Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In the essay “What the Twilight Says: An Overture,” Derek Walcott recalled his own doubts about affirming a nativist tradition in the theater arts of the West Indies. As a young playwright born of mixed racial and ethnic heritage on St. Lucia, a West Indian island where French/English patois is spoken, Walcott was educated as a British subject and taught to speak English as a second language. Like many of the characters in his play, Walcott held an ambivalent relationship to the mysticism of the West Indian culture. He felt estranged from his African origins and skeptical about those West Indians who longed for a return to an “African Eden.” This longing for an obscure past, Walcott felt, placed many West Indians in a schizophrenic situation in which they were alienated from their truest selves. Because of his distance from an important part of his racial origins, however, Walcott, like many of his characters, held doubts about his legitimacy as a creative person. “Colonials, we began with this malarial enervation: that nothing could ever be built among these rotting shacks, barefooted backyards and moulting shingles,” he wrote. This self-doubt about the legitimacy of Caribbean life as a subject for literature led writers of Walcott’s generation to become “natural assimilators” of an English cultural tradition unrelated to “the outward life of action and dialect” that Walcott heard on the streets of St. Lucia in his boyhood. “We knew the literature of Empires, Greek, Roman, British, through their essential classics; and...

(The entire section is 631 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In a production note, Derek Walcott calls Dream on Monkey Mountain “illogical, derivative, contradictory” and explains that “its source is metaphor.” It should be treated as an allegory, whose themes and meanings emerge on several levels that do not allow for a single, well-defined interpretation.

The play first takes up the theme that has occupied so many Third World writers: revolution. Makak dreams of rejecting the white world and its tattered vestiges of colonialism in order to reclaim his African heritage. He sets out to arouse the people and in his dreaming establishes an African kingdom. However, unlike other revolutionary works, Dream on Monkey Mountain goes a step further and depicts the kingdom’s ruination at the hands of lieutenants anxious for revenge and power. This apparent contradiction—the need for revolution versus its ultimate failure—sets the work apart from many such plays that call for an end to colonialism and foresee a utopia once the forces of white domination have been banished.

Thus, revolution may only be a metaphor to suggest another kind of change: that which takes place within the individual. On one level, Makak seeks to restore his black identity; on another, he reaches out purely for identity, neither as a black man nor as a white, but as a man. Early in the play, when he is asked his name by the jailer, he replies, “I forget.” He has thus far been called only by his nickname Makak, which means monkey and was intended to describe his ugliness. When asked his race, he answers, “I am tired.” At the end of the play, though, he says without hesitation, “My name is Felix Hobain.” He returns to Monkey Mountain a man who has changed nothing outwardly but whose inner vision has altered dramatically.

These two kinds of revolution—national and personal—make up the major dichotomy that marks a play abounding in opposites. The distinction between dream and reality blurs, as do the lines between purity and corruption, good and evil, ambition and passivity. However “illogical” and “contradictory” the play may be in its treatment of the struggle against colonialism, Dream on Monkey Mountain makes it clear that self-realization must precede communal change. Although the work has been interpreted as radically anticolonial, Walcott himself has pointed out in an interview that he held higher aims than political confrontation.


(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Identity/Search for Self
At the heart of Dream on Monkey Mountain is a search for and acceptance of one's...

(The entire section is 695 words.)