Dream on Monkey Mountain

by Derek Walcott

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The Play

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Derek Walcott has described Dream on Monkey Mountain as a “dream” that “exists as much in the given minds of its principal characters as in that of its writer.” This accurate description of the illogical progression of action must be taken into account when confronting this strange play. A surrealistic fable, the play does not adhere to the tenets of a realistic narrative. Since it concerns Makak’s belief in an unseen force (a white goddess) and the power of his imagination to will unnatural events to happen, it is appropriate that readers, too, should be asked to suspend disbelief in the improbable. Walcott asks his audience to accept the pleasures and possibilities for personal growth available to those who, like Makak, have given themselves over to an irrational force.

Many events in this play do not make sense in naturalistic terms. Characters such as Moustique die and then return to life with a renewed sense of purpose. The sick are healed by the humblest of men, Makak, an old charcoal burner who first appears in a prison for drunken conduct and petty thievery. A cabinetmaker named Basil turns out to be a figure for death itself. These strange occurrences must be accepted at the outset if the play’s symbolic meanings and political function are to emerge. The absence of naturalistic content also allows readers to pay attention to the beautiful lyricism and the rhythms of the West Indian dialect known as patois. An acclaimed poet and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, Walcott has suggested that the play should be “treated as a physical poem with all the subconscious and deliberate borrowings of poetry.”

In addition to its dreamlike plot and its emphasis on poetic language, the play is also designed to be produced in a highly stylized manner. The playwright has compared his play’s style to the ritualistic nature of Japanese Kabuki theater, but the origins of Dream on Monkey Mountain also reside in the folk customs, dances, and chants native to the Caribbean islands. There is a political reason behind Walcott’s employing a Caribbean setting and elements of West Indian folk traditions in his play. By using the West Indian theater as a showcase for the oral culture of the West Indies, Walcott hoped to create a more secure social identity for West Indians living under English rule.

The play’s ritualistic style is related to the system of belief held by many of the characters in the play. These characters, who live in the village near Monkey Mountain, accept on faith the healing powers of Makak’s magic. Walcott, therefore, creates an analogy through the style of the play between the villagers’ belief in Makak’s healing function and the significance of a nativist theater in enhancing the meaning and value of the lives of Caribbean villagers. Although the play does not, finally, portray a revolution against the colonial regime by the impoverished followers of Makak, the play’s style and setting do acknowledge a distinct Caribbean culture. In this sense, Dream on Monkey Mountain is a radical political statement that affirms the cultural autonomy of Walcott’s native Caribbean islands.

Like the setting, the play’s characters are presented in a stylized manner. They embody different, often ambiguous, responses to living under the yoke of colonialism. Many of the villagers, Moustique and Tigre among them, deny the mysteries of their own customs. They do not believe in Makak’s dream vision of descent from a line of ancient African kings. Moustique and Tigre are, for most of the play, interested only in how they can turn the phenomenon of Makak’s...

(This entire section contains 1223 words.)

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healing powers into their own economic profit. “You black, ugly, poor, so you worse than nothing,” Moustique tells Makak. Although he does not believe Makak, Moustique is quick to “sell [Makak’s] dreams” when he realizes that Makak’s powers are believed by other villagers. Makak tells Moustique that his ability to heal “is not for profit.”

Corporal Lestrade, a mulatto, presents a different response to the confusion of living in a racially mixed and culturally bifurcated society. The corporal identifies himself completely with his colonial oppressor by becoming part of the long arm of English law. Instead of taking pride in local traditions, the corporal believes he must “protect” the villagers from their own beliefs. Unlike Makak, the corporal thrives on the official rule of law and on a belief system based in Judeo-Christian religious principles. The corporal’s authority stems from what has been acknowledged to be true by the members of the society in power, rather than from what must be taken on faith. In the course of the play, however, Makak convinces the racist corporal that the lowly coal burner is worthy of being enthroned as a holy king.

In contrast to these characters, who in different ways live in self-hatred and denial of their own racial and ethnic identity, many other villagers believe without equivocation in Makak’s powers. Makak tells them that his power is really a belief in their own powers of hope and imagination. In one scene, for example, Makak prays not that Joseph, a dying villager, will be cured, but that his people will believe in themselves. Joseph’s sudden recovery after Makak’s visit spurs a general recognition among other villagers that Makak is a savior.

