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...

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

In 1967 as today, Trinidad was a culturally diverse island in the West Indies, with a heritage that includes slavery, colonizers, and island...

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Literary Style

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Dream on Monkey Mountain is an allegory set on an unspecified island in the West Indies at an unspecified...

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Compare and Contrast

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

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

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Topics for Further Study

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

  • Compare and contrast Makak from Dream on Monkey Mountain with Chantal from an earlier Walcott play, Malcauchon; Or, the Six in...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

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


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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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....

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