Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Summary and Analysis: Act II

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2137

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.

Summary 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 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...

(This entire section contains 2137 words.)

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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.

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.

Analysis 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 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 I


Summary and Analysis: Act III