Aimé Césaire Essay - Césaire, Aimé (Drama Criticism)

Césaire, Aimé (Drama Criticism)


Aimé Césaire 1913-

(Full name Aimé Fernand Césaire) Martinican poet, dramatist, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism on Césaire's dramatic works from 1969 through 2003. See also Aime Cesaire Poetry Criticism and Aime Cesaire Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 19, 112.

An acclaimed Caribbean poet, dramatist, and statesman, Césaire's fervent advocacy for black self-determination and heritage has won him international recognition. During the 1930s and 1940s, he emerged as a founder and leading proponent of negritude, an artistic and political movement that sought to reclaim traditional black culture and racial identity in the wake of Western colonial ascendancy. Much of his drama is influenced by surrealism, which Césaire adopted to liberate himself from the conventions of European rationalism. A revolutionary artist and lifelong political activist, Césaire's forceful opposition to imperialism, racism, and the assimilation of Western culture among non-Western people has exerted a profound influence on contemporary world literature.

Biographical Information

Césaire was born on June 25, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean where, during his childhood, he experienced the poverty and political oppression of the island's black citizens. An exceptional student, Césaire won a scholarship to travel to Paris in the early 1930s and studied literature and philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. There he met Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor and founded, along with classmate Léon-Gontran Damas, L'Etudiant noir, the periodical in which the term negritude is believed to have originated. In 1939, the first version of Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land) appeared in the magazine Volontés; a second version, with a preface by French surrealist André Breton, was published in 1944, followed by the definitive edition in 1956. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, Césaire returned to Martinique with his wife, Suzanne Roussy, whom he married in 1937. Both worked as teachers at Césaire's former school in Fort-de-France while Césaire became increasingly active in politics and the Communist Party. In 1945, Césaire was elected mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy for Martinique to the French National Assembly. He founded Tropiques in 1941, a literary journal significant for its advocacy of black culture and surrealism. Though Césaire renounced his affiliation with the Communist Party in 1956, for reasons explained in the widely circulated pamphlet Lettre à Maurice Thorez (1956; Letter to Maurice Thorez), he maintained an active role in local Martinique politics. In 1957, Césaire founded the Martinique Progressive Party and was elected its president the next year. During the 1960s, he produced additional volumes of poetry and his three major dramas—La tragédie du roi Christophe (1963; The Tragedy of King Christophe), Une saison au Congo (1966; A Season in the Congo), and Une tempête (1969; A Tempest). Césaire's plays and verse were collected and published in Oeuvres complètes (1976; Complete Works), with the exception of poetry from Moi, laminaire (1982). Césaire continued to serve as mayor of Fort-de-France until 1983 and deputy for Martinique until 1993.

Major Works

Césaire's preoccupation with the pernicious effects of decolonialization, cultural alienation, and the reconciliation of past and present pervades both his poetry and drama. His three major dramas are didactic, politicized presentations of important historical or literary figures that achieve archetypal symbolism. The Tragedy of King Christophe portrays the demise of nineteenth-century monarch Henri Christophe during the period of Haitian decolonialization. After mounting a successful revolution against French colonists, Christophe crowns himself king. However, his cruelty and despotic abuse of power eventually lead to rebellion and, finally, to his suicide. Through the failure of Christophe, an ambitious and well-meaning tyrant, Césaire satirizes aristocratic grandeur and the heroic pretensions of postcolonial dictators in Africa and other Third World countries. A Season in the Congo recounts the tragic death of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo Republic and an African nationalist hero. The play follows Lumumba's efforts to free the Congolese from Belgian rule and the political struggles that eventually led to his assassination in 1961. Césaire depicts Lumumba as a sympathetic Christ-like figure whose conscious martyrdom reflects his self-sacrificing humanity and commitment to pan-Africanism. An adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Césaire's A Tempest examines Western colonialism and racial conflict through the relationship between Prospero and his slaves. Césaire's version portrays Prospero as a decadent imperialist, Ariel as a pacifistic mulatto slave, and Caliban as an unwilling black slave who openly rebels against Prospero and demands to be referred to as “X.” After Caliban's attempted revolution fails, both he and Prospero declare their resolve to remain on the island and to resist each other with violence if necessary. As in his other works, Césaire contrasts the insidious machinations of neo-colonial subjugation with the liberating aspirations of negritude.

