The Tragedy of King Christophe

by Aimé Césaire

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Critical Context

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Aimé Césaire’s reputation up to the publication of The Tragedy of King Christophe was based primarily on his work as a highly respected poet and politician in his native Martinique. His major work up to 1963 was his long poem titled Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939; Memorandum on My Martinique, 1947, also as Return to My Native Land, 1968), which had established his literary reputation in both Europe and the United States. In that poem, he articulated the ideals of a term he and another black poet, Léopold Senghor, had invented: “négritude.” He has, since then, become most consistently associated with that concept, a concept that expresses the pride of black people in the fact of their blackness and urges them to reject assimilation with white, European culture: They should honor and attend to their unique racial roots.

By the early 1960’s, however, Césaire wanted to reach a larger audience and turned to the writing of plays that would clearly articulate the concerns of black people using relevant historical and literary models as subjects. His conscious effort to turn away from writing his sometimes highly sophisticated and intellectually challenging poetry to using a more accessible and conventional dramatic structure demonstrated his seriousness in propounding black causes.

The Tragedy of King Christophe was the first drama in a proposed trilogy of plays devoted to the tragedies of famous blacks. His next play was Une Saison au Congo (pb. 1966; A Season in the Congo, 1968), and it presented the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, a revolutionary poet, visionary, and martyr who enabled Africa to move toward independence from its European masters even though he failed to unify his country. The third play in Césaire’s trilogy is called Une Tempête, d’après “La Tempête” de Shakespeare: Adaptation pour un théâtre nègre (pr., pb. 1969; The Tempest, 1974) and is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611) using Prospero as a model of the white conqueror, the rational man, who opposes Caliban, a symbol of the black instinctual but enslaved man. Ariel becomes a metaphor of the mulatto, a man of science, but equally repressed by the power structure of Prospero.

The writing and producing of these plays has moved this great poet away from the kind of difficult and esoteric poetry that he had previously written, to a serious effort to speak to the agony of his fellow blacks and to find literary and historical models which directly deal with their enslavement and exploitation by European colonization.

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Critical Evaluation