Caryl Phillips

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165

Caryl Phillips’s body of work is marked by his experience as an immigrant from the former British colony of St. Kitts to the Yorkshire city of Leeds, where he spent his childhood and was educated. His most significant dramatic works are the three plays written and performed in the early 1980’s, which have their origins in his firsthand knowledge of the painful cultural displacement that causes family conflict and breakdown among immigrants. His first two plays, he says, are based on his emotional identification with his characters, not on his own experience. In both plays, a central motif is the bitter disillusionment of West Indian immigrants with the paternalistic British society that marginalizes them. Their psychological security is undermined by the historical forces of colonialism and their own self-delusion. These two plays were traditional in form and, Phillips says, easy to write because of his youth and inexperience.

In writing the third play, The Shelter, however, Phillips suffered a period of intense difficulty. His solution to the problems of his material was to experiment with form, locating each of the two acts in a different historical time, requiring the audience to complete the connection. In this play, he confronted what he views as the ultimate taboo: the sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman that evokes hatred and fear in white people. Phillips wanted to force his audience to identify with the lives of Britain’s immigrants, whose stories had been ignored in England and continental Europe, and to acknowledge the racial prejudice that underlies both English and European society.

Phillips has continued to use this fracturing of historical time in his work, most notably in his novel Cambridge (1991, 1992), evoking mixed responses from literary critics. He has continued to explore the themes of his early plays in his fiction. He believes strongly in his responsibility as an artist to correct the myths of history and to reveal the truth. He echoes the words of Langston Hughes in defining the dilemma of the black writer: “The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites.”

Phillips believes that critics have judged his work in terms of writing by white authors, rather than respecting his perspective as a black man. While acknowledging the horrors of the history of racial persecution, he describes a more subtle danger that white people do not understand. This is best expressed by the black male slave in The Shelter who says to the white woman: “I have much to fear in any man’s presence but it is not the chains that I dread, it is the manner of thought that flashes between a man’s clapping eyes on me and the opening of his mouth. It is not his touch but the hesitation before his touch.”

Phillips has said that he enjoys writing in several genres, suiting the format to his subject matter. His close friendship with James Baldwin, his mentor, resulted in several interviews and a television documentary. He also admires the work of Jean Rhys, Toni Morrison, and Caribbean writers who share his heritage. He cites Derek Walcott as a writer who has a unique insight into the history of the islands, the heritage of Africa, and the colonialism of Great Britain and Europe.

Strange Fruit

The title of his first play was no doubt drawn from Phillips’s familiarity with Billie Holiday’s song about lynching. The central character, Vivienne Marshall, is a single mother who has emigrated from the Caribbean to Britain with her sons Alvin and Errol. The mother has kept secret from her sons the tragic story of their alcoholic father’s life and death. Alvin’s crisis occurs when he goes to the Caribbean for his grandfather’s funeral. Alvin’s alienation in Britain has drawn him into an emotional identification with Africa. However, during his visit to the Caribbean he is badly treated by his West Indian relatives and rejects his African heritage, causing a painful break with his brother. Minor characters include Vernice, Vivienne’s West Indian friend, and Errol’s girlfriend Shelley. The play offers no resolution to the fracturing of family relationships that results from racial prejudice toward immigrants. Phillips sees this breakdown as the tragic legacy of slavery and colonialism.

Where There Is Darkness

The protagonist in the play is Albert Williams, a West Indian native who, after living in Britain for many years, reviews the meaning of his life at a farewell party before his return to the Caribbean island of his birth. The drama is a journey of self-discovery, told in a series of flashbacks of events in his life in both the Caribbean and in Britain. Albert owes his financial success to his deception of his first wife Lynn, the white woman he impregnated so that her father would pay their passage to Britain, where they hoped for a better life. Albert, a social worker whose friends are white, recognizes the wrong he has done in achieving his personal ambition. His son Remi, in an ironic payback, tells his father he is leaving his university to marry his pregnant black girlfriend. This play, performed in London, where Phillips had developed strong ties to the black community, reveals his sense of urgency in bringing public awareness to the tormented lives of Britain’s immigrants from its former West Indian colonies.

The Shelter

This play introduces a continuing theme in Phillips’s work: the troubled sexual relationship between black men and white women. Here he begins the experiment with juxtaposition of historical time and place that is one of the hallmarks of his work. Act 1 takes place in the late eighteenth century with two unnamed characters: Him, a slave, and Her, a white woman. They are the only survivors from a shipwreck and have landed on a deserted island. Some critics find the formal eighteenth century speech patterns awkward. However, the dialogue suggests the deep irony that although the two are equals in their predicament, she does not recognize that it is his skills that will ensure their survival. She refuses to acknowledge his humanity, insisting on her superiority as a white woman. Fully aware of her blind racism but increasingly confident of his own humanity, he will take responsibility for saving her life.

Act 2 takes place in a London pub in the 1950’s. Louis, a black man, and Irene, a white woman, meet and relive their troubled relationship. Louis speaks in poetic images, expressing his despair and his need to go “home” to the Caribbean; he cannot live with the hatred of the white community that despises a black man’s relationship with a white woman. Irene, who is pregnant with his child, will not accompany him and will bear the child and raise it by herself. The play ends without resolution; it is understood that the next generation will inherit the consequences of the terrible history of slavery and racism.

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Phillips, Caryl