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 too serious. Jackson, now fully engaged in the role of a black Crusoe who is educating a white Man Friday on the dynamics of...
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colonialism, sees the pantomime as “nothing less than” a reenactment of “the history of imperialism.” When Harry realizes that he has been recast as a Christian cannibal, that “he’d have to be taught by this—African . . . that everything was wrong, that what he was doing . . . for nearly two thousand years . . . his civilization, his culture . . . was . . .horrible,” he stops the work on the pantomime, offering as an excuse his fear of creating “a play.”
As the first act closes in an increasingly tense exchange, Harry threatens to fire Jackson if he persists in his improvised role; however, Jackson, while agreeing to stop, reminds Harry that they have just enacted “the history of the British Empire” and explains:You come to a place, you find that place as God make it . . . you civilize the natives; they try to do something, you turn around and you say to them: “you are not good enough, let’s call the whole thing off, return things to normal, you go back to your position as slave or servant, I will keep mine as master, and we’ll forget the whole thing ever happened.”
Jackson, however, will not accept the loss of his dignity and independence, even though he cannot afford to lose his job. As the lights fade, the two men face each other rigidly while Jackson insists that Harry get out of his way so that he can straighten up the breakfast table.
When act 2 begins, it is noon, and Harry is trying to escape the tension with a paperback thriller. Jackson’s hammering in the process of making repairs distracts Harry, but he tries to ignore it by attempting to nap. After a long pause in the noise, Harry jumps up from his deck chair, startled by Jackson standing very close, shirtless, with hammer in hand. Recovering from his mock fear of Jackson’s mock threat, Harry invites Jackson to sit and drink with him. Harry’s treatment of Jackson has grown somewhat; through considerable exposition of racial and cultural understanding, the two men begin work again on the pantomime, but, despite the reconciliatory tones, the improvisation digresses frequently with intermittent discussions of equality and acting styles.
Harry sees Crusoe as a lonely, suffering romantic, entrapped by the self-conscious loss of his wife and son. Jackson sees Crusoe as a practical realist who must create a new life for himself from the material immediately at hand; he wants to include the slaughter of a goat in the pantomime. The men dub the two styles as classical and Creole acting, respectively. Harry reveals a despairing emptiness in the wake of a wife who had been far more successful in theater than he had been but who, because of her alcoholism, had been driving when their son was killed in a car wreck. In his grief and inability to accept the loss, Harry had divorced his wife and fled to the West Indies. Jackson quickly sees that Harry’s Crusoe is little more than his projection of sentimental agony onto the Crusoe character, and he argues that Crusoe—unlike Harry—had a wife and child to whom he could return.
Pushing Harry to accept the reality of his situation, Jackson theorizes that Crusoe was the first true Creole because he had to adapt to his environment so that he could not only survive but also achieve dignity in the “art” of living. As Jackson presses Harry further to accept his failures as an actor and as a husband, Harry mimics an earlier story of Jackson’s that involved a threat with an ice pick. When Jackson responds to the mock attack by strangling the parrot, Harry’s racism erupts viciously: “You people create nothing. You imitate everything.” Jackson, switching to Friday’s role, pretends, on his knees, to beg forgiveness while Harry puts on the goatskin attire of Crusoe.
As the tension wanes, Jackson exits and returns with a photograph of Harry’s former wife Ellen. Assuming Ellen’s voice, Jackson provokes an emotional catharsis in Harry, who forgives Ellen as Jackson—still playing her—feigns suicide while standing on the ledge above the sea. In his catharsis, Harry seems to be crying and laughing at the same time, uncertain whether he is playing Crusoe, Friday, or himself. Eventually, both men emerge from the uneasiness of Harry’s genuine vulnerability and, exchanging puns on the words goat and ego, agree to get the pantomime finished before the guests’ arrival.
As the play closes, they seem to have reached a more intimate but tentative understanding of personal equality. Harry now appears free from his self-indulgent romantic liberalism, and Jackson affirms his faith in his own Creole acting by dressing again as Crusoe. Jackson’s closing song asserts the unity of their acting styles for the project at hand, but, as Harry and the audience join in applause, Jackson requests a raise, suggesting that social equality must be followed by economic equality. If he is to act, he expects to be paid as an actor—not as a handyman.
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 suggests a colonial paradigm in which the colonized are treated as children, incapable of participating in a rational world—just as Harry often responds to Jackson.
Anchored in the Roman emphasis on the portrayal of character and in the gestures of grand opera, pantomime indicates a necessity to act on one’s principles, just as Harry must finally act on his liberal views and Jackson must act on his belief in the validity of Creole art. Finally, with origins in the dumb show of the mime, whose actors were suppressed by Christian Roman rulers in the fifth century, Pantomime evokes speech as the complement to exaggerated expressive behavior such as that in the mime; the Latin pantomimus means “complete mime.” Hence, for Walcott, Jackson’s refusal to conform to Harry’s version of the Crusoe story is the refusal of the colonized to conform to the dumb show of colonial rule in which behavior—submissive or revolutionary—not language, is the principal means of compliance or resistance.
Artistic independence as well as sociopolitical independence requires confidence in one’s worldview articulated in language and performed in the face of colonial attitudes such as Harry’s. Jackson’s invented language in the first act underscores the importance of linguistic identity: the source of ideas, of worldview, is language. Thus, Jackson’s Creole grammatical structures, accents and puns, such as “Trewe” and “true,” are the dramatic establishment of an identity capable of creating an independent artistic vision. Similarly, Jackson’s gestures, while at times feigning subservience to meet Harry’s expectations, are often ironically confrontational; he can play the role of servant, but he demands an identity of equality—the stance of the artist freeing himself through his own language in order to affirm his faith in humanity.
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.