Aimé Césaire

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Hunt Hawkins (essay date December 1986)

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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 continuité d'avec le monde, la continuité d'avec nous-mêmes.”1 Since colonialism had balkanized the African people in space and interrupted African history in time, the black artist was obliged to recover the precolonial past.

It is interesting to note, though, that Césaire's plays do not follow his prescription to retrieve precolonial culture. Rather, they are aimed primarily at the present. In his long poem “Cahier d'un retour au pays natal” Césaire says at one point:

Non, nous n'avons jamais été amazones du roi du Dahomey, ni princes de Ghana avec huit cents chameaux, ni docteurs à Tombouctou Askia le Grand étant roi, ni architectes de Djénné, ni Madhis, ni guerriers. … Je veux avouer que nous fûmes de tous temps d'assez piètres laveurs de vaisselle.2

Césaire sardonically indicates here that he has little interest in arguing with colonialists who denigrate the African past. And he remains less interested than Léopold Senghor, his fellow founder of the Négritude movement, in proving the glories of that past. Rather, as an artist, Césaire chooses to focus on the problems of the present, the difficulties of those who during colonialism were reduced to the station of dishwashers.

The main duty which Césaire assigned the black artist in his Rome address was as follows:

Notre devoir d'hommes de culture, notre double devoir est là: il est de hâter la décolonisation, et il est, au sein même du présent, de préparer la bonne décolonisation, une décolonisation sans séquilles.”

(p. 117)

A bad decolonization is defined as:

celle qui au sein de l'indépendance ne songe qu'à utiliser—en les accommodant à une réalité nouvelle, les structures coloniales, alors que la vraie décolonisation est celle qui comprend que c'est sa tâche de briser de manière définitive les structures coloniales.

(p. 119)

Aimé Césaire's play La tragédie du roi Christophe, generally regarded as his theatrical masterpiece, deals with events which took place in Haiti at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is clear, however, that Césaire's concern is not strictly historical, as is evidenced by the several liberties which he takes with historical fact.3 Rather, Césaire obviously chose to portray the difficulties following Haitian independence because of their similarity to problems involved in the ongoing decolonization of Africa at the time the play was published in 1963. Thus, in dramatizing Christophe's unfortunate rule, Césaire's purpose was at once didactic and hortatory.

La tragédie du roi Christophe is the story of a bad decolonization, one in which the old colonial structures are used rather than shattered. Christophe, an ex-slave and ex-cook, became a general in Toussaint L'Ouverture's uprising against France. After L'Ouverture's death, he assumed control over the northern section of Haiti. Christophe imitates European institutions by crowning himself king, creating a native aristocracy, and turning the former colonial plantations into aristocratic estates. The oppressed, overworked peasants are left essentially the same as before. Thus in his well-intentioned but misguided, futile, and tragic attempt to establish a sense of self-worth denied by colonialism, Christophe ends up perpetuating the very...

(This entire section contains 3245 words.)

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colonial institutions which had been imposed by France.

It is remarkable that a number of critics have failed to see Césaire's criticism of Christophe. Like Christophe himself, they blame his failure on the recalcitrance of his subjects rather than on his own continuance of colonial methods. Thus Roert P. Smith, Jr., classifying Christophe as a “misunderstood and rejected Black hero,” says that his subjects “misunderstand his noble intentions and think of themselves only as his slaves.”4 The Ivory Coast critic B. Kotchy-N'Guessan says that “the people do not yet understand that the construction of the citadel requires their complete abnegation.”5 And Seth L. Wolitz categorizes Christophe as a “Hero of Negritude” who “as leader, or better dictator of the people, must force his people to accept the responsibility and challenge of liberty.” But supposedly “the people, irresponsible, unable to perceive the future, prefer what Christophe calls ‘la liberté facile’ posited by their real enemies. The people, then, betray their leader and their independence.”6

More careful reading of the play reveals that Césaire criticizes Christophe on many courts. The failure of the people to support Christophe is not due to their “irresponsibility” and “laziness” but rather to their rightful rebellion against the perpetuation of colonial structures. Césaire's objections to Christophe may be ranged under three headings. First, the king is so obsessed with the European opinion of his people that he can only think of molding his nation according to European norms. In the play, Vastey, Christophe's minion, tells a crowd:

Le monde entier nous regarde, citoyens, et les peuples pensent que les hommes noirs manquent de dignité! Un roi, une cour, un royaume, voilà, si nous voulons être respectés, ce que nous devrions leur montrer.7

Thus Christophe does not think primarily of what actions might establish the dignity of the people in their own minds but rather now Europeans might be made to regard them as dignified. As Abiola Irele notes, “Christophe's intention in establishing a monarchy … is not so much to identify himself with the aspirations of his own people as to justify them, with the outer forms that contemporary ‘respectable’ manners and opinions both offered and approved, in the eyes of the world, especially the former colonial master.”8

Césaire clearly mocks these strictly imitative attempts as foolish and futile. The nobles of Christophe's court are given titles such as the Duke of Lemonade, the Marquis of Downwind, the Duke of Fasto, and the Count of Stinkhole. Vastey maintains that “les Français ont bien le duc de Foix et le duc de Bouillon” (p. 32), but the Europeans are not likely to take this upstart nobility seriously even without its verbal silliness. Césaire's spokesman at this point is surely Magny, who says flatly of these titles: “Que signifie ce galimatias?” (p. 32). Even worse than their pretentiousness, these European distinctions require the suppression of the true nature of the Haitians as Césaire perceives it. Far from being a “Hero of Negritude,” Christophe is shown as hindering it. When the Master of Ceremonies instructs the court how to walk, he tells them to avoid “la nonchalance désinvolte, les pieds africains et les bras créoles” (p. 36).

Césaire's second criticism of Christophe is more material. Under Christophe's program, the living conditions of the mass of the people stay the same as during colonialism, or even grow worse. Because there is no land reform, the peasants remain tied to their former plantations.9 One peasant remarks,

Mais je me dis comme ça que si nous avons rejeté les Blancs à la mer, c'était pour l'avoir à nous, cette terre, pas pour peiner sur la terre des autres, même noirs, l'avoir à nous comme on a une femme, quoi!

(p. 74)

Christophe's quest for dignity has no immediate significance for these workers, especially if it means the creation of a new class system in which they are again at the bottom and deprived of resources. The same peasant goes on to say, “C'est pas de l'orgueil, qu'il faut avoir … mais la compréhension” (p. 75). The peasants demand tangible land reform rather than the hollow pride offered by Christophe.

In his desire to build up his kingdom, Christophe insists that his subjects work. He fails to see that the peasants have little motivation if they are laboring on someone else's property rather than their own. Like the former French slaveowners, Christophe comes to the conclusion that his people are lazy and undisciplined: “L'ennemi de ce peuple, c'est son indolence, son effronterie, sa haine de la discipline, l'esprit de jouissance et de torpeur” (p. 29). He decides, again like the colonialists, that the people must be driven by force.

Césaire's criticism of Christophe at this point is remarkably similar to that made by his Martinican compatriot, Frantz Fanon, about the group he called “la bourgeoisie nationale,” the ruling élite of the newly independent African countries. Although “la bourgeoisie nationale,” according to Fanon, retains close economic ties with the former mother-country instead of severing relations like Christophe, this group still closely resembles the Haitian monarch in its goals and attitudes. Specifically, it insists that the recalcitrant citizenry be driven to work to build up the nation. In Les damnés de la terre, published two years before La tragédie du roi Christophe, Fanon says:

Le colon n'a cessé d'affirmer que l'indigène est lent. Aujourd'hui, dans certains pays indépendants, on entend des cadres reprendre cette condamnation. En vérité, le colon voulait que l'esclave fût enthousiaste. Il voulait, par une sorte de mystification qui constitue l'aliénation la plus sublime, persuader l'esclave que la terre qu'il travaille est à lui, que les mines où il perd sa santé sont sa propriété. Le colon oubliait singulièrement qu'il s'enrichissait de l'agonie de l'esclave. Pratiquement le colon disait au colonisé: ‘Crève, mais que je m'enrichisse.’ Aujourd-hui, nous devons procéder différemment. Nous ne devons pas dire au peuple: ‘Crève, mais que le pays s'enrichisse.’10

Like Césaire, Fanon insists on a “good decolonization,” one which alters the former colonial attitudes and structures.

The principal work to which Christophe drives his subjects is the construction of the citadel. Even women and children are impressed to carry stones. Christophe maintains that the citadel will have defensive value: “Le rempart sans quoi il serait loisible au faucon de voler à gibier vu” (p. 83). But its remote mountian location would seem to render it impractical for this purpose. Rather, Christophe actually desires the citadel as an inspiring symbol of his people's ability to recover their dignity: “A ce peuple qu'on voulut à genoux, il fallait un monument qui le mît debout. … Annulation du négrier!” (p. 63). Christophe fails to realize, however, that instead of elevating his people with the glory of the citadel, he abases them with the slave labor necessary to its construction. Thus the building which is supposed to be a symbol of pride instead becomes an instrument and token of oppression.

Césaire's third, and final, criticism of Christophe is that rather than being the champion of the people as he imagines, the king becomes increasingly isolated in tyrannical egotism. His obsession with raising the people causes Christophe to become separated from them, in fact making him their most dangerous enemy. Césaire's spokesperson on this point seems to be Madame Christophe. She tells her husband that she had pictured a king as a “gros mombin sous lequel se réfugie le bétail assoiffé d'ombre” but Christophe has become “le gros figuier qui prend toute la végétation alentour et l'étouffe!” (p. 60). The King, however, pays no heed to this warning that he has become a fig tree rather than a mombin. In his frustration at his inability to transform his people according to his own conception of dignity, he becomes openly contemptuous of them. His frustration becomes murderous, verging on nihilism. In an odd comic scene in Act II, Christophe has his artillery blow up a peasant who is sleeping when the King thinks he should be working (see pp. 78-79). The action is presented as more frivolous than cruel, but it prefigures Christophe's deliberate murders later in the play, notably that of Archbishop Brelle. At one point Christophe seems to contemplate the destruction of his kingdom as a viable alternative to building it up:

Ah! Quel métier! Dresser ce peuple! Et me voici comme maître d'école brandissant la férule à la face d'une nation de cancres!

… Ou bien on brise tout, ou bien on met tout debout. On brise, cela peut se concevoir. … Tout par terre, la nudité nue. Ma foi, une liberté comme une autre.

(pp. 86-87)

Such destruction might shatter Christophe's dreams, but it would provide nihilistic relief from his frustration.

Despite Césaire's criticisms of Christophe for his obsession with European standards of dignity, his failure to alter the material conditions and class structure of his country, and his demagogic, nihilistic tendencies, the playwright does not present the king as a villain. In fact, Césaire seems quite sympathetic toward Christophe. Everything the king does springs from altruistic motives; nothing is selfish. One of Christophe's chief goals is to prevent the French from taking over the country again. He has a keen sense of this danger: “L'ocelot est dans le buisson, le rôdeur à nos portes, le chasseur d'hommes à l'affût, avec son fusil, son filet, sa muselière; le piège est prêt, le crime de nos persécuteurs nous cerne les talons” (p. 60). And in the play this fear is shown to be quite justified, not paranoid. A French ship repeatedly appears at the mouth of the harbor only to be turned back. Hugonin explains: “C'est le bateau du roi de France! … Si Monsieur a besoin de triques pour soigner ses lumbagos, la cale en est pleine” (p. 25).

But while Césaire clearly sympathizes with Christophe's desire to defend his country, he disagrees with the king's methods. Just as Christophe has failed to build a citadel useful for defense, so has he failed to give his people something to fight for. In retaining the old colonial structures, the king has merely replaced white faces with black ones at a certain level in the system of exploitation. For the peasants, Christophe and the Europeans are virtually interchangeable. Thus it would not be inconceivable for the French to return and reclaim the slot as oppressor which Christophe has maintained. To truly protect the country, Christophe must give his people something to fight for by providing them with tangible property and, more importantly, by changing their consciousness so they see themselves as free citizens rather than servants in their own land.

The other chief motive for Christophe's actions in his overwhelming sense of the past humiliations inflicted on his people. In a moving speech to his wife Christophe says:

A qui fera-t-on croire que tous les hommes, je dis tous, sans privilège, sans particulière exonération, ont connu la déportation, la traite, l'esclavage, le collectif ravalement à la bête, le total outrage, la vaste insulte, que tous, ils ont reçu, plaqué sur le corps, au visage, l'omni-niant crachat! Nous seuls, Madame, vous m'entendez, nous seuls, les nègres! Alors au fond de la fosse! … Et si nous voulons remontrer, voyez comme s'imposent à nous, le pied qui s'arcboute, le muscle qui se tend, les dents qui se serrent, la tête, oh! la tête, large et froide! Et voilà pourquoi il faut en demander aux nègres plus qu'anx autres.

(p. 59)

Christophe wants to insure that such humiliation will never be inflicted again. He wants to guarantee that “il n'y ait plus de par le monde une jeune fille noire qui ait honte de sa peau et trouve dans sa couleur un obstacle à la réalisation des voeux de son coeur” (p. 82). And he has a terrible feeling of urgency. Whereas other peoples have had centuries to achieve their successes, Christophe asks, “Où est pour nous le salut, si ce n'est ce que nous feron nous—à grands coups d'années, à grands ahans d'années?” (p. 139).

Césaire surely agrees with Christophe's disire to overcome past racial humiliations, to prevent future ones. But, as we have seen, the playwright disagrees with the king's methods. Christophe will never be able to accomplish his ultimate goals unless he allows his people to discover their own sense of self-worth. They will never achieve dignity so long as he imposes European standards on them, retains the European system of property relations, and insists that he alone is capable of rule. The mode of Césaire's play, then, as the title indicates, is tragedy. Christophe is not an evil man. Rather, he is a strong, brave, and noble man, a man capable of challenging the forces of nature and the gods, a man with good intentions who finally destroys himself. His tragic flaw is the inability of his imagination “de briser de manière définitive les structures coloniales.” This flaw leads him to oppress his people instead of helping them. Consequently his supporters desert him, his mind becomes haunted, and he finally kills himself.

While Césaire's play is a tragedy, however, it differs from classical tragedy in that the hero's actions are not seen as fated. While Christophe's feelings of past humiliation and present jeopardy powerfully impel him on the course he takes, he does have a choice. In Césaire's next play, Une saison au Congo (1966), the playwright shows the hero, Patrice Lumumba, deciding to break the old colonial structures even in the face of overwhelming opposition. Lumumba declares:

Camarades, tout est à faire, ou tout est à refaire, mais nous le ferons, nous le referons. Pour Kongo! Nous reprendrons les unes après les autres, toutes les lois, pour Kongo! Nous réviserons, les unes après les autres, toutes les coutumes, pour Kongo! Traquant l'injustice, nous reprendrons, l'une après l'autre toutes les parties du vieil édifice, et du pied à la tête, pour Kongo!11

In contrast, Christophe “ne songe qu'à utiliser … les structures coloniales.” Césaire's lesson in La tragédie du roi Christophe is that, however uncertain the outcome of creating new structures might be, the choice to retain the old colonial structures is doomed to failure and can only result in tragedy.


  1. Aimé Césaire, “L'homme de culture et ses responsabilités,” Deuxième Congrès des Écrivains et Artistes Noirs, Présence Africaine, NS, Nos. 24-25, Feb.-May 1959, p. 121. Hereafter cited in the text.

  2. Aimé Césaire, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1968), p. 80.

  3. See Henry Cohen, “History, Invention and Césaire's Roi Christophe,” Black Images, 2, Nos. 3-4 (1973), 33-36. For example, Pétion did not offer to remunerate former French landholders until ten years after Christophe's secession.

  4. Robert P. Smith, Jr., “The Misunderstood and Rejected Black Hero in the Theatre of Aimé Césaire,” CLA Journal, 16 (1972), 11.

  5. Quoted in A. James Arnold, Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981), p. 173. Arnold rightly labels Kotchy-N'Guessan's attitude “demagogic.”

  6. Seth L. Wolitz, “The Hero of Negritude in the Theatre of Aimé Césaire,” Kentucky Romance Quarterly, 16 (1969), 200, 202.

  7. Aimé Césaire, La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1963), p. 28. Hereafter cited in the text.

  8. Abiola Irele, “Post-Colonial Negritude: The Political Plays of Aimé Césaire,” West Africa, 27 Jan. 1968, p. 101.

  9. Henry Cohen notes that Césaire exaggerates this point. Christophe actually did increase the number of property owners by selling off much of the national domain. See Cohen, p. 35.

  10. Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre (Paris: Françoise Maspero, 1970), pp. 130-31.

  11. Aimé Césaire, Une Saison au Congo (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973), p. 29.

Seth L. Wolitz (essay date 1969)

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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 dans la chair rouge du sol
elle plonge dans la chair ardente du ciel …

(Cahier, p. 71)2

Césaire, like Lorca, began with poetry and turned to theater later in his career. The stage offered a larger audience and a more dynamic expression.

Art, for Césaire, provided the rhetorical vehicle for his didactic goal: to convince the reader of the validity and importance of Negritude. He must seek, therefore, to fulfill the highest esthetic norms in order that his polemics reach a receptive audience. Césaire, like Eisenstein in films and Brecht in theater, faces the demanding task of satisfying both art and ideology. It is clear then that Césaire adheres to the Marxist tradition of the artist's role in society.

In his plays, Césaire has concentrated on one particular theme of Negritude: decolonization, and particularly, political decolonization. Embittered by past and contemporary history, Césaire employs drama as a protest against colonialism and neo-colonialism. His plays are generally historical or quasi-historical tragedies. When Jean Decock, in an excellent article on Césaire's theater, questions the suitability of tragedy for social protest, “… puisque lui donner cette forme revient à exprimer le primat du malheur sur l'espoir …”,3 he underscores Césaire's disappointment with the past and the present. However, it does not mean that the future is necessarily bleak. The hero is defeated, but the ideology must be saved. In fact, the theater of Césaire is structured to reveal past failures so that the future may learn from them and implement the principles of the protagonist.

The hero is a political martyr. He symbolizes the first steps toward independence as well as the unfulfilled dream. The hero plays an inordinately central role in Césaire's dramas. The protagonist must be dramatically effective (the esthetic principle), and he must incarnate the ideals of Negritude (the didactic principle). That Césaire is able to satisfy such demands and to integrate the hero into a successful dramatic structure based on ideological needs underlines the originality of Césaire's dramaturgy. Our interest will be drawn to the didactic function of the hero.

Le Rebelle, Henri Christophe, Patrice Lumumba and Caliban are four incarnations of the Hero of Negritude. They are the protagonist in the four plays which form, at present, the corpus of Césaire's theater:4Et les chiens se taisaient (1943), La tragédie du roi Christophe (1963), Une saison au Congo (1966) and Une tempête (1968), an adaptation for a Negro troupe of The Tempest of William Shakespeare. These plays are, in Brechtian terms, Lehrstücke. They instruct the audience in the ideals of Negritude represented by the hero. Though the Hero of Negritude is defeated at the end of each play by the forces of colonialism or neo-colonialism, the audience leaves the theater aware of reactionary forces, but desirous of implementing the progressive political, social, and economic goals of Negritude. The theater of Césaire, then, is théâtre engagé, the socialist realist epic theater of the Left, the cultural manifestation of Negritude.

Each play of Césaire is divided into three acts and is structured on the following model: Act I—The Hero of Negritude leads or attempts to lead his enslaved people to full independence; Act II—The counter-revolutionary forces increase their agitation against the Hero who incarnates the ideals of the Revolution; Act III—The reactionary forces cause the death of the Hero of Negritude. Each play, then, presents the rise and fall of the revolution and its leader. An Hegelian-Marxist dialectic is visible: Act I—Thesis—Full independence for all the people is asserted against the colonialist condition; Act II—Antithesis—Colonialist aims are reasserted by former rulers and the bourgeoisie against the independence of the people; Act III—Synthesis—We see the emergence of neo-colonialism: the facade of independence is kept, but political, social and economic structures revert to colonial times. Thus, the tertiary structure of the plays reveals Césaire's adherence to historical determinism.

Tragedy, in the sense of destruction of what is noble, haunts Césaire's theater. Not only is the hero destroyed, but the goal of national unity and progress are laid waste by neo-colonialism. Each scene, an entity, is juxtaposed with another to reveal the conflict between the hero's attempted implementation of Negritude's goals and the reality of the opposition. In most scenes, in fact, the hero's ideals are contrasted with the reality of the given situation. The plays, therefore, end tragically, but the audience will reaffirm their ideology. A renewed national prise de conscience must occur and total decolonization may then proceed. In Une saison au Congo, the murder of Lumumba and the usurpation of power by a new caste led by General Mokutu should so horrify the audience that it will act immediately to bring down the present-day government of the Congo headed by General Mobutu! All the plays of Césaire are pièces à thèse which call for the overthrow of colonial or neo-colonial societies and their replacement with the ideals of Negritude exemplified by the martyred hero. Césaire's theater, then, clearly avoids Aristotelian concepts of dramatic structure and emotional catharsis of the public by espousing Brecht's epic structure and the “presumed” rational response from the audience following the play.

But Césaire did not look only to Brecht. He looked to Corneille for the concept of the heroic figure. Césaire wants a lucid hero: a hero who bases his actions on willed rational choice, a leader who unflinchingly chooses the highest good, a man totally devoted to the ideal of Negritude. Both Césaire and Brecht, as Marxists, could appreciate the Cornelian hero who, with free will, chooses his destiny instead of falling victim to fate. Polyeucte in fact represents the hero of free will, a protagonist without weakness, an individual who inspires admiration, not pity and fear. He appears not as a man who falls into hubris or surrenders to his passion, but as a man who can convert everyone by his belief and his martyrdom. He is the fullest hero whose very death gives life. The hero who holds to his principles though it means his death is the basis of the Hero of Negritude. Such nobility is portrayed in the celebrated scene of Polyeucte, Act V, scene 3, in which Pauline, attempting to stop her husband's martyrdom, cries out, “Ne désespère pas une âme qui t'adore.” She is answered by Polyeucte's intransigent profession of love of the highest good, “Je n'adore qu'un Dieu, maître de l'Univers,” and goes off to his death! Atheist Césaire, substituting the profession of Négritude for Dieu, repeats this same scene between wife and hero three times in his theater.5 The most striking example is between Pauline Lumumba and Patrice Lumumba (L [Une Saison au Congo], Act III, scene 2):

Tu as toujours été têtu … Mais est-ce que seulement il se soucie de moi! Je te parle, Patrice! Et tes yeux regardent par-dessus moi.
Dessus dessous, je ne sais les deux, sans doute. Au dessus je regarde l'Afrique [read Negritude] … et au dedans le Congo.
Rends-moi cette justice, je ne t'ai jamais détourné de ton devoir, mais tu n'as pas charge que d'Afrique.
Tant pis, je t'ai toujours appelée en moi-même, Pauline Congo. Si je disparais je laisse aux enfants une grande lutte en héritage. Tu les aideras …

The hero is intransigent. His personal gratifications recede before his duties to the community, the Nation, to all Black People, and in the latter days, to all mankind. Negritude must be. He is the doomed prophet who leads his people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the desert. When the Hero of Negritude enters upon the stage, his people, though independent, have slave mentalities. In Et les chiens se taisaient, Le Rebelle adequately describes the mental state: “Mon nom: offensé; mon prénom: humilié; mon état: révolté; mon âge: de pierre … ma race: la race tombée” (Chiens [Et les chiens se taisaient], p. 68). The first duty of the Hero of Negritude is to accept this pitiful condition and to lift up the people. As Christophe cries out, “Tout ce disjoint, oh mettre tout cela debout! Debout et à la face du monde et solide!” (C [La tragédie du roi Christophe], I, 6). The hero is at once a telluric figure who incarnates the people, the leader and the shaman: “Moi, la tête, j'ai juré de fonder la nation” (C, III, 3). It is at such moments that the plays become lyric dramas. The hero enters a prophetic trance and mirrors the glorious optimistic future not only of the nation, but true to the philosophy of Negritude, the liberation and fulfillment of all Black people. Though Césaire permits Lumumba some beautiful lines,

Oh! cette rosée sur l'Afrique! Je regarde, je vois, camarades, l'arbre flamboyant, des pygmées, de la hache, s'affairent autour du tronc précaire, mais la tête qui grandit, cite au ciel qui chavire, le rudiment d'écume d'une aurore.

(L, III, 6)

Césaire, imitating Shakespeare, Brecht and perhaps the stances of Corneille, offers Christophe the most lyric and dramatic moment in Césaire's theater by passing from surrealist prose into hallucinatory verse:

Mes amis. l'âcre sel bu et le vin noir du sable,
moi, nous, les culbutés de la grosse houle, j'ai
vu l'énigmatique étrave, écume et sang aux naseaux,
défoncer la vague de la honte!
Que mon peuple, mon peuple noir,
Salue l'odeur de marée de l'avenir.

(C, I, 7)

At these moments of ecstasy, the hero fully incarnates Negritude: the nation, people, historic destiny, the myth.

But what are the first tasks of the hero? He must protect the newly won political freedom. He must build a nation out of slaves. He must turn slaves into men of dignity who will work together in harmony for the common good. Christophe shouts, “le matériau humain lui-même est à refondre” (C, I, 6), and Lumumba cries, “tout est à faire ou tout est à refaire … pour Kongo” (L, I, 6). All former colonial structures must topple and be replaced with the new nation of free men and new institutions.

The Hero of Negritude must give form to the needs and aspirations of the people. He is the constructeur (C, I, 7). The people, having just won their freedom, lack the discipline necessary for national social improvement. Only a rationally organized state will provide the opportunity for the individual to realize his potential. The Negritude vision of the function of the State which provides the individual with the freedom to fulfill his potential is drawn from classic Marxism.6 As Christophe clearly states: “Et c'est donc d'avoir un Etat … quelque chose grâce à quoi ce peuple s'enracine … quelque chose qui, au besoin, par la force, l'oblige à naître à lui-même et à se dépasser lui-même” (C, I, 1).

The Hero of Negritude, as leader, or better dictator of the people, must force his people to accept the responsibility and challenge of liberty. The duty of the citizen is to fulfill the call for national unity. The duty of the charismatic leader is to bring about the national drive to unity. “… Je parle et j'éveille … je parle et je rends l'Afrique à elle-même. Je parle et je rends l'Afrique au monde!” (L, III, 2). The Hero of Negritude accepts the responsibility of state and gives himself to it entirely: “Je suis un forçat volontaire” (L, I, 8). Christophe creates a royal court, Lumumba a unified socialist state. Each molds for his people, for the time and place, the form of government he thinks best. But no form will succeed, for the powerful enemies of the new state will destroy the best efforts.

While the Hero of Negritude plans for the future, the people seek diversions in the present. The protagonist is aware of this contrast and seeks to correct the situation. He declares war on laziness and repose.”Dans votre vie de compromis, je veux bâtir” (Chiens, p. 58). Bâtir becomes the key word for the hero. In building the nation, one builds for liberty, but it is according to a Marxian concept; i.e. the liberty to fulfill oneself, which is possible only within a strong, economically developed society. The present for the Negritude Hero is a quagmire of disunity and unrequited ideals, a dangerous ground in which the new nation could be recaptured by the former exploiters. The longer the hero permits the people to remain undisciplined, the more difficult it is to lead the nation to unity, progress and fruition. Thus to build, to give form to the nation, to involve the people, obsesses all of the protagonists. “C'est leur avenir que nous construisons” (C, II, 2). Christophe conceives of the Citadelle, “bâtie par le peuple tout entier, hommes et femmes, enfants et vieillards. …” (C, I, 7). It is a teleological symbol of the aims of Negritude: “qui … appelle un peuple à sa limite / le réveillant à sa force occulte” (C, I, 7). This monstrous construction, which still exists, proves the genius of a man who conceived of “quelque chose d'impossible! Contre le Sort, contre l'Histoire, contre la Nature! …” (C, I, 7). Built to protect the nation, to act as a shelter of liberty, to provide the people with proof of their dignity, the Citadelle became the tomb of Christophe. The Hero of Negritude had learned the importance of delayed gratification: to work now meant greater freedom and enjoyment later. The people, undisciplined, persist in carpe diem: “Et mon peuple danse” (C, I, 7). The more force the hero exerts to make his people work, the more he alienates them from himself. Because the hero lives with an eschatological vision of Negritude, work, constant work, provide the only tool to accomplish the entelechy. The hero is lucid, the people are blind! The former rulers and the new castes of bourgeois will exploit for their own ends the laziness and basest emotions of the people against the Hero of Negritude, who desperately attempts to draw the best out of his people. The miscomprehension by the people of the concept of their freedom to work will destroy the hero and the nation.

Freedom from work was the basis of the revolt against the colonizers. The people conceive of freedom as personal choice, freedom from doing something. The Negritude Hero understands the reluctance of the people because a Marxist analysis explains that under colonialism the people are alienated from the fruit of their labor. The Negritude Hero, therefore, attempts to convince the nation that with their newly acquired independence, the freedom to work means that the people, the nation, will benefit from their own labor. Therefore, the freedom to work is to hasten the economic amelioration of the state, the material surplus of which will provide the nation with the means to help each member of society fulfill his potential within the community. In short, the hero represents a Marxist vision of freedom, while the people envisage an anarchic freedom from responsibility. The Hero of Negritude will brook no compromise on this issue. The freedom to work is the basis of state policy in the theater of Césaire. For Christophe, “la liberté ne peut subsister sans le travail” (C, II, 4). The devotion to Marxian freedom by the hero claims the same fanatic devotion that religion does for Polyeucte. If the hero overworks himself in building the nation, he expects the same response from the people. The colonialists and neo-colonialists, however, exploit a carpe diem vision of freedom to seduce the people: “Sortez de vos usines … pour revendiquer et pour exiger! L'indépendence ne doit pas être un mot vide. Demandez le … à vos ministres. Les voitures … les femmes, c'est pour les ministres. …” And the drunken soldiers cry, “A bas les politiciens! Lumumba, vaurien” (L, I, 7). The people, irresponsible, unable to perceive the future, prefer what Christophe calls “la liberté facile” (C, I, 1) posited by their real enemies. The people, then, betray their leader and their independence. But the hero does not flinch from his principles; “L'Afrique a besoin de mon intransigeance” (L, III, 2). The hero's adherence to the socialist vision of freedom, though it mean death, is the most admirable chapter of the Hero of Negritude.

In the hero's haste to decolonize and rebuild, the blind obstinacy of the people is a difficult stumbling block. But the hero understands that the people are not his enemies but are rather victims of colonialism. This is why he tries so desperately to convert his people to work. Realizing that the people's constant enemy is the exploiter, the hero, the spokesman of his people, repeatedly condemns all forms of colonialism: “Empêcher que le pays ne tombe sous le joug d'un nouveau colonialisme” (L, III, 1). As the Hero of Negritude, he leads the revolution against the “mission civilisatrice” which has dehumanized his people. “Architecte aux yeux bleus … tu es le bâtisseur d'un monde de pestilence … ou la victime est par ta grâce une brute et un impie” (Chiens, pp. 97-98). Against the vulgarity of the white exploiter Prospéro, “Je suis la puissance” (T [Une tempête], p. 17), Caliban cries “la prochaine fois, le feu!” (T, p. 30). Le Rebelle and Caliban, however, fail in their bid for independence—fail, but they are already free men psychologically.

Christophe and Lumumba, though, succeed. These last named heroes must now commence the battle against the former powers and neo-colonialist castes which spring up in counter-offensives. “Que pour ma part, j'aurais voulu me multiplier … pour être partout à la fois présent … pour … déjouer l'innombrable complot de l'ennemi” (L, I, 2). Lumumba must beware of the Belgian ambassador, his staff, and above all, the Belgian bankers. Having lost political control, they are attempting to maintain economic control by “les nœuds de la complicité” (L, I, 4). While the hero seeks to unify the people into a nation, the former rulers subvert the nation by bribing new castes. In this way, the Hero of Negritude beholds the succession of Katanga led by the black bourgeois, Tzimbi, just as Pétion runs the mulatto bourgeois state of South Haiti. In short, Césaire believes that the native bourgeois becomes the new colonist who serves as a front man for the foreign capitalist behind him. The Hero of Negritude therefore symbolizes the authentic path to freedom and national unity, while the black bourgeoisie compromises its system of government and economics by collaboration with the enemy. The territorial successions and the scorn for legality by attempted coup d'états by the bourgeois castes contrast with Césaire's Hero of Negritude, the popular and legal representative of the people, who valiantly struggles to protect his people's collective interests. The didactic goal of Césaire's theater is obvious: in contrast to a neo-colonialist bourgeois leader, the hero with the socialist goals of Negritude will never tolerate that a caste may confiscate “à son seul profit les avantages que vous (le peuple) étiez en droit d'attendre de notre révolution congolaise” (L, III, 1).7

Nor will the true Hero of Negritude accept the presence of Christianity: he will eventually smash the altars with the same intensity of faith as did Polyeucte. The church is not only a colonial institution which robbed the people of their own religious heritage, but it is a divisive force in building national unity. Both Mgr. Malula and Archbishop Brelle are silenced. And Lumumba, a true Hero of Negritude, emphatically states: “… Dieu est mort” (L, II, 1).

Césaire hints that the United Nations white leadership is also not a friend of the Third World. Lumumba called the U. N. to the Congo to stop the secession of Katanga, but he discovered that it protected the national enemy. “Nous n'avons pas secoué la tutelle des Belges pour tomber sous la tutelle des Nations Unies” (L, II, 3). Through Lumumba, Césaire attacks the hypocrisy of the white world which for example decries any massacres by blacks, “… et où était M. Hammarskjöld quand les Belges massacraient nos hommes et violentaient nos femmes?” (L, II, 5). Indeed, the Hero of Negritude will tolerate no former colonial institution nor neo-colonialist adventure, even if it be the intrusion of the United Nations in Une Saison au Congo. The hero and his party alone will mold the national unity.

But there are intangible enemies: nature and time. Christophe is struck down by paralysis as if by nemesis for tampering with Nature. The mountaintop Citadelle is his défi, the powder magazine destroyed by lightning and paralysis of the body are nature's answers. But as the Hero of Negritude, he perseveres: “Terre … j'ai compris votre langage de cape et d'épée” (Chiens, p. 186). Time, however, is the pervasive enemy. No protagonist has the leisure of Moses to kill off one generation by wandering forty years in the desert. He must drag his people directly into the modern age. Lumumba states, “Combien j'ai de temps pour remonter 50 ans d'histoire? Trois mois messieurs!” (L, I, 8). There is too much to do and too little time. The enemies of the nation exploit time against the naïve, superstitious people. The hero's dilemma is time: how much does he have to build a nation and to hold off the enemy? Persevere, continue to work, is the only answer.

History becomes the Hero of Negritude's greatest immediate enemy, but remains a potential friend. The hero, though aware of the historic forces of neo-colonialism, by his own will attempts to stem them in order to establish the foundations of Negritude. He is not an Aristotelian hero struck down by fate. The Negritude Hero chooses his fate within the context of history. As soon as the revolution succeeds, the hero frenetically makes use of time before the inevitable onslaught of neo-colonialism. He is aware of its power and its modus operandi. “Nous, nous avons construit. Eux détruiront (C, III, 8). The hero is building beyond his death, for the completed decolonization when the people will throw off the neo-colonialists. At that time in history, the people will have a paradigm of the ideals of Negritude personified by the martyred hero.8 Aware, therefore, of his impending doom, the hero must function with the greatest efficiency. Fighting history, the Hero of Negritude performs according to the Cornelian ideal: “au-delà du vraisemblable.” The hero works frantically, “Il allume, il met le feu!” (L, II, 7). Everything must be done swiftly: “Secousse puissance du dire, du faire, de construire, de bâtir, d'être, du nommer, du lier, du refaire. …” (C, I, 3). His actions, at times, lead to exaggerations: for example, Christophe collects all the fornicators of the realm and marries them off in one night to all the trollops of the kingdom—all this for national unity! (C, II, 2). Or he can lugubriously have a man shot for laziness! (C, II, 5). The hero's actions sometimes lead to self-contradictions. Christophe may suddenly abandon court formality for the native style of “à la bonne franquette” (C, I, 7) and yet exile a noble for daring to dance the “bamboula” at court (C, II, 2). Or Lumumba, who invited the United Nations to intervene, nevertheless refuses to meet Ralph Bunche representing the Unied Nations! (L, II, 2). These contradictions underline certain human frailties of the hero but they offer greater dramatic dimension to his personality. The hero must veer from the heroic pace at times to be theatrically effective. These moments of human weakness, however, contrast splendidly with the high resolve to his ideals, from which the hero never falters no matter how distasteful. For national unity, the Hero of Negritude will race off to the enemy, Pétion or Tzimbi, to try to make peace with them to end civil strife, or, at least, to buy time (C, I, 6; L, I, 10).

To establish the Nation before their death drives the protagonists onward to overworking themselves and the people. “Il faut faire plus et plus vite” (C, II, 2). They seek the impossible, the fulfillment of the ideals of Negritude immediately. Sensing approaching doom, they attempt to rally themselves, the people, and threaten the neo-colonialists. Christophe shouts impotently: “Attention, messieurs, Christophe est un gros noyau” (C, III, 7), and Lumumba cries out, “Méfie-toi, il y a dans ma poitrine un dur noyau …” (L, III, 6). Their indignation before treachery, their sense of legitimacy, their overriding moral sensibility, drive them into political hubris: “… sans moi, le Congo est une machine faussée” (L, III, 2), or “… vous aurez toujours besoin de papa Christophe” (C, II, 4). Unwilling to engage in political compromise, they will consciously live out their ideals to the tragic conclusion.

The fall of the hero begins by the disaffection of his comrades-in-arms. They attempt a coup d'état, Kala names Joseph Iléo Prime Minister in place of Lumumba (L, II, 8), Christophe's generals pass over to the enemies of Port-au-Prince (C, III, 7). These traitors are the new bourgeoisie who collaborate with the former colonists and foreign states. They are the real neo-colonialists seduced by gifts of land and rich profits. They will become the new, though temporary, rulers of the tortured land. The hero, however, appears incredulous as he witnesses the national betrayal by the intellectual and ruling élite with whom he had fought for independence. Not only the hero, then, is foredoomed, but the legitimacy of the new state is despoiled, and the people's rights and interests are subverted.

The people, too, sensing the imminent collapse of the legitimate government under the pressure of the neo-colonialists, instead of rallying, retreat into themselves and to the land: “Premier Paysan: Pour vous dire la vérité vraie … mon amitié est avec la terre” (C, III, 6). Not having learned from the Hero of Negritude that independence is hard work, the people fall prey to neo-colonialist propaganda: they stop working and betray their hard-earned freedom. They are even seduced into joining the neo-colonialists by promises of “the easy life.” The Hero of Negritude, like Moses of Horeb, faces a people who, disappointed with the present and afraid of the future, seem willing to retreat into a past condition. Some become apathetic observers of the battle for leadership and accept the outcome as “fate.” Others actively rail against the head of state who denied their puerile dreams of liberty by substituting mature action. The failure of the hero to convince the people of the responsibility of liberty is at the very heart of Césaire's concept of tragedy: it is social tragedy. The hero, as the incarnation of Negritude, must redeem the true ideals of his people. Abandoned by his comrades-in-arms and by the masses, in Vignyesque solitude, the hero must face the enemy and his choice of destiny.

At all costs, therefore, the sacrifice of the hero's life must help fulfill his ideals of Negritude: national unity. “Que de mon sang, je fonde ce peuple. …” (Chiens, pp. 61-62).9 “Si je dois mourir que ce soit comme Gandhi” (L, III, 2). The Hero of Negritude, then, is a soteriological visionary, a “chef-prophète”.10 He foresees the final victory over colonialism and neo-colonialism: not only Haiti or the Congo, but Africa, all the colonized will be free (L, III, 1). History, inevitably, is on the side of the people: “… ils peuvent nous détruire, pas nous vaincre. Trop tard, ils ne sont plus désormais que les attardés de l'histoire!” (L, III, 1). Indeed, the Hero of Negritude is “l'inventeur” (L, III, 6) of the future. Not by chance, Christophe's coat of arms is the Phoenix reborn and the totem of Lumumba is the sacred Ibis, the symbol of education and civilization! (C, III, 12; L, III, 2). The hero faces the future undauntedly. When the forces of reaction finally overwhelm the leaders, the Heroes of Negritude, though defeated, proudly refuse the life of compromise and choose martyrdom for their ideals. Christophe commits suicide (C, III, 10). Le Rebelle is stabbed to death (Chiens, p. 107). Lumumba is stabbed and shot to death (L, III, 6). The author has clearly orchestrated the end of the protagonists not for catharsis, but for indignation, protest and positive action. As the curtain falls, the spirit of the Hero of Negritude returns to the salvo of cannons (C, III, 12) and the beat of the drums (Chiens, p. 117), while the cry of revenge, “Luma, Luma,” (L, III, 6) blends with the rising voice of Aimé Césaire, the father of Negritude and Modern African Theater:

mais l'œuvre de l'homme vient seulement de commencer et il reste à l'homme à conquérir toute interdiction immobilisée aux coins de sa ferveur et aucune race ne possède le monopole de la beauté, de l'intelligence, de la force et il est place pour tous au rendez-vous de la conquête …

(Cahier, p. 83)


  1. Léopold Sédar-Senghor, Négritude, arabisme et francité, (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab, 1967). Négritude et humanisme (Paris: Seuil, 1964). Nation et voie africaine du socialisme (Paris: Présence africaine, 1961).

  2. Aimé Césaire, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, seconde édition (Paris: Présence africaine, 1956), p. 71.

  3. Jean Decock, “Faut-il jouer Césaire?” African Arts, Vol. I, no. 1, Autumn 1967 (pp. 36-39, 72-75), p. 71. In this article, M. Decock questions Césaire's aesthetic criteria in choosing the tragic form in order to interpret Negro emancipation. He considers Césaire's “acculturation” a major, if not negative, factor. Also consult the following excellent article: Marcel Oddon, “Les Tragédies de la décolonisation”, Le Théâtre moderne depuis la deuxième guerre mondiale (Paris: Editions du centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1967), Vol. II, pp. 85-101.

  4. The following editions of Césaire's plays are used in this paper: Aimé Césaire, Et Les Chiens se taisaient, Tragédie (arrangement théâtral), (Paris: Présence africaine, 1956). La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (Paris: Présence africaine, 1963). Une Saison au Congo (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966). Une Tempête, in Présence africaine, Vol. 67, 3rd Quarterly 1968, pp. 3-32.

    The plays will be referred to in the paper as: Chiens, C, L, T.

  5. Aimé Césaire, Chiens, pp. 57-63; C, Act I, s. 7; L, Act III, s. 2.

  6. For a fascinating interpretation of political Negritude as presented by Senghor in his works, see A. James Gregor, Contemporary Radical Ideologies; Totalitarian Thought in the Twentieth Century (New York: Random House, 1968) who implies that the Negritude leader and his élite use marxist terminology but in reality support a national socialist state structure similar to fascist ideology. For further theoretic tracts on political Negritude and its marxist vision, consult Senghor's works and almost any issue of Présence africaine. Aimé Césaire's marxist leanings can be gleaned from: “La Pensée politique de Sékou Touré”, Présence africaine, Vol. 29, Dec. 1959-Jan. 1960, pp. 65-73; Discours sur le colonialisme, (Paris: Présence africaine, 1955); Lettre à Maurice Thorez (Paris: Présence africaine, 1956). In this last-mentioned text, Césaire breaks with the French Communist Party with these striking words: “Que ce que je veux c'est que marxisme et communisme soient mis au service des peuples noirs, et non les peuples noirs au service du marxisme et du communisme” (p. 12).

  7. J. P. Sartre agrees entirely with Césaire's interpretation of Lumumba. “… c'est qu'il [Lumumba] représentait, vivant, le refus rigoureux de la solution néo-colonialiste”, p. 52. See J. P. Sartre, “La Pensée politique de Patrice Lumumba”, Présence africaine, Vol. 47, Trimestre 1963, pp. 18-58.

  8. Significantly Sartre insists on this point: “Mort, Lumumba cesse d'être une personne pour devenir l'Afrique tout entière … il ne fut pas, ni ne pouvait être le héros du pan-africanisme, il en fut le martyr.” J. P. Sartre, ibid., p. 57.

  9. Actually Christophe could have destroyed Pétion earlier (C, I, 6) and Lumumba could have brought down Mokutu (L, III, 2); but their genuine humanitarian distaste for civil war stayed their hand. From the point of view of Realpolitik, of course, they were less than professional. But their noble actions avoided raison d'état and reflected the stuff of heroes (or martyrs) and certainly statesmen: they are defenders of moral and ideological absolutes.

  10. Jean Decock, op. cit., p. 73.


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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.

Janis L. Pallister (essay date 1991)

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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 Renan, who in his rationalistic and progressivist Avenir de la science (1890) proposes that the man of the people is mindless and must be “cultivated,” had illustrated his ideas in the 1878 play Caliban. At the beginning of Renan's play Caliban is still revolting against a paternalistic and exploitative Prospero, who had usurped Caliban's island and colonized him. Renan imagines Prospero reestablished on his throne in Milan but accompanied there by Caliban, Ariel, et al. In this new setting Caliban ironically feels even less useful than he did as Prospero's island slave. But he manages to mount a revolt and, as leader of the oppressed people, at first holds that Prospero can be brought down by taking his books away from him. (A Renanian agenda also includes forcing Prospero to become a monk!)

Once the Caliban of Renan's play becomes a leader, he is still not respected by Prospero, who hotly points out that Caliban was “never a Christian” and only “aped religion.”1 He claims that Caliban was servant to Setepos, was “garbage,” was sensitive only to blows. Now the new duke of Milan, Caliban is, however, accepted by the Church, which calls on him to defend it and also to imprison Prospero. Caliban refuses, however, claiming that Prospero is his protégé, and, having changed his mind about Prospero's books, now wants Prospero to continue his scholarly work under his, Caliban's, patronage.

The essence of Renan's work comes perhaps in act 5, where from the charterhouse prior we learn that if Caliban has made progress, it is only through the laws, morality, and language of the aristocracy, that harbinger of civilization. “Inferior races, like the emancipated Negro, at first show a monstrous ingratitude toward those who have civilized them,” says the prior. “And when they succeed in shaking off their yoke, these races treat their former superiors as tyrants, exploiters, and imposters. Arch conservatives dream of attempts to get back the power that has escaped them” (Renan, 433; my translation). The close of the play suggests that Prospero may even have the chance to get the reigns of government back from Caliban, and this notion is confirmed by Renan's strange sequel to Caliban, L'Eau de Jouvence (1881). In the preface to L'Eau de Jouvence Renan sees Prospero as “superior reason” (the magician), momentarily deprived of his authority over the inferior parts of humanity.2 Had Césaire read these two Renan plays? It is hard to say, but they surely do make for some curious countertextual juxtapositions with Une tempête.

Renan's plays are a study in the overthrow of the superior master by the inferior slave and of the role civilization plays in progress. But the strong resemblance of the relationship between Caliban and Prospero in The Tempest to that between colonized and colonizer was perhaps first proposed by Octave Mannoni and George Lamming, whose theses, found in La Psychologie de la colonisation (1950) and The Pleasure of Exile (1960), respectively, are discussed by Janheiz Jahn in his Neo-African Literature (239-42). In 1971 Caliban became the name of an Angolan poetry journal, while the topos is also central to Liberian Lemuel Johnson's poetry collection High Life for Caliban. Johnson writes of “Caliban Agonistes” (Caliban in combat) and offers us ideas revolving around the relationship of the two kinds of men that would not otherwise come readily to mind. He sees Christophe as a type of Caliban who has stumbled onto power. “Sometimes,” he writes, “indeed often, we must chew off our legs to escape.”3 Indeed an irony, for this is Caliban's only way of taking revenge on the Prospero who has removed from Caliban his very dream of revenge, at least temporarily.

Nevertheless, the archetypal symbolism of Césaire's characters continues in Une tempête. Although this play is not grounded in specific history, its allegorical characters, like those of Et les chiens se taisaient, can well represent historical as well as mythological “culture heroes.” It has been said that Le Rebelle of Et les chiens is, even if accidentally, a black Prometheus Bound in the Aeschylian mold (and Le Promoteur of the same play a white one). I would compare Le Rebelle to Toussaint and Christophe, while Michel Benamou (1974, 7) finds that Ariel of Une tempête is a type of Martin Luther King, and Caliban one of Malcolm X. Of course, we need not insist on the translation of these metaphors into concrete historical figures in order to follow the design of or to appreciate the spectrum of human types displayed in Une tempête, a substantially less hermetic piece than Et les chiens se taisaient. Severely criticizing Harris's omission of the play from his analysis of Césaire's humanism, Christophe Dailly finds that in Une tempête “there lies buried an inexhaustible source or spring of human feelings.”4


Uhuru, Swahili for “freedom,” was the watchword of the Mau Mau rebellions in Kenya as early as the 1940s. The people shout this slogan to the memory of Lumumba at the end of Une saison au Congo. It is Caliban's cry too. Scene 1 is set, poetically speaking, by a discussion of the “storm.”5 The noble captain Antonio Gonzalo senses the need to find a bit of calm in this fierce windy storm. They must land, but the island they sight just before they sink is on fire (hell?). At the end of scene 2 Miranda is calling her father, Prospero, to rescue the sinking ship. He assures her that there is no need to worry and then explains how they, of noble lineage, came to be moored on this island. The Neapolitan king Alonso, Prospero's political rival, and Prospero's younger brother, Antonio, the duke of Milan, had conspired against him by denouncing him to the Inquisition as a magician and sorcerer.

By flashback we have the Inquisitor's title-stripping accusation and arrest of Prospero. Prospero tells Miranda that his trial never took place, but that instead he was abandoned, with her, on this deserted island, which Gonzalo, the king's counselor, had made habitable by providing goods, clothes, books, and instruments. Now the conspirators, avid for new lands to conquer, are about to come ashore. Prospero and Ariel have therefore raised the storm to prevent the landing. Ariel arrives and announces that the mission is accomplished, but he is troubled by the sinking of “that great ship full of life” (22). He would like to be “freed” from having to do this kind of work. Prospero tells him he will have his freedom in due course. Meanwhile, he will have a word or two with “Sir Caliban,” who is getting a little too emancipated.

