Although the first act of Wole Soyinka’s play is concerned mostly with cultural ritual and the Yoruban peoples’ conception of death, it also characterizes the role of the African woman during the mid-twentieth century in Nigeria. The playwright’s incorporation of the group of un-identified women in the market place, referred to as “the women” serves as a generalization of African women in order to make a statement about the cultural expectations and treatment of these female individuals. In the opening scene of the play the Praise-Singer compares Elesin to a “cockerel” or a rooster (5). The Praise-Singer’s analogy not only refers to Elesin’s personality but it also suggests that like a rooster, Elesin has many women. Elesin then refers to the un-identified group of women in the market as “his women”. While the women in the market place are not actually his women or his wives, his statement reflects the cultural practice of polygamy in Nigerian society. The practice of polygamy is connected to patriarchy and the women’s subservient actions in this Act also imply that men run the village of Yoruba.
The women seem to fawn over Elesin and even kneel down in front him. The Praise-Singer in a joking manner says to Elesin, “Because the man approaches a brand-new bride he forget the long faithful mother of his children” (5). This is also a reference to polygamy within the play. The women in the market have and overall demeanor of subservience to Elesin, “The world is in your hands” (13), they say to him. Even the fact that the two male characters dominate the conversation and the women only speak together and not individually implies that the society is characterized by a patriarchal structure. In the end of Act 1 Elesin insists on “marrying” or sleeping with the beautiful girl before his suicide. She is never given a name or a chance to speak. Her lack of involvement in the scene commodifies the girl and this idea of her as a commodity is furthered when Iyaloja agrees to let Elesin have her, even though she is betrothed to her son.
The role that that Iyaloja plays in this act is interesting because she represents a different type of women than that of the market women or the beautiful girl. Iyaloja respects Elesin’s authority, kneeling to him as well and obediently allowing him to have the beautiful girl, however; it appears that in some ways she holds a type of power over Elesin. Iyaloja is a mature, traditional and strong woman. After Elesin talks about the fear of death among immortals, she has questions him, “But you, husband of the multitudes? (9). Her questioning and back and forth conversation with him shows that although she is a woman, Elesin does have respect for her. This power of women over men in the patriarchal Nigerian society is also insinuated when the Praise-Singer says to Elesin, “The hands of women also weaken the unwary” (6). This line not only refers to an underlying influence that women can have over men, but it is also a warning and potentially an example of foreshadowing.