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Derek Walcott’s Pantomime

- Pantomime as a piece of postcolonial literature.

- The balance between truth and illusion in the play.

- The play’s existence as a piece of meta-theatre.

Because Pantomime functions so well as a rewriting of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, so

much of the postcolonial conversation on Walcott’s drama has focused expressly on this aspect

of the play. Of course, the significance of this aspect of the text is not something which I wish to

downplay. Considering the postcolonial trope of “the empire writing back to the centre”

(Rushdie) there is much literary significance to be eked out from the way that Walcott turns

Dafoe’s now legendary text into a fierce (and even individual) postcolonial text. Walcott’s use of

the Robinson Crusoe myth in his drama plays a great part in underlining its significance as a text

of postcolonial of importance. Still, even without the Crusoe legend looming over the two acts

the play would still exist as a significant part of the postcolonial cannon. The two-man drama

which invites us to observe the white, British hotel owner interacting with his black, Caribbean

employee is wrought with the kind of sometimes subtle (sometimes more pronounced) racial

tension between the old word – represented by the English Trewe – and the new, formerly

colonised one – represented by Jackson – which is a staple of postcolonial texts. By inviting the

audience to observe these two men of varying sensibilities interact with the endgame of having

the initial colonial precepts subverted Walcott is partaking (and inviting us to join him) in a

deconstruction of major precepts of the colonial era doctrine.


From the onset of the play Walcott invites us to consider the dynamic of the residual British

ideals in the “modern” Trinidad. Jackson arrives onstage vacillating between an English accent

and a Creole one making us play immediate attention to use of language in the drama. It is this

concept of language in Pantomime which I hope to pay express attention to in examining the

play’s postcolonial significance. Alastair Pennycook (1998) notes that because of the way that

[the English] language has been wielded as a tool of colonisers, having the formerly colonised

utilise suggests something potentially sinister. Inasmuch as the presence of the English language

is difficult to avoid in the postcolonial Caribbean where it remains the official language for a

number of countries Walcott emphasises the irony of the postcolonial inhabitant using the

language of the colonisers by having Jackson’s first words be uttered in that English accent.

Postcolonial literature (and postcolonial theory) is primarily concerned with analysing the

residual effects of colonisation on now “liberated” nations. Use of language becomes a

significant part of that. Walcott (who has in his theoretical writings on post colonialism espoused

similarly unusual precepts) does not particularly endorse Pennycook’s musing on the use of the

“coloniser’s” language being expressly insidious since as the Pantomime progresses it becomes

clear that Jackson’s ability to (relatively, at least) master both the “white” English and the “non-

white” Creole are only indications of his ability to survive – and, perhaps even thrive – in the

world.

Now, if – on some level – postcolonial literature aims at subverting the most palpable aspects of

colonialist ideals would Jackson’s ability to (more or less) master the English language AND the

Creole not be a pronounced indicator of his (Jackson and thus Walcott’s) subversion of the
power of the colonialist’s ideals? Here Jackson is moving from being forced to use the English

language as a subservient as Pennycook would have him. He even moves further than Bhaba in

speaking English only as a poor form of mimicry but instead works through the use of the

English language to a state where he is as adept at it as those whom it “belongs” to. This is a

pivotal twist in the road of postcolonial drama and it is worth pointing out that it reaffirms

Walcott’s own critical perspective on the subject. In his “The Muse of History” he opines, “I

give the strange and bitter yet ennobling thanks for monumental groaning and soldering of two

great words, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice”.

For me, Walcott’s critical stance in “The Muse of History” regarding the “right” way to consider

our past (as colonised as enslaved people) could be considered as a palpable impetus for

Jackson’s ability to use – and use excellently – both the English and Creole dialect. Consider

further – the climax of the drama comes when Jackson expertly through his voice pretends to be

Trewe’s English wife. For me this is the final, decisive, indication of how Walcott uses Jackson’s

adeptness at English as an indicator of his own ability to eschew the shackles of colonisation

because it is with that decisive ability to imitate Trewe’s wife (through language) that Jackson

unfalteringly gains “victory” (albeit an uncomfortable and tenuous one) over Trewe.

I would posit, then, that Walcott makes the subversion even more pronounced by having Jackson

mispronounce the English language not because of a chronic disability on his part, but in a

conscious effort to poked holes in the language. Consider, for example, Trewe’s telling appraisal

of Jackson, “You mispronounce words on purpose, don’t you Jackson?” – to which Jackson’s

response is only a smile. Consider this: if the colonial precept believes that forcing the colonised
to use the coloniser’s language is a means of keeping them subservient would Jackson’s ability

to not only use the language but deliberate misuse not represent a decisive indication of it having

lost any definitive “colonising” power? Further not to belabour the point of Jackson being – in

some form – an expression of Walcott’s own ability to dexterously navigate through English and

Creole sensibilities, I do however consider at least a brief discussion of the point as applicable.

