The play opens with Elesin and his praise-singer entering the marketplace. Elesin is traveling there to see the women on the eve of his death, for he was the King’s horseman, who, now that the King has died, must also die and travel to the afterlife with him. Elesin is an expansive, gregarious, and zesty man, and he and the praise-singer banter back and forth.
The women, including the mother of the marketplace, Iyaloja, arrive and watch and listen. Elesin boasts of how he is not afraid of death and is prepared for his fate. When the women call him a man of honor, Elesin takes on an air of mock-anger. He tells them his attire is not very honorable, and, relieved, they help garb him in beautiful clothing.
Before Elesin moves on, he notices an incredibly beautiful young woman and proclaims that he wants her. Iyaloja and the women are conflicted, because she is betrothed to Iyaloja’s son. Nevertheless, they give Elesin what he wants, and a wedding and consummation are scheduled before his ritual death. Iyaloja warns Elesin to keep his goal in mind and leave no curse with his seed.
The District Officer and his wife Jane prepare to attend a gala. They are dressed in the clothing of the egungun, taken from the rituals of a Nigerian death cult. They find the costumes amusing, while they frighten the local Nigerian constable, Amusa.
Pilkings, a typical Englishman in colonial Africa, is annoyed by Amusa’s reluctance to talk to him while he is wearing the costume. Amusa does convey his message, which is that he has heard that Elesin, a local chief, is preparing to kill himself for the ritual. Jane is horrified and Pilkings groans that he thought this sort of thing was stamped out.
They hear the drums in the distance and wonder if this is what is truly going on. Pilkings calls in his houseboy, Joseph, a Nigerian who recently converted to Christianity. He asks about this chief and the ritual and joseph confirms what will happen.
Pilkings recalls that he has clashed with this man Elesin before, as he helped secure the passage of his son Olunde, to England where he would study to be a doctor. Elesin had been incredibly angry and Olunde was more or less smuggled out. It is also true that the rules of the ritual state that if Elesin could not perform the suicide for some reason that his eldest son would have to complete it. Jane giggles that that might be the reason why the chief was angry his son left.
Pilkings tries to decide to intervene or not, and Jane encourages him to do so, as she thinks it sounds barbaric. Pilkings instructs Joseph to take a note to Amusa, ordering him to arrest Elesin. Pilkings and Jane prepare to go to the ball, and he tells his wife that a special guest –the Prince –will be there tonight.
Back in the marketplace Amusa and two constables arrive to arrest Elesin. The girls and women viciously taunt them, and they leave, warning that they will be back. Elesin triumphantly exits from his consummation of his wedding with the Bride, and begins to prepare for death. He announces that he is eager to make his journey.
His dancing and speech are accompanied by the praise-singer’s chanting. Elesin’s eyes droop, his movements become heavy, and his trance deepens. It seems as if Elesin is sinking deeper and coming close to death.
At the party the Prince greets the revelers. The Resident and the Resident’s aide-de-camp assist him. The Prince admires the Pilkings’s costumes.
The Resident talks to Pilkings privately and admonishes him for not knowing about this Elesin situation earlier. Amusa brings word to Pilkings about the arrest of Elesin, but is still nervous about talking to Pilkings because of the costume. Pilkings, frustrated, relieves him from duty. Pilkings leaves to take care of the affair.
Jane notices a man waiting in the wings –it is Olunde, newly returned from England. He is smart, reserved, and composed. They exchange pleasantries but the conversation becomes tense when Jane says she does not understand the ritual and thinks it is crass. She is especially confused when Olunde says that he came home to bury his father as soon as he heard the King died. She comes across as very naïve, but calms down a bit and tries to genuinely understand.
Pilkings returns, urgently asking for the aide-de-camp. He sees Olunde and is surprised. He acts awkwardly. After he turns away and begins to take care of things, Jane and Olunde wonder if Elesin’s death could be causing this apparent turmoil.
Suddenly Elesin’s voice booms across the hall as he is brought in, bound and struggling. Elesin sees his son and stops short. He begs him to heed him, but Olunde turns away in disgust and calls him an “eater of leftovers.”
Elesin is put into prison. The Bride sits silently outside his cell. Pilkings visits him and they speak for a bit, disputing what the notion of duty means. Elesin claims that his son did not betray him and that his disgust was warranted; Olunde was indisputably his son.
Iyaloja wants to visit Elesin and Pilkings reluctantly lets her in. She chastises and condemns Elesin for being a coward and not going through with his death. She and the other women feel betrayed, she tells him angrily. Elesin is chastened and mournful.
The women from the marketplace march to the jailhouse, carrying a burden wrapped in cloth. Jane counsels Pilkings to let them in because she assumes they are affiliated with Olunde, who would do no harm. The women enter, put down their burden, and Elesin begins to clamor to get out of the cell. Pilkings, confused, refuses.
The praise-singer chants and condemns Elesin as well. The burden is unwrapped; it is Olunde, who has committed suicide to carry out his father’s duty. Swiftly, Elesin strangles himself before Pilkings can stop him.
Iyaloja wearily tells Pilkings not to interfere, and stops him from stooping to close the chief’s eyes. The Bride does this silently, and the two depart. The women chant and sway.