Derek Walcott's "The Odyssey: A Stage Version"

Matt Gooch, English 356, Washington and Lee University

Derek Walcott's The Odyssey: A Stage Version (1993) utilizes the stage medium to dramatize certain psychological and thematic currents of the original story. He comments on the nature of Odysseus' journey through the doubling of characters. The directions specify only three sets of doubles, though ubiquitous textual clues suggest the probability of many more. Walcott explicitly pairs Antinous and Ajax, Nausicaa and Melantho, and Cyclops and Arnaeus. In addition, Athena appears in several forms (such as Captain Mentes), as does Billy Blue (Phemius, for one). However, Athena and Billy Blue as characters seem aware of the transformations.

The pairing of disparate characters who have never met offers a profound window into Walcott's vision of the story. Each of the three named pairs evokes a sense of continuity between Odysseus' journey world and his Ithaca home world. Moreover, Walcott creates other subtle links between characters of the hero's exterior and interior realities. He links Penelope both to Helen and to Circe. Eurylochus embodies Telemachus in a number of interesting ways. Finally, the separation of Odysseus and Telemachus merges -- though certainly not by stage doubling-in a more abstract way through common experiences and vocalized comparisons. Why does Walcott infuse a stage version of this story with such a high volume of character doubling? His technique fosters a sense of uniformity of human experience -- that though the place may change, the people do not. Moreover, Walcott's stage doubling comments dubiously upon humanity's capacity to perceive. Characters embody the projected memories and imaginations of other characters.

Nausicaa and Melantho

Of the three explicit doubles, the pairing of Nausicaa and Melantho appears first. "Melantho, the housemaid, Nausicaa's double, passes, trips on Odysseus, kicks him" (124). In the ensuing brief exchange, the young servant appears defiant, verbally adept, and sexually confident. Melantho's personality resonates in each of her lines. Her labeling of Odysseus as a "homeless parasite" (124) marks her ability with language. "You wanted me to fall so that you could see these thighs" (124) signals her sexual self-awareness. "You're going to be whipped! Who'll hang me?" confirms her defiant attitude. In addition to his explicit stage directions for the doubling, Walcott pronounces the pairing through Odysseus' judgement of her: "Nausicaa's mirror. Corrupted innocence" (125).

Turning back to Nausicaa in Act I clarifies Walcott's brief use of Melantho. Nausicaa' role here emerges as far more significant than Melantho's in terms of plot, theme, and sheer volume of lines. Nausicaa's interaction with Odysseus reveals a congruence of personality with her double. Though initially less insolent, Nausicaa bluntly rejects the stranger's poetic compliments: "Sheer? You'll gain nothing in addressing me that way" (47), and her later "Don't bark at me like some seal!" (48). Her sexual self-awareness registers with "Soon I'll have the power to make grown men dissolve" (56). Her capacity for language appears throughout, but especially with her playful poetry such as "Two bodies tangled in linen as white surf" (56).

Melantho's earlier presence (that which precedes the Nausicaa episode) confirms her later attitude of confidence and defiance. However, Melantho's more deviant actions here complicates her reappearance as Nausicaa. Act I scene 2 stages Melantho s ambitions on Penelope's throne. "That some prince in there go marry you" (15) is Eurycleia's synopsis of Melantho's boastful scheming. Melantho further clouds her loyalty to Penelope when she informs Antinous that Telemachus has escaped by stealing Antinous' ship (19). She then reveals Penelope's ruse of "unraveling the same shroud for three years" (19).

Why does Walcott use a defiant and disloyal housemaid to double with Nausicaa? Evaluated by herself, Melantho will remain a bizarre and ill-fitting character in her role as housemaid. Walcott uses the audience's initial memory of Melantho to inform and speak through Nausicaa, then memory of Nausicaa to color Melantho's brief final appearance. Thematically, Walcott's doubling groups the young women of the play into a label of "corrupted innocence." In pairing of a caustic and ambitious Melantho with a sexual and poetic Nausicaa, Walcott warns of the potent dangers embedded in self-assured and confident young females. The pairing also blurs the charity of Nausicaa with the machinations and disloyalty of Melantho. Walcott, if nothing else, uses the double to illustrate the unpredictable and mysterious nature of the female mind.

