- Of Men and Heroes:Walcott and the Haitian Revolution
The Haitian Revolution has exercised the Caribbean literary imagination to significant effect. It has spawned major works by some of the region's most distinguished writers. Outside of Haiti itself, there is the Cuban Alejo Carpentier's El reino de este mundo (1949), and, from the French Caribbean, two plays: Edouard Glissant's Monsieur Toussaint (1961) and Aimé Césaire's La Tragédie du roi Christophe (1970). Walcott has returned to the subject again and again, over a period of nearly forty years. His Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes (1950), first produced in 1949, was his first substantial play. The Revolution provided one of the four major segments of his historical pageant Drums and Colours (1961), first produced in 1958. His major work on the Revolution, The Haitian Earth, was first produced in 1984. These works reward comparison, which, in a limited way, is the project of this paper. They constitute a fertile microcosm in which to explore Caribbean imagination, its continuities and variations. We must also put alongside these fictive works C. L. R. James's famous historical account, Black Jacobins. What is more, his little-known play of the same title was first produced even earlier, in 1936.
Walcott's The Haitian Trilogy conveniently collects all three of his dramatic engagements with the Revolution: Henri Christophe, Drums and Colours and The Haitian Earth. To compare his treatment of the Revolution in the three is to enhance understanding of his evolution as a dramatist, a Caribbean dramatist, both in content or world view and in style, as well as to enhance understanding of the hold of the Haitian Revolution on Caribbean imagination. The development reflects his foundational contribution to a Caribbean theater rooted in the experience of the common people, drawing on their arts of performance, including their language, and in the context of the colonial experience of the region. A central motive in this endeavor was to address the apparent or supposed absence or dearth of home-grown heroes.
In chapter 12 of Another Life, Walcott recalls how, still a teenager, he was fired by the dream and difficulty of making a new world of art in his island(s). It was to be an art made out of native materials, like the "plain wood" (Collected Poems 216) with which the carpenter, Dominic, worked, giving off "the smell of our own speech" (Collected Poems 217), and taking the Caribbean artist beyond a hankering after "the marble [of] Greece" ("Ruins of a Great House," Collected Poems 19) and all that it stood for, the hankering after "heroic palaces / netted in sea-green vines" ("Royal Palms" 16). The train of thought in chapter 12 of Another Life reaches a crucial point when the poet exclaims: [End Page 45]
Christ, to shake off the cerecloths, to stride from the magnetic sphere of legends. To change the marble sweat which pebbled the wave-blow of stone brows for the sweat-drop on the cedar plank, for a future without heroes, to make out of these foresters and fishermen heraldic men!(Collected Poems 217)
The "gigantic myth" and "the stone brows" of Classical sculpture connote the heroics that attach to the "great tradition" of Classical art and literature.
It was in his plays that Walcott was most directly and definitively to take the "stride," a shaping movement in his effort to make a Caribbean drama. "To make of these foresters and fishermen / heraldic men," instead of "heroes," is "a succinct statement of what [Walcott] aimed to do in plays like The Sea at Dauphin, Malcochon, Ti-Jean and His Brothers and Dream on Monkey Mountain" (Baugh 43).1 The stride may be traced in the movement from Henri Christophe and Drums and Colours to the four plays in Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (1970), as well as The Haitian Earth, even if the movement is not neatly chronological. Further, whatever meaning Walcott may be understanding from the term heraldic man will retain perhaps more than a trace of "hero." In other words, in resorting to the former term, Walcott retains some of the connotations of the...