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Review Article

"The Odyssey": Derek Walcotû


Dramatization of Homers "Odyssey"
ROBERT HAMNER

WEN DERER WALCOTT chose to rewrite the epic genre i n


Omeros ( 1 9 9 0 ) , his primary innovation was to create his own
version o f what a m o d e r n H o m e r might have written i n the
twentieth century rather than adhere once again to the time-
h o n o r e d narrative line that mutates f r o m H o m e r through V i r g i l ,
Dante, M i l t o n , Joyce, a n d Kazantzakis. A s a matter o f fact, Wal-
cott insists repeatedly that before writing Omeros he h a d read
only excerpts o f H o m e r a n d Virgil's works (Bruckner 13,
Lefkowitz 1, White 3 5 ) . J u d g i n g by the extensive parallels be-
tween H o m e r ' s original a n d Walcott's The Odyssey, that reading
gap has been meticulously closed.
O n first approaching Walcott's latest play, I h a d two primary
concerns: I wondered how my familiarity with H o m e r ' s epic
would weigh against Walcott's use o f the material, a n d I h a d my
usual apprehensions about treating a stage play i n terms o f its
written text. Regardless o f all the interaction that reader-
response theorists have shown to take place between the reader
and the written word, vital aspects o f dramatic performance are
supplied by actors, musicians, directors, costumes, technicians,
and the c o m m u n a l presence o f a live audience.
A l t h o u g h n o two people may see exactly the same play, I can
draw u p o n at least one reviewer's assessment o f the Royal Shake-
speare Company's p r o d u c t i o n of The Odyssey at T h e O t h e r Place
i n Stratford. Robert K i n g writes that Walcott "introduces both
artful elements a n d artsy touches" i n the three-hour dramatiza-
tion o f Odysseus's adventures. H e notes the contemporary refer-
ences such as the b l i n d bard wearing shades, the L o n d o n
U n d e r g r o u n d representing Hades and, characters who play mul-

ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, 24:4, October 1993


102 ROBERT HAMNER

tiple roles, utilizing West Indian accents as well as m o d e r n i d -


ioms. K i n g suggests some unevenness of effect but f o u n d the
" h o m e c o m i n g " emphasis particularly credible. By questioning
the bloody parallels between the fate of Troy and that of her
suitors i n Ithaca, Penelope interrogates Odysseus's masculine
code, his personal psychic b u r d e n .
While some of the details of p r o d u c t i o n may be missing f r o m
the published version of the play, basic thematic elements carry
over, a n d the reader has several privileges denied the theatre
audience. T h e reader can exercise control over the narrative
speed, analyze the prosody, cross-reference motifs, images, liter-
ary devices, linguistic patterns, a n d focus o n interesting subde-
des that might well detract f r o m the immediacy of stage action.
In the case of Walcott's The Odyssey, the textuality of the play, its
literary texture, is so dense that it demands critical analysis. N o t
only are major facets of H o m e r ' s plot a n d characters retained,
but Walcott creatively exploits even m i n o r details to reflect both
o n m o d e r n life and the contemporaneity of the Greek original.
T h e Prologue with which Walcott opens The Odyssey introduces
a b l i n d narrator-singer, Billy Blue, to replace the absent, objec-
tive H o m e r i c storyteller. Since the characters act out the story,
Billy's main function is to l i n k many of the scenes (fourteen i n
Act I, six i n A c t II), a n d finally to assume the part of H o m e r ' s
Demodocus at the e n d of the play. As is usual with Walcott, B l i n d
Billy is not the only l i n k i n g device. Whereas he threads the
narrative of Omeros with an omnipresent sea-swift, he emulates
H o m e r i n The Odyssey by frequent references to a swallow. In
keeping with H o m e r , this swallow also often doubles as the
watchful A t h e n a . Walcott ties his story together with other
H o m e r i c touches as well; Achilles's shield, for w h i c h Odysseus
and Ajax contended o n the ashes of Troy, figures i n key stages of
the journey home; Odysseus's olive-tree bedstead i n Ithaca serves
both H o m e r a n d Walcott as symbol of home a n d of Penelope's
unwavering faith. Above all, H o m e r ' s wily Odysseus is a natural
extension of the trickster figure f r o m Walcott's favoured African
a n d Caribbean lore.
While councils of the O l y m p i a n gods are noticeably absent
f r o m Walcott's play, his sequencing of events o n earth is fairly
DEREK WALCOTT'S "THE ODYSSEY" 103