Critical Reception

Césaire is renowned as a leading voice of post-colonial emancipation and black self-affirmation. For his role in the definition of negritude, he is considered among the most important black writers of the postwar period. As a playwright, Césaire has won widespread approval from critics and Third World audiences. His dramas have been compared to those of Bertolt Brecht, particularly The Tragedy of King Christophe and A Season in the Congo, for their instructive use of black comedy and satire. His plays have elicited a variety of interpretations and critical reactions, but commentators concur that Césaire's dramatic work is an important and compelling expression of his political ideals and an integral part of his literary oeuvre. A visionary artist and legendary political leader in the West Indies, Césaire became an indispensable model for literary revolt and cultural reclamation among contemporary African and Caribbean writers.

Principal Works

Et les chiens se taisaient: tragédie [And the Dogs Were Silent: A Tragedy] 1956

La tragédie du roi Christophe [The Tragedy of King Christophe] 1963

Une saison au Congo [A Season in the Congo] 1966

Une tempête: d'apres “La tempête” de Shakespeare [A Tempest] 1969

Les armes miraculeuses [The Miracle Weapons] (poetry) 1944

Soleil Cou-Coupé [Beheaded Sun] (poetry) 1948

Corps perdu [Lost Body] (poetry) 1949

Discours su le colonialisme [Discourses on Colonialism] (essays) 1950

Cahier d'un retour au pays natal [Notebook of a Return to My Native Land] (poetry) 1956

Lettre à Maurice Thorez [Letter to Maurice Thorez] (letter) 1956

Ferrements (poetry) 1960

Toussaint L'Ouverture: La revolution française et le probleme coloniale [Toussaint L'Ouverture: The French Revolution and the Colonial Problem] (historical study) 1960

Cadastre (poetry) 1961

Oeuvres complètes [Complete Works] 3 vols. (poetry) 1976

Poèmes 1976

Moi, laminaire (poetry) 1982

The Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire (poetry) 1983

Lyric and Dramatic Poetry, 1946-82 (poetry) 1990

Criticism: General Commentary

Seth L. Wolitz (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Wolitz, Seth L. “The Hero of Negritude in the Theater of Aimé Césaire.” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 16, no. 3 (1969): 195-208.

[In the following essay, Wolitz examines the didactic function of the hero in Césaire's plays.]

“J'ai marché devant tous, triste et seul dans ma gloire.”

—Alfred de Vigny

The poet-president Léopold Senghor has written many theoretic tracts on Negritude,1 but Aimé Césaire, poet, playwright, Mayor of Fort-de-France, has expounded, for the most part, his vision of Negritude in verse and drama.

… ma Négritude n'est ni une tour ni une cathédrale
.....elle plonge...

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Robert P. Smith, Jr. (essay date June 1971)

SOURCE: Smith, Robert P., Jr. “Aimé Césaire Playwright Portrays Patrice Lumumba Man of Africa.” CLA Journal 14, no. 4 (June 1971): 371-79.

[In the following essay, Smith considers the portrait of Patrice Lumumba, the late Congolese Prime Minister and nationalist hero, in Césaire's plays.]

Before examining the panegyrical portrait which is presented to us of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's most influential nationalist hero, its first Prime Minister and most famous martyr, it will be useful to look briefly at a lesser known phase of Césaire's literary career, that of the playwright. In fact it is from this writer's third play, Une saison au Congo,1...

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Michel Benamou (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Benamou, Michel. “Demiurgic Imagery and Césaire's Theatre.” Présence Africaine 93 (1975): 165-77.

