derek Walcott can’t find the phone. Seriously. It’s one of those cordless models–the kind that enables you to talk, walk, chew gum, do the dishes–and the poet has misplaced it. Now this would be faintly hilarious if it weren’t so frustrating: the thing has been ringing off and on since dawn.
In fact, the phone has been ringing relentlessly since Oct. 8, the day Walcott awoke to find himself transformed in his bed into a Nobel Laureate. First, the Swedish Academy called with the news. Then a pack of hungry journalists, this one included, descended on the doorstep of his Brookline, Mass. condominium that day, followed him to the local donut shop (“The local geriatrics were going, ‘What’s a Nobel? Is that a bagel?'”) and trailed his tracks to a press conference at Boston University, where Walcott teaches poetry and playwriting. The excessive attention made him feel like a “third-rate congressman,” and the invasion of privacy has continued full-force ever since.
This business with the missing phone, in fact, is a metaphor for the change he’s undergone since winning the Nobel Prize in literature and its accompanying $1.3-million cash award. “When you get the Prize, no one tells you what will happen with the phone,” Walcott says, and as if on cue, the darn thing rings somewhere in the far reaches of the condominium. He puts out one of the cigarettes he smokes passionately and persistently, disappears without a word and returns a few minutes later, empty-handed. “I get requests for all sorts of things. You let the phone ring. The mail is mountainous. One Indian guy keeps writing asking for money–and not 10 bucks either: $100,000 would be good.”
Communications problems aside, The Prize (as Walcott has come to call it) has inspired the West Indian writer to put together the various sides of his life in one neat equilateral triangle. Walcott is widely known for his poetic oeuvre that blends Caribbean, English and African traditions, including most recently his 1990 Omeros, a sweeping epic that intertwines Homeric legend, Western classics, West Indian culture and history. But he is also a prolific playwright who founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959 and the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in 1981. He’s currently embarking on a project that will bring the Trinidad company to his Boston theatre in a benefit performance for his latest brainchild, the Rat Island Foundation. The foundation will establish an international writers’ retreat on an island off the coast of Walcott’s native St. Lucia, a kind of Breadloaf in paradise, a place where artists from different cultures can exchange ideas and create.
The two theatres and the arts center form a unified triad for Walcott, who dismisses the widespread notion that the theatrical work has always been secondary to his poetic pursuits. “I don’t see the poetry as separate from the theatre,” he says, pointing out that in the past year alone he’s had productions at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon and Birmingham Repertory Theater, also in England. Along with nine volumes of poetry, he’s published four books of plays and won the Obie award in 1971 for Dream on Monkey Mountain. He’s not, he will tell you again and again, a poet who happens to write plays on the side. “It’s easy for people to look at the poetry,” he says. “It takes more work to look at the theatre, because it has to do with a knowledge of the society. People have a cliched idea of West Indian society, and if they took the society seriously, they’d have to take the theatre seriously.”
Walcott, 63, came to New York on a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1957 and studied with Jose Quintero and the Phoenix Theatre Company. He wrote his first play, Henri Cristophe: A Chronicle, while he was an undergraduate at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, and by the time he arrived in New York, he had already written and produced a handful of plays in St. Lucia and Trinidad. Yet by many accounts, he “discovered” theatre in New York and brought it back to his homeland. “No. No, no, no. That’s like saying I came out of the jungle with a typewriter and suddenly started writing.” Both of his parents were educators, and he grew up listening to his mother recite Shakespeare. “There is a very sophisticated culture in the Caribbean that people don’t know. To say that I began theatre in Trinidad is not true. The only thing I innovated was to form a company and to pay the actors.”
At one of our interviews, Walcott is joined by Albert LeVeau, the current artistic director of the Trinidad workshop, who is in Boston to plan a retrospective of the Nobel Laureate’s plays. “He gave me 10 bucks for my first production,” Le Veau confirms. Walcott, not easily upstaged, adds, “And he went out and spent it in the bar.”
