Death and the King’s Horseman, a tragedy in five acts, is about Elesin, the King’s horseman, who is obligated to undergo a ritual suicide in order to accompany his dead king to the realm of the ancestors. The first act opens with Elesin moving through the marketplace with considerable vitality, singing and dancing, on his way to perform a duty crucial to the continued life and stability of his community. The main concern of the Praise-Singer is Elesin’s courage, but Elesin reassures him by telling the story of the “Not-I bird.” While others who see Death coming respond fearfully (“Not I”), Elesin sends the bird back to its nest and lays out the “welcome mat” for Death. He gives similar assurances to the market women.
Doubt about his willpower surfaces, however, when he demands that the women robe him in their best cloths. Eager to please and honor him, Iyaloja, the “mother” of the market, quickly agrees. Elesin then sees a beautiful young girl. His passion gets the better of him, but he rationalizes it as a desire to leave his seed behind him, to unburden himself of its weight before his journey to the afterlife. While Iyaloja is at first hesitant-the girl happens to be her future daughter-in-law, and she is not sure of Elesin’s motives-she soon grants him his wish by arranging a marriage. She cannot deny the final wish of this man Elesin, on whose death depends the safety of the community, but she warns him that if his will weakens and he does not go through with the suicide, he will place a curse on the girl and her future child. The act ends with the girl offered to Elesin as his bride.
Act 2 takes place at the bungalow of the (English) District Officer. Simon Pilkings and his wife, Jane, are dancing a tango dressed in local egungun costumes. Sergeant Amusa interrupts them by accidentally overturning a flowerpot. He has come with a message about Elesin’s intended ritual suicide-which is against British regulations-but has been so horrified by the Pilkingses’ flagrant dishonoring of the egungun “uniform of death” that he cannot speak. He can only write down his message and leave. Preoccupied with the upcoming fancy-dress ball that evening, Pilkings seems unable to deal effectively with the problem of Elesin. Only with Jane’s prompting does he finally determine how to stop the suicide and still attend the ball: He sends a note to Sergeant Amusa telling him to arrest Elesin and lock him up in Pilkings’ own house. Pilkings voices his regret that he has still not stamped out all pagan practices. Jane reminds him of a past incident, their aid in sending Elesin’s oldest son, Olunde, to England for a medical degree-against Elesin’s strenuous protest. Tradition calls for the son of the King’s Horseman to continue his father’s ritual role during the next king’s reign. They speculate that Olunde may have wanted to leave in order to escape that future. Throughout the act drums play in the background; they have a different sound from anything Jane and Simon have heard before. Joseph, their house servant, interprets them as celebrating “the death of a great chief” and “the wedding of a great chief.” Acts 1 and 2 are obviously taking place simultaneously. Neither Jane nor Simon is adequate to the occasion, both being totally insensitive to the meanings inherent in the African world around them. They are intent instead on the ball, and Simon announces to Jane at the end of the act that the Prince of Wales has just arrived in Nigeria and will be the honored guest. Their party mood is in stark contrast to the spiritual and metaphysical event about to transpire, which they are to be instrumental in turning into a tragedy.
Act 3 opens with Amusa at the marketplace trying to move the women out of his way in order to arrest Elesin. He insists that his “official business” takes precedence; they counter that Elesin himself is engaged in “official business” which is much more important than British law. The women taunt Amusa with sexual innuendos, questioning his manhood in his obedience to white masters. The young girls in the market, who have been to British schools, enact an impromptu play that mocks superficial British manners, patronizing colonial attitudes toward Africans, and the toadyism of servants such as Amusa. They finally chase Amusa and his two constables off by threatening to pull down their shorts. The women, ecstatic over the cleverness and courage of the girls, begin a dance in their praise.