Walcott links Nausicaa and Melantho with not only the same actress, but also a virtual mirror of their personalities. Their extreme likeness suggests that Odysseus perceives his home world of Ithaca through eyes that have been permanently affected by his adventured abroad. Odysseus's labeling of both young women as "corrupted innocence" suggests a certain degree of projecting his own unconscious images. Walcott sharpens this sense of the hero's limited reality by reinserting the compelling figure of Nausicaa in the unlikely shape of a housemaid. Melantho taken by herself means almost nothing, if only because of the brevity of her role. Walcott's insertion of Melantho utilizes the stage medium to emphasize the cyclic and repetitive nature of Odysseus' experience.

Arneus and the Cyclops

Walcott follows his first explicit doubling with a second set of doubles just a page after Odysseus meets Melantho. In the moments following the exit of the feisty housemaid, "Arnaeus enters, a huge swineherd with an eye-patch, in a filthy sheepskin" (126). The ensuing dialogue between the one-eyed swineherd and Odysseus registers as a surreal rerun of the earlier chat between the hero and the Cyclops. In Act I, Odysseus is trapped perilously in the cave of the Cyclops and two of his men are eaten. The Cyclops distinguishes himself in a number of interesting ways. First, he communicates through clipped, stunted dialogue, such as his first line: "Don't stare" (64). The nature of the Cyclops communication is interrogation. Nearly all of his lines are questions, for example: "What is your name?"; "Where are you from?"; and "What do you believe in?" (64). The Cyclops is easily duped by human ingenuity. His gullibility registers in his letting down his guard because of Odysseus' jokes and blinding with the skewer. Despite his laughter, the Cyclops is incapable of human empathy. Murdering, torturing, and eating Odysseus' men without a trace of guilt signals the Cyclops' inability to understand basic premises of human morality. Finally, despite his inquisitiveness, the Cyclops appears incapable of learning. His statement, "There are no ideas in this kingdom" (69) marks his provincial approach toward life.

In Act II, Walcott inserts the swineherd as an overt double of the Cyclops. Arnaeus employs the same clipped dialogue as Cyclops, such as "Don't argue" (127). Arnaeus is not exactly duped in the episode, but his lack of memory reduces him from the figure of the Cyclops. His apparent amnesia also reduces Odysseus to projecting his past onto his Ithaca world once again. Arnaeus does not reveal the stunning lack of empathy of the Cyclops, but his immediate resorting to violence connects him with the earlier figure. In addition, the final confrontation with Arnaeus clarifies the earlier action of the blinded Cyclops. After Odysseus reveals his identity, "the Cyclops picks up an oil drum and hurls it at the retreating Odysseus" (72) in desperate rage. In Act II, when Eurycleia interrupts their fight, Odysseus commands the swineherd to look after his money and "go bout [his] business" (128). The crucial symbol of the Cyclops figure transforms from an oil drum to hard currency. Thus Walcott uses the character double to emphasize the link between the provincial dictator figure and greed.

Arnaeus' basic form of communication also manifests itself in the interrogative form, with lines such as "What?" and "So?" (127). But this time around, Odysseus asks more questions back, such as "What happened to your eye?" and "Don't you remember?" (127). The implications of Odysseus' changed behavior cannot be easily dismissed. While the episode resonates as a repeat of the past, Odysseus taking a more aggressive role suggests that he has indeed learned and grown from his experiences (though he certainly has not escaped them). Rewriting or editing the past also evokes a sense of justification for Walcott's own project of re-engaging Homer.

