At a Glance
Derek Walcott gave the West Indies a voice. In his plays, poetry, and critical essays, Walcott has long sought to unearth independent identities for the people of the West Indies and to explore the aftereffects of colonization. To do so, Walcott employs a rich mixture of images and language, particularly in his most famous play, Dream on Monkey Mountain. As both poet and dramatist, his writing is a mélange—an appropriate approach given the mixture of cultures in the West Indies. He also uses language to explore his postcolonial concerns by mixing local tongues with English, highlighting the unique identities of West Indian people. In doing so, Walcott’s writing underscores the rich, unique, and complicated culture of the Caribbean.
Facts and Trivia
- In 1959, Walcott founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, which seeks to promote works of West Indian theater.
- Though his writing style developed apart from Latin American literature, Walcott’s work draws many parallels to the magical realism movement.
- Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, a reimagining of the Odyssey, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
- Walcott teaches at Boston University and cofounded in 1981 the Boston Playwright’s Theatre, which specializes in performing new plays.
- One of Walcott’s less successful ventures was cowriting the Broadway musical The Capeman with musician Paul Simon. The costly production was plagued by troubles and poor reviews, closing quickly after its premiere.
In Castries, capital of the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Derek Alton Walcott and his twin brother, Roderick, were born January 23, 1930. Their mother, Alix, was a teacher in a Methodist primary school, while their father, Warwick, was a civil official and a gifted artist. Although Walcott lost his father when he was hardly a year old, fatherly guidance was provided by the St. Lucian painter Harold Simmons, the mentor commemorated in Walcott’s autobiographical poem Another Life.
Being of mixed blood—his grandfathers were white Dutch and English, his grandmothers black—and the son of Protestants in a predominantly Catholic island, Walcott experienced from an early age the schizophrenia of New World blacks and mulattoes in an alien environment. While childhood in a colonial backwater island might seem disadvantageous, Walcott believes that his classroom exposure to traditional Western culture—Greek, Roman, and British—was vitally enriching. Combining this with his informal contact with African slave tales and life in the streets, he learned to admire both currents of his dual heritage. Early evidence of his gift for cultural synthesis appears in one of Walcott’s first plays, Henri Christophe. This dramatization of the famous black rebel general is couched in the poetic images and the elaborate language of Elizabethan England.
In order to provide an outlet for his drama, Walcott and his brother founded the St. Lucia Arts Guild in 1950, the same year in which Walcott was awarded a scholarship to pursue advanced education at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. His graduation in 1953 was followed in 1954 by his marriage to Faye Moyston. Four years later, as a result of a Rockefeller Foundation grant to study theater in New York, Walcott reached a major turning point in his career.
Two specific influences in New York seem to have given Walcott the impetus to launch his professional career. First was his discovery, through Bertolt Brecht, of Asian theater. In Brecht there were precedents for using the ritual, mime, symbolic gestures, rhythmic movement, and music of Walcott’s native background. Second was Walcott’s realization that there were precious few major roles for black actors in the standard repertoire. Thus, he resolved to return to the islands and create a style of drama that would be suited to the multifarious elements of the West Indian character: an indigenous drama.
Walcott’s creation of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop came in 1959, the same...
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