Prospero summons Caliban, who enters uttering “Uhuru!” in what Prospero terms his “barbaric language.” Caliban hurls insults on Prospero, who reminds the “ugly” monster that it is he, Prospero, who has taught the stupid brute Caliban to speak. Caliban retorts that if this is true, it has only been done so that he could carry out Prospero's orders. He has never taught him “science.” And, besides, without Prospero, Caliban would be king of the island, his island, which he has inherited from Sycorax, his Mother Earth.

Caliban's animist perspectives prevail as he expresses hostility at having been cajoled into teaching Prospero the secrets of the island only to be ghettoized in his grotto and then rejected. Prospero charges that Caliban tried to rape Miranda, which Caliban denies. Prospero wants Caliban to help him prepare for the guests he expects “today.” Any balking, he warns, and it will be “la trique.” Caliban says he will no longer answer to the imposed name “Caliban” but will from now on be called “X,” the “nameless man,” the man who has been robbed of his real name.

Caliban exits, and Prospero tells Ariel that he now recognizes Caliban to be the real enemy. The shipwrecked passengers are, after all, “of his race” and are not to be harmed. In fact, Prospero dreams of a union between Miranda and Alonso's son Ferdinand. Interestingly enough, Prospero realizes that those alliances will help protect him against the revolutionary Caliban. Ariel begins to sing, which awakens Ferdinand, who opens his eyes on the beautiful Miranda and immediately falls in love. Miranda promises to show Ferdinand all the beauties of the island, but Prospero interrupts. He finds Ferdinand to be an imposter and promises to enslave him, for he is short of help.


Scene 1 shifts the action to Caliban's cave. Ariel has come to warn Caliban of Prospero's plans. Ariel's strategy is to manipulate Prospero nonviolently to try to change him, but Caliban believes Prospero is without conscience and is therefore in need of radical consciousness-raising. Ariel agrees: we must work for the liberation of all, says he. For Prospero this liberation will come in the form of a birth of conscience. Ariel (Martin Luther King?) has always had the dream that the three of them would build a better world. Caliban (Malcolm X?) is very skeptical that fraternity is possible with such a crooked type as Prospero.

In scene 2 Gonzalo and Sebastien discuss the beauties of the island. Gonzalo intends to explore it grotto by grotto, in search of guano, but he also intends to colonize, while not civilizing, any humans he may find. Meanwhile, spirits of the island, directed by an invisible Prospero, lay a table of food before Gonzalo, Sebastien, and Alonso. Just as they are about to eat, the spirits return and carry off the table. They then return with the meal. Prospero goads the spirits, with Ariel as their leader, to continue to torment the three men. This tyrant wants the shipwrecked king and his courtiers “eating from his hand” as a “sign of their submission” (43) and a measure of his power. The three men eat; Alonso laments his “lost son” (44). He and Gonzalo then fall asleep.

At the beginning of scene 3 Antonio enters. To Sebastien he expresses his indignation that the king should be sleeping rather than keeping watch over his flock. In fact, this state invites sedition: “It is time to shake the royal coconut tree. … And when one shakes a tree, someone must fall” (46). They are about to kill Alonso and Gonzalo when Ariel awakens the sleeping pair, informs them of the mounting conspiracy, and tells them that he, Ariel, is sent by Prospero, who rules over the island and who will save them, since they repent sincerely of their past evil deeds.


In scene 1, which is twice as long as the two remaining scenes, Ferdinand digs in the soil as he sings the song of a forced laborer. Caliban looks on in envy. All he can sing is “ouende, ouende, ouende, macaya” (53; an African-American song encouraging slaves to eat more). He has no pretty girl to comfort him. Miranda speaks to Ferdinand, and Caliban whispers her name to Ferdinand, but Prospero enters and the young man quickly returns to his work. Prospero tells Caliban to take over Ferdinand's work. Caliban balks, but does it. It begins to rain. Says Caliban, “Patience, I'll get them yet” (56). Caliban's “patience” reminds us of Sartre's list of the qualities of the Negro race. The idea of being “long-suffering” and of lying in wait for the right moment to rebel is repeatedly expressed in negritude poetry. It is the backdrop for Léon-Gontran Damas's “Bientôt” and feeds an important passage of the Cahier in which Césaire defines his negritude as, in part, a “droite patience.” (The word patience is etymologically tied to the word passion, or suffering, as well.) Caliban, Le Rebelle reincarnate, curses, “Let the seven maws of Malediction bark!” (56).

In a somewhat Rabelaisian scene 2 we meet Trinculo as he prepares for a voyage. Caliban enters; Trinculo thinks of capturing him and exhibiting him at a fair in Europe. (Here we have shades of Renaissance explorers who brought New World inhabitants back to Europe as “specimens” and of explorers to Africa who brought native peoples and animals—and peoples as animals—back to Europe as exotic and uncivilized examples of African fauna.) For the time being, Trinculo simply takes refuge from the rain with Caliban.

Stephano enters drinking and singing a whaling song. Seeing Caliban, he, like Trinculo, takes him for an Indian and imagines he has caught him and will exhibit him in a European freak show. He then spots Trinculo, who he takes for Caliban's Siamese twin. Then Stephano and Trinculo recognize each other. Stephano proposes to “civilize” Caliban just enough so that Caliban can help them, and so that they can exploit him. Stephano pours drink into Caliban's mouth to make him talk. (Alcoholism was the white man's “gift” to Indians and blacks. The practice is alluded to at the beginning of Une saison au Congo.)

Meanwhile, Stephano and Trinculo imagine taking over the island, since the king and the duke are probably both dead, but they dispute which one shall have the crown. Stephano declares himself king, after Caliban proclaims it, and he names Trinculo “Maréchal.” However, Caliban warns Stephano of the “usurper” Prospero, who has seized the island from him, Caliban, the rightful owner. Stephano and Trinculo propose to do away with Prospero, and so Caliban will have his vengeance, or so Caliban thinks. He sings a song to liberty. But Stephano, too drunk to act until the morrow, falls into a deep sleep.

Scene 3 shifts to Prospero's grotto. Here we see Prospero as a theater director, a metteur en scène, much like Alcandre, the magician-director of Corneille's Illusion comique. He wants to stage a divertissement for a wedding gift; better, he wants to inculcate in his audience the spectacle of tomorrow's world, full of reason, beauty, and harmony. Although generally Caliban, not Prospero, is Césaire's porte-parole, in this particular instance we recall Césaire's own dramatic goal: to divert and to instruct, which seems derived, like that of Alcandre and Prospero, from classical doctrine. (The dramatic goal of Prospero may, on the other hand, ironically call up the white man's flawed concepts of reason, beauty, and harmony rather than Césaire's aesthetic.)

One by one, Prospero conjures up the gods and goddesses of the Romans; Juno, Ceres, Iris, and then Eshu, the evil one. He wonders if Ariel has made a mistake and if his magic is slipping. But Eshu explains that even though he had not been invited, he came anyway. Prospero tells him to leave, and Eshu agrees, but only after singing a priapic song in honor of the wedding party. The gods leave. Prospero calls on Ariel to subdue and punish Caliban, who continues his guerrilla campaign against him; Ariel suggests that Prospero attempt to understand and indulge Caliban, who is a rebel. Prospero, however, wants Caliban's insubordination punished. He suggest Ariel subdue him with glass beads and other trinkets of the sort that savages are inclined to adore.

Through part-voodoo, part-Creole incantations scene 4 evokes the spirits of the tropical forest: fly, ant, charognard (buzzard), crab, hummingbird. Caliban awakens, mobilizes this group that has been directed against him, and advances singing his war song to Shango. (According to Owusu-Sarpong [124], Shango is a Yoruba god of thunder who appears in the Antilles, Africa, Brazil, and the United States.) Caliban then meets Stephano, to whom he explains that he has nature (sea, wind) on his side; to Trinculo he explains that the discomforts he is experiencing (from sun, rain, mud, and mosquitoes) are not the products of nature but “inventions” of Prospero “to render people stupid, to blind them, to make them sneeze, and to make them weep” (77).

Seeing that Prospero will not be easy to deal with, Stephano decides to have a fortifying drink or two, after which he and Trinculo again fall into competitive quarrelling and then into combat. Caliban sees he will have to fight his battle with Prospero alone. And in fact Prospero has just come on the stage. Caliban is about to beat Prospero but then thinks better of it. The three rebels are taken prisoner by Ariel, at Prospero's behest.

In scene 5, at Prospero's grotto, Ferdinand and Miranda are playing chess. Alonso enters with Gonzalo; they heap blessings on the couple. Prospero enters and, after telling them all to rest—for tomorrow they will all set sail for Europe—he sets Ariel free.

Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban enter; Stephano and Trinculo “explain” themselves and are pardoned. Prospero then tells them to store up their drink, for “tomorrow we set sail.” All that is left is for Caliban to defend himself and be pardoned. But Caliban has only one regret: that he has failed to get back his island and regain his freedom. If only he could get back his island he would purge it of all trace of Prospero. (Again the theme of the corruption of the island paradise by the European settler [colonizer] is in play. In essence, Caliban is longing for the catharsis that would come with ridding his island of the marks of Western civilization.)

Here, again like Le Rebelle, Caliban rehearses the long list of humiliations and tortures he has suffered under Prospero's tyrannical reign. But, says he, “now I don't give a hang about you, your power, your dogs, your police, your inventions … because I know that one day I'll get you, impaled on your own stake” (88).

The speech in which Caliban rejects the image of himself as subhuman and inferior to the white man is vintage Césaire and links Une tempête to the preceding plays and poems, especially to Et les chiens se taisaient. Caliban finishes his tirade with the “vocation,” which is really nothing more than to foul up Caliban's life.

But the profoundest level of Prospero's lack of humanism comes through his ironic response: “Of the brute, of the monster I made [a] man. But oh! To have failed to find the path to the heart of man” (90). He adds in a voice not that of Césaire, “If indeed that is man.” (Prospero is not convinced of Caliban's humanity; such doubt continues to lurk in the minds of many whites.) Prospero then bids farewell to his friends, for, as Caliban has predicted, he will remain on the island, fighting “violence with violence.”


One somehow feels that the racial conflicts this play depicts are thought of by its author as being of a permanent nature. Although some (Soyinka, Condé, Boukman) have criticized the “optimism” of negritude, that supposed optimism seems seriously absent from Une tempête. Even the title, with its indefinite article, suggests that the storm of the play is but a segment in a saga of ongoing strife rather than an event in which a major, decisive uprising occurs and substantially changes the “climate” or “atmosphere.” For until Caliban “someday” with his long patience “gets” Prospero—and this is projected to an undesignated point in the future—there will be many a violent confrontation. The racist Prospero seems not to change; he regards Caliban's very speech, or language, as “barbaric.” (How often have we heard this said of African languages, so readily referred to as dialects or “lingo” or “mumbo jumbo”?) Prospero not only degrades Caliban by these devaluating attitudes but in the end questions his very humanity.

Césaire makes it clear that Prospero's assumptions about Caliban's speech are from one end to the other fundamentally false. Prospero assumes to have taught Caliban language/speech and therefore to have “civilized” him. But the fact that Caliban expresses his deepest longings in Swahili reveals a pre-Prospero gift of language and is one of the best clues that an authentic African culture informs Caliban with a background to be envied. These facts refocus the Prospero-Caliban relationship. Even if it is somewhat difficult to see Prospero as an American, we are in the presence here not just of a teacher-student or master-slave dynamic but of a newly awakened but long-since-sophisticated conscience in revolt against the evils of a colonization. Thus, in time, through rebellion and revolution, the old philosophy, the old body politic represented by Caliban, the vox populi, may indeed once again overtake and replace Prospero's autocratic, unworkable, and destructive policy.

Assuming that Caliban, as a part of nature, is inferior to Prospero is as false as assuming that Prospero has given Caliban language. He has not given him language but, like all colonizers, has forced on him a language. Corzani sees a role reversal in the play: Caliban becomes an authentic man; he is never inferior, in fact, but only made to feel and seem so. As Jahn says, “Once Caliban has recognized the limits and roots of Prospero's power, he may try some further unsuccessful revolts; but if his urge to freedom remains unbroken, the idea is bound to occur to him in the end … that his mother's powers, the voices, the instruments and the riches that drop in dreams, all belong together … that they form a culture, but one very different from Prospero's book culture” (Jahn 1968b, 241). Jahn is mistaken, however, to say that Caliban has no other language than Prospero's to do this with. He has his own; he also has Prospero's, which he may use and turn against him, just as the negritude poets intended to do with French. Within the terms of this process Prospero will have to relearn his own refashioned language from an ironic, even cynical, Caliban, who was “civilized” long before the fact of the white man's historical arrival on the African scene.

Une tempête is a lucid and complex dramatization of many political postulations. The various characters reflect many social strata so that the play is also the dramatization of prevailing socioeconomic conditions. Caliban, the blackest, is the most subjected; he has a great many rungs to climb on any ladder before he can call himself the equal of Prospero. Prospero's position of colonial-style domination is the most tenuous. Already he has been deposed as duke of Milan and now faces new rivalry from other nobles, Alonso and Antonio, who would, like the stream of white colonizers who succeeded one another in the Antilles, replace his rule. Added to this, and even more fundamental, are the interior threats to his regime: the intellectual mulatto Ariel and the Negro Caliban. Ariel is tired of serving Prospero; Caliban, who, like Prospero, is deposed, is in outright revolt against Prospero's subjugation and will form coalitions if necessary. Desperate for reform, he will have recourse to violence.

Caliban's revolution fails in part because he has formed dangerous and unfruitful alliances with Trinculo and Stephano, two drunken wastrels. He slowly comes to realize that he must fight his battles alone, a position we have seen in all Césaire's preceding works.

Césaire's Ferdinand and Miranda tell us something about love. In Shakespeare's play, the forces of love win out. In Césaire's so-called Negro adaptation love, at least in the white world, is a sham. Ferdinand would cheat at cards with his bride-to-be. This says in shorthand what we may expect of him as future husband and citizen. And romantic love in the black world is not depicted here. Indeed, it is seldom a topic with Césaire, although in works such as Christophe we have found the black woman counseling moderation and compromise. In this play it is as if the colonized woman has been overlooked, except as a metaphor for Mother Earth, for nature, Caliban's genetrix whom he certainly does not forget. By and through her we may one day see the rebirth of man against a collapsing background.

It would seem that collapse and the subsequent rebirth must be violent, for Prospero, though he is losing, does not give up easily, and he is prepared, as he says at the end of the play, to fight violence with violence. He is, as Owusu-Sarpong has put it, “a wicked colonist who needs his knowledge and his repressive arsenal to assure order” (120). But he is more. He will descend to disorder, even chaos. In Prospero's polis the colonist is far more dependent on the colonized—Ariel, Caliban, and Ferdinand—than they are on him. This central irony, only hinted at by Owusu-Sarpong (122-25), suggests that the ultimate collapse of Prospero's “system” is not far off. The irony of dependency also recalls chief pieces of twentieth-century literature, such as Jean Genet's The Maids or The Blacks, in which the master-slave dynamic is in some sense reversed. Prospero has no friends; Prospero believes he needs no friends. As the people of Binga would have it, “He who walks down the road alone will be swept away by the river.”


  1. Caliban, in vol. 3 of Ernest Renan's Oeuvres complètes, ed. Henriette Psichari (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1949), 425.

  2. L'Eau de Jouvence, also in vol. 3 of Renan's Oeuvres complètes, 440.

  3. Lemuel Johnson, High Life for Caliban (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis Publishers, 1973), 17; hereafter cited in the text.

  4. Christophe Dailly, review of Rodney Harris's L'Humanisme dans le théâtre d'Aimé Césaire, Oeuvres et critiques 4, no. 1 (Fall 1979): 245-53; hereafter cited in the text.

  5. Une tempête (Paris: Seuil, 1969), 13; hereafter referred to in the text by page number alone. My translations.

Roger Little (essay date October 1994)

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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 colonized slave.1 The impact of La tragédie du roi Christophe is indissociable from the many songs, French, Creole and African, incorporated in the text. Even in Une saison au Congo, there is the occasional unacknowledged quotation woven into the texture of the play. Only the early, highly poetic Et les chiens se taisaient seems not to embody direct quotation.2 My present intention is to contribute information about and consider the function of quotation in just one of Césaire's plays, seeking both to elicit complementary information and to establish the value of considering multicultural and multidisciplinary intertextuality in his dramatic work.

Because the case of Une tempête depends so extensively on its relation with The Tempest, I shall leave it to one side, simply recommending the book by Anne-Marie Nesbit and Beverley Ormerod, Négritude et antillanité: Étude d‘Une tempête d'Aimé Césaire, as a good general study of the play and a useful introduction to its intertextuality.3 As Une saison au Congo interacts rather with near-contemporary history than with existing literature, which it quotes only in passing, however revealingly,4 I shall concentrate here on the use of quotations in La tragédie du roi Christophe, a play whose title may also have Shakespearean overtones as it reaches towards the mythical quality of ancient Greek tragedy.5

While, ostensibly, the play recounts circumstances relating to Christophe's endeavours to establish his authority as monarch in the world's first independent black state of the modern era, Césaire's purpose is only partly historical. As Martin Megevand has emphasized in a brief but telling study, circumstances contemporary to its composition around 1960, that key date in the history of French decolonization, were as much in the author's mind as were the events in Haiti in the early nineteenth century, and he quotes from Césaire speaking in an October 1961 interview in support of this view: ‘Je prépare une nouvelle pièce, le roi Christophe. Le cadre, à la fois mythique, historique et politique me paraît favorable à l'introduction du problème qui se pose à l'Afrique de 1961, la décolonisation. Le roi Christophe a pris la charge du pays et ses échecs démontrent qu'il est plus facile d'arracher son indépendance que de bâtir un monde sur de nouvelles bases’.6 His play is set, Megevand reminds us, ‘au lendemain de la guerre de décolonisation menée par Toussaint Louverture. Césaire n'entend pas, avec cette pièce, chanter la période héroïque de la guerre d'indépendance. Il se place délibérément après la guerre. […] Globalement, le message adressé aux peuples noirs est double. Tout en affirmant la nécessité de l'indépendance, il rappelle combien fragile est la liberté et délicat son affermissement.’7

Although the tracing of particular sources of La tragédie du roi Christophe may throw light on detailed aspects of the text and both qualify and enlarge our understanding of them, where they come from is ultimately less important, I suspect, than what Césaire does with them in the context of his play. By this I do not mean only within the economy of interrelating characters, moods and registers, but also regarding the author's expectations from his audiences. It is impossible to know what prior knowledge a particular member of a given audience, in Austria, France, Senegal, or Martinique, for example, where the play has been performed, might bring to bear on his or her appreciation of the play. Does Césaire want us to recognize his borrowings or not? He clearly makes no bones about us recognizing his borrowings as borrowings—in other words, by the use of italics in the printed text, as well as by the nature of the material and their manifestly quoted nature in performance—so he cannot be accused of plagiarism even though his quotations are unacknowledged in any formal sense. He must know that many of them will be unfamiliar to at least the average European reader or spectator. So if we do not recognize them, is something crucial being lost? And if nothing crucial is lost, why are they there in the first place or what other purpose do they serve? If we do recognize them, does the self-satisfaction derived from our sense of privileged connivence with the playwright distort our response? Are we in fact asking the right question in focusing on recognition as such? Might it not be more appropriate to think of the quotations simply as additional elements of texture, lending theatrical as well as cultural variety to the play? How does the persistent academic reconcile enjoyment of the spectacle with a desire to analyse every detail of its mechanism?

The very range of material and languages used in the quotations reflects the cultural and linguistic cocktail of the Caribbean. There is consequently a quality of local colour superadded by the quotations but which also serves the purpose of underlining the play's universality of theme. The explanatory notes which Césaire does offer in his text relate to Haitian terms (‘rapadou’, ‘akassan’, etc., p. 24; ‘cob’, p. 48; ‘père-savane’, p. 55; ‘cocomacaque’, p. 74; ‘cachimbo’, p. 98 etc.), several of which are indicated as deriving from the Spanish (‘abrogat’ › abrogado, p. 12; ‘tassau’ › tasajo, p. 24; ‘barbouquet’ › barbaquejo, p. 68; ‘hatte’ › hato, p. 84; ‘malouc’ › maluco, p. 96; ‘vaxine’ › bocina, p. 106). The word ‘maldioque’ is said to come from Spanish (p. 95) but the source given is the Italian, mal di occhio, rather than the Spanish mal de ojo (literally ‘eye-strain’ or ‘a pain in the eye’ but extended to mean the ‘evil eye’). On the other hand, there are clearly words used in patois, but left unexplained by Césaire, which seem to derive from Spanish, such as ‘aguay roio’ (p. 69) related to agua ‘water’ and arroyo ‘stream’. Régis Antoine reminds us, however, that ‘Agoué’ is the voodoo god of water.8 Could there be an African word which matches the Spanish here? It is Alfred Métraux, in his classic study of Haitian voodoo, who indicates that this particular loa, or spirit-god, has an alternative name, Agoué-taroyo, and thus provides an explanation.9

Césaire refers in his study of Toussaint Louverture to the large-scale voodoo ceremony held in the Bois Caïman in Haiti on the night of 22 August 1791. Thousands of negro slaves were stirred to revolution by Boukman, who thus triggered the San Domingo massacres:

La scène fut grandiose: au milieu des bois épais, dans la ténèbre sillonnée d'éclairs et parmi le rugissement du tonnerre, les dieux d'Afrique furent invoqués:

Eh! Eh! Bomba! Hen! Hen!
Canga, bafio té
Canga moun de lé.
Canga, di Ki là
Canga, di Ki là
Canga li.(10)

He goes on to give two different translations of the Bantu (Kiyumbe) text, adding a long footnote in the 1981 edition to offer the text of a letter sent by an academic working in Zaïre who suggests that one of the translations is valid, but the other not at all. What is significant for our present purposes is the interest taken by Césaire in an African language used in Haiti alongside French and Creole within the context of voodoo rituals. In Act 3 scene 7, both Christophe and his wife seem to start in patois but to slide towards its African origins, rather as Hugonin slips increasingly from French towards Creole in the course of the play. Christophe's ‘Soleil ô’ (the title chosen by Med Hondo for his 1969 film) is manifestly his wife's subsequent ‘Solé-ô’, and their invocations to the voodoo gods (‘Loko’,11 among other loas, pp. 142-43) would seem to take them a step away from the Christian ‘Bondié’ (p. 141), but what is the African language used and what, precisely, does it mean? What is likely to have been Césaire's source-book for such material, or are we to assume that he noted it down himself during his stay in Haiti in 1944?12 These are some of the questions that draw us into a web of intertextuality and help us to unravel it. Increasingly clear as one works on the play is the lack of a fully annotated text, and such work would seem to require a team of specialists from different fields contributing to its completeness and reliability.

The attribution of particular quotations can be seen first and foremost as a mode of characterization:

Hugonin, the ‘mélange de parasite, de bouffon et d'agent politique’ whose antics so enliven La tragédie du roi Christophe, sings fragments of ballads drawn from popular tradition mostly in French but increasingly in patois, so that when he becomes ‘Baron-Samedi’—the loa of the dead—at the end, he quotes nothing but ‘parler créole’. Daniel Delas gives a French version of Hugonin's final words, but not untypically stops short of explaining who ‘Ogoun Badagry’ might be.13 Fortunately, Régis Antoine is less coy, and indicates that he is a ‘dieu protecteur, assistant; il peut aussi être un dieu militaire, ami de l'orage. Badagry est une ville du Nigeria’.14 Hugonin's very name seems to reflect a complex cultural quotation, containing as it were an echo of Hugo cut down to size: ‘Hugo nain’, no less Hugo le Petit than the Napoléon le Petit whom Hugo so despised after the 1851 coup d'état, attaching to his ministers the risible titles of which Césaire makes so much play in Act I, scene 3.15

Hugonin's initial points of reference are to a manifestly popular tradition of French ballad, increasingly creolized as the play develops. His first song runs:

C'est la baleine qui court qui vire
Dans son joli navire
Prenez garde à la baleine
Elle va vous manger un doigt.

(p. 25)

And he adds: ‘Traduction libre: C'est le bateau du roi de France!’ This is followed shortly after by a comptine which, by introducing it with the words ‘Tu connais la chanson’, he supposes to be familiar to his fellow-citizen:

Je te vends ma vache
bonne à beurre
bonne à lait
bonne à veau
un plat de morue
marché conclu
Ma vache est vendue.

(p. 27)16

Towards the end of the first act, he continues in this vein:

Un poux [sic] une puce
sur un tabouret
qui se disputent
en jouant au piquet
La puce en colère
lui tire les cheveux
et lui dit: Mon vieux
tu n'es qu'un pouilleux.

(p. 50)

Of this and the earlier song about the whale, Régis Antoine, the most informative of commentators on the play, writes: ‘[elles] sont attestées dans un certain nombre de provinces françaises; le texte de Césaire reproduit la version commune en Île-de-France.’17 Hugonin's last song in the act runs:

Celui-là la plume
Celui-là me la fait cuire
Celui-là mange tout
Le petit n'a rien du tout
Lèche le plat mon z'ami
Lèche le plat …

(p. 52)18

In the second act, Hugonin plays the traditional role of the king's fool in order to reveal unpalatable truths, and does so first in Creole capped by Latin. To Christophe's account that ‘L'Empereur Dessalines s'était donné un maître de danse qui en son honneur inventa le carabinier’, Hugonin adds the taunt:

L'Empéré vini oué coucou
Dansé l'Empéré.
Requiescat in pace!

(p. 85)

which in effect is explained for the audience by Christophe's retort: ‘Boucle-la, Hugonin! Le maître de danse s'appelait Manuel. Hugonin a raison: A mon avènement je l'ai fait mettre à mort. Il avait avili la nation en en ridiculisant le chef.’

Hugonin's second such intervention in the second act is an ironic social comment largely in French but finishing with the dialect word for the evil eye:

Une, deux, trois, quatre,
Une bouteille de clairin
Pour les échevins
Du chocolat
Pour le Conseil d'État
Pour les paysans du manioc
Pour le roi un maldioque.

(p. 95)

In the third act, Hugonin opens scene 4 with a Creole ditty which makes an analogy by the simple juxtaposition of statements, the first indicating that when Damballah, the snake-god of the voodoo pantheon,19 in charge of springs and fertility,20 and referred to by Madame Christophe in one of her Creole-cum-African chants (p. 143), was planting maize, some creature (an insect, presumably, rather than a snake) bit him and drew blood, the second that the state is unsatisfactory for its citizens, the implication being that it too sucks their blood:

Damballa planté maïs li
Oui, li planté maïs li
Bête piqué sang li
Ah! la nation pas bon!
Ah! la nation pas bon!

(p. 132)

Hugonin's final quotations in French are of the nature of comptines. The first of them is referred to as ‘cette chanson idiote’ by Christophe, yet as is so often the case with such songs, it contains a moral. The boy's killing of the chaffinch is clearly intended to have resonances in the central narrative of the play, no less than the play-within-the-play of Hamlet is both reflection and stimulus of action:

Une, deux petites branches
Mit le pied sur la branchette
Quel jeu fait le jeune garçon?
Il fait le jeu du chapon.
Du chapon. Demi-chapon
Voyez bien que vingt ils sont
Il recueille son caillou
Dans la conque de sa main
Voici que vient le pinçon

(p. 137)

Immediately, Hugonin observes to Christophe ‘[qu'il] fallait avoir les reins solides pour supporter le rinfofo’ and then sings:

Et rinfofo
Et rinfofo
Pilon froid, pilon chaud
Viande sèche et haricot

(p. 137)

Now what ‘le rinfofo’ is exactly I have not been able to discover independently. Could it be related to fufu, a West African staple pounded from yams, plantain or cassava? Or are we to understand that it is a dish made from the ingredients mentioned?21 If so, what Hugonin says seems probable: one would need a solid constitution. But there is also a likely social comment on a poor dish as a staple for poor people, so that the diet becomes a synecdoche for an unappetizing regime. It might even symbolize more generally the insipid routine of existence itself for those who are not in a position to add spice to it.

Hugonin's very last quotation is in Creole, sung in his guise of Baron-Samedi:

Ogoun Badagry c'est Neg politique oh
A la la li la cord'coupé cord oh!
Ogoun Badagry, c'est Neg politique oh!
.....Ogoun Badagry c'est Neg politique oh!
Ou mait' allé ou mait' tourné
Ogoun Badagry c'est la li yé

(pp. 148-49)22

The king's fool, imbued with the popular wisdom of common sense and able, thanks to his special position, both to tease and to instruct his social superiors, is embodied in the character of Hugonin. His character and function are aptly delineated by his recourse to ‘ballads, songs and snatches' in the manner of W. S. Gilbert's wandering minstrel. In turn, he lends an important element of vitality to the general economy of the play and imbues it with the good sense and good humour of his interventions, each of which reflects or refracts Christophe's story as it unfolds while contributing to its development.

Chanlatte, the ‘poète officiel’, creates a very different mood by declaiming his rhyming verses written in the bombastic style of the abbé Delille (pp. 53, 54, 56, 116) and dictated by what Christophe calls his muse, ‘pleine de ruades, [qui] traînaille encore comme un bidet récalcitrant’ (p. 56).23 The nature of his first offering seems to prompt in Christophe (and no doubt, behind him, in Césaire) the heavily ironic reaction: ‘ça fait très national et nous le ferons apprendre dans les écoles’:

Quels doux roseaux dans ces plaines jaunissent!
J'entends au loin cent pressoirs qui gémissent
Du jonc noueux le nectar exprimé
Brille à mes yeux, en sucre transformé
Ou pétillant dans sa mousse légère
Monte, frémit, et s'échappe du verre.

(p. 54)

Even his conversation falls into platitudinous alexandrines, as when he observes: ‘Quels accents tout à coup ont charmé mon oreille. Quels concerts, quels transports et de quelle merveille se sont embellis ces climats?’ (p. 56)

Bishop and priest intone fragments of Latin prayer or mass modified to suit their particular purposes (pp. 38-39, 55, 125-27).

Workers, whether ‘radayeurs’ (pp. 66-69) or the foreman and his gang building the Citadel (pp. 102-05), peasants (pp. 77, 111), a lady at the court (p. 119) and the general chorus (p. 128) have their shanties of self-encouragement and their other songs or invocations in French or patois to colour and counterpoint the action.

Christophe uses a snatch of song to counter the effect of a work-song whose message he finds unpalatable: if justice is not to be found in this world, he suggests, a higher authority may be called upon:

Si le maître n'est pas bon
Le Bon Dieu est bon
Haïti est pour les Haïtiens.

(p. 104)

He is given one further song to sing, in Act 3, which is specified in the stage directions as ‘le chant de Grétry’ (p. 120), the only occasion in the play on which a source is specifically designated, but of little help if we are unfamiliar in general with the opéra-comique tradition in which André-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) wrote so many works or in particular with the tune in question. It comes in fact from his one-act musical comedy Lucile (1769), and is a quartet which ‘sums up the mood of comfortable familial piety’ and ‘was long celebrated in French-speaking Europe. It epitomised the virtues of hearth and home before and after the Revolution and took on an extended meaning when the French royal family was in danger’.24 In the context of Césaire's play, the song therefore assumes a singular ironic force, since it is used to bolster a fledgeling monarchy which is dependent for its very existence on the revolution-within-a-revolution effected by Toussaint Louverture and his companions.

Madame Christophe participates in the disturbing ‘cérémonie vaudou’ around her husband's dying body, singing in ‘parler créole’ and evoking Africa and its gods, among them that same Ago as is conjured up by the peasants.25 Régis Antoine offers a ‘traduction condensée’ of her songs:

Je suis malade, couchée je ne peux me lever
J'irai en direction du Nord; moi je ne suis pas d'ici.
Le bon Dieu m'appelle, j'irai …
Soleil, moi je fais partie des gens d'Afrique
Mes amis, de quel côté est parti le soleil?
Faites un vévé pour leurs loas.(26)

This is a cultural world apart from the scene in which Isabelle accompanies herself on the harpsichord as she sings her insipid song about Ourika in the bourgeois drawing-room at Cap-Henry (pp. 81-82).27 Ourika is presented by Césaire (through his ‘Première Dame’) as ‘l'héroïne d'un roman qui a fait pleurer tout Paris … C'est l'histoire d'une petite noire élevée en Europe dans une grande famille blanche, et qui souffre de sa couleur et en meurt’. Succinct though this summary of the story be, it rightly places the emphasis on the colour prejudice of an inflexible aristocratic society, whereas most other presentations of her case concentrate on the supposed predations of unrequited love. For Ourika is indeed the heroine of a short novel which takes her name as its title, the first novel written by Claire de Durfort, duchesse de Duras, and published in 1823 for private circulation before enjoying several editions, including a pirated one and another printed in St Petersburg, running to thousands of copies altogether, in 1824, when translations into English and Spanish also appeared.28

I have traced Isabelle's song to the second edition of Ulric Guttinguer's Mélanges poétiques, published in Paris in 1825: it does not figure in the first edition, of the previous year. After Isabelle has finished singing, Vastey makes a political point which was as valid for the newly independent Haiti in the early nineteenth century as it was for the inventor of the term Negritude:

Je pense à Christophe, Madame. Savez-vous pourquoi il travaille jour et nuit? Savez-vous, ces lubies féroces, comme vous dites, ce travail forcené … C'est pour que désormais il n'y ait plus de par le monde une jeune fille noire qui ait honte de sa peau et trouve dans sa couleur un obstacle à la réalisation des vœux de son cœur.

Césaire is clearly prepared to commit an anachronism to make this important point. Christophe, after all, died in 1820, whereas Ourika was put on general release only in 1824 and Guttinguer's poem published in 1825. The latitude evident in this one proven example should be borne in mind when considering further the role of his other quotations in the play: their impact and effect are more important to him than the details of their source.

I see the major thrust of that impact, the attractive and lively diversity of which blends the benefits of poetry, dance, song and fable, as being in the realm of ritual. But the endeavour to anchor the play in popular tradition while enlivening performance is by no means negligible. Yet Césaire supplies no music, and while it has proved possible to trace ‘le chant de Grétry’, and would no doubt also be so for Amédée de Beauplan's setting of the ‘Romance d'Ourika’29 and music for the traditional ballads and comptines, one would appreciate such material being made available in a critical edition, both for the purposes of performance and for that of further scholarly study. However much intellectual laziness or the embarrassment of ignorance may tend to induce silence, it should not be assumed that Césaire's heritage is familiar to everyone throughout the world or will necessarily remain familiar for ever to his compatriots.

The pattern of ritual is at least apparent. I have already mentioned the importance of the climactic voodoo ceremony towards the end of the play. It is important to recall that extensive quotation is made in Latin from the rituals of the Christian church. That it should yield pride of place to voodoo ritual carries its own significance, of course, but both need also to be seen in the light of the concept of theatre as ritual. The prologue at the cockpit sets the scene in more ways than one, as metaphor both of the relationship between the black Christophe and the mulatto Pétion whose names the fighting-cocks bear, and of the theatre as an arena set apart from the profane space occupied both by the audience of the play and by its mise en abyme, the audience of the cockfight on stage. The first scene of the first act is a positive prise de bec between Christophe and Pétion. The third scene, in its parodic, ironic way, with its master of ceremonies provided by TESCO, the ‘Technical, Educational, Scientific Cooperation Organization’ (p. 30, n. 1), paves the way for the coronation ceremony of the fourth. The majordomo's laughably pompous introductions (‘Sa Grandeur Monseigneur le duc de la Marmelade / Monsieur le Comte de Trou Bonbon / Monsieur le Comte de Sale Trou’ and so forth) are echoed by the Archbishop's Latin pomp, after which the vivats give way to a ritual song and dance in honour of the voodoo god of the storm, Shango (p. 40),30 who will also be invoked by the African page at the end of the play (p. 152):

Shango, Madia Elloué                    bis
Azango, Shango Madia Elloué                    bis
Sava Loué
Sava Loué
Azango, Shango Madia Elloué

This pattern of displacement from the Christian ritual to the voodoo presented in this third scene of the first act is, in miniature, a proleptic analogue of the shift which becomes apparent across the play as a whole. It is a shift which posits the honour and vitality of African roots, justifiably felt to be insufficiently acknowledged by the dominant culture of the colonizer, paraded here in a hollow parody of itself. The act of standing upright is here, as it is so centrally in the Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, a metaphor of human dignity, insistently racial only insofar as it has to assert that dignity against a tradition of oppression, exploitation and contempt. The use of moribund formulae by the master of ceremonies and the subsequent quotations in Latin, a dead language, serve to underline by contrast the vivacity of the African incantations which physically engage the whole man. Lip service yields to entrancement. And the former serves a theatrical purpose as an invaluable foil for the latter.

One would dearly like to discover the precise origins of Césaire's knowledge of the many songs and poems, whether in French or Creole, which are interspersed in La tragédie du roi Christophe and add so much to its flavour. A fuller knowledge of their history and implications in Haiti and/or Martinique could reveal overtones just as unsuspected as those which reference to Ourika makes clear. But it is none the less evident to the spectator of the play, or to the reader who makes the necessary effort to imagine a production, that the insistent phenomenon of quotation is not an empty display of culture but, particularly when taken in conjunction with the music which generally accompanies it, an essential ingredient in the lively variety of the play and an apt illustration of the profound significance of song among the victims of the black diaspora: ‘an affirmation of self on the part of the slaves, a personal dialogue of bruised souls with the gods, with the ancestors, with the whole spiritual universe, and most of all with long lost Africa.’31


  1. The seminal work is Octave Mannoni's Prospéro et Caliban: Psychologie de la colonisation (Paris, Éditions universitaires, 1984; first published under the sub-title alone, Paris, Seuil, 1950). For recent literary studies of the theme in general (though with little direct reference to Césaire's play), see Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History Cambridge-New York-Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Margaret Paul Joseph, Caliban in Exile (New York-Westport Ct-London, Greenwood, 1992).

  2. To be precise, there is a veiled intertextuality in Césaire's first play (with the Bible, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Claudel, Breton etc.), but direct quotation is rare: the Latin formula ‘salvum fac’ is used in a short series of parodic ritual optatives by ‘LES CHANTRES, braillant’, wishing the rebel leader well: ‘salvum fac gubernatorem / civitatis fundatorem / libertatis aedificatorem’. Aimé Césaire, Et les chiens se taisaient, in Les Armes miraculeuses, Poésie (Paris, Gallimard, 1970), pp. 133-34. There are ways in which, on the other hand, Et les chiens se taisaient anticipates La Tragédie du roi Christophe (apparently set in Haiti, its rebel leader has visions of kingship) but it is not appropriate to develop these here.

  3. (Kensington, NSW, New South Wales University Press, 1982).

  4. See my ‘Césaire, Hammarskjöld and an Unattributed Quotation in Une saison au Congo’, French Studies Bulletin, 35 (Summer 1990), 13-17.

  5. In this respect, see Jacqueline Leiner, ‘Actualité et universalité de La Tragédie du roi Christophe d'Aimé Césaire’, Aimé Césaire: La Tragédie du roi Christophe, no 192 of Comédie-Française (juin 1991), pp. 14-16. Page references to the text of the play relate to the revised edition of 1970, published in Paris by Présence Africaine (who published the first edition in 1963 after presenting each act separately in the journal of that name between 1961 and 1963). For publishing details and relevant comments, see Thomas A. Hale, Les Écrits d'Aimé Césaire: Bibliographie commentée, special issue of Études françaises (Montréal), 14, 3-4 (octobre 1978), 423-26.

  6. Jacqueline Sieger, ‘Entretien avec Aimé Césaire’, Afrique, 5 (octobre 1961), 67, quoted by Martin Megevand in ‘Une tragédie du morcellement’, Aimé Césaire: La Tragédie du roi Christophe, no 192 of Comédie-Française (juin 1991), p. 18.

  7. Megevand, p. 18.

  8. Régis Antoine, La Tragédie du roi Christophe de Aimé Césaire, Lectoguide francophone (Paris, Bordas, 1984), p. 85. This study of the play is by far the fullest and most informative to date.

  9. Alfred Métraux, Le Vaudou haïtien, Tel (Paris, Gallimard, 1989; first published 1958), p. 89: ‘Parmi les loa qui règnent sur la nature, celui dont le domaine est le mieux délimité est Agoué ou Agoué-taroyo. La mer, sa faune et sa flore ainsi que les bateaux qui la sillonnent et ceux qui vivent de ses ressources sont placés sous sa juridiction.’ On loas in general, see chapter 3 of Métraux's study, ‘Le Monde surnaturel’. The recent general introduction to the subject, Les Mystères vaudou by Laënnec Hurbon, Découvertes, 190 (Paris, Gallimard, 1993) contains a table (pp. 140-43) of the different spirits' attributes and associates.

  10. Aimé Césaire, Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution française et le problème colonial (Paris, Club français du livre, 1960; revised and enlarged edition, Paris, Présence africaine, 1962, 1981), pp. 191-92 in this latest edition. The date of the celebrated Bois Caïman gathering is recorded by other historians as 14 August 1791: see for example, Jean-Pierre Bondi and François Zuccarelli, 16 pluviôse an II: Les colonies de la Révolution (Paris, Denoël, 1989), p. 81. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London, Allison & Busby (W. H. Allen), 1989; first published 1938) agrees (p. 87) with the date given by Césaire, however, and also quotes (p. 18) this ‘favourite song’ of the voodoo celebrants (in a transcription which differs slightly from Césaire's), giving the translation: ‘We swear to destroy the whites and all that they possess; let us die rather than fail to keep this vow.’

  11. Loko is a particular loa: ‘L'esprit de la végétation est le dieu Loco qui est plus étroitement associé aux arbres dont il n'est d'ailleurs qu'une personnification. C'est lui qui donne aux feuilles leurs propriétés curatives et leurs rituelles. Loco fait donc figure de dieu guérisseur, protecteur des «docteurs-feuilles» qui ne manquent jamais de l'invoquer avant d'entreprendre un traitement médical. Il est aussi le gardien des sanctuaires …’ (Métraux, p. 94). The cult of Loko (the African teak) originated in Dahomey: see Robin Law, The Slave Coast of West Africa 1550-1750: The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on an African Society (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 111 (who further refers to Melville J. Herskovits, Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom (New York, 1938, ii, 108-09)).

  12. Métraux's study gives a substantial bibliography including many items which would have been available to Césaire, but cannot, by definition, answer our question.

  13. Aimé Césaire (Paris, Hachette, 1991), p. 101.

  14. Antoine, p. 85. Badagry, in the extreme south west of present-day Nigeria, in the Yoruba heartland, was, after 1736, ‘the principal centre of trade east of Glehue [Ouidah]’ (Law, p. 311). As usual, the fullest relevant information is found in Métraux: see p. 94: ‘C'est sans doute parce qu'Ogou-badagri (de la grande famille des loa nago), se complaît au fracas des batailles qu'un hymne fait de lui le maître de la foudre et de l'orage, rôle qui, en vertu d'une tradition nago, est dévolu à Chango, loa du même groupe.

    Badagri-o, jénéral sâglâ
    Badagri ki kêbé l'oraj
    U sé jénéral sâglâ
    Zèklè fè kataoo
    Sé u ki vòyé zèklè
    Tonè, grôdé
    Sé u ki vôyé tonè
    Badagri-o, jénéral sâglâ.
    Badagri oh! général sanglant
    Badagri qui tient l'orage
    Tu es un général sanglant
    L'éclair fait kataoo
    C'est toi qui lances l'éclair
    Le tonnerre gronde
    C'est toi qui envoies le tonnerre
    Badagri oh! général sanglant.’
  15. See Victor Hugo, ‘Les Grand Corps de l'État, Châtiments (v, vii: ‘Ô de Soulouque-deux burlesque cantonnade! / Ô ducs de Trou-Bonbon, marquis de Cassonnade’, etc.; and my ‘Nègres blancs’, ASCALF Bulletin, 4 (Winter 1992), esp. pp. 6-8.

  16. In André Bay, Trésor des comptines (Paris, André Balland, 1961), p. 6, the line ‘bonne à tout ce que tu voudras’ figures after ‘bonne à veau’. I am grateful to Professor C. A. Hackett for this reference.

  17. Antoine, p. 35. Both texts are indeed given (with the variations expected of the genre but without an indication of precise provenance) in Claude Roy, La Poésie populaire (Paris, Seghers, 1954), pp. 29 and 31. The same text of ‘C'est la baleine …’ figures according to Conrad Laforte (Le Catalogue de la chanson folklorique française, V: Chansons brèves (Les enfantines) (Quebec, Presses de l'Université Laval, nouvelle édition augmentée et entièrement refondue, 1987), p. 349), in Pierre Roy, Cent comptines illustrées de 45 bois gravés et coloriés (Paris, Jonquières, 1926) and Arnold van Gennep, ‘Empros et comptines’, Mercure de France, ccxxxix, 823 (1er octobre 1932), p. 251. In neither case is the provenance more specific than France. See also Bay, p. 3. Césaire seems to have normalized ‘courre’ as ‘court’ and omitted ‘petit’, perhaps in error. This ditty is also given in three different versions in Jean Baucomont et al., Les Comptines de langue française (Paris, Seghers, 1961, 1970), pp. 219-20.

    ‘Un poux [sic] une puce’ has many variant forms, recorded by Laforte, pp. 393-97. The closest to Césaire's text are those collected by Jean and Henriette Chateau, in Brindilles, comptines glanées par nos villes et nos compagnes, 3rd edn (Paris, Bourrelier, 1961), p. 12; by Bay, p. 13; by Simonne Charpentreau, Le Livre d'or de la chanson enfantine (Paris, Editions ouvrières, 1976), p. 43; and by Baucomont, pp. 235-36 (marked as coming from the Île-de-France, and therefore the likely source of Antoine's assertion). A Swiss version collected by Emil Bodmer, in Empros oder Anzählreime der französischen Schweiz (Halle (Saale), Karras, Kröber and Nietschmann, 1923), pp. 49-50 is also very similar: see Laforte, p. 396. One variant given by Baucomont shows ‘Un pou …’ set to the tune of ‘Au clair de la lune’. I am most grateful to my colleague Dr Hugh Shields, Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, for help given in respect of folklore material.

  18. Reference to Laforte's catalogue suggest that this ‘risette aux doigts’ is akin but not identical to the many versions recorded in entry C-152, pp. 180-85.

  19. ‘Dans la plupart des sanctuaires on remarque un bassin plein d'eau placé dans un coin du péji ou sur l'autel. Il est consacré à l'une des divinités les plus populaires du vaudou, Damballah-wèdo, le dieu serpent, celui qu'on invoque par le chant:

    Kulèv, kulèv-o
    Dâbala-wèdo, papa
    U kulèv-o
    Kulèv, kulèv-o
    M'apé rélé kulèv-o
    Kulèv pa sa palé
    Dâbala papa u sé kulèv
    Couleuvre, couleuvre-o
    Damballah-wèdo, papa
    Tu es une couleuvre
    Couleuvre, couleuvre-o
    J'appellerai la couleuvre-o
    La couleuvre ne parle pas
    Damballah-papa tu es une couleuvre'

    (Métraux, p. 91)

    It is possible that the name Damballah-wèdo derives from the tutelary python deity Dangbe worshipped in Whydah (hence Dangbe-Whydah; cf. Ogoun-Badagry), information on which is given by Law, pp. 109-10. My ignorance of African languages limits further speculation.

  20. Antoine, p. 85.

  21. Professor Léon-François Hoffmann, of Princeton University, was kind enough to reply to my enquiry as to the meaning of ‘rinfofo’, and wrote on 23 November 1993: ‘j'ai passé je ne sais combien d'heures à chercher ce maudit “rinfofo” dans tous les dictionnaires créoles que j'ai pu trouver. En désespoir de cause, j'ai profité d'un passage par la Martinique pour demander au grand homme lui-même ce que le mot voulait dire. “Rien, m'a-t-il répondu, c'est une onomatopée.” L'érudition est parfois une maîtresse facétieuse.’ The subconscious factors which helped forge the word remain, of course, open to speculation. The Haitian research student Toussaint Hérold, kindly contacted in December 1993 on my behalf by Auguste Berthely, suggested that ‘rinfofo’ might well be based on the Creole pronunciation of ‘reins forts’, thus metonymically echoing Hugonin's reference to ‘reins solides’.

  22. Delas (p. 101) translates this as ‘Ogoun Badagry c'est le nègre politique / Là où le maître est allé / C'est là qu'était Ogoun Badagry’.

  23. On Chanlatte, see Antoine, pp. 18-19.

  24. David Charlton, Grétry and the Growth of Opéra-Comique (Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 44, 45 (and see p. 46 for the opening bars of the score). Charlton notes that Greuze's picture La Mère bien-aimée, striking a similar note, was first exhibited in 1769. David Charlton kindly wrote at my request giving further information: the quartet is ‘sung on Lucile's wedding-day (but before the bad news [about her birth and consequent doubtful suitability] hits the assembled family) by Timante (the host), Lucile, her fiancé Dorval fils, and Dorval père. They are actually sitting round a breakfast-table and expressing genuine contentment. The music is in A major and the form of the ensemble is refrain (rondo) form. […] The quartet was almost instantly taken up as a popular melody (one of the musical “proverbs” Grétry left behind), and used as an expression both of individual feeling for hearth and home, and also as a coded message under the Revolution of '89’ letter to R. L. of 24 April 1993). The Pendlebury Librarian, Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge, Andrew Bennett, generously supplied through the good offices of Dr Wendy Ayres-Bennett a photocopy of the quartet which reveals only one textual change by Césaire (‘gaiement’ for ‘aimons’) and the fact that the catchy song continues lengthily beyond the fragment quoted. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the 1991 Comédie-Française production of La Tragédie du roi Christophe used neither Grétry's tune nor any other pre-existing music, original material being created rather by Françoise Uri, but my attempts to elicit further information on that … score were met with silence.

