West Indian Drama Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Since Christopher Columbus’s voyage, the people of the West Indies (or the Caribbean, as the region is now more commonly known) have been sharply divided between the privileged and the dispossessed, the elite and the common, the rich and the poor. (Until 1838, there was also the division between the free and the enslaved.) The development of drama in the West Indies, or the Caribbean, closely follows the region’s historical and cultural development, from its colonial beginnings, through the periods of slavery and emancipation, to the growing national consciousness in the twentieth century that led to political independence for most of the English-speaking islands. From the first theater in the region, in Jamaica in 1682, until the 1930’s, drama in the West Indies largely followed English fashion, serving to maintain the colonizers’ identity with their mother country. The goal of creating an indigenous West Indian drama—that is, one that addresses the West Indian experience and is created by and for the native West Indian—has determined the direction of theatrical endeavor since the 1930’s.

The gradual blending of European and African cultural traditions over nearly five hundred years has produced the modern West Indian Creole languages and cultures. Thus, the question of what is and is not distinctively West Indian in drama is part of the larger issue of cultural heritage. African elements in the folk traditions are strongly dramatic,...

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First Theaters and Formal Plays

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Barbados had its first dramatic society in 1729, Antigua in 1788, and St. Lucia in 1832. By the 1820’s, Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, supported three theaters and five performing companies. The repertoire was imported, except for a few short plays by Edward Lanza Joseph,who came to Trinidad from Scotland in 1820 and wrote plays and poetry until his death in 1840. He was dubbed “the Bard of Trinidad” because his plays, notably Martial Law (pr. 1832), were set locally and dealt with timely subjects.

Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, plays by local playwrights were generally written in the manner of William Shakespeare, with West Indian characters providing comic relief. The Jesuit C. W. Barrand wrote two such five-act plays in blank verse: St. Thomas of Canterbury (pr. 1892) and St. Elizabeth of Hungary (pr. 1890). The epic San Gloria (pr. 1920), by Tom Redcam (the pen name of Thomas H. MacDermott), a play about Columbus, is in a similarly Elizabethan vein, but Redcam’s sympathetic treatment of the Afro-West Indian presents a marked contrast to the usual treatment of blacks as lowlife characters speaking comic, pidgin English. The few black characters appearing in West Indian drama of this period were always played by white actors in blackface, but even when the situation would appear to demand black characters, they were usually omitted. The 80 percent black majority of Trinidad had no part, for example, in the first West Indian historical drama, Lewis Osborn Inissrsquo;s Carmelita: The Belle of San Jose (pr. 1897). Written for the centenary of England’s takeover of the island from Spain, the play concerns a young English officer who falls in love with the young Spanish beauty Carmelita. Their union is a symbol of England’s affectionate husbandry of its colony, yet the black population whose labor sustained the colony had no part in the historical drama.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw visited Jamaica in 1911 and in a press interview told Jamaicans that they ought to nourish their own culture by, among other projects, building a theater and keeping the American and English traveling companies out of it. He said that if the Jamaicans would write their own plays and do their own acting, the English would soon send their children to Jamaica for culture, instead of the other way around.

Early Twentieth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As he so often lamented, Shaw went unheard. For the next three decades, wealthy Jamaicans continued to travel to the United States and England to attend plays and maintain cultural connections, and in January of each year, a touring English company would stage plays at very high prices in Kingston.

Nevertheless, given the growing national consciousness of West Indians in the 1930’s, Shaw’s advice proved prophetic. The first play about the black experience in the New World to feature a historical figure of heroic stature was Touissant L’Ouverture (pr. 1936), by the Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James . The play was produced in London with Paul Robeson in the title role. A number of West Indians who had been studying or working in England at that time returned to the Caribbean with an interest in changing the theater to include working-class people who had largely been excluded from productions (except for Marcus Garvey’s outdoor theater in Jamaica in the early 1930’s). Una Marsonreturned to Jamaica in 1937 to produce her play Pocomania (pr. 1938), which was the first play to use the African-derived religion named in the title as dramatic material.

