Dreams Of Violence: Moving Beyond Colonialism In Canadian & West Indian Drama - Christopher Innes
Canada and the West Indies are very different societies: geographically, economically, racially and culturally. Yet in two important aspects they share comparable problems. Each has a colonial history, as well as a highly diverse and ethnically mixed population; and in each almost all the present population comes from elsewhere. Over the last three decades both have been preoccupied with creating a distinctive "national" culture, distanced from previous dependency on the literary tradition of the imperial power -- and in formulating this, the stage has played a significant role.
Even here, the contrasts would seem far more crucial than the parallels. To state merely the obvious, the Caribbean is primarily a "Black" area, largely rural and still impoverished, only very recently independent, and with practically no pre-established indigenous theatrical infrastructure (experienced actors, professional directors or designers, even stages). In a sense this might be seen as a conceptual advantage, since starting from an artistic ground-zero encouraged experimentation with other native forms of presentation, particularly dance and carnival, from which a distinctive style of physical acting emerged. At the same time, the severe practical limitations meant that only a writer as dedicated as Derek Walcott could develop the conditions for the performance of his plays or an audience for them. And indeed, at least until the 1980s, Walcott was the sole Caribbean dramatist of any stature, while his Trinidad Theatre Workshop remained the only company with extensive expertise. By contrast, Canada is predominantly "White" -- indeed still dominated by the earlier colonizers, French as well as British -- with over a century of effective self-government, and an urban industrial base that had built a network of theatres, even though it was only in the late 1960s (coincidentally at almost exactly the same time as in the Caribbean) that Canadian playwrights began to emerge. As a result, the assertion of national identity in Canadian drama was almost entirely thematic, while the style of presentation carried over from standard European acting or direction; and there was no single focus to theatrical activity.
However, one element of the Canadian cultural mosaic had been given no voice in this new cultural assertiveness -- indeed, continued to exist in (and still today, retains) in a colonized relationship to the dominant post-colonial society. These, of course, were the North American Indians, who not only subsisted on isolated reservations, but had absolutely no exposure to a theatrical tradition. It was barely 10 years ago when the first play by a Canadian Indian hit the stage. The Indians had been one of the earliest subjects of the new Canadian drama, with Indian (first produced for television in 1963) and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967). But their plight had been depicted by an Anglophone of Ukrainian origin -- both these plays being the work of George Ryga, a radical socialist who had already an established reputation as a novelist. Indians had acted in the second play (even though the Indian title-role of Rita Joe herself was taken by a white actress, while one of the other leads had to be brought in from the U.S.) and indeed these Indian performers identified completely with the roles.  Yet, however attuned to the psychology of racial exploitation, or documentary in their sources, these plays used the Indian as the most extreme example of general social injustice; and they can hardly be counted an authentic expression of the Indian experience.
This only came with the first plays by Tomson Highway in the mid 1980s -- and it is no accident that Highway's most significant play to date, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, is strikingly similar to Walcott's most widely produced drama, Dream on Monkey Mountain.
Indeed, the parallels are remarkable, even though there is no question of influence. There is no evidence that Highway had read or had the opportunity of seeing any of Walcott's work before 1989, when Dry Lips was first performed in Toronto; and Highway insists that all the elements of his play are drawn from traditional native thought, Cree tribal symbolism and his experience on the Manitoba reservation where he grew up. There is a gap of over twenty years between the two works; each expresses a widely different cultural context, and was written for very different audiences -- even if Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain was first publicly performed in Canada, as part of the 1967 Caribana Festival (also in Toronto). Yet despite the distances between them, the themes are directly comparable, and the form is the same. Both are dream-plays -- indeed both contain a double dream: a nightmare of murder and revenge inside a dream of liberating rebirth, which becomes a hopeful new reality with the rejection of false images. Both centre on the distorting deception of a white "Goddess"; and both present a "Trickster" as one of the central figures. In both violence is linked with comedy. Both also require a highly physical form of acting, developed through their own performing groups, and rely heavily on symbolism.
