Femi Ojo-Ade’s study of Césaire’s four plays is ‘a celebration of black consciousness’, writes Peter Wuteh Vakunta in a review of Ojo-Ade’s 'Aimé Césaire’s African Theater: Of Poets, Prophets and Politicians'.
Being black and being human is the leitmotif that runs through Aimé Césaire’s theatre. In an attempt to problematise the dilemma of being black in a race-conscious capitalist society, Femi Ojo-Ade chooses to do a succinct study of Césaire’s four plays, the setting of which is continental Africa: ‘Et les chiens se taisaient’ (1956), ‘La tragédie du roi Christophe’ (1963), ‘Une saison au Congo’ (1966) and ‘Une tempête’ (1969).
In ‘Et les chiens se taisaient’, Césaire reawakens the phantom of the self-styled civilising mission, the stock-in-trade of which is the denigration of the African personality under the veneer of benevolence. Césaire’s protagonist, the Rebel, reaffirms his pride in being African. Ojo-Ade observes: ‘… the rebel details his struggles, affirms his failed battle to deny his African gods, and laments all attempts at de-Africanization, convinced as he is that Africa deserves to be defended by her children against the invaders and rapists’ (p. 26). The Rebel warns his people against the dangers of superficiality and artificiality. Thus Césaire revisits the belaboured troika – slavery, colonisation and negritude – in this mind-boggling play. The theme of slavery is recurrent in the play. The Rebel notes that at the beginning of the trajectory, ‘there was misery of slaves crossing the great sea of misery, the great sea of black blood’ (p. 113). He perceives his son as a metonym for all oppressed children of Africa, indeed, of the entire black race that must be liberated from the shackles of Western civilisation. The Rebel repudiates the false belief in Christianity as a redemptive force for Africans and proudly attests to his illuminating role as leader of an oppressed people. As Ojo-Ade would have it, the oppressor uses the subterfuge of religion ‘to subvert the victims’ culture, to take their attention away from the essentials of life on earth as they ostensibly encourage them to seek life everlasting in an unknown space of perfection and purity’ (p. 41). All along, the Rebel’s resounding words incessantly hit hard at both oppressors and their accomplices: ‘All, you will not leave until you have felt the bite of my words on your imbecile souls…’ (p. 173).
‘Et les chiens se taisaient’ is rich in symbolism, the most significant of them all being the trope of kingship. A procession of African kings invades one of the scenes, symbolising the remarkable black civilisation long forgotten by both oppressors and oppressed. In a similar vein, the architect, portrayed in the play as the implacable enemy, is a symbol of capitalist Europe, conqueror and exploiter. The play harbours racial undertones. Césaire establishes a series of dichotomies between whites and blacks. The white race is portrayed as follows:
‘This materialistic race
Gold and silver have woven their pale color.
Waiting for the grey has curved their wild nose
the glow of steel is embedded in their cold eyes
Oh, it is a race without velvet’ (p. 152).
These words of hate emanate from the soul of black folks, oppressed for too long – now determined to break from all manacles. As Ojo-Ade maintains, they are the words of a people ‘digging into the past to fashion a vision that would construct a future of pride of purpose, of rehabilitated humanity and dignity from the present of alienation and collusion’ (p. 34). ‘Et les chiens se taisaient’ is the anatomy of resistance as a tool of emancipation. The Rebel’s courage is the counterpoint to the racial cowardice of his racist jailer. His defiance symbolises the master’s moral defeat even as he wields the whip of torture that leads to the Rebel’s death. The ultimate trope of dog is the playwright’s portrayal of the white race as a pack of carnivorous, steel-eyed assassins, hypocritical purveyors of injustice and symbols of the very opposite of things human.
‘La tragédie du roi Christophe’ fictionalises the tragedy of a benevolent dictator, King Christophe of Haiti. Ojo-Ade notes that ‘Haiti is a perfect representation of the post-slavery and postcolonial periods in Africa’s history, perfect because it is the only country where blacks took up arms against the implacable, civilized enslavers-colonizers and defeated them’ (p. 68). It is noteworthy that Christophe had qualities of dignity, revolutionary fervour for freedom and equality as well as military adherence to law and order that stood him in good stead as a leader. Césaire’s interest gravitates around King Christophe’s leadership qualities and his responsibility as a leader entrusted with the critical task of nation-building. Christophe is portrayed as trailblazer, breaker of barriers and harbinger of better days ahead. Like his other plays, Césaire uses ‘La tragédie’ to adumbrate the question of racial schism not only in Haiti but also in all colonised climes the world over. In point of fact, the racist thrust is present in various configurations and looms large in this play. The dichotomy and racial tension between whites and blacks are palpable throughout the play: Europe–Haiti, superior–inferior, civilised–savage, developed–underdeveloped. These rifts notwithstanding, Christophe is determined to prove to the oppressors that he and his people are worthy of being accepted into the community of humans. The infamy of de-identification of blacks remains a theme of great interest throughout the play, as this excerpt indicates: ‘In the past they stole our names from us! Our pride! Our nobility, they, I say, they stole them from us!’ (p. 37). Césaire makes a weighty statement when he alludes to the obliteration of slave identity by slave-masters. It was not just names that were stolen from slaves, their languages were stifled as well.
