The District Officer, Simon Pilkings, and his wife, Jane Pilkings, are dancing together on the verandah of their bungalow. They are wearing egungun costumes. One of the Native Administration policemen, Amusa, comes up, sees what they are wearing, and accidentally turns over a flowerpot in his distress.
Pilkings asks what the matter is, and Jane tells him it is their dress. Pilkings takes off his mask and chides Amusa, asking if he really believes that nonsense. Scared, Amusa replies that the outfit belongs to the cult of the dead. He begs them to take the costumes off, but they refuse, as they are going to a ball soon.
Jane tells her husband it does not look like Amusa can talk to them like this, but Pilkings, annoyed, says Amusa needs to remember he is a policeman in His Majesty’s Government, and he orders Amusa to report his business.
Amusa stammers, “How can man talk against death to person in uniform of death?” (25). Jane tries to reason with him, asking how he can be scared of the costume, especially as he saw it confiscated from the egungun men who were causing trouble in town. Amusa, quietly, says he will arrest the men but not touch the costumes at all.
Pilkings is frustrated; he says that when they get like this there is nothing to be done. They leave the room so Amusa can write on the pad. He then leaves.
Pilkings reads what he wrote and tells Jane. It seems a prominent chief, Elesin Oba, is going to commit ritual suicide, which is a criminal offense. Pilkings muses that he thought all this was stamped out, but it is always there under the surface. He says it might be rumors, to which Jane replies that she thought he felt Amusa’s rumors were unreliable.
Jane asks if he ought to talk to Elesin before arresting him, especially as this evidence seems uncorroborated. Pilkings calls in Joseph, his houseboy. He asks Jane about the drums in the distance, if they sound different. He knows the natives always want to make a racket, but it seems unsettling.
Joseph comes in and Pilkings asks if he is Christian and if this outfit bothers him. Joseph replies that he is and it does not. Pilkings asks about the chief, and Joseph says the man will not kill himself but will simply die because it is the custom.
Pilkings comments that he often has to clash with that chief, and remembers having an issue before. He was helping the chief’s son get into medical school in England, which the chief fought passionately. He ended up having to help the boy escape without his father’s knowledge.
Jane and Joseph tell Pilkings that there is perhaps more going on –if Elesin dies before he can join the King, Olunde, the son, would have to take his place. Pilkings says it is no wonder the son left, but concedes he does not know if Olunde knew that.
Jane responds that the natives are very private, but Pilkings snaps that they are always willing to blurt out their secrets. Jane muses, “do they really give anything away? I mean, anything that really counts” (29). Pilkings mutters, “sly, devious bastards” (29) and Joseph asks if he can go. Pilkings says he can, and he forgot he was there.
Pilkings and Jane argue about using swear words. It grows quiet but the drumming is heard. Joseph comes back and his master asks him about the sound. Joseph says he is confused because it sounds like the death and the marriage of a great chief. Pilkings offends him by making a joke about holy water, and Jane rebukes him after the boy leaves, saying the new African converts take religion very seriously.
Pilkings scoffs that she is ridiculous. The conversation turns back to the chief. Jane says he must stop it, but he blusters that he does not care about their barbaric customs and he would be embarrassed if it really was a wedding and he broke it up.
Finally, he calls Joseph back, who takes a while to return, claiming he did not hear. Pilkings orders Joseph to take Amusa a note. He grudgingly apologizes about the holy water comment.
Joseph leaves, and Pilkings tells his wife to get her costume ready because they are going to the ball. He adds that his note said to arrest Elesin. As they prepare to leave Pilkings shares that the Prince is touring the colonies and will be at the ball later.
Jane replies that she now knows why he was so edgy earlier. Pilkings tells her to shut up and come along. She jokes back and they depart.
Act II of the Death and the King’s Horseman is very different from the first: the language is simpler and more prosaic, the theatrics of ritual are replaced by the mundaneness of bureaucratic colonialism, and the stirring figures of Elesin and Iyaloja give way to the nonentities of Pilkings and his wife. That is not to say Pilkings is not a significant character, for if there is one specific antagonist to Elesin’s protagonist it is he, but critics largely view Pilkings as a “type” rather than a fully fleshed character. Critic and professor Tanure Ojaide states that “Simon Pilkings is portrayed as a typical district officer rather than an individual” and is “symbolic of the colonial administrator rather than just a male character.”
Indeed, this act is rife with examples of how Pilkings embodies the worst traits of the European colonizer. First of all, he and his wife are completely culturally insensitive, parading around in the egungun costumes without bothering to learn anything about what they mean to the Nigerian people. When Amusa expresses his trepidation about being near the costumes, Pilkings mocks him. Pilkings also mocks the young houseboy, Joseph; interestingly, he mocks him for his embrace of Western religion and “elephantine notions of tact” (27), which are things that Europeans purportedly aimed to achieve in their colonial endeavors. Other examples of this conspicuous lack of understanding of the people he has supposedly come to “civilize” are his actions of sending Olunde away to England without Elesin’s permission, and dismissing Nigerians’ extended kin networks as mere opportunities to shield illegitimate children –“Elastic family, no bastards” (30).
There are many examples of Pilkings saying offensive things about the Nigerian people, and dismissing them as stupid, ignorant, and childlike. He rolls his eyes at Amusa’s fear and says to Jane, “When they get this way there is nothing you can do. It’s simply hammering against a brick wall” (25). He upholds the English colonial experiment and rues the fact that Nigerians have not fallen in line, commenting in response to hearing about Elesin, “You think you’ve stamped it all out but it’s always lurking under the surface somewhere” (26). He comments derisively that the natives will “open their mouths and yap about their family secrets before you can stop them” (29) and that they are “sly, devious bastards” (29).
Pilkings also seems to have a streak of misogyny in him, something not uncommon in Western culture. His words to Jane at the end of the act, while ostensibly joking, are still harsh: “Shut up woman and get your things on” (34).
Jane laughs along with her husband, but in other instances in the text seems to be frustrated with her husband’s rudeness. Ojaide notes that while Pilkings is a type –the colonial administrator –“Jane is more individualized” and “It seems [students] see in her the humane and sensitive aspects of womanhood that are lacking in Simon.” She cautions Pilkings not to be rash in concluding Elesin is guilty, urges him to be kinder to Joseph, and defends the Nigerians’ “chatter” by commenting that while they may talk a lot, “do they really give anything away? I mean, anything that really counts. This affair for instance, we didn’t know they still practiced that custom did we?” (29). Overall, Jane is more nuanced and capable of thinking more deeply about the relationship between the English and Nigerians, although it would be a mistake to claim that she is not still a product of the dominant race.