an
aspect of symbolic thinking which Mircea Eliade regards as sharing the same substance with human existence.
Ritual, then, in the words of Ake Hulkrantz, is a ‘‘fixed, usually solemn behaviour that is repeated in certain
situations. Anthropologists like to call the latter ‘crisis situations,’ but there is not always any crisis involved.
It would be better to speak of sacred situations in Durkheim’s spirit’’. . . .
For people in pre-industrial societies, rituals served as a vehicle for reestablishing contact with the ontological
essence of the tribe. On the sacred nature of rituals, Eliade is again invaluable when he notes that ‘‘rituals are
given sanctification and rationalization in a culture by being referred to supposedly divine prototypes. Rituals
periodically reconfirm the sacredness of their origins and reestablish ‘sacred’ (as opposed to ‘profane’)
time for the community performing the rituals’’. . . .
Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and the King’s Horseman 46
As can be seen from this line of argument, rituals are expressions of human needs and desires; they are also
instrumental in satisfying such needs and desires. Since human needs are varied, there will be several
prototypes of rituals to take care of them. Whatever the form ritual might take, it is clear that human sacrifice
is its most severe and extreme form. Several rationales have been advanced to explain the phenomenon of
human sacrifice. They range from the need for a reactualization of direct relations between a people and their
god to a drive towards the seasonal regeneration of sacred forces. Although the precise function of this
undeniably harsh ritual might vary from place to place, it too is a function of social needs.
Many African writers have had recourse to ritual in refuting assumptions about Western cultural superiority.
In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for example, the suicide of Okonkwo is part of a complex ritual of
atonement and reassertion of the collective will. In Arrow of God, the main crisis is triggered by the imminent
repudiation of the sacred ritual of yam-eating. On another level, there is an ideological simulation of ritual
suicide in the fate that befalls Clarence, the protagonist in Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King and in
the horrific mutilations that abound in Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence. All these episodes constitute
nothing less than the deployment of ritual in a desperate cultural offensive. The mythicization of historical
events and prominent figures by some African writers is part of this renewed attempt to discover an authentic
African heritage.
But of all these writers, none has been more consistent and unapologetic in the enlistment of ritual for
ideological purposes than Wole Soyinka. Soyinka is, by critical consensus, a writer of forbidding depth and
complexity. A substantial part of this complexity derives from his deep communion with the cultural
paradigms of his people, the Yoruba: their mores, their myths, and above all their rituals. In an insightful
appraisal of Soyinka’s work, Stanley Macebuh has noted that ‘‘for him ‘history’ has not been so much a
record of human action as a demonstration of the manner in which social behaviour so often symbolizes a
sometimes voluntary, sometimes unwilling obedience to the subliminal impulse of the ancestral memory.’’ It
is not surprising, then, that ritual should play such a crucial role both as an ideological strategy and as a formal
category in most of Soyinka’s works. A random sample is instructive: the death of Eman, the protagonist of
The Strong Breed; the killing of the Old Man in Madmen and Specialists; the sacri- fice of Pentheus in his
adaptation of Euripides’s The Bacchae; the mental and physical destruction of Sekoni in The Interpreters;
and the annihilation of the Professor in The Road. All of these incidents have strong ritualistic overtones.
I have analyzed the political implications of Soyinka’s penchant for the mythic resolution of actual
contradictions as well as the shortcomings of the historicist opposition to this position (Williams ‘‘Mythic
Imagination’’). It is in Death and the King’s Horseman that we find Soyinka’s most explicit deployment of
ritual both as an organizing principle and as a surgical instrument for prizing open a people’s collective
consciousness at a crucial moment of their historical development. The crisis in the play stems from an acute
political and psychological threat to the ritual of human sacrifice. This is indeed a critical moment of history,
and since the play is a refraction of an actual historical event, it is bound to provide the playwright with an
appropriate forum for seminal reflections on a communal impasse. Yet it is important to unravel the deeper
ideological necessity behind the ritual in Death and the King’s Horseman, that is, the actual collective
‘‘narrative’’ of which it is socially symbolic or, to employ the terminology of structural linguistics, the
communal ‘‘langue’’ behind the author’s ‘‘parole.’’ To do this is to inquire into the political reality of
the ‘‘political unconscious’’ behind both the social text itself and the playwright’s textualization of it in his
The idea of a political unconscious as a corollary for the collective consciousness is not a new one. Its hazy
outlines can be glimpsed in the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In fact, Freud’s concept of repression
(i.e., the specific mechanism by means of which individuals and societies alike suppress hostile and
intolerable truths as a strategy for containing or postponing confrontations with reality) actually foreshadows
the theory of the political unconscious.
Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and the King’s Horseman 47
The political unconscious is inseparable from a theory of culture, for culture, being the material, intellectual,
and spiritual totality of a people’s way of life, normally sets the pace and the terms for whatever passes into
the realm of the political unconscious. But culture itself is always an unstable totality mediated by a whole
range of countervailing forces. In a diachronic sense, these forces are often hostile accretions from an earlier
cultural mode or developments within the society whose sheer incompatibility with the dominant order might
be symptomatic of newer modes struggling to come into existence. Raymond Williams has described these
forces as the residual and the emergent.
