[Caribbean Literature]

Pantomime and Polyrhythm

Part One: Going Beyond the Superficial: Jackson

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

Superficially Pantomime seems strictly birhythmic, Harry Trewe's stately snare squaring off against the deep rumbles of Jackson Phillip's bass. For Harry's background aligns neatly with that of the traditional roles of empire: he's British, white, wealthy (enough to own a resort), and he has come to the West Indies to exploit the island's natural beauty (and labor) in order to please his (presumably wealthy) European guests. He comes as the figure of the conqueror, the uncouth and privileged man seeking to develop and maintain control on this island of Tobago. Likewise, Jackson possesses outward characteristics quite representative of the opposite pole of this binarism: his birthplace (Trinidad), his skin color (black), his position (servant), even his language (a form of West Indian dialect). But although Walcott begins the play by invoking Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe's novel infamous for damning people to either the categories of savage native (Friday) or civilized conqueror (Crusoe), from Jackson's first words those dividing lines begin to break down:

JACKSON: Mr. Trewe?
(English accent)Mr. Trewe, your scramble eggs is here! Are here!
(Creole accent) You hear, Mr. Trewe? I here wid your eggs!
(English accent) Are you in there?
(To himself) And when his eggs get cold, I is to catch. (94)

Jackson, though he begins in said position, quickly (as the above passage reveals) demonstrates his capacity to go between roles. He does not allow language to pigeonhole him. Though he speaks in his own nation-language for the majority of the play, nonetheless his words carry great weight, perhaps greater than most West Indian characters who precede him. And his nation-language in no way points to a lack of skill in using it. Witness the clever metaphors that Jackson spontaneously creates:

HARRY: So how're you this morning, Jackson?
JACKSON: Oh, fair to fine, with seas moderate, with waves three to four feet in open water, and you sir? (95)

JACKSON: This hotel like a hospital. The toilet catch asthma, the air condition got ague, the front-balcony rail missing four teet', and every minute the fridge like it dancing the Shango...brrgudup..jukjuk...brrugudup. Is no wonder that the carpenter collapse. Termites jumping like steel band in the foundations. (98)

Constructions such as these are essential to Jackson's former career as a calypso singer, which involves spontaneous generation of humorous (and often socially conscious) lyrics.

But the Deconstructions Jackson achieves through his speech carry far more weight. First, with his report of the parrot who heckles him with the derisive cry "Heinegger" (99), he introduces the notions that "Language is ideas" (99) and that a parrot is prejudiced in "The same damn way they corrupt a child. By their upbringing," (100). He further explores the complexities of language, this time in a more comical way, with his comment that

Is your language, pardner. I stand corrected. Now you ain't see English crazy? I could sit down right next to you and tell you that I stand corrected. (165)

Even more central to the text, Jackson's attack on Robinson Crusoe reveals both his comprehension of the issues involved (and especially their unenlightened portrayal of himself) and his refusal to stand by the binary opposites that Crusoe created. So he reverses the scenario (black Crusoe and white Friday) and assumes the controlling role of storyteller, all the while making a mockery of Defoe's novel:

JACKSON: You mean we making it up as we go along?

HARRY: Right!

JACKSON: Right! I in dat! (He assumes a stern stance and ponts stiffly) Robinson obey Thursday now. Speak Thursday language. Obey Thursday gods.

HARRY: Jesus Christ!

JACKSON: (inventing language) Amaka nobo sakamaka khaki pants kamaluma Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ kamalogo! (Pause. Then with a violent gesture) Kamalongo kaba! (meaning: Jesus is dead!)

HARRY: Sure. (113-114)

Jackson's efforts, his preoccupation with the inherent subjugation the English language that he uses (but then abrogates in order to strike back), point to a highly developed sophistication on Jackson's part, so that he turns West Indian dialect from the damning mark of the native to a weapon for critical analysis. Furthermore, he's aware of the discomfort he might cause by assuming this new, equal status with a culture that has been imposed upon him:

You see, it's your people who introduced us to this culture: Shakespeare, Robinson Crusoe, the classics, and so on, and when we start getting as good as them, you can't leave halfway. So, I will continue? Please? (124)

Jackson's question, both to Harry and to the audience, seems strictly rhetorical, for not only will he continue, but he must continue, as he flourishes in this new status which he assumes.

[Main Web Page] [Caribbean] Themes