The main action of the play’s first part is Makak’s quixotic sojourn through the West Indian countryside with his skeptical companion and business partner, Moustique. These scenes are framed by a prologue and epilogue that bring the action back to the oppressive circumstances of a West Indian village under colonial rule. No matter how uplifted the audience may feel when Makak is empowered to heal sick villagers such as Joseph, the two scenes that frame the play’s main action leave open the question about the communal value of Makak’s “dream” of African nobility. In the epilogue, Makak is released from prison after he slays the apparition of the white goddess. He is let free to resume his life as a humble coal salesman. There are strong indications that nothing has changed in a material or economic sense in the life of Makak or in the lives of any of the villagers who believed in him. The corporal, for example, thinks that Makak suffered a drunken fit in his night in jail and that none of the scenes of healing and liberation actually took place. Regardless of whether or not Makak’s powers were real or only imagined, he has experienced an internal transformation by the end of the play. In his last speech, Makak affirms that he has been touched by God and that he is on his way home to the origins of his people, which he now locates on Monkey Mountain, rather than in the distance of Africa. “This old hermit is going back home, back to the beginning, to the green beginning of this world,” he says. In the epilogue, Makak also for the first time recalls his legal name, Felix Hobain. Makak’s return to his home with Moustique as companion and his remembering of his legal name suggest his acceptance of a West Indian identity that is distinct from either a purely African or purely English identity.

The Play

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Dream on Monkey Mountain opens with a prologue set in a West Indian jail where Makak, an old black man, is placed after his arrest on Saturday night for being drunk and disorderly. The mulatto jailer, Corporal Lestrade, tells the two thieves in the other cell, Tigre and Souris, that Makak thinks he is the king of Africa. The three men taunt and mock Makak, who reveals that during a dream an apparition in the form of a beautiful white woman had appeared and ordered him to reclaim his African heritage.

Shifting to Monkey Mountain, where Makak lives, scene 1 re-creates in a flashback the inception of the dream. Early in the morning, Moustique awakens his friend Makak so they can go to the market to sell coal, but Makak insists that they instead begin a journey to Africa, as an apparition appearing before him during the night had commanded. Mounted on a donkey, with a bamboo spear in his hand and Moustique at his side, Makak starts down the hill to set out on his quest. In scene 2, Makak heals a man near death, thereby beginning to establish his fame among the folk. The third scene, still in the dream state, takes place a few days later in the market, where the vendors talk excitedly of Makak’s miracles. Then Moustique enters, pretending to be Makak, and takes money and goods from the people, supposedly to finance his African journey; when they discover that he is a fake, they beat him. Makak arrives just as his friend dies.

Part 2 of the play returns to the jail. Scene 1 first recounts in a fairly realistic way the actual exchanges among Makak, the two thieves, and the corporal. It then moves into the dream state once more, acting out Makak’s hallucinations, in which he stabs the corporal and escapes with the other two men. Once they have left the stage, the supposedly dead corporal rises, draws the knife out of his chest, and announces that he will track down Makak and the thieves, who are “attempting to escape from the prison of their lives.” He goes on to explain: “That’s the most dangerous crime. It brings about revolution.”

Scene 2 continues the dream that began in the jail. The old black man and his fellow escapees, Tigre and Souris, stop to rest in the forest. Tigre, believing that Makak has money hidden on Monkey Mountain, plays along with the idea of going to Africa in order to pacify the old man; Souris, on the other hand, has started to believe in the vision, telling Makak: “But your dream touch everyone, sir. Even in those burnt-out coals of your eyes, there is still some fire.” The corporal enters in pursuit and imitates a British colonial authority, ordering his imaginary native people in phrases like “What-ho, chaps, more lights” and “No fear, lads! Steady on!” Before long, though, the corporal becomes a convert as well. He murders the doubting Tigre and insists that they fulfill Makak’s vision, claiming, “We cannot go back. History is in motion. . . . Forward, forward.”

Scene 3 completes the dream and is called in the stage directions an “apotheosis,” or an exaltation and glorification of an ideal. Makak, now a king in Africa, presides over a court where judgment falls on racial oppression throughout history. At Makak’s side stands the corporal, a fanatical adviser who demands that all prisoners and traitors be put to death, including historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Cecil Rhodes. Moustique, who died in an earlier dream but has been resurrected, is also condemned—for betraying the vision and arguing that Makak’s followers have corrupted his good intentions in order to fulfill their own desire for power and revenge. Finally, the white apparition appears before the court, the corporal demanding her death, explaining, “She is the colour of the law, religion, paper, art, and if you want peace, if you want to discover the beautiful depth of your blackness, nigger, chop off her head.” Once Makak beheads the symbol of whiteness, he regains his freedom.

