Earl Lovelace and his plays: Jestina’s Calypso and The New Hardware Store

There are quite a few letters that document Earl Lovelace’s public service record and one of the most interesting is “Memorandum Presented to the Right Honorable Dr. Eric Williams, Prime Minister, on Behalf of the Rio Claro Youth Organizations.” This letter discusses Lovelace’s way of writing and also explains the reason why he became one of the strongest voices in Caribbean literature.

In the letter he says: “In our part of the nation, there has been domination by an element with a retrogressive, narrow, colonial outlook … We believe that progress in a community is not measured only by what Government provides but chiefly by what the community is prepared to do for itself, to solve its own problems.” This elementary suggestion shows itself as an author’s responsibility as a West Indian Writer; in some way he is a soldier fighting any form of neocolonialism. The main point of Lovelace’s work has always remained growth and education of the West Indian society. In Trinidad he is accepted as “a man of the people”. Earl Lovelace’s every work is an argument against retrogressive, narrow, colonial” concepts, and at the same time he describes the ways for individual and community’s adaptation mechanisms for the reader to change and critique. He demystifies the forces in control in everyday life in Trinidad; he gives the cinematic and detailed descriptions of the lilting and landscape, rhythmic voices of the people inhabiting it.

With the help of his male and female characters Lovelace finds the way to selfhood with the brilliance of the linguist recording the speech. In contrary to the most of his contemporaries, the author remained in Trinidad. The fact the he stayed in the community allowed him to access and see the dramatic forms with the help of which he eventually gained a big audience not only in Trinidad by also in United States and United Kingdom. Every work of the author shows a great uncommon love for his country, language, his people and for himself as a black man.

The personal life of Earl Lovelace is big mystery, although he has written several autobiographical testimonies in Brief Conversion and Other Stories in 1988, we still know very little of him. We know that Earl was born in Toco, Trinidad in 1935. A little time after this he went to Tobago, where he stayed with his maternal grandparents. He remembers well that his grandmother Eva Watly together with his mother Jean Watly had a great influence on his personality development. Earl went to a Scarborough Methodist School in Tobago and then he also attended Nelson Street Catholic School in Port of Spain. From 1948 to 1963 he attended Ideal High School. Shortly he moved to Centeno, Trinidad to get knowledge of agriculture in Eastern Caribbean Institute. During 1953 to 1954, Earl Lovelace worked at his first job as a professional proofreader for the Trinidad Guardian.  Later on he served in the department of Forestry as a governmental employee and then became an agricultural consultant in the. Characters with the same professions appear in A Brief Conversion and Other Stories. Both positions allowed him to study the Trinidadian landscape and its people in great detail.

When Earl Lovelace lived with his family in Tobago, he worked as an agricultural assistant. When he won the British Petroleum Independence Literary Award in 1964 for writing his first novel called While Gods Are Falling that was published in 1965. In 1966, he received his next award – Pegasus Literary Award for outstanding contribution to the Tobago and Trinidad arts. Earl Lovelace published his second novel “The Schoolmaster” in 1968 after the author has spent a year in residence at Howard University in Washington D.C. Moving his family, which then included his wife, Jean, two sons, Walt and Che, and a daughter, Lulu, to Port-of-Spain in 1967, Lovelace divided his time between novel writing and journalism as editorial writer for the daily Trinidad and Tobago Express.

Earl Lovelace lectured in the English department at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington in the period from 1971 to 1973 and then he became a visiting novelist in the residence of University in Baltimore, there he received his Master of Arts diploma in English language. He started teaching creative writing and literature in English at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine in 1977.  In 1980 Lovelace was as well invited to take part in the International Writing Program at Iowa University and then to lead International Seminar Program for the Eastern Virginia International Studies Consortium in 1981. In 1986, Earl Lovelace got a national Endowment for the Humanities grant as writer in residence at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, in 1986. His controversial Wine of Astonishment (1982), written in the voice of a woman named Eva, was completed before the earlier-published novel The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979).

The author started to use folk drama as method of positive social communication in Tobago before moving to Port-of-Spain. The New Boss by him was shown in Trinidad and Tobago during 1960’s. Lovelace’s book My Name is Village received the Best Play Award and The Best Actor award at its premiere in 1976. The main actors were villagers of Matura and Earl Lovelace acted as a director.

