Derek Alton Walcott (born January 23, 1930) is a poet, playwright, writer and visual artist who was in the vanguard of the post-colonial school of English language writing. Born in Castries, St. Lucia, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
His work, which developed independently of the schools of magic realism emerging in both South America and Europe at around the time of his birth, is intensely related to the symbolism of myth and its relationship to culture. He is best known for his epic poem Omeros, a reworking of Homeric story and tradition into a journey around the Caribbean and beyond to the American West and London.
Walcott founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, which has produced his plays (and others) since that time, and remains active with its Board of Directors. He also has an appointment at Boston University where he previously instructed such poets as Glyn Maxwell.
Walcott as playwright and theorist
Walcott has published more than twenty plays. The majority of these plays have been produced by the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and have also been widely staged elsewhere. Many of them deal, either directly or indirectly, with the liminal status of the West Indies in the postcolonial period. Epistemological, ontological, economical, political, and social themes make regular appearances in Walcott's plays.
In his 1970 essay on art (and specifically theatre) in his native region, What the Twilight Says: An Overture (published in Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays; see bibliography), Walcott bemoans the lasting effects of over 400 years of colonial rule. He reflects on the West Indies as colonized space, and the problems presented by a region with little in the way of truly indigenous forms, and with little national or nationalist identity. He states: “...we are all strangers here (10). [...] Our bodies think in one language and move in another...”(31). In this mannner, Walcott shifts his poetic language between formal English and patois to highlight the linguistic dexterity of the Caribbean people. While recognising the profound psychological and material wrongs of the colonial project, Walcott simultaneously celebrates the hybridisation of Antillean cultures. His epic poem Omeros exposes the complex cultural strains that converge in his native St. Lucia, celebrating at once the European, Amerindian, and African heritage shared by the islanders.
Discussions of epistemological effects of colonization inform plays such as Ti-Jean and his Brothers and Patomine. One of the eponymous brothers in Ti-Jean and his Brothers (Mi-Jean) is shown to have much information, but to truly know nothing. Every line Mi-Jean recites is rote knowledge gained from the coloniser, and as such is unable to be synthesized and thus is inapplicable to his existence as colonised person.
Walcott probes the colonial dialectic in his two-hander Pantomime. In the play, Walcott revisions the Robinson Crusoe / Friday myth in an effort to destabilize the colonial power constructs. Reversing the roles of master / servant, Walcott temporarily lends to Trinidadian Jackson, a guest house factotum and calypso singer, the role of Crusoe, with Harry, a British ex-patriot and owner, the identity of “Thursday,” thus resetting Daniel Defoe's legend in pre-colonial days. Recalling his fascination with the Edenic concept on naming ("Muse" 3-5), Walcott highlights the problem that faces the Caribbean writer by having Jackson re-appropriate the material objects around him, re-christening them in a pseudo-African language, calling the table “patamba,” the chair “banda,” etc, recalling the poesía negra's use of jitanjáfora mentioned earlier. The scene at first reflects Jackson’s agency: he has the ability to resurrect the language of his ancestors and regain ownership of the material of his island, teaching his minion Harry, the Anglo Thursday, his new tongue and establishing authority over his surroundings. The impossibility of his mission surfaces, however, as Jackson immediately forgets the words he had just spoken: Harry: You never called anything by the same name twice. What’s a table? / Jackson: I forget. / Harry: I remember: patamba! / Jackson: Patamba? / Harry: Right. You fake. Harry soon after declares: “If you want me to learn your language, you’d better have a gun” (138). Jackson's inability to resurrect a dead language reflects the Caribbean's lack of a single, discernable cultural history; Harry's retort reveals the violence inherent in the linguistic indoctrination of the colonial powers: language through the barrel of a gun. Walcott writes in English, the language of Trinidad, but he also makes full use of the local dialects, or what Barbadian writer Edward Kamau Brathwaite calls “nation language,” and portrays Jackson as code-switching throughout the play to reveal his culture’s linguistic dexterity.
Walcott's plays weave together a variety of forms; including those of the folktale, morality play, allegory, fable, ritual and myth; as well as using emblematic and mythological characters to address issues in non-realistic ways.