Saint Lucian Literature and Theatre: an Anthology of Reviews compiled and edited by John Robert Lee & Kendel Hippolyte
One of the authors sent this to me a while ago and though it took me a little while, what book doesn’t these days, I both appreciated and enjoyed reading it.
Why appreciated? It’s a seven decades long (going back to the 1940s) collection of reviews of primarily St. Lucian writers and dramatists. I would not have read a lot of this literature and I would have seen almost none of these plays. Like most, Caribbean or not, I would, of course, be familiar with the poet and playwright, the late Nobel winning writer and son of the St. Lucian soil, Derek Walcott, his name if not necessarily comprehensive details of his actual works. This collection celebrates his contribution to be sure, St. Lucia is proud of the imprint Walcott has made on the world, and that of his lesser known (but, from this collection, no less talented) twin brother Roderick, but it makes a point to pull in the many other overlooked, under-celebrated poets, playwrights, novelists, actors, directors, and, inevitably, given the nature of the work, arts critics. To have such a record, especially of the plays, from a critical perspective (as in how were they received and reviewed in real time), is invaluable. Kudos to the compilers and editors; pulling this collection together from disparate sources, could not have been an easy feat.
It honestly made me think of the various reviews I’ve written of live performances and other arts presentations since my days at the Antigua Sun. It made me wish that our own Culture Department had the …something…to take on a project like this; in my opinion, research and documentation is a sorely lacking area of our Cultural Development component here in Antigua and Barbuda. That’s not to say that nothing has been done (for my part, I’ve been trying to build a data base of Antiguan and Barbudan literature for some time), but not enough and surely nothing, to my mind, as ambitious as a complete and comprehensive documentation of art and art criticism as relates to the literature and theatre of our country from the 1940s to the 2000s (which is what this book has done). Stand to be corrected.
This matters because it underscores that we do have a tradition and gives fledgling works and artists a foundation on which to build. Every new attempt doesn’t need to start from zero.
So, that’s where my appreciation lies. I really learned a lot reading this. And picked up another possible for my to be read list, a book (Studies in West Indian Literature: Theatre) by one of the included reviewers Judy Stone (who was my first book editor, having been assigned The Boy from Willow Bend by its first publisher Macmillan Caribbean).
I thought my interest would begin and end with that sort of indifferent appreciation. But I also enjoyed reading it. Granted, I’m a book nerd who also enjoys other arts; among them, theatre. It’s weird though that, between the two sections, I especially enjoyed the theatrical reviews. Weird because these are plays I have never seen and also, for the most part, have never read. But through the insights to be found in the criticisms, the arguments and counter-arguments, one review to another, I got a real sense of what happened on the stage, and also the arc of theatre development in St. Lucia, and to some degree beyond, in the broader Caribbean. A lot of good work has been done and the book helped me visualize some of it. It helps that several of their major dramatists – like the Walcott brothers, and Hippolyte himself – are known in wider Caribbean literary/arts circles. Reading between the lines of the reviews, I also got a sense of the challenge facing St. Lucian artists and could commiserate because a lot of it is our reality too – in great part the lack of appreciation for, investment in what artists are doing toward the consistent and sustainable development of the art form/the arts as a valuable and essential part of society. That we are developing countries is part of the hurdle, but lack of vision is also part of it. These writings reflect those frustrations and the ingenuity and determination we as practicing artists in the Caribbean region use to overcome it.
Some of the reviews – especially where the plays were taken on the road to countries like Jamaica and Trinidad – show hints of the small island, big island BS, where degrees of separation are used to infer huge gaps in talent and potential; we see you…but we also know we. So, there’s a certain small island pride in reading a collection like this, in reading of the ambitious performances that were undertaken as early as the 1950s – a time when we had so much less but no less of an artistic soul than anyone else. I say, we though the record of Antigua and Barbuda’s theatrical evolution is sparse by comparison (I have put together what I can in terms of performed works here, and in terms of published theatrical works here).
I also want to pull out this point made by the editors in the introduction to the second section (the section on theatre): “One of the salient issues which have emerged from compiling this anthology of reviews is in fact the importance of doing reviews in the first place (and, more broadly of course, the importance of having a critical tradition in the arts).” This was one of my takeaways as well. And to further quote the book, “this is especially true in the performing arts….[which] begins to be lost to the collective memory as soon as the performance is over.”
The book, a publication of the Cultural Development Foundation, understands its value as a research resource and take great pains to ensure full attribution, dating, and indexing for easier referencing.
While the quality of the book generally is good, one criticism I have is the quality of the images and given the lack of quality images, it would have been better, in my opinion, to select a handful of the best for a few pages (a central gallery) about mid-way through the book; even in black and white; the impact would have been better than squinting at the blurry, too small images squeezed into the margins throughout.
The main page of my Blogger on Books lV series can be found here. The main page of Blogger on Books V can be found here. To check out my books and see what reviewers and readers have been saying about them, go here and here.