faithful to the H o m e r i c outline. Scenes two through four are an


abbreviated odyssey for Telemachus. As i n the Greek original,
A t h e n a assumes the shape of Mentes a n d warns Telemachus to
escape the treacherous suitors at the court of Ithaca a n d to seek
information about his lost father f r o m Nestor a n d Menelaus.
W h e n Telemachus feels that his visit with Nestor i n Pylos has
brought h i m no closer to Odysseus, Mentes/Athena assures h i m
that he has acquired knowledge vital to the young: the necessity
of patience a n d the fact that o l d m e n suffer ( 2 8 ) . A t the e n d of
scene four, Walcott uses mime to effect a smooth transition f r o m
Telemachus to Odysseus. As Telemachus a n d Menelaus begin to
discuss the depiction of Proteus o n a figured vase, Odysseus and
Proteus emerge o n the fog-shrouded stage. After they engage i n
a silent wrestling match and Proteus indicates the direction
Odysseus must take, the audience is prepared to focus o n his
journey i n the fifth scene.
Scene five is short but important because i n it a raging storm
wipes out Odysseus's crew, i n c l u d i n g his trusted helmsman,
E l p e n o r — m o r e reminiscent of Aeneas's loss of Palinurus (The
Aeneid, B o o k Five) than the death of H o m e r ' s E l p e n o r — a n d
casts Odysseus naked a n d unconscious o n the beach of Scheria.
His discovery there by princess Nausicaa (scene six) leads to the
famous episode i n Alcinous's palace where Odysseus is induced
to relate his adventures since the fall of Troy. In having Billy Blue
take the role of the b l i n d poet Phemius to o p e n scene seven at
Alcinous's banquet, Walcott radically displaces H o m e r ' s two
court poets: Demodocus a n d Phemius. Walcott c o u l d have mis-
takenly placed Phemius i n Scheria a n d then Demodocus i n
Ithaca; however, two figures who are so p r o m i n e n t that many
scholars see them as projections of H o m e r himself are not likely
to be transposed accidentally.
Whatever Walcott's reasoning, such displacement generates at
least two highly relevant themes. First, B l i n d Billy Blue's playing
himself as well as two other poets suggests a commonality of
poetic function regardless of place a n d time. If poets themselves
are not actually interchangeable, at least their function i n society
is fairly constant. In this regard, Walcott has courtiers suggest to
Phemius that he can generate poetry out of Odysseus's tale that
104 ROBERT HAMNER

will "ride dme to u n k n o w n archipelagoes" ( 5 9 ) . T h e identity


of certain distant archipelagoes becomes evident several pages
later when masked revellers sing of bacchanalian carnival i n a
distinctively Caribbean vernacular ( 7 5 ) . O n another occasion,
Odysseus questions Demodocus/Billy Blue's dialect:
ODYSSEUS: That's a strange dialect. What island are you from?
DEMODOCUS: A far archipelago. Blue Seas. Just like yours.
ODYSSEUS: So you pick up various stories and you stitch them?
DEMODOCUS:
shores. (122)
The sea speaks the same language around the world's

A second basic theme grows out of the Demodocus/Phemius


displacement i n the final scene of the play. W h e n Demodocus is
threatened i n Walcott's final scene (as Phemius is spared i n
H o m e r ' s epic) Odysseus's faithful swineherd Eumaeus pleads
the value of poets: "He's a homeless, wandering voice, Odysseus.
/ K i l l h i m a n d you stain the fountain of poetry" (151-52). De-
modocus's voice is worth preserving, a n d these separate themes
ultimately merge with dramatic irony. We recognize that Walcott
himself is a West Indian tributary of that ancient fountain i n The
Odyssey.
After Odysseus enters the story-telling mode before Alcinous,
Walcott quickly slips back into dramadc presentation for the
remainder of the play. Scene eight finds Odysseus within the
clutches of the brutal Cyclops. Walcott plays with the I/eye
combination familiar within the coded language of Rastafarian
culture to portray the social dialectic of an oppressive govern-
ment. W h i l e the Cyclops sees only one way, Odysseus explains
that humans have two eyes because of their dual nature, for
contrast and for balance; one to laugh, one to cry: "Left, right.
G o o d , bad. Heaven, h e l l " (68).
Pretending conviviality, Odysseus entertains the Cyclops while
concealing his identity under the pseudonym of "Nobody."
H o m e r ' s original use of this ploy reflects Odysseus's perspica-
cious guile; i n Walcott, it produces further reverberadons. If the
social a n d political implications are not sufficiendy evident, we
need only recall Walcott's insistence regarding Omeros that he
d i d not wish to ennoble the peasantry i n his epic. H i s characters
DEREK WALCOTT'S "THE ODYSSEY" 105

are, it should be remembered, inhabitants of the region V. S.