  25. Agaou is a ‘génie de la tempête. […] Quand la terre tremble, c'est qu'Agaou est mécontent. Les transes provoquées par ce dieu sont extrêmement violentes. Il peut, par sa brutalité, causer la mort des individus qu'il chevauche. Ceux qui sont assez forts pour l'héberger dans leur corps cherchent à imiter les grondements du tonnerre et les mugissements de la tempête …’ Métraux, p. 94).

  26. Antoine, p. 87. Métraux, p. 329, specifies that a ‘vévé’ (or, in his transcription, a ‘vèvè’) is a ‘Dessin symbolique représentant les attributs d'un loa, que l'on trace sur le sol avec de la farine de maïs, de la cendre, du marc de café ou de la brique pilée’.

  27. See my study, ‘A Further Unacknowledged Quotation in Césaire: Echoes of Ourika’, French Studies Bulletin, 43 (Summer 1992), 13-16.

  28. For a general presentation, see Claire de Dufort, duchesse de Duras, Ourika, ed. Roger Little (Exeter University Press, 1993). Comment on the reference in Césaire is made in Appendix D, pp. 79-80.

  29. Mentioned by Léon-François Hoffmann in Le Nègre romantique: Personnage littéraire et obsession collective (Paris, Payot, 1973), p. 226.

  30. ‘Souverain d'Oyo, l'antique capitale du pays Yoruba, Shango fut un guerrier valeureux mais aussi un despote tyrannique. […] le personnage de Shango a pris une valeur mythique chez les Foruba: pour les fidèles, Shango “n'est pas vraiment mort, ils lui restent attachés, et en le faisant revivre, le réconfortent et se fortifient à travers lui du même coup. Ils lui dédient à intervalles reguliers, des fêtes au cours desquelles ils jouent «Chango»” [Janheinz Jahn, Muntu, p. 69].’ Rodney E. Harris, L'Humanisme dans le théâtre d'Aimé Césaire (Ottawa, Naaman, 1973), p. 111. On Shango's link with Ogou-Badagry, see note 14 above. The African actors of the first production of the play apparently suggested the analogy between Christophe and Shango to Césaire (Harris, p. 112). Hale (pp. 425-26) records: ‘L'évolution du texte de la première version à la deuxième est le produit de la tournée européenne [1964-65] au cours de laquelle [le metteur en scène Jean-Marie] Serreau, Césaire et les acteurs noirs faisaient des expérimentations avec le script. La modification la plus importante, l'assimilation de Christophe à Shango à la fin de la pièce, fut suggérée par les acteurs africains, bien que la pièce soit fondée en grande partie sur des éléments vaudou.’

  31. Clarence J. Munford, The Black Ordeal of Slavery and Slave Trading in the French West Indies 1625-1715, III: Culture, Terror and Resistance (Lewiston-Queenston-Lampeter, Mellen, 1991), p. 1003.

An earlier version of the present study was given as a paper to the November 1992 conference of the Association for the Study of Caribbean and African Literature in French (ASCALF), held at the Institut Français, London.

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

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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 which Mercer Cook rightfully calls a eulogy,2 that I shall extract the vivid word picture of the late Patrice Lumumba, who has come to be considered as a hero and martyr in much the same way as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and it is not surprising that Black youth consider him a composite of both of these Afro-American heroes.

Aimé Césaire is generally known in this country for his two agressive works, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, which first appeared incomplete in 1939, in a magazine called Volontés3 and published fully in 1956 by Présence Africaine, and his Discours sur le colonialisme, published by the same company in 1955. It is easy to agree with Mrs. Kesteloot, one of the foremost interpreters of Césaire, when she says that this world famous author is the prince among those poets belonging to the school designated as “la négritude,”4 for we know that his influence upon young Black writers of French expression has been great. Lesser known perhaps, but no less important, is Aimé Césaire the playwright who so far has found time to write at least four plays, in which his familiar call for liberty is clearly heard.

His Et les chiens se taisaient, 1946, arranged for the theater in 1956,5 is structurally a rather difficult play about a revolutionary (Le Rebelle) who relives his life at the moment of a tragic confrontation with death. His human sentiments are best expressed in the words which he utters to another character in the play (La Mère):

Et le monde ne m'épargne pas … Il n'y a pas dans le monde un pauvre type lynché, un pauvre homme torturé, en qui je ne sois assassiné et humilié.

(p. 70)

Thus it was necessary for him to refuse, reject and crush the forces of evil and injustice wherever they were found.

Encouraged partly by the need to provide Black heroes for his countrymen, and again by the urge to dramatize the current problems of newly independent Black nations, Césaire later wrote in 1963, La tragédie du roi Christophe,6 one of the most powerful of the “tragédies de la décolonisation.” The Haitian adventure of King Christophe evokes the collective destiny of Africans today. Preoccupied with putting down a civil war in order to unite his island, the king says to one of his generals at one moment in the play:

Pauvre Afrique! Je veux dire Haïti! C'est la même chose d'ailleurs. Là-bas la tribu, les langues, les fleuves, les castes, la forét, village contre village, hameau contre hameau. Ici, nègres, mulâtres, griffes, marabouts, que sais-je, le clan, la caste, la couleur, méfiance et concurrence, combats de coqs, de chiens pour l'os, combats de poux!

(p. 49)

Therefore Christophe, former slave, former cook, former general, must now crush his opposition and become king, in order to build up his country and unite his people against dangers which threaten their very existence; he must protect them from themselves.

A fourth play, Une tempête,7 1969, is Césaire's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, for a black theater. In Césaire's three act play the relationship between Prospero and Caliban is greatly enlarged, the former becomes a white master and the latter a black slave who wants “freedom now.” Ariel becomes a mulatto slave “à patience d'oncle Tom;” and a new character is added, Eshu, a black god, “dieu-diable nègre.” Thus Césaire's world in which the thirst for liberty is overwhelming, is introduced into Prospero's island. In answer to Ariel's supplication that peaceful means be sought to secure freedom from Prospero, Caliban says:

Mieux vaut la mort que l'humiliation et l'injustice … Le jour où j'aurai le sentiment que tout est perdu, laisse-moi voler quelques barils de ta poudre infernale, et cette île, mon bien, mon oeuvre, du haut de l'empyrée où tu aimes planer, tu la verras sauter dans les airs, avec, je l'espère, Prospero et moi dans les débris.

(p. 38)

Consequently Ariel, who would seek to soften and change the master's heart through kindness, patience and reasoning, has failed to convince the militant Caliban, but wishes his impatient brother well just the same.

Une saison au Congo, or the portrait of Patrice Lumumba, appeared in its first version in 1966. The 1967 edition contains modifications and additions and is the definitive text used for the theater. This three-act play was created on the stage on October 4, 1967, at the Théâtre de l'Est-Parisien, by the Serreau-Perinetti company, staging by Jean-Marie Serreau, direction by Guy Rétoré. In the wake of the regained independence for nations in Africa, accompanied at times by unrest, revolution, clashes of cultures and political intrigue, Césaire has found it necessary to dramatize the life of one of Africa's leading political figures, the late Patrice Lumumba about whom he has said:

Homme d'imagination, toujours au-delà de la situation présente, et par le même homme de foi, il est aussi l'homme d'Afrique, le muntu, à la fois l'homme qui participe à la force vitale (le ngolo) et l'homme du “verbe” (le nommo).

(Back cover of 1967 edition of play)

It was indeed comforting to find a man of such stature in a Congo which was to become a synonym for chaos and confusion after the abrupt withdrawal of Belgian authority in the summer of 1960. Many thought that the former postal clerk was the most persuasive nationalist leader in that troubled land.8 The road which Lumumba was to follow was quite evident in his address on June 30, 1960, in which he called Belgium a friendly country and then proceeded to denounce her:

Our lot was eighty years of colonial rule; our wounds are still too fresh and painful to be driven from our memory … We have known ironies, insults, blows which we had to endure morning, noon, and night because we were “Negroes.”9

There was nonetheless a note of hope in that Independence Day speech:

We are going to show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom, and we are going to make the Congo the center of radiance for the whole of Africa.10

Observers had mixed emotions about Lumumba. A high American official is reported to have described him as “the most effective political organizer and rabble-rouser” in the Congo, “intelligent, articulate, and politically sophisticated, and at the same time unscrupulous and untrustworthy.”11

At the beginning of Une saison au Congo we see Lumumba as a colorful and cunning peddler selling beer, “un bonimenteur.” Even though he is considered suspect by the authorities, he is allowed to move freely about the country, primarily because the Minister of the Congo owns the lucrative Polar beer concession. His winning sense of humor aids him in getting his thought provoking message over to the people in the African quarter of Léopoldville:

Buvez! Buvez donc! D'ailleurs, n'est-ce pas la seule liberté qu'ils nous laissent? On ne peut pas se réunir, sans que ça se termine en prison. Meeting, prison! Écrire, prison! Quitter le pays? Prison! Et le tout à l'avenant!

(pp. 11-12)

Thus for the moment the Polar beer brings about the only freedom, friendship and fraternity which the Congolese may enjoy. Lumumba's followers are many, including Mama Makosi who convinces the others not to go on strike, but rather to work and raise bail to get him out of prison so that he may sit at the conference table in Brussels and help decide the fate of the Congo, this intellectual nigger, “nègre à monocle,” as the jailer called him. At his urging the Congo is granted its independence, much to the displeasure of Belgian businessmen. On the day of the ceremony the proud and admired new leader refuses to humble himself before the king of Belgium. He prefers to think of those who had been forgotten: the dispossessed, beaten, mutilated, humiliated and all those who had suffered other indignities. He seeks approval of his actions from his trusted friend Mokutu:

Alors, d'accord, toi? Ou es-tu de ceux qui croient que le ciel va s'effondrer parce qu'un nègre a osé, à la face du monde, engueuler un roi?

(p. 30)

By speaking to the king as an equal he wanted to break a taboo and succeeded in doing so.

Prime Minister Lumumba is a tireless worker and expects the same diligence on the part of his staff. He reminds them that they are slaves for themselves now and have no right to rest. He knows that his countrymen think that he pushes too hard:

Eh bien! bande de limaçons, oui, il faut aller vite, il faut aller trop vite. Savez-vous combien j'ai de temps pour remonter cinquante ans d'histoire? trois mois, messieurs. Et vous croyez que j'ai le temps de ne pas aller trop vite!

(p. 34)

He cautions his ministers that independence is no picnic and that there would be trouble of every kind: mutiny, sabotage, threats, slander, blackmail and treason. We later see him as a man of decision, moments after he informs his senators that their richest province, Katanga, has proclaimed independence without consulting the population. He angrily declares that it is clearly a Belgian plot which must be broken like one breaks the legs of a frog in the water:

Congolais, allez-vous laisser assasiner notre indépendance si chèrement conquise? Et vous, Africains, mes frères, Mali, Guinée, Ghana, vers vous aussi, par-delà les frontières du Congo, nous crions. Afrique! je te hurle!

(p. 44)

He is optimistic however because he has confidence in the United Nations and in Secretary General Hammarskjöld, whom he will later accuse of doing things by halves, and will threaten to accept planes from the Russians. At the same time he will accuse Ralph Bunche of being gullible and of having misjudged the situation: “Après tout, Bunche est américain …” (p. 62). The oppressors leave no freedom to the oppressed except that of engaging in vice. Lumumba blames this and other ills of the Congo on the Europeans. When Europe came the Congo entered into a state of decay. But it was encouraging for him to see from time to time something new and hopeful sprouting through the compost. The real leaders of the Congo should spring up from the ranks of the common people, but this idea and others which were considered anti-clerical, gained for him an unfavorable press and censure by the local Monsignor, who said that Lumumba had sold out to the Russians and had sold his own soul to the devil. Thus he is feared by those who could serve the Congo best were they his allies. For them he becomes the ignominious Lumumba. In answer to accusations of genocide, by the UN and the world press, he asks where was Hammarskjöld when the Belgians were massacring the men and raping the women of the Congo:

Pour ce qui est de la presse mondiale, chrétienne, civilisée, parlez-m'en! Et de la conscience universelle donc! Vieux javart! avec au-dessus de la sale sanie, le tourbillon des mouches! Non! Mais croient-ils que je vais, par peur de leurs cris hystériques, laisser dépiauter le Congo, comme la mangue, parcelle après parcelle, par l'oiseau picoreur? Messieurs, je vous récuse!

(p. 66)

Thus the accusers have also been savages in their turn.

The extent to which Lumumba's close associates now fear and distrust him is seen in the vivid analysis of his complex personality given in Act II, Scene 7 by Kala, the President. For the jealous Kala he is a goateed devil to whom it is not easy to say no; his manner is too offhanded; he is strange, impulsive, fiery, impetuous, a hammerbird and a hothead. Kala must admit however that his Prime Minister is quite a man, for he is sensitive, full of fine feeling and above all popular. Kala laughs at the idea that one could believe that Patrice is a communist.

The hero's home is occupied by the paratroopers of his once trusted friend Mokutu, who tells him that he has been a luxury that the Congo could no longer afford, and that therefore he has to be “neutralized.” Lumumba then identifies with his beloved Africa:

Quant au mot neutralisation, j'en sais mieux que toi, en tout cas, j'en mesure mieux que toi le sens et la portée. Tu y penses à l'Afrique, quelquefois? Tiens, regarde là! pas besoin de carte épinglée au mur. Elle est gravée sur la paume de mes mains.

(p. 80)

He is the man of Africa. He is the man who likes dreams, even when they are terrible. He declares that what is happening in Africa is the fate of man:

Après tout, limon, soleil et eau, de la solennelle rencontre, ici, naquit l'homme! Qu'est-ce? sinon, dissipant la buée de vivre, certaine manière de se tenir debout et de lever le front.

(p. 88)

He is the man of words and he uses those words to cry out for liberty, to sing the beautiful song of Africa, to accuse the white men of having confiscated God for their own benefit, and of having robbed Africa of herself. He wants to be neither Messiah nor Mahdi, he just wants to speak:

Je n'ai pour arme que ma parole, je parle, et j'éveille, je ne suis pas un redresseur de torts, pas un faiseur de miracles, je suis un redresseur de vie, je parle, et je rends l'Afrique à elle-même! Je parle, et je rends l'Afrique au monde! Je parle, et, attaquant à leur base, oppression et servitude, je rends possible, pour la première fois possible, la fraternité!

(p. 94)

Consequently he is a part of and shares the vital force of Africa with his brothers. Césaire reinforces this striking element in the hero's character by making of him finally a man of peace. Patrice no longer wants bloodshed. He is not a religious man, but he is convinced that justice cannot be won by violence. M'polo tells him that non-violence in his situation is suicide, but the hero answers his loyal friend by evoking the memory of a great man of peace whom he admired:

Précisement, M'polo! Si je dois mourir, que ce soit comme Gandhi. Allons! fais entrer tout ce monde! Je leur donne audience!

(p. 98)

It is ironical that Lumumba who is a convincingly nonviolent hero, dies a most violent and tragic death, beaten and driven through with the bayonet of the savage M'siri, and then shot by a white mercenary who delivers the “coup de grâce.” Before he dies however he bravely defies his political enemy M'siri, whom he considers to be an invention of the past, unlike himself, an inventor of the future. He knows that the tide of liberty cannot be stoped. Even while dying he remains the man of forceful words, the man of Africa:

Je serai du champ; je serai du pacage
Je serai avec le pécheur Wagenia
Je serai avec le bouvier du Kivu
Je serai sur le mont, je serai dans le ravin.

(p. 110)

And thus this alienated hero of the Congo dies with the beautiful vision of Africa still burning in his brain, with a wonderful dream still in his mind.

In giving us this intimate and grandiose portrait of Patrice Lumumba, Aimé Césaire once again enchants us with his powerful, captivating and thought provoking words, and with his voice which has always been a great one. By making us once again a part of his intense, passionate and black rebellion, he remains one of the greatest masters of lyrical expression and one of the prominent polemists of the French language and of the world. We are forced to dream along with him as well as with the hero of Une saison au Congo, for the author and the hero are one in voice and spirit. The author is as much a part of the congo as is his hero. Did he not say in his Cahier d'un Retour au pays natal (Éditions Présence Africaine, 1968):

à force de penser au Congo
je suis devenu un Congo bruissant de
forêts et de fleuves
où le fouet claque comme un grand
l'étendard du prophète

The glorification of Africa, Lumumba made real and immortalized by the adoration of the poet himself, all serve to raise the volume of the great cry for liberty and truth. Une Saison au Congo is a strong and estimable work of art. The giantlike portrait of Patrice Lumumba stands out like a veritable masterpiece, for it is in addition an enlargement of Le Rebelle, King Christophe and Caliban, all forceful fighters for liberty. Lumumba was proud to be himself and he believed in the dignity of his people, and wanted to alter their destiny. He chose to be the man of Africa and was abandoned by and sacrificed for his people. Therein lies his greatness: he fulfilled his destiny as both hero and victim. Césaire captured the greatness of this man “que la stature même semble désigner pour le mythe” (whose very stature seems to designate him as a legend), and through whom he thought the whole history of a continent and of a portion of humanity was dramatized in an exemplary and symbolic manner.


  1. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1967.

  2. The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), p. 20.

  3. Lilyan Kesteloot, Les Ecrivains noirs de langue française: naissance d'unc littérature (Belgique: Institut de Sociologie de l'Université Libre de Bruxelles, 1965), p. 172.

  4. Aimé Césaire, Poètes d'aujourd'hui 85 (Paris: Pierre Seghers, 1962), p. 94.

  5. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1956.

  6. Paris: Présence Africaine, réédition 1970.

  7. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1969.

  8. Ernest W. Lefever, Crisis in the Congo (Washington, D. C.: The Brookings Institute, 1965), p. 4.

  9. Alan P. Merriam, Congo: Background of Conflict (Northwestern University Press, 1961), p. 352.

  10. Ibid., p. 353.

  11. Lefever, op. cit., pp. 38-39.

Principal Works

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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

Joan Dayan (essay date winter 1992)

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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 race and the conquest of a world. Black slaves, their names forgotten, their pasts obliterated, were renamed in the New World. But no matter their new names, they would, when it served the settlers' purposes, embody the figure of the deformed and language-less savage. Caliban, now defined in most dictionaries as an anagram of Cannibal, or as something nasty, brutish, and short, specifically the “grotesque and brutish slave in Shakespeare's Tempest” (American Heritage), evokes images of the fierce Caribs of the West Indies. It was Shakespeare who first used the term for his “lying slave” who spoke the most beautiful language in the play, when Prospero wasn't around.


In the twentieth century, Caribbean writers reappropriated the name Caliban with all its negative connotations. Inheritors of a legacy of darkness, barbarism, and evil, those who bore the brunt of being the object of someone else's imagination used the name to signal reversal and revolt. René Depestre's “nègre-tempête” (tempest-nigger), once possessed by the vodoun gods, strides to the “Dixie pit” of the American South in his Arc-en-ciel pour l'occident chrétien (A Rainbow for the Christian West) to become the “Caliban determined—unashamed to assume his ‘Caribbean blood,’ his cannibalism, his fighting calibanité.”1 This recognition marks yet another stage in the process begun by Aimé Césaire and the negritude poets in the 1930s (négritude itself being coined from nègre, a term of abomination and abuse): “Because we hate you, you and your reason, we appeal to the dementia praecox, of flaming madness of unrelenting cannibalism” (Cahier d'un retour au pays natall; Notebook of a Return of the Native Land).2

As counter in an argument of extremes, the name Caliban tended to replay the debate between those fighting for a “new” language and those trapped in the illusion of assimilation. Roberto Retamar's Caliban (“we claim with the ring of glory the honour of considering ourselves the descendents of the black man aroused, of runaway slaves, independence warriors, and never the descendents of slave owners”) tried to supplant Rodo's mulatto Ariel.3 The master/slave relationship so brilliantly given voice by the brash “Caliban dialectician” of Césaire's 1969 Une tempête asserted protest with a vengeance.4 And some poets, Derek Walcott, for example, would find only one way to break out of what was for him the simplistic savagery of Caliban as “enraged pupil”: to cast his lot with Prospero, to give the howl to Crusoe.5

Caliban's force, like that of his name, lies in ambiguity; he occupies a space somewhere in between the alternating fullness and vacancy of the colonial experience. Note that historians from Du Tertre and de Rochefort to Bryan Edwards found the Caribs a highly indeterminate and therefore fascinating race. Their fundamental and threatening unknowability made them a blank that could be filled by the intruder's projections. Alternately fierce and noble, the Caribs more than the Arawaks remain in most narratives the recipients of the colonizer's alternating disdain and idealization.

Once decimated, the Caribs (before the name became synonymous with cannibal), could be treated as a golden romance, a timeless response to the everpresent Africans. As Gordon Lewis writes in Main Currents in Caribbean Thought, making a fortune in a profit-oriented plantation world depended upon regarding the slave as a “nonperson”—the dehumanization Césaire called “thingification” in Discours sur le colonialism—and that Depestre recognized as the needs of capital to convert color into commodity.6 Lewis explains:

it is suggestive that the romanticizing literature seized upon le bon sauvage, rather than le bon nègre, as its hero figure: it would have been difficult to have seen the detribalized and deculturated African slave as the repository of Antillean innocence; that was a task left for the European abolitionist literature of the eighteenth century.7

In its transit through texts and histories, the name Caliban will merge Carib and African.8 But the merger itself remains ambivalent in its effects. In praise of Caliban, Retamar declares, “What is our history, what is our culture, but the history, the culture of Caliban?” His injunction is at best mystifying, a tautological challenge that asks a question whose terms—history or culture—resist definition.

Whether Shakespeare's Caliban is African, “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” (as Prospero says) or Caribbean, given the derivation of the name, or at any rate an inhabitant of the New World (since Shakespeare mates Sycorax with Setebos, a New World great devil), is not the issue here. What matters is how Shakespeare unlocalizes Caliban and begins the confounding of origins so marked in contemporary assumptions of the name. Let us take Caliban as a call to inquiry, and attempt to retrieve something of the power and magic of the name, its ability to disguise and to reveal. Given the haunting sublimity of The Tempest, its lurking ambivalences, its tough weave of beauty and defilement, imagine Shakespeare at work making his language. Familiar with Florio's translation of Montaigne's “Cannibales,” Shakespeare might have formed an anagram of the name for the Carib nation. But we can go further. The word originates in some form of the name for the Caribs, kallinago, kalliponam, and several renderings of the name by New World explorers include as a first syllable, “Car—,” “Cal—,” and “Can—.” Sounding out Cali, a non-etymological spelling of Calli, formed of the Greek word meaning beauty, Shakespeare commands the name into being. The name contains the contradictions so much a part of those first narratives of the Indies. Cali-ban: to proclaim Beauty/to curse or prohibit Beauty. In his first words to Caliban, Prospero talks as summoner:

What, ho! Slave! Caliban!
thou earth, thou! Speak!
.....Come forth, I say!
.....Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil
Upon thy wicked dam, come forth!

In summoning Caliban as earth or slave, Shakespeare's Prospero yet suggests the duplicity of the figure. As both summoner and transgressor, Caliban sings, “'Ban, 'Ban, Ca-Caliban.” Taking in the doubleness of ban, he, like Prospero, prohibits, curses, or forbids beauty. Thus Caliban, inviting and forbidding, bears within him the oscillation that will become his destiny: a something to be either disdained or claimed, cursed or celebrated.

Shakespeare grasped the full irony of the colonial experience, and Césaire knew it. The Tempest begins with usurpation and exile. Extirpated from his native land by his brother Antonio and sent off to a strange island (as the Africans were exported to the Caribbean), Prospero enacts a second usurpation. He takes the island away from Caliban, an “inhabitant” who is so savage and inhuman that the island can be described in Shakespeare's stage directions as “uninhabited.” Shakespeare's play, like Césaire's, is shot through with a language of bondage, coercion, and liberation. The breaking of bonds, in Prospero's case especially, also implies a stripping away of masks, a removal of artifice that leaves Prospero weaker once his “charms are overthrown.” And both plays interrogate history, call for origins, and summon remembrance. Asked by Miranda for her story, Shakespeare's Prospero then wonders:

                                                                                                    But how is it
That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?
If thou rememb'rest aught ere thou cam'st there,
How thou cam'st here thou mayst.

The promise of knowing “How thou cam'st here” bears consideration in the context of the colonial drama. For Albert Memmi, the fact of the colonized is that he/she is outside “the game of history.” Frantz Fanon gives colonialism that special talent (as George Lamming says of Prospero in The Pleasures of Exile) of “throwing the past in your face,” but a past revised as grotesque.9 Prospero is wary of both Ariel's and Caliban's search for origins, and of course the past he gives us is his interpretation of history. Yet Shakespeare decenters Prospero's position as sole historian by also giving us Caliban's account of his origination.

Shakespeare's subversive decentering of power and legitimacy also results from the indeterminacy of origins and locale throughout the play: the “blue-ey'd hag” Sycorax was exiled from Argier, Algiers, in the Old World, to the magic island. By mating the hag with Setebos, a Patagonian divinity, he further merges contradictory details. And the course of the voyage is not to the New World, “the stil' vexed Bermoothes,” but from Tunis to Naples. Truly magical, the island is a center for conflation, misrepresentation, and reversal. The dual topography of Mediterranean and Atlantic, Old World and New, and the slippages between these places, allows Shakespeare both to demonstrate the fictive attributes of any so-called “history” of exploration and to question any single, privileged source of value, determined by any single race or nation. Gonzalo's natives, “mountaineers / Dew-lapp'd like bulls … / men whose heads stood in their breasts,” are as much figments of his imagination as any of the strange shapes conjured by Prospero.


In writing Une tempête Césaire turns back to The Tempest in order to retrieve and sustain his voice in a context that defies easy dichotomy. The problem with the ongoing argument about the Caliban complex is the incarceration of the militant, heady Caliban as icon in the academy: a move as dangerous as Léopold Senghor's vague “essence noire,” what Despestre calls his “totalitarian négritude.” Houston Baker, responding to the issue of Critical Inquiry entitled “‘Race,’ Writing, and Difference” (Autumn 1985), argues for an explosion of “the venerable Western trope of Prospero and Caliban … the rationalist and the debunker, the colonizer and the indigenous people.”10 In an attempt to break out of a cult of the either/or, leading to yet another canonization of Caliban, I want to consider how Césaire's Tempest demands a full politics and poetics of deformation and demystification. It seems to me that it is not so much naming, but remembering that matters: an act of naming that carries with it the burden of the past. The liberated Caliban in taking on his name drags the residue of bondage behind him; he sheds the name as he takes on and fully inhabits his history.

Yet in choosing to confront Shakespeare's Tempest, Césaire takes on a name and a history that might not be seen as his own. He makes no claims for originality. The title page presents “Une tempête: d'après la Tempête de Shakespeare—Adaptation for a black theater.” In place of a list of characters he writes simply: “Ceux de Shakespeare,” with “Deux précisions supplémentaires” (Two additional qualifications): Ariel, “a slave, ethnically a mulatto,” and Caliban, “a black slave”; and “Une Addition” (One addition), Eshu, “a black devil-god.”

Césaire's adamant refusal to give his work some illusion of primaryness is crucial to our understanding of what might first seem to be mere celebratory rebellion. Howling for an instrument of reconnection, Caliban/Césaire does not simply negate. Instead, he recognizes the force of mutuality, the knot of reciprocity between master and slave, between a prior “classic” and his response to it. This labor of reciprocity accounts for the complexities of Césaire's transformation: a labor that defies any simple opposition between black and white, master and slave, original and adaptation, authentic and fake.

In denying his text the status of original, Césaire teaches us how to return to the Shakespeare “original,” to reread it and know the possibilities for reversal inherent in a drama too often treated as a dramatization of the opposing claims of nature vs. nurture, art vs. nature, or civilization vs. savagery.

Although a discussion of “influence,” of the anxiety of returning to the givens of a prior text, might be a means of approaching Une tempête, it oversimplifies the nature of Césaire's bold superimposition. If we take Césaire at his word and read his play as an adaptation, not as a disavowal or destruction of what preceded it, then we begin to understand how both texts are complicated through mutual adaptation or convertibility. What might have seemed to be a case of simple rebellion becomes instead an accommodation that puts the stuff of legend (the romantic gesture of rebel or conquerer) in a dialogue so powerful that it implicates both colonized and colonizer.

Césaire's Tempest is a difficult play to read. Not because of a complicated language (it lacks the hermeticism of much of Césaire's poetry), but because of an apparent acceptance of a Caliban shouting “Freedom,” and a Prospero calling upon “civilization.” Yet if questioning, the pulverization of facile dualism and false empowering constitutes the real drama of Shakespeare's play, I will argue that Césaire's adaptation asks questions that undermine any possible pleasure in revolt. Like most of Césaire's writings and his political career, Caliban's play is beset by contradictions that work beneath the surface polarities to undo, interrogate, and warn.

Césaire knows that it is as misleading and as distorting to idealize the black nay-sayer as to praise the Eurocentric establishment. Dramatizing the dangers of any counter-mythology, Une tempête confronts the ambiguities we have discussed. In his experimentation with different kinds of poetic and political rhetoric, whether Ariel's fanciful neo-symbolism or Caliban's bald negations, Césaire proves that the lapse of language into cliché threatens the black rebel, the mulatto lackey, and the white master. Just as Césaire's “revision” of Shakespeare's Tempest must be dealt with not in terms of easy essentialism, but as a procedure of continuing complications, we will analyze Césaire's play as an inquiry into power, power viewed as a contagion capable of involving every character in a damning reciprocity.

Apart from such technical changes, additions, or displacements as the gathering of five acts into three; the appearance of the African gods Eshu (the “player of tricks”) and Shango (force of thunder and lightning); and the transformation of Ariel into accommodating lyricist, the real break with Shakespeare's text occurs in the continuing dialogue between Prospero and Caliban. Césaire's drama turns on their mutuality, their reciprocal recognition: their relationship is an exercise in whose language matters, who has the last word.

In stressing the labor of language in the play, Césaire demands that we consider claims other than the literary. Dramatizing competing theories about the colonial encounter, he hopes to instruct people in the question of revolution, its possibility in the contemporary Caribbean. Works like Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1952), his own Discourse on Colonialism (1955), Mannoni's Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization (1956), and Memmi's The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957) provide a ground for understanding Césaire's Tempest. These texts form a significant dialogue on the status of the articulation of the self as subject, a formation that depends upon language, desire, and recognition.11

For Césaire a concrete “prise de conscience,” the activity of expression, is key to recognition. The task of awareness, however, depends upon recognition by what denies or disallows it: the magus Prospero's words silence, distort, or ignore Caliban's attempt to devise speech. Yet Caliban initiates a new discourse and engages Prospero in a new text. Marx recognized that “Hegel … seizes Labor as essence, as what proves good the essence of man.” Labor is the fact of Caliban's existence. To Prospero's words about teaching him language (“you should be able to bless me for having taught you how to speak”), Caliban simply responds: “You've taught me nothing at all. Except, of course, to jabber your language in order to understand your orders: cut the wood, wash the dishes, catch fish, plant vegetables, because you're too lazy to do it.”12

Fundamentally, the conditions of the play show that given the limitations of a situation where everything seems stacked against you, there is still possibility of conversion. And that possibility Césaire bluntly grounds in Hegel's delineation of the tense bond, the unerring reciprocity between he who calls himself master and he who responds as slave. What matters in Hegel's discussion in his Phenomenology is his analysis of convertibility: “just as lordship showed its essential nature to be the reverse of what it wants to be, so, too, bondage will, when completed, pass into the opposite of what it immediately is: being a consciousness repressed within itself, it will enter into itself, and change round into real and true independence.”13 The possibility of such a “revolution” inspired Césaire's creation of Caliban, whom he describes as “a rebel—the positive hero, in a Hegelian sense. The slave is always more important than his master—for it is the slave who makes history.”14 In this tempest Caliban makes history both by participating in a world of marvels and by articulating himself in a context inimical to him.

The force of the Hegelian dialectic is that by realizing the will of the master, cutting wood or washing dishes, Caliban generates a transformation of matter that allows him to succeed where Prospero fails. How does this happen? As early as his Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire knew how the colonial relationship chains both colonizer and colonized in implacable dependence. “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word”; “colonization, I repeat, dehumanizes even the most civilized man.”15 If “colonization = thingification,” then the Tempest will demonstrate how Prospero, the magus of Western art and civilization, turns into a thing—a reduction dramatized as a failure of language.

Caliban can claim a history and name himself because of Prospero's involvement in their mutual discourse, a dialogue that is not granted Ariel. Ariel's songs, unlike Caliban's, are not accompanied by labor. Prospero mocks their emptiness, their lyrical resistance to change and evasion of action. “It's always like that with intellectuals … what interests me are not your fears but your deeds.” Or later in the play, “Say here, you're not going to set fire to the world with your music.” Caliban's works songs are dedicated to Shango, the fiery storm-god who recalls Shakespeare's stage direction for the first act of his Tempest: “A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard.”

Nowhere do we get so full a sense of the necessity and the peril of a struggle that is also key to recognition as when Ariel warns Caliban, “you know that in that game [war] Prospero is unbeatable.” Caliban answers:

Better death than humiliation and injustice. … Besides, the last word belongs absolutely to me. … The day I feel all is lost, let me steal barrels of infernal powder, and this island, my possession, my work, from the heights of the empyrean where you like to soar, you'll see it explode in the air, I hope, with Prospero and me in the debris.

The choice of death here is no empty rhetoric. In Black Skin, White Masks Fanon writes, “Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him.” Taking his source in Hegel, he recognizes that the “double process of both self-consciousnesses” in the relationship between master and servant does not apply to the white master and black slave. “One day the White master, without conflict, recognized the Negro slave.”16 For Fanon, this recognition—coming without conflict—lacks the reciprocity necessary for full consciousness of self. The fear of death—not the longing for love—alone gives freedom. And while Ariel is willing to say “Yes, master,” until Prospero fulfills his “promise” of freedom, Caliban will risk his life to become part of that world Fanon describes as “a world of reciprocal recognitions.”

Placed irrevocably on the outside of mutuality, Ariel remains lost in the position of grateful child, recipient of the good will and gifts of a master who continues to be master. Now, Césaire's Caliban answers such abstractions as “conscience,” “patience, vitality, love” by denying an “easy freedom.” He undermines Ariel's liberal cant (his “exalting dream” of “a marvelous world” of “brotherhood”) by recognizing, not ignoring a history of outrage, violation, and loss. In the most critical addition to Shakespeare's text, Caliban remembers, and renames himself. When Caliban tells Prospero, “I will no longer be Caliban. … I'm telling you that from now on I will not respond to the name of Caliban,” Prospero falls automatically into the role of renamer. He cannot remain unengaged in the dialogue that Caliban initiates. How about Cannibal, Prospero mocks, re-anagramatizing Caliban, and thus inverting the move from Cannibal to Caliban. Or he tries again, Hannibal, adding, “They all love historic names” (collapsing Caliban's identity into the plural, anonymous “they”). Caliban will choose X—for the man without a name—a sign for what has been taken away. That fact, he says is history. “You talk about history … well, that's history, and everyone knows it! Every time you call me it reminds me of the basic fact that you've stolen everything from me, even my identity!”

But Caliban sees immense possibilities in what has been unnamed, submerged, and violated. His attempt to recall, to summon forth a past that can convert nothing into a source of affirmation, is nowhere so effective as when he remembers his mother Sycorax. Prospero has warned, “There are some genealogies it would be better not to brag about. A hag! A witch from whom, thank God, death has delivered us!” Caliban resists this attempt to degrade his origins.

Dead or living, she is my mother and I will not renounce her! Besides, you believe she's dead, because you believe the earth is a dead thing. … It's so much more convenient! Dead, when you stamp on her, dirty her, trample her under your conquering foot! Me, I respect her, because I know that the earth lives and Sycorax lives.

Sycorax my mother!

Serpent! Rain! Lightning!

Prospero can only respond to his slave's tough recollection by attempting to persuade him that his words are nothing but “witchcraft,” and he thus implicitly acknowledges their power.

Césaire intends that we understand the colonial situation, and he presents a Caliban who not only engages Prospero, but who somehow stops short of revolution. Act III represents a strangely thwarted confrontation. Following the failed attempt to overthrow Prospero with the laughable Trinculo and Stephano, Caliban blames himself for thinking that “paunches and bloated faces could make a Revolution!” He toasts Prospero: “Prospero, to the two of us!” Weapon in hand, he rushes at Prospero who has just appeared, and Prospero responds in a way that could be performed as farce: “Strike, well, strike then! Your master! Your benefactor! You're not even going to spare him!” But Caliban does spare him: he lifts his arm, but then hesitates. How do we interpret this deliberate hiatus? The scene ends up being nothing but gesture. Prospero tells Caliban, “You're just an animal: you do not know how to kill,” and Caliban answers Prospero, “Defend yourself! I'm not an assassin.” Both have been trapped by language and implicated by it. As Prospero sends Caliban to prison, he says, “Stupid like a slave! Now the comedy is complete.” But the comedy is not over, and that is Césaire's point. There remains one more scene to be played: a mutually willed confinement that leaves master and slave alone in a profusion of words.

The ending of Césaire's play sustains the dialogue between Prospero and Caliban. In Shakespeare's Tempest we assume that Caliban resumes control of the island, as Prospero, having laid aside his book and his staff, returns to Naples. But Césaire's Prospero chooses to remain on the island. After ten years, he still needs to talk to Caliban. He wants to “make peace,” urging “We've ended up being compatriots!” Caliban refuses, saying that he will continue the struggle. But the fight can only be sustained through language, as Caliban inquires into his past, activates his own history, and denounces Prospero:

Prospero, you are a great illusionist:
deception you know well.
And you've lied so much to me,
lied about the world, about yourself,
that you've ended up imposing on me
an image of myself:
underdeveloped, as you put it,
a sub-capable,
that's how you made me see myself,
and I hate this image! And it's false!
and I know myself too!

Prospero calls this Caliban's “inverted world,” suggesting that their relationship has been reversed, that the tables have turned. Caliban lectures about the truth of the colonizer's “mission” or “vocation”: “You've got a chance to make an end of it: / You can beat it! / I'm sure you will not leave! / Your ‘mission’ makes me laugh / your ‘vocation’! / Your vocation is to give me shit! / And that's why you stay here, / like those sods who created the colonies / and who now can't live anywhere else.”

Without Caliban's labor the island becomes protagonist: “dirty nature” takes its revenge on the white magician. But only after Césaire has made sure we hear yet again the two competing voices. Caliban sings a song to Shango—“Shango marches powerfully / across the sky, his path!” as Prospero proclaims his transformative powers:

I've uprooted the oak, raised the seas,
shook up mountains, and bared my chest to adversity,
I've answered Jupiter thunderbolt for thunderbolt.
Better yet! From the noise, from a monster, I have
made man!
But oh!
To have failed to find the path to
man's heart …

Prospero then turns to Caliban: “Well, I hate you too! / Because you're the one who first made me doubt myself.” The uncertain, troubled old man of Shakespeare's play here justifies himself to the departing nobles:

Hear me well.
I am not a master in the banal sense of the word,
as this savage believes,
but the conductor of a vast score:
this island.
I alone raise up voices,
And chain them as I please,
arranging out of confusion
one intelligible line.
Without me, who would know how to
draw music from all that?
This island is mute without me.
My duty, then, is here.
Here I will stay.

And once left alone with Caliban, Prospero says, “Now, Caliban, to us both!”

Césaire's final imaging of Prospero surrounded by the vermin, insects, and reptiles that have infested his cave reveals his defeat by the material world that Caliban's labor had commanded, shaped, and controlled. By the end of the play, Prospero, in a stupor of self-coincidence, aged and weary, is reduced to automatic gestures, and his language fails.

It's odd, but for some time now we've been invaded by possums. … Some Mexican hogs, wild boars, all this dirty nature! But mainly possums. … Oh, those eyes! And that base grin on their faces. It's as though the jungle wants to beseige the cave. But I will defend myself. … I will not let my work perish!

He screams, “I will defend civilization!” to an unresponsive nature, to an unanswering Caliban. The play ends with a powerless Prospero suffering alone in his decrepitude, while Caliban gets the last word. He proclaims his new-found freedom, with the sound of surf and the chirping of the birds as background to his song, “Freedom Ohé, Freedom!”

Caliban's “Uhuru” (meaning “Independence” or “Freedom” in Swahili) has punctuated Césaire's drama; indeed, the play turns on the question of what constitutes freedom. Yet Césaire leaves the question unresolved. The end of his play remains ambiguous, Caliban and Prospero two voices shouting in the tempest. What is Caliban's future? Why in his final declaration of freedom does he change from Swahili to French, “La Liberté, Ohé, La Liberté!”? In the context of Césaire's two earlier history plays (both fables and inquiries), Une saison au Congo and La tragédie du roi Christophe, the final shout of freedom becomes less than hopeful. He knows that the struggle to sustain an ideal of freedom is far more difficult than its mere proclamation.

We should not forget that Césaire wrote his Tempest not only as a response to the upbeat spirit of black assertion in the sixties (the moves toward independence in Africa and the Caribbean), but out of the torpor that is contemporary Martinique, ever-stagnant in its ongoing role as accommodating child of France (an overseas département of France since 1946). Indeed, in contemporary Africa and the Caribbean, Caliban's call for “freedom” is a painful reminder of what has not happened, a summons that once placed in the context of contemporary events sounds out its status as hollow cliché. Césaire knows, even as he creates his militant Caliban, that his “Uhuru” could be nothing more than a spurious affirmation: for the question is not independence, but what follows. This crucial question Césaire omits from the Tempest, leaving a hollow at the center of his rhetorical celebration.

Césaire's Tempest makes us attend to failure, to what might be an aberrant task. For how can Caliban define himself in a Caribbean that now suffers under a neo-colonialism far more pernicious than the old colonial situation, where the strategies of the oppressor have been transmitted and internalized? Where the same coercive structures have been reproduced, this time by black functionaries, those whom Walcott calls, “all o'dem big boys, so, dem ministers / ministers of culture, ministers of development, the green blacks, and their old toms … / magicians of the New Vision” (Another Life).

Rob Nixon, in his superb essay, “Caribbean and African Appropriations of The Tempest,” argues that “the value” of Césaire's play “for African and Caribbean intellectuals faded once the plot ran out. The play lacks a sixth act which might have been enlisted for representing relations among Caliban, Ariel and Prospero once they entered a post-colonial era.”17 And yet, that sixth act might well be La tragédie du roi Christophe18. Written six years before the Tempest, the “tragedy” bears witness to the drama of a decolonization so thwarted that its first act must be presented as farce.

Christophe, a black Prospero, replies to vacancy (the loss of a name and identity) by perpetuating a tradition of renaming that stifles an effective voice under empty form. In the years following Haiti's amazing victory over the French at Vertières in 1803, Christophe (who succeeded Dessalines) would combat French hegemony and imperial power with his own orgy of naming. It is the nature of Christophe's reiteration that turns history into farce. Unlike the Caliban who tries to cut through the false magic of Prospero's utterance, Christophe invents for Haiti a nobility, his “Grace the Duke of Limonade, the Duke of Marmalade.” In this play on the perils of decolonization, Christophe passes through two stages. First, he recognizes a history of outrage and loss:

In the past they stole our names
Our pride
Our nobility.
.....Pierre, Paul, Jacques, Toussaint. Those are the
humiliating brand marks with which they obliterated
our real names.

Second, his mystifying renaming covers over the fact of Africa, the terrors of slavery. Believing that “we can't rescue our names from the past,” Christophe simply substitutes the semantic traps of French mastery. A naming that too easily substitutes a convention of liberty, power, or redemption for its actuality: “With names of glory I will cover your slave names / With names of pride our names of infamy.”

The French fragment of Caliban's song that ends the Tempest is thus terrible in its irony. Read in conjunction with Christophe's “rhetoric of honor,” the song to the African god Shango is pulverized, leaving only the snatches of Prospero's language: a call to liberty shown to be as irresistible and as delusive as the “charms” of Shakespeare's “wronged Duke of Milan.” Césaire's play on “revolution” fades into thin air, as baseless and finally, as insubstantial, as Prospero's gloriously ephemeral masque. For as Césaire demonstrates in La tragédie du roi Christophe—his most solemn meditation on the caprices of power—how slippery, how easily reversed is the divide between Caliban and Prospero, colonizer and colonized.


Negritude. Black Orpheus. Caliban. Names chosen for the labor of return, for the seizure of voice from the shadows of a past annihilated, reviled, and traduced. To remember, to reconstitute a self through language is not always a luxury of leisure, but as Toni Morrison demonstrates in Beloved, a descent into a past of broken words and empty names: “Was that it? Is that where the manhood lay? In the naming done by a whiteman who was supposed to know?”19

Morrison is talking about knowledge, and the surest proof of that gift: to speak, to name again in a world where everything seems to have been already named. Césaire confronts Shakespeare's play and takes on the burden of response. He is deliberate in his “adaptation,” with all the complexities and failures such a refusal of originality or uniqueness implies. To see the formerly colonized as agents of knowledge remains the goal of Césaire's hybrid labor. Thus turning from the one way of approaching the relation between definers and defined to the many, he replaces the definite with an indefinite article: substituting Une tempête for The Tempest. Such a project of continuing re-definition warns against turning into fetish or commodity those cultures we, as teachers, hope to rescue from neglect, or those writers we attempt to bring into presence.

Césaire writes as late-coming chronicler of a place, any island in the Caribbean where history began with a complex violation: an orgy of naming by colonizers who acted as if nothing was there until they came to claim it. To teach Césaire's text as mere reaction to what is prior or canonical, without confronting the syncretic, oddly mixed nature of Shakespeare's play is to continue to marginalize the colonial subject outside the untouchable “master plots” of civilization and conquest.

What if we were to teach Shakespeare's Tempest by reading Césaire's adaptation first? We could then read what I have called the convertibility between classical and “new” or revisionary not in terms of a simple either/or dichotomy—with the two texts as counters in an argument of extremes—but through a process of continuing complications. The double and contradictory movement of claims to authority or nationbuilding are as much a part of Shakespeare's world as Césaire's. If we begin to understand the fertile collision and mutual abiding of these reciprocal worlds, we can combat the endless talk about canons that changes nothing in the academic hierarchies, but continues to mask the locus of authority by rhetoricizing a liberalism that legitimates by exclusion and false categorization.

Concerns about legitimacy, mastery, or coercion, especially when trying to recover a voice or history distorted, ambiguous, or null, should be on our minds whenever we confront the domination of form and its a-historical appeal. Incarcerating a “Third-World” writer in a place apart from the “classic,” we profer the dead token of a hollow victory. Significantly, as many have recognized, the very concept of “Third World” is questionable. If Naipaul writes about the Caribbean as “the Third World's Third World,” Sidney Mintz, the anthropologist who first demystified the generality of place called the Caribbean, reminds us that the Caribbean “was being force-fit into the First World, the European World, before the Third World ever existed.”20

It can probably be shown that the special distinctiveness of the Caribbean area within the sphere of the “underdeveloped world” inheres in its ambience as a cluster of colonies … only superficially “non-western,” taking on their particularity precisely because they are in some ways, and deceptively, among the most “western” of all countries outside the U.S. and Western Europe.21

Any study of a text inside the western cultural tradition must include a deconstruction of the very concept western, just as I have argued that an understanding of Prospero or Caliban must engage us in disentangling the very terms of mastery and servitude.

Whether in the so-called “center” or “periphery,” claims of authenticity or threats of fakery are inextricably mixed. Both Shakespeare and Césaire understood the false magic of benevolence, the cunning artifices of language. For whether you're writing in the “post-colonial” Caribbean or the Mother Country, the problem of language—of speaking to or for another—is always a risky business.

Césaire's Tempest is as much a response to a prior Caribbean text as it is to Shakespeare's play. Nine years before Césaire's play, the Barbadian-in-exile George Lamming published his Pleasures of Exile. The problem he recognized as most vexing for the West Indian exile was that of language. And when he wrote his chapter, “The Monster, the Child, the Slave,” he concentrated on the moment when Caliban, goaded by Prospero's demand for more work, curses Prospero's gift: “I gave you language.” What is striking here is that Lamming's Caliban is not very distinct from M. Mannoni's “primitive” and dependent person of color (specifically, the colonized Malagasy in revolt) in Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization.22 For Lamming, to have no language is equivalent to being a beast, or as he put it, de-formed, but to have only the language of the oppressor is to be dependent, a child or monkey mimic of the master. While Lamming recognized the colonial relation as central drama of Shakespeare's play, something odd (or too predictable) happens to his presentation of Caliban.

To be a child of Nature … is to be situated in Nature, to be identified with Nature, to be eternally without the seed of a dialectic which makes possible some emergence from Nature.

Such is Caliban, superfluous as the weight of the earth until Prospero arrives with the aid of the Word which might help him to clarify the chaos which shows its true colors all over his skin.23

Lamming, though writing about Shakespeare, seems to accept implicitly the stigma which slavery impressed upon the “African character”: his Caliban possesses that earthy innocence that assumes in no important sense did he exist as a person until he was “discovered.”

Now, as I have emphasized, Césaire reads his Shakespeare differently, and brings out what might have remained latent in our readings of The Tempest. Shakespeare's Caliban had language, after all, for he taught the arrivants the names of things on the enchanted island. Césaire's Caliban like Shakespeare's own thus goes beyond the choice of mute, unaccommodated nature or mimic: George Lamming's “mute earth” or Derek Walcott's “enraged pupil.”

Given the choice of heroics or the rhetoric of revolt, Césaire writes a play that turns (in its persistent references back to the original) on the crisis of legitimacy. In the process, he breaks out of the trap of colonization, and challenges his readers to de-platonize their understanding of reality. Césaire's exercise in syncretism, the absorptions and permeability of diverse histories, and cultures, helps us to break down and reconstitute such abstract and inevitably neutralizing distinctions as literate/illiterate, developed/underdeveloped, historic/prehistoric, all of which oversimplify the nature of the encounter between the West and the rest of the world.


