Towards a historical materialist theatre: Aimé Césaire’s Dramatic Works and the Representation of History



Theater in the English speaking world is not doing well. Our dramas are suffused with hock-Freudian placidity and overwhelmingly proud of their lack of any desire to look beyond the scope of a single family or relationship between individuals. Our comedies are not funny and rarely comical in their lack of humour, while our fantasies (musical or otherwise) are limited to a slightly more functional update of the world as it stands, unsurprising given how many of them function as adaptations of Disney films that functioned, even when originally released, as soporifics. If you are looking for visions of a future world better than this one, stay as far as you can from the theaters of Broadway or the West End.


I can’t claim that it is within my power as a critic or reader or even as a ticket buying audience member to change of these problems. Barring a massive redistribution of wealth and the means of theatrical production from real estate developers and landlords to the artists and craftspeople, there isn’t much hope. The present and the future are so firmly colonized by the wealthy and content that any project of dyspeptic calls for change and disorder from those domains seem doomed to a slow and humorless failure.


But the past, even in its state of constant rotting deterioration, is always open to the radical planting of flags and masks and dancing grounds. And to that end, I have one small suggestion which would legitimately improve the state of the world of representation – take out each and every account of the lives of the American founding fathers or heroic English kings and queens, remove every account of the great white men who ran these countries into the catastrophes we see gradually approaching, cancel every story that teaches us that the House of Romanovs or Orleans or Astor or Windsor felt really bad about all the massacres they had to do for the sake of order and family and empire, and put on the plays of Aimé Césaire.


Césaire was a poet and politician in the island of Martinique who lived from 1913 to 2008. He was a member of the French Communist Party but left when the Soviets violently rejected calls for revolutions and independence in Eastern Europe and the colonized world.  His poetry was a foundation stone for the poetics of négritude and expanded the works and methods of the symbolists and surrealists into more stridently political questions. While his poetry is intensely dialogic and imagistic, he wrote only three plays – The Tragedy of King Christophe, a historical account of the last years of the life of Haitian revolutionary leader Henri Christophe; A Season in the Congo, a dramatization of Congo’s turbulent journey into independence from Belgium and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the most high profile leader of that movement; and A Tempest (his most popular in English), a response to and reworking of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. In each of these plays Césaire grapples with the questions of material conflict and revolution that are absolutely necessary for anyone attempting to present history on stage. I will walk through each play at some length in order to provide access to what I see as the primary dramatic and theoretical interest of each individually before elaborating from sections V to VII on more general theoretical and methodological questions surrounding the relation between historical presentation and the theater.




Césaire’s first full length play - The Tragedy of King Christophe – is an account of the first and only king of the kingdom of Haiti, taking place after the Haitian revolution has expelled the French colonists and a dictatorship led by the revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessaline has fallen apart. In the wreckage, the newly free country splinters into two nations – the republic of Haiti led by Alexandre Pétion and the kingdom in the north ruled by Henri Christophe. Christophe, a rigid general who demands that his subjects treat their jobs on plantations and in shipping as though they were military posts, and informs them that they will face military punishment if they desert those posts. He asserts dominance over Pétion in an early military conflict, but refuses to destroy the city Pétion has walled himself within because of the loss of Haitian lives that would ensue from a lengthy siege and retires to his kingdom to hunker down and develop his share of the island.


Christophe becomes obsessed with the fineries and fripperies of European nobility, providing his generals and advisors with noble titles and demanding they learn how to dance the court dances of the European elite. He forces the entire capital to contribute to the building of an incredible, immense cathedral in honor of the new nation, an edifice which, once seen, would bar anyone from ever imagining the Haitian people as less than human or incapable of greatness.


His subjects, newly freed slaves, are not happy to be forced back into labor on the plantations they fought to escape from and join up with an invasion from the republic to the south under the leadership of Pétion’s general Boyer after Pétion’s recent demise. Christophe commits suicide in the flames of his palace and his family is shortly killed as well.


The play is an eminently classical tragedy in three acts, with a central figure self-consciously living according to metrics of greatness that bar him from ever achieving them. He challenges the European skepticism that he will ever achieve greatness on their metrics, but does not escape from the quest to achieve greatness as defined by the Europeans and in the eyes of the Europeans, even as he wishes for self-fulfillment and confidence on the part of the freed slaves of the island. Césaire was a teacher of the great theorist of revolution and colonialism Frantz Fanon, and the careful analysis of the colonized mind in Fanon’s work attains a desperately painful dramatic rendering in Césaire’s tragedy.


Before any of these dramatic scenes of battle or soliloquies or declamations, the play begins with a preparatory scene. We see a small arena out of which come the sounds of a cockfight, surrounded by betters crying out the names of the fighting cocks – “Christophe! Christophe!” “Pétion! Pétion!” The spectators shout in admiration at great blows and strikes, at the strength of these fighters, and one of the cocks falls dead as the crowd goes wild. A narrator enters and tells us the names of these cocks refer to the leaders of the revolution and the main combatants in the upcoming drama. The narrator, in the mode of a bashful but capable historian tells us what we must know about the history.



Who is Christophe? Who is Pétion? My role is just to tell you this”

“You see them, Christophe, Pétion, two master cocks, two ‘maîtres-caloge’ as they say on the islands.

Yes, Christophe became king.

