Literature Review on “An Echo in the Bone” by Denis Scott
In May 1974, the first performance of Dennis Scott’s “An Echo in the Bone” was staged by the Drama Society at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus in Jamaica. The play deals with the destructive impact slavery has left on the history of Afro West Indians. Scott’s aim, through this play, is to reclaim and recreate the past lost to our ancestors as well as the voice taken from them, which merely stands today as an echo in the bone.
Though he aspires to recreate the history of then enslaved, he also acknowledges that the past should not hold possession over one’s self but act as a guided to not repeat past mistakes. He focuses on the period of enslavement and its transition to post-emancipation while using the thematic issues of racial prejudice, the supernatural, gender roles in society and the repercussions of history. He sees the past as a guide to fully understanding one’s true identity and culture, a view many of his generation holds in high regard as opposed to the modern generation who believes the past should remain in the past.
With there being limited and somewhat biased credit of the period of enslavement, Scott intricate oral traditions and folklore animate his play to life with a sense of emotional and spiritual understanding. The title itself is a play on words and the play is written in colloquial language in Jamaican dialect and is centered on the murder of Mr. Charles, a white estate owner, whose death occurs nine days prior to the beginning of the play, presumably at the hands of a black peasant farm owner popularly known as Crew.
In the pursuit to capture Crew, his shirt and machete were found by the river bed, covered with blood. It is this evidence that leads to the conclusion by his wife, Rachel, that Crew is dead. In accordance with her cultural tradition, Rachel decides to keep a nine-night for her deceased husband. The play is set in Jamaica, in an old dilapidated sugar barn behind Crew’s house in the year 1937 during the post-colonial era. The italics in the play represent a prelude of the events that will occur in the play, as well as, the stage directions.
A nine-night or set up is a ritualistic ceremony concerning the celebration of life and death. “The Jamaican Negroes believe that for nine nights after death, the ghost rises out of the grave and returns to its familiar haunts” states Martha Beckwith in Black Roadways. Its origin is sourced from Africa though it incorporates Christian elements and is performed to encourage the deceased spirit to move on. Rum plays a very significant role in a nine night as it is used to “appease the rooming spirits of loved ones” states Mango Salute writer, Nadya-Kaye Phillips.
Scott uses the nine night as an avenue to answer the unresolved questions Crew has left behind by the act of spiritual possession. He brilliantly manipulates the characters of the play to transport the audience to the past and present to fully understand the history of the enslaved and his need to recreate it and further more reclaim it. Through this possession the voices of the dead speak through the bodies of the living. It is during the opening scene that Crew’s spirit manifests itself through Dream Boat after rum is spilt at the home of the deceased.
In Jamaican folklore, the breaking of glass is seen as a bad omen. When the spirit takes hold of a dreamboat, Madam uses the light of a candle and oil to free dreamboat of the apparition. Scott uses stage conventions and props to portray of light versus “darkness. ” Light may act as a representation of life and nature as opposed to the darkness of death and the unknown. Sonson, Crew’s first son, after putting on the clothes of his diseased father, became his father’s vessel to host. These props aid in authenticating the play as it relates to the financial background of the main characters in the present.
Primogeniture is the right, by law or custom, of the firstborn child to inherit the family estate, in preference to siblings, it is a practice commonly done in African Societies. The first barn male is treated specially as he will be the patriarch of the family should the existing patriarch die or is unable to perform his responsibility due to mental or physical health issues. This part of African culture makes Sonson the best character to be the medium through which Crew communicates. It is after this possession, that the audience is transported through time and space to a ship, docked off an African coast.
The use of auditory imagery is consistent in the play through instances of the drum being beaten by Rattler as well as being heard along the dock on the coast of Africa when transported to the past. In this episode, Scott successfully multiplies his characters personalities without having additional cast, to integrate in this scene. Through this enactment we are able to see the opposing perspectives of slavery.
We see the perpetual voicelessness of the enslaves through the historical perspective of the tribal warfare among rivalling tribes in Africa who sold prisoners of war into slavery and that of their white oppressors in European society through the writings of Bryan Edwards and the Slave traders aboard the sea vessel on scene. The irony of this scene as it relates to the voiceless of the enslaved occurs through the violent act of Rattler’s tongue being cut off in the past and Rattler in the present being a mute, here also we see Scott’s genius use of characterization. Visual imagery portrays the harsh reality that the enslaved endured being captured, bought and sold like animals, this same reality that European authors dilute to create a false preconception.
The play successfully links historical events with subjective fictionionalization which clearly depicts the seen and the unseen, the heard and the silenced. The names of few the characters can be compared with these characters personality. “Stone” for instance has been described as “strong, almost as strong as Crew,” however, Stone as well as other nine characters were given multiple personalities which meant that there was no individual characterization. This is better understood in the production of the play which was performed by only black characters who would where white masks to represent white characters.