Shifting the Geography of C. L. R. James Studies

Christian Høgsbjerg’s Toussaint Louverture

• July 2014

The 2013 publication of C. L. R. James’s play Toussaint Louverture, first performed in March of 1936, is a major event that should reshape understandings of Caribbean literary history, postcolonial studies, and Pan-Africanism.1 The play is significant for many reasons. It is the first play written by a black person and performed by a black cast to be staged in London. It was written at the same time that James was researching The Black Jacobins, the history of the Haitian Revolution that is one of the most important books of anticolonialism of the first half of the twentieth century; the play is James’s first public presentation of his research. These facts only begin to explain the significance of the publication of Toussaint Louverture. Not only has the play never been published, but scholars have mistakenly thought that the script was available in the C. L. R. James Reader, which includes the script for James’s 1960s play, The Black Jacobins, but incorrectly dates that script to 1936. Scholars have assumed, then, that the script in the Reader is more or less the same one performed in London in 1936, perhaps edited and revised in the same way that James revised the history book The Black Jacobins during the 1960s. The publication of the script from the 1930s play, however, shows that the two texts are completely distinct.

Even without considering its historical importance, Toussaint Louverture is a powerful and fascinating play. Imagine watching Paul Robeson play the lead, delivering soliloquies such as the moment when Toussaint recites Abbé Raynal’s call for a heroic Negro leader (“‘Where is he? That great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children?’ Thou hast shown me the light, oh God! I shall be that leader” [70]), or when he delivers his last words to his people before being imprisoned in France (“Do with me what you will. In destroying me you destroy only the trunk. But the tree of Negro liberty will flourish again, for its roots are many and deep” [122]). The play moves from a grand colonial plantation to the slaves’ oath at Bois Caiman, through the battles and machinations between the rebels and the imperial powers, ending with Napoleon launching his failed attempt to reimpose slavery, Toussaint dying in the Alps, and Dessalines declaring Haitian independence. The play centers on Toussaint as a captivating tragic hero, but supporting characters, such as the rebels Boukman, Dessalines, and Christophe, or Frenchmen, such as Commissioner Roume (who informs Toussaint of slavery’s abolition throughout the French colonies), Commander Hédouville, and General Leclerc, present a complex tableau of the varied political arguments and positions during the period. As in James’s history-writing on the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture attends with great nuance to the alliances and cleavages between the various social groups and treats in detail the parallels and connections between the French Revolution and the events in Saint-Domingue.

Christian Høgsbjerg’s edition of Toussaint Louverture adeptly places the play in its historical and cultural context. Høgsbjerg’s “Editorial Note” gives a good sense of the versions of the play available in various archives as well as the changes between the 1934 script and the 1936 performance. Høgsbjerg also includes helpful contextual materials, such as reviews of the play (almost all of which lavish praise on Robeson, while expressing much more ambivalence about James’s abilities as a playwright) as well as other work composed by James during the period in which he was working on Toussaint Louverture. Høgsbjerg’s introduction to the edition shows an especially rich sense of James’s development as a thinker during the early 1930s, the intellectual communities he moved between, and the political currents that inflected his work. The late 1920s and early 1930s remain a part of James’s career less documented and less understood than subsequent periods, and Høgsbjerg is clearly expert on James’s political development and historical milieu during that time. The precision with which the introduction charts James’s whereabouts, contacts, and intellectual growth during these years is remarkable. Høgsbjerg hints at intriguing potential influences on James the playwright—for example, that the Left Theatre group’s concept of a Brechtian “Total Theatre” may have inspired James—but there is still space for more scholarly exploration of James’s literary commitments during this period. The James who wrote Toussaint Louverture in 1934 (on the heels of a number of short stories and the novel Minty Alley) must have thought of himself as a literary writer first and foremost, even if by the time The Black Jacobins was published in 1938 he had positioned himself as a leading anticolonial historian and Marxist theoretician.

