In Brief: The beast is a variation of the dragon mas, and one-third of the Dragon/Devil mas band; the remaining two-thirds being the Gownmen and Imps. A popular Mas, the history and performance practice of the Dragon character varies widely. Caribbean festival drama assimilates and plays upon variations of Dragons referenced in different cultures. When played as an independent mas, for instance, Chinese dragons are often portrayed as wise and can be benevolent, whereas the European tradition of dragons is associated with destruction and mayhem. When not played as part of a devil band, a dragon is not considered “the beast”. Rather, the beast is partially defined by its role in being “chained up” and “released”. The dragon/beast is heavily associated with the book of revelation and is generally chained or caged somehow (controlled by an imp, noted as the Key Imp for its ability to “unlock” the beast). The beast often represents the gates of hell and underworld. In Caribbean Mas portrayal, dragons often rush at audience members, frightening them, before being restrained by an imp.
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Mas Origins and History:
Jeff Henry states,
“The Dragon myth came to Trinidad with the arrival of the Europeans. As Christopher Columbus entered the Gulf of Paria, he name its northern entrance, ‘Boca de la Sierpe’ the Serpent’s Mouth. Over the years, dragon mythology seeped into our language as common usage: novelists and calysonians say ‘he tun beast’ when referring to someone losing their temper uncontrollably.”
The earliest recorded reference to the Dragon as a unique character interacting with separate demonic characters was likely in 1908. As Hill retells,
“In 1908 a mas band leader, Patrick Jones, was inspired by illustrations in a copy of Dante’s Inferno. He used costuming colors of khaki and slate, and his band included the characters of Lucifer, a Dragon, and the previously noted red devils now renamed Imps.”
The success of this band lead Jones to create other Devil centered Mas bands including one called, “Red Dragon and Demonites”.
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The Beast variation of dragon is stated by Hill as having its source in
“the Revelation of St. John, where several species are described, in particular the seven-headed beast. His headmask often has moveable ears, eyes, and tongue, and until an unfortunate accident some years ago, when a masquerader was burnt about the face, the Beast used to emit flames and smoke from his open mouth. Around his waist are three or four lengths of chain held taut by imps who control his progress. Other Impos surround him goading him with their axes, and as he strikes out at them in a lunging movement their companions restrain his attacks by pulling on the chains. This pantomime provides the characteristic shape of the Beast’s dance.”
“Around the waist of the Caged Beast is a chain with locks, which must be opened with a key, and it is the Key Imp who must approach the Beast to unlock the chains. The fluid moments of attack and retreat and the interplay among the Imps at this moment is incredible. The Key Imp must also open the gate to the entrance of Hell/Earth. The Beast is the guardian of this gate and four to six Imps pull the Beast in different directions to keep him subdued and under control as the Beast is chained when he is outside the cage. This inability to control his movements enrages the Beast: he rears up on his hind legs and totters in menacing and frightening as he claws the air, then suddenly drops on all fours and crawls like a snake on the ground. Guttural sounds echo forth as the beast paws the earth. The ringing bells and blowing of the horns add to the increased tempo of the music, creating a cacophony of sound, which in turn heightens the intensity of the movements. The Imps must breach the Beast’s space; they are frenzied, nervous, agitated. The spectacle of movement, the riot of colour and the interplay among the characters is riveting. no spectator dares to penetrate the enclosure of the Dragon/Devil Band.”
Variations and Developments of Note: Variations according to Hill, sometimes even within a single band, may include King Beast, monster Beast, Stray beast, and Baby Beast.
The essential variations of the Beast/Dragon are two part: Caged Beasts and Uncaged Beasts.
Caged Beasts: Dragon/Beasts that are locked in a cage, or when let out of the key, restrained by imps using a lock and a long chain.
Uncaged Beasts: These are free ranging beasts of several varieties that may or may not have as defined a function within the band. according to Jeff Henry, “These are roving beasts, who are costumed like the king beast, but lack his grandeur and glamour. They are unchained and have no real role or function in the band. The desire to play the beast is prevalent among younger players. Subcategories were establised such as apprentices or beasts-in-training. Once rituals and movements were learned , these apprentices replaced older players or moved on to newly formed bands. This was a case of taking creative licence as the uncaged beasts proclaimed that in their Hell there must be opportunity for younger players to develop expertise for the future”
By combining the references of Hill and Henry, along with the names cited in Henry’s account, it is possible to infer that the King Beast and Monster beast might be caged, whereas the stray and baby beasts would be uncaged, as indicated by their title “stray” (likely menaing free roamingg), and “baby” (which might indicate a beast player in training.)
References in Arts and Popular Culture: Henry States, “Earl Loveland uses the metaphor of the dragon in The Dragon Can’t Dance, and David Rudder sings in “The Hammer”.
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Henry, Jeff. Under the mas’: resistance and rebellion in the Trinidad masquerade. San Juan, Trinidad and Tobago: Lexicon, 2008. Print.
Hill, Errol. The Trinidad carnival; mandate for a national theatre.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972. Print.