Death and the King's Horseman

Death and the King's Horseman Summary and Analysis of Act IV


At the ball, everyone waits for the Prince, who finally enters with a companion. The Resident and his partner enter behind. A Viennese waltz is called for. Everyone hopes to be noticed, even though they are wearing costumes. Pilkings and Jane get their turn, and are admired.

A footman brings a note to the Resident, who grabs Pilkings and takes him aside. He asks about the chief and the market women rioting; he criticizes Pilkings for not knowing about all this in advance.

The native police officers approach, and the Resident is confused, as he thought the English gave them some colorful identifying pieces of clothing. Pilkings says their hats came off in the riot. When Amusa sees Pilkings, he averts his eyes and mumbles about the dead. Exasperated, Pilkings relieves him of his duties for the day. Pilkings prepares to leave.

The clock strikes midnight and Pilkings and Jane look at each other in horror; they wonder if the act was completed. Pilkings and the policemen leave in a hurry.

As Jane waits, the figure of Olunde emerges out of the darkness. He and Jane greet each other, Jane effusive and friendly. Olunde says he came to see her husband. He makes alight quip about her desecrating an ancestral mask, and she is disappointed he cares about that. Olunde says he is not mad, but has learned that the English do not respect the things they do not understand.

It is uncomfortably quiet for a moment. Jane says she is sorry he did not find his time in England edifying. He corrects her and says he did, and he admires the English for certain things, like their conduct in this war. Jane brings up a captain who sacrificed himself for hundreds of other people. She does not seem very condoning, but Olunde admires the man's self-sacrifice.

After a moment, Olunde urges her to tell him where he can find her husband; he must talk to him. Jane alludes to what he husband is doing for him, and for all black people. Olunde says he knows what is going on, that he prepared to come home as soon as he received a cable that the King was dead. He has come home to bury his father.

Jane is shocked. Olunde explains that there is no other protection needed for Elesin besides the honor and veneration of his own people. Jane criticizes him for his feudalistic and barbaric outlook and customs. Olunde responds by gesturing to the ball, a party during wartime. Jane stiffly says it is for therapy. Olunde calls it decadence but says he admires the white man's ability to survive; by all accounts white men should have warred and wiped themselves out but they know how to survive.

They argue over suicide, with Olunde taking the side that this war contains mass suicide. He adds that at least Nigerians do not call something what it is not. Eventually, Jane asks him if he will promise to resume his training and become a doctor. Surprised, Olunde says of course he will.

Suddenly the drums change their tune and Olunde announces that his father is dead. Jane screams that he is callous and savage. The Resident's Aide-de-Camp rushes over, solicitous to Jane and cruel to Olunde. He threatens Olunde, but Jane calms down and tells him everything is aright. The Aide-de-Camp huffs that as soon as natives put a suit on they think they are high and mighty.

He leaves. Jane asks Olunde softly if he can explain how he has this acceptance and peace of his father's death. Olunde kindly replies that he started mourning for his father as soon as he heard the King died. He knew it was his duty and he did not want to dishonor his people.

Jane is confused, saying to Olunde that his father disowned him. Olunde says he was stubborn and did not mean it. Jane is calmer now and thanks him. At this moment, Pilkings returns. He urgently asks for Bob, the Aide-de-Camp.

Olunde thanks Pilkings for not interfering. Pilkings looks uncomfortable. He turns to the Aide-de-Camp when he arrives and starts discussing an old storeroom where slaves were kept before they were shipped away.

His manner and words are confusing to Jane and Olunde. Olunde wonders if all this fuss can be because his father killed himself. Suddenly they hear Elesin far off, bellowing like an animal and yelling for the white men not to touch him.

Jane tries to pull Olunde away. Elesin is brought in. He stops like a statue in front of his son. Jane cries that they should not hold him like that, and he is released. Elesin collapses before his son. Olunde says coldly, "I have no father, eater of left-overs" (61). He walks away and Elesin crumples.


When this section opens the reader/audience does not yet know if Amusa and his constables were successful, and they do not figure out that Elesin was indeed prevented from ritual suicide until the end of the act. Of course, Elesin's fate never was much in doubt, and there is some irony listening to Jane and Olunde wondering why all the fuss if Elesin killed himself; it is inevitable to us that the forces of the colonizer will succeed.

Before addressing such matters, it bears looking at the character of Olunde, who comes across as perhaps the most sympathetic and wisest character in the play. First of all, his behavior itself suggests his composure and wisdom. He talks politely to Jane but is not deferential or fawning to her; he challenges her when he has cause to, but actually cares to help her understand his point of view and that of his people. He is does not begrudge the Europeans some admirable qualities, but is firm in his belief that many of the things they do and say are deeply flawed.

Examples of Olunde's trenchant insights and rejoinders include his comments "I discovered you have no respect for the things you do not understand" (50), "What can you offer [Elesin] in place of his peace of mind, in place of the honour and veneration of his own people?" (53), and "You believe that everything which appears to make sense was learnt from you" (53). The critic Adebayo Williams waxes poetic about Olunde, writing, "He is armed with immense personal courage and conviction; and his considerable intellect has been honed by a sustained contact with the alien culture in all of its contradictions and foibles. He is therefore a perfect match and counterfoil to the arrogance and chauvinism of the colonial administrators." It is also quite appealing when he calls out the decadence of the ball during a time of war, although Jane seems skeptical of it as well.

This interlude between Jane and Olunde is fascinating, because it ably depicts the fundamental differences between English and Nigerian society. Jane's willingness to listen, albeit couched in outbursts and ignorance, is a possible opening to understanding, but the difference would still remain. The story of the captain in the war is emblematic of these warring viewpoints: Jane sees the man's deliberate death as unwarranted, and Olunde lauds it as self-sacrifice and an affirmation of life. Interestingly, as critic James Booth notes, "the chief point this spectacle is intended to raise, with typical Soyinkan complexity, is that self-sacrifice is as characteristic of Europe as of Africa" and that Olunde's actions will mirror those of the captain.

Finally, the most important moments of the play come at the end, when it is revealed that Elesin did not kill himself but was instead arrested. Olunde's reaction is decidedly harsh, and thus does not indicate what role he will play in Act V. Soyinka ably creates a tension between the sympathetic nature of Elesin's failure, prostration, and humbling, and the unwelcome yet unsurprising awareness that the Europeans triumphed through the thwarting of the ritual.