“Pluralism,” Gayatri Spivak argues, “is the method employed by the central authorities to neutralize opposition by seeming to accept it. The gesture of pluralism on the part of the marginal can only mean capitulation to the center.” I end with this quotation, since I think the use of a term like “pluralism” to minimize difference or neutralize conflict (and thereby serve the interests of the status quo) is part of the now popular march toward the “global” or the “multicultural.”

It is no accident that the commodification or celebration of something called “minority” literatures happens at a time when black communities, especially, are the most disenfranchised, the most dispossessed. What is the relation between the multicultural enterprise in the academy—the call for diversity—and what is happening in those places in the United States that house those we are busy talking and writing about? What gets to be recognized or accredited as a usable image or a popular text? And when? As soon as the Caribs of the New World were decimated, they were praised and idealized in most natural histories of the Caribbean. And as the so-called “Third World” becomes what Maurice Bishop of Grenada had hoped would be nobody's “backyard,” more and more people are writing about the Caribbean. Things tend to become favorite objects of study—literary themes—once their disappearance is assured.

Our real task in approaching the demands of complicated cultural histories should be to articulate a method, a way of teaching—and learning—that will not limit a “literary” text, in particular, to such “qualities” that allow us to wrench it out of less absolute, more contingent (historical and social) contexts. We need to question how texts and our responses to them are constituted by social realities too easily masked by something vague and grand called “literariness.”

The academy has always been the privileged, if subtle arena for the perpetuation of a dominant, sanctified ideology. As Gramsci put it, we are all “experts in legitimation.” Wole Soyinka has warned of “a second epoch of colonization”: “a universal-humanoid abstraction defined and conducted by individuals whose theories and prescriptions” have very little to do with the places and peoples out of which such studies gain strength. What is most valuable about current questions of canon formation is not the attack against an individual writer and the substitution of another (Shakespeare vs. Césaire, for example) but the attempt to reintroduce conflict and difference, to elicit questions and discomfort, instead of seeking accord. As Césaire put it in his early Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, true as always to his project of deconstruction, his battle against any iconic quest, whether for some phantom Africa or Léopold Senghor's celebrated black essence:

No, we've never been amazons of the King of Dahomey. … And since I have sworn to leave nothing out of our history (I who love nothing better than a sheep grazing on his own afternoon shadow), I may as well confess that we were at all times pretty mediocre dishwashers.

No easy assumption of a glorious—and ultimately mystifying—negritude, but as in his Tempest, a re-appropriation, transmission, and questioning of the very making of history.


  1. See René Depestre, A Rainbow for the Christian West, trans. and intro. by Joan Dayan (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977) 108-109; and René Depestre, Bonjour et Adieu à la Négritude (Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, 1980) 153-60.

  2. Césaire, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Paris: Bordas, 1947). The best translation of the Cahier is by Clayton Eschelman and Annette Smith, Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

  3. Roberto Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, trans. by Edward Baker, forward by Fredric Jameson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

  4. Césaire, Une tempête (Paris: Ed. du Seuil, 1969).

  5. See Derek Walcott's crucial “The Muse of History” in Carifesta Forum: An Anthology of Twenty Caribbean Voices (1976) 113, especially. And in his Collected Poems: 1948-1984, see “Crusoe's Island” and “Crusoe's Journal.”

  6. See Césaire, Discours sur le colonialism (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1955): “colonisation = chosification” 19, translated as Discourse on Colonialism by Joan Pinkham (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1972). See also Depestre, Bonjour et Adieu à la Négritude on the “epidermisation” of black history (“Le fétichisme de l'épiderme est un fils politique du capital”) 90-98.

  7. Gordon Lewis, Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in Its Ideological Aspects, 1492-1900 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983) 89.

  8. For a discussion on the transits of Caliban see Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (London and New York: Methuen, 1986). Caliban is an icon for voice. As Hulme argues, Caliban is discourse, a “monster” constituted through words: “Caliban, as a compromise formation, can exist only within discourse: he is fundamentally and essentially beyond the bounds of representation” 108.

  9. See Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957) 91: “He is in no way a subject of history any more. Of course, he carries its burden, often more cruelly than others, but always as an object.” The mechanism of colonization as elaborated by Memmi unfortunately perpetuates the myth of the colonized as lack. No longer agents, they remain in the world, but emptied of value: victims but never makers of history. George Lamming in “A Monster, A Child, A Slave,” The Pleasures of Exile [1960] (London: Allison & Busby, 1984) also gives us a Caliban who “is never accorded the power to see. … superfluous and dumb” 108. Colonized, yet privileged, Lamming here forgets the other history, those other ways of self-definition and marronage that sustained religions, languages, and traditions in spite of what the “master” race imposed: “he has no self which is not a reaction to circumstances imposed upon his life” 107.

  10. Baker, Critical Inquiry (Autumn 1986) 190.

  11. Note that Mannoni had taught Césaire in Fort de France, Martinique, at the Lycée Schoelcher; there Césaire would later teach Fanon; and Lacan's seminars in Paris no doubt influenced Fanon as he wrote Black Skin, White Masks. During the fifties in France the discourse of desire and recognition in psychoanalytic circles was fueled by moves toward decolonization in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as by France's brutal efforts to contain revolts in Madagascar and Algeria. The dialogue between the so-called “colonizer and colonized” is questioned and complicated when we begin to admit the reciprocal relations between writers from the Metropole and colonial subjects.

  12. All translations from Césaire's Tempest are my own.

  13. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (New York: 1970) 237.

  14. Césaire, quoted in S. Belhassen, “Aimé Césaire's A Tempest,” in Radical Perspectives in the Arts, ed. Lee Baxandall (Harmondsworth 1972) 176.

  15. Césaire, Discourse 13.

  16. Fanon, Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1952), translated as Black Skin, White Masks by Charles Lam Markman (New York: Grove Press, 1967) 216-17. Fanon claims that the master he describes differs from Hegel's. “For Hegel there is reciprocity; here the master laughs at the consciousness of the slave. What he wants from the slave is not recognition but work” 220.

  17. Rob Nixon, “Caribbean and African Appropriations of The Tempest,Critical Inquiry, 13 (Spring 1987): 557-78.

  18. Césaire, La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1963).

  19. Morrison, Beloved (New York: New American Library, 1987) 125.

  20. Sidney Mintz, “The Caribbean as a Socio-Cultural Area,” Cahiers d'Histoire Mondiale, 9 (1966): 916-44.

  21. Mintz 917. See also Edward Said's sharp meditation. “Third World Intellectuals/Metropolitan Culture,” Raritan (Winter 1990) 36. Speaking of those writers once identified as colonial or native, he argues: “There is no sense in their work of men standing outside the Western cultural tradition, however much they think of themselves as articulating the adversarial experience of colonial and/or non-Western peoples.”

  22. D. O. Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization (New York: Praeger, 1964). See Fanon's brilliant deconstruction of the text—which should be compared with Césaire's response in Discourse on Colonialism—in Black Skin, White Masks 83-108.

  23. Lamming 110.

Michel Benamou (essay date 1975)

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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 leader/playwright exert demiurgic power to the utmost degree which language and history make available. This was exactly the condition of Césaire's writing at the moment when he decided to leave the French Communist Party, and to found both a party and a theatre that would create a national identity for Martinique. 1956 included three events of importance for Césaire's poetics: his letter to Maurice Thorez (although not important as a letter but as a claim of race over class), his preface to Daniel Guérin's Les Antilles décolonisées1 (as an affirmation of Martinique autonomy before any Antillean federation can take place): and finally his first “tragedy” Et les chiens se taisaient2. These events are a crestline in Césaire's evolution, a watershed. Ten years earlier, he had voted for the departmentalization of the island, its further assimilation as one of the French Departements. Under French rule for 300 years, the black masses have lost their culture. A Hegelian view of the nature of a theatre (as Edouard Glissant reminds us in the July 1971 number of the Martinique literary review Acoma) is that the birth of a people is accompanied by the birth of a theatre: there is no nation without a theatre. In Martinique, in 1956, there was no nation. Glissant, after Fanon, warns of the danger of becoming a “nègre gréco-latin” for lack of a people whose collective consciousness must precede any form of theatre: “there is no nation without a theatre” but conversely “no theatre is possible without national consciousness”. Contrarily to what has happened in most nations, the Martinique theatre has to arise from collective silence. Instead of the Hegelian development of theatre out of folklore, since folklore is limited to a few dances and rituals on the island, some act of human will must create a theatre, a theatre that will fill the gap in consciousness created by assimilation. In other words, the circumstances were such that Césaire must create a theatre from which the people were absent. Hence his demiurgic role.


Et les chiens se taisaient would be a Greek play if we could imagine one from which the citizens of Athens would have been absent. It is, of course, a parody of Aeschyllus' Prometheus Bound, for the Rebel is cast in Tartarus, shackled and defiant. A Chorus—which in Attic tragedies was not made up of professional actors but of citizens of Athens—might represent the Blacks of Fort-de-France (if their alienation did not prevent the very act of re-presentation or self-knowledge). If I add that the three visits to Prometheus—that of the Ocean Nymphs, of Io and of Hermes as messenger from Zeus—are duplicated in the Rebel's cell by the visits of the mad girls, his mistress and the messenger from the Administration, it is not to point out the sources of the play, but to assess the status of parody in Césaire's work, a subject needing more critical attention than I can give in this brief study. In fact, the Rebel is not playing Prometheus as portrayed by Aeschyllus, Prometheus the inventor and civilizer. That dubious role is parodied by Le grand promoteur, the American businessman:

Mon nom c'est le Découvreur, mon nom c'est l'Inventeur, mon nom c'est l'Unificateur, celui qui ouvre le monde aux nations!

(p. 23)

(My name is the Discoverer, my name is the Inventor, my name is the Unifier, he who opens up the world for nations!)

Another twist to the Attic myths which Césaire uses, comes from the blinding of the Rebel. Not unlike Oedipus, he has killed his father, parodied by the white master. Similarly, the mad women who go into fits of surrealistic drivel parody the Furies of Aeschyllus' Oresteia; and so on, as you wish. Parody, or the faking of stolen goods by the language-thief Césaire, is the first recourse against a culture whose means of expression are the only ones available to attack it. Parody in the hands of the thief becomes his formidable, his miraculous weapon, because it rips white culture from the inside. These remarks seem to fit Césaire's adaptation of Shakespeare's Tempest better than his more devious parody of Prometheus Bound. Parody then becomes a finger pointed at the stolen mask. But Césaire is not content with the role of a culture-thief: he has demiurgic aims as a culture-hero. His first task is to name the plants and beasts of the island, whose names are ignored by the French-taught islanders themselves. Words such as aloès, gerbéra, jénipa, if they fill the poems from the beginning, do undergo a change when projected from the page to the stage: they become, by the very lack of comprehension, the signs of an absence. The world of the Martinique Blacks is absent, silent, unnamed, and the demiurgic act points to its unreality. In this way, the act of naming underlines the absence of a world which needs to be named in order to exist.

An exact parallel to this use of demiurgic language is the imagery by which Césaire attempts to create a hero.

When Césaire decided in 1956 to turn from poetry to theatre, his first play, Et les chiens se taisaient, was ostensibly a sequel to his surrealist poems. But the intention to stage the poems brings to light the fact that the images undercut the very essence of theatre, which is communication. The tragedy of the Rebel is that his language finds no echo in the populace. The imagery affirmed a presence which, of necessity, revealed an absence.

The central presence in Césaire's imagery is, of course, that of the sun. The solar archetype constellates, images of the African and Martinique bestiary, of sex and its forests of symbols, of speech and the powers of Logos. A few examples will suffice to evoke the whole network.

In Act One, Césaire symbolizes the impotence and captivity of his Rebel by the image of a wounded lion:

Le soleil est un lion qui se traîne fou, brisé de pattes dans sa cage qui tremble.

(p. 26)

(The sun is a mad lion crawling on broken legs in his shaking cage.)

This image expresses the feeling of symbolic castration experienced even today by many black males in the island, a combination of fears and frustration derived from the sexual history of slaves and the present economic impotence. The African sun-lion has been deported, and is dying in captivity. In a 1949 poem, “Mot”, the word “Nigger” is likened to “the sun with bleeding claws on the sidewalk of clouds”3:

comme le soleil qui saigne de la griffe sur le trottoir des nuages.

(p. 72)

Césaire invests the sun with a virile sexual force, no sooner calling it “soleil enraciné dans les mines de ma force” (sun rooted deep in the mines of my potency) (Chiens, p. 38) than to announce that “the sun has been killed, there is no more sun” (ibid., p. 40). An echo of Apollinaire's Orphic decapitation, Soleil cou coupé was the title of Césaire's third book of poetry, and in the play under study his hero in a moment of weakness calls himself “un coupé” or a castrated victim. But as the play unfolds, the heroic qualities of the solar image return.

The chthonian reverse of the decapitated sun is the tree. Linked to the sun by images of roots and phallic trunk, the tree recurs in Chiens as a symbol of whatever African sap still flows in the Rebel's veins:

on a beau peindre en blanc le pied de l'arbre, la force de l'écorce en dessous crie.

(p. 39)

(paint the foot of a tree as you may, the force of its bark underneath the paint still shouts out.)

Trees in the play stand for the national spirit. Nations make up a forest, one canopy of foliage at the top, but diverse and uncrowded trunks at the foot (56-57). In that sense, the Antillean Black is literally a transplanted species, its nature being its lineage or, if the pun will not turn me into a tree, its ligneousness. Bark, sap, shape differentiate these Africans, contemptuously dubbed “bois d'ébène” (ebony wood) by the slavers. But the image also has solar and heroic connotations as when the Rebel says:

J'ai acclimaté un arbre de soufre et de laves chez un peuple de vaincus.

(p. 77)

(I planted a tree of sulfur and lava among a subjugated people.)

Such a tree, by its mineral nature, is demiurgic. It belongs to new nature. It is a new essence, its volcanic and sacrificial overtones resulting from the auditory ambiguity of sulfur and suffering in the French word “soufre”; furthermore, it has the Promethean quality of much alchemical imagery of trees, sulfur and molten stone. Heroism is an alchemical operation or, as Césaire calls it in the title of one of his early poems4, a “transmutation”. The Rebel, tempted by the blandishments of a mythical African past, resists in the name of his future transmutation:

Ma loi est que je coure d'une chaîne sans cassure jusqu'au confluent de feu qui me volatilise, qui m'épure et m'incendie de mon prisme d'or amalgamé.

(My law is to run the unbroken chain all the way to the fire stream to be vaporized, purified and burned through my gold and silver prism.)

Such is the Promethean prophecy. The flame of torture become the flame of purification, and in the last stage of the Opus, when the Rebel is dead and his dramatis personae also fall, he has become a vision of gold and silver islands in the glitter of a Caribbean sunrise. The Rebel's body has been transmuted into islands; the islands, through his sacrifice, from festering wounds into the purified metals of a Utopian conjunction. There at least the sun-metal and the moon-metal, the masculine and feminine principles of the chemical wedding, will be reunited. But to the demiurgic work of mating the cosmic forces, now separate, of sun and earth, hero and island, the indispensable ingredient is demiurgic language. By tradition, demiurgy is liturgy, the poet's speech a divine Logos. But whereas the Christian God has confiscated the power of creation-by-the-word, African Nommo invests this demiurgic power in all men to varying degrees. The Chief and Poet are one. In Césaire, Logos becomes a vociferous, although self-conscious, shout. His hero resists the temptation of “silky words”: “words like doves and golden fire-birds” (p. 84).

Instead of poetic mellifluence, he prefers in his language a sort of totemic savagery. Images commenting upon themselves obey the logic of demiurgic language; the symbols call attention to their power because there is no World existing outside their power to symbolize. Césaire likens his shout now to an untamed animal (46) now to a dragon bleching fire (46) or a tongue of a fire-brand (90) or the smoking bark of a trapped beast (78), and most often to a snake (93, 102, 112). His are not “human words (…) but bullets (…) words of molten pitch and ambush” (71), words which bite like the two-headed serpent:

Ah, vous ne partirez pas que vous n'ayez senti la morsure de mes mots sur vos âmes imbéciles, car, sachez-le, je vous épie comme ma proie.

(p. 104)

(You will not leave before you have felt the bite of my words on your weak minds, for, I'll have you know, I am watching you like my prey.)

Granted, this logomachy may not win mulatto votes to the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais: it underlines the distance between the demiurgic leader and the lethargic people, a distance measured by his consciousness and their enslavement, but none the less a communicative space even if communication takes the form of a venomous bite and a lying-in-wait. The image calls back the figure of the sorcerer confronting the people with a snake in one hand and a mint leaf in the other. He wears the head of a dog, speaks when the bloodhounds of colonialism are quiet. The law of demiurgic speech is to answer violence with violence, to liberate by dint of an effort of consciousness that may seem more cruel than the prostration of the status quo.


The ideology of demiurgic poetics finds its full expression in this second tragedy which it is his first play capable of stage-performance. In Les chiens, the theme of kingship had already tempted the Rebel with its leitmotiv, « Le roi Debout », but it effected then an ironical contrast to the champion's captivity. In the 1964 performance, Césairism is often dangerously close to Caesarism, but the ambiguities of demiurgic imagery save the play from the quandaries of demiurgic politics. At the level of characterization, the Rebel reappears as Metellus, the archetypal slave, who briefly denounces the double tyranny of Pétion and Christophe. But at the level of imagery the real choice is between two kinds of society, two kinds of structure: a wood structure and a stone structure. Wood and stone become the pervading symbols of the play as early as the first scene, where Christophe uses true demiurgic imagery to symbolize his role as leader:

Le plus grand besoin de ce peuple qu'il faut protéger qu'il faut corriger, qu'il faut éduquer, c'est …
La liberté.
La liberté sans doute, mais pas la liberté facile! Et c'est donc d'avoir un Etat. Oui, Monsieur le philosophe, quelque chose grâce à quoi ce peuple de transplantés s'enracine, boutonne, s'épanouisse, lançant à la face du monde les parfums, les fruits de la floraison; pourquoi ne pas le dire, quelque chose qui, au besoin par la force, l'oblige à naître à lui-même et à se dépasser lui-même.
(Freedom, sure, but not an easy freedom. It is a State they need. Yes, Mr. Philosopher, something by which this transplanted people may take root, may bud and flower, flaunting to the world's face the fragrance and fruit of fructification; why not say it, something which, if need be by force, makes it give birth to itself and go beyond itself.)

The contradition between the sylvan metaphor and the demiurgic intent becomes clear through an evolution which will bring Christophe from thinking of the people as trees (22), to manipulating them as clay in the potter's hand (32), then as stones that he will cement together (45):

De la pierre, je cherche de la pierre!
Du ciment, je cherche du ciment!


The gardener has turned into a mason of his people's unity but he despises their “dust”:

                    Poussière! Poussière! Partout de la poussière! Pas
de pierre! De la poussière! De la merde et de la pous-


                    (Dust! Dust! Dust everywhere! No stone! Dust!
Shit and dust!)

To him, “the human substance itself has to be melted anew” (50). He therefore has to choose for stone against wood, against time, against natural growth. It is the demiurgic dilemma which Césaire underlines by having Christophe read a letter from his friend Lord Wilberforce:

                    On n'invente pas un arbre, on le plante! On ne lui
extrait pas les fruits, on le laisse porter. Une nation n'est
pas une création, mais un mûrissement, une lenteur, an-
née par année, anneau par anneau.


          (You cannot invent a tree, you must plant it! You
don't extract fruit, you let them grow. A nation is not a
creation, but a maturation, slowly, year by year, ring by ring.)

To the tree-freedom-nature symbols Christophe opposes the stone-State-culture symbols. Stone takes on increasingly negative values: from its religious meaning as “house of god” (“Mane surgens Jacob erigebat lapidem”) to its arrogant military meaning as “stone dreadnought” and citadel on the rock.

To point out the fatal choice made by Christophe, Césaire contrasts the vision of a stone citadel, ending Act One, with the easy-going symbol of the Haitian father-stream, the Artibonite. The function of the intermezzo in which the image appears is thus to comment upon Act One. The commentary is not partial to Christophe. Césaire's sympathy clearly favors the Captain of the raftsmen over the power-crazy King. People are not stone, although they can, like the logs making up a raft, be led downstream by skilful management. The raft is, of course, the ship of State, as cross-reference makes it clear in the raftsmen's song:

Pas quitter bateau-la chavirer
Pas quitter pays-la chavirer!


(We'll not leave this here boat capsize
Not leave this here land capsize).

The choice between a stone ship and a wooden raft is obvious.

Another substantial image alternates with stone. It is earth, which will prove to be the cause of Christophe's downfall. The function of the peasant scenes is to show the peasants' repressed love for the earth. They are men of earth, not stone, and mud does not phase them: they simply walk around it. But to Christophe, History itself is a mud-swamp, and the State which he wants to found—against the grain, so to speak, of human nature—is motivated by his need for substantial solidity. If we fell for a Bachelardian analysis here, we might say stone fills the void of national consciousness, a compact compensation for the inner gap which transportation across the Atlantic has left in the black consciousness.

But besides protection and solidity, stone also symbolizes weight and immobility. If Act Two is the demiurgic act of edification, Act Three is the retributive act of petrification. Demiurgic imagery even jumps to the level of the signifier, as fatality strikes Christophe by changing him into a stone. He underscores the stone symbolism by referring to his paralysis as being “empêtré” (124), etymologically mixed with stone. The last image of the play is a striking example of a demiurgic text commenting upon itself:

(His weight is his speech. One must know how to understand it.)
(Set him up standing,)
(In the pit of fresh cement. Turned to the south.)
(Fine. Not lying down, but standing up.)
(Let him find his way, in the difficulty of stone and the work of rock invented by man's hand!)


His “stone-pride” becomes a symbol of racial pride, the weight a speech, the non-natural substance a Promethean gift to the future. The Peter (or Pater) of Negritude has been metamorphosed into a monument: “tel qu'en lui-même l'éternité le change”. In the same way as Césaire, Mallarmé too used his symbols to reflect upon the transformative power of language, but he chose vacuous objects—a vase, a flute, an urn—and mean substances—ink, soot, make-up—to signify the demiurgic hopes of his poetry. Césaire, by opposing wood and stone, also signifies man's transgression of the divine Logos. “Rock invented by man's hand” replaced in Christophe's speech the natural language of trees. The transgression became clear to the audience in the episode where the King defied heavenly thunder. What it all means is perhaps that demiurgic politics may succeed only by the sacrifice of the demiurge. Ironically, it is only after the King's death that his people pronounce him to have been “a great tree” (150).


This is Césaire's third play about the champions of Black Statehood. This time it is about a Congolese hero, Patrice Lumumba. But, characteristically, just as Christophe was first staged in Montreal, Une saison was premiered in Paris in 1967. Both plays were subsequently shown to black audiences but they did not arise from the people they were intented to heroize. Yet a definite progress toward increasing communication with the masses can be shown in the language and in the basic imagery.

Appropriately, the chief symbolism throughout the play is animal, and bird imagery dominates. This in itself carries cultural overtones, for birds, especially game birds, have been virtually exterminated in Martinique. To an African audience, on the contrary, bird imagery has deep political meaning. When Guinea voted “No” in the famous 1958 Referendum, it became the first African nation to gain independence from the French Empire. At a huge popular meeting, President Sékou Touré celebrated the event gy having a sparrow-hawk set free. It is reported to have risen in the evening light, drunkenly circling at first, before flying away to its new destiny. This is one of the birds to whom Lumumba is constantly compared by the street organist of the play (38, 42, 85, 115). It is a symbol of one aspect of Lumumba's character: his courage and vulnerability. Here was a postal worker with a tenth-grade education, who, having become Prime Minister, had dared the King of Belgium in the historic speech of June 1960:

Je voudrais être toucan, le bel oiseau, pour être à
travers le ciel, annonceur, à races et langues, que Kongo
nous est né, notre roi! Kongo, qu'il vive! Kongo, tard né,
qu'il suive l'épervier.

(p. 28)

(I would like to be a toucan, the beautiful bird, to
be across the sky the herald to all races and languages of
the birth of Kongo our king. Kongo, long life to him!
Kongo, of late birth, let him follow the hawk!)

Lumumba's special gifts as an extraordinary orator, both in French and Swahili, are embodied by another bird symbol, the crowned crane. Says one soldier, convinced by the eloquence of the young hero:

Vive Lumumba! Celui-ci, quand il parle, c'est la grue
couronnée qui passe.

(p. 90)

(Long live Lumumba! When he speaks, it is the
crowned crane flying by.)

One need not know that in Bambara, Césaire's African tribe of origin, “I speak” is “N'guma” while “N'kuma”, almost the same word, denotes Balearica pavonina, the crowned crane (Colin). What matters here is that Lumumba's power is only the power of words against the force of tribalism controlled by Kasavubu in Léopoldville, as well as against the force of international finance supporting Tchombé in Katanga. Lumumba's domain is the air. He is forever flying here and there, speaking, rallyng large audiences for a moment to his cause, but, as Sartre remarked, once he had left, his magic vanished too. And when he cannot go on the air, blocked from using the radio by the UN, Kasavubu easily dismisses him from his post as Prime Minister.

This lack of a power-base appears in the contrast between the slow, turtle-like Kala, obviously a land animal, and the often air-borne Lumumba. There is no likeness of Césaire here. The Martiniquais, who spoke of himself to me as “volcanic”, does not resemble the volatile Congolese, except in one respect: both are caught between the black masses and the bourgeoisie of their country; both are poets and men of action, short of bloodshed.

Unsuspecting as a sparrow, majestically eloquent as a crowned crane, Lumumba is also characterized in the play by two other birds: the little magpie which puffs out its plumage to look like a peacock to impress the international scene, and the sacred ibis, his totemic bird, its white flight feathers tipped with irridescent green. Thus, the qualities and shortcomings of Lumumba as a leader fill the four corners of the semantic space defined by his symbols, the birds:

(speech) the crowned crane sacred ibis (beauty)
(naïvety) the sparrow hawk the magpie (agitation)

Against Lumumba, the other characters rank in different degrees of rapaciousness: M'siri, in Tchombé's camp (who will eventually push a bayonet through Lumumba's heart) is a hyena; the Belgians a wounded water buffalo; Sissoko, in Mokutu's camp, a black rail. The whole tragedy of Lumumba is set in the language of the hunt. The street organist, who usually provides the commentary on the imagery itself, makes up this little story to expose the disunity among the Africans:

Africans, this is the tragic thing! The hunter finds out the crowned crane in the treetop. Fortunately, the turtle has seen him. The crane is saved, you say? And, in fact, the turtle warns the big leaf, which is to tell the vine, which is to tell the bird! But no, every man for himself! Result: the hunter kills the bird, takes the big leaf to wrap it, cuts the vine to tie it, bags the turtle in addition. Africans, my brothers, when will you understand?

(p. 78)


The fourth play, Une tempête, is an interesting last stage in Césaire's progress as a dramatist. It is (like the first one) a parody, but a rather disappointing one in which Caliban turns into the shadow of Malcolm X, Ariel into Martin Luther King, while Prospero remains improbably dressed in the white slaver's anachronistic cork hat and tropical clothes. Imagery has been banished, perhaps a sign of the abandonment of demiurgic poetics: the play takes off on a cultural consensus, which excludes the masses since it supposes an acquaintance with Shakespeare. Far from creating a language of imaginative communication, the play simply pursues the theme of Caliban and Prospero, which Manoni had set up years ago as straw men representing colonialism8.

So, from the early surrealist drama, Césaire moved to the last thin caricature. The two middle plays bridged the gap between the poet's inner world and political life, by means of some basic images: wood and stone, land and air, which fulfil a demiurgic role. Wood is affirmed against stone as the symbol of man's rhythm of growth and freedom, while air, as the element of soaring strength and independence, is preferred to the earth crawling with ignoble beasts. By these images, the Mayor of Fort-de-France, who is the most under-employed political leader in the world, succeeded in communicating the difficulties of raising his people from dust. The increasing simplification of his language bespeaks his desire to reach them9. Such is the dilemma of a surrealist poet in the act of making not a poem but a people: he is caught between the two dangers of petrification (the tyrant) and vaporization (the idealist). Like Magritte's puzzling stone birds in flight, a cross between Christophe and Lumumba may be an absurdity. But it is a cross (to pun again) which the demiurgic poet must bear.


  1. Présence Africaine.

  2. Présence Africaine.

  3. Cadastre: Editions du Seuil, 1961.

  4. Soleil cou coupé: Editions K., 1948 (p. 28).

  5. Présence Africaine, 1964.

  6. Editions du Seuil, 1967.

  7. Editions du Seuil, 1969.

  8. O. Mannoni: Psychologie de la colonisation, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1950, published in English as Prospero and Caliban, New York 1964. The theme of Caliban and Prospero reappears in Claude Wauthier: L'Afrique des Africains, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1964, published in English as The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa, Praeger, New York 1967, and in Jahnheinz Jahn: Neo-African Culture, Grove Press, New York 1969, p. 209.

  9. In Fort-de-France, the Mulatto quasi-bourgeois who declares Césaire's poetry « obscure » and « ununderstandable » admits that he has only seen La tragédie du roi Christophe (perhaps the performance, perhaps the play). The fact is that Césaire is not read except among the young.

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

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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 or her cause, the myth or recurring theme of Caliban. Caliban, for Shakespeare, is the naturally grotesque, vulgar, and brutish slave, far from the noble savage of Montaigne or of the literature of romanticism. In fact, in The Tempest—performed as early as 1611 and first printed in 1623, according to Frye1—there is a repetitive recital of negative epithets, uttered primarily by Prospero, in reference to Caliban: “dull thing, not honored with a human shape”; “poisonous slave, got by the devil himself”; “thing of darkness”; “as disproportioned in his manners as in his shape”; and other implied or expressed terms like “rapist,” “monster,” “hag-seed,” “beast,” etc. In fact, nobody in the play says anything good about Caliban. Thus one might say that Shakespeare's Prospero never thought Caliban capable of being anything but what he had already condemned him to be, an object, an inferior. For Aimé Césaire, apparently Caliban plays the role of ignoble savage that Prospero has assigned to him, but in reality he is 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.2 He is not passive and obedient as some would have him be. Césaire now, like Shakespeare before him, is a perpetual subject for literary criticism, and contemporary theories, thoughts, and judgements about them force new readings of both authors' works and the characters they create. We evoke the name of Caliban at this time because he has remained a fascinating literary creation for centuries, and because of his influence on contemporary sociopolitical thought and writings, especially by authors of the Third World (Braithwaite, Dorsinville, Fanon, Lamming, Senghor, etc.). Until some forty-five years ago Caliban had rarely been linked with Africa and the African diaspora. Writers of the Third World see meanings in The Tempest that have been neglected by traditional Shakespearean scholars. Fernández Retamar, a Latin American author, expressed it well when he said, “what is our history, what is our culture, if not the history and culture of Caliban?”3

About Shakespeare's savage and deformed Caliban, a University of Chicago professor recently asked, “Is Caliban, in the conclusion to The Tempest, (1) a happy subject once again under Prospero's benign rule, or (2) the victim of a colonialism which Shakespeare, with his usual brilliance, portrayed in his drama before it had happened historically?”4 The questioner goes on to ask whether there is any way of knowing what Shakespeare wanted us to think about these and a myriad of other issues. What Shakespeare may have inadvertently predicted in The Tempest becomes a reality with which to come to terms in Césaire's Une tempête. Césaire, the Martinican poet, essayist, playwright, and politician, responds informatively, from a new historical perspective, to questions that may have been left unanswered in The Tempest.

The Tempest, which some believe is Shakespeare's last play and his farewell to the theater, appeared just a few years before his death. According to the Vaughans, in their impressive cultural history, Shakespeare's Caliban, “records from the early seventeenth century show that The Tempest was performed at the court of King James I on 1 November 1611 and was repeated (possibly with alterations) in the winter of 1612-13 at the wedding celebrations for Princess Elizabeth and Frederick, elector of Palatine.”5 A reader might safely conclude that Caliban is not Shakespeare's chief preoccupation in his play. On the other hand, one might ask what the play would have been without Caliban, who is a distinct and unforgettable character. Francis Neilson, among others perhaps, has said:

The dominant motif of The Tempest is not the taming of a savage, spawned by a witch and propagated by the devil. … Caliban is really an accident, and stands entirely apart from the vicissitude that Prospero had endured. … Caliban came into the life of the magician when he reached the island … and was in no way concerned with the conspiracy in Milan. …6

Be that as it may, whenever one reads The Tempest today, one thinks of the so-called civilizing mission in the Third World by the explorers and the missionaries. One thinks of proprietorship, forced labor, exploitation, and the notion of the rich becoming richer and more comfortable on the backs of the toiling poor. It is no accident that Caliban stands in the midst of all of this, at least according to twentieth-century sentiments.

Briefly, the story in The Tempest centers on Prospero, the right Duke of Milan who, because of the evil and treacherous acts of his usurping brother, Antonio, is banished from his homeland with his infant daughter Miranda to an unknown island, thought to be uninhabited. Before his forced departure takes place, Gonzalo, a loyal courtier and honest councilor, furnishes Prospero's boat with the necessities of life, including the exile's books, which provide him, it seems, with knowledge about almost everything, including magic and sorcery which he will use to manipulate his newly discovered world in accomplishing his vengeance on his real and imaginary enemies. It so happens that the new island does not belong to Prospero but rather to the deceased Sycorax. She was said to have been a wicked witch, who, while pregnant, previously had been banished from her homeland to the island, where she subsequently gave birth to her son Caliban. Having preceded Prospero, they were the true owners of the island. Shakespeare has Caliban say to Prospero:

This island's mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. … All the charms
Of Sycorax—toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o' th' island.

(TT [The Tempest], p. 45)

Both Caliban, a person, and Ariel, an airy spirit, were enslaved so to speak by Prospero and forced to do his every bidding, largely through threats of horrible punishment to their being. It is these seeming acts of colonization and segregation which prompted Césaire to say in an interview with Lucien Attoun:

J'ai essaye de demythifier la Tempête. … En réalisant la pièce j'ai été frappé par le totalitarisme de Prospéro. … Je m'insurge lorsqu'on me dit que c'est l'homme de pardon. Ce qui est essentiel chez lui, c'est la volonté de puissance. … C'est le monde européen campé en face du monde magique, du monde primitif.7

(I tried to take the myth out of The Tempest. … In staging the play I was struck by Prospero's totalitarianism. … I rebel when I am told the he is a man of pardon. What is essential to him is the will for power. … It is the European world facing the magical world, the primitive world.”

[All translations are ours]

Prospero's despotic control prevails in the island, and he rules with an iron hand. With the help of his own occult arts and the magical illusions supplied by the obedient spirit Ariel, who renders service to him on demand because he believes that he owes his controlled freedom to him, Prospero conjures up a storm which engulfs the passing vessel of Alonso, King of Naples, and deposits him, his court party, and his crew on to the island that the exiled Duke has appropriated. Caliban takes no part in any of Prospero's hostile intrigues. He supplies the labor on the island and is busy trying to survive by pretending to be the docile and good servant he is expected to be:

I must obey. His art is of such pow'r
It would control my dam's god, Setebos,
And make a vassal of him.

(TT, p. 46)

Caliban's only important social contact with members of the shipwrecked party is with the jester, Trinculo, and the drunken butler, Stephano, who supply some comic relief in Shakespeare's play. Caliban, intoxicated by the wine given to him, had naively thought that these rascals were gods capable of helping him get revenge on Prospero:

As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant, …
I say by sorcery he got this isle;
From me he got it. If thy greatness will
Revenge it on him—for I know thou dar'st. …

(TT, p. 76)

Prospero is admired by his daughter but is not loved by any of the original inhabitants of the island. Caliban reminds us, “They all do hate him as rootedly as I” (TT, p. 78.) Thus Prospero, in his preoccupation with correcting the ills of the world to which he belongs and from which he was expelled, has no positive concern about the world which he has usurped. He uses this new world for his own personal and selfish aspirations. Prospero succeeds, in a fairytale sort of way, in bringing about a moral and spiritual rebirth of all those who had been responsible for his undeserved misfortunes as Duke of Milan. The hypocrisy, jealousies, duplicity, and treachery are all behind him, and he is ready to forgive and forget. He orders Ariel to free Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo of a spell cast upon them. His final words about Caliban are: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” (TT, p. 106). His final words addressed directly to Caliban are to clean up his living quarters: “As you look to have my pardon, trim it handsomely” (TT, p. 107). Caliban is harshly dismissed with this promise of a pardon but not the pardon itself. Yet another threat is attached to it, which prompts Caliban to say sheepishly: “Ay, that I will; and I'll be wise hereafter, and seek for grace” (TT, p. 107). From all indications Prospero plans to leave the island and go to Naples for his daughter's wedding to the king's son, and then to retirement in Milan. Perhaps Caliban's fate might have been the subject of another Shakespearean drama, for his obtaining of definite pardon and complete freedom from Prospero's presence in The Tempest is left hanging in the air. In fact, Caliban is the only character in Shakespeare's play who does not receive Prospero's magnanimous pardon outright. He still has to toil for it. Shakespeare does not waste any time with final encounter between Prospero and Caliban; it is hurriedly settled. Caliban is dismissed before the conclusion of the play, and the author says nothing about his fate after Prospero's departure. His role is no longer needed. It is hard to believe, however, that Caliban, who has borne a deadly grudge against Prospero throughout the play, would be a candidate for total submissiveness at this point. He was well aware of his mistake in choosing the wrong allies in Stephano and Trincolo:

What a thrice-double ass
Was I to take this drunkard for a god
And worship this dull fool.

(TT, p. 107)

Caliban is by no means a tame and happy subject under Prospero's rule at the conclusion of The Tempest. Apparently Ernest Renan was also of this opinion when in 1878 he published his philosophical drama, Caliban, suite de La Tempête, as a sequel to Shakespeare's play over two centuries later. A reading of the play supports the conclusion that Renan created a Caliban suited to the ideas of his time. In his play he presents a Caliban transported to Prospero's world, where he becomes a representative of the masses, unimpressed by science and philosophy. The former slave dethrones Prospero and in his turn becomes master, but he discovers that it is more conducive to his own success to protect Prospero and have him use his brains for the greatest advantage.8 From all indications, Aimé Césaire will present Caliban as a victim of a colonialism perpetrated in reality by those who came after Shakespeare and Prospero.

Before 1971, scholars in the United States rarely, if at all, published articles on the black theater, especially black French theater. Generally recognized for his two aggressive works, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, which first appeared in 1939, and his Discours sur le colonialisme, published in 1955, Aimé Césaire's writing of plays was a lesser-known phase of his literary career.9 His last play, Une tempête, published in 1969, is an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest for a black theater, in the context of a remodeling from the point of view of the Third World. The play has been criticized, misunderstood, and praised by many, but Césaire's demystification of Shakespeare's play has been especially understood by members of the Third World. From an interview with François Beloux, one learns that Césaire wrote his adaptation at the request of Jean-Marie Serreau, but once it was completed he realized that there was not much left of Shakespeare in it. Thus he called his play A Tempest rather than The Temptest (see Hale, p. 466). Césaire went on to say:

Mon texte, et c'est normal, est devenu gros de toutes les préoccupations que j'avais à ce moment-là. Comme je pensais beaucoup à une pièce de théâtre sur les États-Unis, inévitablement, les points de référence sont devenus américains. … [I]l y a l'attitude violente et la non violente. Il y a Martin Luther King et Malcolm X et le Black Panthers.

(Hale, p. 466)

(My text, and that is normal, was greatly influenced by the preoccupations I had at that particular time. As I was thinking very much about a play concerning the United States, inevitably, the points of reference became American. … [T]here is the violent and the nonviolent attitude. There are Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.)

Struck by Prospero's brutality in The Tempest, Césaire allows Caliban to actively fight back in Une tempête and supplies him, for his defense, with an arsenal of negative epithets to hurl against Prospero: “vieux vautour au coup pelé” (old vulture with a pealed neck); “vieux ruffian qui n'a pas de conscience” (old bandit who doesn't have a conscience); “un mec, un écraseur, un broyeur, fumier, l'anti-nature, usurpateur …,” (a pimp, a crusher, a grinder, trash, anti-nature, usurper …). Caliban's first word in the Césaire play is “Uhuru,”10 which announces that a battle for life and freedom is about to begin and that Caliban's world is one in which the thirst for liberty is overwhelming. The movement towards a Caliban as a respected hero was stimulated by Césaire. It is easy to agree that for him, as for most Third World writers who now employ Tempest metaphors, the corollary of a totalitarian Prospero is an antiauthoritarian Caliban: “a rebel—the positive hero, in a Hegelian sense. The slave is always more important than his master—for it is the slave who makes history.”11

In Césaire's three-act play the relationship between Prospero and Caliban is greatly enlarged: the former becomes a ruthless and selfish white master and the latter a shrewd and impatient black slave who wants “freedom now.” Ariel becomes a passive mulatto slave, “à patience d'oncle Tom,” who thinks that Caliban is too restless and impetuous, and implores him to seek to change his condition through peaceful means. To this Caliban replies, “mieux vaut la mort que l'humiliation et l'injustice. … D'ailleurs, de toute manière, le dernier mot m'appartiendra” (better death than humiliation and injustice. … Moreover, in any fashion, the last word will belong to me [UT, [Une tempête] p. 38]). A new character is added, Eshu, a black god, “dieu-diable nègre,” who amuses and then outrages the assembled guests, gods and goddesses, by his frankness and vulgarity: “Dieu pour les amis, diable pour les ennemis! Et de la rigolade pour toute la compagnie” (A god for friends and a devil for enemies! And fun for all in the party [UT, p. 68]).

Caliban fights back from the very moment he appears in Césaire's play. He maintains a relentless verbal confrontation with Prospero throughout. He claims his territory as the rightful king of his island. He rejects the laborer's language that Prospero has taught him. He is the son of his mother whom he does not repudiate, “morte ou vivante, c'est ma mère et je ne la renierai pas” (UT, p. 25). He refuses the name “Caliban”; he prefers to be called “X”—the proper name for a man whose real name and identity have been stolen from him. Ariel and Caliban are brothers in misery, slavery, and hope, but their methods of dealing with Prospero are different. They confront each other on a special level, that of a militant who believes in black power and who wants “freedom now,” and that of a mulatto pacifist who does not believe in violence and is willing to turn the other cheek. They want the same thing but each one marches to the sound of his own drumbeat. For Ariel, it is through patience and peace that one must try to convert Prospero. Césaire's Caliban says to Prospero: “Ce n'est pas la paix qui m'intéresse, tu le sais bien. C'est d'être libre. Libre, tu m'entends!” (It is not making peace that interests me, you know well. It is to be free. Free, you hear me! [p. 87]). Ariel tragically misunderstands Caliban's true feelings and the force which drives him to act. This is the fate met by all of Césaire's heroes who are rejected by those whom they would uplift, as Smith points out in the 1972 article.12 In his early study of three previous dramas by Césaire, Rodney Harris offers the opinion that

il existe une profonde unité dans les héros césairiens et que cette unité est due à présence de l'auteur en chacun d'eux. … C'est pourtant la voix de Césaire qu'on entend souvent dans les propos de poète et de voyant qu'il prête à son personnage.13

(there exists a profound unity in Césaire's heroes and that unity is due to the presence of the author in each one of them. … It is, however, the voice of Césaire that one often hears in the words of a poet and prophet that he attributes to his character.)

Indeed Césaire speaks through his heroes and he shares their desire to modify their destiny and that of their people, for the author and his heroes are one in voice and spirit. Césaire himself has said of his dramatic works: “C'est un peu le drame des négres dans le monde moderne.” (It is somewhat the drama of blacks in the modern world).14

In Césaire's Une tempête Caliban does not stoop to trying to assassinate Prospero, as those from the “civilized” world seek to do. When his loosely organized revolt fails, he does not beg for pardon, but rather deeply regrets his failure. He confronts Prospero openly and is sarcastically called a dialectician. He paints a portrait of himself and his life under Prospero's domination: years of bowing his head; the insults and lies; Prospero's degrading condescension; the false image of an incompetent creature assigned to him, etc. In fact, Caliban predicts that Prospero will allow everyone to return to Milan but will never leave the island himself. Giving Prospero a frank dressing-down, he angrily tells the Duke what his true mission is:

Ta vocation est de m'emmerder!
Et voilà pourquoi tu resteras,
comme ces mecs qui ont fait les colonies
et qui ne peuvent plus vivre ailleurs.
Un vieil intoxiqué, voilà ce que tu es!

(UT, p. 89)

(Your vocation is to create trouble for me!
And that is why you will stay,
like those guys who have been around in the colonies
and who can no longer live elsewhere.
An old poison, that's what you are!)

Prospero decides to answer Caliban's violence with more violence of his own, and this is his undoing, for the menacing words of the slave become a painful reality for the deluded master:

Mais ta force, je m'en moque,
comme de tes chiens, d'ailleurs,
de ta police, de tes inventions!
Et tu sais pourquoi je m'en moque?
Tu veux le savoir?
C'est parce que je sais que je t'aurai.
Empalé! Et au pieu que
tu auras toi-même aiguisée!
Empalé à toi-même!

(p. 88)

(But about your power, I don't care
like your dogs, moreover,
your police and your inventions!
And you know why I don't care?
You want to know?
It's because I know that I'll get you.
Impaled! And on the stake that
you will have sharpened yourself!
Impaled by your own fault!)

Prospero himself concludes that his destiny is to remain on the island to carry out his civilizing mission, in spite of Caliban. In fact, he becomes a victim of his own project. He grows old, tired, and feebleminded, still believing that he is defending the cause of civilization, even by force—of which he has little left. He really cannot do without Caliban, who continues to sing his song of liberty, which resounds throughout the enchanted island. They need each other for better or for worse. Césaire, in the problematical ending to his play, puts it well when he says:

Caliban et lui font un couple indissociable. Pas plus que les Nègres et les Blancs ne peuvent se séparer en Amérique, Prospéro ne peut se séparer de Caliban et c'est cela l'histoire. C'est le caractère indissoluble de cette union qui fait le drame.

(cited in Hale, p. 456)

(Caliban and he make an inseparable couple. Just as blacks and whites cannot separate themselves from each other in America, Prospero cannot separate himself from Caliban, and that is the story. It is the indissoluble character of the union which makes the drama.)

The United States has always been an open book for the rest of the world, and its problems in race relations have accounted for more than one chapter in that book. One might ask what this great nation would have been without the toil and sweat of the ancestors of today's African Americans. Like Caliban, they may not have been the principal actors in the shaping of this dynamic country, but the drama that has been presented to the rest of the world certainly could not have had such a lasting impact without them. Still today an African American cannot travel around the world without eventually being asked about the black-white situation in the United States. In a sense the African American, in the last years of the twentieth century, is still the Caliban of America. Césaire was aware of this contradiction in the land of the “free.”

Une tempête is more than ever today a commentary on the modern world, black and white, yellow and brown. Césaire's “slave-master,” “black-white” interpretation of Caliban is symbolic. Accepting the gift of the Caliban character from Shakespeare, Césaire, like others, adopted him for what he represents to contemporary observers, in this case members of the Third World, and especially the blacks in the United States. The Vaughans emphasize the fact that

there is no denying the power of the Caliban metaphor on the Third World, even if its impact on political and cultural consciousness defies precise measurement. … That Caliban served so many masters surely reflects Shakespeare's unmatched universality and The Tempest's adaptability to colonial contexts, whether seen from the imperialists' or natives' perspective.15

Caliban met the needs of Aimé Césaire, who used him skillfully and emotionally. Shakespeare's “savage and deformed slave” will surely continue to excite the imagination, aspirations, and preoccupations of writers yet to come, for more than one reason. Césaire's response to Shakespeare is just one modern reaction to the role of Caliban. No doubt it will be difficult for reactions by others to overlook Caliban's inspiring and endearing quest for freedom.


  1. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Northrop Frye (Baltimore: Penguin, 1970), pp. 23, 25. Hereafter cited in the text as TT, followed by the page number(s).

  2. Robert P. Smith, Jr., “The Misunderstood and Rejected Black Hero in the Theatre of Aimé Césaire,” CLA Journal, 16, No. 1 (Sept. 1972), 13-15.

  3. Quoted in Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare's Caliban, A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), p. 156.

  4. David Bevington, “Reconstructing Shakespeare,” University of Chicago Magazine, Spring 1990, pp. 21-25.

  5. Vaughan and Vaughan, p. 4.

  6. Francis Neilson, Shakespeare and The Tempest (Rindge, NH: Richard R. Smith Publishers, Inc., 1956).

  7. Thomas A. Hale, Les Écrits d'Aimé Césaire, bibliographie commentée (Montréal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 1978), pp. 464-65. Hereafter cited in the text.

  8. See Ernest Renan, Caliban, suite de La Tempête, ed. Colin Smith (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1954).

  9. Robert P. Smith, Jr., “Aimé Césaire Playwright Portrays Patrice Lumumba Man of Africa,” CLA Journal, 14, No. 4 (June 1971), 371.

  10. Aimé Césaire, Une tempête (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1969), p. 24. Hereafter cited in the text as UT, followed by the page number(s).

  11. Cited in Vaughan and Vaughan, p. 162.

  12. Smith, “The Misunderstood …,” p. 8.

  13. Rodney E. Harris, L'Humanisme dans le théâtre d'Amié Césaire (Ottawa: Éditions Naaman, 1973), p. 161.

  14. Le Monde, 7 October 1967, p. 14.

  15. Vaughan and Vaughan, p. 171.

Nick Nesbitt (essay date 2003)

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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

In his aesthetic works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Aimé Césaire increasingly objectified both the historical process of decolonization and the complex role to be played by the prophetic intellectual, the “griot of his people.” To do so, he drew upon a vast range of intellectual materials at his disposal, the most striking of which was the Hegelian model of dialectical historicism. Césaire's dialectical thought can be understood as a black Atlantic variant of the mode of understanding that forms the deep structure of postwar French thought in Hegelian Marxian thinkers such as Sartre. Sartre, like Alexandre Kojève before him, combined a utopian outlook with a prophetic stance in which he spoke to the unenlightened as the voice of truth. Both intellectual fashion and the antinomies of the postwar period themselves drove such thinkers to embrace dialectical thought as that most appropriate for an understanding of and working through of the dilemmas of history.

