Death and the King's Horseman Summary and Analysis: Act I
by Wole Soyinka

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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 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...

(The entire section is 2,023 words.)