(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Stylized Haitian peasants are acting out a cock fight between King Christophe and President Pétion, who are fighting for political power in Haiti. At the same time, French forces under Emperor Napoleon I are threatening to invade Haiti and to destroy the newly independent country that owes its freedom to a successful slave revolt led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture. The French later kill him in prison.

Most ominously, the French want to reestablish slavery in Haiti. The external threat weighs heavily, as the vain and racist megalomaniac Napoleon bitterly resents that black people had driven French soldiers from Haiti. A violent French attack against Haiti is expected at any time.

The incredibly vain King Christophe is to be rewarded for his courageous service as a general to Toussaint Louverture. The Haitian senate offers him the office of president of the republic. He haughtily rejects this honor because the Haitian constitution restricts the president’s power so that tyranny can be prevented.

As a representative of the senate, President Pétion tells Christophe that his desire for unlimited power means that he has rebelled against the state. Because of his vanity, Christophe provokes a civil war in Haiti. Southern Haiti remains a democracy, but Christophe transforms northern Haiti into an absolute monarchy and names himself king. He claims that he grants Haitians dignity by giving them noble titles—such as the duke of Lemonade and Sir Lolo Prettyboy—as artificial as those that can be found at any European royal court such as Versailles in France. The newly crowned king is blissfully oblivious to the simple fact that Haitians had revolted against...

(The entire section is 695 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In both The Tragedy of King Christophe and in Une Saison au Congo (pb. 1966, pr. 1967; A Season in the Congo, 1968), Césaire explores the abuse of power by black politicians. Although Césaire recognized that there were many superb black leaders, such as his friend, President Léopold Senghor of Senegal, and Toussaint-Louverture, the founder of the Haitian Republic and the subject of a biography written by Césaire, Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution française et le problème coloniale (1960), Césaire knew all too well that many black leaders in Haiti and in various African countries betrayed and exploited their people by transforming democracies into dictatorships. In The Tragedy of King Christophe, Césaire contrasts the simple honesty of Pétion, a successor to the heroic Toussaint-Louverture, with the demagogue and megalomaniac General Christophe.

As this play begins, the Haitians realize there is a very real threat that the forces of Napoleon I will invade Haiti in order to overthrow this new democracy and reestablish slavery. Pétion understands clearly that Napoleon I, who had reestablished slavery in the French Empire after it had been abolished during the French Revolution, wants to destroy the new democracy in Haiti. In order to resist the expected French invasion, Haitians must all cooperate in order to maintain their freedom. Pétion does not want power for himself; rather he desires to serve the Haitian people, so they can enjoy real freedom themselves.

Christophe, however, believes that he alone knows what the Haitian...

(The entire section is 656 words.)