Derek Walcott Walcott, Derek (Drama Criticism) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

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.


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."

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes 1950

Paolo and Francesca 1951

Harry Dernier: A Play for Radio Production 1951

Wine of the Country 1953

"The Sea at Dauphin: A Play in One Act" 1953

Ione: A Play with Music 1957

Drums and Colours: An Epic Drama 1958

Ti-Jean and His Brothers 1958

"Malcauchon; or, Six in the Rain" 1959

Dream on Monkey Mountain 1967

In a Fine Castle 1970

Franklin 1973

The Charlatan [music by Galt MacDermot] 1974

The Joker of Seville [music by MacDermot] 1974

O Babylon! [music by MacDermot] 1976

Remembrance 1977

Pantomime 1978

Beef, No Chicken 1981

The Isle Full of Noises 1982

*The Last Carnival 1982

A Branch of the Blue Nile 1983

Haitian Earth 1984

To Die for Grenada 1986

Steel 1991

The Odyssey 1992


25 Poems 1948

Epitaph for the Young: A Poem in XII Cantos 1949

Poems 1951

In a Green Night: Poems, 1948-1960 1962

Selected Poems 1964

The Castaway and Other Poems 1965

The Gulf and Other Poems 1969

Another Life 1973

Sea Grapes 1976

Selected Verse 1976

The Star-Apple Kingdom 1979

The Fortunate Traveller 1981

Selected Poetry 1981

Midsummer 1984

Collected Poems, 1948-1984 1986

The Arkansas Testament 1987

Omeros 1990

*This play is a revised version of In a Fine Castle.

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Interview with Walcott (1971)

SOURCE: An interview in The New Yorker, Vol. XLVII, No. 19, 26 June 1971, pp. 30-1.

[In the following conversation, conducted at the time of the New York production of Dream on Monkey Mountain, Walcott elucidates the play's themes and discusses the person who inspired the character Makak.]

Derek Walcott, author of the Obie Award-winning play The Dream on Monkey Mountain, is a tall, lithe West Indian of forty-one who has striking hazel eyes, longish hair (sideburns but no Afro), and a kind of casual, mussed elegance that stamps him as a man of the theatre. He has had two books of poetry published commercially, and one of plays (which includes the text of Monkey Mountain), and is the founder-director of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, a group of twenty-odd actors who travel around the Caribbean presenting plays to audiences that often have very little contact with live drama. We met Mr. Walcott when he was here during Monkey Mountain's successful run at the Negro Ensemble Company Theatre, on Second Avenue, and we arranged to have a talk with him one evening after a performance. We arrived at the apartment of a mutual friend with the sounds of Mr. Walcott's magnificent, almost Shakespearean sentences still ringing in our ears, and immediately asked him to explain some of the thinking behind the plot.

"On the surface, your play is the story of an old and ugly charcoal burner named Makak who comes down from his hut on the mountain to sell his wares, gets drunk, and spends a night in jail, where he has vivid hallucinations about Africa," we said. "But what are you really getting at? There seem to be as many theories as there are critics."

Mr. Walcott smiled gently and lit a cigarette. "Monkey Mountain is about many things," he replied, in the lilting cadences of the Caribbean. "It's about the West Indian search for identity, and about the damage that the colonial spirit has done to the soul. Makak and the people he meets in the play are all working out the meaning of their culture; they are going through an upheaval, shaking off concepts that have been imposed on them for centuries. They live in the West Indies because I live in the West Indies, but the basic situation is true of any society where man has been downgraded to a primitive, uninformed, unpurposed existence. Makak is an extreme representation of what colonialism can do to a man—he is reduced to an almost animal-like state of degradation. When he dreams that he is the king of a united Africa, I'm saying that some sort of spiritual return to Africa can be made, but it may not be necessary. The romanticized, pastoral vision of Africa that many black people hold can be an escape from the reality of the world around us. In the West Indies, where all the races live and work together, we have the beginnings of a great and unique society. The problem is to recognize our African origins but not to romanticize them. In the first half of the play, the concept of the beginning of the world and the evolution of man is—shall we say?—basically white. Then, when Corporal Lestrade, the brainwashed colonial servant, retrogresses to become an ape and emerges as a man to walk through the primeval forest, the play swings over to a black Adamic concept of evolution. But the same sins are repeated, and the cycle of violence and cruelty begins again. When the two criminals, who are virtually brothers, fight, that's where the dream breaks for Makak. He thought he was going to an Africa where man would be primal and communal. Instead, it's back to original sin, with the tribes killing one another. He ultimately rejects both insanities—the extremity of contempt for the black and the extremity of hatred for the white....

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Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Robert D. Hamner (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Derek Walcott's Theater of Assimilation," in Philological Papers, Vol. 25, February, 1979, pp. 86-93.

[In the essay below, Hamner surveys the development of Walcott's drama through O Babylon! He underscores the playwright's assimilation of diverse cultural and theatrical influences in his works.]

When Derek Walcott's earliest poems came out in 1947, when he was only nineteen years old, he was immediately hailed in his native West Indies as a prodigy. His first book of poetry In a Green Night (1962) led Robert Graves to proclaim, "Derek Walcott handles English with a closer...

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Dream On Monkey Mountain

(Drama Criticism)


Clive Barnes (review date 15 March 1971)

SOURCE: "Racial Allegory," in The New York Times, 15 March 1971, p. 52.

[Dream on Monkey Mountain received its New York debut on 14 March 1971 in a production by the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) at the St. Mark's Playhouse. In the following assessment of the premiere performance, Barnes calls the play a "richly flavored phantasmagoria" and stresses its poetic aspects.]

Derek Walcott's The Dream on Monkey Mountain, which the Negro Ensemble Company presented last night at the St. Marks Playhouse, is a beautiful bewildering play by a poet. Mr....

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Hamner, Robert D. "Conversation with Derek Walcott." World Literature in English 16, No. 2 (November 1977): 409-20.

Interview in which Walcott discusses the influence of William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge on his drama.

Walcott, Derek. "The Poet in the Theatre." Poetry Review 80, No. 4 (Winter 1990-91): 4-8.

Text of a lecture in which Walcott discusses the need for poets to compose drama in order to restore tragedy to contemporary theater.


Breiner, Laurence A. "Walcott's Early Drama," in The Art of Derek Walcott, edited...

(The entire section is 780 words.)