A king like Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV and a few others. And like all kings, all true kings, I want to say all white kings, he made a court and knighted a nobility.

But I shouldn’t tell you everything.


Here is Henry the 1st, Henry with a y. For me, I’ll be quiet! And for you Haiti!

(In the background: cries of the cockfighting ring. It is the voice of Haiti
Allez Christophe! Allez Christophe!)”
[translations mine throughout, p 14-16, présence africain, 1963]


In this introduction, we see the initial moment of Césaire’s dramaturgy in an elegant flash. We see a burning brutal conflict of bloody conflict which has a direct symbolic relationship to the conflict between Pétion and Christophe, but we also are told enough that we can understand the ways this conflict cannot be reduced to the flash of blood as some abstract irrational combat. Césaire does not pretend that politics can be separated from brutal and undignified violence, but this is not a vulgar reductionism to mechanical physics, since violence cannot be reduced in this way in the first place, even the violence of a cockfight! And besides all that, there is nothing irrational about a fight to the death, much less a fight for dignified living as a free human.


The play is a tragedy, as Christophe’s downfall comes directly from his incapacity to understand the ways his blinkered, divided subjectivity has blinded him to discontent closer to home than the eyes of the Europeans, even as the Europeans send in troops and funding to take advantage of that very discontent. his clown and advisor Hugonin attempts to clear his vision, but cannot make him see where his failures lie and flees the burning palace.


Christophe is left alone on stage as the enemy soldiers storm into the city, his body weakened from illness and his power reduced to nothing, and calls out to his origin, Africa, the land he has seen as origin and a true home he could never return to –

“Africa! Help me return, carry me like an aged child in your arms and strip me down, clean me. Strip me of all my vestments, Strip me, like, as the dawn comes, we strip ourselves of the dreams of the night…Of my nobles, my nobility, of my scepter, of my crown.

And wash me! Oh wash me of their grease, of their kisses, of my kingdom! The rest, I will attend to that alone.” [147]


Christophe is not able to see why he failed, and so cannot even fit his failure into a wider span of history than his own life, than his own naked fist raging at his enemies, and is left with no recourse but to end his life on his own power. He is not able to interpret his life as a lesson and push forward into the future with greater understanding of the motion of history and revolution. For Christophe, his failure can only be a tragic destiny. It is left to us to push beyond the horizons that barred him from greater successes. His empire falls and the military forces under Boyer and the republic of the South unite the entire island of Hispaniola over several years.  But Boyer and the unified Haitian state he led were not strong enough to retain hold on the Spanish areas of Hispaniola recently conquered, and they were not strong enough to hold off the French navy and American diplomats from forcing them to accept debts of indemnity for the theft of all the French property lost in the revolution, property that included the slaves themselves. The Haitians were forced by the iron laws of international finance to accept debt for having won their own liberty as human beings, and they were paying this debt well into the 20th century. Just as they were set to be free of this debt, the USA began a series of invasions to keep the barely independent state locked under their control, sending in marines to keep them from being too independent and eventually installing the horrific dictator Papa “Doc” Duvalier in 1957, whose family reigned with US support until the 1980s.


Would everything have been fine if King Christophe had continued to reign? Almost certainly not, but this is even here still the wrong question. Instead of asking what would have happened had event ‘x’ or ‘y’ not come to pass, we should ask why events ‘x’ and ‘y’ happened in the first place. The question demanded by Césaire’s play is ‘why did Christophe fall’, and the tragedy is that he is so blinded by his limitations that he cannot even begin this fundamental task of historical analysis at the moment that it becomes the only way his destiny might be, if not averted, at least seen for what it truly was. This is the ultimate failure of monarchies – they place the pressures of comprehending the ineluctable necessities of the world, pressures only rarely bearable by those greatest of multiplicities which go by the names of god or nation or world, all those pressures get forced onto one small head. For the good of all kings and queens, it is necessary to fight unceasingly for their immediate dethroning.




‘A Tempest’ is the most fantastical of Césaire’s plays, as well as the only one w/ a regular performance history on English stages, for the obvious and reasonable justification that it is a nearly scene for scene adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy The Tempest. It begins with the actors entering a stage empty except for a man with a box full of masks. As the actors approach and take a mask, the presenter comments on what their choices reveal about themselves, wondering why one would choose the mask of a Caliban and one of the Italian nobility. Choice of character by choice of character, the world of Shakespeare’s play takes shape, with the mortals and gods coming onto stage, and finally the mask of the storm is chosen, rolling and billowing as the role requires.


If we had time, we might ask ourselves in the audience what the masks are for and why we are being shown the preparation of the magic trick, why the play is being deflated before it has even begun? What is a mask if we see it being put on, within this lie which we cannot even pretend we believe to be true? But we don’t have time, and the Italians have rushed into the Caribbean storm.


Césaire’s script retains the plot of the original, with the exiled duke Prospero of Milan holding power over a Caribbean island taking revenge on his enemies after 20 years in isolation, using his magic to call down all the spirits and gods and winds and storms of Shakespeare’s play. He has raised his daughter and built a massive control through his prowess as a magician – dominating the natives and their gods after destroying the previous leader of the island, the witch Sycorax. As an expedition from Italy nears the shore and Prospero learns that his traitorous brother and Alonso, the King of Naples who aided his brother’s coup, are on board, he sends a storm to sink their boat and wash them all to the shores of this island he controls. Once they are ashore, Prospero forces them all to recognize his power and dominance, crown him duke again, and restore his status as a European noble.