But the diachronic analysis does not exhaust the possibilities of the countervailing forces. Existing
synchronically with the dominant order are tendencies that portend fractures within this order. By virtue of the
fact that it is often a reaction to urgent existential dilemmas, the political unconscious is clearly involved with
these synchronic forces. Although it is tempting to see the political unconscious as one more instrument for
furthering the hegemonic ambitions of the dominant classes, this is not necessarily the case, because the
political unconscious has a utopian dimension, enabling it to serve social needs that transcend class barriers. A
particular ritual might well serve the political interests of the dominant class, but it can at the same time serve
the psychological needs of the dominated class, and in a situation of revolutionary rupture within society, it is
possible for the psychological to prevail over the political.
It has been suggested that Freud himself was prevented by a combination of historical and ideological
circumstances from realizing the true significance of his great discovery and from pressing it to its logical
conclusion. Imprisoned within the selflegitimizing snares of a stable and relatively prosperous bourgeois
society, denied the beneficial insight of a major historical rupture within his society, Freud was content with
transferring political and social unease to psychological categories. In other words, Freud himself was a
victim of the political unconscious.
In recent times, the most accomplished theorist of the political unconscious is Fredric Jameson, the influential
American Marxist scholar. Drawing sustenance from disparate sources including Levi- Strauss, Freud,
Foucault, Greimas, Lyotard, and Althusser, Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially
Symbolic Act makes a rigorous case for an overtly political interpretation of all works of art. His thesis is that,
since narrative is nothing but a specific mechanism through which the collective consciousness (as expressed
through the ‘‘parole’’ of the artist) represses harsh historical contradictions, the overriding task of criticism
is to confront the political unconscious of the narrative with the Real.
Two important points emerge from Jameson’s approach to the problem. First, he ascribes a collective
function to narrative. Appropriating Wittgenstein’s seminal insight into the social nature of language, he
posits that we cannot imagine a story or indeed its narrator without at the same time imagining the society
from which both of them spring. Second, in a direct polemical riposte to conventional Marxists, Jameson
avers that the repression of uncomfortable truths is not just a function of the hegemonic classes in human
societies, but that it is also adopted by the oppressed as a strategy for survival. In an interesting gloss on this
point, William Dowling notes that ‘‘for Jameson as a Marxist this is not, of course, some dark, paranoid
fantasy: it is the nightmare of history itself as men and women have always lived it, a nightmare that must be
repressed as a condition of psychological survival not only by the master but also by the slave, not only by the
bourgeoisie but also by the proletariat’’. . . .
Jameson’s indebtedness to Levi-Strauss’s ‘‘The Structural Analysis of Myth’’ is obvious. In his study of
the facial decorations of the Caduveo Indians, Levi-Strauss advances the thesis that the cultural artifact is
nothing but the symbolic resolution of a real contradiction, a strategy for containing on the imaginary plane an
intolerable concrete dilemma— in this case, the contradictions inherent in a rigidly hierarchical society.
Equally obvious is Jameson’s indebtedness to Althusser’s celebrated definition of ideology as ‘‘the
imaginary representation of the subject’s relationship to his or her real conditions of existence’’. . . .
Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and the King’s Horseman 48
For Althusser as for Jameson, ideology is not the monstrous concoction of oppressive classes in oppressive
societies; it is a trans-historical and supra-class phenomenon. Ideology is ‘‘not just mysti- fication (that is,
something that obscures the real relations of things in the world) but essential mysti- fication; one could not
imagine a human society without it.’’ Althusser’s original insight into the dynamics of ideology and
Jameson’s judicious appropriation of it, constitute a mortal blow to what the latter, in a different context, has
dismissed as the ‘‘luxury of old-fashioned ideological critique.’’ Taken together, Althusser and Jameson
can be seen to have opened up new frontiers for radical aesthetics and for the possibility of profoundly subtle
and sophisticated analyses of an author and his text’s insertion within what Althusser has described as the
‘‘interpellation’’. . . .
The political unconscious, then, is the realm of collective day-dreaming or mass fantasy. It is hardly a simple
affair, since it involves active struggles on the psychological and political planes. Indeed, it becomes
extremely problematic when it involves artistic refractions of what lies within the political unconscious. An
artist’s relationship with his or her society is often complex, more so if the artist is as politically aware, as
culturally conscious, and as intellectually combative as Soyinka.
Jameson’s cautionary note is instructive. For him, ‘‘daydreaming and wish-fulfilling fantasy are by no
means a simple operation, available at any time or place for the taking of a thought. Rather, they involve
mechanisms whose inspection may have something further to tell us about the otherwise inconceivable link
between desire and history’’. . . .
To be sure, Jameson is not without his critics. Some accuse him of confusion and eclectic opportunism both in
his theorization of the concept of the political unconscious and in his application of it. According to some of
his critics, he often relapses into a theological Marxism by treating arguable hypotheses as ‘‘apodictic
categories.’’ Robert Kantor and Joel Weinsheimer make the same point. In perhaps the most sustained
statement of these objections, Brom Anderson charges Jameson with ‘‘a profoundly apolitical
millenarianism.’’ Such objections notwithstanding, the theory of the political unconscious remains a
powerful weapon for plotting the dynamics between the surface characteristics of a work of art and its deeper
ideological structure.
