Arts On Sunday

By Al Creighton’s

Derek WalcottAs the focus on Carifesta X, to be hosted by Guyana in August 22-31, 2008, intensifies, there is increasing interest in what the highlights of the festival are likely to be. With the incremental release of information pictures are slowly coming into focus with brightening images of what performances, exhibitions and artists may be expected.

Already established is the fact that Carifesta’s feature artist will be the Caribbean’s most celebrated writer, Derek Walcott, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1992. Walcott has confirmed his acceptance of the invitation extended by the Carifesta Symposia chaired by University of Guyana Vice-Chancellor James Rose.  He will be the main Distinguished Guest at the Grand Opening Symposium to be staged on the first weekend of the festival under the theme Caribbean Culture at the Crossroads: Seeking the Past, Living the Present, Exploring the Future.  He will also be the guest of honour at other Carifesta events hosted by Minister of Culture Frank Anthony. 
It is expected that the audience will have first-hand acquaintance with, perhaps, new poetry by Walcott since the region’s foremost poet and dramatist, regarded as one of the world’s leading poets in English, will read and discuss his work.  The opening symposium will also be addressed by other celebrated writers, including David Dabydeen and Edward Baugh.
 
The other four symposia will highlight the visual arts – Mekkin Change: Arts and Artists in the Evolution of the Caribbean;  cultural industries  – Are We There Yet? Defining and Refining Our Cultural Industries;  the challenges and experiences of practitioners of the various art forms;  and the advancement of Caribbean philosophy.

These symposia will take centre stage among the Carifesta events since they will be a series of fora covering the literary arts and criticism, the performing arts, the visual arts, film, the traditional theatre and the oral traditions, the popular culture and cultural industries such as music, fashion, cinema, as well as the issues which confront them, including awareness of their existence in the Caribbean, the state of their acceptance as income-earning industries, copyright and piracy. 

This will be the second Carifesta at which Walcott will be a major feature.  The first was in Jamaica in 1976 when his musical play O Babylon! was given top billing along with Danza National de Cuba as the festival’s major attractions.  This drama had a number of significant elements.  It was originally conceived as a Broadway musical to be produced in New York, but the project did not fructify.  It was Walcott’s third collaborative play with Galt McDermot who wrote the musical score.  McDermot, famous for the musical, Hair, had earlier worked with Walcott on The Joker of Seville and The Charlattan.   It was the last production of a united Trinidad Theatre Workshop before Walcott resigned in an acrimonious split among complex domestic affairs in 1977. 

And it was the accomplished dramatist’s controversial play about the controversial Rastafari in the Caribbean’s turbulent seventies.Walcott’s association with Carifesta after that was mixed.  By the late 1980s he was very critical of the festival, launching a devastating broadside against its merits and its contribution to the development of the arts in the region (see Al Creighton, 1989, ‘Interview with Walcott’ in three parts, Sunday Stabroek:  ‘The Artist is betrayed – I am really very angry’; ‘Caribbean governments and their betrayal of art’; and ‘The shape of the theatre’).His anger was directed at the governments of the Caribbean and their questionable policies for development in the arts.  Several years before that he was known to have criticised Eric Williams’ Trinidad and Tobago government for not putting funds into artistic development.

However, the Nobel Laureate’s links to Carifesta remain close and inseparable.  One of his plays, Pantomime, is a very good example of these artistic links in the way it reflects Caribbean culture, theatre and political issues.  It has never been regarded as one of his major works, but it is highly praised as a play virtually about the theatre – a post-colonial work about Caribbean performance traditions.  Pantomime was written in Tobago between 1977 and 1978 with its first performance in Trinidad in April, 1978 during the period of Walcott’s separation from the TTW. 

Noted Walcott biographer Bruce King relates that the playwright was “staying at a hotel in Tobago managed by Arthur Bentley, a former British actor who after the breakdown of his marriage moved to Trinidad.  Bentley suggested that Walcott write something to provide an evening’s entertainment for the hotel’s guests.
 
As Walcott listened to the banter between Bentley and one of his employees, the idea for the play came to him.  Although the situation involved a white English hotel manager and a local black employee, there was an equality in the exchange of repartee that dissolved the racial, class and economic differences This was Walcott’s idea of the Caribbean.”

Walcott said that “the play emerged whole as he heard two characters arguing in his head.  They dictated the play to him and he wrote it in three nights and tried it out at the hotel before it moved to Port of Spain for its official opening.” But it was after a few performances that he amended to make the finished work that it is now.

Much like the situation that first created it, it is about a former actor Harry Trewe, a white liberal Englishman running a hotel in Tobago some years after the break-up of his marriage.  He persuades his servant Jackson, a black Trinidadian and former calypsonian, to perform with him in a dramatic sketch based on the Robinson Crusoe story for an evening’s entertainment for the hotel guests.  As they improvise in a rehearsal, they take liberties with the Crusoe script, reversing the roles.  Quite unexpectedly, Trewe finds himself seriously disturbed when he has to play the role of Jackson’s servant (Crusoe’s ‘Man Friday’), and when Jackson puts on a mask and plays the role of Trewe’s estranged wife.  He cannot stand the confrontation with emotional hang-ups he thought he had grown past.

It is a play about colonialism and West Indian race relations, about appearance versus reality, pretence and truth.  But what makes it such a complete work of Caribbean theatre is its employment of devices, such as the use of the Caribbean satirical tradition of pantomime and Trinidadian picons.

Through humour, it satirises serious issues about Trinidadian society as well as, unintentionally, half-hidden facts about Trewe’s past domestic life.  The musical score is calypso and the play is, additionally, an examination of language in the Caribbean as well as a very ironic commentary on socio-political affairs.  Characters are masked and unmasked as in a carnival, or a real life game of picon.

Pantomime is indeed the kind of theatrical experience that captures West Indian culture and is very much “Walcott’s idea of the Caribbean.”

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