The 1940’s and 1950’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Later, once again in England, Marson founded the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) program Caribbean Voices (1942), which, along with a number of new magazines and drama groups, gave strong impetus to a new generation of West Indian playwrights, poets, and novelists. Magazines that published local writers were founded: The Beacon (1931) in Trinidad, Bim (1942) in Barbados, Focus (1943) in Jamaica, and Kyk-over-al (1945) in Guyana. An upsurge of interest in drama created a number of groups, including the Little Theatre Movement(1941) in Jamaica, the White Hall Players (1946) in Trinidad, the Georgetown Dramatic Group (1948) in Guyana, and the St. Lucia Arts Guild (1950) in St. Lucia. Committed to developing an indigenous drama, such groups needed more work from local playwrights. Edna Manley in the 1948 edition of Focus published Cicely Howland’s Storm Signal and George Campbell’s Play Without Scenery, but lamented in the issue’s foreword that the Little Theatre Movement was still in great need of Jamaican plays.

Little more than a decade later, the Trinidadian playwright Errol Hill claimed that there were twenty-seven West Indian dramatists writing at home or abroad, and twenty years later, the Georgetown Public Library published a list of more than one hundred Guyanese plays, many of which had been produced by the Theatre Guild of Guyana, founded in 1957. The University of the West Indies has published its Caribbean Plays Editions from its extramural departments in Jamaica and Trinidad since the 1950’s, and has made available scores of plays.

The theater groups have done a great deal to encourage both writing and production of West Indian plays. While strongly identified with the annual pantomime, the Little Theatre Movement of Jamaica has produced work by many West Indian playwrights, notably Errol Hill, Errol John, Barry Reckord, Trevor Rhone, and Dennis Scott. The Theatre Guild of Guyana gave the first Caribbean production of John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (pr. 1957), which won the London Observer’s play competition of 1957 and has been produced in Europe, North and South America, and Australia. The Guild also premiered Evan Jones’s In a Backward Country (pr. 1959) as well as work by many Guyanese playwrights, most notably Frank Pilgrim’s Miriamy (pr. 1962) and Sheik Sadeek’s Porkknockers (pr. 1974).

Derek Walcott and Roderick Walcott

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The St. Lucia Arts Guild has the distinction of having produced the two most prolific and important playwrights in the Caribbean, the twin brothers Derek and Roderick Walcott. Both are legendary in the region, Derek Walcott having won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. Though less well-known outside the Caribbean than his brother, Roderick Walcottis highly regarded for his dramatically powerful use of the Creole of St. Lucia, as well as his integration of folk traditions and music in dramatic situations. His best-known plays include The Harrowing of Benjy (pr. 1958), A Flight of Sparrows (pr. 1966), Banjo Man (pr. 1972; performed at Carifesta, Guyana), and Chanson Marianne (pr. 1974), which was commissioned for the Conference of Prime Ministers of the West Indies meeting in St. Lucia in 1974. The commitment of a playwright of Roderick Walcott’s stature to remain in the West Indies gives reason for hope that the exodus of writers that has plagued the region since Claude McKay left Jamaica in 1912 is at least slackening.

Derek Walcott is the one West Indian playwright of truly international stature; he is also widely regarded as one of the foremost contemporary English-language poets. He has written dozens of plays, nearly two dozen of which are available in print. His accomplishments are legion. The production of his verse play Henri Christophe: A Chronicle (pr. 1950), about the Haitian monarch, is widely regarded as the foundation of an indigenous West Indian drama. Though the production was staged in London, the cast and crew were West Indian and included many of the region’s leading writers. The Barbadian novelist George Lamming wrote the prologue; Hill, who directed the London production, and John, the lead actor, are both prominent Trinidadian playwrights. When the newly independent Caribbean nations attempted to unite under a federal government, Walcott was commissioned to write a play for the inauguration of the first Federal Parliament. The result was an epic drama, Drums and...

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Theoretical Debate and International Influence

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although a truly indigenous West Indian drama began only in the 1930’s, the centuries-old folk traditions have readily lent themselves to the creation of unique West Indian theatrical styles. Critical debate in the theater continues, however, over which heritage, the African or the European, best expresses the West Indian experience. Critical judgments continue to be based on the use of European and African elements in the work, such as metropolitan versus Creole English in dramatic speech. Using the poetic richness of Creole is to limit appeal outside the region, but using metropolitan English in favor of a larger audience is to falsify local character.

C. L. R. James, foremost scholar of Caribbean literature, died in May of 1989 and left behind a legacy of critical understanding of not only Caribbean literature but also world literature. In many respects, with the awarding of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature to Derek Walcott, West Indian drama came of age, and Walcott’s work has been popular for some time since.

