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Just so they know

By Deborah John

Change is inevitable, but without research, the results are counterproductive. Case in point, the changes made to the Dimanche Gras show which took place recently. The changes were necessary, it was said, because it had become boring, too many kings, too many queens, too long a calypso show etc, therefore it was time for a transformation. But the question is a transformation of what?

The show that has come to be known as Dimanche Gras has a history that is steeped in Carnival traditions and it takes in with it, the evolution of Trinidad and Tobago society as well. All of this is documented by the late Errol Hill in his classic study, The Trinidad Carnival — Mandate for a National Theatre.

Hill was a well-known playwright, play director and actor. In the pre-Independence days he formed part of the theatre fraternity known as the Whitehall players, from which came most those who went on to become well-known names in T&T and abroad. He taught drama and theatre at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire in the US from 1968 to 1989. In his early years in theatre Hill himself produced shows which incorporated elements of theatrical production for the Dimanche Gras.

He describes Dimanche Gras as "an attempt to produce a valid theatrical experience out of the mass of Carnival material" and he asks whether it is possible "to achieve with a Carnival stage performance qualities of art theatre without forsaking the spirit of Carnival in the process". Hill posed the question because there had been serious attempts either to marry the two, or to make as if...as was done up to recently on February 10. Hill saw the challenge as having "to produce memorable theatre while at the same time remaining faithful in spirit to the national festival that sustains it." He was unwittingly prophetic.

In his study, Hill tells us that the Dimanche Gras show was inaugurated in 1946. However this early show was done merely as an accompaniment to the selection and crowning of a light-skinned Carnival Queen. These shows were privately run.

According to Hill, the early shows recognised that there should be some elements of indigenous Carnival theatre, but it was some years before the kind of show that patrons had come to expect was able to evolve.

Dimanche Gras evolved from something called the Les Amantes Ball, which in its turn had evolved from the elaborate masquerade balls. These have their roots in the balls which were staged by the ruling elites in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hill tells us "from these balls emerged in the 1920s stage spectacles that inspired the Carnival Queen Show and later the Dimanche Gras productions."

A general pattern emerged of a show the high point of which was the selection and crowning of a Carnival Queen with contestants sponsored by business interests. The queens paraded on stage in evening dress and fantasy costumes.

In 1952 took place what Hill describes as "the earliest attempt to knit a Dimanche Gras show into an artistic theatrical form. Individual characterization and dramatic conflict were nonexistent, but mime and choreographed movement were skilfully employed, and a general theme on the growth of carnival was illustrated." The show was titled "Callallo 1952". Calypsoes and folk songs were used to illustrate different periods in the social development of T&T, Hill says, dances were taken from the various ethnic groups. Tamboo bamboo and a steelband was featured and a "compere" gave a running commentary to introduce items and link the separate acts into a cultural pageant.

Came 1958 and the formation of the government-financed Carnival Development Committee (now the NCC). The Grand Stand at the Queen's Park Savannah became a permanent venue. The crowning of the light-skinned queens shifted to another venue on the preceding Saturday night and continued up to the late 60s. Taking its place at the Dimanche Gras show was a Queen of the Masquerade bands competition, a King of the Bands competition also came in and the Calypso King competition was also included. Hill notes that the Calypso King competition immediately became "the most popular item" on the programme. Of that competition Hill wrote, "as the oldest of Carnival traditions, the calypso has a formidable body of devotees. To be king of calypso, even for a year, is a highly prized honour, and the crown is fiercely contested."

Hill also writes that with government sponsorship, "a policy was implemented with varying success, to make the Dimanche Gras show fully representative of Carnival in spirit as well as in content." With respect to some of the memorable early Dimanche Gras productions, Hill mentions a production in 1962 written and directed by Aubrey Adams; in 1963 "The Attainment of Independence" written by Hill, choreographed by Beryl McBurnie, with costume design by Carlisle Chang. Hill also mentions an unpublished script for Dimanche Gras written by Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott titled "Batai". A tradition had since ensued of well known masmen and choreographers' association with this show.

Many of the people mentioned in this column have passed on, but one thing they had in common was a clear vision of what the Dimanche Gras show needed to convey, based on the history and development of Trinidad and Tobago society. Those charged with the responsibility of "transformation" should make a point of reading Hill and others of his ilk....just so they know.

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