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What’s In A Name?

Answers from Anya Tretyakova.

The Postcolonial texts of Translations and Pantomime use language to express the oppression and destruction of the colonized culture

Postcolonial Text is a refereed open access journal that publishes articles, book reviews, interviews, poetry and fiction on postcolonial, transnational, and indigenous themes.

When studying Postcolonial texts, it is difficult, if not impossible to conduct any amount of academic research without encountering a multitude of debate over the usage of language and linguistics within these texts.  Postcolonial theatrical texts are no exception.  If success in linguistic interaction is predicated on a mutual effort toward a common goal (Elam 155), then the outcome must be severely impaired when participants’ goals do not align.  Furthermore, the use of a language that is not your own, to express your own thoughts, feelings and identity, is made all the more difficult when one cultural group attempts to coerce another cultural group into adopting their language as the dominant one (Rao v). Brian Friel’s Translations and Derek Walcott’s Pantomime are two Postcolonial plays, which explore the effects of colonization on culture, identity and history through the use of language.  Not only are the colonized cultures in both pieces given a voice, the playwrights carefully use this voice to expose the destructive and insidious nature of imperial influence over indigenous language and its enduring aftereffects.  These plays not only demonstrate how language can be used as a means of control by the colonizer, but also how language may in turn be wielded in opposition to this control, by the colonized (Duncan 208).

A popular method utilised by the British Empire during some instances of colonization, was to stop indigenous people from speaking their own languages and instead requiring them to learn to speak English (Gilbert and Tompkins 164).  Prohibiting people from speaking their own language is a decidedly aggressive move in an attempt to destroy their culture; this leads to a “…loss of…oral history, and of a connection to the land…” (164).  It is this destruction that Yolland begins to notice in Act Two, Scene One of Translations.  Yolland slowly realizes that “Something is being eroded” (Friel 53) through the English standardization of Gaelic names, specifically the story of the crossroads of Tobair Vree, which provides a long forgotten link to the history of the town, of which Owen is one of the few to still recall.  Oral history, such as the tale of Tobair Vree is precious; it is fragile due to its ephemerality and as such its transmission is particularly vulnerable to colonial influence over language.

The even more sinister effect of replacing indigenous language names of individuals and geographic locations with English is that it controls and alters the very history and identity of a culture and its people (Gilbert and Tompkins 165).  Owen’s relief at finally conveying to Yolland that his name is in fact Owen and not Roland, allows him to reaffirm his autonomy and identity; in the ensuing celebration between the pair regarding Owen’s real name, they refer to the event as “a christening…a baptism” (Friel 55), in other words, a rite of passage into a privileged institution.  It seems not only to signify Owen coming into his own, coming back to his home town, culture and self-identity, but it appears also to be something of an admission of Yolland into the culture of Baile Beag.  Yolland’s appreciation of the value of Baile Beag’s history and the importance of the language, allows Owen to trust him enough to reveal his real name.  Furthermore, both men proceed to talk of being in Eden, “We name a thing and – bang!  It leaps into existence!” (56).  Here the act of naming something (or re-naming in the case of a colonizing power) is equated with creationism.

As with the baptism/christening analogy, the naming of a child, or indeed of anything, gives it an identity, brings it to life.  To re-name someone or something without consent or invitation becomes an act of appropriation by the colonizing power (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, “Key Concepts” 19).  It is an act of theft, stealing identity and autonomy, where the colonizing power assumes an omniscient, god-like authority over the indigenous people and culture.  The re-naming of geography in Translations into English reduces and breaks down the historical significance and integrity of Baile Beag and its people (Gilbert and Tompkins 165).

Translations cleverly uses the process of ‘double hearing’ in order to represent Gaelic and English in the production, acknowledging (perhaps even targeting) the predominantly monolingual audience by using English in the play, to represent what is said in Gaelic as well as the Queen’s English (175).  This process ironically illustrates to the audience the loss of meaning in translation between the Gaelic-speaking people of Baile Beag and the English-speaking occupiers, highlighted in Owen’s translation of Lancey’s speech in Act One (Friel 32-34).  Gilbert and Tompkins observe that Owen’s simplified translations serve not only to mask the dire ramifications of Lancey’s words, but also to illustrate the power held by the figure of the translator (in this case Owen) in conveying meaning.  This is later juxtaposed with the translation of the place names of Baile Beag into English by the military.