The epilogue, which takes place the next morning in the jail, returns to realism. Sober now, Makak is released, and his friend Moustique comes to take him back to Monkey Mountain. Although he had only dreamed his moment of glory, Makak has experienced a true apotheosis, one in which he discovered his own worth as a human being.

Dramatic Devices

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Dream on Monkey Mountain has about it a theatricality that not only forcefully depicts the outward experience of Makak but leads the audience into his interior life as well. This double entry depends in large part on the melding of reality and dream, which is attained through the rich language, the intentionally chaotic plot, the spare but original production techniques, the provision for spectacle, and the abundant symbols, both visual and linguistic.

The dialogue makes effective use of the West Indian dialect and idiom. It also satirizes the bureaucratic language of colonialism. At some points it borrows familiar lines and blends them into the characters’ speech, as when Moustique begs and recites the Lord’s prayer intermittently:And give us this day our daily bread . . . and is that self I want to talk to you about, friend. Whether you could spare a little bread . . . and lead us not into temptation . . . because we are not thieves, stranger . . . but deliver us from evil . . . and we two trespassers but forgive us brother . . . for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory . . . for our stomach sake, stranger.

Like the language, the plot unfolds the play’s action through mixing Western culture and the daily activities of West Indian life. For example, when Makak, riding a donkey and carrying a bamboo spear, and Moustique descend the mountain as they start their quest, the image of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza comes to mind.

Because the production techniques have been freed from the constrictions of realism, the stage becomes as fluid as the landscape of a dream. Action moves from the jail to mountain to marketplace to forest, accompanied by the dimming and raising of lights and the lifting and lowering of suggestive scenic pieces. Although the play might be performed with economy by doubling actors’ roles and all but eliminating scenery, it could also take a spectacular turn, especially by accentuating its use of dance, costume, and music. Allegorical in its thematic structure, the play incorporates a wealth of symbols. Some are visual, as in the case of the black and white mask; others emerge from the action, as in the scene where the corporal mocks the British colonial attitude; and some arise from the diversity of the language, which employs the new English of the West Indians.

Historical Context

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In 1967 as today, Trinidad was a culturally diverse island in the West Indies, with a heritage that includes slavery, colonizers, and island natives. There were many racial and ethnic groups: African, East Indian, and white, with Spanish, British, and French influences. Though English was the official language, many were spoken on the island, including Creole, Hindi, Urdu, and Spanish. Each culture had its own religion as well. Catholicism, Protestantism, Hindu, and Muslim faiths were practiced on Trinidad. The groups often thought of themselves as distinct, which created problems, social and otherwise, especially during the formation of political parties and unions.

Trinidad (unified with Tobago since colonial days in the nineteenth century) had attained independent commonwealth status in 1962. The country was administered by Great Britain as part of its Commonwealth of Nations, which meant Tobago was ruled by a governor-general appointed by that country's leaders. A locally elected bicameral legislature was controlled by the People's National Movement (PNM), which had been in power since 1956. PNM held a monopoly on power as the first to form a party-based cabinet government.

In 1967, Trinidad's economy was not particularly strong on any front. Two years previously, legislation had been passed that limited the right to strike, making it harder to form nationwide unions. The government tried to stabilize the situation, but high unemployment reigned. This situation created social unrest that would come to a head in 1970 when curfews were imposed. Many black Trinidadians believed there was racial discrimination in employment.

Influenced by and linked to the militant Black Power movement in the United States, demonstrations on the grass-roots level, especially among the young, were presented in an effort to affect change. The demonstrators were critical of the government and accused it of corruption. One particularly radical group was the National Joint Action Congress, related to the University of the West Indies. The Congress believed that white and colored businessmen, both local and foreign, owned most of the nation's businesses. It wanted to form a government that would control the whole economy, all of the land, and the sugar industry. This government would not be a democracy, but would take power by force.

Another part of the economy that was problematic, though on the rise, was farming. Agriculture was supported by the government's five-year development plan, in place from 1962 to 1967. Trinidad supported farming initiatives so the country would not have to import as much food. A significant amount of funding went to the State Lands Programme, which rented government lands at low prices to small farmers. This action did improve the situation in the short term, but did nothing to address the difference between rural and urban areas. While there were many roads, in rural areas they were often single-laned dirt trails, which limited access to these areas.

