Creolizing Homer for the Stage: Walcott's the Odyssey

Article excerpt

[W]hat is needed is not new names for old things, or old names for old things, but the faith of using the old names anew, so that mongrel as I am, something prickles in me when I see the word Ashanti as with the word Warwickshire, ... both baptising ... this hybrid, this West Indian.

Walcott, "What the Twilight Says" (10)

Derek Walcott, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, has regularly undertaken the re-envisioning of other writers' works throughout his career. Notable examples include The Sea at Dauphin (1954), based on Synge's Riders to the Sea; The Joker of Seville (1974), after Tirso de Molina's El Burlador de Sevilla; and his epic Omeros (1990), drawn from Homeric epic tradition. Whatever vestiges of original sources may be retained through Walcott's process of adaptation, each original is strategically altered by his West Indian Creole aesthetic. In his 1974 essay "The Muse of History," Walcott separates himself from African-Caribbean nationalists whose sympathetic anger regarding their degraded ancestors forces them to reject the language and art of imperialist slave masters. Walcott complains:

They cannot separate the rage of Caliban from the beauty of his speech when the speeches of Caliban are equal in their elemental power to those of his tutor. The language of the torturer mastered by the victim. This is viewed as servitude, not as victory. (4).

As a New World poet of mixed blood, Walcott asserts proprietary rights over his multivalent legacy.

One rich vein of Western literature fascinates Walcott particularly because he perceives cogent similarities between the geography of the Aegean, "That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne" (Keats 44), and his own Caribbean sea. Given the classically based British curriculum in which students were educated throughout the West Indies, Walcott had a rich storehouse from which to draw. His native St. Lucia earned the sobriquet "Helen of the West" due to its natural beauty and because European powers fought so many years over possession of the island. By 1970, he can be found arguing "that an archipelago, whether Greek or West Indian, is bound to be a fertile area, particularly if it is a bridge between continents, and a variety of people settle there" ("Meanings" 49). In the decade of the 1990s alone, Walcott has revisited the Odyssey twice: first to launch his version of a West Indian epic in Omeros, then to reconfigure Homer's epic for the stage in The Odyssey (1993). The Homeric correspondences are obvious and have been addressed at length, numerous times in the case of Omeros (Burian, "All That"; Hamner, Epic; Hofmeister; and Terada) and The Odyssey (Burian, "You Can Build"; Davis; Hamner, "Odyssey"). That subject having been covered, the focus of my present comparative analysis is Walcott's creolization process: specific alterations that give Caribbean meaning to The Odyssey on stage.

Lawrence Carrington's St. Lucian Creole is a valuable handbook for anyone interested in the phonetic and morphological structure of Creole speech. For purposes of the present study, John Figueroa offers a few more immediately cogent observations regarding the potential of vernacular in poetry for a writer with Walcott's colonial background. He argues against the use of nonstandard dialogue for the sake of local color or to make the social point that provincials can have literary status. Then he sets out to demonstrate that "the use of non-standard varieties as a part of texture, and structuring, rather than simply as a slice of life, can be significant and uniquely communicating" (156-57).

Physical restraints of stage production limit the narrative range that would be available within a purely verbal medium such as the epic. Nevertheless, preserving elements that can be represented by word and action, Walcott retains truncated versions of both the Telemachus and the Odysseus plots. Respecting the oral tradition behind the tales eventually drawn together by the Homeric scribe around 800 BC, Walcott introduces the singer Billy Blue to act as a "chorus" for editorializing and providing transitions. …

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