Intertextualizing Polyphemus: Politics and Ideology in Walcott's Odyssey

Article excerpt

"The whole course of imitations and adaptations is simply a method of apprenticeship."

--Derek Walcott, interview given in 1977

"The idea of art has no tense apart from the present. Dante, for a poet, is. That is related to the same idea that God is. God doesn't have a past or future tense. And art does not have a past or future tense."

--Derek Walcott, remarks before the reading of his poem "The Sea Is History"

Three years after the publication of Omeros and with his repeated denials that he was rewriting Homer still echoing, Derek Walcott returned to Homer, this time adapting the Odyssey into a drama which, by retaining the title of its epic antecedent, dispelled any lingering doubts as to its classical source. (1) But while Omeros has already attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, Odyssey has lagged behind, despite that over a decade has elapsed since its publication. (2) Existing studies of the play provide a rapid overview of its scenes, drawing along the way some good but undeveloped connections with the Homeric precedent and commenting in passing on its medium, language, and cultural context. (3) Such haste is perhaps inevitable, given not only the thematic richness of Walcott's work and its multilayered allusions to Homer, but also the relatively small size of the studies themselves. In this paper, I shall attempt to remedy this haste by examining only one episode, Odysseus's adventure with the Cyclops, from the point of view of its use of time, space, and characters. The restricted scope of my interpretation will permit a detailed analysis of one fully realized and thematically independent dramatic incident as it reveals some of Walcott's core ideological stances, which may then be fruitfully explored in the rest of the play. While the focus of my attention will be on Walcott's rendering of the adventure, I shall draw comparisons throughout between the play's depiction of the episode and that of its epic antecedent. The essentially performative nature of both the Walcottian and the Homeric media invests the parameters of my study with special significance, as time, space, and characters constitute the necessary ingredients of performance. Of course, both works have by now become texts: Homer's Odyssey has ceased being an oral poem since it was written down, and Walcott's play, although still performable, must lamentably be for most a reading pleasure. (4) And yet for all their "textuality," their status as species of performative poetry remains: both were created in order to be enacted before an audience, recording events firmly situated in time and place and populated by characters. It might then be useful to linger briefly on the nature and extent of the kinship between Homeric performance and Caribbean theater, as well as to offer a brief overview of Walcott's Odyssey, before I clarify further my objectives.

While modern epic poems are received on the printed page or perhaps through public readings, the Homeric epics were performed. Both the rhapsoidoi, who recited the creations of the aoidoi (the "singers"), and the deliverers of speeches within the epics are social actors, addressing an audience, the judges of their performance. (5) The long oral tradition, of which Homer is part, supplies the epic poems with mostly formulaic material which, however, is not merely repeated, as oralists tend to argue, but is re-created and transformed during verbal transmission over time. (6) Although the exact parameters of the Homeric oral culture are forever lost to us, the presence and importance of the audience, a key component of the essentially performative nature of the epic, can be glimpsed from within the texts themselves: both the Iliad and the Odyssey include many instances of speakers engaged in public speech acts, and the putative effects of those acts on the audience inform the content of the speeches and the discursive modes deployed in them. Similarly, West Indian theater has been deeply influenced not only by the rich oral tradition of the area but also by the imaginative worlds of legends, myths, and folktales it has inherited. …

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