Themes and Meanings

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Pantomime embraces several issues of racial and cultural equality, of colonial history, and of artistic methods, but these issues are all subordinate to the play’s faith in the integrity of the artist’s vision of diversity yet unity within humanity. While both characters change in the course of the drama, Jackson’s recovery of respect for the cultural origins of calypso and “Creole acting,” the ability to improvise according to immediate circumstances without the loss of self-dignity, serves as the catalyst by which Harry can come to terms with his largely unconscious racism and with his sexism—the jealousy over his wife’s success—which had provoked the tragic events of his past. Jackson’s forgiveness of Harry—without accepting a position of inferiority—becomes Harry’s forgiveness of Ellen, and, just as important, Harry’s forgiveness of himself for his failures. What Jackson offers Harry is a sense of common humanity that is free from suppressing racial, historical, and cultural differences. Rather than blurring differences in a universalist concept of art, Derek Walcott, paradoxically, affirms those differences as a prerequisite to understanding the essential unity of humanity.

Those differences are governed by language and history. Harry’s flight to the West Indies enacts symbolically the expansion of the British Empire and the colonial conquests of any empire. He arrives with enough capital to assume the role of master, but, in his cultural assumptions embedded in the language of empire, he remains oblivious to the potential for independent critical thought and creation, despite the fact of West Indian political independence. Consequently, he is also oblivious to Jackson’s personal dignity and pride in that independence. Jackson, having freed himself from psychological dependence on colonial acculturation, seizes the opportunity to play master (Crusoe) and, in so doing, educates the unwilling Harry in the feelings of being cast as an inferior human being. As Harry realizes Jackson’s effectiveness, primarily through his poetic play with the English language, as a “Creole actor,” he is intimidated by Jackson’s successful synthesis. Not only has Jackson assimilated what of Western culture is useful to him by spiking his improvisations with allusions to canonical English literary texts such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), but he also demonstrates his ability to turn Western language and culture to his own quest for artistic integrity. Jackson’s faith in the equality of art—Western and Creole—founded on the uniqueness of language permits Harry to grasp their equality as people.

Walcott’s larger theme of forgiveness as a crucial motive for artistic vision offers a resolution to the dialectical struggles between race and class. While Harry and Jackson represent the dialectic between master and slave, management and labor, and colonizer and colonized, the reversals implicit in the play and explicit in the satire of the pantomime are merely methods by which the two men can establish mutual respect for each other’s differences and yet use those differences to create a new version of the Crusoe story—the story of emergent racial equality in the inextricable destiny of all humankind. As Jackon puts it: “I tell you: man must live! Then, after many years, he see this naked footprint that is the mark of his salvation . . .” Consequently, the crucial ability to move beyond perpetual dialectical reversals rests on the artist’s capacity to create as a witness to the essential goodness of humanity, but such an effort does not erase the legacies of shame or obliterate the differences of historical power.

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