Summary and Analysis: Act I
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 forebears.
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 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” 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).