[In the following essay, Benamou explores Césaire's demiurgic role in African theatre through a discussion of the imagery and thematic concerns of his dramas.]


Demiurgic politics call for demiurgic poetics. If a leader does not have a people to lead, but must first create the people's consciousness of itself, his relationship to the people is the same as that of a dramatist who, because he lacks an audience, creates an audience by the drama he writes, and both creations, the theatre and the people, demand that the...

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M. J. N. A. Xavier (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Xavier, M. J. N. A. “A Study of the Theme of Rebirth in the Tragedies of Aime Cesaire.” In Garcia Marquez and Latin America, edited by Alok Bhalla, pp. 161-68. New York: Envoy Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Xavier examines the theme of rebirth in Césaire's plays, asserting it “has significance for the structure and form of his dramatic work.”]

The theme of rebirth is a constant one in the work of Aime Cesaire. In his poetry, Cesaire counterbalances images of violence with images of renewal; in his theatre, he counterbalances the failure and death of the protagonists with final images of hope and rebirth.

The rebirth theme,...

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Robert Eric Livingston (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Livingston, Robert Eric. “Decolonizing the Theatre: Césaire, Serreau and the Drama of Negritude.” In Imperialism and Theatre: Essays on World Theatre, Drama, and Performance 1795-1995, edited by J. Ellen Gainor, pp. 182-98. London: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following essay, Livingston discusses Césaire's collaboration with the French director Jean-Marie Serreau and acknowledges these works as vehicles for advancing the political aims of the negritude movement.]

Poet, politician and anti-colonial theorist, Aimé Césaire is best known as one of the founders of the negritude movement. Launched as a literary movement in the hothouse of 1930s Paris, negritude...

(The entire section is 7344 words.)

Criticism: La Tragedie Du Roi Christophe (The Tragedy Of King Christophe)

Hunt Hawkins (essay date December 1986)

SOURCE: Hawkins, Hunt. “Aimé Césaire's Lesson about Decolonization in La tragédie du roi Christophe.CLA Journal 30, no. 2 (December 1986): 144-53.

[In the following essay, Hawkins addresses Césaire's skepticism regarding decolonization and the actions of King Christophe as portrayed in The Tragedy of King Christophe.]

In his speech “L'homme de culture et ses responsabilités” delivered to the Second International Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Rome in 1959, Aimé Césaire, the Martinican poet-statesman, proposed a number of tasks for his audience. One duty was “de rétablir la double continuité rompue par le colonialisme, la...

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Roger Little (essay date October 1994)

SOURCE: Little, Roger. “Questions of Intertextuality in La tragédie du roi Christophe.French Studies 48, no. 4 (October 1994): 439-51.

[In the following essay, Little considers the function and value of intertextuality in The Tragedy of King Christophe.]

Readers or spectators of Césaire's plays cannot help being drawn into a web of intertextuality. Our understanding of Une tempête must of necessity take account of the play's relationship with the Shakespeare original and, to a subsidiary degree, with those readings of The Tempest which view the relationship between Prospero and Caliban as emblematic of that between colonial master and...

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Nick Nesbitt (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Nesbitt, Nick. “Cannibalizing Hegel: Decolonization and European Theory in La tragédie du roi Christophe.” In Voicing Memory: History and Subjectivity in French Caribbean Literature, pp. 118-44. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Nesbitt investigates the influence of G. W. F. Hegel's dialectical historicism on Césaire's work, particularly The Tragedy of King Christophe.]

Human history, the history of the progressing mastery of nature, continues the unconscious history of nature, of devouring and being devoured.

—Theodor W. Adorno


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Criticism: Une TempêTe (A Tempest)

Janis L. Pallister (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Pallister, Janis L. “Une tempête.” In Aimé Césaire, pp. 87-97. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

[In the following essay, Pallister provides a critical overview of A Tempest.]

Obviously modeled after, and even a subversion of, Shakespeare's The Tempest, Césaire's Une tempête (1969), an “adaptation for Negro theater,” seeks to reorient the colonized Caliban, to free him from the shackles of precivilization Prospero has imposed on him. Island imagery once again prevails, and Prospero and Caliban effectively point up the master-slave dynamic.