Within Soyinka’s corpus, Death and the King’s Horseman has achieved the status of a classic. Critics with a
formalist bias have hailed its superb characterization, its haunting beauty, and above all its lyrical grandeur,
although an oppositional critic such as Biodun Jeyifo has objected to the lyrical beauty of the play on the
ideological ground that it seduces us into accepting what he considers to be Soyinka’s reactionary worldview
in the play. Kyalo Mativo has even gone so far as to observe that ‘‘when great form is not in service of great
content, it is fraud.’’ I have addressed these objections elsewhere (‘‘Marxian Epistemology’’ and
‘‘Marxism’’), but whatever the case might be, even the objections reinforce the consensus view that the
play is possibly the most intensely poetic of all Soyinka’s dramatic writings.
Written during a period of exile and existential anguish, the play derives its powerful dynamics from
Soyinka’s first attempt to grapple directly on the creative level with the ‘‘colonial question’’—a question
that obsessed his literary peers on the continent for over two decades. The playwright’s contemptuous
dismissal of ‘‘hidebound chronologues’’ notwithstanding, Death and the King’s Horseman is the creative
equivalent of a return of the repressed. In this play, Soyinka manages to capture the power and glory of the
ancient Yoruba state in its dying moment. At the same time, he poses a serious intellectual challenge to those
who would deny a conquered people their unique mode of apprehending and making sense of reality.
Death and the King’s Horseman represents an attempt to confront on a creative level the arrogance and
cultural chauvinism of Western imperialism. Soyinka himself has taken umbrage at the ‘‘reductionist
tendency’’ that views the dramatic tension in his play as having arisen from ‘‘a clash of cultures.’’
According to him, this ‘‘prejudicial label. . . presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the
Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and the King’s Horseman 49
alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter’’ (‘‘Author’s Note’’). The bitterly
polemical tone of this rebuttal illustrates the extent to which Soyinka’s threnodic temperament is affronted by
mundane cultural equations. Yet by exploring the sacred terror of ritual suicide within the context of the
cynicism and cultural dessications of the colonialists, Soyinka is engaged in nothing less than a sublime
cultural battle. By counterposing the notion of honor in the ancient Yoruba kingdom (as seen in the tragic
career of its principal custodian of culture) against the cynical presumptions and calculations of the colonial
officials, Soyinka exposes the absurdity inherent in all assumptions of cultural superiority.
Death and the King’s Horseman opens with a grand panorama of the Yoruba market place. Here, Soyinka
deploys all his artistic power to paint a picture of grandeur and vitality. According to an old Yoruba saying,
‘‘The world is a market place; heaven is home.’’ Apart from its obvious economic importance, the market
occupies a signal cultural, political, and spiritual position in the Yoruba cosmos. First, it is a site of political
and cultural ferment. Second, it doubles as that numinous zone in which the distinction between the world of
the dead and that of the living is abolished. The ancient Yoruba saying captures this crucial contiguity. In
most Yoruba towns, the evening market is regarded as the most important, and before the advent of electricity,
it was a most eerie sight indeed. Moreover, the market serves as a barometer for the spiritual and psychic
health of the community. The most important communal rites are carried out there. It was therefore a stroke of
genius to focus on the market place at the beginning of the play. But even here there is a profound irony, for
what is going on between the indigenous culture and the alien culture runs counter to the natural logic of the
market—a forum for buying and selling. We are confronted with the bizarre phenomenon of a culture that
insists upon forcing its hardware on another culture without making a commensurate purchase in return.
The crisis in the play is thus predicated on what is known in economics as a trade imbalance or as a trade
deficit between the conqueror’s culture and that of the conquered. The praise-singer, in a moving dialogue
with Elesin, captures the angst and spiritual anguish of his people:
Our world was never wrenched from
Its true course. . . . [I]f that world leaves
its course and smashes on the boulders
of great void, whose world will
give us shelter?
Behind the unease and anguish of this intensely poetic lamentation lie the sympathies of the playwright
himself. His very choice of images, ‘‘wrench,’’ ‘‘boulders,’’ and ‘‘void’’ betrays a starkly apocalyptic
Against this turbulent background one must situate the vexatious dynamics that transform Elesin, an otherwise
minor cultural functionary of the ruling class, into a world-historic role as the deliverer of his people.
Precisely because his suicide is supposed to compel respect for the integrity and inviolability of a besieged
culture, Elesin’s routine function takes on a major historical and political burden. For the people, the success
or failure of the ritual therefore becomes a matter of life and death. Here is the classic example of a particular
ritual that, under historical pressure, transcends its original cultural signification to assume a greater political
and spiritual significance.
Yet, if historical circumstances compel a particular ritual to serve purposes more complex than its original
ones, how can the same circumstances transform a minor figure into a major historical personage? Indeed, the
reverse is often the case. Karl Marx’s brilliant comparison of the two Bonapartes comes to mind: ‘‘[The
French] have not only a caricature of the old Napoleon, they have the old Napoleon himself, caricatured as he
must appear in the middle of the nineteenth century.’’ In an interesting gloss on this passage, Terry Eagleton
observes: ‘‘Bonaparte is not just a parody of Napoleon; he is Napoleon parodying himself. He is the real
thing dressed up as false, not just the false thing tricked out as real. What is in question now is not a regressive
Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and the King’s Horseman 50
caricature but a caricaturing regression’’. . . .
