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Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays
By Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1970 Derek Walcott
All rights reserved.
But I see what it is, you are not from these parts, you don't know what our twilights can do. Shall I tell you? Waiting for Godot
When dusk heightens, like amber on a stage set, those ramshackle hoardings of wood and rusting iron which circle our cities, a theatrical sorrow rises with it, for the glare, like the aura from an old-fashioned brass lamp is like a childhood signal to come home. Light in our cities keeps its pastoral rhythm, and the last home-going traffic seems to rush through darkness that comes from suburban swamp or forest in a noiseless rain. In true cities another life begins: neons stutter to their hysterical pitch, bars, restaurants and cinemas blaze with artifice, and Mammon takes over the switchboard, manipulator of cities; but here the light makes our strongest buildings tremble, its colour hints of rust, more stain than air. To set out for rehearsals in that quivering quarter-hour is to engage conclusions, not beginnings, for one walks past the gilded hallucinations of poverty with a corrupt resignation touched by details, as if the destitute, in their orange-tinted backyards, under their dusty trees, or climbing to their favelas, were all natural scene-designers and poverty were not a condition but an art. Deprivation is made lyrical, and twilight, with the patience of alchemy, almost transmutes despair into virtue. In the tropics nothing is lovelier than the allotments of the poor, no theatre is as vivid, voluble and cheap.
Years ago, watching them, and suffering as you watched, you proffered silently the charity of a language which they could not speak, until your suffering, like the language, felt superior, estranged. The dusk was a raucous chaos of curses, gossip and laughter; everything performed in public, but the voice of the inner language was reflective and mannered, as far above its subjects as that sun which would never set until its twilight became a metaphor for the withdrawal of Empire and the beginning of our doubt.
Colonials, we began with this malarial enervation: that nothing could ever be built among these rotting shacks, barefooted backyards and moulting shingles; that being poor, we already had the theatre of our lives. So the self-inflicted role of martyr came naturally, the melodramatic belief that one was message-bearer for the millennium, that the inflamed ego was enacting their will. In that simple schizophrenic boyhood one could lead two lives: the interior life of poetry, the outward life of action and dialect. Yet the writers of my generation were natural assimilators. We knew the literature of Empires, Greek, Roman, British, through their essential classics; and both the patois of the street and the language of the classroom hid the elation of discovery. If there was nothing, there was everything to be made. With this prodigious ambition one began.
If, twenty years later, that vision has not been built, so that at every dusk one ignites a city in the mind above the same sad fences where the poor revolve, the theatre still an architectural fantasy, if there is still nothing around us, darkness still preserves the awe of self-enactment as the sect gathers for its self-extinguishing, self-discovering rites. In that aboriginal darkness the first principles are still sacred, the grammar and movement of the body, the shock of the domesticated voice startling itself in a scream. Centuries of servitude have to be shucked; but there is no history, only the history of emotion. Pubescent ignorance comes into the light, a shy girl, eager to charm, and one's instinct is savage: to violate that ingenuousness, to degrade, to strip her of those values learnt from films and books because she too moves in her own hallucination: that of a fine and separate star, while her counterpart, the actor, sits watching, but he sits next to another hallucination, a doppelganger released from his environment and his race. Their simplicity is really ambition. Their gaze is filmed with hope of departure. The noblest are those who are trapped, who have accepted the twilight.
If I see these as heroes it is because they have kept the sacred urge of actors everywhere: to record the anguish of the race. To do this, they must return through a darkness whose terminus is amnesia. The darkness which yawns before them is terrifying. It is the journey back from man to ape. Every actor should make this journey to articulate his origins, but for these who have been called not men but mimics, the darkness must be total, and the cave should not contain a single man-made, mnemonic object. Its noises should be elemental, the roar of rain, ocean, wind, and fire. Their first sound should be like the last, the cry. The voice must grovel in search of itself, until gesture and sound fuse and the blaze of their flesh astonishes them. The children of slaves must sear their memory with a torch. The actor must break up his body and feed it as ruminatively as ancestral story-tellers fed twigs to the fire. Those who look from their darkness into the tribal fire must be bold enough to cross it.
The cult of nakedness in underground theatre, of tribal rock, of poverty, of rite, is not only nostalgia for innocence, but the enactment of remorse for the genocides of civilization, a search for the wellspring of tragic joy in ritual, a confession of aboriginal calamity, for their wars, their concentration camps, their millions of displaced souls have degraded and shucked the body as food for the machines. These self-soiling, penitential cults, the Theatre of the Absurd, the Theatre of Cruelty, the Poor Theatre, the Holy Theatre, the pseudo-barbarous revivals of primitive tragedy are not threats to civilization but acts of absolution, gropings for the outline of pure tragedy, rituals of washing in the first darkness. Their howls and flagellations are cries to that lost God which they have pronounced dead, for the God who is offered to slaves must be served dead, or He may change His chosen people.