The Musical Pierrot Grenade was produced in 1977 and followed by Jestina’s Calypso was first performed by the University of the West Indies Players – under the direction of Gregory Mc Guire – on 17 March 1978 at the St.Augustine campus. The play received mixed reviews, which lauded the issues that the play raised but criticized its interior-exterior stage structure. It had its American premiere on 21 April, 1988 at the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts on the Smith College campus, under the direction of this author with a new prologue, musical score, and staging concept. The New Hardware Store opened as a production of the University of the West Indies Players on 21 March, 1980 at St. Augustine, under the direction of Mc Guire. The London performance of the play at the Campden Arts Theatre received good reviews during its weeklong run in March 1985.

The Earl Lovelace Archives collection contains manuscripts of plays that have yet to be produced, as well as scripts for dramatic readings and stage versions of some of the novels. Unlike an earlier generation of distinguishedCaribbean writers who began publishing in the 1950s and migrated to London, Earl Lovelace was born in Trinidad in 1935 and has remained there. His decision to live and work at home and to write in a popular idiom which derives from an indigenous calypsonian and carnivalesque tradition, is a feature which marks all of his published work. Like C. L. R. James and Sam Selvon before him, Earl Lovelace’s work positions itself firmly amongst the lives and voices of ordinary people whether the focus is on the poverty-stricken ‘yard’ culture of Port of Spain or the religious shouter traditions of the rural population. As is apparent in early novels such as While Gods Are Falling (1965) or The Schoolmaster (1968), Lovelace’s work has demonstrated from the outset an unwavering commitment to explore the complex political tensions at work in an island culture that has been born out of a history of slavery and indenture, to examine the ‘pitfalls’, as Frantz Fanon once famously put it, ‘of a national consciousness’. His fictional world is not of course without its contradictions; nor, indeed is his portrait of a newly independent society caught in the throes of resistance, revolution and acquiescence, a simplistic one. Yet his message is clear and it is an imaginative vision he has consistently sustained in different genres: ranging from his early fiction to his dramatic works such as Jestina’s Calypso (1984) as well as in the panoramic historical range of his most recent award-winning novel, Salt (1996).

In a talk delivered in 1983 at the University of Kent and published as the inaugural editorial of the literary magazine Wasafiri, Lovelace reflected on the difficulties for a writer such as himself of negotiating a present in Trinidad still bound (despite Independence) by the lingering hangover of colonialism. Stressing the need to build a future in the present alongside the contradictions of the past, Earl Lovelace highlighted above all the need to cut through the rhetorical masks of an easy nationalism, the replaying in different forms of what he calls a predictable victor-victim syndrome. As he said, ‘We … have to get rid of these postures, comforting as they may seem, for whether it is as supervisor of civilisation or as victim of oppression, both prevent us from the far more exciting and essential task of building … a new and human society. We can only do this from where we are….Nobody is born into the world. Everyone of us is born into a place in the world, in a culture, and it is from the standpoint of that culture that we contribute to the world.’

Earl Lovelace’s desire to write his characters into history, a black history built originally on ‘enslavement’ and ‘indenture’ is one driven primarily by a need to rebuild a positive sense of identity in the Caribbean, a process he prefers to call the full acknowledgement of a sense of ‘personhood’ and through which each individual whatever their social, cultural or racial status can ‘search as it were for his [or her] integrity’. For as we see at the opening to one of his most impressive plays, The New Hardware Store, a book which examines the mythical and ritualistic elements of Carnival as it is experienced and lived by the bleak lives of the inhabitants of ‘Calvary Hill’ in Port of Spain, small acts of resistance however difficult can provide the means to personal and social liberation.