As in Shakespeare’s comedy, this process is accompanied by a Romantic subplot between Prospero’s daughter Miranda and Alonso’s son Ferdinand, a union confirming his dynasty is intact and shall continue into the future. This thread of plot is expanded slightly by making the caddish elements of Ferdinand clearer and Miranda less bright-eyed and oblivious about the sweet airy words Ferdinand uses to woo her. But generally this is subordinated to the more explicitly anti-imperialist messages Césaire uses to radicalize the play.


The threads of plot that take precedence in Césaire’s piece are the labor relations latent in Shakespeare’s comedy. The subjects Prospero exploits to perform these magical acts of political rebirth are chafing his control and stage various rebellions throughout the play. The wind spirit Ariel asks nicely, and increasingly frequently, for Prospero to honor his promise to provide Ariel their freedom. Caliban, as the son of the former ruler of the island, refuses to work unless under threat of immediate and brutal magical punishments from Prospero.


The most remarkable relationship of the play is that between Caliban and Prospero, taking into account the incredible insight into and work done on the colonized society by Césaire and generations of African and Caribbean poets, analysts, historians and revolutionaries. Instead of the schematic account of race relations we see in Shakespeare’s play, so reliant on the essays of Michel de Montaigne, who, though broadly a compassionate and humanistic European who could see through the hypocrisy of Western condemnations of cannibalism and paganism, still never traveled outside Europe and could only appreciate the foreign savages as beyond the reach of his comprehension. He recognized that this incapacity on his part was not enough justification to mark the savages as failed humans, but he, and Shakespeare through this inspiration, never worked to push beyond this barrier.


Césaire, by contrast, allows his slaves, marked in the character list as “ariel – slave, ethnically mulatto” and “caliban – negro slave”, to speak with idiomatic, natural French, and to use this language to articulate precise and devastating grievances [7, éditions du seuil, 1969]. Caliban rejects the very name bestowed upon him by Prospero, as a foundational part of the theft of his identity as a free human subjectivity in the world. He declares “I have decided I will not be Caliban any more…I tell you that henceforth I will respond no more to the name Caliban.” Prospero asks where this has come from, and Caliban declares “well, from the fact that Caliban is not my name. It’s simple!...It is the sobriquet which your hate dressed me with and which insults me with every use…Call me X. That would be better. As when someone speaks of a man with no name. More exactly, of a man who has had their name stolen. You speak of history. Well there, there’s some history, and famously so! Every time that you called me, you reminded me this fundamental fact, that you have stolen everything from me and even up to my identity! Uhuru!” [27-28]


In the only scene between Ariel and Caliban alone in the play, we see a beautiful moment of solidarity across strategic and material divides, one worth dwelling on for a moment. Ariel tells Caliban they should just be nice and compromise with Prospero, to trust in Prospero’s conscience. Caliban laughs and shouts “Ooh la la! Let me laugh! Prospero’s conscience! Prospero is an old ruffian who doesn’t have a conscience.” Ariel agrees and says “Exactly, we must work to give one to him. I don’t just fight for my liberty, for our liberty, but also for Prospero, in order that a conscience can be born in Prospero. Aide-moi, Caliban.” Caliban, of course, dismisses such a possibility as anything beyond a naïve idealism. He tells Ariel that “You haven’t understood anything about Prospero. He’s not the type to collaborate. He’s a guy who doesn’t feel anything if he doesn’t crush someone. A crusher, a grinder, that’s the type! And you speak of fraternity!” But of course Ariel understands that there are few options beyond futile collaboration, and asks Caliban “Well, what else is there? War? And you know that at that game Prospero is impossible to beat.” [37-38]


Caliban does know this, but truly believes that “death is worth more than humiliation and injustice.” Even if he were to be destroyed along with the entire island, he hopes that Prospero would lie fallen there with him in the embers and the ashes. “I hope you will taste the fireworks: they will be signed Caliban.”

This is an impasse, but one across a shared battle against terrible odds, one where no answer is truly correct or certain of success. Both Caliban and Ariel realize this. Ariel wishes Caliban “Each of us hears their own drum. You march to the sound of yours. I march to the sound of mine. I wish you courage, my brother.” And Caliban responds “Goodbye, Ariel, I wish you good luck, my brother.” [38] And the marches begin shortly thereafter, ending in a bittersweet and unavoidable clash against each other.


When Caliban meets the poor white crew members from the sunken ship– Trinculo and Stephano – he makes an alliance with them to attack and destroy Prospero before he can hear of their rebellion. He will tell them where Prospero sleeps and help them to rid the island of this terrible master. He swears obedience to these two drunkards and they set off rolling against Prospero’s quarters. But they fail at keeping their approach a secret and Prospero directs Ariel to attack the revolt with stings and bites of insects, to waylay them with illusions and threats of greater force. Ariel begs pardon on Caliban’s behalf, but when Prospero threatens to withdraw his promise of Ariel’s freedom, Ariel sets the bugs and illusions on Caliban.


