Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713

Derek Walcott, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, is widely regarded as the best West Indian playwright and, according to Robert Graves, is one of the best poets anywhere writing in English. Along with such playwrights as Wole Soyinka, Athol Fugard, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, he is a non-Western, postcolonial playwright who has used the drama to illuminate issues of colonialism and racism. Choosing the obscurity of the West Indies over exile and prominence in London (such as that achieved by Trinidadian novelist V. S. Naipaul), Walcott founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, writing, directing and producing more than forty plays before his resignation from the workshop in 1977. His dedication to West Indian drama is unsurpassed; he might well be described as the founder of modern West Indian theater.

Walcott’s growth as a dramatist parallels his development as a poet. Just as Walcott’s poetry becomes increasingly more confident in its use of Creole culture and language, so, too, does his dramatic development move toward confidence in the use of Creole styles. In his one-act drama The Sea at Dauphin (pr., pb. 1954), Walcott emphasizes the folk idiom of St. Lucian French-English patois and the character of ordinary fishermen who survive the whimsical forces of nature and empire. Ione (pr., pb. 1957) and Drums and Colors: An Epic Production (pr. 1958, pb. 1961) further evoke the folk tradition of St. Lucia, and the latter shares some of the didactic qualities of Pantomime. These early plays, alluding frequently to Stephen Dedalus (James Joyce’s artist-hero) and to the mythic Icarus, suggest Walcott’s resolve both to experiment with the materials of his predecessors and to forge his own wings with which to fly into the sun of the British Empire, which had not yet set on the West Indies.

Walcott’s poetry in his collection The Castaway and Other Poems (1965) centers on the very Creole Crusoe figure that Jackson fully develops in Pantomime. Jackson brings much humor to the Creole Crusoe’s quest for identity, and Walcott’s Jourmard (pr. 1967) had provided an early foray into comedy. With Dream on Monkey Mountain (pr. 1967, pb. 1970), Walcott received considerable acclaim. The Crusoe figure must create from whatever materials are at hand, for there are no indigenous cultures that survive in the West Indies upon which the artist might base his identity. The protagonist Makak in Dream on Monkey Mountain can use language only to achieve racial identity; he has not yet found the humor that Jackson possesses to sustain a quest for personal identity. Makak is still caught in the perennial reversals of dialectical power between master and slave.

After the farce in Jourmard and the steadfastness of Makak’s resolve not to be duped into accepting the illusion of colonial supremacy in Dream on Monkey Mountain, Walcott’s plays of the early 1970’s explore the ambivalence of racial identity. In a Fine Castle (pr. 1970) presents the protagonist Brown (of black and white ancestry) caught in a struggle to resolve the conflicts inherent in the newly emerging black consciousness with the legacies of colonial culture, and Franklin (pr. 1973) explores the complex hierarchies of complexion in the emergent black pride movement. In his book-length poem Another Life (1973), Walcott, through an autobiographical examination of his childhood and early development as a poet, offers an account of the artist’s evolution, akin to the project in William Wordsworth’s The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850).

Of necessity, Walcott must resolve his own multicultural ancestry in pursuit of a language both faithful to the monuments of beauty from the...

(This entire section contains 713 words.)

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West, which his colonial education had offered, and capable of defining a West Indian artistic identity in its own terms. WhileO Babylon! (pr. 1976, pb. 1978), set in a Jamaican squatter community of Rastafarians, uses the vehicle of a reggae musical to argue that the source of identity is within each person, it is not until Pantomime that the individual artist’s accommodation to place, to history, and to race becomes explicitly located within the integrity of the artist’s inner life. Both Harry and Jackson find that only by finding themselves at home within can their mutual language of English articulate an authentic identity that heals the damage of colonial rule and creates the freedom of Creole art.