In The New Hardware Store Lovelace uses the theatrical and political devices of Carnival and calypso to explore the inner lives of the inhabitants of ‘Calvary Hill’. Set around the period of Eric Williams’ rise to power, the novel simultaneously charts an important seven years in Trinidadian political history. The tensions amidst the small community Lovelace focuses on in the novel as they prepare for Carnival and expose the realities underlying masquerades of their daily lives becomes a microcosm for a much broader social and political message. Despite the fact that we are shown in different ways that ‘All o’ we is one’, such ideals are not easy to achieve amongst a slum community driven by competing self-interests, a history of poverty and destitution combined with a nihilistic vision that seems only briefly to be alleviated by the annual cycle of preparations for Carnival, a ritual that has over time been emptied out of its political potency. Parodying the symbolic sacrifice of the Christian Crucifixion and the optimism of the Redemption, Earl Lovelace demonstrates the pains for this community of moving beyond the comfortable and transient masks of play-acting in a search for a ‘personhood’ which has the potentiality to unite and redeem rather than dissipate. Carnival acts both as a means towards resistance and as a form of escapism. As Lovelace tells us: ‘Once upon a time the entire Carnival was expressions of rebellion. Once there were stickfighters who assembled each year to keep alive in battles between themselves the practice of a warriorhood born in them; and there were devils, black men who blackened themselves further with black grease to make of their very blackness a menace, a threat’. Yet all we are left with is a diluted form of this rebellion in the character of Aldrick Prospect [note name] whose costume remade every year carries pieces of this history. Moreover, whatever the force of the figure of Aldrick as metaphorical dragon in the novel, dancing the dance of history, the community it seems is still not redeemed. Whilst we are invited to remember one of his rousing speeches: ‘Make no peace with slavery ….We have to live as people, people. We have to rise. Rise up, up’. We are also shown the difficulties of upholding such a position in a world where corruption constantly undermines: ‘But how do you rise up when your brothers are making peace for a few dollars?’.
We see this in many of his plays but also in his twelve sketches in A Brief Conversation (1988) as well as most recently in his 1997 novel which was the winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Salt. As one critic has observed ‘salt’ is a potent symbol in the novel for the Middle Passage, the sweat of slave labour, ‘the “salary”[Latin for salt] of indentured labour, and the human integrity by which the descendants of slaves become the “salt” of the earth'(Louis James). In creating a panoramic portrait of the Caribbean’s history in this novel, Lovelace does not detract from a personal vision and characteristically focuses on the lives of two very different individuals and the intimate details of their search for ‘personhood’. As with The Dragon Can’t Dance, there is no easy solution or resolution to defining the collective needs of modern Trinidadian society, a society that like his character, Alford, may have some of its spiritual roots in an African past but nevertheless has to remake that history within the context of a national identity that is equally Indian, Chinese and European. And as the novel reaches its climax in a political celebration for Independence Day, Lovelace provides us (through the eyes of Florence) with a complex vision once more not of violence or simple-minded political resistance but of compassion and humility: ‘…I saw it clearly. The tragedy of our time is to have lost the ability to feel loss, the inability of power to rise to its responsibility for human decency….I was thinking that if what distinguishes us as humans is our stupidity, what may redeem us is our grace’.

In a talk delivered in 1983 at the University of Kent and published as the inaugural editorial of the literary magazine Wasafiri, Earl Lovelace reflected on the difficulties for a writer such as himself of negotiating a present in Trinidad still bound (despite Independence) by the lingering hangover of colonialism. Stressing the need to build a future in the present alongside the contradictions of the past, Lovelace highlighted above all the need to cut through the rhetorical masks of an easy nationalism, the replaying in different forms of what he calls a predictable victor-victim syndrome. As he said, ‘We … have to get rid of these postures, comforting as they may seem, for whether it is as supervisor of civilisation or as victim of oppression, both prevent us from the far more exciting and essential task of building … a new and human society. We can only do this from where we are….Nobody is born into the world. Everyone of us is born into a place in the world, in a culture, and it is from the standpoint of that culture that we contribute to the world.’

Earl Lovelace’s desire to write his characters into history, a black history built originally on ‘enslavement’ and ‘indenture’ is one driven primarily by a need to rebuild a positive sense of identity in the Caribbean, a process he prefers to call the full acknowledgement of a sense of ‘personhood’ and through which each individual whatever their social, cultural or racial status can ‘search as it were for his [or her] integrity’. For as we see at the opening to one of his most impressive novels, The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979), a book which examines the mythical and ritualistic elements of Carnival as it is experienced and lived by the bleak lives of the inhabitants of ‘Calvary Hill’ in Port of Spain, small acts of resistance however difficult can provide the means to personal and social liberation.

