- Playing With Europe:Derek Walcott's Retelling of Homer's Odyssey
Since its first public performance on July 2, 1992 and its formal publication in 1993, Derek Walcott's The Odyssey: A Stage Version has justifiably garnered its fair share of attention. While examining a wide variety of issues and ideas surrounding the play, most agree that as a whole, the play exemplifies Walcott's critical ideas, which he has articulated in such seminal essays as "What the Twilight Says" and "The Muse of History." In short, most agree that Walcott's play, while openly retelling a Western master narrative, moves beyond typical European binaries. In the play, there are no clear heroes, or monsters, or even colonizers and colonized. All of the characters shift fluidly in and around such specific distinctions, instead occupying positions on both sides and in other, third spaces. Peter Burian explains, "There is nothing to suggest that Walcott is out simply to reclaim some space for those whom the West has historically marginalized. Rather, he makes them equal partners in a common culture that is complex and diverse, to be sure, but not describable in terms of center and margins, same and other" ("Build" 80). In discussing Walcott's work leading up to his writing of The Odyssey, Burian adds, "Insofar as such questions [which end "A Far Cry from Africa"] can be answered, Walcott's poetry answers them not with either/or but with both/and" ("Greek Manure" his emphasis 360).
I agree with this positioning and do not intend to rehearse these arguments. Instead, I would like to join in the conversation by suggesting that Walcott's genius in writing the play is that he does not, in fact, change Homer's original poem but instead finds a postcolonial perspective that is already present in Homer's Odyssey. Speaking about his own Omeros, Walcott addresses the issue of his Homeric use, ideas that are also applicable to The Odyssey: ". . . a reinvention of the Odyssey, but this time in the Caribbean. I mean, what would be the point of doing that? What this implies is that geologically, geographically, the Caribbean is secondary to the Aegean" ("Reflections" 232). I would suggest that rather than focusing on what Walcott does and does not change from Homer's poem, it might be more fruitful in terms of intertextuality to examine both texts together, rather than in comparison.
Walcott's placement of the original story, complete with Greek characters, in a Caribbean setting reveals the true intertextual nature of his work. I would argue that this represents a case of "mutualism," to use David Cowart's definition, whereby both the host and guest text benefit from the relationship (4). When considering this symbiotic relationship, Cowart identifies the key question to the relationship: "Does the guest text, that is, manage to cast a new light on the original . . . ?" (9). Even further, [End Page 188] he explains, "[The later writer] contrives to make his fiction do self-consciously what its distant model did unself-consciously . . ." (16).1 In particular, the intertextual relationship between Homer's poem and Walcott's play helps us to debate the nature of an epic, specifically in its political aspect, and that aspect's influence on the content of the play.
Some insight into this positioning can be gleaned from the critical discussion about Walcott's Omeros and his own response to such discussions. In viewing the work of Romare Bearden and his cutouts, Walcott argues, "Yes, they may be like Greek vases, but they are simultaneous concepts, not chronological concepts" ("Reflections" his emphasis 240). He continues, "But if you think of art as a simultaneity that is inevitable in terms of certain people, then Joyce is a contemporary of Homer (which Joyce knew)" (241). Although Walcott is, of course, discussing Omeros, which is not such a clear retelling as his Odyssey, his view of intertextuality provides important insights into his next work, and helps us to think about why Walcott would accept an English commission for a specific retelling even as he continually and simultaneously rejects the way Omeros has been repeatedly labeled and analyzed as an epic. Walcott understands, even if...