Aimé Césaire's appropriation of this dialectical historicism, while of the greatest consequence for his own original aesthetic creations, was hardly the inspired act of an isolated autodidact coming upon a long-forgotten author. The rediscovery of Hegel and the articulation of a new understanding of the implications of his 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit was one of the defining features of the Parisian intellectual world of the 1930s (its heroic phase, limited to a small group of the initiated in Kojève's seminar), the 1940s (which saw the gradual infiltration and consecration of this text within the Parisian intellectual milieu), and the 1950s (marked by the dominance and eventual contestation and toppling of what had become an intellectual idol). This rediscovery of Hegel occurred as a generational rejection of the institutionalized philosophies of Henri Bergson (at the Collège de France) and Léon Brunschvig (at the Sorbonne) on the part of intellectuals of Sartre's generation in favor of German philosophy (Hegel and Kierkegaard as well as Heidegger, Husserl, and Scheler).1

This movement was inaugurated by a 1929 study by the French philosopher Jean Wahl on Hegel's Phenomenology, and it was spurred on by the influx of a group of East European intellectuals to Paris, including André Koyré and Alexandre Kojève. Césaire, as a brilliant, intellectually inquisitive normalien, and, later, poet, intellectual, and communist politician, was ideally placed to appropriate this intellectual fascination with Hegel and the symbolic capital gradually accumulating to his thought. While the Afrocentric use he was to make of this acquisition differed radically from that of the famous European members of the Parisian intelligentsia, Césaire's Hegelianism nonetheless placed him within a field in which a certain Hegel came to be the stamp of intellectual sophistication and a powerful mark of a thinker's participation within an intellectual elite.

In the aftermath of French poststructuralism in the 1970s and 1980s, attempts to salvage productive aspects of Hegel's multidimensional philosophy all but disappeared from French and Francophone studies. And yet, Vincent Descombes argues that French thought from the 1930s on itself grew out of the encounter of an entire generation of intellectuals with Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite's commentaries and translations of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Michel Foucault himself described the persistence of Hegel within the context of his generation's attempt to escape from Hegel's specter as he took over Jean Hyppolite's chair at the Collège de France on December 2, 1970: “But truly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us” (235). True to Foucault's warning, Hegel's thought has not been surpassed. A crippled, merely instrumental reason, a parody of Hegel's notion of Absolute Spirit, has infiltrated our world to make it “reasonable” in only the most impoverished sense. The opportunity to make the world “rational,” for it to attain its inherent potentiality, was missed; instead, this potentiality lives on as a feeble trace amid “rationalized” bureaucratic disempowerment, global hunger, and genocide, and we inherit only the painful memory of a rendez-vous manqué that persists as a dimly perceived imperative to realize reason's potentiality.

Recently, in fact, attention has begun to be paid to the legacy of Hegel in French thought.2 For an entire generation of writers born in France's overseas colonies, a Paris-based education meant an immersion in an intellectual milieu in which Hegel's Phenomenology was the signal philosophical reference. For nearly three decades—from Kojève's 1933-39 lectures on the text3 to the appearance of structuralism in the 1960s—the Phenomenology, seen through the lens of Hyppolite and Kojève, served within the Francophone world as the gold standard of one's assimilation of the highest realms of Western thought. The writings of Aimé Césaire, Alioune Diop, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Frantz Fanon, and Edouard Glissant were concretely affected by their education within this milieu, and their work bears the marks of the reigning existentialist and Marxist Hegelianism of the period within both its thematic content and extending into its deepest formal structures. Ato Sekyi-Otu has, for instance, recently shown how Frantz Fanon's Les damnés de la terre incorporates Hegel's Phenomenology in its themes, structure, and theoretical methodology, and that a failure to recognize this intellectual heritage has led to widespread misunderstanding of Fanon's famous text.

Two decades before the appearance of Les damnés de la terre, however, Césaire read the Phenomenology following its 1941 publication in Hyppolite's translation. He has recently recalled the youthful excitement he felt at discovering Hegel's philosophical elaboration of his own existential concerns: “When the French translation of the Phenomenology first came out, I showed it to Senghor, and said to him ‘Listen to what Hegel says, Léopold: to arrive at the Universal, one must immerse oneself in the Particular!’”4 Césaire's self-recognition in this putatively “alien” European object stands as a striking historical confirmation of the very process of alienation and self- recognition Hegel's text describes. Furthermore, an analysis of the dialectical, Hegelian tenor of Aimé Césaire's work is essential to fathom the Promethean undertaking he termed negritude. Such an examination can hope to underscore not only Césaire's crucial role in postwar French thought but also the astonishing intellectual virtuosity he brought to bear in moral outrage at the injustices of racism, colonialism, and human exploitation.

Although the socio-intellectual field constituted by the existentialist “Hegelians,” led by Sartre, long ago achieved mythical dimensions, one important element in this constellation has been largely neglected. While Césaire is now acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, his status within this second intellectual field is rarely mentioned. And yet, recognition of his appropriation of Hegel, possessing both constructive and limiting dimensions, is essential to an overall understanding of Césaire's work. This recognition broadens our conception of the postwar Parisian intellectual field, underscoring the presence of Afrocentric voices within this otherwise culturally homogenous sphere of production, voices that redirected the theoretical legacy of the West to critical ends. What Edward Said claims of Fanon applies equally to his teacher Césaire: “Both Fanon and Foucault, have Hegel, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Canguihelm, and Sartre in their heritage,” Said comments, “yet only Fanon presses that formidable arsenal into antiauthoritarian service” (278).5

Césaire was inextricably bound to the culture he critiqued. Césaire was a student, like Sartre and Nizan before him, at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV and later at the even more celebrated (and selective) Ecole Normale Supérieure de la rue d'Ulm from 1934 to 1939; in addition, he was a deputy in the French Assembly, representing the overseas department of Martinique from 1946 to 1983. Following the postwar publication of his Cahier d'un retour au pays natal by Bordas, he became both a guiding voice of French Caribbean culture and an active, innovative, and ideologically autonomous presence on the Parisian intellectual scene.

Césaire's work was not only a crucial element in that constellation, but … he forged for himself a role structurally homologous to that of the Sartrean total intellectual in which Césaire accumulated intellectual and political capital by positioning himself as the archetypal black poet-statesman. His proximity to and familiarity with the existentialist movement and the functioning of that intellectual milieu (former normalien, consecration by Breton, growing fame in Francophone literary circles, Parisian presence as both an intellectual published in Les Temps modernes and Présence africaine and a deputy) allowed him successfully to fulfill this role.

Of these factors, his status as a former normalien most powerfully determined his participation in this field of intellectuals. For within the highly centralized French university system, that elite preparatory school for university professors formed in each generation an intellectual aristocracy that would dominate the Parisian intellectual world of its time.6 While Césaire's success despite all odds within this system served to prove the (minimal) functioning of what was ideologically presented as a meritocracy, his temperament and irreducible difference (as a black colonial subject) made it impossible for him to assimilate entirely within the network of working and personal relationships in a field soon dominated by Sartre.

In this context, a web of influences and relationships determined Césaire's aesthetic and biographical trajectory as well as the preexisting structural openings and possibilities that he both discovered and created. The reigning dialectical historicism of the period was crucial for Césaire in both these respects; it formed the substance of his philosophy of history, and it offered him the culturally valorized ideological and structural foundation for his meditations on the dual historical problems of Caribbean history and the incipient African independences in the 1950s and 1960s.


A dominant tendency of Césaire criticism has been to examine the author's role in the historical decolonization movement. And yet, the relative lack of interest on the part of critics in the models and cultural materials Césaire appropriated in this area of his pursuits perhaps arises from the fact that an emphasis upon Césaire's intellectual métissage, drawing attention to his European “roots,” would contradict an ideology that sees in negritude an Afrocentric black liberation theology. Césaire never varied in his opposition to the cultural “assimilation” of blacks within Franco-European society, from the Cahier and Tropiques through thirty years at the head of his Parti Progressiste Martiniquais. Though Césaire's many Franco-European influences are readily apparent, his politically engaged speeches and interviews often downplayed those influences in favor of the African and African American cultures celebrated by negritude.7

A second tendency in Césaire studies, however, has been concerned primarily with questions of artistic and theoretical influence in the area of aesthetic creation. Césaire applied his extensive intellectual faculties to the vast range of primary materials appearing both explicitly and in transformation throughout his poetry. Graziano Benelli, attempting to enumerate the range of these references, offers a useful and impressive summary of these fields of knowledge within Césaire's grasp: the mythological, including Greek antiquity, Christianity, Egyptian mythology, and most importantly the African and Antillean pantheons (primarily Yoruba, Bambara, and Vodou); geographical (references to rivers, mountains, deserts of Africa, the Third World, and the Americas predominate, with Europe and France in particular being almost entirely absent); references to historical characters (mainly African and Caribbean world historical figures such as Toussaint, Delgrès, and Lumumba); a vast range of rare fauna (mainly African) and flora (mainly Caribbean); and linguistic erudition, including extremely rare French terms of Greek, Latin, Provençal, Italian, English, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, and Russian origins, as well as other terms borrowed from various African languages. Within the scholarly literature on Césaire's influences, references to philosophers are extremely rare and almost never go beyond a cursory mention of Marx and Hegel.8 Contrary to this perceived limitation of the range of Césaire's influences to the strictly aesthetic, his appropriation of a vast range of critical social thought, much of it European in origin, influenced in decisive fashion the entirety of his productions in poetry, prose, and theater.

Sartre's foundational essay “Orphée Noire,” written as the preface to Léopold Senghor's 1948 collection, L'Anthologie de la poésie nègre et malgache, is remembered mainly for its inflammatory description of negritude as an “antiracist racism,” the negative moment in a dialectical movement toward “a race-less society” (280). The essay was also, however, the first to apply a Kojèvian reading of Hegel's Phenomenology to the black world. Sartre links the suffering and violence of slavery and racism to the entry of blacks into historical existence (“Suffering … becomes historical insofar as the intuition of suffering confers a collective past and assigns a goal in the future” [276]). Sartre's theorization of this process develops Kojève's excursus on the historicization of human experience through the violence of slavery understood by the latter as the destructive negation of cyclical, natural time, replaced by historical becoming and linear transformation: “Race is transmuted into historicity, the black Present explodes and becomes temporal, Negritude inserts itself with its past and its future into Universal History, it is no longer a state nor even an existential attitude, it is a becoming; the contribution of blacks in the evolution of humanity is no longer a flavor, a taste, a rhythm, an authenticity, a bouquet of primitive instincts: it is a dated enterprise, a patient construction, a future” (277).9 Although “Orphée Noire” may have been one of the instigators of Césaire's articulation of the historical problematic that would result in La tragédie du roi Christophe, Césaire'a reflection went beyond such brief comments found in Sartre's essay, instead finding its formal logic in the Hegelian philosophy that underlies Sartre's comments.

Césaire's poetic production preceding the publication of La tragédie du roi Christophe often outlined a Kojèvian dialectical historicism. In a passage of the Cahier d'un retour au pays natal that directly prefigures the problematic to be explored in La tragédie du roi Christophe, the poet calls upon his people to move forth out of the repetition of Nature (“au pas du monde”) and to accede to a historical, fully human existence through a construction (“faire”) that will not necessarily preclude violence (“conquérir”)

because it is not true that the work of man is finished
that we have nothing to do in the world
that we parasite this world
that it is enough for us to fall into step with the world
the work of man has only just begun
and it remains for man to conquer all
interdictions immobilized in the corners of his fervor.


The prophetic tone of the Cahier appears again in the poem “Corps perdu,” first published in the collection of that name in 1949. The poet here recovers the memory of his people (“I hiss yes I hiss very ancient things” (243). Césaire's violent, demiurgic prise de parole attempts to shatter the preexisting world, bringing a new one into being, thus inaugurating a historical process of development:

[I] shall raise a scream so violent
that I shall splatter the whole sky
and with my branches torn to shreds
and with the insolent jet of my wounded and solemn bole
I shall command the islands to be

(245, translation modified)11

Although written a decade after the Cahier, the tone has not noticeably changed.

By the publication of Ferrements in 1960, however, Césaire's rhetoric has moved much closer to the historically referential form it would acquire in Christophe. The poem “The Time of Freedom” takes its inspiration from an actual historical event: the death of twelve protesters during the French repression of anticolonial riots in the Côte-d'Ivoire on January 30, 1950 (Toumson and Henry-Valmore 110). Césaire articulates the poem around the distinction between the traditional, colonialist prejudice of an ahistorical, natural Africa (“Africa is asleep”) and a series of precise, dated events that by their very articulation imply the continent's participation in historical processes (“the Governor's wireless had peddled his lies … it was 1950 in the month of February” [321]). Beyond the precise nature of the events the poem recounts, the poem's alliance of Africa's entrance into a universalist history (“History I tell of Africa as it awakes”) with a thematic of violence (“when under the composite memory of chicotes / they piled up the knotted black fire”) evokes Kojève's insistence that the accession of humans to historical existence can be achieved only through the violent, revolutionary negation of a previous state of existence (“when in the breathing of the best men the colonialist tsetse will have disappeared” [321]).

Further evidence of the vast range of Césaire's theoretical influences appears in one of his most celebrated speeches, “Culture et colonization,” given at the Sorbonne in 1956 on the occasion of the Premier Congrès des Ecrivains et Artistes Noirs (Arnold, Modernism and Negritude 184-87). Although the speech itself is a fascinating document in the history of the decolonization movement, it is particularly eloquent in displaying Césaire's wide-ranging erudition. In Césaire's poetic production, this erudition generally appears in the guise of a fabulous lexical virtuosity, one that rarely evokes actual source material. In this 1956 speech, on the other hand, Césaire mounts a veritable tour de force of historical references in the span of a dozen pages. This spectacle was hardly gratuitous; it in fact functioned as the unacknowledged illustration of the speech's thesis: that the task of “black men of culture” in 1956 was to integrate freely their multiple heritages, European and African, into a new culture, a culture free from the distortions inherent in a colonial context.12

Césaire's self-understanding as the enlightened voice of the downtrodden, as the intellectual vanguard of the colonized, here produced a contradictory, compromised utopianism. Though he ends by deferring the act of cultural creation to “the people, our people, liberated from their chains, our peoples and their creative genius finally rid of what hinders and sterilizes them,”13 the modesty of this formulaic gesture is belied by Césaire's entire speech, which parades a panoply of names before his audience, assembled at the Sorbonne from every corner of the globe. Césaire includes long quotes from Hegel's Introduction to the Philosophy of History and Logic; Marx (Capital vol. 3); Marcel Mauss; Spengler's Decline of the West; the Courrier de l'UNESCO of 1956; Margaret Mead; Malinowski (Introductory Essay on the Anthropology of Changing African Cultures and The Dynamics of Culture); Toynbee (The World and the West); the American anthropologist Kroeber; Captain Cook's description of his voyages to the Hawaiian islands; two long citations from Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy as well as references in passing to the ethnologists Frobénius, Schubart, Roger Callois, Béguin, and Panniker; Lenin; the politicians Deschamps and Doumer; the historian Berr; and the Hawaiian prince Kamehamela II. This gallery is crowned by Césaire's untranslated citation of an obscure Roman prefect from the fifth century ad named Rutilius Namatianus, whom Césaire draws upon as an illustration of the fact that the mentality of colonization goes back at least as far as Rome's occupation of Gaul.

This virtuosic assemblage of discourses was neither gratuitous nor unprecedented. It occurred within a context (the 1956 Premier Congrès des Ecrivains et Artistes Noirs sponsored by Présence africaine) in which, implicitly, the capabilities of black intellectuals were to be demonstrated to the world. The manner in which Césaire proceeded replicated the tactic that had served Sartre: the assertion of mastery through the accumulation of discourses. This tactic marks Césaire's poetic production in general. Within this speech, however, the context and the unambiguous use of source material visibly demonstrate this mastery to his assembled peers.14

Though the heterogeneous nature of black culture is recognized by Césaire, his argument here is against a theory of métissage culturel, judging this métissage to have generally occurred within a distorted social structure in which appropriation by the colonial subject occurred only insofar as it was sanctioned by the structures of a colonial system. Instead, Césaire evokes a necessary act of assimilation of multiple exterior elements within a single totalizing and unified subject, in an act of cultural and intellectual cannibalization: “The borrowing [of cultural materials] is only valid when it is balanced by an interior state that calls for it and that definitively integrates it to the subject assimilating it, … that makes what is exterior interior” (117).15 In this passage, Césaire clearly articulates for colonial experience the general model of historical experience inherited from Hegel's Phenomenology described in the introduction: “Experience is … this movement, in which the immediate, the unexperienced, i.e. the abstract … becomes alienated from itself and then returns to itself from this alienation” (21).

In his speech, Césaire postulates a unified postcolonial subject not as an actuality but as a project or process marked by a dialectical relation between subject and object. His speech itself, as with his neologism “negritude,” is thus performative in nature and follows the Hegelian logic of an expressive subjectivity able to recognize itself in the creations (or “expressions”) of its production that defines Western critical thought of the period, from Lukács to early Habermas.16 Césaire's performance can be seen as an objectification of the newly autonomous subject of negritude, embodied by Césaire himself, at the heart of the objective world that both enslaved it and gave it the materials to construct its freedom (Paris, and the Sorbonne specifically). Césaire's speech, demonstrating at once the subject's alienation within the objective materials of Western Civilization and its “[return] to itself from this alienation” is a display of precisely that process the speech takes as its thematic object of investigation.

Césaire's drive to totalize the vast range of intellectual material at his disposal, beyond any narcissistic “hypertrophy of the ego” (Confiant, Traversée paradoxale 99), resulted from the particular form of education administered by the French system of the Grandes Ecoles.17 This primary disposition was reinforced, as in the case of Sartre, by a biographical trajectory in which Césaire was both creating and to a large extent dominating a new intellectual field, a situation in which the totalization of knowledge—“the form that the ambition for absolute power takes in the intellectual field” (Bourdieu, Regles de l'art 295)—within the consciousness of the “man of culture” appeared as a disinterested, intellectual credo, while also (unconsciously) offering a perfect tactic for Césaire's dominance of a nascent field.


In writing La tragédie du roi Christophe in 1963, as commentators from Lilyan Kesteloot and Barthélémy Kotchy on have remarked, Aimé Césaire drew upon Caribbean history as a means of addressing the process of decolonization and the creation of African states occurring all around him. The play, as René Ménil remarked in an article from 1964, expresses the historical consciousness fundamental to Césaire's aesthetic perception: “The historical vision of the play comes not from the fact that its material is historical-the death of Christophe that occurred in Haiti around 1810. It is rather the opposite that is true: the choice of a historical subject is made necessary by the historical conception of the world that is proper to the author himself. Césaire has of the world, of society, of men and of things an original vision in which things, men and institutions spontaneously appear as processes, as transitions, as passages rather than solidifying into eternal realities” (180). In this view, Césaire's work serves as the aesthetic critique of the mythological eternity of colonial ideology in which colonizers naturally dominate the colonized, to undertake instead a prophetic reading of the past. “Paradoxically,” Ménil comments, “it is not the past that [Césaire] invites us to witness in the historical reconstruction he undertakes, but rather our future. A future that takes on meaning and consistency in its contradictory confrontation with a distant past and a present [the African, Asian, and Caribbean independences of the 1960s] undergoing a difficult gestation” (181).

Generally regarded as Césaire's finest theatrical achievement, La tragédie du roi Christophe tells the story of the first king of an independent Haiti, who reigned from 1811 to 1820, as he attempts to actualize the freedom implicit in his country's victory against France in 1804. In so doing, Christophe ends up re-enslaving his subjects in the name of freedom and ensures their eventual rebellion when his force of will abandons him and he falls, paralyzed, before the specter of his crimes against his people. La tragédie du roi Christophe describes an Antillean counterpart to the French Revolutionary Terror, tracing Christophe's descent from idealistic terror to suicidal dementia.

Césaire's choice of subject is instructive: rather than turning to the revolutionary hero Toussaint, as he had a few years before, a hero whose image as a martyr remained largely untarnished by the ordeals of practical politics, he here looks to Henri Christophe, an ambiguous historical figure who took it upon himself idealistically to bring his people out of the tutelage of slavery by forging a modern, independent Haitian polis. Christophe, at once former slave and brilliant and ruthless military tactician, combined an abstract utopian idealism with an instrumental recourse to violence in his visionary pursuit of moral ends by the most violent of means.

Césaire articulated an incisive reflection upon the dialectical nature of history in this, his second play. With its virtuosic mixing of diverse historical and intellectual materials, from Hegelian dialectical thought to the gods of the Yoruba and Vodou pantheon, Césaire constructed a unique form of Caribbean historiography. While forgoing traditional positivist models of historical writing, Césaire's work in turn achieved concrete historical effects extending far beyond those of the Antillean academic tomes devoted to Louis Delgrès considered in chapter 1. Césaire here created a historical knowledge that decisively altered fields as diverse as the Parisian postwar intellectual scene and West-African and Caribbean colonial and postcolonial politics.

The play's central contradiction is that of the conflict between the drive to instantiate the immanent freedom of historical individuals and their recurrent political and ideological subjugation in the name of a transcendent, utopian autonomy. Five years after his ringing defense of Sékou Touré's Guinea in the pages of Présence africaine, Césaire here identified at an early stage of the decolonization movement the dialectic of autonomy and violence that has structured debate on African postcolonial politics from Sékou Touré to Mobutu and beyond. The instantiation of an ethical, postcolonial community implicit in the process of the Haitian Revolution vanishes as the play commences. The last trace of this hope disintegrates as Christophe orders the killing of Metellus, who had rebelled against his rule in the name of that ethical community that he recalls before being put to death: “We were going to found a country / with each individual persisting in the whole! [tous entre soi!]” (43). The movement toward a Haitian community is blocked in Christophe's self-aggrandizement as “king,” and in this Haitian Terror “The lord of the World becomes really conscious of what he is … in the destructive power he exercises against his subjects” (Phenomenology 293). Césaire articulates this conflict between freedom and re-enslavement around the pivotal image of the citadel that Henri Christophe builds upon a mountain using the labor of tens of thousands of Haitians. Césaire's focus upon the citadel is crucial to his analysis of the antinomies of emancipation. The term “citadel” is itself inherently double, implying both a haven from outside invasion and a fortress that ensures the subjugation of the populace. Its original meaning, coming from the Italian for “little city,” renders it symbolic of the new Haiti Christophe dreams of creating. Its modern meaning encompasses that of a “fortress commanding a city, which it serves both to protect and to keep in subjection.” Not only was the actual Haitian citadel able to protect some fifteen thousand citizens at a time, it was also a jail for those who displeased him.

In a hallucinatory vision at the end of the play's first act, Christophe sees “a citadel! Not a palace. Not castle to protect my personage. I say the citadel, the liberty of a people. Built by the people as a whole, for the entire people!” (Christophe 63, emphasis added). Despite his idealism, the slippage in the king's language between a palace built both for and by the people reveals that the ambiguity of enslavement in the name of liberty is present in Christophe's very conception of the citadel. Although Christophe envisions the citadel as ensuring his citizens' freedom (newly independent Haiti faced the constant threat of invasion, particularly following the fall of Napoleon), its construction required sixteen years of forced labor. As such, the citadel becomes a menacing presence dominating the city of Cap Haitian, a sign of Christophe's terror and oppression against his own citizens. His subjects soon come to see him not as a benevolent leader but as a black version of the enslavers they had fought so hard to drive out. As one peasant states, “I tell myself that if we've driven out the whites, it was to have it for ourselves, this land, not to toil on the land of others, even black, to have it for ourselves” (74). Césaire's evocation of Haiti's attempt to construct a new nation thus served as a politically engaged meditation upon the difficult relation between freedom and idealism that would confront each postcolonial African leader as former colonies achieved independent statehood.

The citadel, however, is more than a simple emblem of the ambiguity of violence and utopianism. As a product of human construction, an objectification of the labor of the Haitian populace, it is intimately tied to the productive model of subjectivity that underlies Césaire's entire oeuvre, drawing upon a dialectical model of history to explore the Caribbean past. The citadel's enormous, immobile stone mass towers menacingly above the Haitian populace it surveys from a strategic mountain peak, while its shiplike prow seems to slice through the sky three thousand feet in the air, breaking away from the historical determination that has limited the Haitian accession to freedom from 1804 to the present. This combination of stasis and movement, solidity and molecularization, oppression and liberty, make it an ideal crystallization of the dualistic conception of history at the root of Césaire's play.

Césaire's appropriation of the dialectical model of historical understanding decisively oriented his exploration of the problem of historical experience in Christophe. Whether or not Césaire was conscious of doing so, from its thematic emphasis to its innermost structure, the play freely reworks the material of the Phenomenology of Spirit that so impressed Césaire upon his first encountering it on his return to Paris in 1945. Césaire's play shows a further similarity with Alexandre Kojève's influential commentary upon the Phenomenology. What Kojève refers to as his “Dualist Ontology” differentiates between two spheres: on the one hand, that of nature, characterized by a cyclical, repeating process of reproduction based upon identity; nature is devoid of history in Kojève's reading of Hegel, because this reproduction of identity, the cyclical reappearance of the same, allows for no unique historical event. Opposed to nature is man, who enters into history through negativity insofar as he negates the present in order to create a new future. This linkage of history with negation underscores Kojève's Nietzschean notion of the violence of historical becoming.

Christophe and the Phenomenology share a common historical background; the latter is often considered Hegel's commentary on both the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic wars. The world order brought into being by Napoleon, upon which Kojève places so much emphasis, was, from the perspective of the black Atlantic world, creative less in its successes (Guadeloupe, Martinique) than in its most grandiose failure. For the field of conflict of the Napoleonic wars extended far beyond Europe, Russia, and North Africa; it was Napoleon who sent his generals Leclerc and Richepance to Haiti and Guadeloupe respectively in 1802 in order to maintain control of those highly profitable French colonies in the face of local revolution. The Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint Louverture and his lieutenants Dessaline and Henri Christophe has become an international symbol of anticolonial contestation, well known as the world's only successful overthrow of a slave-holding society by the enslaved themselves.

More concretely, Susan Buck-Morss has argued that Hegel's famous description of the master-slave dialectic was very precisely engendered by his reflection upon the Haitian Revolution. Buck-Morss answers a question that has long troubled scholars of Hegel: “Where did Hegel's idea of the relation between lordship and bondage originate?” (842). Buck-Morss marshals convincing archival evidence to show that Hegel, a notoriously avid reader of newspapers and journals, “knew about real slaves revolting successfully against real masters, and he elaborated his dialectic of lordship and bondage deliberately within this contemporary context [of the debate surrounding the Haitian Revolution of 1804]. … In perhaps the most political expression of his career, he used the sensational events of Haiti as the linchpin in his argument in The Phenomenology of Spirit” (844, 852). If Buck-Morss is correct, the central theoretical role played by Hegel's Phenomenology in the process of decolonization in the twentieth century should be understood not merely in light of the metaphorical relevance of its argument to this project. Instead, the Phenomenology concretely inaugurated the philosophical reflection at the heart of this process: “The actual and successful revolution of Caribbean slaves against their masters is the moment when the dialectical logic of recognition becomes visible as the thematics of world history, the story of the universal realization of freedom” (852).

Seen against this background of violent social upheaval, both the Phenomenology and Christophe can be interpreted as studies of the aftermath of slavery, barbarity, and war, addressing the problematic process by which humans overcome a state of terror and violence.18 This point implies a second, deeper similarity: the primary concern of both works is to articulate the historical, temporal development of mankind away from an existence of unconscious, brutal repetition toward a fully historical human existence. This distinction between the cyclical and the linear locates Césaire's play within a larger field of discourse derived from Kojève's “Dualist Ontology.”19 The parallel between Césaire's play and Kojève's dualism of nature and history is thorough: in this view, Henri Christophe attempts to bring his country out of an ontological, eternally recurrent past of servitude, dependency, and abjection into a process of historical becoming and overcoming of the self. This transformation, however, is fundamentally linked with violence, as Christophe's abstract negation of the past is acted out upon real individuals whose ideals fail to correspond with the king's own. The play's tragedy thus unfolds as Christophe realizes the impossibility of making the world, in its torpor, inertia, and sheer nonidentity correspond to his monological revolutionary ideal.

In order to begin this dialectical development, Christophe first confronts an Other from which he is estranged, the Haitian people. The entire first act explores the conflict between multiplicity and unity, identity and nonidentity, as Christophe rejects his assimilation within his opponent Pétion's parliament, affirming his autonomy, his “right to be non-identical” (Phenomenology 343). After the civil war in which he accedes to power in the north of Haiti (Act I, Scenes 1-6), Christophe drives the Haitian people toward a nascent self-transformation. Christophe's monologue in scene 7 crystallizes this gesture as he describes how, through the alchemy of the word, the bestowing of names upon his subjects, they will achieve “a new birth” (37). From this focus upon an animalistic mass (“thousands of half-naked blacks that the waves vomited up one evening” (38), they will be born into subjective self-awareness by Christophe himself, the midwife of a “shattering power of word and action, of construction, of building, of being, of naming, of linking, of rebuilding” (38). Christophe's alienation from his subjects is total; they represent for him either an unconscious organic totality that he despises (“What was there in this country before the arrival of King Christophe? … Shit, nothing but shit!” [97]) or absolute abstractions, citizens whose freedom is purely formal and who serve as the mere legal recipients of his decrees (76). Christophe's ethical orders are visited upon passive citizens without consultation, for whom “the ethical order exists merely as something given” (Phenomenology 214).

Christophe's the vocabulary of “constructing,” “building,” and “redoing” serves to locate the play within the Hegelian production-based logic of an expressive communal subjectivity. This community, however, remains blocked by Christophe's Terror, and he abandons his brief vision of a collective Haitian nous, announcing Christophe's final narcissistic glorification of his own demiurgic subjectivity: “so I will take them / I know their weight / and I will carry them!” (38).

Christophe's development in the play, complexly rendered by Césaire, progresses from the Terror of abstract idealism to the hopeless interiority of moral impotence. However, Christophe's idealism remains compelling, in its very uncompromising abstraction. Unlike the worldly cynicism of his secretary, Vastey (80), Christophe is guided by an unswerving fidelity to his ethical ideal. The Haitian king rejects for his subjects a freedom by decree handed down from above, proffering instead “something which, if need be by force, forces [the people] to be born unto itself and to overcome itself” (23). La tragédie du roi Christophe offers an extended meditation upon the nature of historical freedom, clearly placing his protagonist within the discourse of enlightenment so powerfully appropriated in the Haitian drive for independence. In consonance with the Kantian moral philosophy contemporary to the Haitian revolution, freedom for Christophe's subjects cannot be conferred (by a government or a leader) but must be autonomously legislated by each individual's faculty of reason such that its compelling force demonstrates its universality. Otherwise those individuals are not truly free, for their freedom has been bestowed heteronomously upon them by an outside, empirical source, making them subject to the natural world. In their idealism, Christophe's ambiguous statements shuttle between a utopian freedom lying somewhere in the future and the material violence of an external obligation that, like Rousseau's prescription for a free society in the Social Contract, would force those subjects to be free regardless of their own volition. The Haitian people are finally the mere means to realize Christophe's project, sacrificed to the future and “smashed to pieces” (Phenomenology 221) exactly as Hegel's mature philosophy of history sacrificed consciousness of the real suffering of individuals in the present—what Hegel dismissed as “sentimental reflection”—to the “true result of universal history”: the World Spirit (qtd. in Löwy 76).

Christophe attempts to prime a dialectic of self-overcoming in the Haitian people. He conceives of this development as a veritable re-invention of humanity: “The human material itself must be refounded. How? I do not know. We will undertake this process in our corner of the world! In our own small workshop!” (62). Christophe's effort to reinvent the Haitian people in a negation of their former selves mirrors Kojève's description of the enslaved subject's productive self-alienation: “Its sustained existence thus signifies for this Self: ‘not to be that which it is (as a static and given being, a natural being, as an “innate character”) and to be (that is to say to become) that which it is not’” (12). The concept of humanity thus stands in negative relation to the historical individuals over whom Christophe rules; La tragédie du roi Christophe posits humanity as an ideal yet to be achieved, an ideal to be constructed. Christophe's absolute idealism, however, sacrifices his actual subjects to this vision, ensuring that his steadfast pursuit of a “humanitarian” goal determined only by his pure faculty of reason will drive his real living subjects into utterly animalistic suffering and unfreedom.

Christophe's domination over his people has two consequences. First, his dissatisfaction with the status quo: despite his recourse to violence, he is not content to be a tyrant over a quiescent, obedient populace (84, 92). To achieve satisfaction, Christophe the master must invoke the self-consciousness of those who would recognize him as their king by means of “something thanks to which this transplanted people takes root, flourishes, throws in the face of the world the perfumes and fruits of its flowering” (23). The manner in which Christophe acts to bring about self-consciousness in the Other similarly corresponds to two steps of the Hegelian Spirit's movement toward Absolute Knowledge. On the part of the Haitian people, this movement occurs through productive work, specifically the construction of Christophe's palace by slave labor. For those Haitians surrounding Christophe in his court, on the other hand, this process is enacted in the realm of culture.

Following the logic of a production-based subjectivity, Césaire shows the Haitian people's progression toward self-understanding to arise through work. Through their forced labor, the Haitian peasants of the play enter into history. The citadel they build under the threat of death appears before them as the objectification of their own enslavement to a brutal dictator, a monument to unfreedom. And yet, their capacity to transform the world is simultaneously hewn in this gigantic stone construction, announcing the violent uprisings that will end Christophe's tyranny at the play's close.

If, through work, the peasants leave behind the cyclical world of nature of the Haitian countryside, Christophe remains utterly alienated from their experience, ruining any movement toward the Haitian ethical community his ideal implies. Césaire's play stages a rigid binary opposition between the peasants' putatively timeless world, a dehistoricized, rural Haiti (“amid the highlands, … the high plateaus and the savanna, the violence and the tenderness of the people, the Artibonite river … casts out and divulges everything from the high mountains of Dominicanie to … the Great Savanna” [65]) and the historical, linear world of the revolutionary leader and king, the ex-slave who has entered into history through a violent confrontation with death (the Haitian Revolution). Christophe is in this Kojévian reading the formerly enslaved, unconscious being who, through a violent negation of his former natural self, an act of self-alienation, became an autonomous, law-giving subject. Moreover, through their unfree labor, the Haitian people themselves become increasingly conscious both of their own creative power and of the identity of given historical moments. “The country [Nature], is good, but this time we live in sure isn't” (73), observes one of the peasants.

The Haitian peasants in the play reveal a resolute sense of self-consciousness that belies their putative relegation to an absolute “nature,” what Christophe can only perceive as mere “shit.” They comment perspicaciously upon their own misfortune and the events in their country. However, in Christophe, Césaire's glorification of “the masses” remains as formulaic as it had been in his earlier 1956 speech. The intimations of their entry into historicity never fully develop into a true moral contestation in the play, and the Haitians' revolt against Christophe's domination at the play's end remains a distant abstraction beside Christophe's final suicidal display of agency. It is, rather, the nobles of his court and the military who concretely abandon Christophe when he grows too weak to impose his will. Césaire's Haitian peasants remain indissolubly tied to their land in a historical stasis: “To tell you the truth, compère Patience, my love is with the land. I believe in the land I work with my own arms and that the fat king wants to keep from us” (110).

Césaire's affirmation of Antillean nature and natural, cyclical time nonetheless marks a refusal of the violent abstraction of instrumental reason implicit in both Christophe's terror and colonialism itself. In the play, the postrevolutionary Haitians have already destroyed the “second nature” of the plantation, negating their former world of slaves and masters through a violent confrontation in which “the Slave has risked his life in a Fight for recognition, ceasing in this manner to be a Slave” (Kojève 113). This Haitian Enlightenment remains blocked, stuck at the unmediated extremes of Christophe's idealism and the peasants' passive suffering.

For Césaire, as for Hegel, culture is a realm of self-creation superior to the brute interiority of hard labor. My introduction examined how, in the process that Hegel refers to as “alienation,” the individual's natural existence is negated for an artificial one in which “[the self's] actuality consists solely in the setting-aside of its natural self. … The self knows itself as actual only as a transcended self” (Phenomenology 298-99). For Césaire, as again for Hegel, this process of intersubjective acculturation is accomplished through the medium of language. If, in labor, the isolated individual becomes aware of his or her capacity to transform the world, the constructive work of language as communicative self-understanding builds toward an intersubjective ethical community (Phenomenology 308). In language, Hegel comments, self-awareness is objectified and becomes intersubjective: “Language is the real existence of the pure self as self; in speech, self-consciousness, qua independent separate individuality, comes as such into existence, so that it exists for others” (309, emphasis in original). Césaire as well views the poet's creativity as lying essentially in the demiurgic force of his or her enunciation to instantiate a novel intersubjective reality. As such, the poet is an autonomous producer of the subjectivity embodied in the concept of negritude.

In La tragédie du roi Christophe, this process of subjective production is dramatized by Césaire through that ritual so common throughout former slave-owning societies in the Americas: the reappropriation of one's own name, replacing the name given by the slave owner with one autonomously chosen. The process of objectification (the slave as object being attributed a name rather than choosing it him or herself) is thus reversed, as Régis Antoine has observed, by Christophe, who refers to the European masters with a condescending “on” (48). “These new names, these titles of nobility, this crowning! Formerly our names were stolen from us! Our pride! … Pierre, Paul, Jacques, Toussaint! These are the humiliating stamps with which they obliterated our true names. … Do you feel the pain of a man who doesn't know his own name? … Alas, only Mother Africa knows that name!” (37).

Here again, however, the impulse for this transformative act has come from Christophe himself rather than from the subjects who will bear these names. As in the final passages of the Cahier twenty years earlier, Christophe's speech again veers between the singular and plural, first and second person: “with names of glory I wish to cover your slave names, / with names of pride or names of infamy, / with names of redemption our names of orphans!” (37). Thus the antinomy recurs between Christophe's desire to develop his subjects' autonomy and his own compulsive reproduction of the systems of objectification from which all Haitians were attempting to escape.

Though Christophe strives to bring about the transformation of those in his court, the negation of a former self symbolized in the slave names of his subjects falls victim to the same shortcomings Hegel describes. As in the court of Louis XIV in Hegel's analysis, the values to which these individuals adhere are not autonomously generated but are accepted from the all-powerful ruler. Although they were required to make a conscious effort to adhere to these values, thus implying a certain increasing “spiritualization,” this activity quickly degenerates into conformity and sycophancy (Hegel 300; Césaire II 2). Henri Christophe's actions can be understood as Césaire's self-critique. The former acts out the role Césaire had only a few years before—at the 1959 Présence africaine conference in Rome—prescribed for the “man of culture,” whose job it is to “bring order to the cultural chaos” (qtd. in Delas 134). Christophe reproduces the antinomy at the heart of Césaire's aesthetic theory, in mediated form. Césaire's assertion at the Rome conference that it must be the “people” who effect a cultural renewal runs directly counter to his belief—expressed everywhere from the article “Poésie et connaissance” in 1945 (“But one man saves humanity … that man is the poet”) through the two Présence africaine “culture” speeches (1956 and 1959)—that it is the poet or the “man of culture” who must work that change upon a largely passive, receptive, and subordinated “people.” In like manner, Christophe is ineluctably entrapped by the sterility of his prescriptive gesture. His invocations of “this people” only underline his total alienation from them, whether they are the nobles of his court or the peasants who will build his citadel. Césaire thus objectifies in the character of Henri Christophe the dilemma that underlies his work from the Cahier onward in the form of a contradiction between the promised autonomy of negritude and the appropriation of that autonomy by the vanguard intellectual whose freedom substitutes for that of the colonized masses. Moreover, La tragédie du roi Christophe undertakes a critique of the ideological degeneration of the concept of negritude plainly visible by 1963 in the tyranny of Guinea's Sékou Touré, “Papa Doc” Duvalier's Haitian “Noirisme,” and even Senghor's manipulation of the concept in newly independent Senegal. The tyranny of Henri Christophe announces these twentieth-century betrayals of the concept of negritude, and Césaire overtly thematizes this degeneration and his own foundering hopes in Christophe's act of naming his subjects: “You are ‘black’ [nègre]. … I baptize you, name you, consecrate you ‘black’” (146). If, in 1939, Césaire's neologism (“negritude”) held out the promise of an intersubjective ethical community of the Black disapora, by 1963 he ironizes the pretensions of the poet, (“the kingfisher … inventing himself a daybreak of drunken sunlight [un petit matin de soleil ivre]” 144), recasting the hopes of the Cahier (“au bout du petit matin”) as mere “drunken” fancy and mythical invocation.

La tragédie du roi Christophe describes not the teleological development of a postcolonial “absolute knowledge” but the static confrontation of unyielding absolutes, a dialectic whose only movement is the putrescent degeneration of Christophe himself. Christophe's recourse to violence in his pursuit of a Haitian utopia dooms his effort to failure. He gradually withdraws into the interiority of Sans Souci, an objectification of his own bunkered subjectivity, immersing himself in the mythical realm of the Haitian Vodou gods. The play's invocation of the spirits of Haitian Vodou in Christophe's dying moments reworks the Hegelian critique of “revealed religion” (i.e., Christianity). In a striking parallel, Christophe blocks the Haitian people's access to a postcolonial ethical community precisely as the Christian Christ stood, in Hegel's analysis, as the “mediator” blocking access to a non-transcendental Christian community (Phenomenology 476).

La tragédie du roi Christophe constructs its complex model of historical consciousness dialectically, using elements of both Hegel's Phenomenology and the historicism expressed in the religion of the West African Yoruba, from which so many Afro-American religious traditions, including Vodou, derive. Throughout the play, Yoruba and Vodou ceremonies are represented both onstage and in various comments by different characters (I, 4; II, 8; etc.).20 A principal aspect of the play's striking originality lies in this mixture of such heretofore-distinct discourses: that of European historical and philosophical discourses of the revolutionary period with the mythical figures of the black Atlantic (former slaves, Vodou, and the Yoruba gods). This mixture is far from gratuitous; the deities, or orixas of the Yoruba pantheon, Ogun in particular, are fundamental to the play's evocation of the movement of humans out of a state of nature and into history through a process of violent negation.21 Kojève and Hegel, of course, are never mentioned in the play. On the other hand, Ogun Badagri, the Haitian transformation of the West African deity Ogun, appears onstage, the literal black Atlantic incarnation of a dialectical historicism uncannily similar to Kojève's reading of Hegel.

Césaire's description of Ogun's personality, like that of Shango and Baron Samedi, is meticulous, based largely upon Alfred Métraux's 1959 study of Haitian Vodou (Pestre de Almeida). The Vodou Lwa are intimately linked with the play's meditation on historical experience. Ogun in particular, the god of iron, is linked with all that is warlike and violent, “a violent warrior, fully armed and laden with frightening charms to kill his foes” (Barnes 2). Ogun symbolizes the forces of violence and destruction. Ogun, however, is a highly complex deity, for his violent nature is intimately tied with its negative image, creativity. “Ogun kills and he creates” (Barnes 16). It is for this reason that Ogun, the destroyer of the old and creator of the new, is so closely linked with a historical, event-based, noncyclical existence. Ogun Badagri/Baron Samedi's speech is filled with markers of temporal existence: “Excuse my lateness, Mesdames and Messieurs. You know, I'm always the one who arrives late. … In the end, we arrive on time and that's what counts for the minute of silence … the master dancer who incarnates an outraged civilization, proclaims far and wide to History that there's nothing to be done with Negroes, although …” (148, emphasis added).

This final phrase, explicitly recalling Christophe's desire to instantiate his subjects' entry into historical existence, evokes a characteristic of Ogun's personality even more essential to the play's philosophy of history. Ogun, despite his destructive nature, is simultaneously “the metaphoric representation of [the] transformation brought about by human effort” (Barnes 17). Ogun is tied with many of the fundamental inventions that mark off human existence from that of other animals:

Ogun was responsible for society's most important innovations. His praises were sung by many Yoruba-speaking groups as “Master of the World,” the innovative deity who “showed the way” for others; the deity who brought fire; the first hunter; the opener of roads; the clearer of the first fields; the first warrior; the introducer of iron; the founder of dynasties, towns, and kingdoms. Each of these acts was in some way revolutionary. Each was in some way a “first”. … Ogun brought a new political order through civil war or conquest, a new economy through clearing the fields, a new technology through the introduction of iron, and a new way of life through the founding of towns and cities.

(Barnes and Ben-Amos 57)

Ogun is the god who initiates this humanization of animalistic man through invention and production. The evocation of Ogun by Baron Samedi at the play's end underscores an intermingling of the historical creation of man and the death of a transcended self. While Ogun symbolizes the historical creativity of humanity, he also signifies its link with destruction and death (149).

Hegel's conception of absolute spirit claims the possibility of an actual overcoming of subject/object alienation in which the subject recognizes itself in the phenomenal universe.22 Hegel, Kojève, and Césaire's Christophe each attempt to overcome the subject-object antinomy that structures modern experience. Each articulates a possible synthesis that would, they maintain, render this moment of identity immanent, universal, and absolute. In the wisdom of our hindsight, in turn, each can be seen to have failed to instantiate the ideal they described. If history has shown that the immanent noncoercive community Hegel identified in his description of “Absolute Knowledge” was, as Merold Westphal has argued, both historically naïve and an extorted deus ex machina given the logic of the Phenomenology itself (200, 227), Christophe's suicide merely extends the compass of his absolutism to embrace death itself.

Césaire dramatizes this absolute abstraction of death in the final scene of La tragédie du roi Christophe where it takes the form of the flight from civilization into nature, repeatedly thematized in his work from the Cahier on. As two porters carry the king's coffin to its burial site, it grows heavier and heavier, as it is drawn down toward the earth. Rather than burying him in the ground, Christophe's coffin is set vertically into the ground, in an intermediary position between earth and sky, becoming an arborescent link between the physical and the spiritual, becoming himself “SHANGO … Force of the night, tide of the day” (152). Christophe thus momentarily appears as the realization of Kojève's “anthropodeism.” Christophe has become Absolute Spirit.

Were it to stand as Césaire's final gesture in La tragédie du roi Christophe, this narcissistic resolution to the antinomies of freedom structuring the play would merely reproduce the antagonisms of history and nature and of reason and the unconscious that underlie the Cahier. Chapter 2 shows how that poem's rejection of reason and flight into nature threaten to abandon the self-conscious subject the poem constructs to the unfreedom of nature. The poem's representation of this antinomy, while immanent within its structure, remains largely unthematized in deference to a transcendent teleological conquest of freedom (“Et elle est debout la négraille / debout / et / libre”). In La tragédie du roi Christophe, however, Césaire overtly stages the material confrontation between the autonomously imputed freedom of a self-same individual (Christophe/Shango) and that individual's confrontation with the unfree world and suffering subjects in it. Christophe's own physical degeneration demonstrates that there is no true freedom possible for an isolated subject in a world that remains unfree. For all its pious invocations of Absolute Spirit, this nonidentity of the world and our understanding of its perfectibility is also what dominates the final pages of the Phenomenology, a world in which “what enters consciousness as the in-itself [i.e., the idea of the world's perfectability] … is a reconciliation that lies in the beyond, … is the world which has still to await its transfiguration” (478).

Césaire refuses to close La tragédie du roi Christophe with a gesture of transcendence that would bypass the antinomies of Caribbean existence. For the force of the final lines of La tragédie du roi Christophe arises from their inscription of the contradictions of the Haitian history they describe: Christophe's unbridled pursuit of autonomy ultimately brings not objective freedom but the liquidation of subjectivity. His pursuit of autonomy has neglected any concrete immersion within the experience of the Haitian people to become the obstruction Hegel terms “Absolute Freedom.” As in the latter's analysis of the French Revolutionary Terror, Christophe has enforced an abstract, absolute freedom upon his subjects that is in fact death itself. The roar of Christophe's cannon, turned against his own people, signals the terrifying fulfillment of his dialectic of enlightenment. These individuals become abstract for Christophe when they refuse to conform to his equally abstract ideal. Devoid of material individuality for him, they can only truly conform to his utopian ideal through their absolute negation in death: “The sole work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death, a death too which has no inner significance or filling, for what is negated is the empty point of the absolutely free self. It is thus the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance then cutting off a head of a cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water” (Phenomenology 360). Christophe's unmediated pursuit of the humanization and historicization of his people leads instead to their animal-like slaughter and their absolute de-historicization in death. Likewise, Christophe himself abandons all engagement with the phenomenal world in the play's final scenes, losing all control of his body, withdrawing into his castle; his freedom—culminating in suicide—is absolute negation, utterly devoid of content and reality.23

The emptiness of Christophe's final free act of suicide engenders the erasure of his specificity as a human subject.24 As such, Christophe attains a universal, total freedom “which effaces all distinction and all continuance of distinction within it” as Hegel says, but at the cost of his human subjectivity in a death “with no more significance than cutting off a head of a cabbage.” In so doing, as he had already done for his people, he now sacrifices his own human experience to the sublime universal, achieving an abstract unity with the divine Lwa and the forces of nature evoked by his African page: “Force of the night, tide of the day / SHANGO / I salute you” (152).

While Christophe has passed into the world of absolute spirit, the unfreedom he sought to overcome persists in the world he deserts. He has left behind a nation of Haitian subjects freed only of his attempts to liberate them. Césaire's final words in La tragédie du roi Christophe evoke this sublime impasse structuring Christophe, pointing to the falsity of Christophe's absolute, ultimately insubstantial freedom that echoed at the time of the play's appearance in the unfreedom of Haitian president Duvalier's “Noirisme” and the Tonton Macoutes. Denying the possible resolution of an extorted return to nature in a world riven by antinomy, the play's final lines draw the measure of a contradictory existence and chart the Antillean drama of historical immobility and dependency “upright, / suspend[ed] over the abyss.”

