Wole Soyinka

Death and the King’s Horseman

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Death and the King’s Horseman Summary

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Death and the King’s Horseman is a 1975 play by Nigerian author Wole Soyinka. Set during World War II, it is based on a real event in which the British colonial government in Nigeria prevented the Yoruba king’s horseman from committing ritual suicide to honor his king’s death, in accordance with their religious-monarchic tradition. The play comments on the losing battles that many African nations have waged against European colonial forces in the twenty-first century, focusing not only on physical takeover, but also on the systemic erasure of African identity.

The play begins just after the death of the Yoruba king. His horseman, Elesin Oba, prepares to commit suicide to follow his king to the afterlife. The act is in accordance with a Yoruba myth that holds that the world can only move forward when each newly deceased king and his men join the afterlife. As Elesin boldly prepares to die, the ritual’s Praise-Singer begins to doubt that the horseman will actually follow through with his suicide. Elesin assures him that he is satisfied with this way of completing his life. As a group of women prepares his ceremonial outfit, Elesin asks their leader, Iyaloja, to set him up with a beautiful woman with whom he hopes to have sex before his death. The woman is married to Iyaloja’s son, so Iyaloja hesitates at first to fulfill his wish. She ultimately agrees that it is fair given the extent of Elesin’s sacrifice.

The plot shifts to a scene in the British colony. Simon and Jane Pilkings are getting ready for a masquerade dance and enjoying each other’s company, when police officer Amusa appears to warn Simon about Elesin’s plan to commit suicide. Simon ponders the consequences of preventing such a ritual, reaching the conclusion that he must stop it. He tells Amusa to send officers to arrest Elesin on his behalf; since he hopes to meet the prince, he cannot turn down the masquerade. Amusa rushes to the market to prevent the ritual but is fended off by the market women. The ritual begins, and Elesin descends into a trance.

Learning that the ritual has not been prevented, Simon leaves the masquerade in a panic to stop it himself. Elesin’s son, Olunde, appears and strikes up a conversation with Jane. He relates that he would not have been able to go to medical school in England without the financial aid of the Pilkings family, but that his decision to accept the aid caused his father to renounce him. Having heard that the Yoruba king had died, Olunde has returned to Nigeria to reconnect with his father and attend the ritual. Drums begin to resound in the distance, and Olunde thinks that the ritual is over and his father has committed suicide. Then, news emerges that Simon and the police stopped the ritual before it culminated. Elesin is led in, enraged and in handcuffs. Olunde rebukes his father for failing to fulfill the ritual.

Iyaloja finds Elesin in jail and picks on him for lacking the will to finish the ritual and enter the afterlife before the Englishmen intervened. Elesin does not dispute his own failure, but claims that he would have finished the ritual if not for Simon’s intervention. Iyaloja reveals that the king’s people had to find someone else to die in his place to prevent the universe from collapsing. Some men bring in Olunde’s body swaddled in a large cloth. Iyaloja explains that Olunde volunteered to kill himself to bring dignity to his father. Devastated, Elesin chokes himself to death with his own chains before anyone can unlock his cage and stop him.