The Arnaeus episode certainly does as much to inform about the character of Odysseus as it does the Cyclops. The proximity of the appearance of the Arnaeus double to the Melantho double in terms of stage time demands attention. Further, these two episodes straddle another set of doubles as the mermaids of the opening of Act II appear as First Maid and Second Maid here ("My arms are all scales." "You're sisters. The same white arms. I've seen you before" (125)). Thus Act II scene four utilizes almost a continuous stream of doubles from Act I. Further, Melantho and Arnaeus appear in nearly the same sequence as Nausicaa and the Cyclops. Walcott uses doubles here to create a sense of flashback. Though Odysseus is finally home, he can only perceive reality by replaying where he has been, and in the same order at that. Walcott's injection of Odysseus' earlier adventures undermines the meaningful expectations for his homecoming. The character doubles express Odysseus' need for more than a mere physical return to Ithaca.

Antinous and Ajax

The third of the explicit doubles appears in Walcott's pairing of Antinous and Ajax. This pairing is perhaps the least noticeable on a first reading, but its implications subtly underlie the whole matrix of the play. Ajax appears with the other Greek heroes in Troy "piling gifts on Achilles' mound" (3) at the play's opening. Ajax asserts himself somewhat vainly as "the heir of Achilles' armor" (2). He also complains of having to wait for Odysseus "once more" (3). Walcott sets Ajax and Odysseus in opposition over the issue of who is the rightful heir of Achilles' shield. Odysseus questions Ajax's claim to the shield and then offers it to him because Ajax "fought the hardest" (3). But Ajax is wary of this Greek bearing a gift, and Odysseus finally accepts the shield through Menelaus' intervention. Before he exits, Ajax curses Odysseus: "Bear it, you turtle! Take ten years to reach your coast" (4).

Reading the play offers an entirely different glimpse of Antinous than watching it in theatre. On stage, the Ajax actor reappears just minutes later as Antinous, though Walcott does not make this doubling explicit until the last pages of the play. Walcott transfers the animosity of Ajax into the character of Antinous by the viewer's association of the actor and the facinorous disposition of Antinous. Antinous spends four pages of scene two brazenly hitting on Penelope and solidifying his role as the anti-hero. His charming statements include "Listen, you! No more noise!" to Eurycleia and "I'd rather not kill [Telemachus]. But if that's what you're worth" (21) to Penelope. Walcott also echoes Ajax's military prowess with Antinous' language. His metaphor for Penelope's loyalty to Odysseus is "that wall" (18), which evokes an association with Ajax and the walls of Troy. Moreover, his rhetoric of seduction is rooted in metaphors of death-"Let one nod finish me" (18)-and battle-"For one arrow from those eyes?" (18).

Unlike his use of the other two named doubles, Walcott merges Antinous and Ajax on the stage. In the climactic scene, Odysseus greets his wife's most vocal suitor with an initially cryptic "In a man's house every monster is repeated" (143). The bow and arrow metaphors of the first act materialize in Penelope's contest to string Odysseus' bow. Like Ajax, Antinous defers in the contest to Odysseus, "Let him have the next go" (147). The incognito hero manages to string the bow and grants Antinous his earlier wish for death by an arrow. During the ensuing slaughter of the suitors, Odysseus addresses Antinous: "This turtle took ten years, Ajax, but it's ashore" (149). His statement suggests that he viewed Antinous as a manifestation of Ajax's curse and that his ten-year struggle has ended with the death of Ajax's double. That his address to the dead Antinous echoes the curse of Ajax also links Odysseus' adventure world to his home in Ithaca, that the same events transpire with different appearances.