Beyond such stylistic similarities, Walcott and Highway each depict the self-alienating psychology of the colonized, and propose a healing vision that is designed to shift the perception of their audiences. However, where Walcott wrote in a post-colonial context, Highway was speaking to what might best be described as a neo-colonial society. Thus while Walcott could see himself as expressing the needs and offering solutions to West Indians as a whole, Highway stood as an outsider, exposing mainstream Canada to a marginalized alternative culture. The combination of such parallel works, and contrasting social situations offers a test-case for the effectiveness of this type of theatre.
In addition, Walcott possessed a theoretical basis of revolutionary literature about white/black colonial relations that had direct relevance to his subject (Césaire, Fanon), and to which his play explicitly refers -- not only though epigraphs from Sartre's introduction to The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, but in one character's declaration: "All I have is this [shows the mask], black faces, white masks!", which repeats the title of another influential book by Fanon.  No such racial analysis exists for the North American Indian, limiting Highway to tribal traditions -- so that the epigraph for Dry Lips comes from a contemporary newspaper piece by a fellow Cree journalist. This divergence highlights questions about ideological frames for drama. At the same time, neither of the plays is directly political. They work subliminally rather than through direct statement, seeking to manipulate the psychology of the individual spectator, instead of attempting to change political opinion or foster specific action. And the implicit rejection of social protest drama raises the fundamental issue of the potential effectiveness of theatre, as well as the nature of the influence that conventional stage performance might legitimately be expected to exert on society.
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Despite his extensive background as a journalist and even a drama reviewer, Walcott has said so little (either in writing or interviews) about the aims of his drama, or its interpretation, that it counts as an intentional denial of external commentary. This implies a rejection of any direct political dimension for a play such as Dream on Monkey Mountain -- which is indeed borne out by the nature of the few statements he has made. Surveying "West Indian Art Today" in 1966, while working towards the first performance of the play, he claimed that "the little art we produce asserts the integrity of the individual, however tragic".  In the program for a 1970 production of a much earlier play, Ti-Jean and his Brothers (1958), he remarked: "We present to others a deceptive simplicity that they may dismiss as provincial, primitive, childish, but which is in truth a radical innocence. That is what our fable is about" -- a description that applies perhaps even more to Dream on Monkey Mountain. Where Walcott does discuss politics in art, he argues that both the economic revolution of Marxism and the appeal to an idealized past of black African grandeur are nothing more than "visionary rhetoric", irrelevant to the West Indian experience, which does not share the revolutionary history of Algerian or even Haiti, and has nothing in common with the condition of black Americans. As a result he dismisses "protest poetry" as "smug and barren" in a West Indian environment, and demands writing "sincere enough to refute a past that was never grand but debased, not to divide our history into pogroms.... From there it is an easy step to that aggressive self-pity... that makes so much of our literature specious." 
