Dream on Monkey Mountain

by Derek Walcott

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631

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 both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elation of discovery,” he recalled. The “discovery” of how to meld the two cultures into a meaningful literary statement about his own relationship to African, English, and West Indian traditions took place in Dream on Monkey Mountain, in which the author’s conflicted heritage of European and local Caribbean traditions becomes the thematic focus of the work itself.

Walcott’s primary theme in many of his plays and in his beautifully crafted poetry is the dichotomy between black and white, between subject and ruler, and between the Caribbean and European civilizations present in his culture and ancestry. This last theme, which he has described as “one race’s quarrel with another’s God,” is mirrored and reflected in Dream on Monkey Mountain . In the play, Walcott explores the question of how a colonial people living under the rule of Western Christianity and English law can affirm its own leaders, its own dialect, its own spiritual beliefs, its own relationship to an origin in Africa that remains remote even from its own experience. Walcott’s sense of divided loyalties, his ability to see the world through the eyes of the ruled and the ruler, is evident in his ambivalent portrayal of Makak. If Makak is, indeed, the recipient of messages from a mysterious white goddess, and if he does possess the power to heal, how do other West Indians who have already assimilated the language, customs, and beliefs of Europe trust in a figure who, in the light of waking reality, is not easily construed to be a reliable character? Makak, after all, has his hallucinatory vision during a night in prison, where he is sleeping off the effects of a drunken night. His relationship to Africa as a source of his feelings of power is, by itself, problematic. This source of nobility is illusory and is as distant from the current affairs on the streets of the village as are the original homes of the European rulers. The conflict for many characters in the play becomes the struggle to overcome...

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doubts about their own sense of what is valuable and powerful, and to see in the least among them, Makak, the best possibilities of the self.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

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.


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Identity/Search for Self At the heart of Dream on Monkey Mountain is a search for and acceptance of one's identity. When Makak is questioned at the beginning of the play, he cannot tell Corporal Lestrade his real name or much about himself. To the question, ‘‘What is your race?’’ Makak replies, ‘‘I am tired.’’ Makak tells the corporal, Tigre, and Souris that he has not even seen his reflection in thirty years. During his night in jail, Makak has a dream, inspired by an apparition who came to him the night before. The white woman who appeared to him told him that he was a king of Africa and must go there. In his dream, Makak goes on this journey of self-discovery. He heals a sick man thought to be on his deathbed, and his reputation grows. Though Makak is jailed in his dream, he stabs his jailer, the corporal, and leaves with fellow inmates. The corporal and one of the escapees, Souris, join Makak's journey. When Makak wakes up in reality the next day, he knows his name and has a better sense of himself. He has more hope for his future.

Several of the minor characters have identity issues as well. They include the corporal, a mulatto who, at the beginning of the play, only identifies with the white, ruling side of his heritage. He speaks in disparaging tones to the black inmates. In Makak's dream, the corporal starts out the same way, but has a revelation of his own. He embraces ‘‘tribal law’’ over ‘‘Roman law’’ and falls in with Makak's journey. At the end of the play, when reality returns, the corporal still is disparaging towards the men of color, but also lets Makak go free.

Death and Rebirth Throughout Dream on Monkey Mountain , there is also a complicated undercurrent of death and, in some cases, rebirth. The first significant event of Makak's journey is his healing of Josephus, a man suffering from a fever and near death. Though Makak initially believes that he has failed to heal the man, Josephus begins to sweat and lives. It is not the first time that Makak has saved someone. He befriended Moustique when he was a drunk in the gutter and made him his business partner. During the play, Moustique dies twice. The first time, he is caught impersonating the now-famous healer Makak in the marketplace and is killed by angry onlookers. He is alive again when Makak is a king in Africa. Moustique appears before Makak as a prisoner, and tries to tell Makak that the men around him will betray him. Makak allows him to be killed a second time. Yet at the end of the play, in reality, Moustique comes to get Makak out of jail. Though Makak is already free, Moustique escorts his newly reborn friend home. Earlier in the play, the corporal is assumed dead after Makak stabs him to get out of prison, but he lives and ends up joining Makak's journey in the woods on Monkey Mountain. In each of these instances, death had a physical symbol with the character of Basil. Each time death is imminent, Basil is present. The ideas of death and rebirth are linked to Makak and the others' search for identity. To understand who they are, they must directly face death in some form and emerge all the stronger. Those who do, survive.

Race and Racism Another theme in Dream on Monkey Mountain directly linked to the search for identity is race and racism. Makak's identity crisis is related to his status as a man of African descent. Makak means monkey, and the old man believes he is not worth looking at. This belief is reinforced by the racist attitudes expressed by Corporal Lestrade, a mulatto himself. Lestrade equates his black male inmates with animals in a zoo. Lestrade identifies only with the white, authoritative side of his heritage. It is only in Makak's dream that Lestrade embraces the African side of his background and joins Makak's journey. At the end of the play, Makak has come to terms with his race because of his dream, but Lestrade has not.