Trinculo and Stephano teach Caliban how to drink and talk bravely about their exploits, but are ultimately are distracted and defeated by Prospero’s magic, but Caliban has a chance to defeat Prospero when Prospero meets him alone with bare chest and holding no weapon. Prospero calls out to Caliban – “Hit, but hit well! Your master! Your benefactor! But still, you don’t want to spare him!” Caliban hesitates and Prospero mocks him “Come on! You don’t dare! You see clearly that you are nothing but an animal: you don’t know how to kill.” Caliban tells his master to defend himself, declaring that “I am not an assassin.” Prospero, suddenly very calm, says “well too bad for you. You’ve let pass your chance. Beast, like a slave. And now, the comedy is over.” [79] And he calls Ariel down to take Caliban and his drunk comrades prisoner. Ariel does, because Ariel is a loyal servant.


Prospero has won, and is preparing for the return voyage to Europe, to retake his dukedom and attend to the support of his newly married daughter and the affairs of state, having renounced his magical control of Ariel at the very last moment of his stay on the island. But before he leaves he has Stephano, Trinculo, his traitorous family come forward and apologize to him for not showing him the proper respect. They do, and he oh so graciously forgives them.


But when he calls Caliban forward to apologize and shake hands, to treat each other as friends, as coworkers, to recognize that “we have spent ten years together and worked side by side ten years!...We have ended up becoming compatriots!” [87] But Caliban does not care about this offer of a final, meaningless wiping clean of the slate, and says “it is not peace that interests me, you know that well. It is to be free. Free, you hear me!” [ibid] Prospero attempts to laugh this off, but Caliban starts in on an extraordinary monologue declaring his ultimate recognition of his historical position, up to and including a surety in his ultimate victory on the island.

“Prospero, you are a grand illusioniste: lying, you know this. And you often lied to me, lied about the world, lied about yourself, until you finished by imposing an image of myself: an underdeveloped, as you say, an undercapable, here’s how you made me see myself, and I hate this image! It is false! But now, I know you, old cancer, and I know myself as well!

And I know that one day my naked fist, my singe naked fist will suffice to crush your world! The old world fair!” [88]


            And Caliban makes a prediction that Prospero will not, ultimately, return to Europe, that for him to finish this comedy, as he declared on his defeat of Caliban’s revolt, would be to admit that his ‘vocation’, his ‘mission’, was all a farce and a deception, to admit that he was using this island as a colony for selfish personal gain, to defeat a free people and stand brave and leering over their defeated forms. “Your vocation is to screw me over! And that is why you’ll stay, like those guys who make colonies and can’t live elsewhere any more. An old drunk, that is what you are!” [89] Prospero tries to laugh this off, but when Caliban sings a song of liberty and defiance into his placid colonial bearded face, he shouts back “well I hate you too! Because you are the one who made me doubt myself for the first time.” [90]


And he announces to the Europeans that he will be staying, not, he claims, for the reasons that Caliban mentions, but because if he leaves there will be nothing but a wild discordant chaos without meaning. “Without me, who would be able to make music out of all of that? Without me this island would be mute. Here then, my duty. I remain.” [91] And he does.


He stands alone shouting for Caliban to return, as we watch time pass. He ages, grows weaker, as the island chills and his power dissipates, until he is left shouting impotently into the jungle. He mumbles and trails off and roars out “I will defend civilization!” and blusters about his need to bring clarity to the senseless savagery of the animals and plants. But in the distance we hear the sound of birds and the surf and the voice of Caliban shouting “FREEDOM OHAY, FREEDOM!” [92] And we know that Caliban will have the ultimate victory he prophesied, even if only as a mark of joy in the sky above an empty island.


This play is a comedy, in the strictly Aristotelian sense that we see the status quo of the beginning of the play, with Prospero standing in uneasy dominance over the rest of the island and Caliban chafing at this domination, but this is a comedy that makes the final motion into historical understanding, because each of the remaining characters at the end of the play understands that this is not a stable world, that even if history cannot change before the end of the comedy, history will surely change. Caliban sees their true existence as a free human subjectivity, and Prospero’s illusions are understood by all the beings and deities of the island as simple, meager lies. And even if it is faint, we can hear freedom rumbling closer.




A Season in the Congo is superficially the least overtly theatrical of Césaire’s three dramas, w/ none of the overwhelming poetic images or formal interruptions of cathedrals or formal narration of The Tragedy of Henri Christophe, and also forgoing the flying, overwhelming theatricality of A Tempest. It takes its form as a strict chronological presentation of historical events, and its content as the work and death of a great politician – Patrice Lumumba – during the decolonization struggles of the Congolese peoples for independence from the Belgian state. Focused closely on debates and speeches and conflicts w/in and around the new Congolese state, the recently formed United Nations, and the Belgian economic forces, it appears as a much drier piece. It would be seem so staid as to be a nonsensical choice for Césaire’s exuberant poetry, if not for two central dramaturgical decisions: firstly, to depict and even center the conflict between the strictly materialist politics of Lumumba and a more idealist tradition of royalist, mythological politics, and secondly, to choose events barely in the past, the main structuring history of Césaire’s own immediately present political situation.