N a i p a u l dismisses i n The Middle Passage: "History is built a r o u n d
achievement and creation; a n d nothing was created i n the West
Indies" ( 2 9 ; emphasis added). T h e people of the Caribbean
Walcott respects seem historically insignificant; yet, he insists,
"History makes similes of people, but these people are their own
nouns" (Bruckner 13). T h e i r strategic adaptability allowed them
to survive i n the New W o r l d i n the same way that Odysseus's
pretending to be N o b o d y assisted his escape f r o m the Cyclops.
Scenes ten to thirteen are devoted to Odysseus's experiences
o n Circe's island. H e r e again H o m e r is interpreted rather than
imitated i n order to elucidate aspects of the h u m a n condition.
W h e n his c o m p a n i o n Eurylochus complains that Circe reduces
m e n to swine, Odysseus insists to the contrary: "We create our
own features. N o t her. We change f o r m " (77). A t h e n a intervenes
to assist her favorite against Circe's magic spells; nevertheless,
Walcott makes it clear that love of Penelope is the primary force
drawing Odysseus homeward. Neither sex with a goddess nor the
prospect of immortality is sufficient temptation. W h e n he leaves,
Circe helps prepare h i m to enter the underworld, and his prepa-
ration is dramatized i n the f o r m of an Afro-Caribbean Shango
ceremony. H e is given a wooden sword representing the divisive-
ness o f his natural state: the known/the u n k n o w n , the world/the
underworld, body/soul, presence/absence. Circe leaves h i m
with the knowledge that the spirit of his mother Anticlea awaits
h i m i n Hades.
Walcott's version of Hades is the U n d e r g r o u n d : turnstiles,
tracks, trains, a n d vagrants i n c l u d e d . Each soul has its proper
station a n d Odysseus is permitted to see many of his o l d com-
rades pass by: E l p e n o r his drowned helmsman; Ajax, still jealous
over losing the shield of Achilles to Odysseus; the war-loving
Thersites; A g a m e m n o n , bloody f r o m wounds inflicted by Cly-
temnestra a n d Thyestes. Anticleâ a n d the o l d prophet Tiresias
assure h i m that he will eventually reach his faithful wife a n d
dispense justice a m o n g her suitors i n Ithaca. W i t h this encourag-
ing prospect, A c t I concludes.
T h e first scene of A c t II is occupied with a surreal raft voyage
between Hades a n d landfall i n Ithaca. D u r i n g the voyage, Odys-
106 ROBERT HAMNER

seus acquires a n u m b e r of unusual passengers, ranging f r o m a


pair of mermaids to ghosts of his dead crewmen. H e dismisses the
mermaids, but his spirit crew guides h i m safely past the Sirens
and the perils of Scylla and Chaiybdis. T h e last of these seaborne
dangers past, Odysseus is lulled to sleep by his o l d nurse Eury-
cleia a n d Billy Blue, singing alternately i n rhyming dialect a n d
standard lyrics. T h e dream quality o f this action suspends time so
that there is no causal connection between Odysseus's exit f r o m
Hades a n d his arrival home.
That suspension is underscored when the actual l a n d i n g i n
Ithaca is carried out by Nausicaa's sailors (Act II, scene 2). O n
awakening, Odysseus must be convinced that he is at last o n his
native shore, a n d has to be told that his bags of treasure have
been secured i n a nearby cave. A i d e d once again by A t h e n a , who
takes the f o r m of a shepherd, Odysseus resumes his disguise as
N o b o d y a n d joins his loyal swineherd Eumaeus l o n g enough to
judge who a m o n g his household may be trusted, a n d how he
might destroy the insolent suitors who are wasting his estate. In
the brief dream comprising scene three, A t h e n a reinforces the
idea that men and not the gods are responsible for an individ-
ual's destiny. W h e n Odysseus protests, she argues that he is
always skeptical, "the first to discount each o m e n " (119). A t last
he is forced to admit that he b l i n d e d the Cyclops, thus i n c u r r i n g
the wrath of the monster's father Poseidon.
D u r i n g the p e r i o d of surveillance at court (scenes four a n d
five), Odysseus a n d his herdsman endure the insolence of sev-
eral guests a n d Odysseus even witnesses the death of his long-
suffering pet Argus. W h e n Eumaeus describes the melancholy
scene to b l i n d Billy Blue/Demodocus, the two finally realize that
the strange beggar is Odysseus himself. Shordy after the elderly
nurse Eurycleia recognizes her master by the unique scar o n his
thigh, young Telemachus (who has just returned f r o m consult-
i n g Menelaus i n Sparta) is drawn into the conspiracy. In scene six
after removing all the armaments f r o m the banquet hall, Tele-
machus, Odysseus, Eumaeus, a n d A t h e n a make short work of the
suitors. T h e ringleaders A n t i n o u s a n d Eurymachus are dis-
patched by Odysseus with particular relish ( 1 4 8 - 4 9 ) .
107
DEREK WAECOTT'S "THE ODYSSEY"
In the wake of this bloodbath, it remains only for Odysseus to
convince Penelope of his identity. H e may have reached home
and eliminated his rivals against tremendous odds, but then
Penelope demonstrates her worthiness of such a husband.
T h r o u g h o u t his p r o l o n g e d absence (even after he was presumed
dead), she waited patiendy, outmanoeuvering numerous suitors,
and now she tests his authenticity by insisting that he move their
marriage bed. By imposing this obstacle, Penelope not only
legitimates her own personal rights, but she demonstrates that
she is Odysseus's intellectual equal. W h e n he reveals that he
knows the secret that the bed is carved f r o m a rooted olive tree,
Penelope finally accepts her husband ( 1 5 7 ) .
Walcott's treatment of Penelope's skepticism, however, goes
beyond H o m e r ' s simpler resolution of conflicts. T h e alteration
signals the difference between an heroic age a n d o u r relativistic
m o d e r n times. Postmodern, specifically feminist, criticism has
heightened our consciousness of authors' slanted agendas so
that we look for alternative interpretations. F o r example, i n
reexamining the traditionally masculine epic f o r m of the Iliad
and The Odyssey f r o m a feminist perspective (and I use the
indefinite article judiciously), M i h o k o Suzuki argues, "At many
points the Odyssey interrogates its epic predecessor. " Suzuki notes
as the most striking instance Achilles's denigration of glory i n the
underworld, "implicitly [repudiating] the choice he perforce
made i n the Iliad of a short a n d glorious life over a l o n g and
obscure o n e " ( 5 8 ) . Walcott's Penelope exhibits similar reserva-
tions when she surveys the carnage i n her palace. She complains
that her house has been turned into an abattoir. T o Odysseus's
protestation that he killed for her, Penelope cries out "ITS ' FOR

