Theatre and colonialism: the show goes on

The cover image of Colonialism and slavery in performance: theatre and the eighteenth-century French Caribbean shows a black and white detail from a wonderful color map of Le Cap, from the collection of the John Carter Brown Library, which can be viewed in exquisitely high detail here. I encourage strolling through the city! The theatre, pictured on the cover of the volume, occupies a rectangular corner lot below the government complex gardens, with its shorter face spilling onto the Place de la Fontaine Montarcher, and its longer face allowing for dramatic arrivals along the end of the broad cours of the Rue Espagnole. Theatre was literally at the heart of the Saint-Domingue’s cultural capital, a haven of spectacle that, as the essays in our collection show in so many ways, was adopted and adapted in the Caribbean slave colonies, to lasting effect.

Place et Fontaine Montarcher. (Manioc – Bibliothèque numérique caraïbe)

As editors of this volume, Karine Benac-Giroux and I are delighted to share this collection of essays with scholarly communities around the world. We feel that this is a particularly opportune time to look back at how popular entertainment shaped perceptions and identities in the transatlantic French empire, and the ways in which the legacy of these eighteenth-century cultural practices has continued to inform the artistic production and historical understanding of the modern Francophone Caribbean. By presenting these essays in English, we also hope that they can help to extend the growing body of research around slavery and culture across early modern European colonial empires.

Over the course of the time that this volume was in preparation the world has been rocked by a number of epoch-defining events. The international wave of protests set off by the killing of George Floyd in 2020 has shone a bright light on the continued structural disadvantages imposed on descendants of African slaves in America and abroad. These events unfolded during a worldwide public-health crisis that has, amongst other depredations, forced the closing of almost all live performance venues. While we join the world in our outrage and mourning over these trials, we also recognize the rare timeliness of essays on eighteenth-century studies and theatre, to reflect on the cultural and representational apparatus of a slave-labor driven political empire that was an important contributor to the mentalities and practices that continue to shape the lives of Black people around the world. Performance, in the eighteenth century as today, retains a unique ability to reflect and mold our social perception; each of these essays confirms this power, offering a range of critical tools and past examples to underscore the long history that led up to this point, and how we might seize on these same representational tools to forge a more equitable future.

Map of Saint-Domingue (Hispaniola), by Nicolas de Fer (1646-1720). (John Carter Brown Library)

Here is a quick summary of the volume’s contents. The volume is divided into three parts. The first looks at the cultures of performance in France’s most profitable eighteenth-century colony, Saint-Domingue. Before the Haitian revolution made this colony into the New World’s first Black Republic, Saint-Domingue’s economy was driven by slave labor at the island’s sugar plantations. Life in Saint-Domingue may have lacked much of the refinement of life in Paris, but in addition to importing unspeakably brutal labor practices, the colonists also brought a semblance of French theatrical life to the Caribbean. Travelling companies from Europe could profitably tour the colony with popular works from France, where the reigning théâtromanie made playhouses an important site for the negotiation of national values, tastes, and identity, all functions that theatre at once retained and modified in colonial Saint-Domingue. Logan Connors’ exploration of military-themed entertainment played in the colony reflects the increasing importance of an armed presence necessary for the commercial success of the slave-driven plantation economy, just as Julia Prest’s close reading of blackface performance illuminates the ways in which theatre helped to metabolize the conflicting moral valence of the racialized other under the ancien régime. In her exploration of the changes made to a successful pantomime spectacle when it was brought to Saint-Domingue by a traveling company of actors from France, Béatrice Ferrier’s research shines a light on the preferences of local audiences, while Bernard Camier details the emergence of a Creole theatrical culture articulated around the sophisticated use of the island’s homegrown idiom, notably in the works of the author and composer Clément, whose adaptation of Rousseau’s smash hit Le Devin du village provides a compelling case study for the emergence of a new identity – not French, but in dialogue with France – in Saint-Domingue.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Le Devin du village.

In turn, Sean Anderson turns his focus on the dance performances of enslaved people, detailing how increasing colonial efforts at regulating this cultural expression were nevertheless unable to suppress this vital embodied expression of community and identity among slaves. Laurence Marie rounds out this section, and provides a transition into the next part of the book, with an attentive reading of the theatrical notices in the Saint-Domingue newspaper, Les Affiches américaines, analyzing how this publication reflected and promoted the unique theatrical culture in the Atlantic colonies, both within the Caribbean space and before the curious public in continental France.

The second part of the book turns its focus to how Atlantic slavery was represented on Europe’s stages, beginning with Catherine Ramond’s review of the theme of slavery in eighteenth-century French theatre, where the topic received largely comic treatment until the early days of the revolution. My own article, on the representation of slaves in Revolution-era theatre focuses on linguistic caricature (the infamous ‘baragouin’ of Black characters on the French stage), is followed by Pierre Saint-Amand’s penetrating analysis of an explicitly abolitionist play, La Liberté générale, written following the declaration of universal emancipation by the Convention nationale in 1794, a scathing denunciation of the machinations of the colonial planter class in Paris.

La Liberté générale. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The view then moves to a larger European stage, with Fredrik Thomasson’s chronicle of slave-plays in Stockholm, triggered by the Swedish crown’s takeover of the slave island of Saint-Barthélémy, ceded by France in 1784, making Sweden a slave-holding colonial power for the first time in its history. While the Haitian Revolution is now recognized as a signal realization of the French Revolution’s ostensible goals of liberty and equality, it was nevertheless experienced as a deep trauma for the French nation, a trauma that Pascale Pellerin situates in the cultural context surrounding Napoleon’s Egypt expedition through her reading of two plays written by Népomucène Lemercier during this campaign, whose focus on North African slavery comes to stand in for the anxieties of a diminished France following the loss of Saint-Domingue.

The final section pivots to look at the inheritance of this eighteenth-century theatrical culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Laurent Dubois and Kaiama Glover’s collaborative contribution probes the porous borders of history and fiction through the intellectual relationship between Jean Fouchard, the pioneering mid-century historian of Saint-Domingue’s eighteenth-century theatre culture, and Marie Vieux-Chauvet, whose novel La Danse sur le volcan (1957) draws on Fouchard’s research to fill in the story of the mixed-race performer Minette, the colony’s most celebrated actress. Following this, Emily Sahakian turns her attention to two contemporary Guadeloupian artists, LénaBlou and Gilbert Laumord, whose respective artistic practice enters into dialogue with the experience of the enslaved people – their ancestors – whose voices are muted in eighteenth-century stage culture, but whose testimony lives on through the Caribbean dance and music traditions that form the basis of these artists’ work.

Colonialism and slavery in performance, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, March 2021.

The final two essays look at contemporary creations in Martinique, beginning with Karine Bénac-Giroux’s reflections on Histoires de valets, her Creole-feminist adaptation of Louis de Boissy’s La Surprise de la haine, performed by Martinican college students in Schoelcher in 2017, in which she stages a literal confrontation between eighteenth-century theatre and the lives of contemporary French citizens, descendants of slaves, who live in France’s overseas departments. Nadia Chonville closes our collection with an analysis of gender construction in a Daniely Francisque’s 2018 play Ladjablès, illustrating how the stage remains as important a site for exploring the contours of a French-Caribbean identity that is forever marked by the legacy of ancien régime slavery.

Jeffrey M. Leichman, Louisiana State University

Jeffrey M. Leichman and Karine Bénac-Giroux are co-editors of the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Colonialism and slavery in performance: theatre and the eighteenth-century French Caribbean.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog, March 2021.

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