Walcott uses stage doubles to give Odysseus' point of view on Ajax/ Antinous. Thus he divides Odysseus and the stage action from the perception of other characters. Walcott allows the audience to experience Odysseus' perception while knowing from other characters that he is hallucinating. Ajax / Antinous becomes the focal point of Odysseus' visions. When the hall is filled with 100 dead bodies, Odysseus admits, "When I look at them I hear armor and chaos" (150). When Telemachus tells Odysseus that he is home, the hero screams, "Look! I will not fight the Trojans! My mind's not well" (151). Walcott has the suitors rise as Trojan warriors (that only Odysseus can see). Odysseus disassociates from Ithaca and mentally returns to Troy. He trips on the body of Antinous and mistakes him for Ajax. Walcott crystallizes the doubling as Odysseus' inability to escape his past with the direction for the dead body: "ANTINOUS / AJAX moves away, turn, exits" (152). Finally, the pairing of Antinous and Ajax and the exit of dead Antinous (Ajax in Odysseus' mind) casts a dubious light on the reliability of stage action. Walcott doubling of Antinous and Ajax blurs the line of what is really going on and what Odysseus thinks is occurring.

As a whole, Walcott's set of three explicit doubles fosters a unity between Odysseus' Ithaca world and his adventure world. The doubles center the stage action around the consciousness of the hero. They also complicate the trajectory of his journey home by adding a psychological dimension to his ability t return home. Walcott infuses the play with the possibility for other, less obvious, doubles as well. A case can be made for the doubling of nearly every character. The most compelling occurrence emerges with Penelope. Walcott's textual clues suggest that the Penelope actress may also appear in the roles of Helen and Circe.

Penelope's links to Helen and Circe

Helen's stage time is limited to Telemachus' brief conversation with Menelaus in Act I scene 4. However, she reveals a number of links to Penelope, not including a shared general demeanor of confident maturity that runs through the speech of both women. Telemachus is the first to draw the comparison. Informed that Helen has difficulty sleeping, he suggests an "Egyptian herb that my mother uses" (32) for insomnia. Walcott connects the two women on Helen's second entrance, where he specifies that she "sits some distance off and weaves" (34). Her weaving as a stage action evokes an association with Penelope's main physical action of the play, which is also weaving. When Odysseus finally meets his wife she is weaving "a shroud for Laertes" (132). Penelope's project carries a greater significance in that she is also unweaving to delay remarriage on the completion of the shroud. Thus Walcott not only suggests a character double, but creates a link between Telemachus and his father. Helen's stage action here conforms to Telemachus' subconscious anxiety of Penelope's remarriage, just as Odysseus' projection of fears and memories created the three explicit doubles.

Other textual clues link Helen and Penelope. As Helen weaves, Menelaus meditates on her aloud. He labels her as "a flawed vase, now sealed, redeemed by its collector" (33). In the Underground scene, Anticlea describes Penelope as "a rare vase, out of cat's reach, on its shelf" (96). Walcott's use of an identical object to serve as the vehicle for metaphors describing two women further evokes a sense of the doubling of Penelope and Helen. Helen's apology-"Forgive me your pain, image of Odysseus"(34)-evokes a familiarity with his father that borders on love. Penelope's initial rejection of the unmasked Odysseus-"I'm not Menelaus' whore" (154)-sharpens the association between the two women, though the link operates by denial of its own existence.

Walcott does not limit Penelope's doubling to Helen, however. His textual clues create the possibility of the same actress also playing Circe. In terms of general plot, Walcott has both women surrounded by sexually driven men. Circe's spell on the swine is comparable to Penelope's intoxication of the suitors, though the latter's power is unintended. Odysseus' brief stint on the island of Calypso offers a host of spoken clues that link Circe to Penelope. The seduction scene itself serves to transform Circe into Penelope in the mind of Odysseus, which so far has dictated doubling. He initially resists her with "What I want is simple. To reach my own bed" (80). Circe seduces him by making him feel he is home: "You're in your house. A house men's desires build" (82). She plays the role of his wife with statements such as "Were kindred spirits" (81), "My cold lips will be Penelope's" (82), and "We'll recreate the gendering of your son" (82). Circe's dialogue in the seduction scene demands consideration of her as Penelope's double. A clever lighting director could enhance the transformation into Penelope. Odysseus offers the most compelling evidence of Circe as Penelope's double. During his hallucination in the climactic scene, he addresses his wife: "To kill you swine, Circe" (153). In the context of the rapid appearance of the explicit doubles just prior, it seems fitting that Odysseus refer to his wife as his earlier seductress and confirm the parallel of Circe's spell over swine to Penelope's over the suitors.