Although, as the epigraphs to each half of the play indicate, the revolutionary politics of Fanon's psychology of colonialism serve as a thematic background to Dream on Monkey Mountain, Walcott's action effectively rejects Fanon's solution. The characters may fit his analysis of a binary dualism (colonizer and colonized, each defining themselves through the other ) in which the "self is dissociated" -- and it is certainly true that the black bourgeoisie, which Fanon attacks for wearing the mask of white culture and reproducing the colonial order in the new nationalist state, is given exaggerated form in Corporal Lestrade. Having "the white man work to do" in upholding a ("Roman") legal system which is explicitly opposed to "the law of the jungle", the Corporal comes to see himself as the parody of a white hunter who finds "nothing quite so exciting as putting down the natives": "Bwana Lestrade" bearing "the white man's burden". Yet this is not only part of the distortion of Makak's dream, but a doubly false image as delirium (caused by a fatal knife-wound) within the dream; and Fanon's political analysis is further undermined by the elements of exaggeration and parody. Dying, he switches to the other pole of the binary: "Too late have I loved thee, Africa of my mind.... I jeered thee because I hated half of myself, my eclipse". Reborn, naked, into this new racial consciousness, the Corporal becomes both judge and executioner of all white culture and history, including specifically Shakespeare and Marlowe. He also condemns the Trickster figure, Moustique, for having "betrayed our dream".  However, blackness is an equally delusive state; and this conversion is denied both in terms of the logic of traditional West Indian culture, where the Trickster is a force against repression, and in Walcott's own artistic terms. Walcott is on record as seeing himself as in the tradition of Shakespeare and Marlowe, as well as contemporary white authors (specifically Genet, whose play, The Blacks, was part of the TTW repertoire and is a significant influence on Dream on Monkey Mountain; Beckett, who informs the existential despair expressed by Moustique when he dies, and Yeats, both of whom are quoted in Walcott's prefatory "Overture" to Dream on Monkey Mountain). 
This counter-image of "blackness" becomes, in fact, one of the main targets in the play. The vision of a lost African golden age, fostering racial pride as the source of black identity, was first articulated by Aimé Césaire in the 1930s; and it is no accident that Makak's induction of his dream
I see this woman singing
echoes Césaire's invocation (speaking as a poet who has become rooted like a tree) to the Congo:
the woman who had a thousand names
This poem comes from Césaire's Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, which could also be a subtitle for Dream on Monkey Mountain, since Makak's dream is a journey back to Africa. Indeed at this period of his career Walcott is clearly matching his work against Césaire's, since both also wrote plays about the Haitian revolt. But just as Walcott's Henri Christophe, first performed in 1968, can be seen as a counter-text to Césaire's 1963 Tragedy of King Christophe, so Dream on Monkey Mountain rejects his ideal of negritude.
It is significant that the hero of the play takes the name "Monkey" (Makak); and as such he is not only the tutelary spirit of "Monkey Mountain", but also the animal defined by its capacity for mimicry -- as the farcical opening sequence of "Everything I say this monkey do, / I don't know what to say this monkey won't do" emphatically points out. Thus, at a very basic level in the play, the search for negritude is an inauthentic copying. Although Makak's dream does carry him back to an "Africa of the mind" where he attains the title he had been given as a satirical insult in the opening scene, as "King of Africa" he is forced to execute his only friend, Moustique, whose earlier death at the hands of an enraged mob he had bitterly lamented. As his accuser, the Corporal, claims, Moustique has indeed "betrayed our dream". But as the Trickster figure, his betrayal is a positive act: where the dream leads is to madness, in which Makak's humanity is sacrificed for hatred.
MOUSTIQUE Look around you old man, and see who betray what.... in those days long ago you had something there [Touching his breast], but all that gone. All this blood, all this killing, all this revenge. 
The ultimate act of violence in the play is the on-stage beheading of the WOMAN, the white goddess whose mask Makak carries and who represents
the mirror of the moon that this ape look into and find himself unbearable. She is all that is pure, all that he cannot reach.... if you want to discover the beautiful depth of your blackness, nigger, chop off her head!
This act frees him indeed -- but not just from a crippling sense of racial inferiority. It also frees him from the dream of Africa. He immediately wakes to reality, and can remember his name. No longer Makak (the Monkey), he recognizes his real being -- Felix Hobain, a name encapsulating the mixed ancestry that Walcott sees as typical of the West Indies, and which in itself disqualifies negritude -- and realizes that in his dream "the roots of my feet could grip nothing, but now, God, they have found ground". 