By articulating a black Atlantic variant of the dialectal historicism dominant in postwar French letters, Aimé Césaire's La tragédie du roi Christophe accomplishes more than the mere adaptation of his generation's philosophical master text to the demands of his poetic sensitivity. Thematizing the development of nature into history also allowed Césaire to address the primary problematic that confronted him as an Afro-Caribbean, French intellectual in the 1950s and 1960s. At stake were the unfolding drama of the accession of the various African colonies into independence and their attempt to move from servitude and dependence toward autonomy and substantial freedom.

Césaire's redeployment of Hegel's famous text in his articulation of a philosophy of history implies more than a simple thematic relevance. This adaptation should be understood to arise from the context of a series of aesthetic choices Césaire made as he evolved from an unknown Martinican student and poet to his position as the dominant intellectual of his field. The dilemmas Césaire faced as black poet-statesmen were implicitly explored in Christophe, as they were more directly examined in Césaire's articles and speeches of the period. If the political excesses and absolutism of Christophe are at odds with the author's benevolent, long-lived political practice, the problematic exploration of the subject's distantiation from an objectified mass that proved to be the king's downfall recur throughout Césaire's aesthetic practice.

This was not a matter of bad faith, with Césaire professing sympathy for the masses while acting out of professional self-interest. Césaire's constant exploration of the problematic relation between the individual artist and his audience bears witness to his refusal to remain content with the modernist elitism of his early texts and the alienation from the Antillean masses that is a feature of his poetic work even today, when more “accessible” authors such as Maryse Condé or Tony Delsham are better known in the Antilles than Césaire the poet.25 Rather, he repeatedly searched for ways to mediate the antinomy between his bond with the “people” and the movement away from them implied by his creation and occupation of an isolated space for the intellectual/poet.

Dialectical historicism, in its Kojèvian variant, carried a strongly positive value within the French and nascent pan-African intellectual fields in 1963. Césaire's subtle, unacknowledged use of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit both to structure and to provide thematic philosophical depth to the play placed it within a concrete European philosophical tradition. By analogy it invoked the lineage of Sartre's philosophical theater and implicitly placed it within the postwar vogue of Hegelianism. Césaire's appropriation of dialectical historicism provided subtle intellectual rigor to a nascent African theater. Simultaneously, his manipulation of a Yoruba/Vodou cosmology and philosophy of history allied Christophe with a millennial tradition of compelling spiritual force.

The symbolism of Christophe thus has a direct relationship with the historical context in which the play appeared. Not simply a warning to the new leaders of Africa, as so many commentators have suggested; rather, the play itself is historically performative. The fact of its appearance in 1963 within an intellectual and social space the author had negotiated and created over the previous thirty years, produced in turn effects within the field of black Francophone letters. The central symbol of the construction of the citadel thus takes on an additional sense: the play itself is an attempt to concretize through language the African diasporic ethical community that Christophe himself failed to achieve, its verbal architecture existing both on paper as objective artifact and on stage via the actors (including the brilliant Douta Seck) who would bring it into existence before an African public at the 1966 Dakar festival of Black Arts (Lemoine).

The play enacts this construction on both an individual and collective plane. Individually, Césaire explores a key moment in the history of the African diaspora, using a series of historically inherited discursive strategies (the Yourba/Vodou and Hegelian philosophies of history) to produce an artwork that occupied a preexisting field (postwar French théâtre engagé) due both to the cultural capital Césaire had previously accumulated and the mastery of historical material (philosophical, poetic, anthropological, and rhetorical discourses) that the play itself displays. This successful insertion within a European intellectual field—the play became, for example, the first by a black playwright to be performed at the Comédie Française in 1991, and in 1996 it became the first to be performed in the Court d'Honneur at the Avignon festival in fifty years of summer festivals—was complemented by the play's domination alongside the Cahier of the nascent field of black Francophone letters. If Césaire's earlier incursions into this field were essential in the definition and constitution of its parameters, the performance of Christophe at the Dakar Black Arts Festival in 1966 can be seen as a critical moment in the field's canonization.

In addition to the masterful incorporation of a series of European intellectual discourses within the play, Césaire was one of the first Caribbean writers to use what has become a common trope of literature in the postcolonial Americas: the juxtaposition of a narration of suppressed historical material with the cosmology of the Orishas and Lwa of the Yoruba-derived syncretic religions. The presence of these gods in Césaire's play must be understood as accomplishing more than adding “local color”; instead, they are essential to both the organic functioning of the play's symbolic logic and its conquering of a novel intellectual field through the masterful accumulation of discourses. The presence of Ogun—“the metaphoric representation of a transformation brought about by human efforts” (Barnes 17),—brings together what might seem to be two heterogeneous discourses, Old World and New, into a new synthesis.

Césaire's invention of negritude had already proven essential to his reception by the French intelligentsia. Had he been only another surrealist-inspired poet, a former student at rue d'Ulm, it is unlikely that Breton, Sartre, and their followers would have taken interest in him. It was the combination of an accumulation of cultural capital that they themselves recognized (diplomas, mastery of historical and poetic material) with the manipulation of a topical theme they were incapable of evoking authentically (colonialism, racism, negritude) that explain Césaire's success. If Sartre, in particular, attempted to place the philosophical stamp of the total intellectual upon these problems in “Orphée noire,” it was essential that he do so within the context of a collective publication of black poets (Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache). His analysis was unavoidably weakened by his “situation,” in which he spoke in the place of others who were claiming their right to self-expression. Sartre's self-positioning as spokesperson for the anticolonial movement could never achieve the total dominance he had achieved in other cultural fields. Césaire thus responded to a structural opening in the postwar French intellectual field, becoming, along with Fanon, one of the most influential theorists of the decolonization movement through the recognition he received in both worlds, French and black Atlantic.

Césaire's historical incursion within the black Atlantic intellectual field thus has more than a simply subjective importance within the dynamic constitution of his own position within that field. The performative nature of La tragédie du roi Christophe remains ambiguous, an act of objective (self-)construction by a black Francophone intellectual. In this manner, the play encodes within its formal and symbolic processes and structures a historical dynamic that transcends Césaire's own biographical trajectory. Henri Christophe's construction of the citadel, itself a towering monument to negritude by the world's first black emperor, is the symbolic objectification of the play's own sociohistorical activity.

The appearance of La tragédie du roi Christophe marks the inauguration of a monument in the history of the black Atlantic world. It substantially transformed African diasporic culture via its representation of the production of a self-conscious black subjectivity, confronting that culture with a critical image of its own unfreedom. The impact of Césaire's play was truly monumental, in the many contradictory senses of the term, completing the process begun by his lectures in Port-au-Prince in 1944 that had produced such an explosive, revolutionary effect upon his audience, “destroying in their passage the grasses of every baseness of spirit, devouring taboos, slicing with great knife-strokes every habitual association” (Depestre) in Césaire's struggle to decolonize Antillean subjectivity.


  1. John Heckman's introduction to Hyppolite's Genesis and Structure of Hegel's Phenomenology describes this historical milieu.

  2. See Judith Butler's Subjects of Desire. The work of Raymond Queneau (editor of Kojève's Introduction à la lecture de Hegel), Raymond Aron, Michel Leiris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, and Georges Bataille and Jean Hyppolite himself was influenced in dramatic and well-documented ways by their direct participation in Kojève's lectures at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes (Auffret 253-63), while Descombes goes so far as to describe Sartre's Being and Nothingness as merely an expansion of the “dualist ontology” at the heart of Kojève's reading of the Phenomenology.

  3. Dates that correspond with Césaire's first tenure in Paris, as a khagneux at Lycée Henry-IV (1931-34) and then as normalien at the rue d'Ulm (1935-39).

  4. “Au moment où la traduction de la Phénoménologie de l'esprit est sortie en France, je l'ai montrée à Senghor, et je lui ai dit ‘Ecoute, Léopold, ce que dit Hegel: il faut arriver à l'Universel par l'approfondissement du Particulier.” Personal communication, Fort-de-France, 9 Nov. 2001.

  5. This attention to the relation of western theoretical work and postcolonial cultural production is not merely a historical detail but confronts us daily as both global citizens and professional critics of cultural production: “From the work of Lukács, Fredric Jameson, Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, Adorno, and Benjamin—to mention only some of the obvious names—we have a vivid apprehension of the processes of regulation and force by which cultural hegemony reproduces itself, pressing even poetry and spirit into administration and the commodity form. Yet, in the main, the breach between these consequential metropolitan theorists and either the ongoing or the historical imperialist experience is truly vast. … We can and indeed must speculate as to why there has been a practice of self-confinement of the libertarian theoretical capital produced in the West and why, at the same time in the formerly colonial world, the prospect for a culture with strongly liberationist components has rarely seemed dimmer” (Culture and Imperialism 304).

  6. One of the most concrete early benefits Césaire gained from the network of relationships he developed at the rue d'Ulm was his publishing contact for the first, 1939 edition of the Cahier: “Through the exertions of one of his professors at the rue d'Ulm, Pierre Petitbon, Césaire, who had encountered the refusals of numerous Parisian editors, acquired the agreement of the director of the journal Volontés, Georges Pellorson, to publish his manuscript” (Toumson and Henry-Valmore 68). See Boschetti 23 on the interwar domination of the E. N. S. in the formation of French cultural elites.

  7. His article in Tropiques on Lautréamont and his 1956 speech “Culture et Colonisation,” to be analyzed below, are obvious exceptions.

  8. One of the few exceptions to this is Bouelet's study of the correspondences between Césaire's thought and Sartrian existentialism. While taking into account the thought of Hegel in this process, Bouelet limits its influence to the admittedly important master/slave dialectic of recognition.

  9. See Descombes 9-54 for a summary of Kojève's philosophy and an analysis of the crucial role it played from the 1930s till the arrival of structuralism in the late 1950s.

  10. Car il n'est point vrai que l'oeuvre de l'homme est finie
    que nous n'avons rien à faire au monde
    que nous parasitons le monde
    qu'il suffit que nous nous mettions au pas du monde
    l'oeuvre de l'homme vient seulement de commencer
    et il reste à l'homme à conquérir toute
    interdiction immobilisée aux coins de sa ferveur.
  11. Je me lèverai un cri et si violent
    que tout entier j'éclabousserai le ciel
    et par mes branches déchiquetées
    et par le jet insolent de mon fût blessé et
    je commanderai aux îles d'exister
  12. The unconscious phallocentrism of this repeated reference to the “homme de culture” is obvious, notwithstanding any putative universalism of the French term. Richard Wright was the only speaker at the conference to have regretted the absence of women at such a historic event. Despite his lone request for a more equal representation, little change occurred at the 1959 Congress of Black Writers in Rome.

  13. The text of Césaire's speech is reproduced in Ngal, Lire 121.

  14. See Mouralis, Littérature et développement on the historical importance of this congress organized by Alioune Diop and Présence africaine. In describing Sartre's tactical accumulation of literary and intellectual references within La Nausée, Anna Boschetti could equally well be speaking of Césaire's speech: “No other French author, consecrated or new-comer, could rival this polyphonic virtuosity that destined every other success to appear incomplete, if not naïve and provincial” (56).

  15. This “cultural cannibalism” of New World societies was first described in Oswald de Andrade's 1928 “Cannibalist Manifesto.”

  16. See Martin Jay's Marxism and Totality for an exhaustive investigation of concept of an “expressive” model of human subjectivity. Jay describes how Habermas's Theory and Practice in particular—written precisely in the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s when Césaire produced the texts under consideration in this chapter—maintains a faith in the possibility of an expressive recognition of subject-object identity that Lukács first articulated in History and Class Consciousness (469-77) and that we found at work in Césáire's forging of the concept of “negritude,” discussed in the introduction.

  17. Césaire's failure to pass the agrégation is in this respect of secondary importance; the primary elaboration of the disposition and ability to negotiate successfully the Parisian intellectual milieu, along with the network of personal relationships that make that process possible, generally occurs within the cadre of the E.N.S.: “The title of normalien underlies various practical solidarities … ; As social capital of actual or potential relations, the fact of being a ‘normalien’ exerts a multiplying effect upon all the social powers an individual possesses” (Bourdieu, Homo academicus 22, 116).

  18. Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, who recently retranslated the Phenomenology into French, has observed that this is also true of the context in which Kojève and Hyppolite turned to Hegel in the 1930s and 1940s, amid a generalized breakdown of social structure and ensuing mass destruction (19).

  19. Although the differentiation between Nature and History is present in the Phenomenology (most notably in the introduction to Section B, Part IV, “The Truth of Self-Certainty”), it was Kojève who developed Hegel's comments into a rigid dualist ontology rather than a dialectical process of the overcoming of one state by another. This distinction, in turn, has meant that the French poststructuralist rejection of Hegel is to an important degree a case of misrecognition.

  20. A. James Arnold has underscored the relation between Ogun, as understood by Wole Soyinka, and Cèsaire's “Et les chiens se taisaient” (Modernism and Negritude 120-24). Rather than the historical aspect of Ogun I am underlining here, Arnold points to the Orisha's relevance, as a tragic, mythical figure, to Cèsaire's “modernist pseudo-myth,” as Arnold quite rightly glosses Cèsaire's earlier poem (123).

  21. See Frederick Ivor Case, “Sanga obo ko so” for a discussion of the role of Vodou in the play, as well as Pestre de Almeida.

  22. For Hegel, this recognition is awakened via the appearance of a mediating being (Christ) who acts as a bridge uniting the physical and the spiritual, consciousness and self-consciousness, the subjective and the objective (416). For both Hegel and Kojève, the problematic status of this “religion of revelation” lies in the persistent separation between subject and object through an intermediary projection of the self onto another, as representation (Kojève 215).

  23. “All these determinations have vanished in the loss suffered by the self in absolute freedom; its negation is the death that is without meaning, the sheer terror of the negative that contains nothing positive, nothing that fills it with a content” (Phenomenology 362).

  24. Mireille Rosello offers a compelling critique of the suicidal logic of Antillean texts such as Césaire's Et les chiens se taisaient. Rosello argues that “by ‘choosing’ Death, the colonized subject plays doubly into the oppressor's hand; firstly, by adopting his ideology which makes of the soldier's death the moment of glory that will bestow upon the latter glorious distinction, while on the other hand, he chooses to annihilate himself as a rebellious subject (that is to say by inflicting upon his body in advance the treatment the master had reserved for him)” (51).

  25. As I will argue in the last chapter of this study, the categories of modernist “elitism” and a contrasting writerly “accessibility” are not invalid, but are nonetheless foreign to this project. My focus lies elsewhere, with texts that seek to confront historical experience and the sacrifice of life to an abstract universal. In this light, and despite radically different means and voices, both Césaire and Delsham, Glissant and Condé are to my mind equally compelling.

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

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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, besides the psychological or political implications it may have for the author has significance for the structure and form of his dramatic work.

Aristotle believed that drama had its origins in the dithyramb in honour of Dionysus celebrated during spring time, a ritual depicting the life history of the vegetation or year spirit as combat, death and rebirth. The ritual describes a king, on whom depends the welfare of the community, who fights, dies and is reborn in an effort to assure the following year's crop. Tragedy, evolving from this ritual, deals with a king who represents his community and who fights, dies and is reborn in such a manner as to ensure group permanence and to reaffirm the community he represents.

In all the three plays of Cesaire—Et les chiens se taisaient,La tragedie du roi Christophe,Un saison au Congo—we see the basic structure of a leader who fights and dies for his nation, suffering defeat only to be born again in a final triumphal scene thus reaffirming the state he represents. By using the rebirth theme, Cesaire not only follows the heritage of Aristotelian tragedy but also shows political optimism. The plays instead of ending on a sad note of the hero's death ends on the glorious note of his rebirth.

In his first play Et les chiens se taisaient (And the Dogs Were Silent) the hero is the Rebel. The whole drama is encompassed in a vast prison full of black people driven to madness and to death. It is the last night for the Rebel who is condemned to death for having killed his master, a white man.

The Prologue announces “certainly he is going to die the Rebel.” This is repeated several times.

The play is set in colonial Martinique rule and deals with the oppression of the natives by the French. It is a call to end this rule since the so-called civilisation brought by the white man is nothing but the destruction and alienation of the black man.

The Rebel by killing his master fights the colonial ruler. His desire for freedom is not a personal desire but that of a race, the black race. Further, his life is shaped by the different episodes that make up the history of colonial rule—the arrival of the white men, their establishment of the church and their economic control.

As the play opens we find the Rebel prepared for death and resisting all calls and appeals from his lover:

Woman, do not make me weak by your quarrelsome words. It is a great day today, let me have a great courage.

His mother tries to entice him to ask for pardon but the Rebel is not willing. He is sarcastic and says:

Who is the one who is disturbing me on the threshold of rest? Ah you required a son betrayed and sold out and you have chosen me. … Thank you.

The appeals of the mother are of no use, the Rebel wants to die and does not repent.

He does not want to live by saying, “I want to die here alone.” He is not prepared to submit himself and says:

Well, I shall perish. But naked. Intact. My hand in my hand, my foot on the ground. … I want to die.

When the jailor beats him, he tells him:

Hit … Hit commander … hit till blood flows

It is born from the furrow of a race without means

Beat and get tired.

The whole play has for a background the suffering of the black people represented by the Rebel. It is also about the struggle of an oppressed race which wants to free itself from the shackles of the white race.

Cesaire incorporates in the play the customs, beliefs of the natives. He wants to bring to the forefront the fight between the races, between the oppressed and the oppressor.

The Rebel calls for death which will liberate him but his work will not end, he will be reborn to continue his work. He becomes a prophet, he foresees that the black people will get rid of the colonial rule. As a descendant of the slaves brought here some centuries ago, the Rebel has no nostalgia for his land, Africa. He says “Africa sleeps, Africa bleeds, my mother.” This has reference to the slave trade.

The Rebel is the embodiment of the struggle of the black race. He is the leader and he needs the support of the people, but the people do not collaborate with him, they do not understand him, do not follow him. He is called a traitor. The Rebel feels that he is left alone, but he does not despair. His death will not end his work, that will be completed only at his rebirth. He does not want to compromise himself in order to be alive. His death is for an ideal—the liberation of his country, his people. He believes in the brotherhood of man but not at the cost of submission. In murdering his master he has committed a sacrificial act. Before dying he says “I walk amidst the bright stars. I walk … I accept … I embrace …”

At the end of the play there is a picture of the blue Carribean sea with golden and silvery islands in the brightness of the dawn. The dawn represents the rebirth of the Rebel who will take up his unfinished task. Death is night and the dawn is the rebirth.

The next play La tragedie du roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christopher) has for background the freedom struggle in Haiti in the nineteenth century from the French colonial rule.

Cesaire places his hero at a precise moment in the history of Haiti. The background of the play is historical, unlike the first play.

In fact there was a man by name Christopher who was a cook and he took an active part in the liberation of the country. Once Haiti was independent Christopher became a general whose armies took control of the northern region while the southern part was under Petion. There was a kind of power struggle between these two men.

Christopher was like any of the French kings. He imitated them by having a court with courtiers and adopted a new style of living and functioning. He wanted the black people to take to the white man's ways of living with all their pomp and show. The comic elements are in the languages used at the court of the king. He is however a clever politician and has but contempt for those around him.

Cesaire introduces a person by name Metellus whose ambition is to unite all the black people of the world. Like the Rebel in the previous play, he is the incarnation of a call for liberty. Metellus is the next stage of the revolution and his desire of uniting all the Negroes is the concept of Negritude of Cesaire.

The situation in Haiti shows a struggle for power between Christopher and Petion—the same situation in most of the African countries which became independent after the Second World War.

Christopher's dream is to build, not to destroy for he says,

Stones, I am in search of stones,
Cement! I am in search of cement.

King Christopher though instigated by General Magny to do away with Petion is not inclined to do so. He wants to make peace with Petion. However this peace eludes him, it is impossible. There is a kind of an idealism in Christopher's desire.

The debate in the Parliament shatters his idealism. Now personal interest and pride take possession of him. National interest is relegated. He wants to undertake a mighty task. Since reality does not comply with his dreams, his ambition, this reality has to be changed for he says:

The human material itself is to be recast.
… How? I do not know. We shall try in our small corner …

Christopher wants to build a citadel, he becomes tyrannical. His dream must become a reality in spite of difficulties and hostilities from all quarters. He has lost all notion of reality and his approach is sheer madness. He becomes a dictator and compels his people to obey him. The mass marriage he organises is one of his dictatorial actions.

His arrogance and pride are beyond tolerance. He seeks the help of the armed forces in his dictatorial rule. A totalitarian regime is established, punishments are given mercilessly without any consideration to the punished, no one is spared.

The people begin to suffer under his regime, his oppression. Christopher has his own concept of his duties and says “Oh what a task … to tame this people. I am like a school teacher with a rod facing a nation of duffers.”

Soon a rebellion is in the making when Christopher is at the height of his glory: the courtiers and the commoners unite to put down this tyrant. Christopher finds that the situation has changed and grows afraid. His orders are not executed. He finds himself alone, everyone deserts him but Christopher does not give in. He knows his plight but refuses to accept reality. Now abandoned by all, he does want to fight against his destiny. He wants to disappear with dignity for he says:

That means that time has come for the old king to go to sleep. …

Remove all these clothes, take away them as the coming of the dawn makes the dreams of the night disappear … Take away my nobles, my nobility, my sceptre, my crown. …

Before his death he baptises a mullato by the name Vastey and makes him a Negro thus bringing together the different communities to carry on with the struggle. After his suicide his body is kept standing to show that he will be born again to complete his task of building up his nation. Vastey says: “And there you are standing again O King …” His present failure is temporary, he will be able to succeed in his work after his rebirth. The African page calls Christopher Shango—Shango is a a god and Christopher is considered to be his reincarnation.

The next play is Une saison au Congo (A Season in Congo). The background of the play is Congo before independence and during the days of Patrice Lumumba at a particular time in the African history. Lumumba is a moment in that history, he represents the rising of a nation in spite of the power struggle among the leaders. Lumumba is not like Christopher, he is not a slave. In 1960 Congo wins independence. Kasavubu is made its President and Lumumba its Prime Minister. Ethnic troubles start immediately, as well as conflicts and confrontation between the blacks and the whites. Civil war too breaks out and Tshombe declares independence for the Katanga Province. Lumumba is arrested, imprisoned and killed.

In the play Cesaire presents Lumumba as the hero in this struggle to make his country independent. The play opens with the description of a public place in a locality of Leopoldville. There is rivalry between two beer companies. Similar irrational rivalry was also shown in the previous play through a cock fight scene. In this play the political rivalry is between Kasavabu and Lumumba.

The player of Sanza represents the people throughout the play and through his songs he comments upon the events.

Mobutu is a friend of Lumumba who is the symbol of the fate of a country. Mobutu says “Friend did you ever ask yourself what would happen if the fate of a country and the fate of a man are one?”

The arrest of Lumumba sparks off a kind of non-cooperation movement among the people who love Lumumba. Lumumba is beaten in jail by the white jailors. He remains silent and suffers all the brutalities showered on him but does not yield to pressure. He keeps his dignity. He is transferred to Elisabethville where he is freed and goes to Brussels. Soon comes the declaration of independence of Congo. This creates a panic among the white population, particularly the mine owners and the bankers. They start manipulating in the Katanga Province where the mines are situated.

At the ceremony of independence Lumumba takes the hard line and tells the people the cruel truth about oppression, alienation of the black by the white under the guise of civilisation. These statements make him dangerous and he is marked out as a man who must be done away with at the earliest opportunity.

Lumumba calls for unity among the different ethnic groups to fight colonialism. This gives rise to jealousy in the mind to other politicians. There is opposition from them and they and the whites decide to create trouble in the country. There is mutiny in the armed forces and Lumumba tries to pacify them. He orders that the white officers be replaced by black officers. Lumumba believes in devotion and duty but this is not the view of other leaders. The atrocities committed by the black soldiers on the white population bring the intervention of Belgium. There is utter confusion in the country and war breaks out between the people of Congo and the Belgians. The Katanga Province is influenced by the latter and declares its independence, thus breaking the country into two. Lumumba is upset by this turn of events. He appeals to the UNO. The civil war spreads and brings more sufferings to the people. Colonel Mobutu is helped by the Belgians and Lumumba's house is surrounded. Lumumba says:

There it is our Africa thrown to the ground, tied, trampled and aimed at.

The player of Sanza expresses the power struggle as follows:

Africans, my brothers this is the tragedy—each one for himself—Africans when will you understand?

The fate of Lumumba is the fate of the Congo and the arrest of Lumumba symbolises the failure of a possible ideal for Africa.

Though imprisoned Lumumba has great influence on the people, the army and this is much feared by his opponents. Lumumba has faith in the future and he says:

They can destroy us but not to vanquish us! Too late! We have caught them unaware, friends, they are henceforth the late comers in history. My task was in the dark sky and the limited horizon to draw in one stroke magically the curve and the direction.

What is happening here it is not our fate, it is not the fate of Africa … It is the fate of man, of man himself.

We find here, thus, the same notion of brotherhood, the same idealism as in the previous play about King Christopher. After his release Lumumba goes to a safer place. Like Christopher, Lumumba's idealism and pride overtake him.

Lumumba lives in a world he has created and becomes a hard liner and this leads to his downfall. He is prepared to die for his ideas. He is arrested and sent to Thysville in the Katanga Province. He is beaten and tortured and finally killed by Mobutu's men and the white mercenaries. Lumumba evokes the honour of Africa and the hope of a dawn.

Death will not end the task he has undertaken, he shall continue when dawn comes. The dawn in the plays of Cesaire represents the birth of a new day, the rebirth of the leader for the continuation of his unfinished work.

We find, thus, that in these three plays the hero is not afraid of death, in fact he calls for it for he knows that death cannot stop his work. He shall be born again to continue his work.

In these three plays the theme is the liberation of the country from the colonial rule, the liberation of the black race from the shackles of the white race. We see also the power struggle between the leaders as it did happen in many African countries after their independence and thus created lot of sufferings for the people.

Timothy Scheie (essay date spring 1998)

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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 frequently ironic deployment of theatricality lends them a complexity that resists a realist mise-en-scène, and that leads theater practitioners and spectators alike to ponder the implications of the foregrounded performance of identity. In both the characters represented and the gesture of their representation, Césaire questions complex and unstable racial categories inflected by the colonial and national backdrop against which the action of his plays unfolds: King Christophe's Haiti, the newly independent Congo, and most remarkably, the thinly disguised Caribbean island of Une tempête (1969b). Translated as A Tempest, this last play, a rewriting of Shakespeare's The Tempest, prescribes in its stage indications a self-conscious performance where characters exist only within a play of masks, and the parody of a canonical text generates both humor and a pointed commentary on the factitiousness of familiar racial categories.

For the 1990s spectator, A Tempest's portrayal of racial identity as performance might evoke the now familiar notion of a performative identity. The idea that identity is not stable or fixed but performative, and that it might therefore be performed differently and presumably in a less harmful or unjust manner, has sparked a great deal of discussion both by zealous subscribers and cautious critics. The theorization of performativity, most extensively articulated in the work of Judith Butler, would seem to inform an assessment of how Césaire's prescribed staging tactics disturb accepted readings of racial identity.

If the performative has provoked a great deal of excitement, however, the notion has also come under intense critical scrutiny. Caveats concerning the strategic potential of performative acts have been echoing with increasing urgency, effectively tempering the zeal of those who might glibly invoke performativity as a panacea to the ills of patriarchy.1 Indeed, one need look no farther than Butler's own writings to find numerous qualifications that sharply restrict the sweeping agency some would attribute to the performative.2 Furthermore, the status of theater in relation to the performative is far from clear. Butler often defines the performative against the conventions of the theatrical performance of a dramatic text, even one replete with apparently subversive staging strategies such as Césaire's; A Tempest consequently serves as an excellent site for assessing the import of the performative for theatrical practice. Furthermore, if the performative informs our understanding of Césaire's racial politics, A Tempest's formulation of race through the metaphor of an incurable addiction in turn sheds light on the performative's limits as the theoretical justification for an activist theater's strategy. After articulating the troubled relationship between the performative, agency, and live theater practice, the discussion that follows will explore the potential for a subversive performativity in A Tempest, specifically in the final scene's enactment of racial identity as addiction.

In the fields of literary, cultural, and performance studies, few notions have sparked as much interest as the performative. Launched in the 1950s by philosopher and linguist J. L. Austin, the term served as a target of Derridean deconstruction before achieving wide circulation with the publication of Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990a), and discussions of performativity have been proliferating ever since. The performative's current appeal might not seem evident in its initial formulation. Austin used the word to describe an utterance whose act of enunciation accomplishes something or somehow transforms the world: the priest's act of saying “I now pronounce you man and wife” is often cited as the quintessential example. Butler, however, brings this notion to bear on questions of identity, arguing that gender likewise results from a similar performative gesture, or more precisely from sustained repetition of this performative gesture which generates the illusion of a fixed gendered identity.3 Derrida's earlier deconstruction of the term only furthers her demonstration of gender's instability. The notion that identity results from a performative gesture, rather than being grounded in fixed and stable categories of the subject, offers a much desired theoretical direction for the efforts of writers, critics, and others who seek to change a repressive and patriarchal status quo and who, in our post-poststructuralist world, can neither triumphantly announce the dissolution of subjectivity nor fall back on essentialist or determinist accounts grounded in a purportedly truthful “real.”

Despite its apparent liberatory potential, however, the performative does not easily serve the interests of an activist, counter-hegemonic agenda. If it radically disturbs oppressive identity categories, the performative also destabilizes the agent who seeks to subvert them and necessitates a rethinking of agency as it is defined in familiar theoretical models for engagé theater practice. Two related qualifications of agency inhere in the performative, and restrict or even preclude its invocation to subversive ends. First, the performative does not recognize an individual's autonomy, perhaps best emblematized in the existentialist heroes of Sartre's dramas, to choose new identities or even to misperform identity transgressively in original or deviant ways. An impersonal power structure strictly regulates the constitutive gesture of identity's performance. “Power” must here be understood in the Foucaldian sense: not a privilege wielded by someone who has power, but a diffuse network of institutionalized constraints that coerce the performance of identity into naturalized configurations and that include mechanisms for censuring performances that do not comply. All actions, even those apparently in opposition to the identity categories of the power structure, are always already a function of it.4 Secondly and moreover, a performer who invokes the performative further relinquishes the ability to recast identity at will, for it is precisely such “wills” that performativity calls into question. A willful intent to transgress the sanctioned categories of identity, however imaginary, posits a subject whose identity precedes and motivates the performance. An individual who claims to “perform” transitively an identity therefore betrays a misunderstanding of the performative mode, for that “who,” a “subject” in both a philosophical and grammatical sense, is always already the product of a constitutive gesture. The performative consequently forecloses the possibility of agency wherever this term implies an autonomous agent with claims to pre-discursivity. There is no autonomy, no exterior to which one can escape; to “be” a subject at all implies compliance with an epistemological regime of power relations.5

Paradoxically, this same injunction to repeat the performance of identity along sanctioned lines constitutes the performative's subversive potential. Identity “is” nowhere other than in its repeated performance, and Power not only exacts sustained compliance, but also depends on it in order to pull off the sleight of hand which causes the ephemeral performances to be misrecognized as a fixed identity. Power is needy; one could say it is addicted to such iteration. This dependence is, for Butler, a purportedly stable identity's Achilles's heel:

Agency is the hiatus in iterability, the compulsion to install an identity through repetition, which requires the very contingency, the undetermined interval, that identity insistently seeks to foreclose. … And yet, the future of the signifier of identity can only be secured through a repetition that fails to repeat loyally, … a disloyalty that works the iterability of the signifier for what remains non self-identical in any invocation of identity, namely the iterable or temporal conditions of its own possibility.”

(Butler 1993, 220)

A performance that could draw attention to the repeated gesture of identity's constitution would reveal that this repetition is neither self-identical with its imaginary source nor a slavish imitation of it, but that it generates what it appears to copy, what it purports to “be.” Butler envisions an opening for a strategic maneuver, for an agentless agency:

It is necessary to learn a double movement: to invoke the category, and hence, provisionally to institute an identity and at the same time to open the category as a site of permanent political contest. That the term is questionable does not mean that we ought not to use it, but neither does the necessity to use it mean that we ought not to perpetually interrogate the exclusions by which it proceeds. …

(Butler 1993, 222)

An iteration at once loyal and disloyal reinscribes the term while evoking the constraints that govern this gesture of inscription.6 The performative does not represent a radical disloyalty or an outright rebellion against categories of identity, nor does it represent a sort of obedience in bad faith, implying a knowing agent under, above, behind, or otherwise prepositioned outside of the performance itself. It neither subverts nor overthrows, but instead “troubles” apparently immutable identities by making evident their constitutive gesture.

The necessary ambivalence of the performative's destabilizing terms compromises its potential as the theoretical justification for subversive activist strategies. With no “outside” to evoke, the performance of identity can only operate through and never fully against the “questionable terms” of the “inside,” and without recourse to a knowing position of truth or authority nothing guarantees that any disloyalty will be detected at all. A disloyal performance necessarily resembles the loyal one which repeats the “sedimented” categories of identity in an uncritical and accepting manner. In short, only a spectator who already believes in the performativity of identity will detect the disloyalty inherent in a performance. There is no radical subversion, only a rearticulation and a redeployment that is at the same time a repetition and perpetuation of the offensive terms targeted for subversion. How effective is the strategy of revelation when it entails a repetition of the very identities deemed injurious in the first place, while relinquishing recourse to a knowing performer who can issue a discreet and reassuring wink at the spectator? How appealing is this “no pain no gain” formulation of performativity when the pain (the reinscription) is a sure thing and the gain (the revelation) tenuous? And what, finally, is there to be gained? Janelle Reinelt has skeptically written of the requisite faith in a post-identity world that underlies theorizations of the performative, an as yet unthinkable world which cannot guarantee that it will be any less oppressive than the one we know and presumably seek to change (1994, 101). While Butler's performative is theoretically provocative, it ultimately suggests less how to enact a strategic deconstruction of gender or other subject positions than how difficult such an endeavor might be.

If the performative seems incompatible with the project of a committed author like Césaire, its import for his dramatic oeuvre specifically would appear even more questionable. The formulation of identity as performance might at first seem to inform a theater of intervention, and the apparent liberatory promise of the performative has not escaped the attention of theater practitioners. Yet, although she liberally borrows vocabulary and metaphors from the theater, Butler rarely refers to live dramatic performance in its specificity, and her focus on examples of the performative drawn from written texts and film leads Emily Apter to remark the “almost phobic disinterest in theater history and dramatic art” in her work (1996, 16). Despite the invocations of performativity that frequently figure in the program notes of performances employing staging practices that Butler once cited as subversive to the patriarchal order, namely drag, on the few occasions when the theorization of performativity mentions the stage it is to oppose performativity to theatrical performance.7 Butler herself offers a dismissive justification for this exclusion. Writing that the stage of dramatic theater operates through a “modality of appearance” which delineates a clear playing area, a space for illusion and performance, she observes that the exterior to this space is consequently granted a more “real” status, thereby preserving a realm outside the performance inhabited by “real” and undisturbed, apparently unperformed subjects: “In the theatre, one can say, ‘this is just an act,’ and de-realize the act, make the acting into something quite distinct from what is real. … The various conventions which announce that ‘this is only a play’ allow strict lines to be drawn between the performance and life” (1990a, 278).8 No matter how subversive the performance within the playing area, it tacitly reinscribes foundational identities of the exterior in the persons of the performer under the character and the spectator outside of the play. A dramatic performance in which the performer freely and knowingly assumes a role therefore represents precisely what the performative is not, and emblematizes the theater's surreptitious reinforcement of an identity's claim to fixity rather than a revelation of identity's constitutive instability. To echo a Butlerian aphorism, the drag queen strutting her stuff on the stage is not nearly as troubling as the one sitting next to you on the bus.9

The staging prescribed in Aimé Césaire's A Tempest, namely the use of masks to signify racial identity, serves as a telling example of the performative's limited potential to inform or justify the staging strategies of a committed theater. Productions of Shakespeare's The Tempest have often dwelt on its colonial overtones, but in A Tempest Césaire, a Martiniquais who himself lived and still lives under (neo)-colonial rule, explicitly sets the action in terms of the struggle between a colonizing European master and the colonized indigenous slaves.10 Clearly adapting and not merely translating Shakespeare's text, Césaire adds to the list of dramatis personae a few brief but significant specifications of racial identity: Caliban is black, Ariel is mulatto, and both are Prospero's slaves. Indeed, the master/slave dynamic dominates the text, at the expense of the love story between Ferdinand and Miranda and the political intrigue among the Europeans that compete with it in Shakespeare's text. Césaire also adds an additional deity, the Yoruba trickster god Eshu, to those who bless the marriage of the young couple. In its representation of racial identity, the play further deviates from the Shakespearean text when it prescribes cross-race casting through the use of masks. In a brief prologue to the play, a Master of Ceremonies distributes these to the attendant cast in a seemingly arbitrary manner: “Help yourselves … You, Prospero? And why not? … You, Caliban? I don't see why not. …” (Césaire 1969b, 9). Césaire specifies that he wrote the play for a théâtre nègre, an all-black company; since Caliban, Ariel, and Eshu are the only characters of color, adherence to Césaire's indications would necessitate the cross-race casting of the white Europeans, that is to say, the majority of the roles.

The staging strategies of A Tempest promote the political views of its author. Unlike the biologically rooted racial identity celebrated his contemporaries, most notably in the poems of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Césaire's négritude separates racial identity from natural or biological attribution in order to signal its historicity, and consequently its mutability. His use of cross-race casting and masks in A Tempest evokes the figurative masks of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and underscores the contingency of the characters' racial identity. Caliban's angry final tirade explicitly links this staging practice to the colonial ideology of race:

Prospero, tu es un grand illusioniste: / le mensonge, ça te connaît. / Et tu m'as tellement menti, / menti sur le monde, menti sur moi-même, / que tu as fini par m'imposer / une image de moi-même: / Un sous-développé, comme tu dis / un sous-capable, / voilà comment tu m'as obligé à me voir, / et cette image, je la hais! Et elle est fausse!

(Césaire 1969b, 88)

[Prospero, you are a great illusionist: deception knows you well. And you have lied to me so much, lied about the world, about myself, that you finally imposed an image on me, an image of myself, an “underdeveloped” you say, an “under achiever,” that is how you have made me see myself, and I hate this image! It is false!]

The masks emblematize the repressive identity category into which Caliban has been interpellated, and in which he has misrecognized himself as an inferior. In his final prise de conscience, Caliban denounces this image's apparently natural and essential grounding—Prospero's meteorological machinations further betray the human mediation of all that is “natural”—to reveal, to himself, to the other characters, and to the spectators, the history of power relations that generated and perpetuated it to his detriment.

By clearly separating the character's identity from the gesture of its performance, Césaire's desired staging falls squarely in the tradition of Brecht's theater of alienation. Indeed, the use of masks would seem to exemplify the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation effect,” which distances the characters' perception of the world around them to reveal what they do not see about the social, economic, and political situation that shapes their identity and determines their life's course. In Césaire's case, the masks serve to reveal race as a historical regime of power relations, and to alienate the characters' assumption that the status quo of race relations on the island is somehow “natural.” For the spectator, this split vision discredits the claim to referentiality or “truth” of identities represented by the literal masks. It also betrays the figurative ideological “masks” of identity that Prospero propagates in the dehumanizing discourse he systematically directs at Caliban, revealing it as a rhetoric of power and oppression whose claim to “naturalness” is enforced only by the technological superiority he so jealously guards. The play of masks likewise implicates Gonzalo's no less dehumanizing idealization of the island and its “noble savages.”

The revelation of identity's instability through Brechtian alienation enacted in A Tempest would seem commensurate with a subversive performativity, and indeed, the performative shares many common tenets with a Brechtian theater. Both displace identity from an autonomous and fixed selfhood onto the gesture of its constitution, and both acknowledge and reveal the constraints that govern this gesture of performance. A crucial difference, however, distinguishes a Brechtian production from a subversive performativity. Brecht's plays frequently suggest an underlying truth about the events represented on the stage, and while his theater alienates the identity and actions of the characters for the spectators' critical assessment, the performers themselves often serve as agents of a truth, of a Marxist truth, about the represented people and events.11 To qualify as performative, a stage performance would need to take Brecht a step further, displacing not only the performed character but the performer as well to reveal both as the result of a performative gesture. In Butler's words, there would be no “doer behind the deed”; the doer would always be revealed as already the effect of the deed.

As an exemplary Brechtian alienation effect, Césaire's play of masks reveals the contingency of racial attributes, but fails ultimately to reveal the constitutive instability of racial identity itself. By writing his play for a théâtre nègre Césaire explicitly establishes a “doer behind the deed” in the person of the performer whose racial identity prefigures and does not participate in the obvious gesture of choice implied in the distribution of the masks in the prologue. If the Master of Ceremonies clearly calls each character into being, drawing attention to this gesture of interpellation (to use Althusser's terminology), the very visible and racially specific performers have themselves already been subjected to a tacit interpellating gesture that is not similarly revealed in the performance. Indeed, for the casting of roles across racial lines to discredit the characters' racial identity, it depends on the previous inscription of the racial boundaries it subsequently transgresses. The alienation of race enacted within the play of masks grants its exterior—the performer behind the mask—the more “real” status of the unperformed, and therefore operates through the “modality of appearance” of Butler's critique. One might argue that Césaire's prescribed staging lodges an oblique critique of all racial identity through the metaphor of these masks, but this critique will always be too late: the masks will already have exacted the spectator's recognition and acceptance of the same racial identities targeted for subversion.

The performative challenges theater to discredit the identities of both theatrical illusion—Butler's “modality of appearance”—and the spectator's “reality,” or in terms of Césaire's play, of both the mask and the performer. This has proven difficult to do, and even the most apparently subversive or liberatory performances of identity cannot escape an insidious reinforcement of sanctioned norms.12 However, the staging prescribed for the closing scene of A Tempest adds a final twist to the play of masks that potentially implicates the racial identities of both the performed character/mask and of the spectator's “reality” in a performative gesture.

Césaire ends his play with a final significant deviation from the Shakespearean text: Prospero chooses to remain on the island at the end of the play instead of returning to Europe with the other Italian nobles. The final scene therefore mirrors the opening, with Prospero the sole master of the island and its indigenous population. The dynamic, however, has changed, and it is a desperate Prospero who closes the play with a shrill tirade:

On jurerait que la jungle veut investir la grotte. Mais je me défendrai … Je ne
laisserai pas périr mon oeuvre …
Je défendrai la civilisation!
                    Il tire dans toutes les directions.
Ils en ont pour leur compte … Comme ça j'ai un bon moment à être tranquille
… Mais fait froid … C'est drôle, le climat a changé … Fait froid dans cette île
… Faudrait penser à faire du feu … Eh bien, Caliban, nous ne sommes que
deux sur cette île, plus que toi et moi. Toi et moi! Toi-Moi! Moi-Toi! mais
qu'est-ce qu'il fout?
On entend au loin parmi le bruit du ressac et des paillements d'oiseaux les
débris du chant de Caliban.

(Césaire 1969b, 92)

[One would swear that the jungle wants to infest the grotto. But I will defend myself … I will not let my life's work perish … (shouting) I will defend civilization! (He fires in all directions.) That should take care of them. … This way I'll have some peace for a while … but it's cold … it's funny, the climate has changed … cold on this island … should think about making a fire … well, Caliban, there's just two of us on this island, just you and me. You and me. You-me. Me-you. What the hell is he doing? (Screaming) Caliban! (In the distance is heard, among the sound of the surf and the cheeping birds, the remains of Caliban's song.]

The text indicates that Prospero's language in this final scene becomes “impoverished and stereotyped.” If Prospero continues to proclaim his role as the defender of civilization it is only by repeating an exhausted racist and racializing discourse. Earlier in this act, Caliban referred to Prospero as a vieil intoxiqué, an “old addict,” and predicted that Prospero would be too “hooked” on his position as the master to ever return to Europe. The play leaves the spectator with the image of Prospero hopelessly strung out on his whiteness, while his speech degenerates into the babble of a confused pronominal opposition that, in the absence of one of the parties, no longer makes sense. Prospero's final cry represents a failed attempt to interpellate Caliban into the identity categories established in the prologue, to call him into existence as a savage, as a slave, and as a black man. The lack of response throws the colonial dialectic, and Prospero's identity as the white, civilized master, into crisis.13

Significantly, although Caliban effectively refuses to wear the mask of identity that the play so self-consciously imposed upon him in the prologue, the play denies the audience the spectacle of this liberating gesture. In contrast to the very visible imposition of the masks onto already racialized bodies in the prologue, the symmetrical unmasking of the end takes place invisibly in the wings. The body under the mask of race is very deliberately not identified with that of the performer who put on the mask in the prologue. Caliban's renouncement of racial identity is therefore double: he refuses to play the racialized role both of the character who is no longer willing to be Prospero's “savage” slave, and also of the racially specific black performer who assumed this role in the prologue. The play leaves the spectator no image of the liberated “unmasked” performer/subject who transcends or otherwise escapes from a racializing and racist discursive regime. As spectators, we cannot see the new Caliban, nor even understand his language, the language taught to him by Prospero, as it decomposes into débris. At the play's end the spectator is stuck with the familiar racial identities of the black performer wearing the white mask of Prospero, the emblem of a tired white/black racial binary. Caliban “kicks the habit”; Prospero does not, nor ultimately do the spectators for whom the deracialized subject remains an unimagined, unrealized dream.

Césaire's mise-en-scène marks an instance where dramatic performance escapes the insidious “modality of appearance” that Butler decried in her assessment of theater's subversive potential. In its final scene, A Tempest discredits racial categories without furnishing a visible “doer behind the deed,” a “true” race under the mask of race, a performer whose identity is not implicated in the performance itself. Although the opening of the play might appear to sanction the performers' identities before or under the masks as more “real,” the invisible unmasking of the end suggests that the racial identity of the performer, like that of the character, is also constituted in performance. Césaire's language of addiction and this addiction's enactment in the final scene very aptly characterize the constrained iteration of the performative: the spectators might wish to escape the categories of race that have caused so much strife and suffering, but they need racial identities in order to make the world intelligible. They are addicted to them, and like Prospero, are condemned to iterate them unto exhaustion even when their instability has been revealed and their truthful status questioned.

A Tempest nevertheless does not represent an exemplary revelation of identity's performativity. Butler writes that the goal of a strategic invocation of the performative would be “to avow a set of constraints on the past and the future that mark at once the limits of agency and its most enabling conditions” (1993, 228). Césaire's tactic does indeed avow the constraints that compel the perpetuation of worn-out identities, and depicts their continued iteration as a pathetic and hopeless addiction. A Tempest, however, enacts none of the reappropriations or redeployments of the “questionable terms of identity that represent the performative's constructive, empowering side.” Caliban's disappearance does not reaffirm, reinscribe, reappropriate or otherwise repeat his identity as a black or as a slave, and in his absence, the play does not “provisionally … institute identity and at the same time open the category as a site of permanent political contest” (Butler 1993, 222).

Echoing the conventional reading of this play, one might respond that although A Tempest does not represent the liberated Caliban, it evokes a virtual subject, outside of the familiar and oppressive categories of race, and challenges the spectator to imagine what such a subject might be like. In this respect, Césaire's play would resemble Brecht's epic theater, which often poses a dilemma and, without actually furnishing a resolution, nonetheless leads the spectators to conclude that the ideals of a socialist state, if enacted would solve the problems that plague the lives of the characters: the plights of Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children and of Shen-Tê in The Good Person of Szechwan are two well-known examples of this. The freed Caliban would also situate Césaire's text in the French intellectual milieu of its time insofar as it evokes an existentialist theater: Caliban resembles Sartre's dramatic heroes when, in an epiphanic moment, he rejects the “mask of a false consciousness.” Like the Orestes of The Flies, Caliban makes a conscious decision not to comply with the societal constraints, and though invisible, in the end he both thinks and ultimately acts independently of the epistemological regime that oppresses him. Unlike Brecht, however, there is no previously articulated political solution (a socialist state) waiting in the wings of A Tempest, and in contrast to Sartre, Césaire denies the spectators a visible hero with whom they can identify: the same gesture that frees Caliban to act in the world subtracts him from it. If the final scene posits a liberated subject in the not yet intelligible identity of the deracialized subject formerly known as Caliban, this “doer behind the deed” and the “real” it inhabits remain the unrepresentable dream of a post-racial utopia, and nothing guarantees or even suggests that this dream will ever be realized. Prospero's exhausted and discredited reality persists in the end, both on the stage and off.

The virtual staging prescribed in A Tempest demonstrates the tenuous common ground shared by a dramatic or theatrical performance and the performative. By representing the addictive compulsion to repeat the discredited categories of race, and by making this constraint palpable to the spectators, the final scene of Césaire's play marks an instance where theatrical performance does not represent the reactionary art form to which Butler opposes a subversive performativity. However, one might ask if the imperfect revelation of identity's performativity in this play does not in fact offer a telling illustration of the limits of the performative itself. A Tempest tells us that we are stuck with—stuck on—categories of race. As with many addictions, recognizing the problem is an important step, certainly one worth taking; solving it, however, is quite a different story. If Césaire's play generates a heightened awareness that enables the spectator to manage provisionally a dependence on racial identity, it ultimately promises no cure. Nor does the performative, which concedes that the performance of identity is necessarily a reiteration along sanctioned and familiar lines. Césaire's staging and language of addiction ultimately fail to realize a radically subversive performativity, and through this failure emblematize the ambivalence of the agency the performative warrants, on stage or off.


  1. There are now many of these. The ones to which this article will refer include Case (1995), and Reinelt (1994). See also Parker and Sedgwick (1995).

  2. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993) explicitly responds to facile and perhaps overzealous misinterpretations of the agency that the discussion in Gender Trouble appears to suggest, and effectively recants the oft-cited passages of Gender Trouble which suggest that drag performance radically subverts gender categories. See Butler (1993), Introduction x.