In each instance, the translator wields the power of making and destroying meaning, which carries with it all the consequences of loss of historical significance and leads to a warping of reality.  The individuals within the diegesis, relying on the translator are shown to be at the mercy of what information is and is not conveyed, which of course, the audience are fully aware of.  This dramatic approach exposes the privilege which understanding carries with it and the disadvantage implicit in not being able to comprehend the true nature of what is being communicated.  Indeed the implications of translating any text are considered to be formidable in the academic community, specifically regarding the issue of whether translation is nothing more than interpretation (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, “Empire Writes Back” 204).  As language is fraught with political, cultural and ideological significance, translation necessitates a particularly cautious and conscientious approach (205) especially as a lack of fidelity to meaning can have the negative effects of diluting or homogenizing the unique elements of any translated language.

Friel’s use of Latin and Ancient Greek within the predominantly English-spoken play also serves the function of alienating the English occupiers in Baile Beag, not one of whom speaks Ancient Greek or Latin.  The significance of this is that the Queen’s English, or the colonizing language, becomes subordinate and arguably, the ‘other’ despite it being normalized by the occupiers as the correct language.  The referencing of Classical Greek literature is not uncommon in Irish theatre and literature (Jordan 17) and the use of spoken Ancient Greek and Latin can be seen as a rebuttal to the English colonial assumption that the natives of a colony are less civilized and need to be educated by English influence (16).  In Translations, the citizens of Baile Beag speak Latin and Ancient Greek as well as Gaelic, whereas the occupying English only speak English.  The consequence of this is that the colonizers appear less civilized and educated than the indigenous people, by the colonizer’s own standards.  The irony of this is particularly evident to an English-speaking, Western audience, considering the scholarly import attached to familiarity with the early languages of civilisation, specifically Latin and Ancient Greek and especially during the time period in which Translations is set (16).  Friel’s choice of time period in which to set his play – almost 150 years prior to his writing it – imbues the story with even more significance for a contemporary audience, well aware of the lingering repercussions of the English occupation of Ireland (Grene 37).

In Pantomime, the dynamic between colonizer and colonized is much more focused as it is a play with two characters, however rather than reducing the dramatic tension, the relationship between Harry and Jackson is made all the more disturbing due to the intimate nature of their openly antagonistic interactions.  Pantomime can be seen as an adaptation of or reply to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a classically Eurocentric text, a staple of the Western literary canon (Gilbert and Tompkins 36).  At the heart of Pantomime, the master/slave dichotomy is explored between Jackson and Harry, whilst undeniably echoing the Imperial master/slave relationship between colonizer and colonized; this binary is further analysed, satirically through the play’s intertextual references to Robinson Crusoe’s Friday and Crusoe (36).

Photo of Walcott was taken From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 

The Hon. Derek Alton Walcott,

Walcott at an honorary dinner in Amsterdam, May 20th 2008

Walcott’s conversion of Defoe’s story into a pantomime functions as a means of subverting an almost-revered Western canonical text, into a parody.  Furthermore, the very nature of the usually rigid master/slave dialectic is called into question as Jackson and Harry oscillate between these positions of power and subjugation (Gilbert 129).  As this is a Postcolonial play however, Jackson clearly has the upper hand most of the time, and as with Translations, this is expressed most clearly through his manipulation of and adeptness with language.  Jackson may be mimicking Harry’s English accent one second, reverting to his Creole accent the next, or simply breaking into a song and dance he seems to have devised on the spot; indeed, even in his performance style and mastery of physicality, he outshines Harry in every way (130).  The superiority of Jackson’s performance style creates notable resentment in Harry, who after endlessly persisting that Jackson participate in his pantomime during the first half of Act One, upon seeing Jackson’s elaborate mime of Crusoe’s arrival onto the island, insists that the pantomime idea must be dropped immediately and even threatens to fire Jackson if he does not adhere to the request (140).  At this point, more so than any other point in the play, it seems apparent that Harry feels threatened by Jackson, who having not spoken a word, has proceeded to outperform him, even whilst portraying the iconic figure of British Imperial power – Robinson Crusoe.

