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...

(The entire section is 5413 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 3089 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 4572 words.)

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,...

(The entire section is 2766 words.)

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.)