Rumpunch and Prejudice – The Play

Dear Editor:

As part of the festivities taking place in Dominica this month Dominica’s New Dimension Theatre will be staging the above Play, adapted by Steve Hyacinth and based on the novel, Rumpunch and Prejudice, by Raglan Riviere, from May 25th-27th, at the Arawak House Of Culture. To better appreciate the message the author is conveying, let me share two critical reviews from two well-known Dominican authors, Justice Dr. Irving Andre and Alick Lazare:

By Justice Dr. Irving Andre, 1999

The book title captures the fate of many white expatriates who settled in the island of Dominica as they grappled with the isolation resulting from their unwillingness to interact with the local black population. Both Jean Rhys and Alec Waugh have dealt with this problem in their fiction. Raglan Riviere however, focuses not on the near impregnable social wall which separated the races in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but on the dismantling of the barriers between the races in the 1960’s. In Rum Punch and Prejudice, Englishman Bruce Knowles returns to the island after twenty five years, to assume control of his deceased father’s estate. He had earlier received an unlikely ultimatum from his dying uncle. Either he returned to manage the family estate or face the prospect of it being bequeathed to the local population.

The offer places Knowles in a quandary. He had bitterly left the island after stumbling upon his father making love to their black housekeeper. Returning would bring him face to face with his painful past. Remaining in England however, would enrich his perceived black enemies at his own expense.

Buoyed by the support from his wife and teenage daughter, Knowles eventually returns to the island. His racial hatred causes problems and before long, there is labour unrest on the plantation, his daughter is accused of having a racist father and his wife becomes an alcoholic.

Knowles journey however, is as much physical as it is spiritual. His prejudice dissipates under the influence of the very people he abhors. He rediscovers his love for Mable, the family’s “servant”, who’d known him since childhood. His daughter, Sandra, becomes romantically involved with a “well bred” local boy much to his chagrin.

The catalyst for Knowle’s transformation is his wife’s accusation that his hatred stems from his childhood jealousy of his father’s love for a black woman. He barges out of the house and into a raging storm. But the storm which threatens him is the one within. He seeks refuge in a childhood hideout where he is found by Mable. She consoles him and is then confronted by his love for his former black nursemaid and the absurdity of hating her kind. Spiritually transformed, he returns home and is welcomed by his family with open arms.

The message of Rumpunch and Prejudice is that racial tolerance cannot be legislated; it can only be propagated by individual action. That message may not fully accord with the view that bigotry is too firmly entrenched in the psychology of western civilization to be fully ameliorated by “individual action”. The correct view perhaps, is that both individual and legislative action have a role to play in improving human relations.

The novel evokes familiar sights and sounds of Dominica. A few characters use colloquialism although Riviere does not use the french creole spoken by many local residents. The landscape is described sometimes vividly, but its impact on the Knowles family is not fully explored.

Mable’s role in Rumpunch and Prejudice is somewhat similar to that of Lally in Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s The Orchid House. Both are attached to the white expatriate family and reflect their respective views of their employers. Lally for example, is repulsed by Joan’s alliance with the local labour movement while Mable is similarly revolted by the relationship between Sandra and her coloured boyfriend.

Riviere presents a vision of life in the island where love and upbringing are the ultimate arbiters of human interaction in the island. Morals and merit, rather than melanin, should determine social relations in the island.

By Alick Lazare

Quite recently someone observed that since the generation of Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand-Allfrey no Dominican had succeeded in publishing a novel. It was a pleasure, therefore, to receive a copy of Raglan Riviere’s ‘Rumpunch and Prejudice’. It was an even greater pleasure to read it.

It is difficult to draw a line between literary criticism and a book review. The task of the reviewer borders on both a faithful interpretation of the substance of a publication as well as a fair assessment (which implies critical appraisal) of its merit. The reviewer walks a thin line between representing his understanding of the author’s work without imposing on the reader his subjective view of the merits of the work. In this case the task was easy.

Rumpunch and Prejudice reflects Raglan Riviere’s own personal background, not necessarily his life’s experience. As a sociologist, he has dissected quite dispassionately the vexing question of racism as it was during the colonial (or post-colonial) period. As one who has lived for a very long time away from his native island, he has written from a perspective which borders on the romantic.

The book is about a white Dominican who hates black people because, while he was still a child, he surprised his father in the embraces of a black servant. Bruce, the main character, could not forgive his father, the white owner of a large estate, for supplanting his dead mother with a black servant, even twenty-five years after he was sent off to England to study. He refused to return for his father’s funeral and harboured a persistent hatred for all blacks to the point of paranoia despite the liberal views and attitudes of a loving wife and daughter. He returns to the island to manage his inheritance, to face his own internal conflict in his relationship with his black workers and the irony of his school-going daughter’s love for a black student; and finally to find redemption in the love of his old, black housekeeper who had mothered him in the torment of his youthful experience.

The author psychoanalyses Bruce’s hatred of black people not so much as deriving from innate prejudice as from the threat of the deprivation of his father’s love after his mother’s death and the devastation to his security as a child on seeing his father physically engaged with the black servant. Bruce’s antipathy to the blacks is even more confusing since he maintains his love and attachment to his father’s black housekeeper until his departure to England. As the author put it, Bruce “was expressing blackness not only as colour, but also as character”.

The book paints a vivid picture of white colonial Dominica in the sixties with the standard stereotypes of white privilege and ascendancy. There is a white colonial administrator. The doctor is white. So is the lawyer. Bruce and his family, ordinary working class people in England (he worked with British Railways in a non-managerial position), are suddenly placed in a position of social prominence, receiving from the queen’s representative condolences on behalf of Her Majesty. There are also black stereotypes. The black managers and workers are seen in white eyes as lazy, shiftless and untrustworthy. But the most startling is the black housekeeper “standing at the outer door of the kitchen like the biblical good servant who stayed awake awaiting the return of the master”.

Rumpunch and Prejudice is a faithful portrayal of white plantation society at the time, closed-in and defensive. Husbands club together in endless social drinking. Wives stay home and drown their loneliness and idleness in secret bouts of drunkenness. There is even a Red Rose Club (a clever play upon Red Rose Tea, a typically British social beverage) where the wives gather in self-protective isolation. The story is clearly dated before the Black Power era. It is more about white consciousness in a black society than about the black condition itself, almost reminiscent of Rhys and Allfrey. But its message is powerful, even if it reads like a mitigation of the grossly anomalous posture of white prejudice in a predominantly black society. If anything, it is too romantic. The internal conflict in Bruce, and his distorted emotions should lend to more serious drama, even tragedy. But Bruce’s redemption is made without pain, which is almost a disappointment, given the intensity of the hate that drove him in his vitriolic relations with black people.

The book is well crafted, well written and easy to read. The language is elegant and at times brilliant, describing scenes such as this: “The blazing sun was generous in its brilliance, lighting up the Caribbean Sea in myriads (sic) of glistening sparkles as the ripples danced to the beat of nature.” and this: “Bruce held his breath at every bend, where sheer precipices gape at you with jagged ferocity. Yet, the undulating plains below, intersected by evergreen valleys and meandering rivulets, invite you to sojourn in the bosom of nature’s serenity. It is this unique contradiction of ruggedness and beauty that has earned the island the enviable name of Cinderella of the Caribbean.” It is the kind of book that takes you away from the television and keeps you reading through the night. It is a book for all ages and is highly recommended for school reading.

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