So it is with Elesin. And this is the source of the collective and individual tragedy in Death and the King’s
Horseman. Elesin’s consciousness has been shaped by the dialectic of his material and political
circumstances. If he appears weak, vacillating, selfpitying, self-dramatizing, and self-indulgent, it is because
the old Empire has exhausted itself. If he is cynically preoccupied with pleasure and the spoils of office, if he
is skeptical about the credibility of his destiny, his attitude is not unrelated to the fact that the hegemony of the
empire had long ago been fissured by internal contradictions as well as by the antagonistic logic supplied by
the conquering invaders. As evident in the play, the crumbling empire has already been thoroughly infiltrated
by the ‘‘other’’ empire and its various fetishes of political authority and cultural power: batons, bands,
balls, cells, gramophones, etc. In a rather resentful categorization of the opulence of the Residency, Soyinka
comes close to the truth when he describes it as being ‘‘redolent of the tawdry decadence of a far- flung but
key imperial frontier’’. . . .
In its dying moment, the empire can only produce an Elesin, a pathetic but ultimately subversive caricature of
his illustrious forebears. In the light of this insight, it is difficult to agree with Jeyifo when he asserts that
‘‘the play never really dramatises either the force of Elesin’s personality or the inevitability of his action.’’
In actuality, there is no force to dramatize; it is absent from Elesin’s personality. It is paradoxical that a
Marxist critic should slip into the bourgeois notion that history and literature are no more than the study of the
acts of great men. A genuinely materialist aesthetics must not be fixated on great personalities; on the
contrary, it must strive to relocate personalities within the social and historical forces which engendered them
in the first instance. The character of Elesin is an acute reflection of these forces at play.
In this context, it would be utopian to expect him, a critically misendowed man, to surmount the
overwhelming historical and social forces ranged against him. To expect such an act is to expect the
impossible. That the playwright fails to recognize this fact demonstrates the extent to which his own
imagination has been colored by the lingering effi- cacy of the ideological apparatus of the old Yoruba state.
Indeed, in an attempt to resist the mundane forces of concrete history, Soyinka is compelled to look beyond
Elesin to his son, Olunde, who is perhaps the most sensitively drawn character in the play. He is the
ideological spokesman for the playwright, who is obviously in profound sympathy with the young man’s
aspirations. Olunde’s material and historical circumstances are quite different from his father’s. He is armed
with immense personal courage and conviction; and his considerable intellect has been honed by a sustained
contact with the alien culture in all its contradictions and foibles. He is therefore a perfect match and
counterfoil to the arrogance and chauvinism of the colonial administrators. As he tells 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.’’ In another cutting riposte, he exclaims with bitter irony, ‘‘You believe that every thing
which appears to make sense was learnt from you’’. . . .
Consumed by his contempt and hatred for the hypocrisy and cant of Western civilization, bewildered by his
father’s lack of honor, Olunde chooses suicide as a means of redeeming the honor of his society and of
expiating what must have seemed to him as his father’s abominable cowardice and treachery. But rather than
alleviating the burden of the people, Olunde’s suicide only compounds their misery. The praise-singer again
captures this moment of historic stress:
What the end will be, we are not
gods to tell. But this young shoot has
poured its sap into the parent stalk,
and we know this is not the way
of life. Our world is tumbling in
the void of strangers.
Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and the King’s Horseman 51
Yet despite the enormous integrity of Olunde’s self-sacrifice, it is difficult to identify the point at which his
role as a cultural hero ends and where his role as the rearguard defender of a backward-looking political order
prevails. But Soyinka does not leave us in doubt as to his conviction that, if suicide is the ultimate option
available to Africa’s revolutionary intelligentsia in the struggle for a cultural revalidation of the continent, it
must be embraced without flinching.
This position engenders profound ideological difficulties. To start with, it lays itself open to the charge of
promoting a cult of romantic suicide. To leftwing critics, Olunde, by terminating his own life, has succumbed
to the whims of a reactionary culture and a flagrantly feudalistic ethos. Indeed, for critics of this persuasion,
there might be something paradoxically progressive in Elesin’s refusal to honor his oath. Jeyifo is precise and
uncompromising on this point. According to him, ‘‘The notion of honour (and integrity and dignity) for
which Soyinka provides a metaphysical rationalisation rests on the patriarchal, feudalist code of the ancient
Oyo kingdom, a code built on class entrenchment and class consolidation’’. . . .
It is necessary at this point to probe further, to ‘‘problematize’’ these various antithetical positions. The
first step towards accomplishing this goal will be to counterpose Jameson’s doctrine of the political
unconscious against Jeyifo’s instrumentalist Marxist objection to Soyinka’s ideological thrust. As it is, the
Elesin ritual is a projection of a people’s collective consciousness. Elesin’s suicide is designed to facilitate
the smooth transition of the departing king from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Even for
departing royalties, solitude might be a terrifying prospect in what Soyinka himself often somberly refers to as
the ‘‘the abyss of transition.’’ As the Iyaloja, the unwavering matriarch of culture and tradition, explains:
He knows the meaning of a king’s passage;
he was not born yesterday. He knows
the peril to the race when our dead
father who goes as intermediary,
waits and waits and knows he is
betrayed. . . . He knows he has condemned our
king to wander in
the void of evil with beings who are enemies
of life. . . .