The mythological challenge is present onstage even before Lumumba speaks his first lines. The play begins as Lumumba is in prison waiting to hear decisions about what will happen to him and his nascent revolutionary force. We move to a public square and see Mokutu (a barely veiled depiction of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seku), at this time an ally of Lumumba, encouraging whores and their clients to encourage Lumumba’s movement. As we transition back to the jail, a ‘joueur de sanza’ enters on the stage playing the small portable instrument with his fingers and singing about political events in a form of summary and mythologization that passes cleanly between diegetic and non-diegetic modes throughout the play, providing shifts between comic and tragic scenes, between scenes in one country and another, or simply between a speech and a larger crowd demonstration. They present Lumumba as a heroic animal god shrewdly and bravely outwitting the Belgian buffalo in order to bring glory back to the Belgian people. At several key moments, the sanza player engages directly with Lumumba, who shows a deep appreciation for the artistry and sincere revolutionary core of the myths they perform.


At the climax of the play’s second act, as Lumumba has freed himself through the aid of the soldiers assigned to guard him after he speaks to them of their real material interests, Lumumba speaks to several figures who each encourage him to change course in some manner – his wife begs him to consider his self-interest and he refuses, his advisers beg him to arm his supporters and pass beyond principled non-violence and he refuses, but the joueur de sanza does not beg their request. They approach the hero Lumumba as a triumphant emperor and ask them to take on the powers of the great leopard by wearing the regal robe of leopard skin, to assume the mantle of the myths the sanza player has been performing throughout the play, myths Lumumba himself has told in order to make his points clear and convince his audience. But Lumumba refuses this request as well. He appreciates and respects the work of the sanza player, but will not accept this mythological realization of his representative power, whereby the will of the people becomes a real aspect of his essence. He accepts the material role as a representative of the interests of the peoples of the Congo, but he is no king. He wishes only to be a free man among free people, that most beautiful of worlds.


When the sanza player declares him Simon Kimbangu reborn, their messiah returned to the earth,  Lumumba says in declining this mythic nomination –


“Even if I disappoint you, I am not Simon Kimbangu. That man wanted to give you back your strength, our ‘n’golo congolais’, and for that he deserves the memory you hold onto of him. That man wanted to go to god all alone! call back god, all alone, like your ambassador, and he deserves all the glory you give him. But it isn’t only god, that the whites confiscated for their profit, and it isn’t only god, that the whites hoarded. And it isn’t only god that Africa has frustrated, it’s Africa, it’s Africa itself that Africa has stolen! It’s Africa, Africa itself, that Africa has made hungry. This is why I do not want to be a messiah or a Mahdi. I have no weapon except my speech, I speak, and I stay alert, and I am not a redresser of wrongs, not a maker of miracles, I am a redresser of life, I speak, and I return Africa to itself! I speak and I return Africa to the world. I speak, and, attacking oppression and servitude at their base, I make possible, possible for the first time, fraternity!” [106, éditions du seuil, 1973]


He is not opposed to using stories and jokes and images in order to bring across his message of liberation, of solidarity with all of humankind, but they can get in the way of the message, they can convince otherwise attentive people to give away their self-respect and dignity as human beings.


And of course the importance of this principled rejection of mythology as the grounding or guarantee of politics is closely related to Césaire’s other dramaturgical decision – to take as his subject matter not events of the historic past as he did with Henri Christophe, not even events of the past at all. The crisis in the Congo depicted occurred in 1961 and this play was first performed in 1966, the date of the epilogue of the play. Césaire states definitive accounts of states of mind that went unrecorded and were by definition unrecordable and staging conspiracies that had not begun to be investigated to any degree of certainty, leaping and fictionalizing when necessary, but also including full speeches verbatim when available, as in his presentation of Lumumba’s famous speech to the Belgian king on the occasion of the official bestowing of independence to the Congo, a fiery and condemnatory speech that both gave inspiration to a generation of revolutionaries and immediately made the Belgian and American states skeptical and even hostile to Lumumba’s government.


This method of representing both recorded and unrecorded historical events forgoes the professional caution of the positivist historian who waits until it is possible to articulate what really happened back then and questions any attempt to speak with certainty about events still under debate or without a full understanding of everything which was said and done by every party, until a full recitation of dates and places and intentions and grocery lists is possible.


This caution is often truly justifiable, but it is just as often a form of cowardice, and Césaire chooses instead to work in the fundamentally theatrical mode of the radical journalist, who knows that they are not and can never be a passive observer, that they can never ignore their political role in the world w/o aiding the reactionary powers of the status quo. The engaged representation of the past is inseparable from the motion against the monumentalization of the past, the desire to create stable and eternal forms. As Césaire depicts in Henri Christophe’s plan to build the monument to the revolution through the forced labor of his people, a revolutionary consciousness is not enough to avoid this desire to freeze the world into glory. As I will detail below, Mokutu adopts the trappings of myth and legend explicitly in order to achieve this soporific effect on the populace.


We perform rituals in school and the theater and in our daily conversations in order to remember the past. While we must always examine which events and people we are remembering, we must also be conscious of how very easy it is to forget that our memories themselves can only exist as active experiences in our living world.


The same is true, of course of our relations to the future, our hopes and our fears. Mokutu is depicted in the play as perhaps the most realistic of the Congolese politicians, the one with the canniest understandings of how the opponents of the new regime will respond to Lumumba’s provocations, begging Lumumba to be less hasty and radical, slowly building power and breaking with Lumumba at the last moment. There are several moments in the play where Césaire allows Mokutu to honestly seem more reasonable and careful than Lumumba.