The colonial begins with this knowledge, but it has taken one twenty years to accept it. When one began twenty years ago it was in the faith that one was creating not merely a play, but a theatre, and not merely a theatre, but its environment. Then the twilight most resembled dawn, then how simple it all seemed! We would walk, like new Adams, in a nourishing ignorance which would name plants and people with a child's belief that the world is its own age. We had no more than children need, and perhaps one has remained childish, because fragments of that promise still surprise us. Then, even the old rules were exciting! Imitation was pure belief. We, the actors and poets, would strut like new Adams in a nakedness where sets, costumes, dimmers, all the "dirty devices" of the theatre were unnecessary or inaccessible. Poverty seemed a gift to the imagination, necessity was truly a virtue, so we set our plays in the open, in natural, unphased light, and our subject was bare, "unaccommodated man." Today one writes this with more exhaustion than pride, for that innocence has been corrupted and society has taken the old direction. In these new nations art is a luxury, and the theatre the most superfluous of amenities.
Every state sees its image in those forms which have the mass appeal of sport, seasonal and amateurish. Stamped on that image is the old colonial grimace of the laughing nigger, steelbandsman, carnival masker, calypsonian and limbo dancer. These popular artists are trapped in the State's concept of the folk form, for they preserve the colonial demeanour and threaten nothing. The folk arts have become the symbol of a carefree, accommodating culture, an adjunct to tourism, since the State is impatient with anything which it cannot trade.
This is not what a generation envisaged twenty years ago, when a handful of childish visionaries foresaw a Republic devoted to the industry of art, for in those days we had nothing else. The theatre was about us, in the streets, at lampfall in the kitchen doorway, but nothing was solemnised into cultural significance. We recognised illiteracy for what it was, a defect, not the attribute it is now considered to be by revolutionaries. Language was earned, there was no self-contempt, no vision of revenge. Thus, for the young poet and actor, there was no other motivation but knowledge. The folk knew their deprivations and there were no frauds to sanctify them. If the old gods were dying in the mouths of the old, they died of their own volition. Today they are artificially resurrected by the anthropologist's tape-recorder and in the folk archives of departments of culture.
To believe in its folk forms the State would have to hallow not only its mythology but rebelieve in dead gods, not as converts either, but as makers. But no one in the New World whose one God is advertised as dead can believe in innumerable gods of another life. Those gods would have to be an anthropomorphic variety of his will. Our poets and actors would have not only to describe possession but to enact it, otherwise we would have not art but blasphemy and blasphemy which has no fear is decoration. So now we are entering the "African" phase with our pathetic African carvings, poems and costumes, and our art objects are not sacred vessels placed on altars but goods placed on shelves for the tourist. The romantic darkness which they celebrate is thus another treachery, this time perpetrated by the intellectual. The result is not one's own thing but another minstrel show. When we produced Soyinka's masterpiece The Road, one truth, like the murderous headlamps of his mammy-wagons, transfixed us, and this was that our frenzy goes by another name, that it is this naming, ironically enough, which weakens our effort at being African. We tried, in the words of his Professor, to "hold the god captive," but for us, Afro-Christians, the naming of the god estranged him. Ogun was an exotic for us, not a force. We could pretend to enter his power but he would never possess us, for our invocations were not prayer but devices. The actor's approach could not be catatonic but rational; expository, not receptive. However, Ogun is not a contemplative but a vengeful force, a power to be purely obeyed. Like the Professor, only worse, we had lost both gods, and only blasphemy was left.
