Blog Carnival as the Theatre of the Caribbean To my mind, Carnival is the theatre of the Caribbean! Carnival and the Masquerade are about experiencing and participating in total theatre, out front, on the streets - music and dance, costume and masquerade. Carnival is a ritual of performance within which rites of purification, rites of conflict, rites of passage and rites of participation are all celebrated and enacted within the confines of an unprecedented and unique historical reality. Cy Grant also offers an insightful reading of Carnival as: “a mass celebration of collective identity that exhibits an explicit desire to affirm that life and art are not separate. Merely to be a passive recipient of artistic activity is alien to the life and the innate creativity of Caribbean communities. Joyous participation of all creeds and races is not only essential, but symbolic in the extreme”. Rawle Gibbon further develops my perception of Carnival practice when he observes that “Carnival is not a commemorative event, Carnival is a living, protean event, whose very validity depends on its capacity to absorb and express the current while containing the past. The ritual purpose of Carnival is regeneration, the celebration of life”. Carnival is the essential and profoundly self-affirming gesture of a people. The participation of the people in this enactment is an historically crucial self-affirmation, where their aesthetic experience occurs within the framework of rituals, representations of a collective, ahistorical and improvisatory nature. In Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival encompasses a series of cultural configurations that, through a process of unfolding, defining, re-defining, changing and re-evaluating as the culture matures and grows, have merged and become indigenous to the country. Carnival is also a participatory democracy, where the masses become intimately involved in the most important aspects of the Carnival ritual.This is in marked contrast to that of Greek ritual drama, where the role of the masses is given over to a professional chorus. Carnival is the essential and profoundly self-affirming gesture of a people. Carnival is not only a superficial escape; Carnival as a form of catharsis makes it possible to endure oppression. The donning of a masquerade costume allows one to escape, not only from present reality into that other self, but it allows one to escape into a repressed self, shaped by a unique and terrible historical reality. Carnival also offers infinite possibilities for political mobilisation, subversion and more, therefore, it is also a contested festival in which contending political, religious, geographical, moral and social forces have license to subvert. In Carnival, the principle of subverting the normal order then becomes the governing principle. Through the Carnival enactment, society frees itself of its self-imposed norms. Carnival then, can also be seen as revolt, the experience of disorder, the bringing together of opposing elements and principles in order to trigger the rebirth of life; the community emerges purified and fortified from this submersion in chaos. But, Carnival time is also sacred time. It is time outside of time. Octavio Paz noted that “Our poverty can be measured by the number and lavishness of our popular festivals”. There is one moment in the Carnival, a moment that is central to the highest, deepest and truest experience of Carnival because it suspends and resolves everything - a short period of transported existence whose effects last far longer than the actual moments of quintessence. This moment resolves so many contradictions and delivers the ultimate feeling of joy and peace. Smart calls it ‘Momento Pleno’, Allyene Dettmers calls it ‘Moment of Transcendence’, Nehusi calls it ‘psychological catharsis and spiritual renewal’, Benitez-Rojo describes it as carrying oneself ‘in a certain kind of way’. The donning of a masquerade costume allows one to escape, not only from present reality into that other self, but it allows one to escape into a repressed self, shaped by a unique and terrible historical reality. Carnivals are our only luxury: I believe that they substitute, perhaps to our advantage, the theatre and vacations, the ‘weekend away’ and the ‘cocktail’ party of the North Americans and the Europeans - the receptions of the bourgeoisie and the coffee houses of the Mediterranean people. Alternatively, poor Africans throughout the Americas – from Rio to Panama to Barranquilla, Colombia to Port-au-Prince, to New Orleans, have traditionally centered their cultural, social and economic life on the Carnival. In contrast, I believe that mass gatherings in the modern world are really assemblies of loners (there is no sense of being a people – couples and small groups but never a vibrant community, they are agglomerations of individuals, e.g. Disneyland). Westerners seem to be overwhelmed by the fullness, the overflowing openness, the transcendence of the Carnival and hear all invitations to ‘get on bad’ with a simple-minded literalness to indulge in unacceptable excesses. Quite often, they fail to distinguish between the celebration of fertility and crass, un-nuanced, unmitigated debauchery. Octavio Paz empirically underpins this chaotic paradoxical nature of Carnival when he notes that in the magical time and space of Carnival that: “We free ourselves of the burden of time and reason…the very notion of order disappears….chaos returns and free license reigns……everything is permitted: the normal pecking order is abandoned in the area of social distinctions such as gender, class, occupational differentials….men can disguise themselves as women, owners as slaves, poor folks as rich people. The military, the clergy, the magistrature can be made to look ridiculous. Children and mad people can take over control of things. Ritual profanations can be committed, obligatory sacrileges. Love can become promiscuous. Sometimes the festival turns into a black mass. Rules, habits, customs are violated. The respectable individual can throw off his flesh and blood mask and the dark clothes that isolate him from the group and, then, dressed in bright colours hide behind a mask that frees him from himself….through carnival, society can free itself of self-imposed norms”. However, the Carnival of Trinidad and Tobago today is really a quite unique social site. The annual enactment allows certain things to be said and certain forms of social power to be exercised that, under normal circumstances, would be forbidden outside of the festival. The Carnival continues to be an occasion for recrimination from the lower classes, because of the dominance that continues to be displayed by the elite and upper classes. Historical evidence shows that the popular culture that characterises Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival is in many ways the property of the lower class Africans, whose social place and West African traditions have generated distinctive experiences, values and shared characteristic, that consequently appear in their masquerade, dances and calypsos. The Carnival continues to be an occasion for recrimination from the lower classes, because of the dominance that continues to be displayed by the elite and upper classes. Further, as a consequence of the historical events and experiences that affected Trinidad and Tobago and its inhabitants between the abolition of slavery) and its independence, the African masqueraders and musicians in Trinidad have inevitably adopted cultural practices and traits from Europeans, Asians, Africans, Venezuelans, neighbouring Caribbean islanders and North Americans. In that process of re-adaptation, they incorporated these influences into their masquerades, music, dance and song. Thus Carnival during this period between meant significantly more than a process of release, and certainly much more than Bahktin’s “ritual location of uninhibited speech (where) undominated discourse prevailed”. Bahktin speaks of the irresistible power of “festive Laughter”, not understanding that this was in fact a manifestation of their speech, their ‘new’ voice, that had been suppressed by the elite and Colonial Government for so long. As such, the ridicule, aggression and mockery particularly available during the J’ouvert enactment only makes sense to the outsider “when seen in the context of the power relations that will have taken place during previous years”. © Geraldine Connor (2006) This essay was taken from the Harewood Community, Education and Outreach Programme, an initiative of David Lascelles and The Harewood House Trust, in collaboration with Geraldine Connor. It was created for the Harewood Festival 2007 in commemoration of the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery parliamentary act 1807.