At the beginning of the second act, Mokutu and Lumumba and some friends are drinking at a bar as prostitutes run by Mama Makosi stroll between them. Lumumba talks about how much he enjoys visiting these kinds of bars, but Mokutu draws his attention to international opinion. He reminds Lumumba that it gives off an image for “international public opinion like libidinous monkeys! Can we, ministers and officers, continue to frequent these places of our youth? It’s a question we have to ask. You are now a Mbota Mutu! Think about this!” [55] Lumumba responds, but with deflections and jokes and a general disavowal of considerations about the puritanical eyes of Europe. Lumumba is not exactly wrong, but it becomes clear that Lumumba is not as clear as he needs to be on how the Western nations think about the Congo as he fails to grab the aid he needs from their leaders.


In a conversation with the secretary general of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld, who Lumumba himself called to help resolve the conflict surrounding the revolt of the province of Katanga funded by Belgian money and arms, Lumumba asks for arms and air support from the UN peacekeeping troops, but Hammarskjöld refuses in an insulted tone. Lumumba failed to realize how sincere Hammarskjöld took the notion of peacekeeping, and how limited the UN was as an organization by the biases and interests of the great powers. Lumumba denounces Hammarskjöld’s idealistic devotion to neutrality with no consideration for material balances of forces and offers a prediction – “As for you, whatever happens, I hope you will not have to one day pay too dear a price for your illusions.” And Hammarskjöld responds “Monsieur Lumumba, there is one thing that I learned very young – it is to say yes to Destiny, whatever it will be. But as we are now exchanging wishes, I hope, whatever happens, that you will not have to one day pay too dear a price, for your imprudence and your impulsivity.” [70-71]


As Césaire’s audience would have known at the time of performance, both of these characters would be proven correct about their fears for the other within several months. Lumumba would be assassinated by the end of this play, and Hammarskjöld would die in a plane crash en route to return to the Congo after hostilities flared up shortly after the resolution of the first phase of the crisis. A satisfying investigation was blocked by western powers for decades, and no clear answer for who was responsible has been determined.


And Mokutu understands what will happen, but this understanding he legitimately has does not help him see in the future. Rather, it keeps him trapped in the understanding of how things have always been and turns him into a reactionary agent of Western imperialism. He betrays Lumumba and helps the Belgian mercenaries transport his former comrade to Katanga, where he makes clear the Katangese rebels are to kill Lumumba so the problem can be resolved. Lumumba asks Mokutu if he understands what he has done, if he knows that he has shut one of the only windows of real hope for African liberty and unity that has been visible for centuries? Mokutu responds with platitudes until Lumumba articulates clearly the vision of the future freedom for all Africans his actions have destroyed, and then he barks out – “I will not follow you into your apocalypse! I have not answered to Africa, but only to Congo! And I intend to make order reign here, do you understand? Order!” [92]


And then we have the last scene of the play, an epilogue set not in the time of the Congo crisis of 1961, the season in the Congo of the title, but set in 1966, the year the first production of the play was put on. We see a crowd of Congolese citizens shouting praise and mourning for Lumumba and the revolution, a crowd of women, the brothel manager Makosi, and the Sanza player. Mokutu enters wearing the regal leopard skin the Sanza player had tried to press on Lumumba just before his final arrest. Mokutu is happy to wear the marks of mythological obscurantism, they are the form of greatness he can truly aspire to, having foreclosed on the possibility of working in service of a truly great cause. He talks and gives a moderate praise for Lumumba but when the crowd shouts too loudly and too volubly in favor of Lumumba, he orders the police to pacify the crowd.


In Mokutu’s last words on stage, and the last lines of the play, we see where the opportunist authoritarian will end up without a firm ideology beyond self-interest. He tells his aides to fire on the crowd and to do it quickly, otherwise “history will tell these fools that our powder is dry and that the show is over.” He shouts “Fire” [133] and we see the crowd shot by the police, leaving piles of dead bodies on the stage, including, we are told clearly, the sanza player. And that is the end of the play.


But it is not the moment that rings most clearly in my mind as I think back on this play, because even if this is a representation of a failed revolution, a destroyed hope, Césaire’s play does not take this as a reason not to strive or fight for a better world. In his second stay in prison during the play, after his first conflicts with Mokutu and the other Congolese politicians has been clear but before his final failure, Lumumba is asked by his comrades if it wouldn’t have been better to let everything go on as it had been. Lumumba declares “I don’t regret anything…My function was, on the black sky and the overcast horizon, to mark with a single incantational stroke the curve and the direction. Henceforth everything is saved. And don’t underestimate our forces, they are immense, our forces!” He tells them about letters of support he has received from outside of Africa, letters from Europe wishing him and his struggle success. He shouts – “A friendship made of blood from overseas! Anfd yes! They are ours! Because they know that what is playing out here, it’s not our affair, it’s not the affair of Africa, but that of mankind! of man himself. As for Africa, I know that despite its weakness and its divisions, it will not fail us! After all, silt, sun and water, from the solemn encounter, here, was born humanity!” [98] Of course, Lumumba’s nonviolently rigorous confrontation and oratorical prowess are not enough to defeat Mokutu’s ruthless realpolitik, but he is not wrong about his historical purpose. His model and example stands starkly against the sky, so long as we remember to look for it and point it out to the people around us.


And if keeping our eyes focused on the future and leads us to ignore threats to our personal lives and interests in the present, as Lumumba seems to have done in Césaire’s accounting, well, nobody said this would be easy or that there would only one thing we’d have to be watching for.




