The play Pantomime
was written in 1978 by the prolific West Indian poet and playwright Derek Walcott. The short two-act play dissects the relationship between an English hotel owner and his Creole servant in Tobago, Trinidad. Walcott is from Saint Lucia in the Caribbean Islands and hails from a mixed-racial background. Although the play has an anti-colonial implication, Walcott’s writing is not overt; he instead uses clever dialogue and humor to drive the message. His penchant for crafting impactful dialogue most likely comes from his skill as a poet. He is an extremely decorated author who received a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” in 1981 and won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.
In Act I, a frustrated Englishman named Harry Trewe rehearses a play in the lobby of the hotel he recently bought. The play is intended to entertain new hotel clientele; however, the rehearsals are not going very well. Trewe’s assistant, Jackson Phillip, who has more hotel experience than Trewe, urges him to shift his focus to polishing up the hotel, which is not in good condition. Trewe jokes about committing suicide to escape doing the work, and Jackson tells him not to because he would get blamed for it.
Trewe persists in his rehearsal of the play, an adaptation of Robinson Crusoe
. Jackson does not want to be a part of the play and is angry that the hotel’s parrot has picked up racial slurs from the actors. Trewe tries to manipulate Jackson into helping him by reminding him of his past as a talented calypsonian performer. Jackson uses the opportunity to transform the play into a message about racial equality, hijacking the character of Robinson Crusoe and turning him into an imperialist. Trewe, who is playing the role of Crusoe’s servant, is taken aback.
Jackson further twists the play by breaking into a calypso song in the middle of the rehearsal. Trewe tries to record him singing, and Jackson takes offense and stops. He then forces Trewe to play the role of a seagull, which further angers Trewe. Jackson defends himself by saying he is only trying to get Trewe to rehearse, which is what he wanted to do in the first place. Trewe says that the play will not fulfill the purpose of light entertainment in this form and wants to stop the rehearsal. Jackson returns to fixing a table.
In Act II, Jackson works loudly on the table to annoy Trewe. Trewe apologizes for being difficult and blames his mood on the heat of Tobago. Jackson quickly suggests that he should return to England. After this, Trewe admits he spent all his savings on the hotel and cannot return to England. Jackson starts to feel sympathetic, and they resume their hybrid version of the play. Unlike earlier, their different styles now seem to complement each other. However, Jackson can switch between accents quickly, and his talent threatens Trewe. The constant role reversal is used to demonstrate the struggle of colonized people and colonizers to find their identity.
After an hour or so, Jackson needs to take a bathroom break, so Trewe instructs him to use his toilet rather than the servant toilet. Jackson declines the offer because he says there is too large of a power imbalance between the two of them. He then compares this situation to the irresponsible behavior of British colonialists who grant independence to nations before they are ready for it, leaving them shattered and unstable. This further demonstrates the complicated relationship between Jackson, a colonized person, and Trewe, a colonizer.
On his way back from the toilet, the parrot is still spewing racial slurs, so Jackson kills it. The parrot symbolizes the way that colonized peoples tend to mimic their masters without much resistance, therefore implying that Jackson is fed up with living under the shadow of colonialism. After the parrot’s death, Trewe becomes even angrier, so Jackson plays a slave for a while to appease him. After a run-through of the play, they toast to Trewe’s wife, but Jackson will not toast to her because she is not there. He instead urges him to talk about his suppressed feelings. Trewe confides in Jackson that he is jealous of his wife’s success as an actress and that he thinks she may have killed their son. He does not elaborate further.
After the short, therapeutic session, Trewe becomes morose and needs Jackson’s encouragement to continue with the Robinson Crusoe character. Trewe seems truly emotional for the rest of the rehearsal, and Jackson does not think he is acting. The two men somehow start to enjoy each other’s company and spend the rest of the day laughing. In the end, Jackson asks Trewe for a pay raise.
Adam Langer of the Chicago Reader
observes that “what makes [Pantomime
] so powerful is the beauty of Walcott's language and the multiplicity of relationships he explores in examining the roles of master and servant.” Walcott is revered for his exploration of the Caribbean cultural experience and the responsibility of native artists post-colonialism to create new, meaningful works. In an interview, Walcott maintained that "if we continue to sulk and say, “look at what the slave-owner did,” and so forth, we will never mature. While we sit moping or writing morose poems and novels that glorify a non-existent past, then time passes us by."