Seemingly unknown to most commentators on Césaire's play, Ernest...

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Joan Dayan (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: Dayan, Joan. “Playing Caliban: Césaire's Tempest.Arizona Quarterly 48, no. 4 (winter 1992): 125-45.

[In the following essay, Dayan examines Césaire's interpretation of Caliban in his A Tempest and differentiates his characterization from Shakespeare's version.]

After the Amerindians (Carib, Arawak, Taino, and Siboney), the original inhabitants of the Caribbean, were annihilated, and nothing remained but a blankness waiting to be filled by African slaves, a name would remain. The name alone would stand for all that had been destroyed: “Cannibal” uttered by those who “civilized” the land would live on to justify the extirpation of a...

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Robert P. Smith, Jr. and Robert J. Hudson (essay date June 1992)

SOURCE: Smith, Robert P., Jr., and Robert J. Hudson. “Evoking Caliban: Césaire's Response to Shakespeare.” CLA Journal 35, no. 4 (June 1992): 387-99.

[In the following essay, Smith and Hudson view Césaire's Caliban from A Tempest to be “a trickster and a shrewd impatient slave who refuses to submit and who wants freedom without delay, like the militant black hero who rejects the language, the name given to him, and the philosophy of servility of the unwanted master.”]

As long as this universe is plagued by imperialism, tyranny, genocide, slavery, inhumanity, hypocrisy, and the rest, someone will continue to cite, in support of or justification for his...

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Timothy Scheie (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Scheie, Timothy. “Addicted to Race: Performativity, Agency, and Césaire's A Tempest.College Literature 25, no. 2 (spring 1998): 17-29.

[In the following essay, Scheie elucidates the “potential for a subversive performativity in A Tempest, specifically in the final scene's enactment of racial identity as addiction.”]

A profound sense of spectacle pervades the dramatic writings of Aimé Césaire. Unabashedly political in their critique of simplistic, accepted readings of racial and national identity, these plays do not preach to the spectator, nor do they purport to mirror a reality through the conventions of mimetic theater. A lucid and...

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Judith Holland Sarnecki (essay date December 2000)

SOURCE: Sarnecki, Judith Holland. “Mastering the Masters: Aimé Césaire's Creolization of Shakespeare's The Tempest.French Review 74, no. 2 (December 2000): 276-86.

[In the following essay, Sarnecki explores the ways in which Césaire utilizes language to express his revolutionary views in A Tempest.]

“Many a man's tongue shakes out his master's undoing” wrote William Shakespeare in All's Well That Ends Well (2.4.23). Aimé Césaire takes Shakespeare at his word when he rewrites The Tempest, taking on the “master” in a political and artistic quest to free himself and his people from the oppression they have suffered at the hands of...

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Lucy Rix (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Rix, Lucy. “Maintaining the State of Emergence/y: Aimé Césaire's Une tempête.” In “The Tempest” and Its Travels, edited by Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman, pp. 236-49. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.

[In the following essay, Rix offers various interpretations of Cêsaire's A Tempest.]

The Martinican malaise is the malaise of a people that no longer feels responsible for its destiny and has no more than a minor part in a drama of which it should be the protagonist.1

What is this distinctive force of Fanon's vision that has been forming even as I write about...

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Further Reading


Davis, Gregson. Aimé Césaire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 208 p.

Biographical and critical study.


Arnold, A. James. “Césaire and Shakespeare: Two Tempests.” Comparative Literature 30, no. 3 (summer 1978): 236-48.

Explores the relationship of Shakespeare's The Tempest to Césaire's A Tempest.

Charney, Maurice. “Caribbean Shakespeare: Aimé Césaire's Une tempête.Journal of Theatre and Drama 4 (1998): 73-80.

Maintains that in A Tempest Césaire's “abundant colonial...

(The entire section is 440 words.)