Death and The King's Horseman is a play based on a real incident that took place in Nigeria during British colonial rule. The focus of this story is on the character of Elesin, the King's Horseman referred to in the title. According to a Yoruba tradition, the death of the Chief must be followed by the ritual suicide of the Chief's Horseman as the Horseman's spirit is essential to helping the Chief's spirit ascend to the afterlife. Otherwise the Chief's spirit will wander the earth and bring harm to the Yoruba people.
The first half of the play follows the last day of the King’s Horseman who is a vital and sexual man as he celebrates his last day on earth. At the last minute the local British ruler stops the suicide as they deem it barbaric. The Yoruba community is horrified at the breaking of the ritual as they feel it will throw the natural order of their world off. The community blames the King’s Horseman as much as the blame the British ruler. The Horseman eventually kills himself, but this action condemns his soul to a miserable existence in the afterlife.