The play begins with an introduction by Aroni, "the Lame One," laying out the circumstances of the play. Soyinka lists the characters, and describes them. The Dead Man was a captain in Mata Kharibu's army, the Dead Woman was his wife. Rola is a prostitute and goes by her name from long ago, Madame Tortoise. Adenebi, another character, is the court orator, and is oblivious to the existence of the dead people. He used to be the court historian. Demoke, the Carver, was a poet in his previous life. Agboreko is known as "The Elder of the Sealed Lips," who made sacrifices for the Forest Head. The Forest Head is disguising himself as a mortal, Obaneji. Aroni has secured the Dead Man and Woman as “two spirits of the restless dead.”
In an empty clearing in the forest, first the Dead Woman pushes her head up through the soil, then the Dead Man. The man is "fat and bloated" according to the stage directions, and wearing traditional warrior clothing, and the woman is pregnant. They do not see each other, and Adenebi enters. As Adenebi passes, the Dead Man asks him for help and Adenebi gets scared and runs off. The Dead Woman and Dead Man are confused, thinking that they would have been greeted by the living. Obaneji enters, looks at them, then retreats as well.
When Demoke enters and the Dead Woman asks him to take her case, he tells her he's in a hurry, saying, "When you see a man hurrying, he has got a load on his back. Do you think I live emptily that I will take another's cause for pay or mercy?" She tells him she lived here once, but he insists that it was before his time and goes on his way.
Rola enters seductively, and when the Dead Man asks her to take his case, she agrees, before realizing that he is dead and becoming afraid of him. She scolds him and tells him that in his condition, it was nervy of him to solicit her for help. The Dead Woman bemoans the fact that no one will recognize or help her, even though she was summoned back to the world of the living, and the Dead Man is ashamed of Rola's treatment of him. "The world is big but the dead are bigger," says the Dead Woman.
The Dead Man and the Dead Woman bemoan their plight, with the Dead Woman complaining that she has been carrying the child in her belly for 100 generations. Gunshots sound from afar and the dead couple leaves the stage. Rola, Adenebi, Obaneji, and Demoke all enter the stage. Rola complains about someone who wandered into her home claiming to be her auntie. Adenebi discusses the importance of "a proper family life" and privacy. "This whole family business sickens me. Let everybody lead their own lives," Rola says throwing out a cigarette and replacing it with another.
The group sits down on rocks and tree trunks and argues, Rola in favor of the way the world works in the present. Obaneji has invited the mortals into the forest to dance as a welcome for the Dead Man and Dead Woman. Demoke shapes a piece of wood with stone, as he is a carver, and Obaneji asks him why he is not in town on this momentous day, as he carved a great totem.
The others are impressed with Demoke's carving of a totem in town, and ask why he is not there accepting people's admiration for his work. Demoke tells them that he was commissioned to carve a tree before the area had been cleared out and before he knew it was meant to be carved for the gathering of the tribes. Adenebi is confused why Demoke would flee, asking, "Have you no sense of history?" Obaneji wants to know why Adenebi has come to the forest, and Adenebi tells him that he has a "weak heart" and so needed to get away.
They are interrupted by the sound of bells and shouts, and the Dead Woman and Dead Man reenter. Rola tries to get Demoke to leave with her, but he wants to questions the dead couple. Obaneki takes Demoke and Rola and they leave. The Dead Woman and Dead Man want to follow, but go back the way they came.
Murete, a tree demon, wants to come out of a tree, but Aroni enters and Murete retreats. Aroni hits the tree and Murete bellows in pain. Aroni confronts Murete for not leaving the forest today, when the forest head needed him most. "Today there happens to be much more fun among the living," Murete says. Murete tells him that a spirit, Eshuoro, came and bit off the top of his tree. When Aroni tells Murete that he wants him at the feast to welcome the dead, Murete declines, saying he will be drinking millet wine at the feast for the living.
"These rites of the dead. I do not know why you take them on," Murete says, before revealing that he saw the group of four mortals in the woods. Aroni becomes anxious, and summons Murete out of the tree, asking if he has seen the dead couple as well. Murete says he has not and that he only spoke with Agboreko, the elder of Sealed Lips.