West Indian drama also became more popular and accessible in 1985 with the publication of Caribbean Plays for Playing, edited by Edith Noel, in which new West Indian playwrights were introduced to a more general public, and whose introduction gave the student of West Indian drama some valuable insights into the origins of experimental theater. The book explains the experimental basis of the folk comedies of Ed “Bim” Lewis and Aston “Bam” Wynter in Jamaica, Freddie Kissoon in Trinidad, and Dennis Scott, Rawle Gibbons, Sistren (the all-female Jamaican group that performs documentary theater), and the actors’ theater of Ken Corsbie and Mark Mathews in Guyana. Younger writers such as Kendel Hippolyte of St. Lucia and the commercially oriented works of Trevor Rhone are also mentioned. Other playwrights represented in this important anthology are Zeno Obi Constance and Aldwyn Bully. Less well known is Earl Lovelace primarily a novelist but also author of several plays, including Jestina’s Calypso (pr. 1976).

Challenges of the 1990’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In Barbados, the competitive drama festivals organized by the island’s National Cultural Foundation continue to foster the emergence of local talent. Anthony Hinkson and Winston Farrell are well-known local playwrights. The career of Glenville Lovellsignifies the drain of local talent that has plagued theater in the West Indies. In 1992, Lovell produced his political play dealing with the 1983 intervention by the United States in Grenada, When the Eagle Screams, with a premiere in Trinidad. By the middle of the decade, he had moved to New York to find a larger audience for his dramatic output. Too often, the local stage is considered too small and provincial by ambitious Caribbean professionals, who dream of...

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Trinidad Carnival

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

By 2000, formal theater had not yet recovered its previous vitality in Trinidad and Tobago. This was largely because of the government’s disastrous 1999 decision to terminate the lease for the Old Fire Station Building, used by the famous Trinidad Theatre Workshop since 1989 as a dramatic venue, effectively derailing the most professionally successful theatrical outlet in Trinidad. The decades of work that Derek Walcott and his collaborators had invested in restoring the building and creating a thriving arts center around this location were lost.

However, the Trinidad Carnival continues to thrive. A dramatic event that is unique in its elaborate quality, Trinidad Carnival has been celebrated annually for more than 220 years and has inspired the best local talent. Key dramatic figures of the Carnival are the Calypsonian, a professional singer whose satirical lyrics often reflect on topical issues, and the masked Revellers, who accompany the Calypsonian with mimed sketches and pantomime performances.

In the 1990’s, the Carnival was aesthetically influenced by the costume designs of Peter Minshall, whose work freed the masked Revellers, including the carnival King and Queen and other stock figures, to perform elaborate pantomime routines while still dressed in splendid attire. Minshall’s political and ecological concerns gave the Carnivals of the 1990’s a special flair. His costumed bands took on issues such as protection of the environment, global warming, and the specter of nuclear holocaust. In 1992, Minshall and his troupe performed The Arrival of Christopher Columbus (pr. 1992) during the opening acts for the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, using a ship to symbolize Columbus’s arrival to the New World.

The Calypso, sung at the Carnival, with its emphasis on satirical song and accompanying pantomime, also inspired Caribbean playwrights beyond the Carnival event itself. Rawle Gibbons wrote a cycle of three plays about the Calypso theater experience, Sing de Chorus (pr. 1991), Ah Wanna Fall (pr. 1992), and Ten to One (pr. 1993), further attesting to the cultural impact of this unique dramatic form.

2000 and Beyond

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

By 2002, Jamaica, the largest English-speaking island of the Caribbean, offered one of the brightest spots for theater, with a diverse and flourishing dramatic scene. Most popular is the Jamaica pantomime,a combination of music, song, dance, and text focusing on realistic or fantastic subjects. Its audience appeal throughout the island is immense, and its shows at Kingston’s Ward Theatre enjoy long, sell-out runs of many months.

Unique to Jamaica are the plays of “Roots” (short for “Grassroots”) Theatre. These are original, locally written and produced plays with a strong focus on sexual issues. They follow the tradition of Jamaica’s Bim and Bam shows of an earlier age, which also centered on sexual...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Corsbie, Ken. Theatre in the Caribbean. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984. A perceptive insider’s view of the development of Caribbean drama by one of Guyana’s most active playwrights. Covers its origins through the tumultuous 1960’s and 1970’s.

Hill, Errol. The Jamaican Stage, 1655-1900. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Groundbreaking study by a famous Caribbean playwright and critic, providing a fascinating historical overview of the origins of Jamaican dramatic traditions and the many multiracial and multicultural conflicts that accompanied the development of a genuine local dramatic tradition....

(The entire section is 493 words.)