Since art is informed by something beyond its power, all we could successfully enact was a dance of doubt. The African revival is escape to another dignity, but one understands the glamour of its simplifications. Listen, one kind of writer, generally the entertainer, says: "I will write in the language of the people however gross or incomprehensible"; another says: "Nobody else go' understand this, you hear, so le' me write English"; while the third is dedicated to purifying the language of the tribe, and it is he who is jumped on by both sides for pretentiousness or playing white. He is the mulatto of style. The traitor. The assimilator. Yes. But one did not say to his Muse, "What kind of language is this that you've given me?" as no liberator asks history, "What kind of people is that that I'm meant to ennoble?", but one went about his father's business. Both fathers'. If the language was contemptible, so was the people. After one had survived the adolescence of prejudice there was nothing to justify. Once the New World black had tried to prove that he was as good as his master, when he should have proven not his equality but his difference. It was this distance that could command attention without pleading for respect. My generation had looked at life with black skins and blue eyes, but only our own painful, strenuous looking, the learning of looking, could find meaning in the life around us, only our own strenuous hearing, the hearing of our hearing, could make sense of the sounds we made. And without comparisons. Without any startling access of "self-respect." Yet, most of our literature loitered in the pathos of sociology, self-pitying and patronised. Our writers whined in the voices of twilight, "Look at this people! They may be degraded, but they are as good as you are. Look at what you have done to them." And their poems remained laments, their novels propaganda tracts, as if one general apology on behalf of the past would supplant imagination, would spare them the necessity of great art. Pastoralists of the African revival should know that what is needed is not new names for old things, or old names for old things, but the faith of using the old names anew, so that mongrel as I am, something prickles in me when I see the word Ashanti as with the word Warwickshire, both separately intimating my grandfathers' roots, both baptising this neither proud nor ashamed bastard, this hybrid, this West Indian. The power of the dew still shakes off of our dialects, which is what Césaire sings:
Storm, I would say. River, I would command. Hurricane, I would say. I would utter "leaf." Tree. I would be drenched in all the rains, soaked in all the dews.
Et c'est l'heure, O Poète, de décliner ton nom, ta naissance, et ta race ... St-John Perse: Exil
Yes. But we were all strangers here. The claim which we put forward now as Africans is not our inheritance, but a bequest, like that of other races, a bill for the condition of our arrival as slaves. Our own ancestors shared that complicity, and there is no one left on whom we can exact revenge. That is the laceration of our shame. Nor is the land automatically ours because we were made to work it. We have no more proprietorship as a race than have the indentured workers from Asia except the claim is wholly made. By all the races as one race, because the soil was stranger under our own feet than under those of our captors. Before us they knew the names of the forests and the changes of the sea, and theirs were the names we used. We began again, with the vigour of a curiosity that gave the old names life, that charged an old language, from the depth of suffering, with awe. To the writers of my generation, then, the word, and the ritual of the word in print, contained this awe, but the rage for revenge is hard to exorcise.
At nineteen, an elate, exuberant poet madly in love with English, but in the dialect-loud dusk of water-buckets and fish-sellers, conscious of the naked, voluble poverty around me, I felt a fear of that darkness which had swallowed up all fathers. Full of precocious rage, I was drawn, like a child's mind to fire, to the Manichean conflicts of Haiti's history. The parallels were there in my own island, but not the heroes: a black French island somnolent in its Catholicism and black magic, blind faith and blinder over-breeding, a society which triangulated itself mediaevally into land-baron, serf and cleric, with a vapid, high-brown bourgeoisie. The fire's shadows, magnified into myth, were those of the black Jacobins of Haiti.
They were Jacobean too because they flared from a mind drenched in Elizabethan literature out of the same darkness as Webster's Flamineo, from a flickering world of mutilation and heresy. They were moved by the muse of witchcraft, their self-disgust foreshadowed ours, that wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body, as if the flesh were coal from which the spirit like tormented smoke writhed to escape. I repeat the raging metaphysics of a bewildered boy in this rhetoric. I can relive, without his understanding, a passion which I have betrayed. But they seemed to him, then, those slavekings, Dessalines and Christophe, men who had structured their own despair. Their tragic bulk was massive as a citadel at twilight. They were our only noble ruins. He believed then that the moral of tragedy could only be Christian, that their fate was the debt exacted by the sin of pride, that they were punished by a white God as masters punished servants for presumption. He saw history as hierarchy and to him these heroes, despite their meteoric passages, were damned to the old darkness because they had challenged an ordered universe. He was in awe of their blasphemy, he rounded off their fate with the proper penitence, while during this discipleship which he served as devotedly as any embittered acolyte, the young Frantz Fanon and the already ripe and bitter Césaire were manufacturing the home-made bombs of their prose poems, their drafts for revolution, in the French-creole island of Martinique. They were blacker. They were poorer. Their anguish was tragic and I began to feel deprived of blackness and poverty. I had my own divisions too, but it was only later, when their prophecies became politics, that I was confronted with choice. My bitterness matched theirs but it concealed envy; my compassion was not less, but both were full of self-contempt and contained a yearning. Those first heroes of the Haitian Revolution, to me, their tragedy lay in their blackness. Yet one had more passion then, passion for reconciliation as well as change. It is no use repeating that this was not the way the world went, that the acolyte would have to defrock himself of that servitude. Now, one may see such heroes as squalid fascists who chained their own people, but they had size, mania, the fire of great heretics.
Excerpted from Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 1970 Derek Walcott. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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