Trinidad's future would be bright in the short term for another reason. Oil deposits had been discovered in the early twentieth century, and onshore oil drilling had been practiced ever since. By the mid-1960s, oil drilling occurred both on and off shore. Because of the worldwide oil crisis in the 1970s, Trinidad oil businesses—which included refining and distributing—would boom. Though life in Trinidad improved greatly as social programs were created with the government's new funds, the boom drained people away from agriculture. The boom was also short-lived. By the 1980s, Trinidad's economy was slumping again.

Literary Style

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SettingDream on Monkey Mountain is an allegory set on an unspecified island in the West Indies at an unspecified time, assumed to be contemporary with the time the play was written. The play's action takes place in several locations, both real and imagined. The most real place is the jail run by Corporal Lestrade, where the play begins and ends. In Makak' s dream, the action goes from his hut on Monkey Mountain to a country road where Makak heals the sick man and then to the public marketplace before returning to the jail cell. After Makak, Tigre, and Souris escape, they spend time in the forest before going to a most unreal setting of apotheosis, where Makak is king. All of these settings underscore Makak's journey from a real existence that is harsh, through self-awareness, and back to a reality that he feels better about and in which he functions as a better person.

SymbolismDream on Monkey Mountain is replete with complex symbolism, from characters' names to entire subplots. Emphasizing how much of the text is Makak's dream, many words and actions have multiple symbolic meanings. For example, each of the four main characters of African descent—Makak, Moustique, Souris, and Tigre—are the names of animals. They are monkey, mosquito, rat, and tiger, respectively. These names reveal something of each character's personality and perception of themselves, but also play off the corporal's racist remarks about running a zoo. Lestrade's name reflects his dual background, black and white. He literally straddles these cultures. Characters are also symbolic in and of themselves. The prime example is Basil, whose appearance symbolizes a forthcoming death for another character. Nearly everything that happens in Makak's dream has symbolic meaning. When Makak heals Josephus, the man with a fever, it symbolizes the beginning of his awareness of his worth as a human being. When he is a king in Africa, Makak has to kill the white woman who appeared to him as an apparition. She began his journey, and what she symbolizes must be killed to end it.

Language and Dialogue Walcott uses language and dialogue to underscore diversity in Dream on Monkey Mountain. The West Indian island on which the play is set has several kinds of cultures with different languages. The characters of African descent speak English for the most part, but it is often dialect with some local ‘‘patois’’ words and phrases, spoken by Makak especially, as well as Souris, Moustique, and Tigre. Even their names fall under this category. When the corporal is in his authoritative mode, he speaks in a clipped, proper English, throwing in the occasional Latin phrase. During his epiphany in the forest, the corporal's language changes for the moment and becomes more like the other characters. Though the corporal returns to the authoritative tone, the language he then uses is in praise of Makak and that part of the corporal's heritage, instead of against it. Much of the corporal's dialogue is a satiric take on the language of British colonialism. Language defines who characters are and serves as a marker for how they change.

Literary Heritage Like many countries in the West Indies, Trinidad has a long tradition of folklore with identifiable stock characters. Some of these legends have their roots in animist traditions from West Africa and were brought over by those enslaved. Patois folklore was derived primarily from the slaves of French speakers and has a variety of characters. They include the Soucouyant (evil old hag), Papa Bois (the father of the woods), and Mamadlo, the mother of the water whose form is a snake with human features. Jumbies are anything that could be construed as a bogey-man. Some stories focus on La Diablesse, a female devil in disguise who attracts men and lures them into the forest where they come to harm. Anase tales feature a universal trickster who lives by his wits, though is also greedy and selfish. He is not usually admired because of these characteristics, though stories involving him often try to explain why things are the way they are.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1967: Trinidad and Tobago has been an independent country since 1962, though it is administered by Great Britain.

    Today: Trinidad and Tobago has been an independent republic within the British Commonwealth for over twenty years.

  • 1967: Trinidad's economy is unstable, with high unemployment, especially among the young. It soon leads to unrest, strikes, and protests on the island.

    Today: Though Trinidad's economy is again unstable, unemployment and inflation are slightly lower and prone to fluctuation. There is more hope, however, because the oil boom of the 1970s proved that a solid economy was possible.

