Travis Weekes


There are many dramatists from the Caribbean work whose work is strongly influenced by the Creole language and culture. These writers range from those who write in French and Kweyòl to those who write in English and Kweyòl and to those who write only in Kweyòl.

The French colonized a number of islands in the Caribbean. Haiti achieved its independence in 1804 after the famous Haitian Revolution. Islands such as Martinique and Guadeloupe, former colonies, are now Overseas Departments of France. St. Lucia and Dominica were won over by the British but not before they had been colonized by the French for several centuries. The Caribbean had been the site for European plantation slavery a system whereby the Europeans forcibly imported millions of African slaves between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations.

Thus a search for Creole Theatre would take one on a tour to a chain of islands in the Caribbean. Ruprecht (2003) offers an interesting analysis of the contemporary Creole theatre of the Caribbean and of the work of some of the playwrights associated with Creole theatre such as Frankétienne and Cavé in Haiti, José Exélis and Arthur Lérus in Guadeloupe, as well as Boukman and Placoly of Martinique.

In this essay I wish to examine two of the elder playwrights from the Créolophone, that is the French Creole Caribbean: Derek Walcott from St. Lucia and George Mauvois from Martinique. I choose to focus on these writers because they provide much genealogical insight into the emergence of intertextuality in Caribbean drama and consequently to the emergence of a Creole discourse in Caribbean postcolonial theatre.

Derek Walcott

The dialectics of Creolization are strongly reflected in the theories and literary work of St. Lucian Nobel prize for Literature Derek Walcott. The strength of his theatre really comes from an engagement with the language and culture of French Creole. Walcott’s internal conflict between the classics and the Creole, white and black, English and French Creole is well known and has been externalized in his work. Stone suggests a dual orientation of Walcott when in one sentence she writes that his “work remains rooted in the ancient classical drama of Europe” (Stone 1994: 92) but in the very next sentence claims that “Walcott’s theatre is a unique creation, woven out of the stuff of the West Indies.” (Stone 1994: 92). Walcott, writing of himself as a writer has explained that “I am a kind of split writer. I have one tradition inside me going one way, and another tradition going another. The mimetic, the narrative, and the dance element is strong on one side and the literary and the classical is strong on the other.” (inHammer 1993 : 48).

Walcott, because his most popular drama draws from the culture of St. Lucian French Creole which is energized by African derived folk forms, has locked into the “Creolizing Machine,” strengthened it and brought immense visibility to its literary/artistic potential. This aspect of Walcott’s work has been underappreciated primarily because of Walcott’s reluctance to articulate black consciousness as a political project and also because his expressed interest in the European classics has drawn more attention from critics to the classical references in his work. However Walcott has articulated an appreciation of how African traditions have become embedded in the language and culture of Creole and the inspiring machinery of this muse:

There is a combination of the African melodies behind the Caribbean. The melodies are so upbeat, and they are here in the Gospel music as well. It’s an uplifting thing to find the melody of celebration persisting through the tragedy of slavery, so that the music is stronger than the experience. Black people don’t clap and sing because they are subliminating; they do it because they are Africans. That’s their music. (in Baer 1996: 171).

Walcott has created characters that give powerful expression to the predicament of blacks in the Caribbean. This he has achieved through his focus on characters in their rural, rustic Creole settings. The affinity that such a theatre artist as Walcott feels towards Crếole stems from an understanding of the link between its rich orality and dramatic gesture but also because of an understanding of its roots. According to Walcott:

If one begins to develop a theatre in which the drum provides the basic sound, other things will develop around it, such as the use of choral responses and dance. If we add this to the fact that the storyteller dominates all of these, then one is getting nearer to the origins of possibly oral theatre, but certainly African theatre. (Baer 1996: 35)

Walcott’s plays, most notably, those in the entire collection of Dream of Monkey Mountain and Other Plays, and The Haitian Trilogy, draw extensively upon French Creole, incorporating not just Creole songs but interweaving Creole phrases into the speech of his characters. In “A Letter to Chamoiseau” in which the playwright comments on the Martiniquan’s novel Texaco, Walcott points out the similarity in the style of both writers that it is “adjectival rather than nominal, a style that lies in the gestures of the storyteller, and it is in the meter of Creole.” (Walcott 1998: 214). Here Walcott also moves beyond the technicalities of the language commenting again on the cultural forms and traditions out of which the language developed; such as the form of storytelling set in the rustic environment of the folk:

It is what we both grew up with. The countryside at night with kerosene lamps and crickets. (Walcott 1998: 214)

The orality of the language and the performance that its history requires, recalls more than just the vessels of forms that hold the language. It also rekindles memories of characters and characteristics, narratives and mythologies, songs and mores, all of which are important to a definition of character and the formulation of an identity.