But this wasn’t about a 10-spot here or a 10-spot there. In the heady early days, the Workshop set out to define a distinct Caribbean style, a theatre that spoke to the people in their own language–a marvelously lyrical blend of English and patois–about their issues and their lives. It comes from a culture in which performance is a part of daily life, in which people are not afraid to dive into exuberant tragedy with great sweeping gestures. It’s impulsive. It’s musical. It’s carnival framed by the proscenium arch.
“It comes out of a background that is very spontaneous,” Le Veau says. “We have the street carnival, and the whole population becomes actors. We have the calypso, with a particular rhythm that incites movement and dancing. It’s freer, more extroverted. You can stand and look at a group of people on the street talking. There is more body language, more hands, more expression.”
Rhythm, Walcott adds, is inherent in the culture. “It’s not a black thing like ‘niggers can dance’ and ‘niggers can play basketball,'” Walcott says. “There is something in the West Indian temperament–white, black, green, Chinese, whatever–that has a terrific spontaneity.”
The plays, like the poetry, explore the unique blend of colonialist and African traditions in Caribbean culture. Regional identity comes up against the personal isolation of the artist; the wanderer gazes at his native land from afar. Dream on Monkey Mountain, which was first seen at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. in 1969, tells the story of an old man who wanders down from his hilltop hut to sell his wares in town. He ends up in jail and dreams of being an African king. Pantomime, which debuted at New York’s Hudson Guild Theatre in 1986, depicts a curious reversal of the Robinson Crusoe story played out by a down-and-out British performer and his black servant, “a serious steel-band man.”
“In Derek’s plays, the language of the people is poetry,” Lloyd Richards told me on the day of The Prize. Along with introducing Dream at the O’Neill, Richards presented Beef, No Chicken when he was artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre. “This is a people who are conscious of language, not only of its meaning but its beauty. His characters are also poetic, in their imagery, their imagination, their rhythm, their expression.”
These poetic dramas have been performed all over the world and at regional theatres nationwide, including the Mark Taper Forum, Hartford Stage Company and Arena Stage. But they haven’t received numerous productions in the Boston area, even though the poet divides his time between homes in Brookline and Trinidad. “That’s your problem,” he says. “The category of ‘black theatre’ is not an easy thing to do here, but I think ‘black theatre’ is a despicable phrase. It’s a trap; we have to get past self-ghettoizing.”
Steel, a collaboration between Walcott and Hair composer Galt MacDermot, was, in fact, produced in Cambridge at the American Repertory Theatre’s New Stages series in 1991. The ambitious piece aimed to explore the social and political ramifications of the development of the steel drum, but it was, by Walcott’s own estimation, “chaotic.” He’s currently trying to find time between phone calls to rework the book. Walcott directed the piece himself, and both he and collaborators would agree he’s not the easiest man to work with. “He’s a great taskmaster. He kicks ass. He’s tough on everybody–but consistently tough,” Le Veau says. “But one is prepared to pay any price to work with him, you know. He pushes people to the limits of their possibility. He’s demanding in his pursuit of excellence.”
Demanding, he is. “Do you have a good photograph for the magazine?” he wants to know, turning the tables by interrogating the interviewer. When will an article appear in the Boston Globe? Will representatives from local theatres kindly give him the list of their most generous patrons for his benefit–phone numbers and addresses, please? Will an assistant, who can quit if he so desires, please go get three cups of coffee, sugar, sweet-and-low and strychnine, just name your poison?
Walcott lays down the rules at the outset. “If anyone uses the word multiculturalism I’m walking out of this room,” he says during an interview. “We’ve had it in the Caribbean for a long time, and this country’s just discovered it.”
