A close interplay of theatre, theme and meaning

20100124artsThe play Ti Jean and His Brothers is one of the new texts prescribed on the CXC syllabus in its new cycle.  This continues the importance of drama in the study of literature and English Language in the secondary schools around the Caribbean, and the concept long held by CXC that language and literature are integrated studies, subjects and experiences.

The National School of Theatre Arts and Drama will be attempting to contribute to this learning experience by offering a live presentation of the play which will be produced and performed by the National Drama Company this week September 20-22, in three matinee shows at 1pm each day.  It will be directed by Subraj Singh and Al Creighton, with choreography and design by Esther Hamer.

Derek Walcott is currently the most outstanding poet-playwright in the Caribbean and is regarded as the foremost poet in the world writing in English.  His reputation has escalated considerably since 1992 when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  At that time he had recently published the monumental long epic poem ‘Omeros’ (1990), causing him to be called the modern Homer of the West Indies and mainly influencing his choice as the Nobel Laureate.  He had also just written the play Odyssey, a stage version, an adaptation of Homer, for the Royal Shakespeare Company with acclaimed and sold out performances in Stratford and at the Barbican in London.

Derek Walcott
Derek Walcott

Since then new collections of poetry further enhanced his reputation.  He published The Bounty (1997), followed and surpassed by The Prodigal (2004) and White Egrets (2010).  Interest in selected collections of his work continued unchecked with another celebrated and personally authorised Selected Poems edited by Edward Baugh in 2007.  His drama also continued in less spectacular fashion, but with much acclaim for his especially poetic new version of Ti Jean  called Moon-Child  (2011) which was produced more than once in Europe.

Moon-Child shows that Walcott had not yet finished with the Ti Jean idea that he had been experimenting with for decades.  These ideas started long before the play Ti Jean and His Brothers was first published  in 1970.  Walcott directed it in two productions for the Trinidad Theatre Workshop before that.  The second production with music by Andre Tanker, a Trinidadian musician with a flair for the folk, went on its most highly acclaimed tour of the Caribbean.  This music for the songs in the play written by Walcott, was very important because of the style and themes of the play based on a folk hero, mythology and local traditions of St Lucia and the Caribbean.

But there is in the play, a mixture with other preoccupations of Walcott that may be traced back to his early career when he first approached the Ti Jean story.  Right up to his famous works of the 1990s Walcott had a continuing deep interest in the classics – particularly the Greek mythology and drama.  Thirty years before ‘Omeros’ he had experimented with a kind of St Lucian translation of Homer’s epic The Illiad, with its tragic tale of war between Greece and Troy, especially in the play Ione (1957).  Similar concerns decorated his poetry right up through ‘Another Life’ (1969) to ‘Omeros’ itself.

In the opening of Ti Jean and His Brothers, the Frog who is the narrator in the play starts off by uttering “Greek Croak”.  It is rainy and chilly, causing him to sneeze – “Aeschylus-me” – a cross between a sneeze and “excuse me”.  It is wit, and a humorous way of acknowledging Walcott’s borrowings from Greek theatre.  After Aristophanes, a Greek playwright known for comedies, he uses a chorus of animals.  Frog, Cricket, Bird and their companions serve as a Greek Chorus in the drama as they comment on the characters, morals and plot at the beginning of the story and as the play moves along.  The humorous sneeze is also an acknowledgement as Walcott invokes the name of Aeschylus, one of the great Greek tragedians.  Greek epic writers would call upon gods or muses to inspire them to write their tales.

But Walcott intersperses the classical with the Caribbean.  The same opening and use of a chorus is taken from St Lucian and Caribbean folk traditions.  First there is the storytelling cultural form in which the narrator, Conteur or storyteller begins the session with “Crick Crack”, which is a call to the audience to participate in storytelling.  St Lucia has quite a complex ritual of exchanges between the Conteur and his audience before the story is told.  The Caribbean tradition is also like the fable in which animals are characters and given human qualities.  There are Anansi, Rabbit, Turtle and many more, and very often folktales teach morals.