As can be gleaned from Walcott’s comments in his letter to Charmoiseau, St.Lucia shares a similar history and culture with the other former French colonies of the Caribbean. Reflecting upon his inspiration for writing Henri Christophe in his essay “What the Twilight Says,” Walcott writes that at nineteen he “was drawn, like a child’s mind to fire, to the Manichean conflicts of Haiti’s history.” (Walcott 1998: 10). He was drawn to the conflicts in Haiti’s history because of the “parallels” he saw in St. Lucian history at the time: “[A] black French island somnolent in its Catholicism and black magic, blind faith and blinder over breeding, a society which regulated itself medievally into land baron, serf, and cleric, with a vapid, high brown bourgeoisie.” (Walcott 1998:12). The juxtaposition of Catholicism and black magic hints not so much at the religious tension but rather more at the deep Creolization of French and African religious forms on Caribbean ground, within the context of societies whose aristocracy struggled to maintain social stratification based on class and colour differences.

Thus, however rooted Walcott may be in the ancient classical drama of Europe, as Stone puts it, it is hardly surprising that even a cursory examination of perhaps his most popular anthology of plays, Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays, would reveal that his language is very much influenced by French Creole. Not only do his characters speak a St. Lucian English that is heavily influenced by the French Creole but they quite often break into the language itself. Walcott was actually among the earliest St. Lucian writers to publish in French Creole. As a young writer he was part of a movement to sensitize his society about the richness of St. Lucia’s Creole language and culture. King (2000) reports that “During February 1958 the Voice of St. Lucia published two ‘Ballades Creole pour Harry Simmons par Derek Walcott’.” (King 2000: 143).

Simmons was then editor of the Voice Newspaper. French Creole being simply a spoken language then, had no orthography. Daniel Crowley an American anthropologist, then a friend of Simmons, “produced an easy-to-use orthography in which to write Creole based on English modifying Haitian (rather than Martinquan) spelling.” (King 2000: 142). Despite the movement at that time to bring favourable attention to St.Lucia’s oral culture, and the early attempts in the Creole speaking territories to develop a writing system for the language, Creole was written using French spelling. Throughout his career Walcott continued to explore the language of French Creole and generally he has adhered to a style of writing Creole using the French etymology.

King reports that Walcott’s vision when he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop was to create a West Indian acting style by using the West Indian body rhythms, movements and gestures. He quotes from a review of Malcochon by Dennis Scott, after a performance, in 1968, in Jamaica by the National Theatre Trust. Scott had referred to the poetry in the French-Creole language of Walcott’s characters and the indelible impact of this poetry on the minds of the audience.

Walcott, who began writing at a time when there was no orthography for writing Kwếyol, lamented in “The Muse of History” his predicament as a West Indian writer, who found difficulty in writing his Creole because “there are no symbols for such a language and because the closer he brings hand and word to the precise inflections of the inner language, the more chaotic his symbols will appear on the page” (Walcott 1998: 49). The solution…(and his declared preference): the function “of being filter and purifier, never losing the tone and strength of the common speech as he uses the hieroglyphs, symbols, or alphabet of the official one.” (Walcott 1998: 49). Terrida writes that “Walcott deals with French Lexicon Creole by taking that kind of speech and translating it―or retranslating it―into an English-inflected Creole.

Malcochon is a one act play with one single scene. Here Walcott appears to be adhering to the ‘Aristotelian’ structure of the three unties: unity of place, of time and of action. The action of the play is set in one location, during the passage of a single day, and all the action in the play contributes to one single plot. Walcott’s sound colonial education at St. Mary’s College, and subsequently at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica, would have exposed him to the classical theatre of Europe by Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Seneca, Shakespeare and the like. In Malcochon Walcott is also adhering to other classical theatrical conventions such reporting/describing scenes of violence rather than showing them on stage. The Conteur and Musicians in Malcochon also recall the device of the Greek Chorus as the moral voice of the community.

However, Walcott’s Malcochon is an excellent example of an adaptation of the St. Lucian storytelling form, ‘Kont’ for the stage. It is also an effective use of the form as a counter narrative to establish a counter canonical discourse to that inherited through colonial hegemony.

The ‘Kont’ is a participatory art form comprising drummers, singers, dancers, singers and an audience who are themselves participants. Indeed there is hardly any distinction between audience and performers. Traditionally, Kont runs as follows: the storyteller throws out a melody till he gets a response from the group. When the chorus does respond, he intensifies the melody till he receives support from the drummers. As the rhythm increases s/he begins to dance, other dancers begin to interact until the storyteller takes control again and begins the story. Throughout the story the audience remains as full participants taking their cue from the storyteller as they continue to respond intermittently to his call in song and chants. When he has finished his listwa (l’histoire) the space becomes completely overrun by the drumming, singing and dancing.

George Mauvois

George Mauvois is one of the Martiniquan writers who uses both the Kweyol language and the French in his plays. I would like to examine how he does this in one of his best known texts: Man Chomil.

In his foreword to this play, Georges Mauvois writes that “Le texte de Man Chomil est creole et français à la fois” (Mauvois 1992: 14) meaning that the text of Man Chomil is simultaneously French and Creole or that it is both French and Creole or that it is as Creole as it is French.

