Aimé Césaire Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Aimé Césaire’s plays mark a conscious departure in style and artistic attitude from the main body of his poetry and are essential to a full understanding of his career—the career not only of a poet and historian but of a politician as well. With the exception of Et les chiens se taisaient (and the dogs grew silent), which was first included as a dramatic poem in Miraculous Weapons and only later revised in a special “theatrical arrangement” in 1956, all of Césaire’s plays were composed and performed in the 1960’s. In these years, the opportunities for decolonization had apparently increased abruptly. Several African states were for the first time winning their independence, and in the United States, the Civil Rights movement was at its height. As a longtime spokesperson for negritude, Césaire apparently wanted to reach audiences put off by the dense imagery of his Surrealist poetry—especially audiences from the largely illiterate countries in which decolonization was occurring. In the speeches of his characters, Césaire debates the entirely new set of problems created by independence: the problems of rebels in power, of former slaves who enslave others, and of anticolonialists who fight one another instead of the enemy.

As a group, Césaire’s four plays can be said to touch on the principal concerns of his life’s work. If Et les chiens se taisaient belongs to the world of Return to My Native Land, with its exotic invocations of revolt in a general or a metaphysical sense, the next three plays situate themselves in the history of the black movement: The Tragedy of King Christophe in the Caribbean of postindependence Haiti of the early nineteenth century, A Season in the Congo in the Congo of contemporary Africa, and The Tempest in the spiritual landscape of African American politics.

Et les chiens se taisaient

Et les chiens se taisaient describes Césaire’s journey from poetry to theater, and the play has been staged only in German translation. The play’s hero, referred to simply as “the Rebel,” carries on the obsessive interest in negritude from Return to My Native Land—at once enchained and wildly free, eloquent and mute, a descendant of slavery and of royalty. Although the play opens to a more-or-less conventional prison setting, where the Rebel has been condemned to death for killing his “master,” the apparent order rapidly disintegrates into a series of hallucinatory tableaux representing various stages of colonization from Columbus to the present. Here, one finds sudden changes of scenery and quick jumps in time and place. The entire tapestry of characters and events therefore is located, fantastically, within what the play calls “a vast collective prison, peopled by black candidates for madness and death.”

The play is a phantasmagoric record of rebellion and subjugation in their pure states, in which characters with emblematic titles such as “The Administrator” and “The Great Promoter” march before the reader hypocritically lamenting the “burden of civilization,” while a Chorus representing the West Indian people admires the Rebel’s example from a distance, without being able to follow it. “Bishops” and “High Commissioners” confront “Lovers”; statistics confront poetry. The play nevertheless establishes motifs that recur in Césaire’s later dramatic work—particularly the image of the leader who...

(The entire section is 1433 words.)