Seamus Heaney astutely observes that he (Walcott) “possesses English more deeply and

sonorously than most of the English themselves. … And in spite of the sheen off those lines, I

suspect he is not so much interested in the ‘finish’ of his work as in its drive”. Walcott, who

owes his heritage to both European and Caribbean has mastered both the conventional English

language and the Creole dialect in key works of his (eg. in The Schooner Flight he deliberately

misspells “Caribbean”) he deliberately subverts the traditional use of the English language which

– like Jackson’s deliberate mispronunciations – suggest to me a move towards a new, subtler

kind of postcolonial sensibility.

In typical Walcott fashion it is left up to the audience to deduce what Jackson’s smiling, silent

response to Trewe’s comment means. Consider, too, how easily Jackson’s smile might have been

missed by the undiscerning audience member. Or, more significantly how a careless audience

member might not even stop consider how Jackson’s mispronunciation is not an inadequacy on

his part, but a battling tactic. This moves from underscoring the play’s postcolonial tenets to a

significant dramatic one – the ever looming dichotomy of truth and illusion. What is truth and

what is pretence? is a question Walcott continuously toys with during the play’s two acts leading

to a point where the audience is almost waiting with bated for the fallout of discovering which

actions elicit playacting gestures and which elicit true emotion from the characters. Structurally
and thematically Pantomime does not qualify as suspense, but Walcott deliberately provokes

waves of uncertainty throughout the entire drama. Is Jackson really joking? Is Trewe a racist?

The etymology of the actual word “pantomime” is significant in its musical roots but I would

opine that there is just as much significance to be unearthed from the fact that within the word

pantomime is the word “mime” which means to imitate. Even in colloquial conversation the

word “mime” suggests a mocking imitation of someone’s habits and in that regard its importance

seems pronounced in the question of truth and illusion. Consider, for example, the point of

Jackson moving between Creole speak and British at the play’s opening. It functions as a

harbinger of the play’s postcolonial tenets, but it also dovetails nicely into functioning as a

manifestation of the dichotomy at work between truth and illusion in the play. Which Jackson is

the true Jackson? Do we know? Does he know? Is there even a definitive answer to that?

The selfsame tools of language which were discussed in a postcolonial context could bear

importance to the truth and illusion concept since it does engender some sensible question in that

realm. As much as Pantomime owes to physicality the crux of the drama derives from the use of

language – the question of whether Jackson is being true or not only in his use of language but in

his actual words. There is a taut, ongoing battle of one-upmanship at work and Walcott uses the

language of the play to explicate this. The audience (or reader) must remember that on stage we

are watching a play where Jackson and Trewe are – in an improvisational manner – creating a

play within that play. The conceit of drama allows for significant real truths to be presented in a

manner which is conducive for the playwright and the audience. Such solemn issues might be too

edgy for real world conversation but on the stage they are acceptable and within that realm the

drama Jackson and Trewe are creating on stage allows them to do these same things – blur the
lines between what utterances are merely “of the play” and which are simply hidden truths being

sold as “playacting”. The audience is rapt during the final “Heinegger” sequence because the line

between what is overzealous, almost cruel, jest and what is the true motivation of the characters.

There is yet further dramatic significance to take from this confusion as to what is true and what

is illusion within the arguments between Trewe and Jackson. Oscar Wilde famously remarked,

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the

truth.” This reinforces my assertion of the theatre providing the ability to tell truths one cannot

tell in the real world and it explicitly endorses the culmination of events in Pantomime. Walcott

leaves us to discern which utterances are truth and which are façade in the play and if we are to

deduce that the harsher uncovering are truth one must acknowledge that it is with the guise of

masks (i.e. the guise of the play within a play to be put on) that these truths come to the fore only

because the promise of illusion is there. It may seem paradoxical, but I would proffer that the

existence of truth and illusion is such in Pantomime that truth can only be fully manifested by the

presence of the mask (a tributary of illusion).