In choosing to write in Creole, Mauvois explains that, when he wrote his first play, Agenor Cacoul, he wanted authenticity and therefore could not give a French speech to characters who in real life spoke Creole. Mauvois also explains that he recognized too that his potential audience was the Creolophone. Mauvois continues to explain that in deciding to write in Creole his reasons were more practical that ideological. Having stated that, he quickly admits that he recognizes the importance of writing Creole for the posterity of the language. He also fully recognizes the importance of the language as support for the identity of the people of the Creolophone. Mauvois is also convinced that that language carries resources and nuances that are difficult to translate into another language.

In making an argument for the use of the Creole orthography as against those who use the one based on French etymology, Mauvois suggests that if you take twenty writers who write Creole using “l’orthographe etymologique,” you would not even find two out of these whose writing of Creole would be identical. In fact Mauvois goes on further to state that if you take two texts by even the same author who writes Creole using the French etymology, you would find differences in their orthography particularly if there had been some distance between both pieces of writing.

Upon reading the play Man Chomil one appreciates fully the validity of Mauvois’s statement. Man Chomil is set in a small community post office. The plot is simple. Man Chomil―after whom the play takes its name―is one of the clerks in the post office alongside characters such as Ma Dagobert, Madame Kaska and La Receveuse. There is also Celestine, another employee at the office, and two inspectors, Pierre Macaron, the regular inspector, and Diomede Goglais, a visiting external inspector. The other characters in the play are the clients who come to the post office such as Justine, Theobald, Polius, Caco and a policeman. When the play begins, it is also time for the post office to open and Madame Kaska and Madame Dagobert are ready to open, but Madame Chomil protests because she has an error in her cash that she is trying to find. As the door opens and clients come in, Man Chomil becomes increasingly agitated as she is pressured for service. Her interactions with her clients betray though a familiarity typical of people in small rural communities who are accustomed to one another. During all this time though the woman notices a stranger who seems to be lurking outside the building walking past the Post Office and staring inside. Eventually the stranger enters the post office and Man Chomil addresses him asking whether she can be of any help to him. The stranger responds by insisting that Polius and Justine were before him and as such should be served first. They argue. Man Chomil insists that the Stranger, Goglais, declares his business but Goglais insists equally that he should be served in the order that he entered into the post office. Man Chomil becomes infuriated, shouts at the Stranger. When he asks her to lower her voice she accuses him of looking for trouble.

Alors, pour de bon monsieur, vous etre venu chercher un cancan ici-là? (Mauvois 1992: 70)

The Receveuse enters and is so intrigued by the stranger that she telephones the head office and confirms that the stranger, who Man Chomil is arguing with, is―unsuspecting to them―the new inspector. Immediately upon her discovery, the Receveuse communicates the news to Madame Dagobert asking her to relay the news to Man Chomil. Man Chomil faints at the news and is carried up to the Receveuse’s quarters. While the rest fuss over Man Chomil’s fainting and discuss possible remedies for her, Goglais maintains a businesslike approach, waiting, he says, for her to recover from her “crise” in order to interrogate her. There is a turn of events when Man Dagobert suggests to the Receveuse that Goglais be encouraged to go up to the room and speak alone with Man Chomil. After Goglais’ stint with Man Chomil in the room, they both emerge with Goglis announcing that he has forgiven Man Chomil of all her wrongdoing and suggesting even more that Man Chomil―who has too much of a heavy workload―is to be relieved of some of it which would be passed on to Man Dagobert. At this point the play ends as the Receveuse invites all the clients into the post office to be served by Man Dagobert.

The setting, characters and plot of the play Man Chomil allows Mauvois to explore the dialectical issues of French and Creole as two languages which exist side by side and which serve different and separate purposes depending on particular circumstances. The setting of a post office in a small community ensures the interaction among Creole speakers with post office workers who in the formal setting of the post office would be called upon to speak in the official language. Man Chomil and Man Dagobert, the two customer service representatives speak mostly Creole among themselves and to their familiar clients but when they have to speak to anyone from the head office in Fort de France they speak in French. The Receveuse, who appears to be one rank above them, speaks French less often than they do but does speak it anyway. All the characters in the play, with the exception of the two inspectors, practice code switching.

The attempts by dramatists of the French Creole speaking Caribbean to write in French Creole can be viewed as an attempt to inscribe our own unique legacy upon the landscape of literature and this attempt has been long in coming. To do so, they first needed to create a written form for the languages, and in many ways this is some of their most important contributions.

The recent publications of plays in French Creole by writers in the various French Creole speaking territories is unique to those territories only because the writers and academics of these territories have taken the step to develop an orthography for their language. It is my argument that these dramatists are participating in a political exercise of postulating a Caribbean identity. In the context of literature, it is an exercise that began with the attempts by post colonial writers to give true expression to the experiences and aspirations of their people. It is a process that continued with the appropriation of European languages by various writers who infuse the sounds and rhythms of the Caribbean into the dominant languages of the Europeans. It is also a process that continues more directly by writers who choose deliberately to write as fully as possible in their own languages, that is in the Creole languages of Caribbean.

Bibliographical references

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______ .1993. “Leaving School” in HAMMER.

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Copyright © 2009 Travis Weekes
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Orthography and Identity: In search of a Language for Creole Theatre