At this moment Elesin enters with proof of the consummation, declaring it “the union of life and the seeds of passage.” To the sounds of drums in the distance, Elesin announces his intention to perform the ritual suicide in the marketplace itself, which he regards as the vibrant symbol of life. The rest of the act depicts Elesin’s gradual entrance into the trance of death. As his Praise-Singer sings to him, he dances and frees himself gradually from the sounds of earth. It appears at the end of the act that the ritual will continue to its successful conclusion.
Act 4 takes place at the fancy-dress ball in honor of the Prince of Wales; it is a twentieth century imitation of a seventeenth century masque. Pilkings learns from Amusa that the market women have foiled the attempt to arrest Elesin. As the clock strikes midnight, Pilkings rushes out, fearing that he may be too late to avert what would be an embarrassing incident on this night of the Prince’s visit. Just after he leaves, Olunde appears, looking for him. He believes that Pilkings will be unable to stop the suicide and wants to make him understand its significance. The rest of the act consists mostly of a conversation between Olunde and Jane, who, he says, is more likely than Simon to accept and respect Yoruba custom. They swap statements about the British and African ways of thinking and acting. Olunde is especially critical of the British tendency to cover up realities and distort history. While Jane finds his truthfulness, especially his cool acceptance of his father’s ritual death, disturbing, even “savage,” she recovers her composure and makes an effort to understand. He explains that ever since he received the cable announcing the King’s death, he has regarded his father as dead. He seems cold only because his grief is already a month old. When the drums tell him that the ritual is complete, he is relieved, but when Pilkings returns with Elesin as his prisoner, Olunde feels humiliated, as does Elesin himself. While it was forbidden for Olunde to look upon his father during the month between the King’s death and Elesin’s own, now Olunde looks upon him with disgust, declaring, “I have no father, eater of left-overs.”
The final act finds Elesin in chains, behind bars in an old jail once used for slaves bound for the Americas. His recent bride is seated outside, and guards inside the cell watch Elesin’s every move. Pilkings arrives to console him. It is clear that he still does not comprehend that in following his British duty he has committed a sacrilege. Elesin rejects Pilkings’ consolation and tries to explain what happened to him during this most important night of his life. The ritual called for him to die at exactly the proper moment, when the moon “reached a certain gateway in the sky,” but his will failed him. He does not know whom to blame. When Pilkings leaves, hearing urgent cries from his wife, Elesin explains to his bride that his mind wanted to blame first Pilkings, then the gods, and now the temptation of the bride herself. He did not want to give up the pleasures of earth.
Pilkings returns with Jane, debating whether to accede to Olunde’s written request that Iyaloja be allowed to see Elesin. Pilkings’ fear is that she will give a weapon to Elesin, permitting him to go through with the suicide. Relying on Elesin’s “honour” and forbidding Iyaloja to step beyond a designated line, he agrees to the conference. Thus begins her scornful rebuke, in which she accuses Elesin of reversing the order of nature-the father saving himself to feed on the world while destroying his children and allowing their king to wander unprotected in the passage to the other world. Iyaloja finally has her women carry in their “burden.” The Praise-Singer, who accompanies it, insists (as Iyaloja had before him) that he gave Elesin adaquate warning. When Iyaloja removes the cover from the “burden,” Olunde’s dead body is revealed. Olunde, in substituting himself for his father, has become Elesin’s father and thus has reversed the cycle of nature. Neither Iyaloja nor the Praise-Singer knows whether the son’s sacrifice will save their world. If it does not, the blame will fall entirely on Elesin. The Horseman then tries to recapture what honor he can by strangling himself with his chain. Still unable to understand any of this, Pilkings enters the cell and tries to revive Elesin’s dead body. Iyaloja then turns her scorn on him. His attempts at resuscitation are in vain. Though Elesin’s entry into the death passage is late and “clogged with droppings from the King’s stallion,” his body is nevertheless “no pauper’s carrion abandoned on the road,” and she now blames Pilkings for his role in Elesin’s failure. It is the young bride, not Pilkings, who has the right to close the Horseman’s eyes. The hope for the future, it is suggested, is in her “unborn” child.