In The Dragon Can’t Dance Lovelace uses the theatrical and political devices of Carnival and calypso to explore the inner lives of the inhabitants of ‘Calvary Hill’. Set around the period of Eric Williams’ rise to power, the novel simultaneously charts an important seven years in Trinidadian political history. The tensions amidst the small community Lovelace focuses on in the novel as they prepare for Carnival and expose the realities underlying masquerades of their daily lives becomes a microcosm for a much broader social and political message. Despite the fact that we are shown in different ways that ‘All o’ we is one’, such ideals are not easy to achieve amongst a slum community driven by competing self-interests, a history of poverty and destitution combined with a nihilistic vision that seems only briefly to be alleviated by the annual cycle of preparations for Carnival, a ritual that has over time been emptied out of its political potency. Parodying the symbolic sacrifice of the Christian Crucifixion and the optimism of the Redemption, Lovelace demonstrates the pains for this community of moving beyond the comfortable and transient masks of play-acting in a search for a ‘personhood’ which has the potentiality to unite and redeem rather than dissipate. Carnival acts both as a means towards resistance and as a form of escapism. As Lovelace tells us: ‘Once upon a time the entire Carnival was expressions of rebellion. Once there were stickfighters who assembled each year to keep alive in battles between themselves the practice of a warriorhood born in them; and there were devils, black men who blackened themselves further with black grease to make of their very blackness a menace, a threat’. Yet all we are left with is a diluted form of this rebellion in the character of Aldrick Prospect [note name] whose costume remade every year carries pieces of this history. Moreover, whatever the force of the figure of Aldrick as metaphorical dragon in the novel, dancing the dance of history, the community it seems is still not redeemed. Whilst we are invited to remember one of his rousing speeches: ‘Make no peace with slavery ….We have to live as people, people. We have to rise. Rise up, up’. We are also shown the difficulties of upholding such a position in a world where corruption constantly undermines: ‘But how do you rise up when your brothers are making peace for a few dollars?’.

Whilst The Dragon Can’t Dance is set in Port of Spain, many of its characters are migrants from the rural areas, unsettled and dislocated in the slums of Calvary Hill. Moreover, Earl Lovelace has maintained a vision that is committed both to the rural and the urban creating a fictional lens that attempts to embrace the whole of his society. We see this in many of his plays but also in his twelve sketches in A Brief Conversation (1988) as well as most recently in his 1997 novel which was the winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Salt. As one critic has observed ‘salt’ is a potent symbol in the novel for the Middle Passage, the sweat of slave labour, ‘the “salary”[Latin for salt] of indentured labour, and the human integrity by which the descendants of slaves become the “salt” of the earth'(Louis James). In creating a panoramic portrait of the Caribbean’s history in this novel, Earl Lovelace does not detract from a personal vision and characteristically focuses on the lives of two very different individuals and the intimate details of their search for ‘personhood’. As with The Dragon Can’t Dance, there is no easy solution or resolution to defining the collective needs of modern Trinidadian society, a society that like his character, Alford, may have some of its spiritual roots in an African past but nevertheless has to remake that history within the context of a national identity that is equally Indian, Chinese and European. And as the novel reaches its climax in a political celebration for Independence Day, Lovelace provides us (through the eyes of Florence) with a complex vision once more not of violence or simple-minded political resistance but of compassion and humility: ‘…I saw it clearly. The tragedy of our time is to have lost the ability to feel loss, the inability of power to rise to its responsibility for human decency….I was thinking that if what distinguishes us as humans is our stupidity, what may redeem us is our grace’.

In The Wine of Astonishment Earl Lovelace returns to the Trinidadian countryside to the town of Bonasse, but takes the readers back in history to the time of the persecution of the Spiritual Baptists. On 26 November 1917 the colonial government approved a bill that targeted the Spiritual Baptists as religious heretics and prohibited them from practicing certain aspects of their African/New World synchronized religion. The Spiritual Baptists suffered open political and social persecution until the minister of education and social services, R. A. Joseph, proposed a bill on 30 March 1951 to “remove from the Statute Books of the Colony an Ordinance entitled the Shouters Ordinance, Chapter 4, Section 19.” The Wine of Astonishment chronicles the survival of one Spiritual Baptist church during the period of persecution and teaches a clear lesson on the impact of the American military occupation in Trinidad during the same era.

As Marjorie Thorpe notes in the introduction to the 1983 Heinemannn edition of the novel, Lovelace’s use of the first person feminine voice of Eva, the Mother of the Church, is a significant departure from Earl Lovelace’s third person narration in the other novels. His handling of Eva’s language and character is indeed a masterful representation of “a simple country peasant” whose sense of the collective body of the church and community flows through her account of herself and her family. However, Earl Lovelace does not always convince the reader that the perspective is feminine, especially in Eva’s accounts of her interaction with her husband and sons. What readers learn about her feelings from her narration has to be read as subtext, as she focuses on describing the environment and history controlling her life.