This is a turning point within the play as Harry appears fearful of the shift in power from him to Jackson and attempts to revert to his perceived natural order of things saying he would “…like this whole place just as it was…just before everything started” (141).  Jackson immediately recognizes the double meaning behind Harry’s wish and retorts “…that is not history.  That is not the world” (141).  Jackson however, does not relinquish power to Harry, which is made apparent as both the scene and first act end with a tense exchange in which Jackson orders Harry not to touch the table he used to represent Crusoe’s boat (142).  This entire scene makes clear what the Crusoe myth means to the colonizer (represented by Harry) and the colonized (represented by Jackson); to Harry, the story is beautiful and romantic, it speaks to him because he identifies with Crusoe on a personal level (Gilbert and Tompkins 37).  Jackson, on the other hand, sees the Crusoe story as nothing more than farce (37), simultaneously defiling a British Imperial icon, whilst portraying him better than a white, Englishman who spent a better part of his life playing the character on a civilized, London theatre stage.  This scene drips with irony as it deftly ridicules any idealized Western notions of Imperial power.

As with Translations, the theme of creationism is used to analyse identity formation.  The fictional Crusoe, arriving on an island paradise, meets and names Friday giving him an identity, which is of course ludicrously presumptive.  Jackson almost immediately resists this assumption of lack of identity prior to Western influence, by promptly giving himself the name of Thursday (Gilbert 137).  Later, Jackson’s invention of words which he proceeds to ‘teach’ Harry, rechristening a table as “Patamba” and so on, serve to further accentuate the confusion and loss of meaning inherent in abruptly changing the name of something and/or the language through which such information is conveyed (137).  In addition to this, the arrogation involved in re-naming something that is not yours, has the effect of laying claim to or taking possession of such a thing, which is an appropriation of the cultural and historical significance, attached; such as occurs in Translations.

Jackson is clearly playing a part well before Harry persuades him to participate in his pantomime, the part of the “stage nigger”, a part which Harry is used to and due to this, when the shift in power occurs, Harry is particularly fazed by the loss of his privileged position and the upheaval of the established master/slave dichotomy between himself and Jackson (King 261).  This dichotomy is clearly affirmed when Jackson mocks Harry’s assertion that they are interacting “…man to man…none of this boss-and-Jackson business…” (144), Jackson subverts this claim by pointing out that in reality, they are both playing a role of being equal and in actual fact, Harry retains the competitive mentality to put Jackson in his place, should he step out of line (144).  It is on this precarious balance (or imbalance) that the relationship between Harry and Jackson in Pantomime teeters, mirroring the uneasy dynamic between the colonizer and colonized, which pervades in the Caribbean to this day.

In summary, the Postcolonial texts of Translations and Pantomime use language to express the oppression and destruction of the colonized culture, by the colonizer through language dominance and appropriation.  However, the colonized are not rendered powerless; both Walcott and Friel use language as a means of resisting this infiltration by satirizing and usurping the cultural assumptions and claims to superiority by the colonized power – in this case, the British Empire.  Dramatically, both texts rely on and encourage audience participation in recognising the folly of colonial invasion and control as well as its devastatingly prolonged aftereffects.  Perhaps most importantly, the choice of writing and presenting both plays in English encourages a self-reflective viewing from what is presumably, a predominantly white audience and this is where both plays achieve the most, as evidenced by the global success and popularity of the two pieces.  If nothing more, Translations and Pantomime create awareness and recognition that mistakes made in the past, must be avoided at all costs if we are to flourish as a civilisation and respect our fellow human being.

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Written by Anya Tretyakova

Sometime thespian, wannabe film director. Lover of literature for life.