The Passions of Derek Walcott

By Hartigan, Patti | American Theatre, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

The Passions of Derek Walcott


Hartigan, Patti, American Theatre


WINNING THE NOBEL PRIZE HASN'T CHANGED HIS ASPIRATIONS, BUT IT'S PLAYED HAVOC WITH HIS EVERYDAY LIFE.

derek Walcott can't find the phone. Seriously. It's one of those cordless models--the kind that enables you to talk, walk, chew gum, do the dishes--and the poet has misplaced it. Now this would be faintly hilarious if it weren't so frustrating: the thing has been ringing off and on since dawn.

In fact, the phone has been ringing relentlessly since Oct. 8, the day Walcott awoke to find himself transformed in his bed into a Nobel Laureate. First, the Swedish Academy called with the news. Then a pack of hungry journalists, this one included, descended on the doorstep of his Brookline, Mass. condominium that day, followed him to the local donut shop ("The local geriatrics were going, 'What's a Nobel? Is that a bagel?'") and trailed his tracks to a press conference at Boston University, where Walcott teaches poetry and playwriting. The excessive attention made him feel like a "third-rate congressman," and the invasion of privacy has continued full-force ever since.

This business with the missing phone, in fact, is a metaphor for the change he's undergone since winning the Nobel Prize in literature and its accompanying $1.3-million cash award. "When you get the Prize, no one tells you what will happen with the phone," Walcott says, and as if on cue, the darn thing rings somewhere in the far reaches of the condominium. He puts out one of the cigarettes he smokes passionately and persistently, disappears without a word and returns a few minutes later, empty-handed. "I get requests for all sorts of things. You let the phone ring. The mail is mountainous. One Indian guy keeps writing asking for money--and not 10 bucks either: $100,000 would be good."

Communications problems aside, The Prize (as Walcott has come to call it) has inspired the West Indian writer to put together the various sides of his life in one neat equilateral triangle. Walcott is widely known for his poetic oeuvre that blends Caribbean, English and African traditions, including most recently his 1990 Omeros, a sweeping epic that intertwines Homeric legend, Western classics, West Indian culture and history. But he is also a prolific playwright who founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959 and the Boston Playwrights' Theatre in 1981. He's currently embarking on a project that will bring the Trinidad company to his Boston theatre in a benefit performance for his latest brainchild, the Rat Island Foundation. The foundation will establish an international writers' retreat on an island off the coast of Walcott's native St. Lucia, a kind of Breadloaf in paradise, a place where artists from different cultures can exchange ideas and create.

The two theatres and the arts center form a unified triad for Walcott, who dismisses the widespread notion that the theatrical work has always been secondary to his poetic pursuits. "I don't see the poetry as separate from the theatre," he says, pointing out that in the past year alone he's had productions at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon and Birmingham Repertory Theater, also in England. Along with nine volumes of poetry, he's published four books of plays and won the Obie award in 1971 for Dream on Monkey Mountain. He's not, he will tell you again and again, a poet who happens to write plays on the side. "It's easy for people to look at the poetry," he says. "It takes more work to look at the theatre, because it has to do with a knowledge of the society. People have a cliched idea of West Indian society, and if they took the society seriously, they'd have to take the theatre seriously."

Walcott, 63, came to New York on a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1957 and studied with Jose Quintero and the Phoenix Theatre Company. He wrote his first play, Henri Cristophe: A Chronicle, while he was an undergraduate at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, and by the time he arrived in New York, he had already written and produced a handful of plays in St. …

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