In Yoruba culture, a king never ‘‘dies.’’ A king wandering ‘‘in the void’’ is therefore an abomination, a
serious threat to life and communal wellbeing. Thus, insofar as Elesin’s suicide is conceived to usher the
departed king into his new kingdom, it is a crucial ritual of continuity, well-being, and hope; hence, the
collective anxiety about the dire consequences of its abortion. Yet as Jameson has contended, a political
unconscious always coexists uneasily with even the most apparently innocent manifestations of a people’s
collective consciousness. The question then becomes: What is the political unconscious behind Elesin’s ritual
and Soyinka’s fabulization of it? In other words, what is the historical contradiction for which the Elesin
ritual is supposed to be a symbolic resolution?
On one level, the ritual suicide of Elesin is supposed to take the sting out of the trauma of death by enacting
the drama of a privileged carrier who willingly undertakes the journey to the unknown. This act in itself might
serve to assuage the people’s collective anxiety about being forsaken as a result of the departure of the father
of the ‘‘tribe.’’ On another level, the ritual might well signify a symbolic conquest of death itself. For in the
absence of viable oppositional forces in the community, Death becomes the distinguished scourge and
ultimate terror of the ruling class: unconquerable, unanswerable, firm, unsmiling.
The Elesin ritual, then, magically transforms death into an ally of the rulers. In death, the power and grandeur
of the rulers remain. The transition of individual kings is thus immaterial: the kingdom remains unassailable.
Erich Auerbach regards the poetry of Homer as performing analogous functions for the ancient Greek
Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and the King’s Horseman 52
aristocracy. According to him: ‘‘. . . rather than an impression of historical change, Homer evokes the
illusion of an unchanging society, a basically stable order, in comparison with which the succession of
individuals and changes in personal fortunes appear unimportant.’’ Similarly, the Elesin ritual is designed to
reconcile the people of the ancient Oyo empire to the supremacy, invincibility, and divine nature of what is
essentially a feudal society. It is a socially symbolic act insofar as it negotiates the painful reality of death for
the ruling class. Hence, the ritual suicide is one of those insidious strategies of survival and containment that
Althusser has characterized as an ideological apparatus of the state. It is the political unconscious behind the
Elesin ritual in Death and the King’s Horseman.
Seen from this perspective, Jeyifo’s objection is not without merit. Death and the King’s Horseman does
provide metaphysical rationalization for a patriarchal and feudalist code. The play’s complicity with this
order is obvious in the sense that the playwright accepts the ritual as a communal necessity. But it is not just
the dominant classes that fear death. The terror of death is a common denominator in all societies; it is
therefore a supra-class phenomenon. Returning to Althusser’s definition of ideology, this particular maneuver
of the ruling class is an essential mystification, ultimately bene- ficial to the entire society.
It is this utopian dimension of the Elesin ritual that Soyinka’s leftwing critics have failed to comprehend.
While recognizing the power and urgency of negative hermeneutics within the Marxist critical enterprise,
Jameson argues that the ultimate task of Marxist criticism is to restore the utopian dimension to the work of
art, that is, to view the work of art as an expression of some ultimate collective urge while not overlooking
‘‘the narrower limits of class privilege which informs its more immediate ideological vocation.’’
Jameson’s conclusion bears quoting at length:
Such a view dictates an enlarged perspective for
any Marxist analysis of culture,
which can no longer be content with its
demystifying vocation to
unmask and to demonstrate the ways in which a
cultural artifact fulfils a
specific ideological mission, in legitimating a
given power structure. . . but
[which] must also seek through and beyond this
demonstration of the
instrumental function of a given cultural object, to
project its simultaneously
utopian power as the symbolic affirmation of a
specific historical and
class form of collectivity.
Jameson’s theory has nothing to do with Durkheim’s conservative notion of religious and ritual practice as a
symbolic affirmation of unity in all collective entities. The failure of Durkheim’s theory stems from its
fixation on the utopian impulse, a fixation that overlooks the division of all societies into dominant and
dominated groups. The obverse of this inadequate approach is any criticism that simply rewrites or allegorizes
a work of art in terms of Marx’s insight into history as an arena of conflicts between opposing classes.
In the final analysis, what Soyinka accomplished in Death and the King’s Horseman was to counterpose the
dominant culture of the ancient Oyo kingdom against the equally hegemonic culture of the white invaders. His
strategy is a brilliant, decolonizing venture. In an age characterized by new forms of cultural domination that
result from the economic marginalization of the third world, such an approach might well represent a more
pressing project than analyzing the class content of indigenous cultures. In a perceptive critique of Jeyifo’s
position on Death and the King’s Horseman, Gareth Griffins and David Moody conclude:
Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and the King’s Horseman 53
The issue here is less the correctness of Soyinka’s
choice of subject or of the
revolutionary character of the ‘‘class’’ of his
protagonists than the project
which the choice of subject and protagonist serve.
