The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1223 words.)