The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Tragedy of King Christophe begins with a prologue. This prologue takes place at a cockfight, in which earthy peasants bet on two cocks named Christophe and Pétion, the names of the two major protagonists of the play. A commentator apprises the audience of the historical events explaining the conflict between the leader of the northern forces, Christophe, and the leader of the southern French sympathizers, Pétion.

Scene 2 further develops the geographical conflict as Christophe and Pétion come into irresolvable conflict over the necessity of either establishing a republic (Pétion) or creating a kingdom (Christophe). Vastey, Christophe’s secretary, urges the crowd to proclaim Christophe king; Christophe, after accepting the call to the throne, immediately warns the Haitians that he will not tolerate their habitual self-indulgence and indolence. Scene 3 supplies some comic relief by showing how the emerging black kingdom is unable to break away from the conventions of the French court which it is trying so desperately to escape. King Christophe is renaming members of his court with titles such as the duke of Pleasance, the duke of Lemonade, and the dukes of Candytown and Marmalade. Vastey explains, quite ironically, how these empty new names define the boundaries of civilization. Christophe then enters to further define the renaming process. He asserts that the French colonizers had stolen their rightful names and that he was obligated to give them new names based on their actual culture.

The next scene shows the actual coronation of King Christophe by archbishop Brelle; however, Christophe snatches the crown out of the archbishop’s hands and crowns himself in imitation of Napoleon’s action at his coronation, where he snatched the crown from the pope and declared himself the emperor. In the soliloquy concluding the scene, Christophe verbally crowns his people, thus identifying himself with their cause. By scene 5, though, the debilitating effects of the fighting between the north and the south, Christophe and Pétion, are demonstrated in the dying speech of Metellus, whom King Christophe has ordered shot along with the remaining wounded. Metellus delineates the crisis of Haiti: King Christophe is driven by a dream of the “dancing woman” but has come not to build a country but to “stake out” political boundaries instead. The mythic dream has fallen into the political reality of power struggles.

The remaining scenes show King Christophe assuming all the various functions of a reigning monarch as he falls prey to the lures of power and its corrupting potential. He insists that sestets be composed to the national beverage, rum, and that they be taught in every school. He receives letters from such luminaries as Wilberforce, who advises him to be careful with his power; the queen also warns him that his power is threatening to blind him and that he is driving his people beyond reason. She compares him, in keeping with the prevailing botanical metaphors used throughout the play, with the fig tree which grabs hold of the surrounding vegetation and stifles it rather than enabling it to prosper.

The act concludes with King Christophe, the former slave and cook, bitterly denouncing his people for their indolence and perpetual need to do nothing but drink and dance. He calls in his...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Tragedy of King Christophe does not indulge in any radical theatrical techniques. It is a straightforward three-act play with plenty of colorful spectacle throughout. The major contrasts throughout the play are between the miserable peasant settings and the opulent and overstuffed court scenes. Aimé Césaire has also embedded in the play certain patterns from other literatures that relate it to famous dramas and epics from the past. For example, the hero possesses most of the characteristics of the classical Greek tragic hero including hubris (pride) and hamartia (tragic flaw). Césaire also employs, ironically, some conventions from ancient epics; he presents a cataloging of characters and their new, silly names and ranks rather than the conventional cataloging of weapons and ships that both Homer and Vergil practiced. In this instance, the technique works to satirize the scene and the characters and make them look ridiculous.

Madame Christophe also takes on the role of the Greek chorus in her continuous warnings to her husband to stop flaunting his arrogance and attend to the poverty and agony of his people. The letter from Wilberforce underscores the queen’s function by warning him about the same pitfalls of power. Much of the courtly preening and foppish behavior of the king’s attendants evokes scenes from both Molière and his English counterparts, the Restoration dramatists, and adds another level of satire that an informed playgoer would undoubtedly detect.

Equally important, however, is the richness of the language Césaire uses throughout the play. He intertwines luxurious Latinate syntax with earthy and sometimes vulgar Haitian French argot which resonates with the rhythms of Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, and other French Surrealist poets. The language also possesses the rhetorical power found in lines of Jean Racine, Pierre Corneille, and William Shakespeare.

The most compelling single image in the play is, however, the building of the citadel or watchtower. Indeed, as it reappears throughout the play, it takes on an ominous symbolic dimension and evokes other destructive buildings such as the Tower of Babel, the Egyptian pyramids, and the broken towers of ancient Troy. Césaire’s wide literary background enables him not only to tell a story with wit and precision but also to adorn it with sophisticated allusions and literary conventions.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Arnold, A. James. “Césaire and Shakespeare: Two Tempests.” Comparative Literature Studies 30 (Summer, 1978): 236-248.

Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Bailey, Marianne Wichman. The Ritual Theater of Aimé Césaire: Mythic Structures of the Dramatic Imagination. Tübingen, Germany: G. Narr, 1992.

Césaire, Aimé. Introduction to The Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire. Edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Cohen, Henry. “The Petrified Builder: Césaire’s Roi Christophe.” Studies in Black Literature 5 (Winter, 1974): 21-24.

Davis, Gregson. Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Pallister, Janice L. Aimé Césaire. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.