Carnivalesque Interpretation of Pantomime

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Caribbean literature is a confluence of African, European and Indian cultures, languages and traditions. It emerged as a product of imperialism, indentureship and oppression and documents the internal conflicts of the writers as well as other postcolonial subjects. Derek Walcott was one of the prominent figures voicing the ethnic multiplicity and hybrid identity of the West Indian communities through poems and plays that explore the themes of identity, colonialism, postcolonialism and racism. Drama and theatre, in the postcolonial context, function as a weapon of resistance – an anti-imperial tool. The Empire ‘writes back’ to the imperial centre through the reworking of European ‘classics’. Helen Tiffin terms this project ‘canonical counter-discourse’, a popular movement among postcolonial writers whereby they dismantle specific canonical texts and develop a ‘counter’ text within the same framework, but by divesting the colonizers of their assumed authority. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, ‘A classic megatext of Eurocentrism’, has been a focal point in this project of rewriting English classics. Derek Walcott, in the play Pantomime, subverts the dominant discourse through his characters Harry Trewe and Jackson Philip, the lone inhabitants of a Guest House in Tobago who contemplate staging a reverse pantomime of the Robinson Crusoe story. This attempt at a reversal in authority relations through humour and chaos is defined as ‘carnivalesque’, by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. This classic story of a white man stranded on an uninhabited island in the 17th century, overcoming his despair and hopelessness by mastering himself and “civilizing” a native slave, is reversed by Walcott in Pantomime, handing power to a black Crusoe while a white man assumes the role of Friday.

Through Jackson Phillip and Harry Trewe, this play explores the complexities of relationship between slave and master, black and white, the colonized and the colonizer. Jackson hopes for a reorganization of the hierarchical ranks. “But one day things bound to go in reverse” he says, “With Crusoe the slave and Friday the boss.” Superficially, this reversal of the Crusoe-Friday myth is used as a subject of comedy in Pantomime, but there is an underlying vitriolic attack on the colonial ‘powers’. The carnival, whilst serving as entertainment, also acts as an agency to release the suppressed voices of the common man. An agency is the means through which a postcolonial subject initiates action in resisting imperial power. Jackson, typecast into the role of a servant, was deprived of the agency. His role as Crusoe provided him the chance for a bitter attack on the imperialists. His rebellion petrifies Harry Trewe who verbalises the coloniser’s fear of being overpowered, “This is too humiliating.” he says, “Now, let’s just forget it and please don’t continue or you’re fired.” The Trinidadian Carnival served as a model for the development of Caribbean drama. According to Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins, the carnival evolved into a satirical representation of authoritarian knowledge. Humour and parody, for Bakhtin, is a “carnivalesque signifier” with the aim of “degradation”. Degradation in any form also has the goal of “regeneration”. Harry and Jackson’s attempt at staging a pantomime results in an interaction typical of carnivalesque humour. Carnival laughter is directed at those who laugh; laughing at them while laughing with them is an essential feature of this form.

The utterly chaotic situation in which Walcott places his characters presents a perfect platform for satirizing the colonizers. Walcott uses language of the coloniser both as a symbol of resistance and also as the primary mode of eliciting humour. Jackson’s blatant refusal to pronounce certain words as they ought to be and the incorporation of the indigenous Creole into English often leads to hilarious consequences. Jackson also takes to renaming things and inventing a new language which, as the black coloniser, he attempts to teach Harry. He insists on calling himself ‘Thursday’ instead of being christened ‘Friday’ by his master. Walcott intersperses violent remarks and abusive language to bring the language closer to the ‘speech of the common-man’ which is a clearly carnivalesque form of representation. A carnivalesque text also aims at a hypothetical creation of a utopian world. Harry and Jackson working together to put up a show to avoid the hotel’s deteriorating state is an image that shows the harmony that can exist between the two groups. Walcott is at harmony with his Afro-Saxon identity and desires peaceful coexistence without any disparity between races.

Harry stepping down and offering Crusoe’s role to Jackson is the first step in the realization of Walcott’s dream. Bakhtin says “During the carnival time a special type of communication impossible in everyday life” emerged “permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other”. Familiar and free interaction between characters and eccentric behaviour are other characteristics of the carnivalesque form. Jackson initially finds it difficult to accept the new role of the master offered to him by Harry but as the play progresses, he gets accustomed to the idea of being the master, while Harry struggles to give up his dominant position. Jackson’s initial reluctance can be interpreted as the colonised subjects’ internalisation of the inherited “unchangeable” roles. According to Frantz Fanon the gaze of the colonised is one of envy and “he dreams of possession…of sitting at the colonist’s table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife…” Bakhtin claimed that carnivalesque literature broke apart oppressive and mouldy forms of thought and cleared the path for the never-ending project of emancipation. Jackson’s improvisation of the role of Crusoe is symbolic of his imagination taking flight because of his transition from that of a bonded man to a free human. This is not just a release from physical bondage but also implies creative freedom. Colonial mimicry and the “helpless obedience” of the slaves is a recurring image in the play. Homi.K.Bhabha views mimicry as “the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.” Harry accuses Jackson of mimicking the masters and equates the colonized with the coloniser’s shadow. Jackson, in the pretence of acting in the pantomime voices out against Harry. “…in that sun that never set on your empire I was your shadow”, he says. The motif of the parrot is another metaphor for colonial mimicry. As in Robinson Crusoe, here Harry and Jackson are accompanied by a talking hotel parrot. Jackson feels mocked by the “pre-colonial” parrot as the only word it utters is “Heinegger”.

For Jackson, the “prejudiced” parrot embodies the colonial principles and ideas while for Harry the parrot is merely repeating its German master’s name because for him “the war is over.” This shows the disparate perspectives of the coloniser and the colonised. The parrot mocks the absurdity of Harry and Jackson’s existence as a master and slave in a postcolonial society, long after such hierarchies are supposed to have been erased. Bhabha also explains the subversive use of mimicry. The colonizer civilizes the natives to create a ‘domesticated other’ to assist the colonial project. The natives might sometimes misappropriate their role, mocking the very discourse the colonizer is trying to propagate. Jackson’s attempt at playing Crusoe is criticized by Harry as imperfect and he is infuriated at the mocking return gaze of the colonized, Jackson.

This mockery evokes laughter which in itself is a renouncement of the master-slave roles that are imposed. Walcott juxtaposes pantomime, a distinctly ‘British’ form of popular entertainment with the Calypso tradition of Trinidad and Tobago. This dichotomy between a pantomime actor from the English music hall and an ex-Calypsonian, further reinforces the carnivalesque nature of the play since a native tool of political resistance is integrated into a purely ‘colonist’ art form. During colonisation, there is a descent of the native land from paradise into a Third World country. Walcott, in his essay The Figure of Crusoe equates Crusoe to Adam, the first inhabitant of second paradise. He is the archetype of the coloniser who wreaks havoc in a peaceful land, stripping it of its resources and identity and leaving it barren, begging for alms. In Pantomime, the dilapidated condition of Harry’s hotel is symbolic of the postcolonial state of the Caribbean islands. Jackson’s persistent resentment towards the coloniser’s exploitive nature is evident. He says, “You come to a place, you find that place as God make it; like Robinson Crusoe, you civilize the natives; they try to do something…you say “you go back to your position as slave…I will keep mine as master.”” Through the carnivalesque rendition of the English literary classic Robinson Crusoe in the play Pantomime, Walcott transgresses boundaries, mimics the pretensions of ruling classes and reinterprets social positions. Who should play Crusoe? Who should play Friday? Who is in charge now?

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