In a time of hypersensitivity about cultural diversity, an historical moment when folks tread gingerly around the issue of race, Walcott is bold, blunt and refreshingly irreverent. The notion of “black” theatre, he says, is a “domestic, colonialist trap.” Black history month–“Okay. We have 12 months, you can have one and you can have it in February, the shortest coldest month. We’ll take the summer”–is a form of ghettoization. Diversity initiatives, he offers, are cynical do-good efforts and an excuse to write grants. “You tell people, ‘Hey listen. Give us some money. We’re going to do a minority show. Look at our program. We’re doing Charlie’s Aunt and one vehement play with several ‘fuck-yous’ in it.’ That makes everybody feel good.”
The notion of “multicultural” casting just doesn’t figure in the Caribbean, which has been a polyglot of cultures for centuries. “We don’t think that way in the Caribbean,” he says. “An actor could be Indian, Chinese, anything and we don’t say, ‘Oh, we’re having a big undertaking.'” The Swedish Academy noted Walcott’s cultural background in its citation. “Three loyalties are central for him–the Caribbean where he lives, the English language and his African origin.” The citation also quoted the poem A Far Cry from Africa: “How choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I Love?”
Yet Walcott prefers to define his identity in nationalist rather than racial or ethnic terms. Please, don’t suggest that it’s significant that a black writer won The Prize. “If you told me I was the first West Indian to win it, I’d say, ‘Yeah. Sure. Right.’ But if you point out to me that as a West Indian, I’m black, then I get tired with that crap. It’s of no consequence. It defines you in a limited way.”
What is of consequence is The Prize, which is enabling the poet to bring the three passions of his life together with the two theatres and the Rat Island project. (Walcott wants you to know that the prize money was diminished by the devaluation of the Swedish krona and the fact that the United States imposes income taxes on the Nobel award. “Why should they tax the Nobel Prize?” he says more than once.)
The ongoing projects will allow him to connect the two theatres and provide a retreat where meaningful exchange can take place. “I don’t abandon things. I try to connect them,” he says. He’s signed on scores of friends in the literary world. Seamus and Joseph and Wole (as in Heaney and Brodsky and Soyinka) have agreed to be part of the project. “I’m not doing this for myself,” says the poet, casual in khakis even as he jets around the globe. “I don’t need to do a damn thing, but I’m committed to this thing. I started this thing. And I’m going to do it for the rest of my days.”
For now, the revision of Steel confronts the writer. And there is a libretto for an opera commissioned by the Boston Atheneum, and yes, a new play. The subject? “I ain’t tellin’ ya. It’s unlucky.” Whatever the theme, the writing takes place in the early morning hours, a habit he developed as a young man in his native St. Lucia. The island, he tells you, is magical at dawn: what a time to search for words, to become transported by verse as the sun rises over a splendid sea.
The work, perhaps, defines him. In the poem “Fame” he writes, “This is Fame: Sundays,/ and emptiness.” It goes on, with bittersweet images of lame gladioli and the final statement of purpose: “A crawling clock. / A craving for work.”
The price that comes with fame, though, has been keeping him from the work more than he desires. There’s the phone, the endless calls, requests for a piece of the man. He gets up again and searches for the phone; he still can’t find it. Joseph Brodsky, who won the Nobel in 1987, and Nadine Gordimer, who won in 1991, tried to warn him. When he finds the phone, he’s going to take it off the hook, so he can resume his work, continue connecting the dots of his prolific career. “You know,” he says, looking forward to the day the spotlight will be pointed elsewhere, “the poor guy who wins next year is going to have to answer the phone.” This is hilarious. Perhaps there’s poetic justice, after all.
A WALCOTT CHRONOLOGY
Henri Christophe: A Chronicle (1950)
Wine of the Country (1953)
Sea at Dauphin (1953)
Drums and Colours (1958)
Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1958)
Malcochon or Six in the Rain (1959)
Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967)
In a Fine Castle (1970)
The Charlatan (1974)
The Joker of Seville (1974)
O, Babylon (1976)
Beef, No Chicken (1981)
The Last Carnival (1982)
The Isle Is Full of Noises (1982)
A Branch of the Blue Nile (1983)
To Die for Grenada (1986)
Viva Detroit (1990)
The Odyssey (1992)