What is of further interest, is the theatre of the folk tradition and of Walcott here.  The audience becomes the chorus and even participating performers.  That is the kind of theatre used by the National Drama Company in this production taken from the way the animals who make up the Frog’s audience become participants in the drama being narrated by the Frog.  We see them interacting with the three brothers Gros Jean, Mi Jean and Ti Jean, as well as with Papa Bois and even with the Devil himself in his original form.

The animals ask questions of the Frog/Conteur, make their own comments, which help the audience to understand, and contribute to the play’s moral position.  They react differently to the hostility of Gros Jean and Mi Jean from whom they withhold their sympathy and help, because of the arrogance and mockery of these brothers.  Just as in a folk tale, they lack the ingredients for success, which Ti Jean possesses.  The animals therefore respond much more positively to Ti Jean and help him in his quest to defeat the Devil.

To go deeper into this play as West Indian drama, there is its use of several other indigenous factors.  Walcott, throughout his career, has made many comments about mythology and education in the Caribbean.  In Another Life he talks about growing up with an English education and no local mythology in St Lucia, his sense of myths was Greek.

He was given to inventing characters based on the classical mythical characters (as he does later in his serious theatre and poetry).  This is at the centre of Ti Jean and His Brothers, but, ironically, making full use of genuinely St Lucian mythical characters.

The character Papa Bois exists in St Lucian and Trinidadian folklore as the old man of the forest who is a friend and protector of the animals.  In this play the Devil disguises himself as Papa Bois in order to trap the three brothers in their contest with the Devil.  The play at the same time is commenting on the way the Devil will invade unsuspecting society “as a woman . . . or even a Bishop”.  He also “comes in through apertures” to possess unsuspecting mankind.

The Bolom is another folklore character – the spirit of a child who died while in the process of birth.  In Caribbean folklore there are malevolent child spirits, like the Duenne, and Walcott uses one of them, the Bolom, fittingly taken over as a servant of the Devil.  The Caribbean society is also symbolically represented here because the Bolom may speak to a society not yet really born, enslaved by colonialism and such characters as the Planter, who is another of the Devil’s disguises.  The hero Ti Jean frees the Caribbean nation of these colonial ties, liberating the slaves and bargaining for life for the Bolom who then becomes free and independent, but (tragically) also human and therefore mortal and vulnerable.

Ti Jean is actually a folklore character in St Lucia, used in this way as a folk hero by Walcott.  The story of the man in the moon carrying a bundle of faggots with a dog walking behind him is known throughout the West Indies.  In the way of all myths, the tale told by the Frog explains how this man came to be in the moon.  He is “a boy … Ti Jean the Hunter” as in the folklore.  Myths explain cosmology.

Also at the core of the play is Walcott’s treatment of the Devil as a kind of tragic hero.  Interestingly, this involves the whole Christian mythology of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven, but also his longing to be human, to feel human emotions, which is at the bottom of his challenge to Ti Jean and his brothers to see whether they could make him feel anger.

Several of these elements inform the types of theatre to be employed by the National Drama Company in the production.  It is much involved in the protean style of performers that draw on interplay between narrator, chorus, audience and performer.  In post-modernistic fashion performers change, are recycled and become different roles which may include set, props and characters.  A number of performance traditions are explored.

These include the Kamboulay dance procession in the “burn the cane” sequence. This is a dance of rebellion known in Trinidad, and at one time popular in carnival.  Also known to carnival are many devil traditions – “jab-jab” chants, masques and dances.  “Bai jab-la manger un ti mamaille” (give the devil a child for dinner) is another.  Similarly there is the drunken chorus “fire one” which plays on both the carnival drinking and the symbolic burning in hell and at the same time Ti Jean setting the “poor damned souls working for the devil” to burn the cane, cotton and everything on the estate.

Here is a very close interplay of theatre, theme and meaning in the production.

Dance is heavily used, as in Caribbean performance, and as in the storytelling tradition, performers act, dance, sing and mime.

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