It seems to us that
Soyinka’s is a profoundly de-colonising project,
and that Jeyifo has lost
sight of this in his demand that an alternative
(although not actually
opposed) project be undertaken by African writers. . . . However, the route
forward in Nigeria, as in all post-colonial societies,
is in part through a
preservation of what Soyinka has called ‘‘selfapprehension.’’. . .
In Death and the King’s Horseman, then, the playwright is an unabashed horseman (‘‘Elesin’’ in the
Yoruba language) of a besieged culture, fighting a desperate battle against the cultural ‘‘other.’’ In such
turbulent circumstances, he could not direct his gaze at the inequities of the traditional hierarchy, lest his
resolve be weakened; neither could he bring himself to recognize that the culture he was defending had
already succumbed to the alienating necessity of history, lest the rationale for mustering a stiff resistance
disappear. This conflict is the political unconscious of the writer himself, and it shows its classic
manifestation—Soyinka’s prefatory protestations notwithstanding—in this imaginary resolution of a concrete
cultural dilemma.
By the same token, his radical critics are also complicit horsemen of the cultural and post-colonial ‘‘other.’’
For by insisting on the decadent and oppressive nature of the indigenous culture, they are in ideological
collusion with that genetic evolutionism and naively unilinear historicism that seeks to justify the cultural,
economic, and political atrocities of colonialism as the inevitable consequence of historical ‘‘progress.’’
This is the corollary of the teleological fallacy which regards any capitalist formation as an automatic
advancement on all indigenous economic formations. It is the cardinal sin of the founding father of Marxism
himself. That Karl Marx, despite his initial unease, eventually made his peace with a flagrantly bourgeois
notion of historical development shows the extent to which his own sensibility was steeped in the ideological
constellations of the nascent capitalist age.
Eagleton has defined succinctly Marx’s epistemological impasse. According to him, ‘‘In his effort to
theorize historical continuities Marx finds the evolutionist problematic closest to hand, but it is clear that it
will not do. For you do not escape a naively unilinear historicism merely by reversing its direction.’’ This
lapse of consciousness in all its smug Eurocentric complacency demonstrates how all master narratives,
including Marxism, are dogged by a political unconscious which derives from the logic of their own insertion
into the historical process. It is the urgent task of all genuinely revolutionary post-colonial discourses to
smuggle themselves into this gap in colonial narratives with a view to exploding their internal contradictions.
Death and the King’s Horseman fulfils this historic obligation. Whatever its complicity with the indigenous
ruling class might be, the importance of Soyinka’s classic for a viable postcolonial cultural and political
praxis lies in this achievement.
Source: Adebayo Williams, ‘‘Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of ‘Death and the King’s
Horseman,’’’ in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 24, no. 1, Spring, 1993, p. 67.
Ritual and the political unconscious: the case of Death and the King’s Horseman 54
Problems of Teaching an African Play to English Students
Set in the colonial era (1946), written by Nigerian Wole Soyinka when a fellow at Cambridge, England in the
early 1970s, and published in 1975, Death and the King’s Horseman is not typical of works written in Africa
in the 1970s, which generally deal with sociopolitical protest against government corruption. It is more like
works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which express cultural con- flict between the African and European
(Western) worlds.
Teaching Death and the King’s Horseman at the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria before teaching it at both
Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I have had
the opportunity of exposing the play to a diverse student population. Ironically African literary works are
classified in the West as postcolonial, but never construed so by African writers and their primary audience of
Africans. In Maiduguri, as I expect in other African universities, the postcolonial discourse invented by critics
in the Western academy has not caught up with teachers of African literature. African critics of African
literature in Africa and some more nationalistic ones abroad speak of ‘‘post-independence African
literature’’ instead of the postcolonial. A Nigerian poet and scholar teaching in the United States, I favor the
‘‘post-independence’’ classification, which emphasizes the people’s responsibilities to themselves over the
never-ending ‘‘postcolonial,’’ which seems paternalistic by comparison. Writers in Africa have moved
from putting blame for their fate on colonialists to taking their fate in their own hands, a sort of self-criticism.
The focus of this note is to articulate my experience of teaching Death and the King’s Horseman at both
Whitman College and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to bring out problems of the teacher and
students, which are sometimes symbiotic, and share strategies and techniques I adopted to make the play
accessible. In my experience, racial, cultural, feminist, and ideological tendencies, among others, tend to
condition student responses to the play.
I have encountered two types of responses in my teaching of Death and the King’s Horseman in America,
whose academy, with others in the West, has been promoting postcoloniality. These problems are both general
and specific. General problems have to do with the reception of any African literary work in America, and the
specific relates to Death and the King’s Horseman as a text.