Each of these plays has humor, drama, material with deep resonance in the contemporary world, and a thrilling sweep of language. Each is available in multiple excellent translations to English. Your audience, however you conceive of it, would get value and true theatrical joy out of any performance of any of these pieces. As I advocate for the performances of these plays in every red blooded theater in the world, I recognize that I am, to a certain extent, the target audience I assume you are performing for, as I write this essay.


I am a leftist, earnest, pasty pallid American reader and audience member, straining at the limitations of my state mandated and provided historical education, but not yet broken free of the heuristics that undergird it, those rules that say:

·         “The white men were acting in good faith, it was a tragic mistake it turned out that way.”

·         “If you try to move the world too quickly, you’ll end up hurting everyone.”

·         “The goal of politics is compromise. The path to compromise is mutual respect.”

·         “The West is a force for good in the world. We only want to spread humanism, civilization, democracy and human rights.”

·         “Reality is complicated. Avoid ideology.”

·         “We can fix the ills of capitalism, the cronyism and corruption that poison our society, and this is a goal that we should all strive for, but we mustn’t fall into authoritarian populism. For then we would be as bad as them.”


When I was taught American history, at the vast cement rectangle of Apollo High School in St. Cloud, MN, I was not told about the Haitian revolution. I was not taught that Washington made his dentures out of teeth ripped from the mouths of the slaves he owned. I was taught the Monroe Doctrine was the US stopping European Imperialism, and not that the US was staking a claim for its own nascent imperial project. I did not learn that the CIA and its European allies assassinated Patrice Lumumba, mostly because we never learned he existed. Pancho Villa was a bad guy. Emiliano Zapata was not on the test.


So these plays were, to an important respect, a part of my remedial education in the history of the world when I first read them. I expect they would be so for many of your audience members.


But they are not education in the sense of a factual primer about who went where when for why. They are education as a revelation of the real conflicts structuring our material world, that they are conflicts, a representation and enaction of the conflicts between oppressed and oppressor, colonizer and colonized, white and black, all those conflicts denied by the powers that be as worthy of that name, instead relegated to petulant discontent carried out by unthinking mobs riled up by outside agitators.




These plays are not the single answer that will make the canon of theatrical repertoire acceptable and perfect and ideally historically conscious. Césaire’s roles for women are, with few exceptions, thankless supporting roles that exist to have a voice calling for the central heroic roles to think about their personal interest, giving the heroes opportunities to push past those petty worries and look brave. The problem of representing a historically male political sphere is a famously difficult dramaturgical problem, but Césaire mostly just didn’t try to find a solution. Very much related to this is the overwhelming flatness of the romantic spheres of these plays. For all their burgeoning, violent openness to the natural world, the sexual desires we see represented are exclusively heterosexual, and nearly exclusively presented from the perspective of strong, profligate, charismatic men. Marriages and intercourse are relegated to a private sphere, and their absence in these plays indicates how very public the space we see dramatized is, a problem given the ways so many vulnerable populations were forced into the private spheres of the very histories Césaire is dramatizing in these pieces.


These problems must be addressed in any production of these works, both in rehearsals and in discussions with designing team. It goes without saying that any production with an all white directing, producing, and designing team would not be engaging directly or actively with the content and motion of this play. Hire people of color and give them creative control. And while you’re at it, hire a dramaturg. They are wonderful and spend their every waking moment working to ask these questions. These are solvable questions, problems with answers at hand in your city and your daily lives, so long as you reject the easy answers in your hiring networks and rehearsal processes.


But there is a further problem, one at the core of any production of any representation of history, whether contemporary or not. For any directors or producers or actors who are convinced by this call to perform these shows – if these stories and histories could be live events for Césaire in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, when the dream of third world revolution was real and present and had not yet been pervaded by the regime of international neoliberalization and neocolonial repression on the part of the IMF and the CIA, then how can these plays be given their legs back? How can the dreams of Césaire or Frantz Fanon, much less those of Patrice Lumumba or Henri Christophe or Simon Bolivar, be made real and pressing in the heart of a contemporary spectator?


How can a theatre be invested with pageantry, with all the thrill of proclamation and royalty, without thereby beating the spectator into a voiceless witness? How can the violence of politics be enacted without either reducing it to a cockfight OR depicting it as a chariot transcending the grubby material reality of that very cockfight which it undeniably is? For a cockfight is just a moment of violence, but even this most senseless act of combat is not without meaning, each of these birds are fighting for their lives, and if they are fighting the wrong target – the bird in front of them rather than the men who have forced them to kill each other – then at least they are engaged in the work of asserting their presence in the world. They still have that last horrible measure of freedom kept from so many slaves around this world. A political action can never be free of the dirt and the grime of human interest, but who said that human interest gets in the way of greater meaning anyway?


These questions open onto the problem I mentioned above, perhaps the  central paradox of the idea of a history play – the performance of something which has happened in the past and which has been understood enough that it can be re-presented as a galvanizing event for those living in the present audience. In order to claim that a historical event is helpful for understanding the world we live in now or for pushing for worlds which might yet come to exist, it is necessary to go through such difficult work bringing the cooling embers back into a roaring fire which might bring heat. And once you have made the history truly living in the world in this second or third life, not just as memory, but as theatrical and communal representation, then is it still history? Can a history play be anything more than a mute monument reminding us of all the events we have pushed beyond, all the past which stands dead and forbidding and uninteresting, never to be remembered except when we need to study for some test in junior high school?