  • 1967: The PNM (People's National Movement) is firmly in power in Trinidad, and though accused of corruption, there are few challengers.

    Today: Corruption scandals and challenges by the NAR (National Alliance for Reconstruction), NDP (National Development Party), and Movement for Unity and Progress have limited the power of the PNM in national politics.

  • 1967: The Black Power movement is prominent in the United States and gaining support in Trinidad.

    Today: Though such a radical, widespread movement does not exist in the same form, many still fight against racism in both countries.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Barnes, Clive. ‘‘Racial Allegory,’’ in New York Times, March 15, 1971, p. 52.

Kelly, Kevin. ‘‘The Poetic Power of Walcott's Dream,’’ in Boston Globe, July 26, 1994, p. 57.

Kerr, Walter. ‘‘How to Discover Corruption in Honest Men?,’’ in New York Times, March 15-21, 1971, sec. 2, p. 3.

McLellan, Joseph. ‘‘Powers of the Dream,’’ in Washington Post, November 30, 1979, p. C10.

Oliver, Edith. ‘‘Once Upon a Full Moon,’’ in New Yorker, March 27, 1971, pp. 83-5.

Riley, Clayton. ‘‘A Black Man's Dream of Personal Freedom,’’ in New York Times, April 4, 1971, sec. 2, p. 3.

Scobie, W. I. ‘‘The West Coast Scene,’’ in National Review, November 3, 1970, p. 1174.

Walcott, Derek. Dream on Monkey Mountain, in Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays. Farrar, Straus, 1970, pp. 207-326.

Further Reading Colson, Theodore. ‘‘Derek Walcott's Plays: Outrage and Compassion,'' in World Literature Written in English, April, 1973, pp. 80-96. This article discusses the importance of the plays included in the volume Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970).

Hamner, Robert D. ‘‘Mythological Aspects of Derek Walcott's Drama,’’ in Ariel, July, 1977, pp. 35-58. This essay looks at several of Walcott's plays, including Dream on Monkey Mountain, through elements of mythology.

Montengro, David. ‘‘An Interview with Derek Walcott,’’ in Partisan Review, Spring, 1990, pp. 204-14. In this interview, Walcott discusses his inspirations and life as a writer.

Olaniyan, Tejumola. ‘‘Derek Walcott: Islands of History at a Rendezvous with a Muse,'' in Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance: The Invention of Cultural Identities in African, African-American, and Caribbean Drama. Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 93-115. This chapter considers Dream on Monkey Mountain and other writings by Walcott from several historical perspectives.


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Baugh, Edward. Derek Walcott. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Comprehensive overview of Walcott’s life and career, including the dramatic and poetic works.

Baugh, Edward. Derek Walcott: Memory as Vision—“Another Life.” London: Longman, 1978. Baugh links Another Life (1973) to Dream on Monkey Mountain by noting the connection between Makak and the narrator of the poems, both of whom must struggle to gain their own artistic vision against a debilitating past that often leads to self-contempt.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Derek Walcott. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Collection of essays on Walcott’s work by noted scholars in the field. Includes an essay on his role in founding a school of epic drama, as well as considerations of the importance of postcoloniality to Walcott’s drama and poetry.

Brown, Stewart, ed. The Art of Derek Walcott. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1991. Collection of twelve essays, plus an introduction and bibliography to Walcott’s poetry and plays. Among the contributions is Laurence A. Breiner’s “Walcott’s Early Drama,” which views Dream on Monkey Mountain as the culmination of a series of plays written by Walcott in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Breiner argues that Walcott’s trips to New York in 1957 and 1958 on a Rockefeller Fellowship enabled the playwright to formulate a view of what was distinctive about a West Indian theatrical style.

Keizer, Arlene R. Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. Analyzes the figure of the mulatto in Dream on Monkey Mountain and its implications for theatrical aesthetics the representation of identity.

Walcott, Derek. “Conversation with Derek Walcott.” Inteview by Robert D. Hamner. World Literature Written in English 16 (November, 1977): 409-420. Walcott discusses his feelings about the political involvement of the writer in a developing country, the use of patois in his poetry, and West Indian and foreign critics.

Walcott, Derek. “An Interview with Derek Walcott Conducted by Edward Hirsch.” Interview by Edward Hirsch. Contemporary Literature 20 (Summer, 1979): 279-292. Walcott discusses his early influences, the poverty of early West Indian poetry, and the problems of being a West Indian in the political and social climate of the time.




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