Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Summary and Analysis: Act IV

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New Characters
The Prince of England and various other guests at the fancy-dress ball.

The Resident: A civilian colonial administrator who is Simon Pilkings’ superior.

Aide-de-Camp: A military assistant to the Resident.

Olunde: The eldest son of the Elesin Oba.

The fancy-dress ball is in full swing in the great hall of the Residency, a sort of “palace” for the Resident, who functions as the colonial stand-in for British royal power. Various guests dressed in a variety of costumes anxiously await the appearance of the crown Prince, who has been on a tour of British colonial holdings. The Prince makes his appearance at the ball as the guest of honor. The Resident proceeds to introduce, selectively, various couples to the Prince, including the Pilkingses. The Prince is fascinated with the Pilkingses’ traditional garb, and they proceed to show him the details of the costume and demonstrate the dance steps, clumsily and inaccurately imitating the sounds of the egungun ritual participants. A footservant enters with a note intended for Simon that the Resident intercepts. Having read it, the Resident interrupts the Pilkingses’ performance for the Prince and pulls Simon aside. The note, of course, refers to the ritual suicide that is to take place. The Resident expresses his concerns: first, that Simon has not properly done his job controlling the natives and second, that a riot might erupt on the very evening of the Prince’s visit—such an incident would be quite a disaster since Oyo is supposed to be a secure colony of His Majesty. Just then, Amusa and the two constables appear. The Resident mistakes them for the ring-leaders of the riot, but Simon admits that they are, in fact, native policemen. The Resident takes in their sloppy appearance and absent-mindedly wonders what happened to their uniform hats and sashes. Instructing Simon to send him a report first thing in the morning, the Resident returns to attend to the Prince and other guests at the ball. Dismissing Amusa from service because he still cannot bear to look at Simon while he is wearing the egungun outfit and mask, Simon runs out of the hall followed by the two constables, leaving Jane behind.

A young black man dressed in a Western suit emerges from the shadows at this time. Startled, Jane asks who he is. Olunde apologizes and explains that he seeks the District Officer. Jane recognizes him as the Elesin’s eldest son, whom Simon helped “escape” Oyo four years ago to attend medical school in England. She greets Olunde warmly, telling him he looks well. Olunde takes in her costume, tells her she looks well too, and asks why she is desecrating an ancestral mask. Jane expresses her disappointment that Olunde would take such a stance. Olunde responds that, having lived among her people for four years, he has realized that the English have no respect for what they do not understand. Jane asks him if he did not find his stay in England at all edifying.

Olunde tells her that he has been impressed by the English people’s courage and conduct during the war. This prompts Jane to provide Olunde with a war story of her own. Although as remote a colony as that of Oyo in Nigeria has not been much affected by the events of World War II, there is the occasional bit of excitement. Jane tells Olunde about the time a ship was intentionally blown up in the harbor, not through enemy action but by the captain of the ship himself. Jane says that the captain was obligated to blow up the ship because it...

(This entire section contains 2332 words.)

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had become dangerous to the surrounding ships and the city itself. The captain blew himself up with the ship deliberately because someone had to remain on board to light the fuse. Olunde tells Jane that he finds the story of the captain’s self-sacrifice to be inspiring—an affirmative commentary on life. Jane tells him that such a viewpoint is nonsense, that life should never be thrown away.

Olunde changes the subject, repeating his desire to locate Simon Pilkings. He tells Jane that he has always found her to be more understanding than her husband and that he needs her help to talk with Simon. Jane asks Olunde if he knows what Simon is trying to do for him and for his community. Not waiting for his reply, she asks Olunde how he happened to arrive at just this time. Olunde explains that he received a telegram a few weeks earlier that the King had died, and he realized that he had to return home at once to bury his father. Jane tells him that Simon is trying to prevent Olunde from having to go through the agony of losing his father. Olunde explains that he does not view the loss of his father as an agonizing event, but rather as an act of honor that will bring peace of mind and the veneration of the community. He tells Jane that Simon is wasting his time. Olunde wishes to warn Simon not to prevent the ritual suicide or he will incur the enmity of the entire community. Shocked, Jane protests that the ritual suicide is a barbaric and feudal custom. In reply, Olunde simply points to where the guests at the ball are fawning over the Crown Prince and asks Jane what she calls that spectacle. Jane tells him sincerely that it is British-style therapy, the preservation of sanity in the midst of chaos. Olunde replies that others might call it decadence. He states that he admires the way that the white races have perfected the art of survival; if only they would permit other cultures to survive in their own way as well. Jane retorts that ritual suicide could hardly be considered cultural survival. Olunde again has a ready reply: he tells her that the young English soldiers in the war are committing nothing less than mass suicide and that the British media misrepresents these bloody defeats as strategic victories in order to coerce the British people into supporting the war. Olunde has spent part of the past four years working in military hospitals in England. He has learned the truth about the war firsthand from the wounded and dying English soldiers. Apart from the war, Olunde tells Jane, he has seen nothing of English people that gives them the right to pass judgment on other cultures. Jane pauses, thinks, hesitates. Then she asks Olunde not to forsake his medical training because she believes he will make an excellent, sympathetic, and competent doctor. Olunde is surprised that she would suggest that he might give up his medical training and informs her that after he buries his father, he will return to England. Then he takes her outside so that they can listen to the drum sounds swelling in the distance. He dispassionately tells her that the change in rhythm means that it is over: his father is dead. Jane screams at Olunde that he is callous to be able to announce his father’s death with such lack of emotion. She screams that he is just a savage like all the others. This calls the attention of the Aide-de-Camp, who rushes out of the Residency. The Aide-de-Camp confirms that Jane is safe and needs no protection from Olunde. Jane recovers herself, and the Aide-de-Camp, at Jane’s request, returns indoors. Olunde asks to leave, for he would like to see his father’s body, but Jane wants to speak with him further. She desires to understand how Olunde can so calmly accept his father’s suicide. He tells her that due to his medical training, he has seen death too often. Jane says that it has to be more than that—it must be part of the many things the British do not grasp about Yoruban culture, and Olunde agrees, adding that he has been mourning the death of his father ever since he heard that the King died. In a sense, he has already come to terms with it and has come home in order to perform the rites required of him as eldest son of the king’s horseman. Olunde tells Jane that he did not want to do anything that might jeopardize the welfare of his people. Jane thanks him for talking with her.

