A Tempest by Aime Cesaire was originally published in 1969 in French by Editions du Seuil in Paris. Cesaire, a recognized poet, essayist, playwright, and politician, was born in Martinique in 1913 and, until his death in 2008, had been instrumental in voicing post-colonial concerns. In the 1930s, he, along with Leopold Senghor and Leon Gontian Damas, developed the negritude movement which endeavored to question French colonial rule and restore the cultural identity of blacks in the African diaspora. A Tempest is the third play in a trilogy aimed at advancing the tenets of the negritude movement. In 1985, the play was translated into English by Richard Miller and had its American premiere in 1991 at the Ubu Repertory Theater in New York after having been performed in France, the Middle East, Africa, and the West Indies.
A Tempest is a postcolonial revision of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and draws heavily on the original play—the cast of characters is, for the most part, the same, and the foundation of the plot follows the same basic premise. Prospero has been exiled and lives on a secluded island, and he drums up a violent storm to drive his daughter’s ship ashore. The island, however, is somewhere in the Caribbean, Ariel is a mulatto slave rather than a sprite, and Caliban is a black slave. A Tempest focuses on the plight of Ariel and Caliban—the never-ending quest to gain freedom from Prospero and his rule over the island. Ariel, dutiful to Prospero, follows all orders given to him and sincerely believes that Prospero will honor his promise of emancipation. Caliban, on the other hand, slights Prospero at every opportunity: upon entering the first act, Caliban greets Prospero by saying “Uhuru!”, the Swahili word for “freedom.” Prospero complains that Caliban often speaks in his native language which Prospero has forbidden. This prompts Caliban to attempt to claim birthrights to the island, angering Prospero who threatens to whip Caliban. During their argument, Caliban tells Prospero that he no longer wants to be called Caliban, “Call me X. That would be best. Like a man without a name. Or, to be more precise, a man whose name has been stolen.” The allusion to Malcolm X cements the aura of cultural reclamation that serves as the foundational element of A Tempest. Cesaire has also included the character Eshu who in the play is cast as a black devil-god. Calling on the Yoruba mythological traditions of West Africa, Eshu assumes the archetypal role of the trickster and thwarts Prospero’s power and authority during assemblies. Near the end of the play, Prospero sends all the lieutenants off the island to procure a place in Naples for his daughter Miranda and her husband Ferdinand. When the fleet begs him to leave, Prospero refuses and claims that the island cannot stand without him; in the end, only he and Caliban remain. As Prospero continues to assert his hold on the island, Caliban’s freedom song can be heard in the background. Thus, Cesaire leaves his audience to consider the lasting effects of colonialism.