The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As the curtain rises on the sparse set of Pantomime, the audience watches Harry Trewe, dressed in white, start a tape recorder and begin a light song and dance routine based loosely on the story of Robinson Crusoe. Unhappy with his initial effort, Harry stops the machine, then starts it and tries a few more lines of the song before stopping the recorder once more. Finally, he exits with it, leaving an empty stage for a few moments before Jackson Phillip, dressed in an open, white waiter’s jacket and black pants but barefoot, enters to serve Harry his breakfast. Finding Harry gone, Jackson calls to him and, hearing no response, speculates halfheartedly that Harry has jumped into the sea below the gazebo at the Castaways Guest House, where the play is set. As Jackson exits, Harry enters with a goatskin hat and parasol, notices Jackson’s shoeless footprint in the dirt around the breakfast table and continues his song with the essential but subtle question of the play: “Is this the footprint of a naked man,/ or is it the naked footprint of a man . . .?”

When Jackson returns, the quick-paced dialogue commences with mutual greetings wherein Harry admits a desperate boredom and, without explanation, casts Jackson as Friday in his version of the Crusoe story. Responding to Jackson’s refusal to play along, which apparently has happened before, Harry jumps up on the ledge overlooking the sea and feigns a suicide attempt. Jackson, protesting that he will be accused of murder, threatens to quit his job, but Harry jumps back down, complaining about the lack of entertainment for guests due to arrive in less than a week. Jackson, however, argues that the guests will be “casualties” if he does not complete repairs to the guesthouse instead of humoring Harry with work on his pantomime.

While Harry attempts to persuade Jackson to play Friday to his own Crusoe, Jackson protests the insistent refrain of Harry’s pet parrot, “Heinegger, Heinegger.” Threatening the parrot in playful banter, Jackson tells Harry that “language is ideas . . .” and “this precolonial parrot have the wrong idea.” Although Jackson wishes only to serve breakfast and continue the repairs, Harry persists in his plans for the pantomime of Crusoe, reminding Jackson of his talent for singing calypsos. Suddenly, Harry stumbles on the idea of reversing the roles: The white Harry will play the part of the black Friday while the black Jackson will play the white Crusoe. Still reluctant, Jackson argues that he must finish his work; however, Harry, professing his liberal views, all but coerces Jackson to take Crusoe’s role.

Jackson, disconcerted by Harry’s penchant for wandering around in his underwear and realizing that Harry will not drop the project, consents and quickly adapts the improvisations in progress to his own perspective: that of a colonial subject who becomes the colonizing authority. As Jackson begins to dominate the pantomime’s development, Harry becomes visibly more hesitant to continue the reversal of roles. Jackson substitutes an invented religion and language that inverts the colonial dominance of the British Empire. Including references to Harry’s divorced wife and his dead son, Jackson, in essence, gives the worldview of Man Friday to the part of Crusoe—reversing the perspectives of master and slave as well as the skin colors of the two actors in their respective roles.

Harry, unnerved by the very improvisation that he had asked of Jackson, decides that the pantomime has become...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

From the title itself, much of the fast-paced comedy of Pantomime depends on linguistic play and the two actors’ effective employment of proper British and West Indian Creole English accents. Near-melodramatic gesture reinforces the language play of puns and allusions, but Derek Walcott’s inclination to offer his actors limited freedom for improvisation permits some adaptation of gesture, depending on the shifting tones of confrontation and intimacy and the audience’s reaction to various scenes. By using a sparse set, Walcott forces the audience to be more attentive to language and gesture. The relative simplicity of lighting, sound, and props also helps keep the audience’s attention on nuance and innuendo in the rapidly moving dialogue.

The subgenre of the pantomime has a relevant etymology suggesting that, beyond the literal action on which Harry and Jackson are seeking to create a pantomime, Walcott has chosen his title quite consciously. Originating in Augustan Rome, where one actor played all parts in a dumb show, the pantomime implies both empire and its consequential parallel effects on both actors. The unity of the two characters has for its precedent the dominance of both; in short, both Harry and Jackson suffer the legacies of imperialism. As the pantomime’s evolution progressed through the farce of the commedia dell’arte in medieval Italy and France into eighteenth century British plays for children, the subgenre...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Asein, Samuel O. “Drama, the Church and the Nation in the Caribbean.” Literary Half-Yearly 26 (January, 1985): 149-162.

Baer, William, ed. Conversations with Derek Walcott. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996.

Brown, Stewart. The Art of Derek Walcott. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour, 1991.

Cooper, Carolyn. “A Language Beyond Mimicry: Language as Metaphor and Meaning in Derek Walcott’s uvre.” Literary Half-Yearly 26 (January, 1985): 23-40.

Fox, Robert Elliot. “Derek Walcott: History as Dis-Ease.” Callaloo 9 (Spring, 1986): 331-340.

Hamner, Robert D. “Caliban Agonistes: Stages of Cultural Development in Walcott’s Plays.” Literary Half-Yearly 26 (January, 1985): 120-131.

Hamner, Robert D. Derek Walcott. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1993.

Hamner, Robert D, ed. Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott. Boulder, Colo.: Reinner, 1997.

Taylor, Patrick. “Myth and Reality in Caribbean Narrative: Derek Walcott’s Pantomime.” World Literature Written in English 26 (1986): 169-176.