The first general problem concerns teaching an African play in English to students used to the Euro-
American literary tradition. I complicated issues in both colleges by calling Wole Soyinka ‘‘our W. S.,’’
which reminded students of the English ‘‘W. S.,’’ William Shakespeare. In the spring 1992 class, mainly of
sophomores and seniors, a British female student and the remaining American students saw everything in the
light of Shakespeare, the touchstone of English drama. My strategy was to show Soyinka as having a double
heritage of African and Western dramatic traditions. I had to explain that Soyinka is very familiar with
classical Greek drama and that he studied at Leeds under the famous Shakespearean scholar Wilson Knight,
who became his mentor. But in addition, the African drama in traditional terms integrates music, poetry, and
dance with conventional aspects of festival or ritual. I made the students aware of Greek, Shakespearean, and
modern concepts of tragedy and had to approach Death and the King’s Horseman from the angle they
understood, while showing how the play is different in being African. The tragedy in the play has on one level
to do with a son superseding his father in doing his duty; this involves Olunde dying in the place of his father
to save his family from disgrace. In traditional African culture, a son buries his father, not the other way
around. Elesin’s son dies before him. So he symbolically eats leftovers, and will have to ride through dung to
the afterworld. That is his tragic failure. Seeing this, students are able to extend their knowledge of concepts
of tragedy.
The second general problem I have to tackle in Death and the King’s Horseman concerns language. Soyinka
has his own indigenous African language, Yoruba, before English. A Yoruba writing in English poses
Problems of Teaching an African Play to English Students 55
problems to the American reader because of what Abiola Irele calls ‘‘the problematic relation . . . between an
African work in a European language and the established conventions of Western literature.’’ While Soyinka
is able to blend Yoruba thoughts into English effortlessly, students have problems with the indigenous
background of his voice. Familiar with African language systems and proverbs, I have to decode the language
of the play for the students. I explain the nature and function of ritual language and the significance of
proverbs in African sociocultural discourse. This language issue directly leads to problems and strategies
specific to Death and the King’s Horseman as a unique text.
A white student at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte asked: ‘‘Is it okay to commit wrong acts in
the name of tradition?’’ This question, illustrative of students’ initial ignorance of other cultures, shows the
difficulty of teaching a ‘‘postcolonial’’ non-Western text to American students. Students ask: ‘‘What are
praise-singers?’’ They do not know how to pronounce the names of characters. In both Whitman College
and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte the students unanimously found Act 1 difficult. A black
female student at Charlotte has expressed this difficulty succinctly: ‘‘I felt thrown into the midst of a cultural
event, knowing absolutely nothing.’’ The ritualistic language poses a difficulty to the students for the first
time. The symbolism of the market, which is central to the play, is not discerned when it should be, nor is that
of the egungun costume.
Students need background materials about the Yoruba people and/or traditional Africa—especially the place of
traditional religion in the lives of the people—to give them a gradual induction into the world of the Old Oyo
Kingdom in which the play is set. (Showing a feature film on African culture can help with this.) The living
and the dead in traditional Africa are closely related, and the social set-up in Africa is such that the
community takes precedence over the individual: the sacrifice of an individual for the harmony of the group is
traditional in many areas. A brief historical survey of Old Oyo, British colonization of Nigeria and other parts
of Africa with its ‘‘Indirect Rule’’ system, and World War II will also be helpful, as students will then be in
a position not only to know the cultural background but also the historical setting of the play. After all,
modern African literature directly reflects African history. Once students know the sanctity of the egungun
cult and its costume, it will be easier for them to understand the colonialist insensitivity to African culture as
displayed by the wearing of the cultic dress by the District Officer and his wife, the Pilkings.
The cultural dimension of the play raises both general and specific problems. How will American students
grasp the full meaning of an African play which has so much to do with culture? Soyinka chooses the mystical
mode in Death and the King’s Horseman. To American students reading the play, he seems to be talking a
mystical language to a secular people not used to the African sense of religious ritual. My strategy at Charlotte
in two different African literature courses, after my experience at Whitman College, is to explain the mystical
nature of African life. Without doing this, the mystical focus of the dramatist on the ‘‘numinous passage’’
and ‘‘transition’’ will be lost on students, black and white, male and female.
Olunde killing himself in place of his father is not a total surprise to the African reader as it is to the
Euro-American. Like the Pilkings, my students tend to believe that Olunde as a medical student who has been
educated abroad would not kill himself, in fact, would not support the customary practice of the king’s
horseman ritually killing himself so as to accompany his master-king to the spirit world. However, if students
are exposed to the Yoruba world-view, as I have been through study and living with them, they would
understand that Olunde would not abandon his culture for any other one. Generally, the Yoruba are absorptive
and borrow from other cultures what can strengthen theirs. Olunde’s stay in England and his medical training
only convinced him more about his father’s responsibility of self-sacrifice. His experience of war casualties
in English hospitals, the captains’ selfsacrifice, and the British Prince’s braving the seas in war time for a
‘‘showing-the-flag tour of colonial possessions’’ reinforce his faith in his culture and people. He has to
perform the ultimate sacrifice for his family honor and the harmony of the Oyo State.
Problems of Teaching an African Play to English Students 56
The culture conflict in the play evokes racism in the United States. The play has consistently specially
appealed to Southern African-American students. When the play is taught in a Colloquium course that
includes John Edgar Wideman’s Fever, black students are thrilled by Olunde’s intelligence and high
self-esteem. They like Olunde, a black man, who is more than a match for Jane Pilkings, who had at first
appeared condescending to him. The students relish Olunde’s statements to Jane that ‘‘I discovered that you
have no respect for what you do not understand.’’ The racist remarks of both Simon Pilkings and his
aide-de-camp remind African- Americans of racism in America. A white colleague, Dr. Susan Gardner, with
whom I cotaught a course that included Death and the King’s Horseman, complained of the stereotypical
way the British characters are portrayed. I agreed with her and the students, but explained that Simon Pilkings
is portrayed as a typical district officer rather than as an individual. Jane is more individualized. The cultural
and racist concerns bring out different perspectives that are valid readers’ responses to the text.