Walcott believes that "the future of West Indian militancy lies in art" -- can only be incorporated in art, not political action -- and on one level Dream on Monkey Mountain is an analogy for his own writing and for the development of his theatre company. And in fact the characters were based on specific actors. As Walcott observed: "the play was written with [Errol Jones] in mind, or rather, grew round him". The scenes developed out of improvisations with the company, while one of the central characters, Basil the undertaker who is the extension of Baron Samedi, was only added at the last minute to offer a role to an actor who was accompanying the troupe to Toronto.  Just as for the characters in his play, the problem for the TTW in attempting to create a drama for their people was
How to be true? If one went in search of the African experience, carrying the luggage of a few phrases and a crude map, where would it end? We had no language for the bush and there was a conflicting grammar in the pace of our movement.
Lacking any defining revolution in achieving statehood (the violent breaking of the colonial moulds that Fanon saw as key to establishing authentic identity, in bringing each individual the "certainty that he embodies a decisive moment of the national consciousness") West Indian identity could only be articulated in art. This would be achieved by "the forging of a language that went beyond mimicry, a dialect which had the force of revelation and which began to create an oral culture of chants, jokes, folk-songs and fables".  In its exact correspondence with these aims, the play itself not only becomes a model of identity for West Indian spectators, but an attempt to promote the consciousness its represents.
The tripartite structure, with the dream-action divided into two halves, each comprising three scenes, and enclosed by prologue and epilogue, is deliberately aligned with the form of "the true folk tale", which for Walcott "concealed a structure as universal as the skeleton, the one armature from Br'er Anancy to King Lear. It kept the same digital rhythm of three movements, three acts, three moral revelations". This is combined with the symbolism of that pervades the play. The original setting, with its spider webs over the dark tower of the mountain, and the bars of the jail-house, portrays life (or perhaps false culture) as a prison -- "Attempting to escape" being a synonym for "revolution" -- from which the dreamer is set free once he rediscovers his true self; and the moon, which had illuminated the dream, is turned around to become the sun: the daylight of reality. The characters are traditional emblematic animals (Tiger and Mouse, who is transformed into "General Rat", as well as Mosquito and Monkey) and Voodoo figures (Baron Samedi), who also exist on other levels, with Makak not only being an ugly and broken-down old charcoal-burner, but also a crucified Christ flanked by two criminals, whose "resurrection" takes place at dawn on a Sunday, marked by singing "from the Church of Revelation". The performance begins and ends with the drawing of a circle which (as in Yeats' Plays for Dancers) is both a literal marking out of the playing area, a metaphor for the revolving treadmill of history, and a magic circle. The psychological impact is heightened by the deliberate naivety, and the use of rhythm in dance and choral singing, while the appeal to the subconscious is explicit in ritualized action and the whole dream context. And indeed West Indian reviewers not only commented on the effectiveness of the "subliminal techniques" but asserted that the play might "free ourselves from colonial neuroses". 
As a play, Dream on Monkey Mountain was undoubtedly successful, performed on tour throughout the West Indies in 1967 and in 1968, as well as on the TTW's home stage, in Jamaica in 1971, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere from 1973 to 1977, and remounted in 1985 -- in addition to being staged several times across America, garnering an Obie in New York, and being filmed for television -- and in retrospect it has been called the "fullest statement on the question of Caribbean freedom and identity". However, its effect on the West Indian psyche is harder to demonstrate. Certainly this was not immediate, since the negritude that Walcott tries so hard to neutralize was a growing force in West Indian politics, which barely three years after the first performances led to violent street demonstrations, attacks on Walcott himself as not being radical (or black), and led to his first break with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, as well as conditioning political attitudes in Trinidad so that for the next five years only "revolutionary" drama was critically acceptable. Even so, with benefit of hindsight, when Dream on Monkey Mountain was staged in 1985 the response indicated that Walcott's play was one of the conditioning factors that by then had led to the rejection of Black Power politics, and to a general recognition that the "Back to Africa" movement was a destructive illusion. 