Along with the extraordinarily helpful introduction—just a taste of the depth of material on James that Høgsbjerg’s C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain provides2—this edition of Toussaint Louverture will be valuable to scholars. The existence of this script, and its dating to 1934, helps recontextualize what James’s intellectual investments were as he was researching and writing about the Haitian Revolution. Scholars generally point to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia as the major motivation for James’s interest in Haiti. That invasion and the International African Friends of Ethiopia (later reconfigured into the International African Service Bureau) that James helped form in response were undoubtedly crucial to his political development. Yet the playbill to Toussaint Louverture calls into question this periodization: the “Author’s Note” reads, “The play was conceived four years ago and was completely finished by the autumn of 1934” (45). The play, in other words, was “completely finished” before the Walwal incident in November 1934 prompted Emperor Haile Selassie to go to the League of Nations in January 1935 to protest Italian aggression. In the playbill, James does not mention Abyssinia as context for his play. However, this newly available dating of James’s focus on Haitian history opens up another possibility: if the play was conceived in 1932 and finished in 1934, James’s research on the Haitian Revolution was carried out during the waning years of the US occupation of Haiti, which lasted from 1915 to 1934.3

Høgsbjerg mentions the occupation as something James was “no doubt mindful of” (6), but scholars (and James himself) have rarely acknowledged the possibility that James was writing with occupied Haiti in mind. Even Høgsbjerg spends less than a sentence discussing contemporary Haiti’s status as part of James intellectual context and returns to the well-trodden path of Ethiopia as primary shaper of James’s political consciousness (22–24). Locating James’s interest in Haitian history in the years before 1934 requires scholars to rethink the contexts to which James might have been responding. While James may have preferred to point forward to the coming of decolonization in Africa as his main motivation for writing The Black Jacobins, keeping in mind the Haiti of his day gives a much less utopian and less teleological—we might even say, less romantic—sense of the contradictory sources of James’s anticolonialism. As inevitable as revolutionary decolonization may have seemed to James in the 1930s, recolonization at the hands of a new US empire must have seemed just as unavoidably present.

My borrowing of David Scott’s language for understanding James’s career and his commitments points to how the existence of the 1930s text and its obvious differences from the 1960s play The Black Jacobins also allows us to trace new trajectories in James’s career based on more than the different editions of James’s history book. In fact, I would suggest that comparing these two plays calls into question the powerful argument Scott makes in Conscripts of Modernity for reading a shift in James’s thought away from a utopian faith in romantic overcoming toward a more tragic, postcolonial skepticism about revolution as a political horizon.[4] Reading the two plays against each other, Toussaint Louverture places more focus on the revolutionary leadership and its negotiations of and with European (and, to some extent, US) power; as the title suggests, the earlier play centers especially on Toussaint and his tragic belief in the French Revolution’s Enlightenment ideals. The 1960s play, on the other hand, foregrounds the participation of ordinary Haitians (as Høgsbjerg notes in his introduction [28]), suggesting a faith in the masses as revolutionary agents more implicit in the earlier play. Plans by Duke University Press to reissue other unpublished or out-of-print titles from James’s oeuvre mean that scholars can hope for a new edition of the 1960s play that includes the alternative epilogues that exist in various James archives but have never been published.5 Such a publication would allow us to see how those epilogues articulate James’s enduring faith in revolution and similarly call into question Scott’s reading of James’s trajectory. The availability of Høgsbjerg’s edition begins this process of enabling us to compare these creative works from different parts of James’s career and create a fuller picture of the shifts in his thinking that Scott begins to point us toward.

Toussaint Louverture will thus prove crucial in understanding James’s career and considering the lessons of his work for our own times. James was one of the most thoughtful and complex anticolonialists of the twentieth century: committed yet adaptable, meticulous yet unafraid of sweeping theorizations. His work on the Haitian Revolution continues to inspire scholars and activists alike in attempting to understand how the desire for freedom and equality translates into revolutionary action. Without this edition of Toussaint Louverture, our vision of James—and, therefore, of anticolonialism itself—has been incomplete, and this publication will help us continue to look to that past for ideas and inspiration to forge a decolonized future.

 

Raphael Dalleo is an associate professor of English at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere: From the Plantation to the Postcolonial (2011), coauthor of The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature (2007), and coeditor of Haiti and the Americas (2013).

 


C. L. R. James, Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts, ed. Christian Høgsbjerg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); hereafter cited in the text.

Christian Høgsbjerg, C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

I argue for the importance of the occupation in understanding Toussaint Louverture and The Black Jacobins—and what the silences surrounding the occupation as context might mean—in the essay “‘The Independence So Hardly Won Has Been Maintained’: C. L. R. James and the US Occupation of Haiti,” Cultural Critique, no. 87 (Spring 2014): 38–59.

David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

The version of the alternative epilogue to the 1960s play that I have seen is in the C. L. R. James Collection of the Alma Jordan Library at the University of the West Indies, Saint Augustine, in box 7, folder 196. James describes this version as “superior” to the published version, but, apparently, the director of the 1967 Nigerian performance of The Black Jacobins convinced James to omit the epilogue.

 

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