Just as she is shaking hands good night with Olunde, some footsteps and voices are heard approaching in the background. Simon strides into view and orders his wife to find the Aide-de-Camp. Jane runs off, and Olunde greets Simon politely. Simon is visibly speechless at first; then he tells Olunde that he had thought Olunde was still in England. When Olunde tells Simon that he must go take care of his father’s body, Simon hedges, telling Olunde to wait while he finds someone to escort him. The Aide-de-Camp comes out of the Residency at that moment, asking if anything is wrong. Taking him aside, Simon tells him to get the keys to a storeroom at the Residency and to deploy a detachment of soldiers just outside the Residency grounds so they can prevent any possible “situation” from reaching the ears of the Prince. After a period of uncertainty in which Olunde again tries to take his leave and Jane wonders aloud what is going on, the Elesin’s voice is heard yelling in the background. Elesin demands that the white men take their hands off his body. Suddenly, an explosion of rage is heard off-stage, and Elesin, wearing handcuffs, runs in the direction of Jane and Olunde. Elesin stops dead when he sees his eldest son. Immediately grasping the dire situation, Olunde stands as still as a statue and refuses to recognize his father, deliberately staring over the top of Elesin’s head. For several moments father and son are frozen like this. Then, inspecting Olunde from side to side, Elesin speaks his son’s name and begs him not to be blinded by the sight of his father. Elesin collapses at his son’s feet. Olunde slowly looks down at the Elesin and states that he has no father. He walks off, and the Elesin lies on the ground sobbing.

Scene Four begins with a strange reversal of the schoolgirls’ act of mimicry. The Pilkingses, wearing the egungun masks and outfits, are clumsily performing the ancestral ritual dance to entertain the British crown Prince. This act of mimicry differs from the schoolgirls’ not only due to its sheer artlessness but also because the Pilkingses are arrogantly attempting to reproduce, authentically, a ritual that they have no interest in truly understanding. All along, it has been demonstrated that they have no respect for traditional Yoruban ways of life, and now they resemble clowns performing for an important guest who is merely charmed by their exotic costumes. At this same moment, another traditional Yoruban ritual is taking place, which Simon must leave the party to prevent. His intervention in Elesin’s ritual suicide occurs offstage, but his success at stopping the ritual serves only to underscore the fact that he does not approve of or respect what he considers to be the barbaric customs of a feudal community.

The Pilkingses’ lack of understanding of cultural difference is articulated in this scene by Jane, during her conversation with Olunde. Olunde’s admiration for the British naval captain who sacrificed his life in blowing up a dangerous ship remains in keeping with his perspective on the propriety of his father’s ritual suicide. As he informs Jane, he has already come to terms with his father’s impending death. Indeed, as the eldest son, he is obligated to perform the same ritual when the next king dies. He has a wider understanding that sometimes an individual chooses to sacrifice himself for the sake of his community or culture. Each of these situations—the captain’s blowing himself up with the ship and the king’s horseman’s committing ritual suicide—involves a man of unbendable will who deliberately sacrifices himself for the preservation of the larger community. Olunde tries to draw a similarity between the ritual suicide of the king’s horseman and the “mass suicide” of young British soldiers going off to fight World War II. But Jane remains unable or unwilling to understand either event, and her blanket condemnation of any form of suicide demonstrates her narrow-minded selfishness and her incapacity to comprehend or accept other lifestyles and perspectives. Ironically, having been rigorously educated in England, Olunde’s English is flawless and his argumentation far superior to Jane’s. Like the schoolgirls in the previous scene, Olunde represents the educated native who has returned home to protect and defend his culture against the destruction and oppression wrought by the colonial occupation. His resentment of the Pilkingses is expressed palpably when he asks Jane why she is desecrating an egungun mask by wearing it. Jane, on the other hand, reveals her true feelings about the Yoruban people when, in an unguarded moment, she screams that Olunde is just a savage like all the others. She reveals a common colonial British view of the non-Western peoples who populate the British empire.

Olunde’s refusal to recognize his father shows how deeply Elesin has wounded his community by failing to complete the ritual suicide. The Elesin is a changed man. No longer held aloft on the shoulders of the people, pursued by Praise Singers and drummers, Elesin runs into view shacked in chains. His collapse at his son’s feet signals a transfer of power from the king’s horseman to the English-educated youth. Olunde’s pride and his disillusionment are conveyed by his denial that he has a father. Elesin has not fulfilled his promise to the community, and consequently, he is not worthy of his son’s recognition. Elesin is not even as honorable, in Olunde’s mind, as the English naval captain who blew himself up with the ship.


Summary and Analysis: Act III


Summary and Analysis: Act V