  3. Butler relies heavily on a psychoanalytic paradigm that privileges sexuality and gender roles in identity formation. She also acknowledges, however, the complex intersection of race and other identity categories with her theorization of gender.

  4. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions—and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them. … The historical possibilities materialized through various corporeal styles are nothing other than those punitively regulated cultural fictions alternately embodied and deflected under duress (Butler 1990a, 140).

  5. On the subject of gender specifically, Butler writes:

    Femininity is thus not the product of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity is indissociable from relations of discipline, regulation, punishment. Indeed, there is no “one” who takes on a gender norm. On the contrary, this citation of the norm is necessary to qualify as a “one,” to become viable as a “one,” where subject-formation is dependent on the prior operation of legitimating gender norms. (Butler 1993, 232)

  6. The performative's deconstructive underpinnings become evident in this collapse of the loyal/disloyal binary into a constitutive indeterminacy, and Butler's “double movement” recalls Derrida's reading of Plato's pharmakon. Some critics have grounded critiques of the performative by locating deconstruction at the root of its refusal of a politically viable subject/agent. Case (1995) worries about the “textualization” of the performative and the concomitant evacuation of the lesbian as bodily practice in Butler's “critical queer,” and Bersani (1995) lodges his critique on similar grounds. Reinelt (1994) also cites Butler's deconstructive tendencies when she opposes performativity to a feminist project. See also Scheie (1997).

  7. For further discussion of Butler's ambivalence towards drag, see Scheie (1994).

  8. Throughout this early article, Butler defines performative acts against the “the atrical” and “dramatic” acts of existentialist (Sartre and de Beauvoir) and phenomenological (Merleau-Ponty) thought.

  9. Though Bodies that Matter only touches on questions of theater, both its opening and closing discussions insist on the distinction between performativity and performance: “Performativity is … is not primarily theatrical; indeed, its apparent theatricality is produced tot he extent that its historicity remains dissimulated. …” (Butler 1993, 12):

    performance as bounded “act” is distinguished from performativity insofar as the latter consists in a reiteration of norms which precede, constrain and exceed that performer and in that sense cannot be taken as the fabrication of the performer's “will” or “choice”; further, what is “performed” works to conceal, if not to disavow, what remains opaque, unconscious, unperformable. The reduction of performativity to performance would be a mistake.

    (Butler 1993, 234)

  10. Césaire had initially intended only to translate The Tempest. He acknowledges the liberties he took with Shakespeare's text: “Le travail terminé, je me suis rendu compte qu'il ne restait plus grand-chose de Shakespeare” (Césaire 1969a, 31). [When the work was done, I realized there was not much Shakespeare left.]

  11. True realism has to do more than just make reality recognizable in the theatre One has to be able to see through it too. One has to be able to see the laws and decide how the processes develop” (Brecht 1965, 27, my emphasis). This submission to a deeper, truer “Law” is what led Roland Barthes, in his post-structuralist phase, to distance himself from Brecht after many years of being his staunch apologist in the face of harsh French criticism. See Barthes (1982, 86-93).

  12. This becomes particularly evident in Butler's discussion of Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris Is Burning, which illustrates how an insidious reinscription of the oppressive order inheres in even the most apparently liberatory performance of identity. See Butler (1993, ch. 4). Peggy Phelan's (1993) critique of “visibility” goes further, suggesting that recognizable, visible categories of identity are hopelessly tainted with the oppressive symbolic order that enables their representation, and that the invisible and the unrepresented—the “unmarked”—represents a more promising site for subversion.

  13. Césaire acknowledges the Hegelian foundation of his play: “[Caliban] est un héros positif exactement comme chez Hegel: c'est l'esclave qui est le plus important, car c'est lui qui fait l'histoire” (Mbom 1979, 91). [Caliban is a positive hero just like in Hegel: it's the slave who is the most important, because it is he who makes history.]

The author thanks Craig Sellers for his invaluable assistance in preparing this manuscript.

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———. 1990b. Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. In Performing feminisms: Feminist critical theory and theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Original edition, Theatre Journal 40, 1988: 519-31.

———. 1993. Bodies that matter. New York: Routledge.

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———. 1969b. Une tempête. Paris: Seuil.

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Mbom, Clément. 1979. Le théâtre d'Aimé Césaire. Paris: Fernand Nathan.

Parker, Andrew, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ed. 1995. Performativity and performance. New York: Routledge.

Phelan, Peggy. 1993. Unmarked: The politics of performance. New York: Routledge.

Reinelt, Janelle. 1994. Staging the invisible: The crisis of visibility in theatrical representation. Text and Performance Quarterly 14: 97-107.

Scheie, Timothy. 1994. Body trouble: Corporeal ‘Presence’ and performative identity in Cixous's and Mnouchkine's L'Indiade ou l'Inde de leurs rêves. Theatre Journal 46: 31-34.

———. 1997. Questionable terms: Shylock, Céline's L'Eglise, and the performative. Text and Performance Quarterly 17: 153-169.

Robert Eric Livingston (essay date 1995)

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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 rejected the French colonial policy of cultural assimilation, and espoused a renewal of African culture as a vehicle for black consciousness. The movement achieved postwar prominence with the publication of Leopold Sedar Senghor's Anthology of New Negro and Malagasy Poetry in 1948, which featured extended excerpts from Césaire's great autobiographical poem Return to My Native Land as well as an influential introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre (Mudimbe: 83-7). Preoccupied during the 1950s with the intellectual foundations of the black independence movement, Césaire turned, in the 1960s, to the theatre as a medium for advancing the political project of negritude. Working in close collaboration with the French director Jean-Marie Serreau, Césaire produced a set of dramas that together comprise a triptych of decolonization in the African world. Given the combative and dialectical energies of negritude itself, the turn towards dramatic form is hardly surprising: as early as 1946, a collection of Césaire's poetry, Les Armes Miraculeuses, culminated with a “lyrical oratorio,” “And the dogs fell silent” (in Césaire 1990: 3-74). Where the plays of the 1960s do mark a departure, however, is in their efforts to make the visionary poetics of negritude more widely accessible. Developed explicitly for theatrical realization, Césaire's plays—The Tragedy of King Christophe (1964); A Season in the Congo (1966); and the adaptation of Shakespeare entitled A Tempest (1969)—seek to integrate the fierce lyric energies of negritude poetry with forms of popular festivity and cultural expression.

Given Césaire's status as a spokesman for negritude, his plays have received a fair amount of critical attention, including translation into English. Most critics, however, have seen the plays as direct extensions of Césaire's poetic vision, and have tended to ignore both the significance of dramatic form and the context of performance. Such an approach, while sensitive to the verbal density of the plays, risks homogenizing their political texture and fails to grasp the extent to which the plays reflect on the historicity of negritude. By exposing the gap between lyric vision and popular consciousness, that is, Césaire's plays register the limits of canonizing conceptions of African culture and maintain a critical awareness of the complexities of black consciousness.

Explaining his decision to explore the possibilities of theatrical performance, Césaire evoked historical, political and technical imperatives. “Politics,” he declared to an audience of French students in 1967, “is the modern form of destiny; today, history is lived politics. Theatre should evoke the invention of the future. It is, especially in Africa, an essential means of communication. It must, accordingly, be directly comprehensible by the people.” Inscribing his work in what he termed “an optic of development,” Césaire envisioned theatrical performance as a means of combating cultural underdevelopment and facilitating the political mobilization of the newly enfranchised black nations. Drawing on previously suppressed indigenous forms and cultural traditions, articulating popular needs and aspirations, Césairean theatre was imagined as both critical and constructive, a contribution to the emergence of the culture of decolonization (Laville: 239-40).

Césaire's efforts to rearticulate the significance of negritude in the wake of decolonization owed a great deal to the theatrical vision of Jean-Marie Serreau. A follower of Jacques Copeau and Charles Dullin, Serreau was trained as an architect, and brought to his work an abiding concern for the construction—literal and figurative—of dramatic space. Early work with a provincial touring company, Jeune-France, left him fascinated with the potential of a mobile repertory company, minimally encumbered with fixed sets and capable of making theatrical activity more widely available. These two principles—construction and mobility—became hallmarks of Serreau's approach. After World War II, he emerged as one of the few directors capable of bridging the growing divide between the absurdist and existentialist “New Theatre” and the politically committed advocates of a Brecht-inspired “popular” theatre; collaborating with Roger Blin on En Attendant Godot, as well as works by Ionesco, Adamov and Genet, he also helped spearhead the Brecht revival with signature productions of The Exception and the Rule (1947) and A Man's a Man (1954) (Bradby: 144) Restaged at regular intervals throughout Serreau's career, the latter play, with its reconstruction of the worker Galy Gay, served as a touchstone for Serreau's treatment of dramatic character (Auclaire-Tamaroff: 87).

A resistance to both Brechtian and absurdist orthodoxies, however, coupled with the outbreak of the Algerian War, led Serreau away from the institutional centers of French theatre and towards its decolonizing margins. Starting in 1958, he began a collaboration with the Algerian poet Kateb Yacine. Their work on Le Cadavre encerclé proved provocative enough to force the production to move to Brussels (returning to Paris only in 1964); La Femme sauvage (1963) and Les Ancêtres redoublent de ferocité (1967) completed an epic trilogy about the Algerian Revolution. His encounter with Césaire, following a reading of King Christophe, developed into a parallel trilogy on the subject of negritude. Maintaining his focus on decolonization throughout the 1960s, Serreau staged major works by the Haitian René Depestre (Arc-en-ciel pour un occident chretien, 1967), Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro (1968), and, from the Ivory Coast, Bernard Dadié's Beatrice du Congo (1971), as well as Edward Albee's Death of Bessie Smith (1970). To produce these works, Serreau assembled a multinational company, working extensively with actors from throughout North Africa and black Africa.1

For Serreau, the turn towards an emergent Third World was neither a simple political decision nor a quest for exotic themes and colorful performance styles. Rather, it was prompted by a developing conception of the theatre as a space for collective self-definition and transformation. Seeing decolonization as a historical challenge to Western culture, Serreau looked to the poets and playwrights of the Third World for the sense of “creative contestation” necessary to a culturally vital theatre. “Until now,” he argued,

humanism has been confused with an image of the West. The period we live in renders this assimilation obsolete, and suddenly confronts our civilization and its commonplaces with other civilizations hitherto confined to the ghettos of history. It is the great strength of these poets, and our good fortune, that, while remaining other, they inhabit and enrich our language and our culture, compelling our habits of thought to transform themselves and to recover forgotten sources.

(Laville: 240-1)

In practice, Serreau's notions of challenge, contestation and renewal translated into extending the expressive range of French theatre and opening dramatic space to the process of political transformation. Moving out of the little theatres of the Parisian Left Bank, Serreau sought an open or “exploded” scenic space, overtly constructed rather than self-enclosed, an environment for registering rhythmic movement rather than capturing a static scene. For Serreau, the theatrical experience was more movable feast than bounded representation, an occasion for spectacle more than a dutiful institution of culture. Incorporating music, song, dance, choral movement, political satire and audiovisual technology, Serreau crossed Brecht with McLuhan to envision a mobile theatre for the global village. “The social festival which is the theatre,” he wrote, “should assemble all the various modes of expression: music, cries, dancing, each one expressing what the others can't express. This continual alternation is what constitutes the spectacle” (Laville: 261).2

The idea of “continual alternation” is key here. Putting Brecht's concept of interrupted action into overdrive, the Serreauvian spectacle is best grasped through its rhythmic architecture, as a set of verbal and visual movements that outline a space of transformation.3 Building on the premises of A Man's a Man, character becomes construction; development takes place through the recurrent disintegration and rearticulation of the dramatic scene. Underlining the process of construction, mobile scenery facilitates the rapid multiplication of viewpoints. Alternating between fixed and fluid moments, between individual and crowd scenes, between dialogue and monologue, spoken and sung, Serreau staged the drama of decolonization as a dialectic of cultural challenge and response. Most importantly, by imagining a portable rather than permanent theatre, Serreau sought to confront the emergence of new social locations, and to build the need for rearticulation into the process of dramatic construction itself. In what Césaire termed the “theatre of development,” mounting the spectacle would itself become a moment of cultural negotiation. This ideal of decolonizing cultural exchange, however, despite important interventions in Senegal, Quebec and Tunisia, remained largely unrealized.


First produced at the Salzburg Festival in 1964, later reprised in Dakar and Montreal after its Parisian run, The Tragedy of King Christophe constitutes Césaire and Serreau's response to the first wave of decolonization. A sequel to Césaire's lengthy biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the play draws on the history of post-revolutionary Haiti to dramatize the challenges facing newly independent states. The urgency of cultural renewal, the dangers of rivalry and factionalism, the tensions between elites and masses, the meddling of foreign powers: these are presented, in King Christophe, as challenges to the visionary aspirations of independence and as pitfalls for political leadership. Casting its drama explicitly in tragic—that is, canonical—terms, the play frames decolonization as a question of social construction, the difficult elaboration of a new social order. As tragic hero, its chief protagonist functions at once as exemplary subject and political object-lesson.

At the center of the drama is Henri Christophe: slave, cook, general, king, and tyrant, as the production's publicity poster put it (Auclaire-Tamaroff: 111). Situating its drama in the conflict between Haiti's urban mulattos and the black peasantry, the play describes Christophe's efforts to realize an emancipatory vision by founding a genuinely independent black state. Driven by a desire to overcome the legacy of slavery, he transforms himself from popular tribune into autocratic ruler, increasingly isolated from the people whose hopes he embodies. Accompanied by a Fool-figure, Hugonin, who finally reveals himself as the voodoo spirit-master, Baron Samedi, Christophe remains throughout an uncompromising spokesman for negritude, justifying his actions by an appeal to the historic destiny of the black race.

According to Césaire, The Tragedy of King Christophe is meant to function on three distinct levels: political, existential and metaphysical (Auclaire-Tamaroff: 124).4 The first involves the conflict between different personalities, groups and political ideals: Christophe vs. the mulatto leader Petion, blacks vs. mulattos, democracy vs. tyranny. These conflicts are essentially the subject of the play's individual scenes. At a second level, the play is unified by the overarching destiny of Christophe himself, and his transformation from visionary populist leader into isolated existential hero. Finally, at a third level, the tragic action is conceptualized in the terms of an African metaphysics, in which the play provides a meditation on the nature of power. Christophe, Césaire explains, represents Shango, the god of force and violent authority. But force

is not the sole aspect of reality. Power tends to reify the world into immobility. That is why life, which is change, needs the intervention of humor, [which] functions by taking its distance from things, thus assuring passage, the mobility which is indispensable to life and which gives things their fluidity. That is what the character of Hugonin aims at in the play. Just as Christophe is Shango, Hugonin is Eshu, the cunning god of the Yoruba.

(Auclaire-Tamaroff: 124)

From this perspective, the play's protagonist is not Christophe, towards whom the audience must necessarily be ambivalent, but the couple Shango-Eshu, the tyrant and the trickster together.5 It is their uneasy conjunction and ultimate dissociation that provides the materials both for the tragedy and its transcendence.

To dramatize this complex cultural script, the play sets up a number of simultaneous theatrical rhythms. In a trajectory that goes from an opening scene of cock-fighting to Christophe's funeral service, there is a constant alternation between comic and tragic moments, a dialectic of parody and poetry. Thus, in an early scene, Christophe's first act as king is to assemble a court, and to receive, from the “International Technical Aid Organization,” a master of ceremonies who will provide lessons in proper deportment. The satirical dig at Western aid programs is taken up in a larger carnivalesque movement, as the master of ceremonies proceeds to call out the names of Christophe's indigenous aristocracy: “His Grace the Duke of Marmalade / His Grace the Duke of Candytown / His Lordship the Count of Stinkhole” (Césaire 1964: 23). The broad comedy (compounded by translation) here conceals a political barb, for most of the names are real. The moment of humiliating laughter is then transformed into an occasion of creative defiance and self-assertion. In the first of a series of great lyrical interventions, Christophe situates his founding act in the history of slavery and decolonization: “With names of glory I will cover your slave names / With names of pride our names of infamy / With names of redemption our orphans' names / Names of rebirth, gentlemen / Playthings, rattles, no doubt / But thunder, too” (25-6). Fiery and inspiring, this poetic vision goes, as it were, over the heads of Christophe's compatriots and attests to his overweening power.

First played by the Senegalese actor Douta Sek, the towering figure of King Christophe dominates most of the action, and realizing Christophe's ambitions supplies the play with its central and most powerful theatrical image, the construction of an immense citadel on the cliffs of Cap Haitien, as a monumental symbol of defiant liberty. “This people has to want,” Christophe proclaims as he formulates this titanic goal,

to gain, to achieve something. Against fate, against history, against nature. That's it. Extravagant venture of our bare hands! Insane challenge of our wounded hands! On this mountain a solid cornerstone, a firm foundation. Assault on heaven or sun's resting place, I do not know—fresh troops charging in the morning. … No, not a palace. Not a fortress to guard my property. No, the citadel, the freedom of a whole people. Built by the whole people, men and women, young and old, and for the whole people. … This people, forced to its knees, needed a monument to make it stand up. There it is. Risen! A watchtower!


Conjuring his vision out of sheer determination and rhetorical power, Christophe is at once a prophet of negritude and a nascent tyrant; the citadel both bodies forth the desire for liberation and becomes the site of its petrification. Built by conscripting the entire population—“labors suggesting the building of the Pyramids”(67)—the construction project presides over the second half of the play, and becomes the site of Christophe's ultimate isolation and death.6

If the citadel supplies a scenic emblem for the demands of nation-building, its performative equivalent is the organization of popular, festive elements into more hierarchical forms. Interludes of song and dance that, in early scenes, interrupt the action to signify popular spontaneity, gradually give way to choral and ceremonial movements: forced labor, a mass wedding, a climactic celebration of the Feast of the Assumption. An obsession with etiquette marks the stages of Christophe's growing tyranny, and his rage for order leads him to ever-harsher measures of social organization and political retribution. But as Christophe's isolation grows, so does his visionary exaltation. Lyric power thus becomes a sign of distance and estrangement, its grandeur founded on repression and the will to power. This movement culminates in the great hymn that precedes Christophe's death, in which he identifies his body with the beating heart of Africa: “Congo, I've often watched / the impetuous hummingbird in the datura blossom / and wondered how so frail a body can hold / that hammering heart without bursting / Africa, rouse my blood with your big horn / Make it open like a giant bird” (89).

Despite the complexities of its theatrical rhythms, however, the play ultimately seeks to harmonize the conflicts it dramatizes into a moment of tragic reconciliation. Thus, the final scene makes Christophe's funeral the occasion of a choral song, in which the strands of the hero's life are woven together. According to Césaire, “Madame Christophe buries Christophe, Vastey [Christophe's secretary] buries the King, and the voodoo priestess, the ‘mambo’ who has accompanied Christophe all along, buries Christophe [as] the God Shango who will return to haunt the world mounted on battering rams of thunder” (Auclaire-Tamaroff: 124). Each of these attendant characters is given an extended song elaborating the dead hero's significant virtues. The funeral literally figures a moment of harmony: Christophe's death becomes the sacrifice necessary to the founding of a new social order. The closure of the play thus envisions the transcendence of social conflict, and the anticipation of independence as a collective aspiration. Christophe's destiny is to become the tragic victim of his own uncompromising social vision.


The Tragedy of King Christophe inscribes decolonization within the horizon of political independence. The hero embodies the aspiration towards an unconditioned freedom, and his death transforms his project into a collective social ideal. In Césaire and Serreau's next collaboration, A Season in the Congo, the relation between political independence and decolonization is far more problematic. Where King Christophe aspires to the canonical closure of tragedy, with politics subsumed by history, A Season in the Congo takes its subject from the immediate and still controversial past, events given renewed currency by the Congolese civil war of 1964-5.7 Initially written in 1966, staged in Venice the following year, revised with a substantially new ending in 1973, A Season constitutes itself as a political intervention, an effort to resist dominant representations of decolonization.8 As a result, the status of political independence itself is treated far more ironically, becoming the site of uncontainable conflict and the occasion of manipulation and intrigue. If King Christophe could plot the end of colonialism in a narrative of liberation, that is, A Season in the Congo finds decolonization enmeshed with the emergent structures of neo-colonialism.

The dramatic elements of A Season are, in significant ways, recognizable extensions of the earlier play. Once again, the center is occupied by a dynamic incarnation of negritude, whose lyric vision comes into conflict with political realities. Its protagonist is Patrice Lumumba, whose meteoric rise propelled the push for Congolese independence from Belgium in 1959-60, and whose six-month tenure as Prime Minister witnessed the outbreak of civil war, the declaration of martial law, intervention by the United Nations, and a coup d'état by Joseph Mobutu who, more than thirty years later, remains at the head of the Zairean state. Murdered by his political opponents, aided if not instigated by the United States, Lumumba became a conspicuous victim of Cold War politics and a martyr in the cause of pan-African unity; subsequent efforts by the Mobutu regime to rehabilitate Lumumba, in a cynically transparent bid for legitimacy, testify to his abiding popularity and prestige.9

A Season in the Congo follows the broad outlines of Lumumba's career, incorporating historical documents, political songs, and adaptations of Lumumba's own speeches and poetry in order to render the complexity of the struggle for Congolese independence. Despite this attention to the individual leader, however, the object is not “The Tragedy of Patrice Lumumba,” but, as Césaire insisted, “epic theatre, more concerned with collective than individual destiny” (Harris: 126-7). The skeptical, cautionary role that King Christophe had assigned to Hugonin is here held by a “joueur de sanza,” an epic narrator who moves freely in and out of the action and provides a bridging commentary, often in hermetic, proverbial form. The increased importance of this figure is underscored by its being created for the powerful Senegalese actor, Douta Sek, who had previously played the role of Christophe.

If the earlier play maintained an admiring, albeit ambivalent, stance towards its heroic protagonist, A Season in the Congo is markedly more resistant to the visionary style of Lumumba, and guards itself against overtly hagiographic tendencies. From the first scene, in which Lumumba appears as a “bonimenteur,” a fast-talking salesman for “Polar Beer,” he is associated with various forms of intoxication—rhetorical, political and sexual, and his very fluency foreshadows both his popular charisma and his mercurial leadership.10 Rather than celebrating Lumumba's politics, Césaire plays off his uncompromising defiance of colonial authority against the more plebian and oblique comments of the sanza player. Lyric exaltation, most intensely rendered at the moment of the formal transfer of power, in which Lumumba interrupts the ceremony to deliver a blistering denunciation of Belgian rule and a soaring evocation of the Congolese spirit (Césaire 1966: 19-20), is pitted against both “epic” irony and popular song. The scene of decolonization is thus dialectically complicated, with discursive styles indicating differing, if related, political positions.

Indeed, both formally and politically, A Season is a far more complex drama than King Christophe, and registers a more elaborate rupture with the conventions of realist theatre. Freely intermingling historical, satirical and allegorical characters, shifting rapidly between levels of theatrical action, A Season in the Congo is at times closer to mass spectacle than to King Christophe's self-contained tragedy. Although punctuated—and arguably flawed—by a number of expository and oratorical scenes (Laville: 258; Bradby: 149), the accelerated and intensified action aims at the fragmentation rather than the consolidation of theatrical space. With its revisionary allusion to Rimbaud's A Season in Hell, the play's governing trope reads the politics of Congolese independence as surrealist prose-poem, a historical literalization of what, in Rimbaud, remains an imaginary scene. The Congo becomes the site of a “systematic derangement of the senses,” to cite Rimbaud's slogan. “We'll have everything,” Lumumba declares upon taking power,

and right away: mutiny, sabotage, threats, slander, blackmail, and treason. You look surprised. That's what power means: betrayal, maybe death. Death, no question. That's the Congo. See: the Congo is a place where things go fast. A seed in the ground today, tomorrow a bush, no, tomorrow a forest.

(Césaire 1966: 28, translation modified)

Accordingly, interruption becomes the very motor of dramatic construction, with Lumumba increasingly at the mercy of the very forces he sets in motion.

Fragmented by the hallucinatory pacing of the drama, theatrical space in A Season acquires its dense texture through the accumulation of political interventions. “Above” the action, a chorus of Belgian bankers and the “Ambassador of the Great West” exert interpretive pressure and surreptitious influence; representatives of the United Nations, informed by the fervent religiosity of Dag Hammarskjöld, claim a position of strict political neutrality; from “below,” masses of soldiers, religious devotees and diverse ethnic groups are repeatedly mobilized and maintain a persistent presence. Lumumba himself is surrounded by a shifting cast of allies and antagonists, whose political loyalties remain disturbingly unstable. Meanwhile, music, radio broadcasts and a variety of projected images establish a disconcerting audiovisual environment, in which the vulnerability of the unamplified voice is increasingly exposed.11 Rather than moving, as King Christophe does, towards a tragic mastery of fate, A Season in the Congo constructs an open-ended historical texture, a rhetorical space recurrently subjected to deconstruction.

Within this texture, Lumumba's death, although heavily foreshadowed and dramatically unavoidable, cannot carry the weight of full closure. With its polemical indictment of existing political figures, the political force of Césaire's play requires that the death remain a contingent scandal rather than a tragic necessity. Consequently, the figure of Lumumba becomes increasingly problematic towards the end of the play. Although the logic of mass spectacle would tend to deny the significance of individuals—saying, with Césaire, that “after Lumumba, the season is over, history continues, another season begins” (Laville: 249)—Lumumba's status as political icon and repository of pan-African utopian hope cannot be so easily surrendered. As the moment of his death approaches, therefore, the play attempts to outline the elements of a secular martyrdom; lines like “My magic is an invulnerable idea. As invincible as a people's hope” (99) and “I'm dying my life, and that's good enough for me” (99) endow the mercurial politician with a perhaps overly schematic ethical significance.12 In these moments, the thematic integrity of the drama is insistently reasserted against its headlong and destructive pacing.

The scenes following the death of Lumumba are more successful at preserving the open texture of the drama. Indeed, the ending itself was subjected to a number of revisions to take account of changes in the politics of the Congo. In the earliest version, in an ironic turn on the choral scene that closed King Christophe, speeches by Hammarskjöld, a Belgian banker, Lumumba's widow Pauline, and the sanza player offered contrasting interpretations of the leader's life and death, with the sanza player's invocation of the god Nzambi (“Hey you, the great god Nzambi / What a big fool you are / You eat our ribs, you eat our asses” (100)) left as the last word. Rather than sublimating conflict in harmony, the ending underscored diverging, even conflicting, perspectives on resolution (Laville: 293-4).

In the play's first production, the interpretive conflict was enhanced by including addresses by characters identified as Lumumba's murderers: the Ambassador of the Great West, and the politicians Tzumbi, Kala and Mokutu. More important, however, was the addition of an epilogue dated July 1966, dramatizing an Independence Day celebration in Kinshasa in which Mokutu proclaims Lumumba's martyrdom (“Patrice, martyr, athlete, hero—I turn to you for strength to carry on my task”) and dedicates a public statue to the man he had killed (“a statue erected at the gate of what was formerly Leopoldville / [will] signify to the world / that the piety of a nation will never cease / to make reparation for our crime / the crime of which we are all guilty / Congolese, let this day be the beginning / Of a new season for the Congo” (103).13 Lest this perspective on the vicissitudes of decolonization appear too cynical, the play again concludes with a song by the sanza player, “The ballad of ambiguous times,” not so much endorsing as contextualizing, with properly Brechtian irony, the inevitable revisions of the political line (“Sorghum grows / Bird rises from the ground / Why refuse man / The right to change? / A man is hungry / Do you deny him food? / Why say no to a country / Thirsting for hope?” (104; translation modified)).

A version published in 1973, however, eliminates the vestiges of historical ambiguity. With the crowd in a frenzy over Mokutu's speech (“Glory to Lumumba / Immortal glory / Down with neo-colonialism”), the president turns to one of his ministers: “Let's go. Clean it up. And quick. Let the nitwits know our powder's dry, and the show's over!” Machine-gun fire sweeps the square, and the stage is left littered with corpses, among them the sanza player (Houyoux: 345-6). Bleak, even despairing in its reading of the end of Lumumba's moment, this ending has the merit of political clarity, and perhaps the dramatic advantage of representing—rather than enacting—an arbitrary authority. Closure then becomes an event to be witnessed rather than a stance of demanding ambivalence.


Thanks to its canonical source, A Tempest remains Césaire's best-known play, and the one most amenable to a literary pedagogy (McNee; Smith). Indeed, recent New Historicist scholarship has stressed the colonial thematics of the Shakespearean text itself to the point of muting the audacity of Césaire and Serreau's 1969 “adaptation for a black theatre”: thus is iconoclasm incorporated into a revisionary orthodoxy.14 The anti-canonical move signalled by the title of A Tempest, however—interpretive modesty or sly subaltern irony?—seems already to inscribe an awareness of its own contingency. Although containing moments of radical appropriation, in which the canonical authority of Shakespeare is emphatically disrupted, the thrust of A Tempest is to complicate assertions of cultural autonomy by subjecting self-determination to the dialectic of master and slave.

Conceived initially for performance in Tunisia in 1969, A Tempest was given contemporary relevance by being cast as an allegory of American politics. According to Césaire,

Demystified, the play [is] essentially about the master-slave relation, a relation that is still alive and which, in my opinion, explains a good deal of contemporary history: in particular, colonial history, the history of the United States. Wherever there are multiracial societies, the same drama can be found, I think.

The dominated can adopt several attitudes. One is Caliban's revolt. Another is Ariel's, whose path is more complicated—but is not necessarily one of submission, that would be too simple. … If you want me to specify … I'd say that there is Malcolm X's attitude, and then there is Martin Luther King's.

(Auclaire-Tamaroff: 132)

Such topical political reference-points (“Uhuru!” chants Caliban, and “Freedom Now!”) were then integrated into a mythically stylized American landscape. As Serreau put it,

We thought that the best visual climate to underscore [Césaire's reading] would be the western. The Tempest as a story of gangsters who are ready to kill instantly, and who finally agree to marry their son and daughter because Caliban is starting to stir. … So the costumes are western, symbolizing an epoch when America was peopled by pioneers come from the old world and obliged to co-exist with slaves and Indians.

(Auclaire-Tamaroff: 128-32)

In addition, Serreau used the sails of the first scene's foundering ship as screens on which to project a range of historical and contemporary images. Rather than an integrated, naturalized representation of Shakespeare's Tempest, that is, Césaire and Serreau opted for a condensed—three acts in place of five—and evocative presentation, in which successive layers of colonial history are forced to the surface.

As a result, a cursory reading of the text risks overstating the formal coherence of A Tempest and underestimating its deconstructive force. Nevertheless, a number of textual revisions seem especially noteworthy.15 First, in the list of characters, Prospero's two servants are identified by their race: Ariel is “ethnically a mulatto,” while Caliban is specified as “a black slave.” Their different relations to Prospero, as well as their visions of liberation, are thus referred to racial distinction. At the beginning of the second Act, Césaire interpolates a scene in which the two lay out their differences, with Ariel advocating non-violence and an appeal to conscience while Caliban proclaims the need for uncompromising resistance and “Freedom Now.” Meanwhile, A Tempest also adds to the list of spirits by introducing an apparition of Eshu alongside Ceres, Iris and Juno.

Secondly, the entire drama is itself re-imagined as a mask play. In what the text calls “an atmosphere of psychodrama,” the actors enter and, accompanied by the commentary of a master of ceremonies, each takes up one of the pre-existing roles. Significantly, however, the commentary emphasizes the contingency of the distribution of roles: “Let's go, gentlemen, help yourselves. To each his character, and for each a mask. You, Prospero? Why not? There are wills to power that are unsuspected” (Césaire 1969: 9). The effect of the mask-play is to de-essentialize the construction of race, to set up a tension between the racial script and its performance. The actors come to occupy allegorical roles rather than to create unified characters. Literalizing the diagnostic trope of Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, the Césairean Tempest becomes a drama of cultural alienation and rebellion, an obsessive psychic script rather than a humanist utopia.16

In keeping with the dialectics of spectacle developed in the earlier plays, A Tempest also enhanced the importance of song and dance, from subordinate, incidental embellishments to fully active expressions of cultural mobilization. Caliban's defiance of Prospero is grounded in African culture: his work-song at the opening of Act II is a hymn to Shango, as is the marching-song of his rebellion. Most emblematic, however, is the way Césaire reworks the pastoral masque that accompanies the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda: into the classical order of spirits he injects the tumultuous, disruptive presence of Eshu. Drinking, dancing, demanding that twenty dogs be sacrificed to him, Eshu dispells the solemnities with shamelessly phallic vitality, singing: “Eshu has no head for carrying burdens / he's a gay one with a pointy head. When he dances / he doesn't move his shoulders / Ah, Eshu is a jolly fellow / Eshu is a jolly fellow / With his penis, he will beat, beat, beat / With his penis” (70). What is remarkable about the apparition of the trickster-god is his ambivalent relation to the official ceremonies. Although obviously disruptive, his appearance is mischievous rather than malicious, a sign of spontaneity and vitality rather than rebellion per se. In the hierarchical assembly of spirits, that is, Eshu refuses to be forgotten. It is not so much the betrothal as the bloodless Western classical ceremony that he resists. Breaking up the forms of Prospero's alienating canon, Eshu's song and dance signifies the recovery of African cultural and psychic authenticity.

Despite the vigor of this counter-utopian moment, however, the central antagonism between Prospero and Caliban remains intact. In a final revision, Césaire rejects the Shakespearean vision of reconciliation and foregrounds a continuing conflict between colonizer and colonized. At the end of the play, master and slave remain locked in a specular relation of domination and defiance. With a consciousness heightened by the very failure of his rebellion, Caliban denounces Prospero's illusions and proclaims the imminent end of his own alienation:

You lied to me so much
about the world, about myself
in the end you imposed an image of myself
underdeveloped, you say
—that's how you made me see myself
and that image: I hate it. It's false
But now I know you, you old cancer
and I know myself
And I know that one day
my bare fist, my one bare fist
will be enough to smash your world.


Faced with this challenge, Prospero, rather than returning to Milan, remains on the island to provoke a showdown with his old enemy. In Césaire's epilogue, Prospero appears aged and worn out, his language impoverished and stereotyped. Complaining about an invasion of oppossums and peccaries, the return of the jungle, he announces his resolve to defend civilization and to go head to head, as it were, with the former slave. In the end, Prospero is left calling out Caliban's name, while in the distance, over the sound of the surf and the cries of birds, scraps of Caliban's song can be heard: “Freedom Ohé Freedom.”

Politically, the contrast between the ending of A Tempest and the choral conclusions of the earlier plays is striking. Caliban's animistic merging with the forces of nature suggests that freedom is elsewhere, ever-present but always elusive. As a voice in the wind, the spirit of liberation lacks visible agency: it persists as an idea rather than as a project for collective realization. The scene closes with Prospero frustrated and pathetic, but continuing to occupy center stage. The atmosphere of psychodrama is thus not entirely dispelled, even if what must be called the Arielization of Caliban points towards the final lifting of masks. The spectacle remains the scene of alienation and false consciousness, with the end of the drama symbolically raising the curtain on a different world. Whether re-enacting and ratifying the fact of decolonization, or gesturing towards a liberation yet to come, the performance of A Tempest thus inscribes a political relation to the site of its own production. Created for the first international cultural festival held at Hammamet, Tunisia, the play anticipates the imminent extension of decolonized territories.


In the wake of A Tempest, Serreau placed plans for future work under the sign of his collaboration with Césaire. Founding a “Théâtre de la Tempête,” he went on to direct A Man's a Man in Martinique in 1972 and Paul Keinig's drama of the French Revolution, Le Printemps des bonnets rouges the following year. But the institutional existence of a decolonized theatre fell victim to Serreau's own untimely death in 1973, and sporadic efforts to carry on failed to integrate the disparate elements of the initial vision. A Festschrift assembled in 1986 attests to the range of Serreau's influence, and contains vivid testimony from his numerous collaborators. The fact that Césaire himself attributed his withdrawal from dramatic writing to Serreau's death is evidence of the intensity of their collaboration; apart from a brief collection of poems, moi, laminaire, issued in 1982, Césaire produced little new work in the subsequent two decades (Auclaire-Tamaroff: 124).

It is, of course, problematic to construct a evolutionary narrative out of Césaire and Serreau's three dramas. There are, among the plays, clear lines of thematic and stylistic continuity as well as important differences in political and cultural emphasis. Historical tragedy, quasi-documentary history, revisionary adaptation: these are best grasped as three approaches to the problem of dramatizing negritude rather than definitive comments on the process of decolonization. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to remark upon the passage from a predominantly constructive figuration of decolonization in The Tragedy of King Christophe to the primarily deconstructive rendering of A Tempest. Whether this shift is best taken as an advance or a retreat, an optimistic celebration of uncompromising defiance (Nixon: 200) or a pessimistic allegory of post-colonial impasse (Mbom: 99), depends both on an assessment of the cultural politics of negritude and a reading of the history of decolonization.

Short of such a full-scale recontextualization, a few summary comments may be in order. In retrospect, what is most striking about Césaire and Serreau's collaboration is their sense of decolonization as a moment of accelerated cultural development. Theatrical performance could, in their view, both assist and reflect this development. By working with a multicultural troupe on pieces intended for rapid adaptation to different venues, the process of production itself became an occasion for the creative exploration of diverse performance styles and expressive traditions. The spectacle became a site for the active transformation of culture. At the same time, the plays developed were informed by the history of anti-colonial resistance, and contributed to the construction of a new global culture of decolonization. With the deceleration of Third World development in the 1970s and 1980s, the chill of a resurgent neo-colonialism left much of this vision unrealized, and exposed the utopian underpinnings of the project perhaps too clearly. Equally visible were the limits of its conception of the politics of liberation, notably an almost exclusive focus on the role of a male leadership (Mbom: 97-9; Nixon: 205). The Brechtian texture of Césaire and Serreau's epic dramaturgy, however, proved sufficiently open to allow for corrective revision; thus, a revival of A Season in the Congo in 1989 restaged the drama as a commemoration of the anniversary of Lumumba's death, with the role of the sanza player re-assigned to a woman (Houyoux: 508-16). Conceived as flexible constructions rather than formal products, vehicles for a decolonizing consciousness rather than canonical definitions, the plays retain their vital orientation towards a historical future.


  1. A complete listing of Serreau's collaborators is supplied by Auclaire-Tamaroff and Barthélémy (209-20).

  2. Compare Césaire's comment:

    For me, song and dance are not opposed, and I don't choose between them. I don't believe there is one kind of art especially apt for conveying political conflict. For me, theatre is a complete, total art. Theatre can integrate poetry, dance, song, folklore, storytelling; it's an art of synthesis and integration.

    (Laville: 261)

  3. Such acceleration would seem to eliminate the time for reflection necessary to the Brechtian conception. Serreau justified his pacing with an appeal to the development of modern media:

    If the spectator's eye gets bored, it's because we no longer offer an image that's alive enough, rapid enough. The modern spectator is a man who lives in a world of perpetual movement and his powers of absorption have become breathtaking. The spectacle shouldn't be put on in a theater, the theater should be built up around each spectacle.

    (Auclaire-Tamaroff: 58)

  4. Cesaire's comments actually refer to the political, the human, and the metaphysical; I have rendered “human” as “existential” in order to preserve a sense of ascending hierarchy.

  5. For a suggestive consideration of Eshu as a figure of black signification, see Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1988), pp. 3-43.

  6. For an interpretation of these events that differ in illuminating ways from Cesaire's drama, see Alejo Carpentier's 1949 novel, El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World).

  7. Indeed, the events surrounding the death of Patrice Lumumba continue to be a source of political controversy in Zaire, raising fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the post-colonial state. See “Zaire Reopens Old Wound: Lumumba's Death” (New York Times 14 June 1992).

  8. With its historical background and extensive revisions, the textual history of A Season in the Congo is extremely vexed. An indispensable point of reference is the annotated edition, including historical documentation, prepared by Suzanne Birchaux Houyoux (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia 1990).

  9. An interesting perspective on these events, by one of the participants in the UN Mission, can be found in Conor Cruise O'Brien's play Murderous Angels: a political tragedy and comedy in black and white (1968).

  10. Hoyoux reprints the advertisement for Polar Beer on which the scene is based.

  11. Laville (264) remarks that “The vocal and gestural techniques of the black [African] actors differ from those of European actors to the point that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between song, dance and spoken diction.”

  12. It should be noted, however, that a number of Lumumba's lines (e.g. the statement “If I have to die, I want to die like Gandhi” (89)) are virtually historical quotation (Houyoux: 298).

  13. According to a letter reprinted by Houyoux (472) the scene was modeled on the canonization of Shaw's St Joan.

  14. See, most notably, Paul Brown (1985), Francis Barker and Peter Hulme (1985), and Stephen Greenblatt (1990). Nixon (1987) provides a useful overview of post-colonial readings of The Tempest.

  15. Given the problems of rendering Shakespeare into French, the differences between translation, revision and adaptation—including the status of the English version of Césaire's text—might merit considerable reflection; a full consideration would necessarily touch on the historical uses of Shakespeare as a counter-weight to the canons of French classicism.

  16. As Rob Nixon points out, the subtext for Césaire's interpretation includes both Fanon and Césaire's own critique of Octave Mannoni's 1949 text, translated as Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization (Nixon: 190-91).

Works Cited

Auclaire-Tamaroff, Elisabeth, and Barthélémy. Jean-Marie Serreau: Découvreur de Théâtres. Paris: L'Arbre Verdoyant, 1986.

Barker, Francis and Peter Hulme. “Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish: the discursive con-texts of The Tempest” in John Drakakis, ed. Alternative Shakespeares. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Bradby, David. Modern French Drama, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Brown, Paul. “‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’: The Tempest and the discourse of colonialism” in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds. Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Césaire, Aimé. Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82. Trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.

———. (1964), La Tragédie du Roi Christophe. Trans. Ralph Manheim, The Tragedy of King Christophe. New York: Grove Press, 1969.

———. (1966) Une Saison au Congo. Trans. Ralph Manheim, A Season in the Congo. New York: Grove Press, 1968]

———. (1969) Une tempête. Trans. Emile Snyder and Sanford Upson, A Tempest. New York: Third World Press, 1975.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century” in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Harris, Rodney. L'Humanisme dans le theatre d'Aimé Césaire. Ottawa: Naaman, 1973.

Houyoux, Suzanne Brichaux. Aimé Césaire: A Season in the Congo. Annotated Edition. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of French, University of Virginia, 1990.

Laville, Pierre. “Aimé Césaire et Jean-Marie Serreau: Un acte politique et poétique” in Les Voies de la création théâtrale II, 1970.

Mbom, Clement. Le Théâtre d'Aimé Césaire. Paris: Fernand Nathan, 1979.

McNee, Lisa. “Teaching in the multicultural tempest.” College Literature 19/20 (1993): 195-201.

Mudimbe, V. Y. The Invention of Africa. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Nixon, Rob. “Caribbean and African Appropriations of The Tempest,” in Robert von Hallberg, ed. Politics and Poetic Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Smith, Robert P. “Evoking Caliban: Césaire's response to Shakespeare.” CLA Journal 35 (1992): 387-99.

Judith Holland Sarnecki (essay date December 2000)

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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 their colonizers. Yet how does one so thoroughly educated in French language and culture fight against complete assimilation? Césaire's most powerful tool seems to be, paradoxically, the very language he was taught by those who would control him. What better way to spread the word—a “word” which undergoes radical transformation in the hands of Césaire—to his compatriots living under political and cultural oppression than to stage, and hence expose, the process whereby one human being comes to control another. How Césaire uses language to pursue a revolutionary goal in his play, Une tempête (performed for the first time in Paris in 1969 and subsequently in Abidjan and Fort-de-France), is the subject of my investigation.

Writing in a modernist vein, Césaire had an almost mystical belief in language, “l'arme miraculeuse,” that allied him with surrealist poets and won him the admiration of André Breton. Believing wholeheartedly in language's revolutionary potential, Césaire launched a critique of European thought in Une tempête that James Arnold calls “a reorientation in our understanding of the Renaissance man” (238). Césaire's adaptation of The Tempest for a black audience, Arnold contends, brings about an important ideological shift: by foregrounding political and racial themes, Césaire leads his audience to reflect critically on the value system of Western humanism (237-41). In so doing, Césaire demonstrates a decidedly postmodern sensibility. By unmasking the brutality which underlies colonization, Césaire shows how the West's “civilizing mission” becomes one more form of violence (Porter 373).

Nevertheless, the newer generation of Martinican writers has criticized Césaire for forsaking Creole—a mixture of maternal tongues and tongues of the “masters.”1 I would argue that while Césaire did not make a conscious effort to transcribe the popular language of Martinique, he does lay the necessary groundwork for the “creolization” that Edouard Glissant proposes in Le Discours antillais; moreover, many of the seeds Césaire sows can be detected in Une tempête. Glissant's description of Creole as a detour from French that is full of quid pro quos and double meanings actually recalls the way Césaire uses language to beat Shakespeare at his own game. The Caliban Césaire creates speaks a language that, like Creole, is pieced together from fragments that reveal the violence done to Africans forced into slave ships and carried far from their homeland. Caliban's “creolization” of the French language, furthermore, reveals a mastery that unsettles Prospero to the point of madness.


While on the one hand Shakespeare scholars take little interest in Une Tempête, on the other hand the younger generation of Caribbean authors criticize Césaire's ties to a Western icon and his abandonment of Creole in favor of French, African, and English references. Chamoiseau, Bernabé, and Confiant write in Eloge de la créolité, for example, that “La Négritude césairienne est un baptême, l'acte primal de notre dignité restituée. Nous sommes à jamais fils d'Aimé Césaire” (18). At the same time, however, they refuse Césaire the status of a truly Caribbean or Creole author: “Avec Edouard Glissant nous refusâmes de nous enfermer dans la Négritude, épelant l'Antillanité qui relevait plus de la vision que du concept” (21). Thus Césaire appears to be both mentor and stumbling block for these young writers, who consider him less anti- than ante-creole (18).

In his 1993 monograph Aimé Césaire: une traversée paradoxale du siècle, Rafaël Confiant amends his earlier position—“à jamais fils d'Aimé Césaire”—to “rebelle à son enseignement, toujours critique, sans en nier l'immense valeur” (272).2 Confiant criticizes Césaire for an assimilationist politics that does not live up to his revolutionary poetics. While Confiant points out the paradox in Césaire's life and work, he appears to miss his own: his text tries to have done with Césaire and his enormous influence on a younger generation of Martinican writers at the same time that it pleads for Césaire's acknowledgment of the failure of his politics as a way of leading his people in a new direction.3 Confiant summarily dismisses Une tempête, contending that Césaire's Caliban remains locked in conflict with the white colonizer. Thus, even postmodern Martinican theoreticians such as Confiant have trouble appreciating how much ahead of his time, how “deconstructionist,” Césaire really was in writing Une tempête:

Les Antilles françaises d'aujourd'hui souffrent d'un péché originel: celui de l'assimilation.

Celui qui a, non pas commis, mais légitimé ce péché, en présentant la loi dite d'assimilation de 1946, est Aimé Césaire, le père de l'idée de Négritude.


While younger Martinican authors may feel the need to reject “Papa Aimé” and minimize the importance of his ideas, Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1948 essay, “Orphée noir,” read Césaire's Négritude not as the universal black essence that Confiant takes it to be, but as a self-conscious, self-deconstructing notion:

Ainsi la Négritude est pour se détruire, elle est passage et non aboutissement, moyen et non fin dernière. Dans le moment que les Orphées noirs embrassent le plus étroitement cette Eurydice, ils sentent qu'elle s'évanouit entre leurs bras.


This reading conforms with Aliko Songolo's assertion that even at the moment of its inception, negritude already contained the seeds of post-negritude.4

Césaire first used the term “Négritude” in his Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, published in 1939 upon his return to Martinique from his studies in Paris and his formative encounter with Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Gontran Damas. Senghor acquainted Césaire with African traditions and values lost through colonization and enslavement. In Paris, at the very time that he was immersed in French culture, Césaire felt the need to reconnect with a lost past. As Senghor presented her, Mother Africa had the power of a myth of origins, a power Césaire longed to communicate to his fellow islanders. The explosive violence of the Cahier, according to Daniel Delas, results from having to express revolt and humiliation in the very language of the oppressors. Delas calls our attention to the abundance of interjections in Césaire's texts—a literal explosion of the word (73-74). Such interjections often manifest themselves as a cry—a kind of semiotic eruption of the African mother tongue into the French symbolic order. This preoedipal utterance also happens to be the only form of expression available to those whose means of communication have vanished; as such, it liberates and gives voice to the islanders who were hitherto silenced. Such violent linguistic eruptions are well suited to describe the island of Martinique with its volcanic Mont Pelée.5

Yet, Delas has a hard time considering Césaire's works outside of a European context. He claims, for instance, that Césaire steals white culture in much the same way that Prometheus stole fire from the gods (96). While this comparison is admirable, its central point of reference remains Western culture. It does not take into account how Césaire, unlike Prometheus, profoundly transforms what he steals. For Césaire uses French in new ways, bringing about a revolutionary shift in how colonized peoples might view themselves. Thomas Hale points out that Césaire's goal in Une tempête was to destroy Western culture's myth of the good master/humble slave (24). Under Césaire's careful pen the master-slave (M/S) relationship reveals itself to be sadomasochistic (S/M). In Trois Calibans, Roger Toumson contends that Césaire redistributes Shakespeare's roles by a series of displacements that significantly modify the rapport that each subject has with himself and his world. In Toumson's words, the play is “un retournement d'un retournement” (361). He points out that Césaire's reversible points of view cause Caliban's monstrosity to disappear and Prospero's to manifest itself (415-16). The alienated, fragmented subject (Shakespeare's Caliban) emerges in Césaire's play as his own master because he claims the subject position in language in order to undo Prospero's “magic” (431). Caliban's linguistic mastery reverses the power dynamic operational in colonization. It is through this reversal that a later move to creolization becomes possible.