* * *
Tompson Highway's Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing was no less successful in Canadian terms. It won four awards, including the Best New Play of 1988/89 when it opened as a co-production between Highway's own performance group, Native Earth, and Theatre Passe Muraille, one of the experimental (white) Toronto theatres. It then moved to successively more establishment stages, including the National Arts Centre, ending up as part of a subscription series in the Royal Alexandra: possibly the most bourgeois theatre in Canada. Yet unlike Walcott, Highway could in no sense be seen as expressing the aspirations of his (almost exclusively non-native) audience; and while his play drew on common cultural symbols, these were deconstructed rather than affirmed.
To understand the effect of the play, some of the social background needs to be taken into account. George Ryga, who had grown up next to a Cree reservation in Northern Alberta, described the "demoralization and degradation" of the native community in the 1960s as being
about as total as any society can experience anywhere in the world. These people had been worked over by the church; they had been worked over by the Hudson's Bay Company. There was nothing left. There was no language left any more.
The situation in the Brochet Indian Reserve in northern Manitoba at that time would have been the same; but Highway is a whole generation younger. In between -- partly fuelled by the Black Power movement that Walcott had fought against, which also led to the abortive American Indian uprising at Wounded Knee in 1973 -- there has been a conscious attempt to revive tribal culture among Canadian Indian communities, while arguably Ryga's plays had contributed to the development of governmental initiatives for natives in the early 1970s. And subsequently, official projects introduced western theatre as an educational tool. One example, which has particular relevance to some of the thematic concerns in Dry Lips, was a public awareness program mounted in response to a 1986 North West Territories Task Force on Spousal Assault. A white Edmonton theatre director, who found that the Dene tribal language had no words for "drama", "actor" or even "theatre", was employed to create performances that would act as a catalyst for group discussion of the problem.  Tribal meetings formed the basis for workshops, from which communal scripts were produced; and the only audiences were those in the native reservations.
A rather different example, in some ways paralleling the performance context of Highway's work, was offered by Vancouver Headlines Theatre's No' Xya' (Our Footprints, 1983), which developed out of "Power Play" workshops, modeled on Augusto Boal's "Theatre of the Oppressed". The script was written by the Artistic Director of the Headlines company, but in collaboration with members of a tribal council and a core group of native performers. Paralleling a land-claims case being heard before the B.C. Supreme Court at the time, it was directly relevant to Indian concerns; while the production made striking use of native masks, ceremonial costumes and dances, as well as the symbolism of totem poles. Initially designed for the local Indian community, it was then taken on tour through British Columbia and across Canada, with a tribal chief who had been one of the main witnesses in the Supreme Court case leading the discussions with the audience that followed each performance. However, the semi-documentary, issue-oriented topicality of this kind of theatre is far from Highway's aims; and like Walcott (who rejects the external forms of carnival and even folk-dance as "prostitutions of a tourist culture" ), his plays deliberately avoid reproducing the traditional tribal images.
There is nothing folkloric about the way Highway presents his Indian characters, who are shabbily dressed in ordinary clothes, frequently drunken, and living in poverty. Indeed, part of his message is the convergence of Indian and mainstream society. In Highway's view, "white culture in Canada is very much changing and transforming as a result of living with native culture; likewise Cree culture, native culture"; and -- very much like Walcott -- he sees his drama as "searching for this new voice, this new identity... this magical transformation" of society. Working through Native Earth, which is dedicated to developing a professional group of Indian performers and providing a vehicle for new native work, Highway is very much the proof of his own assertions. At the same time, he takes a public position that sets him apart from both the white society he addresses, and the Indian society whose values he expresses. In contrast to the generally aggressive heterosexuality of his characters, in interviews surrounding the production of his plays Highway stresses his homosexuality, asserting "what I appreciate about my sexuality is that it gives me the status of an outsider. And as a native, I am an outsider in a double sense. That gives you a wider vision..." 