In stark defiance of these machinations, Christophe continues to lay claim to his Africanity and black ancestry by paying homage to his Bambara ancestors: ‘Blow, blow, white savanna as my Bambara ancestors used to say…’ (p. 110). His security men, Royal Dahomets, are recruited directly from Africa because of their loyalty and commitment. He tries to create in his court an atmosphere reminiscent of the African family and community. Césaire portrays Christophe’s attempts at re-Africanization as a return to roots. True to himself, he makes appropriate use of symbolism as an effective communicative technique. The Citadel is a symbol of endurance and quest for excellence, proof that blacks are capable of extraordinary achievements. Sadly enough, like all tragic heroes, Christophe has flaws. In his anxiety to complete the Citadel, he becomes a brutal dictator, ordering everyone to work, including children: ‘Yes, children! You big scoundrel! It’s their future that we are constructing!’ (p. 83) All in all, Christophe is depicted as an ambivalent character throughout the play. The sublime symbolism of the Citadel is matched by the ridiculous creation of sham nobility, of fake families based on coerced marriages. His act of patting women’s buttocks has been picked up by critics as a sign of low morals and lack of etiquette, and a contradiction to his decree on matrimony as essential for faithfulness and responsible behaviour. Christophe has a false sense of grandeur as seen in the following lamentation: ‘I regret nothing. I tried to put something into an ungrateful earth’ (p. 138). Ojo-Ade observes that the play ‘calls our attention to the king’s foibles, impossible to gloss over in the atmosphere of tension and the unfolding tragedy’ (p. 118).
‘La tragédie du roi Christophe’ is a lampoon on Western civilisation, notably its religious precepts. Césaire’s allusion to Catholicism and the decrees it makes to regulate matrimony is derided in this drama. It should be noted that in Haiti, the traditional religion, Voodoo, is more prominent among the people than Christianity. Any attempt to circumvent this indigenous religion is tantamount to courting disaster. Christophe betrays Shango, but the betrayed Shango will end up avenging himself and causing the king’s downfall. He arrogates to himself the absolute supremacy fit for a godhead, dehumanises Voodoo representatives and calls upon himself the wrath of the Almighty. By underscoring the triumph of Shango, Césaire confirms the centrality of indigenous religions among black Haitians. It is in this light that Ojo-Ade posits: ‘In order to fully understand the gravity of Christophe’s sin one must note the importance of African religion in Haiti’s revolution’ (p. 119). Convinced that he is a victim of malevolent forces, Christophe finds solace in Voodoo. His songs, complemented by those of his wife, bear witness to his final rehabilitation. In sum, the theme of self-consciousness among blacks seems to constitute the thread that holds the whole play intact.
‘Une saison au Congo’ recounts the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, legendary prime minister of the Belgian Congo. After dealing with the meteoric rise and fall of Haitian King Christophe, Césaire casts his synthesising eyes on another encounter between Africa and Europe, this time using a man whom Europe has refused to admit into the fold of humans. In this historical play, Césaire brings us face to face with Machiavellian colonisers, from the descendants of King Leopold II to his official representatives on the ground, to the businessmen who milked the colony’s immense natural resources, to the military lording it over a crop of incompetent natives. ‘Une saison au Congo’ is a tragic tale, the tragedy of the Belgian Congo. Patrice Lumumba towers above everyone else in this unfolding tragedy because he symbolises the pride and integrity of the Congolese people. He is at the centre of the tragedy because his assassination brings to the fore Africa’s conundrum. As Ojo-Ade observes: ‘ Whether they be friends or foes, they all consider the man extraordinary, standing head and shoulders above the rest, whose mediocrity is accentuated by his massive superiority’ (p. 164). Césaire uses the stylistic device of juxtaposition to underscore Lumumba’s superhuman attributes. While Lumumba’s name remains unaltered throughout the play, the names of the villains, those plotting to kill him, are deformed, diminished, indeed, tinkered out of shape to conform to their villainous characters. Besides, all those mangled names connote the subterfuge and superficiality inherent in the name-bearers.
The tragedy of the Congo as recounted in ‘Une saison au Congo’ resides in the fact that armed with the solution to the Congolese question Lumumba is prevented from implementing his progressive agenda. Like King Christophe of Haiti, he realises the urgency of the task at hand and refuses to go slow. He tells members of his cabinet: ‘We must go too fast’ (p. 34). Like Christophe, Lumumba was not perfect, despite his stellar qualities. Mokutu, a sobriquet for Mobutu, is portrayed throughout the play as Lumumba’s Achilles heel. Yet he calls Mokutu his friend and brother: ‘It’s true, Mokutu is a soldier, and Mokutu is my friend, Mokutu is my brother’ (p. 37). Even as he symbolises the fiery qualities of African liberation, Lumumba is dragged down toward the cult of personalities and the canker of corruption that constitutes the bane of the African continent.
