Derek Walcott 1930-
Walcott is a highly respected dramatist and poet and a leading voice in contemporary West Indian literature. Of mixed African and European heritage, Walcott embodies the cultural division that provides the major tensions in his work. Employing diverse styles, settings, and subject matter, he explores such themes as racism, the injustices of colonialism, the collapse of empires, and the quest for personal, cultural, and political identity. His synthesis of French Creole and West Indian dialect with the formal structures and eloquent language of Elizabethan verse, in addition to his topical imagery and calypso rhythms, creates a hybrid literature that reflects his personal experiences as well as the history and culture of the West Indies.
Walcott was born on St. Lucia, a small island in the West Indies. He has characterized his childhood as "schizophrenic," referring to the divided loyalties associated with his African and English ancestry and to the fact that he grew up in a middle-class, Protestant family in a society that was predominantly Catholic and poor. His mother, a teacher who was actively involved in the local theater, strongly influenced his artistic development. Although his father died when Walcott was still an infant, he drew inspiration from the poems and numerous watercolor paintings he left behind. In an interview Walcott explained: "[My father's paintings] gave me a kind of impetus and a strong sense of continuity. I felt that what had been cut off in him somehow was an extension that I was continuing." Walcott's childhood ambition was to be a painter, but he also developed an affinity for the English literature he read in school. While still a student he began writing poetry, often imitating such writers as W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas. At the age of eighteen Walcott financed the publication of 25 Poems, his first poetry collection. While studying literature at St. Mary's College in St. Lucia and at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, he completed two more volumes of poetry and composed his first play, Henri Christophe, a historical drama written in verse. His play Drums and Colours brought Walcott both critical recognition and a Rockefeller Fellowship to study theater in the United States. Upon his return to the Caribbean he became intensely involved in Trinidad's artistic community, writing reviews and organizing the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, where several of his plays were produced during the 1950s and 1960s. Since the 1970s Walcott has divided his time between the West Indies and the United States, where he has taught at Yale, Columbia, and other universities. In 1971 his play Dream on Monkey Mountain won an Obie Award, and in 1992 Walcott received the Nobel Prize for literature.
MAJOR DRAMATIC WORKS
The importance of understanding and preserving West Indian culture is a prominent theme in Walcott's works. Many of his plays, often called "folk dramas," are firmly rooted in the common life and language of the West Indies, and they frequently evoke Caribbean dialect and legends. These folk dramas, including "The Sea at Dauphin," lone, Ti-Jean and His Brothers, and Dream on Monkey Mountain, are considered his most effective work for the theater. "The Sea at Dauphin," a tale of the St. Lucian fishing community's struggle to survive the forces of the sea, is derived from West Indian folklore and marks Walcott's first use of the native idiom. Ti-Jean and His Brothers, in which a humble, sensible boy named Ti-Jean succeeds in outwitting the Devil, continues the folk tradition by blending a morality play and a West Indian fable. The play celebrates the triumph of native resourcefulness over imperialist power and also comments on racism and the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. Walcott explained his use of folklore and dialectical speech in this work: "The great challenge for me was to write as powerfully as I could without writing down to the audience, so that the large emotions could be taken in by a fisherman or a guy on the street, even if he didn't understand every line." Dream on Monkey Mountain is often considered Walcott's most successful play. It focuses on a charcoal vendor who descends from his mountain home to sell his wares but is jailed for drunkenness. While in jail, he dreams of becoming the king of a united Africa. Walcott has said that Dream on Monkey Mountain is about the West Indian search for identity and is concerned with the damage inflicted on the human soul by colonialism. Combining dream and reality in the play, Walcott emphasizes what he perceives to be the dangers of replacing the realities of Caribbean cultural diversity with a romanticized vision of Africa in the hope of reestablishing cultural roots. Instead, Walcott advocates introspection and art as the means to rediscover one's personal and cultural heritage. He continues his search for identity in such later plays as O Babylon!, which focuses on the Rastafarian rejection of Western culture, Remembrance, and Pantomime.
Critics and reviewers of Walcott's plays have focused on their synthesis of diverse elements—cultural, theatrical, linguistic—as well as their merging of dreams and reality. Lowell Fiet has examined Walcott's use of a variety of theatrical techniques and devices in his plays and has argued that increasingly "the act of performance itself, the play and/or plays within the play, rehearsals, creative processes, theatre settings, and actor/writer/artist characters become increasingly prominent metaphors in [Walcott's] interpretation of Caribbean culture and society." In a consideration of Walcott's use of "contradictory" language in Dream on Monkey Mountain, Jan R. Uhrbach has observed mat in the play nothing is certain: "Everything constantly changes: the characters' identities; the balance between reality and dream; the meanings of words, phrases, symbols, and images." Robert D. Hamner has underscored the playwright's utilization of a variety of theatrical and cultural material, calling Walcott's work a "theater of assimilation." This drama, he contends, "provides unique evidence in support of Donne's 'No man is an island, entire of itself.' Not only are mere elements of poetry, music, dance, narrative, mime; and influences of Eastern, Western, and local folk traditions; but undergirding them all is the personal experience of a comprehending intelligence; the man and the artist in the West Indies, Derek Walcott."