And this is a centrally important problem for anybody who wants to put these plays on their feet. The reason we look back and attempt to learn from the past is to engage in that productive process of mourning which allows us to go out into the world without either betraying the memory of the past or repeating all the failures that led to the traumas of that past. And we cannot mourn something we never knew was alive at all. We cannot feel the pain of a foreclosed path, an opportunity lost, if we never knew they were real possibilities.


This tyranny of the positivist historian – “the way it is is how it must always have been, and anyone who strove for something else was doomed to fail” – this tyranny is designed to utterly shut down attempts to make forgotten beings breathe and shout and battle again.


How can a radically anti-imperialist theater exist in this world so resistant to any calls for justice for those being bombed or polluted or flooded as a result of decisions made by the central imperialist states of the west, how can such a theater exist as more than as dry education, how can it be a show? This tyranny of the positivist historian – “the way it is is how it must always have been, and anyone who strove for something else was doomed to fail” – this tyranny is designed to utterly shut down attempts to make forgotten beings breathe and shout and battle again.

Perhaps there is too much tragic waste piled up on these stories to function as they might have in the 60s, the bodies of the battles of the Contras, of Mobute, of Duvalier, of George Bush and the campaigns of military destruction he began and which Obama expanded and which show absolutely no signs of stopping in the conceivable future.


Before the work of mourning can push past this melancholic sense of the futility of any action whatsoever, remind yourself of the endless liveness of these horrifying machines which whir for the purpose of accumulation of capital and the degradation of the weak and the brown and the black and the divergent. Get the blood flowing, remind the world the wounds span the length of it all. Remind yourself you carry these scars within you still. The financial regimes that buried the Haitian state in debt for ninety years as reparations from the slaves to the former colonists for the theft of their own servitude, those regimes still exist in New York and Paris and London. The banks and committees and corporations that planned and funded the destruction of Lumumba’s leadership of the Congolese state and his replacement by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko are still happily profiting from the conflicts and instability throughout central Africa. A block of Flatbush avenue was recently renamed Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard after the Haitian revolutionary leader Christophe and Pétion take over from immediately after his death, because the Haitian community here in New York City has not forgotten that these histories and memories need to be constantly brought forward.


This is to say nothing of the larger background these machines of domination function within. We are in the middle of a multi-decade long attempt by Western governments to turn back even mildly socialist gains by Latin American countries and the US state has openly considered a full-on invasion of Venezuela at several times since the CIA supported 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. In 2004, Haiti’s democratically elected leader – the former priest and radical organizer Aristide – was overwhelmed by US trained rebels and kidnapped by the CIA to be transported to a safe location far from Latin America – the Republic of the Congo, our dear and stable ally in the region for so dear many years now.


We live in the same world of Césaire’s plays, But this simply necessitates productions that understand we are still in the same world, playwrights to grab hold of the stories grappling with and falling to these same enemies – Aristide, the Zapatistas, Gaddafi and Libya, Syriza and the European Union, Chavez and Maduro, to say nothing of the administrative coups throughout the global south in the last five years. Our canon of revolutionary theater, feeble as it is, has not fundamentally changed in the last forty years, because the world has not yet moved past their lessons.


These are the worlds we live in and we are complicit in the crimes carried out in our names by the governments of the west. If we are ever to change that fact, we must understand the battles fought and the catastrophes wreaked on all the revolutions of the past. We must cultivate the sense that a possible future exists where these events are not necessary ends, however likely they must be acknowledged to be. We cannot fall into the tragedy of Christophe’s myopic aping of European statecraft. We cannot fall into the bumbling  idealism of Hammerskjöld’s studied neutrality in international governance which allowed the Congo crisis to erupt into such a devastating failure for the revolutionary movements. We must understand the real failures of Lumumba and Allende and Mao and Castro and any other leaders of revolutions in living memory in order to carry forward any of the remaining potential. But above all we must cultivate an understanding that the world could have been otherwise. We must reject the tragic idea that things were always fated to go wrong whenever people tried to change the state of the world. We must cultivate the irrational certainty that the world can be better than it is, irrational not because it is incorrect, but because it is based on the firm certainty, the absolute truth, that everything which exists will fall away and that everything which does not exist could come into being.




            Now, as to how we can best do this, I certainly do not know. I am a critic and you, dear reader, are the one who will put the answer into the world. Thankfully, this is not currently my job. Perhaps you disagree that these stories Césaire created can be brought out of the stultifying positivist air of tragedy which so suffuses the history plays of Shakespeare or Michael Frayn or Tom Stoppard. Perhaps you don’t think they can be seen as anything other than a failed record of a failed moment in history when people tried to grab for something better and fell into the abyss. But lord knows history has kept on moving. Take the story of the Zapatistas and their revolutionary feminism, take the devastating bureaucratic clumsiness of a Kirchner or a Rousseff or a Maduro, take the story of Aristide with all its Beckettian repetitions and coups and exiles whenever he achieves success, or just look at the stories in your own town and ask what has given you hope and joy and cause to mourn. And always hold the dramaturgical challenges Césaire poses close to your heart – to leap beyond the caution of historians, to use all the joyous linguistic possibilities poetry and everyday language provide, to seize the shaded byways of history and bring them back to consciousness.