His first major success was The Rez Sisters ("Rez" being slang for "Indian reservation"); and it is very much a companion-piece to Dry Lips. The tone is broadly satiric, combining physical farce with a poetic evocation of the Indian sense of community, against a background of the serious social problems. The Rez Sisters was designed (in Highway's own words) to rehabilitate "a people for whom simple human dignity has long been owing", and presents a group of seven women from the semi-imaginary Wasaychigan Indian Reserve, which has become the standard setting for Highway's plays -- giving them the sense of a running serial. Or rather, since the characters from one do not reappear, although they may be mentioned in the dialogue of the other, the plays become a set of different perspectives on the same material, thus implicitly demonstrating the complexity of a human situation that is otherwise overlooked as too basic or socially reduced to warrant attention. Using comedy to break through stereotypes, Highway shows the seven women undertaking an epic journey (from the reserve in the wilds of northern Ontario, by bus to Toronto -- the place where the play was being performed) to play Bingo. This incongruous obsession for a distinctly non-native game, and their down to earth, if highly idiosyncratic personalities achieved a degree of identification that led not only Indian but also white audiences to feel, as another Canadian playwright, Carol Bolt, put it, part of "an extraordinary, exuberant, life-affirming family." 
To that extent The Rez Sisters was successful in creating a more inclusive sense community. However, Highway's central concern is developing a viable national mythology for Canada as a whole, out of the experience of a marginalized sub-class -- the only essential difference being that here it is drawn from traditional native beliefs and imagery, rather than from a white proletarian folk-culture. For instance in Dry Lips Highway creates a circular vision-structure, where the play ends where it started -- with a man asleep on a couch -- and the whole intervening action is revealed as a dream, which corresponds to "the way the Cree look at life. A continuous cycle. A self-rejuvenating force. By comparison, Christian theology is a straight line. Birth, suffering, and then the apocalypse..."  Thus the play's circular action is intended as a positive antidote to the self-destructive degradation portrayed in it; and Highway also emphasized that "dreams -- and the dream-life -- have traditionally been considered by native society to be the greatest tool of instruction." Similarly Hera Keechigeesik (the name of the one real-life Indian woman, the sleeping man's wife who appears briefly after the end of the dream) signaled "the return of the goddess", Hera being the queen of heaven in Greek mythology, and Keechigeesik the Great Sky in Cree legend." As he said at the time:
"Canadian society can gain a lot by looking at native theology. Myths define society and we need to break down the ones that oppress people, whether they're women, or homosexuals, or minorities."
Trained as a concert pianist, Highway also refers to his drama in musical terms, talking about "applying sonata form to the spiritual and mental situation of a street drunk". Dry Lips is designed for multi-level action, with a fluid interchange of scenes within a single setting, while the plot is fragmented and comprises a series of flashbacks. As in Dream on Monkey Mountain, the level of reality switches from dream, to heightened vision within the dream which is closely associated with "a huge full moon", and ends in a transformed reality.
There is a fundamental divide in twentieth-century drama between playwrights who believe (following Brecht) that if you change the political system, then the personality of the citizens will be revolutionized as a result; and those who believe (as Artaud proposed) that if you can alter the psychology of individuals, then social revolution will follow. The dream play approach shared by Walcott and Highway puts them both firmly in the latter camp (Walcott in fact cites Artaud in the "Overture" to Monkey Mountain. Their effect may be almost indiscernible. In neither country has there been an immediate political response that can be traced directly to their plays. Yet in each case there has been a shift in general attitudes over the decade following their production; and it is clear that Dream on Monkey Mountain and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing contributed to such developments -- both as important public statements seen by large audiences in their respective countries, and subliminally through offering a more inclusive definition of cultural identity through combining their native heritage with European theatrical forms.
. Although there were occasional, isolated playwrights who appeared in the 1930s (Herman Voaden) or 1950s (Robertson Davies), it was only after the 1967 centennial that a significant number of Canadian dramatists emerged (George Ryga and James Reaney in 1967; Michel Tremblay in 1968; George Walker, David Freeman and David French in 1971-2).
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