Errol Hill: Carnival Professor

The life and times of Errol Hill

  • Errol Hill

Errol Gaston Hill, 5 August, 1921–16 September, 2003

The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre, by Errol Hill. That’s the book to read if you want to know the real background of Trinidad Carnival, and why it came to be the way it is.

First published in 1972, it is still the definitive account of the birth and development of the Carnival. It tells how the French brought their version of Carnival to Trinidad at the end of the 18th century, how their European antics were mimicked by their African slaves and servants, and how the festivities were hijacked after emancipation in the 1830s and became a festival of the streets. It traces the beginning of the masquerade rituals, the rise of calypso and the tents, the birth of the steelband, and the development of stage spectacle and competition.

All this is keenly relevant to 21st-century Carnival — you can still distinguish “French” from “African” components, for example. The shame is that when the book was republished in 1997 (New Beacon Books, ISBN 1873201141), the opportunity to update the text to that time was missed.

But that will be for another book and another author now. For Errol Hill died last September, aged 82, still a passionate crusader for a unique, rooted, authentic Caribbean theatre.

With typical Trinidadian energy, Hill spread his talents wide, and excelled with them all. As a historian, he did the pioneering Carnival research that appeared in The Trinidad Carnival. As a playwright, he is well remembered for Man Better Man, Ping Pong, and Dance Bongo, among other plays. As an actor and director, he was a founding member of Trinidad’s first semi-professional company, the Whitehall Players, in 1947, and produced one of the most controversial of all “Dimanche Gras” shows (Whistling Charlie and the Monster, 1964).

Trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he earned a string of degrees from the Yale School of Drama, then lectured and taught across the Caribbean, in New York, and in Nigeria, before becoming drama professor at Dartmouth College in 1968. He was professor of drama and oratory emeritus there when he died. He published books on Jamaican, African, and African American theatre, and on black Shakespearean actors.

Hill’s vision of a truly indigenous Caribbean theatre has not come to pass. Perhaps it never will. But that would have been the best memorial.