Murete tells Aroni that the mortals are angry at him for sending accusers rather than illustrious ancestors. Aroni asks Murete when he last saw Ogun, the patron god of carvers, and alludes to the fact that one of the mortals is a carver, and that he doesn't want interference from him. Murete tells Aroni he has not seen Ogun, and Aroni tells him he will send word when Murete can "go on his debauchery."
When Aroni exits and Murete gets back in the tree, Agboreko, Elder of the Sealed Lips, enters, wearing white and carrying a bowl of millet wine. Murete tells him to go away, and Agboreko does. Murete begins to drink some of the wine, when Ogun enters and pushes the bowl of wine to his lips so he drinks more. Ogun then takes advantage of Murete's drunkenness and asks where the four mortals went, and Murete points. He then asks if Demoke was among them and Murete identifies Ogun as Ogun, but Ogun insists that he is not, and that he was sent by Aroni.
When Eshuoro's name comes up, Murete becomes belligerent and eventually passes out. Demoke, Obaneji, Adenebi, and Rola all reenter, gossiping about the Dead Man and the Dead Woman. They discuss the fact that "Aroni has taken control. That is when the guilty become afraid."
Obaneji discusses the fact the he is a high-up clerk and knows many of the nation's secrets. He complains about how much he knows, but then reveals that he also enjoys the lighter side of record-keeping and that he loves passenger lorries. He tells them that the previous day an office worker took a bribe and they piled 70 passengers onto a lorry that could only take 40 passengers and it caught on fire. Only five escaped.
Adenebi insists that it could not have been one of their lorries, and tells him that he is the official Orator to the council. Obaneji suggests that Adenebi has some authority and can help him identify the person who took the bribe. Adenebi becomes defensive and says, "Have you no feeling for those who died?"
The play is unique in that it combines traditional aspects of Western drama—it is written like a European play—with the more nonlinear and symbolic modes of traditional African drama. The play is written with distinct characters and with detailed stage directions that would be helpful to a contemporary director, but the nature of the characters and the surrealism of some of the events are hardly Western, and suggest the storytelling and mythos of traditional African relationships to narrative.
Using the theatrical space, playwright Soyinka stages the passage from the world of the living into the world of the dead, and the ways that these two realms are not so distinct. After popping out of the soil, like ghoulish zombies, the Dead Man and Dead Woman seek to communicate with the living, but are met with fear or indifference. They are not ghosts exactly, or angels, but beings that are somewhere between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The stage acts as a liminal space between these two realms, representing that something about their existence is unresolved or "in-between."
The play deals with highly abstract and spiritual plot points. The Dead Man and Dead Woman are symbolic of people who were abused in their previous lives by Rola, Demoke, Adenebi, and Agboreko. Thus, the premise of the play rests on a narrative of redemption in the present of wrongs and injustices suffered in the past. In this conception of how existence works, death is an opportunity to write the past: it is a cyclical process, in which the past, present, and future are always layered atop one another.
Soyinka uses mythological and surreal scenarios and characters to comment on corruption in government and human error. When the four mortals return to the clearing in the woods after the Dead Man and Dead Woman leave, Obaneji tells a story about a politician who took a bribe so that a lorry could be overloaded with passengers. The lorry then caught on fire and 65 of the 70 passengers died, and he wants answers about who took the bribe. Adenebi, the council orator, becomes defensive and can provide no answers about the incident, and we see that among the mortals are corrupt and fallible members of the government.
In the discussion of The Incinerator, the lorry that caught on fire, we see that Adenebi is more interested in covering up the violence of the incident than in uncovering how the incident came to happen. When Obaneji confronts him about the fact that he has a great deal of authority and must know more about how the bribe came to pass, Adenebi points his finger at Obaneji and accuses him of being disrespectful of the people who died. He hides behind a performed mournfulness about the event when called upon to clarify what really happened. This moment reveals a kind of political hypocrisy that Soyinka is interested in exposing with the play.