Finally, moving from the way that the play within a play aspect helps to illustrate the dynamic

between truth and illusion in the play it is essential that Pantomime be discussed as a work of

metatheatre. Because it is a play about a play with a play within a play somewhat it functions

somewhat as a piece of meta-theatre and in that way the theme of truth and pretence seems to

take on a greater significance in that regard. Trewe wants to put on this play but as it unfolds it

seems that the line between what is play acting and what is real becomes more and more blurred

and in a way that is what the theatre represents for us. In the most basic sense making use of the
prefix metatheatre, the term could be said to encompass theatre which is about the theatre. In

discussing how meatheatricality is more prevalent than we imagine Katherine Newey offers a

fine definition of metatheatre as “The self-consciousness and self-reflexivity of theatre which

refers to itself, to its making or performing, or to its dramatic and theatrical illusions.”

To discuss some elements of Pantomime’s own meta nature I must return briefly to the

previously discussed elements of postcolonialism in the drama. The play, perhaps somewhat

subversively, offers a new perspective on postcolonial drama – managing, or at least trying – to

examine key issues whilst still remaining somewhat comedic. “It’s Pantomime, keep it light,”

Trewe urges. Even as Jackson, accurately, tells him that his Robinson Crusoe rewriting will

uncover truths that will hardly be light. It is this same dilemma with which Walcott is struggling

in his own Pantomime. This creates a situation that is neither expressly comedic nor truly

dramatic. Allow me to include a somewhat length quotation from Lionel Abel (Holmes and

Meier: 2003):

the persons appearing on the stage in these plays are there not simply because they were

caught by the playwright in dramatic postures as a camera might catch them, but because

they themselves knew they were dramatic before the playwright took note of them….But

then the playwright has the obligation to acknowledge in the very structure of his play

that it was his imagination which controlled the event from beginning to end. Plays of the

kind I have in mind . . . I call metaplays, works of metatheatre. (134)


Pantomime is a modern reworking of Robinson Crusoe and in that way there are undertones and

overtones of Jackson and Trewe being new versions of Crusoe and Friday. But, then, Walcott

consistently undermines the legend and presents us with his own trajectory for these characters.

Scenes like Trewe’s breakdown when Jackson impersonates his wife are even robbed of some

element of realism because the audience is stuck in limbo, somewhat, still not completely in on

the “joke” (if there is one). Consider the incidentally said, but very significant “It’s the same

sound [laughing and crying]. You can’t tell the difference if I turn my back.” Another line

wrought with meta significance if one cares to find it. The [you] becomes more than just

Jackson, but could very well be the audience. And Trewe would be right. As much as the theatre

allows for us to experience the play, if the actor turns around how can we know if he is laughing

or crying? This becomes, for me, a direct criticism from Walcott on the shortcomings of the

theatre in keeping with Abel’s position whereby the characters in the metatheatrical play seem to

be aware of their dramatic significance.

The metatheatricality in Pantomime moves from even what Abel posits. Richard Hornby aids the

situation by providing five tenets of metatheatre i) play with a play, ii) the ceremony within the

play iii) role playing within the role iv) literary and real life reference v) self reference. To

solidify my point I will pay specific attention to the play within a play, role playing and literary

reference – all of which Pantomime is wrought with. On one hand the play’s ideals are as simple

as the prima facie postcolonial struggle it suggests, on a deeper level it is a play of Walcott

working through his own dramatic prowess.


When Trewe says, “You imitate everything. It’s all been done before, you see, Jackson. The

parrot. Think that’s something? It’s from The Seagull. It’s from Miss Julie. You can’t ever be

original, boy.” This is not just a residual effect of the coloniser speaking to the formerly

colonised. Trewe explicitly mentioned two famous dramas. Miss Julie in particular is one which

unfolds similar to Pantomime in the way dialogue is used as weapons as two characters “fight to

the death”. This is a direct literary reference and almost cyclical one in the form that Trewe

seems almost a sinister manifestation of Walcott’s own critics pointing out the flaws in the play

before us. It is that self-referential way of noting the difficulty in pulling of comedy with such a

tenuous topic.

Of course, the metatheatrical nature of Pantomime could be discussed in a gamut of ways, but I

find the discussion of its self referential and literary referential roots to be most significant for

my personal discussion. In the same way, my discussion of the postcolonial aspect and truth and

illusion aspect of the play has been whittled down to an examination of Walcott’s language – not

because this is the only facet which such a discussion would encompass but because I think they

are key aspects which are not as readily examined. Because Pantomime is a play so rich with

elements of a metatheatrical nature a discussion of its features would be infinite. However, in

focusing on these specific ideas I hope to have shed some light on the play’s standing as a

postcolonial piece and a metatheatrical and a dramatic text examining the use of truth and

illusion.