The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
Death and the King’s Horseman, a tragedy in five acts, is about Elesin, the King’s horseman, who is obligated to undergo a ritual suicide in order to accompany his dead king to the realm of the ancestors. The first act opens with Elesin moving through the marketplace with considerable vitality, singing and dancing, on his way to perform a duty crucial to the continued life and stability of his community. The main concern of the Praise-Singer is Elesin’s courage, but Elesin reassures him by telling the story of the “Not-I bird.” While others who see Death coming respond fearfully (“Not I”), Elesin sends the bird back to its nest and lays out the “welcome mat” for Death. He gives similar assurances to the market women.
Doubt about his willpower surfaces, however, when he demands that the women robe him in their best cloths. Eager to please and honor him, Iyaloja, the “mother” of the market, quickly agrees. Elesin then sees a beautiful young girl. His passion gets the better of him, but he rationalizes it as a desire to leave his seed behind him, to unburden himself of its weight before his journey to the afterlife. While Iyaloja is at first hesitant-the girl happens to be her future daughter-in-law, and she is not sure of Elesin’s motives-she soon grants him his wish by arranging a marriage. She cannot deny the final wish of this man Elesin, on whose death depends the safety of the community, but she warns him that if his will weakens and he does not go through with the suicide, he will place a curse on the girl and her future child. The act ends with the girl offered to Elesin as his bride.
Act 2 takes place at the bungalow of the (English) District Officer. Simon Pilkings and his wife, Jane, are dancing a tango dressed in local egungun costumes. Sergeant Amusa interrupts them by accidentally overturning a flowerpot. He has come with a message about Elesin’s intended ritual suicide-which is against British regulations-but has been so horrified by the Pilkingses’ flagrant dishonoring of the egungun “uniform of death” that he cannot speak. He can only write down his message and leave. Preoccupied with the upcoming fancy-dress ball that evening, Pilkings seems unable to deal effectively with the problem of Elesin. Only with Jane’s prompting does he finally determine how to stop the suicide and still attend the ball: He sends a note to Sergeant Amusa telling him to arrest Elesin and lock him up in Pilkings’ own house. Pilkings voices his regret that he has still not stamped out all pagan practices. Jane reminds him of a past incident, their aid in sending Elesin’s oldest son, Olunde, to England for a medical degree-against Elesin’s strenuous protest. Tradition calls for the son of the King’s Horseman to continue his father’s ritual role during the next king’s reign. They speculate that Olunde may have wanted to leave in order to escape that future. Throughout the act drums play in the background; they have a different sound from anything Jane and Simon have heard before. Joseph, their house servant, interprets them as celebrating “the death of a great chief” and “the wedding of a great chief.” Acts 1 and 2 are obviously taking place simultaneously. Neither Jane nor Simon is adequate to the occasion, both being totally insensitive to the meanings inherent in the African world around them. They are intent instead on the ball, and Simon announces to Jane at the end of the act that the Prince of Wales has just arrived in Nigeria and will be the honored guest. Their party mood is in stark contrast to the spiritual and metaphysical event about to transpire, which they are to be instrumental in turning into a tragedy.
Act 3 opens with Amusa at the marketplace trying to move the women out of his way in order to arrest Elesin. He insists that his “official business” takes precedence; they counter that Elesin himself is engaged in “official business” which is much more...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Soyinka emphasizes in his prefatory note that the director of the play must, if he is to capture its meanings, work to “elicit” its “threnodic essence.” While Aristotle in his analytical definition of tragedy would relegate song and spectacle to a secondary role, Soyinka, recognizing the religious demands of drama as ritual, insists upon their role in creating the cosmic setting. If any one thing accounts for Soyinka’s method in Death and the King’s Horseman, it is ceremony. The play opens with a ritual procession, with Elesin singing and dancing his way through the first act. He demands of the market women a robing ceremony, and the act closes with a wedding. The language is metaphorically rich, and the entire act represents a spiritual service, containing not conversations among characters but stylized rhetoric: the Praise-Singer quizzing Elesin on his fitness and readiness for the journey, Iyaloja and the Praise-Singer responding joyfully to Elesin’s mastery of the situation as the market women sing a refrain, the heightened debate between Iyaloja and Elesin over his desire for the young girl, and finally her formal warning to Elesin that the wedding must not draw him back into life. Further, much of the act is in verse form. The drums that are now onstage accompanying Elesin on his procession will throughout the play beat in the background, sending messages on his progress. The marriage at the end of the act has not individual but communal significance: It is a ritual to celebrate the union of the three worlds—the dead, the living, and the unborn.
Such ritual qualities dominate in acts 1, 3, and 5. They present the stages of Elesin’s journey. The first ends with his marriage, the third with his entrance into the trance of death, the fifth...
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Questions and Answers: Act I
1. Describe the character of Elesin Oba.
2. Who follows the Elesin Oba around in this scene, and why?
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...
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Questions and Answers: Act II
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.
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Questions and Answers: Act III
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...
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Questions and Answers: Act IV
1. How is the Pilkingses’ mimicry of the egungun ritual different from the schoolgirls’ mimicry of the British?
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 action?
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...
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Questions and Answers: Act V
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...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Birbalsingh, E. M. “Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman,” in Presence africaine. CXXIV (1982), pp. 202-219.
Gibbs, James. Wole Soyinka, 1986.
Izevbaye, D. S. “Mediation in Soyinka: The Case of the King’s Horseman,” in Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, 1981. Edited by James Gibbs.
Jain, Jasbir. “The Unfolding of a Text: Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman,” in Research in African Literatures. XVIII (1986), pp. 252-260.
Jones, Eldred D. The Writing of Wole Soyinka, 1983....
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