The Faces of Telemachus

Thus Walcott creates the possibility for doubling of the Penelope with Helen and Circe. While Odysseus' imagination of his wife creates the Circe double, his longing to see his son manifests itself throughout the play in smaller and less obvious ways. Walcott places the paths of Odysseus and Telemachus on a head-on trajectory. Though he does not meet Telemachus until late in Act II, he sees his son in the faces of numerous strangers while other characters see Odysseus in the form of Telemachus. The head-on trajectory culminates in the possible (and very probably) doubling of Telemachus and Eurylochus. Nestor is the first to link them when Telemachus visits: "Does he love questions? Another Odysseus!" (24). Helen pairs them in her apology: "Forgive me, image of Odysseus" (34). Odysseus resists wrestling a young Scherian because "I imagined you were my son . . . I keep seeing him. Telemachus" (52-3). Walcott's repetitive association between father and son lays the groundwork for the doubling of Telemachus and Eurylochus.

Unfortunately, Walcott offers only one explicit reference to the same actor playing these two young men. When the Philosopher sees Eurylochus, he yells, "History's repeated! A second Odysseus!" (60). However, Walcott does present the dynamics of interaction between Odysseus and Eurylochus in a way dissimilar to any other than that between Odysseus and his true son. On the Island of Calypso, Odysseus begins to melt into the catatonic relaxation induced by the island's flower. Eurylochus rescues Odysseus from this trance first when he yells at him-"Move! Move!" (73)-but more importantly when he "shoves Odysseus" (73) then "lifts Odysseus" (73). The only other male character to lay hands on Odysseus in the entire play is Telemachus, who "grabs" (139) and "hug[s]" (140) Odysseus when they unite in Ithaca. The absence of any other character initiating physical contact with Odysseus fosters a sense of Telemachus and Eurylochus as doubles.

Further, Eurylochus and Odysseus blend on stage as Eurylochus takes charge at times and he and Odysseus finish each other's thoughts. Like Telemachus, Eurylochus constantly asks questions, such as "What kind of city is this?" (60). Walcott has Eurylochus take the lead in the interrogation of the Philosopher-"So one cold eye is all these Greeks know of heaven?" (62)-while the Odysseus longs for escape-"EURYLOCHUS, SHAKE ME! WAKE ME UP FROM THIS DREAM!" (62). As the Cyclops removes all men but Odysseus, the hero pleads, "Leave him behind!" (67). His plea for a singular "him" suggests that Odysseus feels a special bond to Eurylochus. The Circe episode bristles with evidence of a special connection between Eurylochus and Odysseus. Only Odysseus' conversations with his son rival the casual intimacy of those between Odysseus and Eurylochus here. The younger man describes the situation, "Her music's pounding with the odors of rutting" (76) and Odysseus caps his thought: "Perfumes won't dispel it" (77). In Ithaca, the long awaited conversation between father and son flows for three pages just as smoothly. "Who told you I was home? Who brought the message?" Odysseus asks. "Love was my whip. Fear and delight were my horses," (139) Telemachus responds.

Though Walcott does not specify a doubling of Telemachus and Eurylochus, the similar dynamics of interaction between the two pairs of characters makes it possible, if not probable. The appearance of the same actor in the two roles fosters continuity of the ever-closing distance between Odysseus and Ithaca, father and son. The doubling also puts a particularly male spin on the play as a whole. While other doubles express the inherently psychological nature of Odysseus' return, Eurylochus' lengthy and vital role suggests that the "odyssey" is as much about yearning for a return to stable relationship of fathers and sons as its is about rekindling marriage. Moreover, the staging of a double based on Telemachus' anxiety (Helen weaving as his mother does) marks the elevated importance of the son as a part of the odyssey.


[This essay derives from a paper originally written in 2001 for Professor Suzanne Keen's course at Washington and Lee University.]


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