THS
I I KEPT MY THG
IHS CROSSED FOR TWENTY YEARS
Nevertheless, the couple are reconciled, a n d the curtain falls o n
Billy Blue singing of "that peace which, i n their mercy, the gods
allow m e n " ( 1 6 0 ) .
So both the written page a n d the staged performance yield
similar insights. T h e acted version provides the vivid immediacy
of live sound a n d color. T h e printed w o r d allows more careful
scrutiny of the verbal and philosophical intricacies. Aside f r o m
bringing the narrative line to completion, the text raises meta-
108 ROBERT HAMNER

textual questions. Walcott's Penelope is not the only character to


undermine the accepted values of their society. In the under-
world, Walcott's Tiresias asserts that H e l e n may have been a
cause of the Trojan war, "but not its root" ( 9 4 ) . T h e reader/
audience is left to fathom that root. In addition to passages which
intimate that future generations i n distant places will be hearing
Odysseus's story, the very act of c o m p o s i d o n is occasionally made
part of the u n f o l d i n g narrative. Courtiers admonish Phemius to
collect Odysseus's "sailor's prose" into one s o n g — l i n e s h u m -
m i n g "like a succession of arrows," or combers " h o r i z o n l o n g . . .
like huge oars," " T h u d d i n g like lances o n the heart of this earth"
( 5 4 ) ; a n d A l c i n o u s commands: "Listen, poet, a n d let your eyes
seal each image" ( 5 9 ) .
With its layerings of intertextual meaning, The Odyssey is a
fitting complement to Walcott's 1 9 9 0 rewriting of the venerable
epic genre. Omeros represents what H o m e r , the m a n , might have
sung were he the m i x e d descendant of slaves living i n the New
World. The Odyssey, while clearly more faithful to H o m e r ' s literary
example, seizes aspects of an ancient narrative to emphasize
latent affinities between past a n d present. F o r all their apparent
disparities the relationship of then a n d now is not far to seek. As
Walcott vividly demonstrates, one grows out of the other.

WORKS CITED

Bruckner, D. J . R. "A Poem in Homage to an Unwanted M a n . " Rev. of Omeros, by


Derek Walcott. New York Times 9 Oct. 1990: 13, 17.
King, Robert. Rev. of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Production o f The Odyssey.
The North American Review Mar.A.pr.,1993: 43.
Lefkowitz, Mary. "Bringing H i m Back Alive." Rev. of Omeros, by Derek Walcott. New
York Times Book Review 7 Oct. 1990: 1, 34-35.
Naipaul, V. S. The Middle Passage. L o n d o n : André Deutsch, 1962.
Suzuki, Mihoko. Metamorphoses of Helen: Authority, Difference, and the Epic. Ithaca:
Cornell UP, 1989.
Walcott, Derek. The Odyssey: A Stage Version. New York: Noonday Press, 1993.
. Omeros. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.
White, J . P. " A n Interview with Derek Walcott." Green Mountains ReviewNS 4.1 (1990):
14-37-