As for the demise of Lumumba, Césaire lays the brunt squarely on the shoulders of white imperialists. Ojo-Ade posits: ‘It should be recalled that the West, led by the United States, was clearly against Lumumba and in support of Katanga whose mineral wealth they were targeting. Labeling Lumumba a communist was tantamount to sending him to his grave’ (p. 175). In short, Césaire constructs the plot of this play to confirm the collusion between external and internal forces in the elimination of Lumumba. These words from Ojo-Ade are poignant enough: ‘The U.S., even though the master-coordinator-collaborator remains the invisible hand; and Belgium, very visible, remains behind the front guard of Congolese predators’ (p. 187). Lumumba’s portrait in ‘Une saison au Congo’ is that of a man who defines politics not as the preserve of prostitutes and pimps masturbating over public wealth but as a precept of probity anchored on commitment to selfless service to the people. Césaire leaves us with a worrisome thought when he perceives politics as a game of gangsterism and self-gratification, concretised in the power to shamelessly empty the coffers of the nation and reap the fruits of the people’s labour.
Césaire’s ‘Une tempête’ is calqued on William Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’. The play brings to the limelight the power dynamics inherent in a colony. Prospero, Caliban and Ariel are the major role-players in this drama. They re-enact the conflict between the coloniser and the colonised. The play is set on a mysterious island surrounded by an ocean. Prospero rules the island with his two servants, Ariel and Caliban. When Prospero was shipwrecked on the Island, Caliban and Ariel treated him kindly, but Prospero later makes them his unwilling servants. In scene two of the play we encounter Prospero and his servants – the self-effacing Ariel, and Caliban, an abrasive, foul-mouthed servant. We are told that while the language of Ariel is that of a slave who binds himself to his master without question, that of Caliban is one that questions the authority of his master, as seen in the except below:
‘You taught me language;
And my profit on’t is I know how to curse.
The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!’ (Tempest, 1, ii 363-65)
Caliban’s language of resistance in this excerpt comes as a shock to Prospero as it is unexpected that a servant would defy his master in this manner. Caliban’s anger toward his master is indicative of his urge to be freed from Prospero’s domination. Césaire’s play sheds light on the dynamics of power in a colonial set-up. The relationship between Prospero and his servants throughout the play supports a colonialist reading of the text. It is the craving for emancipation that Césaire fictionalises in ‘Une tempête’, as Caliban’s vituperative language shows:
‘Tu m’as tellement menti,
Menti sur le monde, menti sur moi-même
Que tu as fini par m’imposer
Une image de moi-même
Un sous développé, comme tu dis,
Voilà comment tu m’as obligé à me voir,
Et cette image, je la hais! Elle est fausse!
Et maintenant, je te connais, vieux cancer,
Et je me connais aussi!’ (p. 88)[i">
A keen examination of the foregoing passage reveals the relationship between language and race, and the constitutive, and therefore, putatively ontological power of a dominant language. Like Caliban, the postcolonial writer feels incapacitated by a borrowed identity.
The encounter between Caliban and Prospero raises interesting questions about the function of language and power dynamics in postcolonial Afro-Caribbean literature. The play provides one of the most telling demonstrations of the critical importance of language in the colonial encounter. Caliban’s reaction to the diatribes of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, encapsulates the malaise and bitter reaction of many colonised peoples to centuries of linguistic and cultural servitude. Caliban’s language is the product of a mindset in a state of malaise. He rejects the master’s language because Prospero has given him the tools of communication but has failed to give him the leeway and self-responsibility with which to use language. His rebellious attitude is a reaction to his feeling that he is being unfairly used and subjugated. By appropriating the master’s language, Caliban is able to break out of Prospero’s infernal linguistic prism. His longing for autonomy makes him relevant in the study of postcolonial Afro-Caribbean literature. Like Caliban, Afro-Caribbean fiction writers frequently manipulate hegemonic language in a bid to dismantle the power structures in the post-colony. By doing so, ex-colonised writers are able to actualise their own possibility of being.
In a nutshell, ‘Aimé Césaire’s African Theater: Of Poets, Prophets and Politicians’ is a celebration of black consciousness. This book is an invaluable tribute to Mother Africa and her offspring living in the diaspora. Femi Ojo-Ade has accomplished the laudable task of bringing these books to the attention of Africans and Africanists both at home and abroad. The seminal importance of this work to students and scholars of Afro-Caribbean literature cannot be overstated. It is worth the read.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Femi Ojo-Ade, 'Aimé Césaire’s African Theater: Of Poets, Prophets and Politicians', Trenton: Africa World Press, 2010, 362 pp., paperback, US$34.95, ISBN: 1-59221-739-7.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.
[i"> And you lied to me so much,
About the world, about yourself [sic">,
That you ended up by imposing on me
An image of myself:
Underdeveloped, in your words, incompetent,
That’s how you made me see myself!
And I loathe that image … and it’s false!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
And I also know myself! (‘Une tempête’, 70)