Because drama is performed live before an audience, its impact is more immediate and of a more communal nature than that of fiction and poetry. Derek A. Walcott’s major contribution to West Indian literature may be his dramatic re-creation of the scenes, the people, and the language of his native region. On a larger scale, his Trinidad Theatre Workshop tours, as well as performances of his plays by foreign companies, have brought West Indian life to the attention of audiences on virtually every continent.
Drawing from St. Lucia, Trinidad, Jamaica, and other islands, Walcott uses the patchwork history of his Caribbean people to focus on problems that relate to all humankind. The child of mixed blood, he embodies the cultural heritage of Europe and the New World. Translating this legacy to the stage, he re-creates conquistadors, slaves, indentured servants, colonialists, and the unheralded common men and women who may be the most interesting figures of all—for their ingenuity in simply surviving.
The culture of Western Europe lends a shaping hand to Walcott’s polyglot material. Over the years, he has been indebted to sources as diverse as the Jacobean dramatists, the Spanish Golden Age, John Millington Synge, T. S. Eliot, Bertolt Brecht, the Japanese N theater, and the Greek classics. Conveniently for Walcott, Trinidad’s fabulous carnival provides the raw material and inspiration he needs—masquerades, pantomime, satiric calypso, massive choreography, the meeting of disparate cultures in one gigantic bacchanal—for blending all the disparate ingredients of his New World background.
Prior to his formative experience in New York in 1958, Walcott’s playwriting suffered from his failure to integrate his folk subjects with borrowed European forms. Alongside Henri Christophe’s Elizabethan verse is The Sea at Dauphin, with deliberate echoes of John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea (pb. 1903): peasant fishermen enduring their fate with unassuming nobility. Drums and Colours, with its extensive pageantry and broad range of characters (from the days of discovery up to the 1958 West Indian Federation) may be said to have settled any debt Walcott owed to West Indian history. In the year of the initial performance of Drums and Colours, he also put into production Ti-Jean and His Brothers, his first stylized West Indian play.
In a 1970 article titled “Meanings,” Walcott explained the type of dynamic fusion that West Indian drama requires. Studying Brecht in New York, he came to the conclusion that the besetting sin of most Caribbean theater was its self-indulgent exuberance. Brecht’s adaptation of highly ritualized Oriental techniques offered the model Walcott needed. Without stifling the vitality of West Indian folk spirit, he sought to instill discipline. Because his culture is an amalgam of the African, the Oriental, and the Occidental, Walcott draws from them all. From Europe, he takes classical conventions of language and structure; from Africa and parts of the East, he adopts ritual ceremonies involving dance, mime, and narrative traditions; from the Kabuki and N plays, he takes expressive power and beauty in restrained gesture and formalized rhythm.
Ti-Jean and His Brothers
In Ti-Jean and His Brothers, a St. Lucian folktale with vestiges of African animal fable provides the story of Ti-Jean, a young black man who outsmarts the plantation-master devil. Dialogue is spiced with fast-paced puns, metaphors, and verbal play. Movement is carried by music, dance, mime, abrupt pauses, asides to the audience, and intervals of conversation among the animal chorus about human affairs. Pleased as Walcott was with the blend of discipline and folk life in Ti-Jean and His Brothers, this work was but a prelude to the more profound and highly imaginative Dream on Monkey Mountain.
Dream on Monkey Mountain
Completed especially for the Trinidad Theatre Workshop’s first tour outside the Caribbean, Dream on Monkey Mountain appeared in Toronto in 1967. Subsequent productions in the United States and on NBC television in 1970 garnered the prestigious Obie Award for the best foreign play of 1970-1971. Multiple themes and the dream framework account for only a fraction of the play’s complexity. Characters exchange parts, glide into symbols, and are revived from death; the plot develops in fragments as the hero, Makak, tries to explain his vision of a white goddess. The very names of characters imply allegory: Makak, the monkey, is an ugly charcoal burner who must come to grips with his awareness of being black; the mulatto Lestrade, neither black nor white, is an ambivalent straddler.
Lestrade’s stereotypical house-Negro prejudices surface in the prologue, when he ridicules Makak’s apelike appearance and his obsessive dream of a white woman. The first scene is a flashback to Makak’s first vision, where he reveals that he has been called back to Africa, to his true place as a lion-king. Armed with his new racial identity, Makak is able to heal the sick while crowds pour in to hear his words. Unfortunately, Moustique, his traveling companion, is quick to exploit opportunity; like many a trickster character of West Indian folklore, he turns faith and trust into profitable enterprise. When his tricks are discovered, he is killed by a mob, only to return to life again in later scenes.
Although the play is cast in terms of black consciousness, the action continually pushes the meaning of the narrative to a broader plane. In his dream, Makak escapes and establishes his African throne. Corporal Lestrade, in pursuing the rebels, goes native and ultimately becomes Makak’s most fanatic convert, a blind advocate of black supremacy. Caught up in the frenzy for power and revenge, Makak is helpless to avert the internecine bloodletting and the execution of all symbols of whiteness that follow.
Paradoxically, Makak’s beheading of the white goddess finally frees him from his obsession with blackness. By doing away with his illusion, Makak is free to become himself; he completes the journey by recognizing the possibility of beauty in his own black body. In his introduction to Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays, Walcott argues that once blacks have given up the wish to be white, they assume the longing to be black; the difference is clear, but both pursuits are careers.
In the epilogue, then, Walcott leads his protagonist to his essential being through the act of understanding. On his release after the night that he has spent in jail, Makak determines to establish himself on his mountain and fulfill his chosen destiny—neither white nor black, but a West Indian. Thus, the final image of Dream on Monkey Mountain is not the beheading of a white goddess but rather a hopeful vision of a man’s accommodation to his environment, a fact easily overlooked by critics seeking racial conflict.
The Joker of Seville
Because of the vital Spanish background of Trinidad’s culture and because of the society’s predilection for the flamboyant male, Walcott may seem well-suited to revive the ancient legend of Don Juan. This, at any rate, was the decision of the Royal Shakespeare Company when it commissioned him in 1974 to write a modern version of Tirso...
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