A feminist or women-oriented dimension is strongly brought out in the play, so that gender matters very much
in determining responses. My female students, black and white, like the market women’s teasing of Amusa.
Black female students relate Amusa to Uncle Tom and feel he deserves his humiliation. The entire class (and
female students in particular) are ecstatic at the girls’ mimicking of the English accent and mannerisms.
Women generally, black and white, like Iyaloja who seems to be in command of events, especially at the end
when she chastises Elesin for failing to perform his duty. Her dominant character is also borne out by her
forbidding Mr. Pilkings from closing dead Elesin’s eyes and asking the Bride to do it.
Identification makes students respond to the play in their own ways. The part in Act 4 where Olunde talks
with Jane Pilkings elicits this. The exchange especially appeals to black students, male and female, with a
nationalistic inclination. It is as if Olunde, an educated African confronting Western imperialism, is speaking
for them as African-Americans who have been dominated by whites. There is also the appeal to
African-American women of a black male, Olunde, who is not only intelligent, ‘‘sharp’’ and ‘‘smart,’’
but also talks of his family honor. Seeing in him an ideal of a black male who is not easy to come by in
America, they talk passionately of him.
Similarly, black and white women students prefer Jane to her husband Simon Pilkings. It seems they see in
her the humane and sensitive aspects of womanhood that are lacking in Simon. In both instances, there is
solidarity on the basis of race and gender. Black and white male students have not shown any liking for Simon
Pilkings, who is portrayed as symbolic of the colonial administrator rather than just a male character.
The most difficult and perhaps debatable aspect of the play in my teaching at both Walla Walla and Charlotte
for some three years is that many students cannot understand why Iyaloja, the market women, the Praise
Singer, Olunde, and others blame Elesin for not doing his duty when already arrested. I link this problem to
notions of tragedy and time in cultural perspectives. To many students, Elesin goes very far in the trance and
has no way of killing himself once arrested. I counter this argument with:
‘‘But he kills himself in spite of chains when he really wants to!’’ In other words, earlier he hadn’t the will
to die because of his attachment to material things—market, fine clothes, and a young woman. To understand
the play as a tragedy, I impress it on my students that Elesin’s failure is not refusing to die, but not dying at
the appropriate moment. It is a ritual and there is a time for everything. However, Elesin delays and provides
the opportunity for his arrest and the excuse not to die. Interestingly, white students sympathize with Elesin,
saying it is diffi- cult for any human being willingly to take his or her life. Black students tend to feel that
Elesin knows from the beginning what his position as the King’s Horseman entails, and that since he has
enjoyed the privileges of the position he should, as the custom demands, perform his duty properly. Students
tend to defend or condemn Elesin.
I have adopted a part-seminar part-lecture strategy of teaching the text, which encourages students’
questioning and my own as well. In lecture I may explain, for instance, that African time follows the rhythm
Problems of Teaching an African Play to English Students 57
of nature, like the moon, and is not precise as Western Swiss-watch time. Still, frequent inquiry as to why we
should blame Elesin for not dying after being arrested, since the ritual was disrupted by Amusa and his fellow
police, has led me to look more critically at the passage of time in this play whose classical structure entails a
unity of time. It appears to me that there is a structural problem about the time that Elesin is supposed to die.
There is a gap that the content of the play as it stands does not fill. While drums tell when Elesin is supposed
to die, a time that the position of the moon is expected to manifest, and Olunde knows, there is the question as
to whether Elesin was already arrested or not at that crucial time. Soyinka might have deliberately made it
vague for suspense or unconsciously to leave gray areas in this play of the ‘‘numinous passage,’’ but it
constitutes a problem for readers.
At both Whitman College and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Soyinka’s Death and the
King’s Horseman, resurrects the American experience in the students. After all, every reader responds to a
text based on prior experience. As I explained earlier, training in the Western critical canon makes my
students compare Soyinka with Shakespeare. What I find most interesting is that many of my students who
are black, Southern, and raised in an evangelical atmosphere compare Elesin to Christ and Martin Luther
King, Jr. to understand the meaning of sacrifice.
Teaching Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman especially here in the South, I have developed
strategies and techniques that will alert my students to other dimensions of interpretation and understanding
from which their culture alone would have excluded them. Their inquisitive questions and exchanges with me
and among themselves have also widened my perspectives of the book as an African literary classic. Directing
the students’ response to the text from what they are already familiar with helps them to comprehend it fully.
While my personal background as a Nigerian would help, I do not recommend an essentialist approach, but
feel any teacher with some effort can make the play an enjoyable learning experience for students.
Source: Tanure Ojaide, ‘‘Teaching Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ to American
college students,’’ in College Literature, Vol., 19, No. 3, October–February, 1992, p. 210.

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