The three plays in the collection Jestina’s Calypso (1984) dramatize problems that Lovelace has isolated in his newspaper editorials or in his public-service work. The play Jestina’s Calypso is about a woman named Jestina who cannot get anyone to marry her. She has been writing to an expatriate Trinidadian who decides to return to his native land and marry her. Her anxiety causes her to mislead him by sending a picture of her more-European-looking neighbor, Laura, to represent her own beauty. The denouement that takes place when Laura and Jestina go to meet him is presented as a play inside the play, acted out by other neighbors who have been mocking her all day. Black men lead the tirade of laughter against Jestina, and Lovelace suggests that black men must lead the movement to accept the diversity of black people, which includes having more than one standard of feminine beauty. Structurally problematic, with the dual-set staging and the simultaneous talking in the script, in addition to the problem of balancing the voices, the play is still one of the few that directly confront this important issue.

The New Hardware Store portrays one set of answers to Earl Lovelace’s challenge to Trinidadians to improve their lives and communities. Change has occurred in The New Hardware Store, but whether or not it is improvement is the focus of the play. A. A. Black has acquired the business and its employees from its previous white owner, after a political protest by black Trinidadians that Earl Lovelace describes fully in “The Coward,” a story in A Brief Conversion and Other Stories. The protesters demand economic parity with the white English expatriates and are given token concessions that allow designated blacks assimilated into the middle class, However A. A. Black’s attempts at capitalism do not appear to make a significant difference in the lives of his middle-aged bookkeeper, Calliste; his advertising agent and night watchman turned calypsonian, Rooso; or his promising, young, educated assistant, Miss Prime. How they finally reach a consensus on how to work together for the shared benefit of the community makes for a humorous plot.

My Name is Village delivers an allegorical blow to the concept of Western progress in the form of urbanization, symbolized by Mr., Towntest, and the exponent of progress. Like the rural youths in The Schoolmaster and The Wine of Astonishment and many of the stories in A Brief Conversion and Other Stories, the youths in this play are restless to experience life outside of their country-village existence. Roy Village, like his antagonist Elena, believes that his future lies in the world of Mr. Towntest. Elena’s education is designed to get her out of the village, but Roy is trapped in village life and must begin to chart a future there instead of planning to escape. When Roy manhandles Elena because she will not pay any attention to him, Cyril Village, who has recovered his dignity and authority in a stick fight, confronts him with the idea of love for his island home, doing so in beautiful lyrical language with the emotional tonality that crosses the boundaries of language and cultural difference. Roy is reconciled with Elena in a remarkable scene of masculine sensitivity. He tells her, “Look I bring these flowers for you Elena. A man is flowers too and I sorry.” The musical interludes provide essential transitions between the actions of the characters in the play and (like the other play) require knowledge of the Trinidadian cultural music tradition to produce. Lovelace’s plays are, in the best sense of the phrase, morality plays, structured around the folk-cultural, performing-arts tradition indigenous to Trinidad. Structurally they invite comparison to plays such as Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel (1959) and Death and the King’s Horseman (1976), Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity (1961), or Bob Telson and Lee Breuer’s more modern Gospel at Colonus (1985).

A Brief Conversion and Other Stories brings together previously published stories as well as new work. The stories focus generally on the advent of modernity in Trinidad as seen through the eyes of individuals who remain in the country or move from the country to the city. The tone of the story “A Brief Conversion” is autobiographical, as Lovelace details the confrontation of an adolescent youth with conflicting definitions of manhood. The youth is only momentarily converted to an ideal that works against his personality. Nevertheless the process teaches him to appreciate his parents’ struggle to love him and provide for the family. It teaches him respect for life and a willingness to fight to preserve dignity.

Earl Lovelace is master of what Henry Louis Gates in The Signifying Monkey (1988) calls “the paradox of representing, of continuing somehow, the oral within the written.” The stories and novels speak in different codes, codifying black history and tradition in Trinidad. They chronicle with great detail and emotional clarity the problem of being a threat to the ancient, fundamental prejudices of a society born out of slavery. Lovelace’s literature speaks to “the folk” in any country in the twentieth century, reproducing their voices and their concerns. His work is in the best tradition of art that helps a society see and educate itself and its young.


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