Similar to Shakespeare's The Tempest in many respects—the plot and the characters remain much the same—Césaire's text is truly subversive in both intent and execution, shifting the emphasis by reducing secondary story lines and foregrounding Caliban's plight. Shakespeare's story line is more ample, his use of language playful, his emphasis directed toward resolution and reconciliation: Prospero, former Duke of Milan, has spent twelve years on a desert island with his daughter Miranda after falling victim to a plot hatched by his brother Antonio and Alonso, the king of Naples. Now these two villains have landed on the island with their attendants during a storm of Prospero's making. Obviously Prospero has not been idle all these years. Indeed, he has wrested the island from the witch Sycorax and enslaved her son Caliban; he has freed the spirit Ariel from Sycorax's paralyzing spell; and, over the course of time, he has become a mighty sorcerer. He can cause the winds to blow and call forth the spirits of Greek and Roman mythology with a few well chosen words. Prospero befuddles his unwitting guests until he feels they are repentant, fosters the romance between his daughter and Alonso's son Ferdinand, promises Ariel his freedom, and continues to bedevil Caliban.

Césaire takes this plot and distorts it, turns it inside out and stands the relationships in Shakespeare's The Tempest on their heads. In Une tempête's final scene, Prospero announces: “Décidément, c'est le monde renversé” (3.5.87).6 Césaire creates a “tempest” which is at one and the same time like Shakespeare's and yet entirely different. In much the same way that David Hwang's play M. Butterfly deconstructs Puccini's opera classic Madame Butterfly, Césaire's Une tempête derails and reroutes Shakespeare's The Tempest.7 Lawrence Porter points out that Césaire foregrounds the struggle between Caliban and Prospero, enhancing Caliban's character by reducing competing plots, specifically the revenge plot and the romantic idyll. Césaire unmasks Prospero's “magic,” which turns out to be none other than the delusion and rationalization of “white superiority.” Porter writes: “[The] mainspring of Césaire's parody is a metonymic reversal of cause and effect whereby Shakespeare's diagnosis of political ills becomes the symptom” (366). No longer allowing the audience to identify or sympathize with Prospero, Césaire brings them to a new consciousness and political awareness. The playwright's goal, Porter claims, is not catharsis but incitement to action (366).

When he gives voice to Caliban, allowing him finally to “talk back,” Césaire incorporates into the French language just the sort of rebellion and resistance that Glissant ascribes to Creole (Le Discours antillais 32-33). In the last scene of Césaire's play, Caliban tells Prospero:

Il faut que tu comprennes, Prospero:
des années j'ai courbé la tête,
des années j'ai accepté
tout accepté:
tes insultes, ton ingratitude
pis encore, plus dégradante que tout le reste,
ta condescendance.
Mais maintenant c'est fini!
Fini, tu entends!


Caliban answers his “master” in his master's tongue—how else could he have made himself understood when Prospero recognizes no language but his own?—yet the word order and rhythm are completely different from Prospero's. A deformation has already taken place. In addition, Caliban uses Prospero's own language to denounce him, to show his contempt for him, and to demonstrate that he understands the full extent of what Prospero has done to him. He tells Prospero:

Et tu m'as tellement menti,
menti sur le monde, menti sur moi-même,
que tu as fini par m'imposer
une image de moi-même:
Un sous-développé, comme tu dis,
un sous-capable,
voilà comment tu m'as obligé à me voir,
et cette image, je la hais! Et elle est fausse!


Césaire's Caliban recognizes that the power to name someone is also the power to define that person. Much earlier in the play Caliban declares: “je te dis que désormais je ne répondrai plus au nom de Caliban” (1.2.28). Caliban's rejection of his name—the name given to him by Prospero—also signals his refusal of Prospero's definition of him as lazy, stupid, ugly, bestial, even demonic. In Une tempête, Caliban effectively demonstrates that Prospero's “humanism” is decidedly inhuman (and inhumane) precisely because it does not accord Caliban the status of a human being. He tells Prospero: “Appelle-moi X. Ça vaudra mieux. Comme qui dirait l'homme sans nom. Plus exactement, l'homme dont on a volé le nom” (1.2.28). Acknowledging that Prospero has stolen his native tongue, Caliban rejects Prospero's power to dominate him through language.

The linguistic detour that Césaire takes in Une tempête is by way of Africa, bringing in African expressions and adding an African god to the panoply of Greek and Roman ones incorporated in Shakespeare's play. The presence of Swahili and Yoruba words and the Yoruba god Eshu are disturbing: the words disrupt the text in ways that intentionally corrupt the “purity” of the French language, while the antics and obscene language of Eshu interfere with the spectacle that Prospero has conjured up for the young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand. Both serve to break up a classic plot and a classic deployment of language. Eshu, the Yoruba trickster god, who erupts onto the scene like the volcanic Mont Pelée, introduces an African and West Indian cultural and religious element to remind the audience of an animist tradition that predates Christianity and Islam. Not only is this traditional religion still practiced by more than 13 million West Africans, it has survived in a very pure form in the West Indies and Brazil, transported to those regions during the transatlantic slave trade (Cultural Atlas 38). Porter reads the presence of Eshu as Césaire's way of symbolizing an authentic cultural heritage that the slaves of the black diaspora carried with them to the New World (376).

Césaire makes Caliban a sorcerer in his own right—after all, his mother Sycorax is presented as a witch in Shakespeare's play. The Martinican playwright ironically juxtaposes “black magic” to “white magic,” making Caliban and Prospero equal adversaries in a clash not only of wits, but of languages and cultures as well. Césaire's text belies the notion that there is only one culture and one language worth acknowledging. Thus in Une tempête, Caliban beats Prospero at his own game, mastering his language so well that he can bend it to his own revolutionary purposes. Caliban tells Prospero: “Chaque fois que tu m'appeleras [sic], ça me rappellera le fait fondamental, que tu m'as tout volé et jusqu'à mon identité! Uhuru!” (1.2.28). Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom, has, according to James Arnold, “gained a universal currency since it first shook European colonialism in the 1950s” (240). In Césaire's play it becomes a touchstone that recalls and rekindles the revolutionary fervor felt across much of Africa in the 1960s when the cry for freedom from colonial oppression was heard the world over.

What Caliban does to Prospero in Césaire's play becomes the mirror image of what Césaire has done to Shakespeare: mastering the master. Prospero has often been perceived as the porte-parole or alter-ego of Shakespeare. Césaire implicitly makes this comparison, recognizing that the playwright, like Prospero, is a kind of magician who uses words to conjure up images to entertain and mystify his spectators. But the mystification that Césaire particularly wants us to recognize is that of racial superiority. Porter reminds us that Césaire's use of le meneur du jeu, who calls upon the actors to choose their roles by donning masks as the play begins, recalls the artificiality of both the category of “race” and the racialized social hierarchy under colonization (365). In Césaire's reworking of the bard's final play, Caliban increasingly defies Prospero as he grows in strength and self-esteem, while multilingualism and multiculturalism replace monolingualism and monoculturalism. Césaire's declaration of freedom from Western cultural values, therefore, shows itself to be a necessary first step in the process of creolization.

The all-important change Césaire effects in Une tempête is to transform Shakespeare's deformed and sorry creature, Caliban, into a revolutionary hero by giving him a new way of speaking in a language all his own—a French punctuated by African and Creole expressions and rhythms. Compare the last scene of Shakespeare's play where Caliban admits the error of his ways by becoming a compliant and docile slave (“and I'll be wise hereafter / And seek for grace” [5.1.295-96]), with Césaire's final scene in which Caliban renounces and denounces Prospero once and for all. Janis Pallister informs us that Caliban's last lines in Une tempête actually comprise a war song that evokes the Yoruba god of thunder, Shango (93). Césaire's Caliban begins his poetic chant: “Shango marche avec force à travers le ciel, son promenoir!” (3.5.89). This quite different ending suggests that power has passed from the hands of the master to a slave who will now conjure up his own tempests. It is equally important to note that Césaire's Caliban eschews physical violence—he does not strike down Prospero when he has the chance—but instead uses a volcanic eruption of words to destroy his adversary's self-delusions. Thomas Hale concludes: “C'est grâce à des assauts verbaux, et non pas à la révolte armée, que Caliban réussit pour la première fois à semer le doute dans l'esprit de son oppresseur” (28).

Césaire pinpoints Shakespeare's generation's prejudices and faulty logic as he lays bare one of the larger goals of Western culture: to tame and control unwieldy nature. In Le Discours antillais, Glissant asserts that culture and nature are posed as opposites in Western thought, with culture assuming a position of superiority. Glissant goes on to say that Western man's dream was not only to control nature—both his own and that around him—by culture, but also to make nature a slave of culture (139). In Shakespeare's text, Prospero clearly represents culture while Caliban represents its inferior Other—nature. Thus when Caliban is defined as “inferior” and placed below Prospero in The Tempest's human hierarchy, such reasoning appears logical and justifiable. In attempting to explain how such a mentality operates, Glissant points out that the West is less a place than a project (12). Using an element that Glissant says is essential to the Creole language, namely derision, Césaire demonstrates the relativity of definitions that often appear absolute or universal. Relationships long presented as “natural” are thrown into question when the racist assumptions that underlie them are brought to light. The colonizer's project to ensure power over the colonized included representing the slave as less than human. Césaire negates this image, Lawrence Porter asserts, by endowing Caliban with greater lucidity than his master and a belief system of his own (366, 371). James Arnold points out that while Césaire's Prospero struggles against the natural world of the island, Caliban is represented as its ally; hence, the animist world view is recast in a respectable and desirable light (247).

Césaire's initial attack on Western culture comes in his subtle reworking of the play's title. Whereas Shakespeare calls his play The Tempest, Césaire names his play more modestly Une tempête, just one among many, singular as opposed to universal. Césaire's title privileges process over product; it suggests that the storms (a common occurrence on the island, not the result of a delusional magician's ravings) are not an end in themselves. Rather, they are part of an ongoing process that brings about change in the form of destruction and renewal. The attack continues as Césaire makes us aware of how Prospero's behavior toward Caliban calls into question the entire notion of “civilized” man. For example, Césaire's Prospero tells Caliban: “La trique, c'est le seul langage que tu comprennes; eh bien, tant pis pour toi, je te le parlerai haut et clair” (1.2.27). Although Césaire may indeed underscore the sadistic streak in Prospero, this attribute presents itself first in Shakespeare's version. For this is how Shakespeare's Prospero addresses Caliban:

For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up; urchins
Shall, for that vast of night that they may work,
All exercise on thee; thou shalt be pinched
As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that made' em.


Césaire also deconstructs the Western ideal of romantic love when he highlights a short scene in which Miranda catches Ferdinand cheating her at chess, a possible forecast of their future life together. Césaire plays on the double meaning of the word for chess piece, “échec.” Yet Shakespeare himself suggests this idea, albeit in a more lighthearted way, when he depicts a game of chess in which Miranda declares to Ferdinand: “Sweet lord, you play me false” (5.1.172).

Other relationships cleverly rewritten include the one between Caliban, the black slave, and Ariel, the mulatto. By making Ariel a mulatto, Césaire reproduces Martinique's racial hierarchy with all of its inherent tensions. The dialectic between the two is reminiscent as well of the ideological differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, differences to which Césaire was keenly attuned because they reflected many of the ambiguities in his own position. He also modifies the relationship between Caliban and the two European servants, Stephano and Trinculo. In The Tempest, Caliban pledges loyalty to these two fools in the cowardly hope that they will kill Prospero for him. In Césaire's version, Caliban throws in his lot with Stephano and Trinculo for a time, but quickly realizes his mistake and rectifies it. This reworking of the relationship between Caliban and Stephano and Trinculo does two important things: first, it shows up the class prejudice in Shakespeare's play; and second, it points out that Marxist objectives do not necessarily coincide with liberation from racial oppression. Working class men can be just as racist and exploitative as their masters. As Stephano tells Trinculo in Une tempête: “Il n'a pas l'air bête … Je vais entreprendre de le civiliser. Oh! Pas trop! Mais assez pour que nous puissions en tirer parti” (3.2.60).


In an article that closely examines Une Tempête's anticolonialist discourse, Lawrence Porter recognizes the full import of this too-long neglected play. He reminds us that Césaire's is the only full-scale adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and contends that “[Une tempête] constitutes a detailed condemnation of imperialism and racism, rivaled in Césaire's career only by his masterpiece, the Cahier” (362).9 Césaire's various strategies for undermining the project that “the West” represents enable him to master a “master” text of Western culture. Linguistic mastery provides the key to freedom in Césaire's play. The master magician is the one who can create the greatest tempest of words, words that have the power to change our relationship to others, even to change who we are. Language is the weapon that Césaire and his Caliban both use to expose a racist and colonialist mentality that lies at the heart not only of Shakespeare's The Tempest, but also of many seminal texts of Western civilization. Indeed, Césaire displays a double mastery by recrafting Shakespeare's play in the French language, implying a knowledge of English and European culture that goes far beyond a simple mastery of French. Like the sorcerer's apprentice whose magic spell sets off a chain reaction impossible to control, Césaire hopes to raise a storm that will sweep through his island, transforming in the process not only language, but his audience as well. Perhaps the Martinican poet could agree with Shakespeare on the conclusion drawn by the title of a very different play: All's Well That Ends Well. In Césaire's version of Shakespeare's play, it is Caliban, not Prospero, who controls the ending, an ending left open for future generations to write.


  1. Biographical information on Césaire reveals that he was brought up speaking primarily French in his home, not Creole. The notion of “mother tongue” becomes problematic in colonized French territories where assimilation was highly successful due, in great part, to the imposition of the French educational system.

  2. Eloge de la créolité was written collaboratively by Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant and was largely influenced by the theoretical texts of Edouard Glissant. See also “Creolization versus Francophonie: Language, Identity, and Culture in the Works of Edouard Glissant” by Bernadette Cailler in L'Héritage de Caliban, 49-62.

  3. Such an acknowledgement would of course mean Césaire's return to the very Christ-like role Confiant criticizes him for in the first place.

  4. I refer here to Songolo's paper “Aimé Césaire et la poétique de la découverte.”

  5. It has been brought to my attention that during various interviews Césaire liked to compare himself to Mont Pelée. In a series of interviews on videocassette, Aimé Césaire: une voix pour l'histoire, directed by Euzhan Palcy in 1994, Césaire comments on how fitting it is that the island of Martinique was created by violent volcanic eruptions.

  6. Une Tempête has received less critical attention than Une Saison au Congo (1973) or La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (1963). To the best of my knowledge, it has never been translated into English.

  7. Actually Césaire did it first—his play predates Hwang's by twenty years.

  8. All quotations from Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête are taken from the Seuil edition (Paris, 1969). Quotations from William Shakespeare's The Tempest are taken from The Pelican Shakespeare (Penguin Books, 3rd ed., 1987), edited by Northop Frye.

  9. I would add to this important list Discours sur le colonialisme that Césaire wrote as a rebuttal to Octave Mannoni's Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, in which Mannoni rationalizes the colonizers' position as a necessary symbolic father to the colonized peoples.

Works Cited

Arnold, James. “Césaire and Shakespeare: Two Tempests.” Comparative Literature 30 (1978): 236-47.

Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant. Eloge de la créolité. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

Césaire, Aimé. Aimé Césaire: une voix pour l'histoire. Interview. Dir. Euzhan Palcy. 3 videocassettes. California Newsreel, 1994.

———. Les Armes miraculeuses. Paris: Gallimard, 1970.

———. Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1956.

———. Discours sur le colonialisme. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1965.

———. Une Saison au congo. Paris: Seuil, 1973.

———. Une Tempête. Paris: Seuil, 1969.

———. La Tragédie du Roi Christophe. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1963.

Condé, Maryse, ed. L'Héritage de Caliban. Guadeloupe: Jasor, 1992.

Confiant, Raphaël. Aimé Césaire: une traversée paradoxale du siècle. Paris: Stock, 1993.

Cultural Atlas of Africa. Ed. Jocelyn Murray. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1981.

Delas, Daniel. Aimé Césaire. Paris: Hachette, 1991.

Glissant, Edouard. Le Discours antillais. Paris: Seuil, 1981.

Hale, Thomas A. “Sur Une Tempête d'Aimé Césaire.” Etudes Littéraires 6 (1973): 21-34.

Mannoni, Dominique O. Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. New York: Praeger, 1964.

Pallister, Janis L. Aimé Césaire. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Porter, Lawrence M. “Aimé Césaire's Reworking of Shakespeare: Anticolonialist Discourse in Une Tempête.Comparative Literature Studies 32 (1995): 360-81.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Orphée noir.” Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française. Paris: PUF, 1972.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Northrop Frye. The Pelican Shakespeare. Penguin Books, 1987.

Songolo, Aliko, “Aimé Césaire et la poétique de la découverte.” MLA Convention. Royal York Hotel. Toronto, 29 Dec. 1993.

Toumson, Roger. Trois Calibans. Havana, Cuba: Edición Casa de las Américas, 1981.

Lucy Rix (essay date 2000)

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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 the division, the displacement, the cutting edge of his thought? It comes, I believe, from the tradition of the oppressed, as Walter Benjamin suggests; it is the language of a revolutionary awareness that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a concept of history that is in keeping with this insight. And the state of emergency is also always a state of emergence. The struggle against colonial oppression changes not only the direction of Western history, but challenges its historicist idea of time as a progressive, ordered whole.2


Aimé Césaire's last play, Une tempête, was written for a festival in Tunisia in 1969. After a period of exhilaration and optimism as African states began to gain their independence, Césaire used the process of adaptation as a method by which to probe emerging debates concerning colonialism. As can be seen from the first epigraph, Césaire believed that it was crucial for the colonized Martinican peoples to relocate themselves at the centre of the stage. The Tempest was adapted so as to ‘protagonize’ the colonized and to ensure that their voices were heard loud and clear from within the hushed citadel of Western culture. At the time, the very act of rewriting The Tempest was seen as an audacious literary siege; for Césaire it provided a potent strategy by which to throw aside the rules of colonial culture and to dramatize the destinies of the colonized. He rudely thrusts into Shakespeare's text in the same way that Eshu bursts, uninvited, into the prudish circle of Roman gods and goddesses.

Strangely, the first performance of Une tempête was set in pioneer America, using the motifs of the Western.3 Although this may seem incongruous in view of the play's references to Africa and, more specifically, to the Caribbean, the decision to set the play in America demonstrates the possibilities of alluding to, or even of integrating, a number of colonial dramas on one stage. Thus, Césaire's adaptation is as open to a variety of times and locations as Shakespeare's text. Despite attacks on Césaire's essentialist vision of négritude, the play itself displays flexibility and plurality. Although it is clear that Une tempête was written with the particular political situation of Martinique very much in mind, rather than reducing The Tempest to a series of closures, Césaire's adaptation opens up further possibilities of history, interpretation and location. As Césaire has said,

Demystified, the play [is] essentially about the master-slave relation, a relation that is still alive and which, in my opinion, explains a good deal of contemporary history: in particular, colonial history, the history of the United States. Wherever there are multiracial societies, the same drama can be found, I think.4


Césaire grew up within the particular colonial situation of Martinique, where he was born in 1913. French Caribbean colonies differed from those of Britain in that, after abolition (which occurred in Martinique in 1848), adult male ex-slaves were immediately made citizens of France. The right to vote was intermittently removed, but the concept of Frenchness came to be seen as a positive and integral part of ‘freedom’. The minority of powerful white settlers in Martinique had made every effort to create an abyss of difference between themselves and the black slaves whom they imported to work on the sugar plantations. The settlers' laws and attitudes worked to prevent slaves from in any way comparing themselves to whites. As Lilyan Kesteloot comments:

They [slaves] were not allowed to wear the same clothes as whites nor to work as anything but farm labourers, domestics etc. As a result, it became the main object of coloured men to resemble their masters as closely as possible. As long as the slave's condition was associated with a differentiation between slave and master, the black man would associate this idea of freedom with resemblance. Thus, after the emancipation of 1848, those few slaves who had the opportunity undertook by all and any means a race toward the assimilation represented by money, studies, marriages, intrigue.5

This drive towards self ‘whitening’ was, and perhaps still is, one of the most insidious obstacles to decolonization. Richard Burton points out that it was the French West Indians themselves who desperately sought to pay the ‘blood tax’ (l'impôrt de sang) by enlisting in the French army in 1914 and again in 1939. It was surely the pinnacle of assimilation: to die for la mère-patrie. In order to assert any sort of authority or authenticity in any aspect of life, blacks were forced to seek the validation of European culture, European customs, European politics.

Unlike many other Caribbean colonies, Martinique, from a very early stage, had a large mulatto population: by 1850, there were more mulattos than whites. This had a significant effect on future racial relations. In a process which is in some ways comparable to the racial situation in Brazil, Martinican mulattos made every effort to dissociate themselves from ‘blacks’. Carl Degler has named this phenomenon ‘the mulatto escape hatch’,6 and there is a similar phrase in Martinican Creole: peau chappé (escape skin). This was further complicated by class: to be rich, or to hold a high-status job, was to become ‘whiter’. The ideal of a colour-blind society was thus nothing but the ideal of assimilation to white French culture.

During the occupation of France in World War II, Admiral Georges Robert arrived in the island as representative of the Vichy government. Ten thousand European sailors were stationed in Martinique for four years. It has been suggested that it was the racism of these sailors that finally fuelled underlying resentment and facilitated the birth of a black Martinican consciousness. Most black Martinicans at this time believed themselves to be first and foremost French. The European servicemen, however, treated them as ‘niggers’. In 1943, in the face of massive demonstrations, Admiral Robert was forced to resign. Despite the unrest caused by the occupation, and the racism that black Martinicans faced both in their homeland and, particularly, when they travelled to France, the racial ideology of Martinique seems to have been deeply-seated in not only whites, but within the mulatto and black communities as well. The myth of racial harmony and the absence of legal segregation prevented black Martinicans from uniting in a focused struggle for racial equality. (The dispersal of French West Indian families on both sides of the Atlantic has also been discussed as a major obstacle to the formation of nationalist movements: Edouard Glissant, the Martinican cultural critic, has termed this ‘genocide by substitution’.)7 As Michel Giraud notes, there was no substantial difference in the way in which each racial group in Martinique perceived itself (auto-stereotype) and the way in which it was perceived by other racial groups (hetero-stereotype), which leads him to conclude that racism in Martinique was firmly internalized.8 It is easy to criticize the essentializing elements of the concept of négritude that Césaire employed as a means of overcoming this ‘escape hatch’ ideology, but the specific racial history that Césaire was confronting makes matters less straightforward.


The Martinican literature produced during Césaire's childhood was, almost without exception, ‘traditional’ French literary production, what Léon Damas has termed ‘tracing-paper poetry’. This was one of the first aspects of black Martinique to be attacked in the Légitime Défense (1932), a journal published by a group of Martiniquan students at the Sorbonne that would have a profound impact on their struggle for cultural identity. It provided a clear indication of its opinion of the current West Indian literary tradition:

The West Indian writer, stuffed to bursting with white morality, white culture, white education, white prejudice, fills his little books with a swollen image of himself. Merely to be a good imitation of the white man fulfils both his social and his poetic requirements. He cannot be too modest or too sedate. Should you dare show natural exuberance in his presence, he immediately accuses you of ‘making like a nigger’. So naturally, he does not want to ‘make like a nigger’ in his poems. It is a point of honor with him that a white person could read his entire book without ever guessing the author's pigmentation.9

Even when writers were not employing traditional French imagery or classical subject-matter, they continued to express themselves in traditional ‘poetic’ French language, style, form and vocabulary. The poetry written specifically about Martinique was restricted to the view of the colonizer, who spoke only of the paradise of the island, thus textually erasing the squalor, poverty and racism caused by colonialism. This cultural bleaching culminated in an exhibition held in Paris in 1945 by the Ministry of Colonies. It was entitled ‘The Happy Antilles: in honour of all those who have dreamed of the Islands with a poet's heart’, and included poems from which the following quotations have been taken:

Ah! all the sweetness of my early childhood
Those languid nights in the port of Fort-de-France
A vegetable paradise
Long do you enchant me with your captivating play.
.....Coffer of kisses
Hummingbird to tourists
Geographic gem
Dear garden of small gifts
Ground for the supple footsteps
And ample stride of coloured women
Small circus of the hallway of my heart
Familiar jack-in-the-box.(10)

It was poetry of this type that Césaire wished to expose as blatantly perpetuating the colonial myth. He believed that it was essential to reveal the agenda of ‘colour-blind literature’ and to begin to create a cultural form in which to express the reality of racism and poverty that was lived by the majority of Martinican blacks. Published in a 1941 issue of Tropiques, Suzanne Césaire's poem ‘Misère d'une poésie: John-Antoine Nau’, epitomizes the attack on traditional French and exotic ‘touristic’ writing which she condemns as ‘Littérature de hamac. Littérature de sucre et de vanille. Tourisme littéraire …’ (Literature of the hammock. Literature of sugar and vanilla. Literary tourism).11 Eventually, and perhaps paradoxically, it was a European literary movement that Césaire appropriated in his search for a poetry of defiance: Surrealism. The Surrealist movement temporarily seemed to fit neatly with Césaire's requirements for a movement of cultural resistance: it aimed to shock the prim bourgeoisie with a production of humorous, vulgar gestures that attempted to undermine the validity and authority of high-brow Western culture. As R. M. Albères states:

Surrealism set dynamite under these conventions and blew them up. New foliage grew in the ruined palaces of sentiment and rhetoric. A jungle of wild plants, their roots drawing strength from the unconscious and their strange shapes breaking all known rules of botany, fertilized the fields of rubble—the ruins of the ever heavier constructions of a civilization which, from a surfeit of rational humanism, had drowned in the habitual.12

This new literary credo offered Césaire a great variety of ammunition to turn against stagnant European traditions. The innovative method of foraging into the unconscious, and particularly the ‘black unconscious’, seemed an ideal way in which to start to delve into the ‘black memory’ and rediscover the beginnings of ‘black history’. Although today these terms are frequently branded as essentialist and therefore highly suspect, for Césaire and his contemporaries such categories provided a framework and a much-needed space within which black Martinicans could question their Euro- and ethnocentric education and begin to envisage a new and positive awareness of being ‘black’. As Sartre said of Césaire, ‘surrealism, a European movement in poetry [has been] stolen from the Europeans by a black man who turns it against them and gives it a well defined purpose.’13


After completing a model assimilationist education, mainly in Paris, Césaire returned to Martinique in 1939. After the war, he was invited to run on the Communist party ticket in the municipal elections and was elected mayor in 1945. The following year he successfully oversaw Martinique's transition from a colony to a department of France. This was something that he had long struggled for, and which he believed to be a positive change. However, it was to be the first disappointment in a long and often disillusioning political career. It actually resulted in the loss of the limited, but real influence that local people could bring to bear on colonial governors and officials. The whole decision-making process was transferred to Paris, and the colonial governors, who were often residents of Martinique, were replaced by prefects who were less sensitive to local needs. From 1958 to 1964, the sugar industry, which had produced almost all of Martinique's exports, went into serious decline and unemployment rose to 25 per cent. The riots of 1959 in Fort-de-France were directed ‘not against the local white Creoles, but against metropolitans … the metropolitan had, in scarcely more than a decade, become a popular scapegoat for the disruptions and disappointments of departmentalization’.14 Césaire formed the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais in 1958: its aim was not independence, but autonomy. The colonial legacy of social, economic and psychological destruction has left Martinique significantly dependent on France for financial support (in the 1970s, France was supplying half Martinique's revenue). Although nominally it has been abandoned, colonialism remains both overtly and insidiously in place, as Susan Frutkin notes: ‘French assistance has been along social rather than developmental lines, and, while a higher standard of living has accompanied the infusion of public funds, in reality it reflects an inflated state of welfare living rather than any improvement in the island's productive capabilities.’15

This was the political climate in which Une tempête was written, Césaire having turned to theatre for a more accessible cultural channel through which to communicate his views:

Blacks from now on must make their history. And the history of the blacks will truly be what they will make of it … a black writer cannot enclose himself in an ivory tower. There are things to be understood … it is necessary to speak clearly, speak concisely, to get the message across—and it seems to me that the theatre can lend itself to that.16

Although Césaire here stresses the importance of transmitting ‘the message’, the particular form of theatre to which he turned was actually one of great flexibility. It seems that what may be interpreted as a desire to find a more transparent medium resulted in the discovery of a highly diverse and shifting site of performance. Jean-Michel Serreau, who collaborated with Césaire on all three of his plays (Césaire has said that Serreau's death contributed to his decision not to continue writing drama), sought ‘an open or exploded scenic space, overtly constructed rather than self-enclosed, an environment for registering rhythmic movement rather than capturing a static scene’.17 In making explicit the process of construction and impermanence, this theatre could be mobile and provisional: it could adapt itself to an individual environment rather than the audience adapting themselves to the institutional stasis of traditional theatre. The message, then, becomes an integral part of the dramatic process, as Césaire highlights in the opening masking scene of Une tempête. In this scene, what was originally intended to be an entirely black cast dons masks in order to designate the race of each character. Césaire suggests that the allocation of masks (and therefore race) is an arbitrary process by showing each actor to be choosing his or her mask:

Come gentlemen, help yourselves. To each his character and to each character his mask. You, Prospero? Why not? His is an unfathomable will to power. You, Caliban? Well, well, that's revealing. You, Ariel! I have no objections. And what about Stephano? And Trinculo? No takers? Ah, just in time! It takes all sorts to make a world.18

One of Césaire's pointed changes to Shakespeare's cast list was to specify Caliban as a black slave and Ariel as a mulatto slave. Prospero's race and nationality are left unspecified and, although the obvious assumption is that the actor will don a white mask, Césaire avoids any assumption that ‘white’ is a neutral or normative race—because every actor wears a mask, the white race is displayed as equally constructed and performed. As Robert Eric Livingston comments: ‘The effect of the maskplay is to de-essentialize the construction of race, to set up a tension between the racial script and its performance’.19 From the outset, therefore, Césaire undermines his own racial stereotyping of a black Caliban as the violent rebellious slave (the ‘Malcolm X’ figure) and Ariel as the ‘whitened’, Christian ‘Uncle Tom’ mulatto, who hopes to assert change through non-violent means (the Martin Luther King figure). The overlaying of a specifically American colonial situation (which Césaire himself posited and which is evident in the echoes of the US black leaders' speeches in the speeches of Caliban and Ariel) adds to the play the contemporary politics of the Black Power movement. This compression of colonial history (remembering that the first performance of the play was set in pioneer America) produces a reinforcing of the simultaneous commentary offered by the play on both the historical condition of slavery and its effect on contemporary Martinique. Universal themes of power and colonialism are shown to be locked in constant combat with specifics of time and locality. As Homi Bhabha points out in this essay's second epigraph, the disruption of the traditional Western teleological conception of history offers one way of levering open the holes and voids of the colonial story.

Re-tracing ‘black history’ on the stage reveals what Glissant has observed to be a vertiginous process: ‘For history is not only absence for us, it is vertigo. The time that was never ours we must now possess. We do not see it stretch into our past and calmly take us into tomorrow, but it explodes in us as a compact mass, pushing through a dimension of emptiness where we must with difficulty and pain put it all back together.’20 Césaire's choice of dramatic form destabilizes authorial control and rejects the concept of uncontaminated reading. As Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins note, ‘most postcolonial criticism overlooks drama, perhaps because of its apparently impure form: playscripts are only a part of theatre experience, and performance is therefore difficult to document.’21

Despite Césaire's achievement of both beginning to develop a specific space for ‘black’ culture and, at the same time, highlighting the constructed nature of racial identity, there remain apparent racial clichés in the play that are less straightforward to explain or justify. For example, Western culture is characterized as the height of Enlightenment rationalism (epitomized by the measured dance and mannered speeches of the prudish Olympian goddesses) and ‘black culture’ is portrayed in an equally hackneyed manner, as a vibrant glorification of chaos and untamed nature, personified by Eshu (the Yoruba god of boundaries between worlds):

… Eshu is a feisty lad, and with his penis he smites,
He smites
He smites …
Well! Iris, don't you find this song obscene?
Disgusting! Intolerable … If he carries on, I'm leaving!

This opposition feels uncomfortable because it seems to perpetuate stereotyping that was, and continues to be, employed by colonialists. However, read within the context of a play that Césaire specified as having the ‘ambience of a psychodrama’, to simplify his treatment as stereotyping or essentialism would be reductive. In fact, by placing such blatant stereotypes on the stage, Césaire reveals and displays internalized and entrenched racial images, and thereby provokes discussion.

Additionally, the manner in which Césaire juggles and undermines rôles and characters ensures that an atmosphere of impermanence and humour is maintained. From the very start of the play, Prospero's role as theatre director is usurped by the mysterious ‘Messeur de jeu’ who supervises the random distribution of actors' parts and who also generates the tempest itself. Thus, despite Prospero's later rantings about conducting the score of the island, during the first scene we see him relegated to an anonymous actor. Not only are racial rôles displayed as being constructed through masking, but the play is also frequently interrupted by characters usurping the rôles of others: Césaire himself takes Shakespeare's place; Eshu intrudes into the Western pantheon; Ferdinand plays at being a slave and Stephano and Trinculo at being kings and generals. Rôles and subjects are exploded and temporary, they can be taken or handed out; despite Césaire's desire to write the black subject into existence, the play's self-conscious treatment of performance tends repeatedly to shake off the potential solidification of racial essence.

Une tempête is also an urgent play of protest, written at a time when Césaire could see the possibility of autonomy for Martinique (let alone independence) slipping further and further out of reach. Although négritude and its association with a return to African roots has been heavily criticized for its reductionism, Césaire needed to maintain the momentum of a waning struggle. He was well aware that négritude's creation of Africa was a textual process: ‘Of course my knowledge of Africa was bookish; I and my whole generation were dependent on what whites wrote about it’.22 The very textuality of Africa enables its appropriation to an anticolonialist cause. As Benita Parry observes:

As I read them [Césaire and Fanon], both affirmed the invention of an insurgent, unified black self, acknowledged the revolutionary energies released by valorizing the cultures denigrated by colonialism and, rather than construing the colonialist relationship in terms of negotiations with the structures of imperialism, privileged coercion over hegemony to project it as a struggle between implacably placed forces, an irony made all too obvious in enunciations inflected, indeed made possible, by these very negotiations.23

Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1952) provides an analysis of the dilemma of négritude that offers much to supplement a reading of Césaire. As Bhabha points out, it is particularly surprising that in Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon rarely historicizes the colonial experience:

There is no master narrative or realist perspective that provide a background of social and historical facts against which emerge the problems of the individual and the collective psyche. It is through image and fantasy—those orders that figure transgressively on the borders of history and the unconscious—that Fanon most profoundly evokes the colonial condition.24

This observation could productively be applied to Une tempête, in which the use of masks and the specified atmosphere of ‘psychodrama’ create the pre-conditions for a gap between performer and rôle, thus undermining a realist perspective. Similarly, location and historical moment are implied by Césaire, but never made explicit. As Parry suggests, négritude was not the regression to, or recovery of, a pre-existent state, but a textually invented history, ‘an identity effected through figurative operators, and a tropological construction of blackness as a sign of the colonized condition and its refusal’.25

Fanon's frustration with Sartre's critique of négritude as being ‘anti-racist racism’ is telling: ‘I needed not to know’, Fanon tells us, ‘I needed to lose myself completely in négritude’.26 Sartre, in an essay entitled ‘Black Orpheus’ had written:

négritude appears as the minor term of a dialectical progression: the theoretical and practical assertion of the supremacy of the white man is its thesis; the position of négritude as an antithetical value is the moment of negativity … Thus négritude is the root of its own destruction, it is a transition and not a conclusion, a means and not an ultimate end.27

Although both Fanon and Césaire may have sympathized with the last part of this critique, negating négritude as the minor antithesis of white supremacy was a formation that undermined négritude's potential for opening a space (albeit transitory) in which black culture could develop. Furthermore, it seemed to destroy any sense of the agency of black resistance. Sartre continued, ‘Today let us hail the turn of history that will make it possible for the black men to utter the great Negro cry with a force that will shake the pillars of the world (Césaire)’. To which Fanon responded

And so it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me. It is not out of my bad nigger's misery, my bad nigger's teeth, my bad nigger's hunger that I will shape a torch with which to burn down the world, but it is the torch that was already there, waiting for the turn of history.28

However, although Fanon does not comment on this point, it is Sartre's distinction between race and class that seems to be the most problematic part of his argument. ‘The first (race) is concrete and particular, the second (class) is universal and abstract; the one stems from what Jaspers calls understanding and the other from intellection; the first is the result of a psychobiological syncretism and the second is a methodical construction based on experience.’29 This hierarchization of class over race employs adjectives that are close to those frequently used in describing white superiority. Sartre seems to suggest that race is subordinate because it is a ‘particular’ issue—that of non-whites—whereas class is a universal issue. This distinction falls easily into the statement that everybody has a ‘class’ whilst only non-white people have a ‘race’.


In ‘Misére d'une poésie’ Suzanne Césaire writes: ‘La poésie martiniquaise sera cannibale ou ne sera pas!’ (Either the poetry of Martinique will be cannibalistic or there will be no poetry in Martinique). The word ‘cannibale’ is coyly translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy as ‘done with them’, which ignores its most literal connotations and force. The term suggests not merely that the ‘cannibal’ could be appropriated as a symbol of colonized people, but goes further to imply that the poetry itself should be ‘cannibalistic’. For writers so long force-fed European literature, the time had come to devour and digest this same literature in a self-conscious manner and be empowered to spew out whatever they chose not to swallow. When Prospero asks Caliban what he would do alone on the island, Caliban answers: ‘I'd rid myself of you, first of all … I'd vomit you up, all your pomp and designs! Your white poison!’ This can be seen as an analogy for the very process of adapting canonical texts. Taking the canon to task enables writers to destroy any apparent European monopoly on representation and, like Eshu, to interrupt and intervene in established social conditioning. Cannibalistic intertextuality allows a replaying of fiction that rejects claims to transcendence or to the supposed universality of Shakespeare's self-evident worth.

Césaire highlights the issues of hunger, consumption, force-feeding and power during the scene in which Prospero torments Alonso, Gonzalo and Sebastian by tempting them with a delicious meal and then removing it. The first time the food vanishes, Alonso says, ‘I firmly believe that we have fallen into the hands of powers that are playing cat and mouse with us. It's a cruel way of making us appreciate our helplessness.’ But, as soon as the unfortunate men decide not to touch the meal, Prospero asserts his control:

(Invisible) I don't like this refusal, Ariel. Torment them until they eat.
Why should we put ourselves out for their benefit? It's their look-out if they won't eat; they'll die of hunger.
No, I want them to eat.
That's despotism. A while ago you made me snatch it away from their drooling mouths; now that they refuse, you are ready to force-feed them.
Enough quibbling! My mood has changed! They would wrong me by not eating! Let them experience eating out of my hand like chicks. I insist upon this sign of their submission.
It's as evil to play their hunger as it is their anguish and their hope.
That is how power is measured. I am Power.

Here, the hungry trio are forced, unknowingly, to submit to Prospero's crazed desire for power. The process of being forced to consume Prospero's language and culture leads Caliban to want to vomit Prospero's ‘white poison’; and Césaire's text, in a comparable gesture, is produced through a controlled consumption of Shakespeare's text.

Peter Hulme has suggested that Shakespeare's Tempest is structured by a series of replays or re-enactments, most signally Prospero's staging of a fantasized version of the original conspiracy that overthrew him with the difference that, this time, he will defeat the conspirators, led by Caliban.30 What happens, then, when a writer who has forged a political identification with Caliban, adapts the play, thus replaying the replays? If, for Prospero, a psychopathic series of repetitions placates him with the satisfaction of victory over a powerless subject, for Césaire the replay is not so simple. When Prospero sets in motion his re-enactment, he is certain that his plan to resume his dukedom will be successful (although at times his grand plan seems fragile and superficial). However, as Césaire replays Shakespeare, the end to colonialism in Martinique was not close at hand. Thus Césaire, unlike Prospero, does not even appear to ‘win’ at the finish of Une tempête: the struggle between colonized and colonizer remains unresolved. Significantly, Césaire appears to allow Caliban the chance to defeat Prospero, which he refuses to take. Whereas Shakespeare's Caliban is portrayed as completely powerless against Prospero, Césaire's Caliban faces a crucial moment in which destiny appears to be in his hands. In a complex twist, Césaire suggests that at this moment Prospero is both fallible and simultaneously invincible. He is not purely a magician (Césaire stresses this by transforming the majority of his powers into military and technological ones), and yet his power and its aftermath are strong enough to prevent a reversal of his position. Caliban is unable to wave goodbye to the oppressors and reclaim his freedom because he and Prospero remain trapped together on the island (‘Prospero: Ah well, my old Caliban, we're the only two left on this island, just you and me. You and me! You-me! Me-you!’). Joan Dayan links this reciprocity with the strategy employed by Césaire to undermine the notion of Shakespeare's Tempest being the ‘original’. Césaire refuses to give his work any illusion of primariness, and thus avoids a reductive reversal. ‘Instead, he recognises the force of mutuality, the knot of reciprocity between master and slave, between a prior “classic” and his response to it. This labour of reciprocity accounts for the complexities of Césaire's transformation: a labour that defies any simple opposition between black and white, master and slave, original and adaptation, authentic and fake.’31

Here, Dayan is also alluding to the ‘dependency theory’ promulgated by Octave Mannoni, to which Césaire had strongly objected in his Discourse on Colonialism. But, despite Césaire's complete rejection of the concept that particular races were inherently predisposed either to the rôle of colonizer or the rôle of colonized, he was influenced by the idea that dependency established following colonization could be psychological and not exclusively economic. An economic dependency due to de-forestation and soil erosion of the island is implied in the text (‘Sebastian: A pity that the ground's barren in places. Caliban: That isn't mud … It's something Prospero's conjured up’), but complex psychological reasons are also suggested for Caliban's refusal to murder Prospero. It is not clear whether Prospero is genuinely physically defenceless, but in any case he manages to paralyse Caliban's action merely with words. Firstly, he orders Caliban to strike him. This immediately maintains the master-slave relation: Caliban's act of freedom would thus be to obey his master's orders. Second, Prospero refuses to arm himself, placing Caliban not only in the rôle of slave, but also in that of assassin—he allows Caliban no civilized way out. By denying him the typically Shakespearean duel, he also refuses to treat Caliban as an equal human being. Unlike Prospero, who is content with a sham victory over a powerless and unaware victim, Caliban yearns for a ‘real’ victory. Despite his scorn for Ariel's struggle to ‘free’ Prospero and give him a conscience, in the final hour it seems that Caliban is not content with a cold-blooded murder that would implicate him in a reductive reaction rather than any genuine solution. Caliban is nearer to approaching a positive position with his lucid articulation of the process of colonization and his verbal attack on Prospero that finally leads Prospero to admit: ‘you are the one who made me doubt myself for the first time’. But Césaire makes it quite clear that lengthening colonial dependence, in whatever form (Gonzalo's speech suggests the neocolonial behaviour of the tourism industry: ‘They must stay as they are: savages, noble savages, free, without complex or complication. Something like a pool of eternal youth where we would come at intervals to revive our drooping urban spirits’), cannot be seen as a victory for the colonizer. Prospero's final degeneration and loss of the precious order of his ‘civilization’, the disintegration of his mind and of his language, reveal Césaire's belief in what he called the ‘boomerang effect’—the phenomenon by which colonialism poisons and dehumanizes both sides. As Fanon puts it, ‘The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.’32 While Caliban has found a reductive form of freedom and Prospero's rantings are drowned by the noises of the island, a rotting colonialism continues to fester, reminding us, in Dayan's words, that for many peoples the era of ‘postcolonialism’ has not yet dawned, and for Martinique Une tempête serves as a ‘painful reminder of what has not happened’.33 Furthermore, the form of neocolonialism that remains in Martinique is particularly entrenched because racism and financial dependence are masked by an apparent understanding and unity between colonizer and colonized.


  1. Aimé Césaire, quoted in Richard D. E. Burton, Assimilation or Independence? Prospects for Martinique (Montreal, 1978), p. 1.

  2. Homi Bhabha, ‘Remembering Fanon’, in Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London, 1986), p. xi.

  3. Noted in Robert Eric Livingston, ‘Decolonising the Theatre: Césaire, Serreau and the Drama of Négritude’, in J. Ellen Gainor, ed., Imperialism and Theatre: Essays on World Theatre, Drama and Performance (London, 1995), pp. 182-98.

  4. Quoted in Livingston, ‘Decolonising the Theatre’, p. 192.

  5. Lilyan Kesteloot, Black Writers in French, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy (Philadelphia, 1974), p. 242 (my italics).

  6. Carl Degler, Neither Black nor White (Wisconsin, 1971), esp. pp. 205-64.

  7. Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville, 1989), p. xix.

  8. Michel Giraud, ‘Dialectics of Descent and Phenotypes in Racial Classification in Martinique’, in Richard D. E. Burton and Fred Reno, eds, French and West Indian: Martinique, Guadaloupe and French Guiana Today (London, 1995), pp. 75-85.

  9. From Légitime défense, quoted in Kesteloot, Black Writers in French, p. 19.

  10. René Maran and Gilbert Gratiant, quoted in Kesteloot, Black Writers in French, pp. 31 and 33-4:

    Ah! toute la douceaur de ma petite enfance
    Ces languissantes nuits du port de Fort-de-France
    Paradis végétaux
    Enchantez-moi longtemps du jeu de vos prestiges.
    .....Coffre à baisers
    Colibri du tourisme
    Bijou géographique
    Cher jardin des petits cadeaux
    Sol pour les démarches souples
    Et l'ample enjambée des femmes de couleur
    Petit cirque des corridors du coeur
    Familière boîte à surprise.
  11. Suzanne Césaire, ‘Misère d'une poésie: John-Antoine Nau’, Tropiques, no. 4 (1941).

  12. R. M. Albères, L'Aventure intellectuelle de XXe siècle (Paris, 1959), quoted in Kesteloot, Black Writers in French, pp. 38-9; cf. Michael Richardson, ed., Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean (London, 1996).

  13. Sartre, quoted in Kesteloot, Black Writers in French, p. 45.

  14. Richard D. E. Burton, ‘The French West Indies à l'heure de l'Europe: An Overview’, in French and West Indian, pp. 1-19.

  15. Susan Frutkin, Black Between Worlds: Aimé Césaire (Miami, 1973), p. 9.

  16. Césaire, quoted in Frutkin, Black Between Worlds, p. 47.

  17. Livingston, ‘Decolonising the Theatre’, p. 184.

  18. All quotations from Une tempête are taken from Philip Crispin's forthcoming translation, published by Oberon Books.

  19. Livingston, ‘Decolonising the Theatre’, p. 193.

  20. Glissant, quoted in Benita Parry, ‘Resistance Theory/Theorising Resistance, or Two Cheers for Nativism’, in Francis Barker et al., eds, Colonial Discourse/Postcolonial Theory (Manchester, 1994), pp. 172-96.

  21. Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins, Postcolonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics (London, 1996), p. 8.

  22. Césaire, quoted in A. James Arnold, Modernism and Négritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Cambridge, MA, 1981), p. 44.

  23. Parry, ‘Resistance Theory/Theorising Resistance’, pp. 179-80.

  24. Bhabha, ‘Remembering Fanon’, p. xiii.

  25. Parry, ‘Resistance Theory/Theorising Resistance’, p. 182.

  26. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 135.

  27. Sartre, Black Orpheus, quoted in Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 133.

  28. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 134.

  29. Sartre, Black Orpheus, quoted in Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 133.

  30. Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (London, 1986), p. 121.

  31. Joan Dayan, ‘Playing Caliban: Césaire's Tempest’, Arizona Quarterly, 48/4 (1992), pp. 125-45.

  32. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 60.

  33. Dayan, ‘Playing Caliban’, p. 138.

Further Reading

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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 discourse and his eloquent expressions of negritude are meant to counter the European sentiments in Shakespeare's play.”

Cohn, Ruby. “Black Power on Stage: Emperor Jones and King Christophe.Yale French Studies 46 (1971): 41-7.

Finds parallels between Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones and Césaire's The Tragedy of King Christophe.

Conteh-Morgan, John. “A Note on the Image of the Builder in Aimé Césaire's La Tragédie du Roi Christophe.French Review 57, no. 2 (December 1983): 224-30.

Examines the function of the image of the builder in The Tragedy of King Christophe.

———. Aimé Césaire: ‘La Tragédie du roi Christophe’: ‘Une Saison au Congo’,Theatre and Drama in Francophone Africa: A Critical Introduction, pp. 85-122. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Offers stylistic and thematic overviews of The Tragedy of King Christophe and A Season in the Congo.

Robinson, James E. “Caribbean Caliban: Shifting the ‘I’ of the Storm.” Comparative Drama 33, no. 4 (winter 1999-2000): 431-53.

Explores the figure of Caliban in A Tempest and George Lamming's The Pleasures of Exile and Water with Berries.

Ruprecht, Alvina. “Staging Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête: Anti-Colonial Theatre in the Counter-Culture Continuum.” Essays in the Theatre 15, no. 1 (November 1996): 59-68.

Discusses performance aspects of A Tempest.

Willoquet-Maricondi, Paula. “Aimé Césaire's A Tempest and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books as Ecological Rereadings and Rewritings of Shakespeare's The Tempest.” In Reading the Earth: New Directions in the Study of Literature and the Environment, edited by Michael P. Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Daniel Patterson, and Scott Slovic, pp. 209-24. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1998.

Contends that Césaire's A Tempest and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books “are theatrical and cinematic ‘rereadings’ and ‘rewritings’ of Shakespeare's The Tempest that express our contemporary concerns with the power of science and technology to alter and destroy the ecosystemic relations on which hinges the survival of all beings.”

Additional coverage of Césaire's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 24, 43, 81; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors and Poets; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Guide to French Literature: 1789 to the Present; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 25; and World Poets.


Aimé Césaire World Literature Analysis


Césaire, Aimé (Poetry Criticism)