A Literary Journey into Consciousness

April 3rd, 2017

Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain

Posted by Krystal Dillon in Uncategorized

I presented on Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain. Derek Walcott was a St. Lucian poet, playwright, and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although, I did a genre based presentation, there were elements of  theory infused partly because he was a West Indian poet and often articulated the post-colonial history of both his native island and others in the Caribbean.

This play is characterized both by Joseph’s and others as a dream play, in fact William Haney states:

“As a poem in dramatic form or a drama in poetry, Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain belongs to the 20th century genre of dream plays associated with playwrights such as August Strindberg (A Dream Play, The Ghost Sonata), John Synge (Riders to the Sea), and Wole Soyinka (The Road, A Dance of the Forests)”.

This genre in it of itself is a product of colonialism given that each of the aforementioned authors specifically Wole Soyinka and John Synge write their pieces with critiques on both the colonization of Nigeria and the British occupation of Ireland respectively. Also its dream like structure is in a way what grounds it in the Carribean aesthetic as Joseph’s states on page 1 of her piece:

“This first production occurred in Canada, but Walcott used folklore to ground the play in the Caribbean without limiting it to stereotype; he avoided fruitless nostalgia by layer- ing the “various elements” of folklore within the experimental dreamwork of the play. If, as Edouard Glissant writes, “experimentation is for us [in the Caribbean] the only alternative: the organization of a process of representation that allows the community to re ect, to criticize, and to take shape,”2 then, in Dream on Monkey Mountain Walcott’s mosaic of folklore con- nected by fantasy creates space for the newness that will allow for the psychological and material “shaping” of a Caribbean community. Walcott organizes the folkloric elements within the hallucinations of the play’s protagonist, Makak, allowing dreams and madness to create the glue that produces a cohesive Caribbeanness within the play”.

Overall, the use of the dream framework which is experimental in form and mixing it with Carribean folklore, he makes it clear that this is meant to be grounded in the Carribean aesthetic for instance Basil is a figure from Hatian mythology. Walcott uses a mixture of all West Indian folklore though which shows the communal and collective Carribean experience. By using this as its narrative framework he places himself in a particular post-colonial context. What these narrative choices do is make clear its audience.

The dream play which is also called a dream narrative is characterized as “surrealist in nature, non linear, lends itself to ambiguity and has an aversion to binaries” throughout Josephs’ piece. I think that the inability for Joseph’s to choose one concrete term to echoes the ambiguous nature of the genre. All of these elements are evident in the text in that it has multiple surrealist elements (the white goddess who visits Makak, the fact that he gains ostensibly, healing powers, the fact that he is transported to Africa and becomes King at one point, also the fact that Moustique comes back to life.) Also, the play follows a non linear pattern in that we begin with Makak in the jail cell, progress to his time on Monkey Mountain preceding his arrest, then we end up in Africa and lastly we end up back in the jail cell, which is almost cyclical in nature. Also, the biggest aspect of the play is that it is constantly veering towards the side of ambiguity. Everything in the play is ambiguous which is to some extent intentional. In fact the very setting of the play states “a West Indian island” highlighting both specificity and its being universal.  The biggest being the fact that it vacillates often between what seems like dream vs. reality. The ‘Notes on Production’ causes the reader to question: What parts of the play are a dream and which others are the real moments?

Breslin also highlights the beginning of scene 3 of part 1 as evidence of the nonlinearity of the play because it returns briefly to the jail cell setting; but he does not acknowledge that in incorporating the staging of the prologue and epilogue within this “dream,” Walcott signals that nothing should be taken for reality. To accept the whole play as a dream, without the prologue and epilogue as waking framing devices, sets the audience on shaky ground. With only the six scenes as the dream spaces, the prologue and epilogue provide a form of rooted- ness, a place to anchor the chain, tangled though it may be, of events that occur in the play. The audience could, following this line of reasoning, accept the opening and closing of the play as linear and “real” in the fiction of the theater. But Walcott refuses to provide that type of security. If we accept the middle of the story as a dream, then we must accept the entirety as a dream. And we cannot ascribe this dream only to Makak; the playwright has mandated that it be a dream in the minds of all his “principal characters.” (4)

Therefore, what this play does is complicate our understanding of the demarcation of dream vs reality, in that it allows for one to see that these things are often in tandum and essentially deconstructs this binary. We are forced to ask the question then what does the genre of the play or dream play do that can achieve this deconstructionist work. As Jospeh’s says

The advantage of the theater is that performance can straddle opposing worlds. In perfor- mance, Dream on Monkey Mountain bridges the spaces between fantasy and reality, madness and sanity. With this negotiation of dreams and madness, the play can, and should, be differ- ent with each performance. Even the printed play slips easily out of grasp, particularly with instructions from the playwright that suggest continuous change. The different responses to Dream on Monkey Mountain signal this ambiguity” (7).

There is an added relationship between these terms as Walcott aligns them analogically: mad is to sane as dream is to real. While the characters apply the usual values to these terms—it is better to be sane than mad, real than illusory—the play on the whole does not create a similar hierarchy. Corporal Lestrade’s sanity in part 1 is no less mad than his strange rebirth in part 2. Walcott questions each of these terms throughout the play, each becoming relative for the characters and the audience based on their relationship to power. As Walcott notes, “Every question, eventually, even with literature, is a question of power. . . . It’s simply a matter of who’s in charge really.”19 De nitions of madness and dream, sanity and reality are entangled in struggles for power. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon states, “Because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious deter- mination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: ‘In reality, who am I?’”20 But Dream on Monkey Mountain forces its audience to consider whose reality. The reality of the colonized differs greatly from that of the colonizer, and that is, in large part, the cause of the mental disorder and dissociation often attributed to many natives. (8-9)


Given the fact that the play, is always subjected to this narrative choices of the director and is constantly changing its meaning will always be ambiguous, in that stylistic choices can skew the audience’s reception of the play. As Joseph’s states: Is Walcott, here, suggesting that the playwright functions as the “mind giver,” the controller of his characters’ consciousness? Basil’s statement that Lestrade’s mind was never his own reflects on the power of the playwright and on the power of colonialism. It implicates both the immediate creator/giver of minds in the play and the systematic control of minds under colonialism. (8)


Audience is another reason why the drem play leans into ambiguity, because as Walcott notes the play will change and adapt to the given audience.Walcott even advocates for producers to change the folk songs and dances to match the audiences location and contemporary moment to ground them in the text. Why then is Walcott promoting the adaptability to audience, and why choose the play? Because, as he states:

“But Walcott relies on the theater, not poetry, to convey the hallucinatory and communal qualities of decolonization. Poetry is often an indi- vidual experience, but theater is necessarily shared, not only with the characters onstage but also with fellow audience members. Onstage, Dream on Monkey Mountain can represent the drama of madness for, and recreate it within, the audience. Performance, therefore, can create community in the theater and shape responses in a different manner than poetry can. Glissant nds that community theater in particular “diverts energy from the individual manifestation of delirium or from the collective tendency to the theatrical, so as to orient it towards the shaping of a popular consciousness.”

His desire to inspire communal consciousness in his audience shows that the narrative and genre based choices serve as the vehicle to make his anticolonialist critiques.

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