Today in London’s theatrical history: Paul Robeson stars as black revolutionary Toussaint Louverture in CLR James play, 1936

“I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited.” (CLR James)

“James’s treatment of ‘the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in world history’ will remain an inspiration, because of its universal theme, for the foreseeable future.” (Christian Hogsbjerg)

In 1791, inspired both by the ideals of the French Revolution and the horrors and toil of their existence, slaves on the Caribbean island of San Domingo rose in revolt. For twelve years they fought off the white French masters, and armies from France, Spain and Britain,

Ultimately founding the independent black republic of Haiti. A number of outstanding military leaders masterminded the war for Haiti’s freedom: most famously, Toussaint Louverture, who emerged from the struggle as its most clear thinker and general, though he was betrayed into the hands of the French before the ultimate victory and died in a French prison.

Hollywood, the socialist Paul Foot once noted, ‘made a film about Spartacus, the leader of the Roman slave revolt, because Spartacus was beaten. Toussaint L’Ouverture was victorious, so they haven’t made a film about him’. His being black may have something to do with it…

There may be no Hollywood blockbuster (I’m guessing it’d end up with Matt Damon in blackface anyway), but there is a French TV movie

And there was once a ground-breaking play…

In 1934 the fantastic Trinidadian Marxist polymath CLR James, then living in London, finished writing his play Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. The playscript was long presumed lost, (although James did revise the text in the 1960s), until the rediscovery of a draft copy in 2005. James was to go on to write the classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938.

Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James was to become a marxist activist and theorist, leading pan-Africanist, cricket commentator, and cultural thistorian. He had arrived in England in 1932, and became engaged not only in literary challenges to racism, in revolutionary politics and the African and West Indian independence movements, in resistance to fascism… James’s play about a revolutionary leader defeating brutal oppressors was both a historical drama and a response to the news of the day.

Toussaint Louverture was staged on March 15th and 16th 1936 at London’s Westminster Theatre; another black communist, the incredible Paul Robeson, starring in the title role, one of the world’s most famous actors and singers– making it an event of international interest. The League of Coloured Peoples (discussed on this blog the other day), of which James was an active member, helped sponsor the performance. This was the first time black professional actors had starred on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright, and interestingly despite his long acting career and lifelong anti-racist stance, was to be the only time Robeson starred in a play by a writer of African descent. Just the idea of a meeting of the work these two giants of the twentieth century is enough to send shivers down the spine…

James wrote the play in 1934, but it remained unproduced until 1936, when the script came into the hands of Robeson, who had been looking for a chance to portray the Haitian leader on stage. Back in 1926, Robeson had told an interviewer that he dreamed “of a great play about Haiti, a play about Negroes, written by a Negro, and acted by Negroes . . . of a moving drama that will have none of the themes that offer targets for race supremacy advocates.” In 1935 Robeson had even discussed the idea of a film about the Haitian revolt with the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, who had become fascinated with the Haitian story. Sadly this film never happened (is there an alternative universe where Eisenstein filmed Robeson in James’s play! – imagine…)

For an interesting and detailed description of the plot, themes and staging of he play, it’s worth reading Christian Hogsbjerg’s introduction to his published edition of Toussaint Louverture.

“The cast assembled around Robeson was remarkable, featuring as it did other black professional actors from throughout the African diaspora, including Robert Adams, who played Dessalines. Adams, born in British Guiana, had, like James, been a distinguished schoolteacher who produced and acted in amateur productions before coming to Britain. He had worked with Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River and Midshipman Easy, and in 1935 he made his London stage debut in Stevedore. Also recruited from Stevedore was the Nigerian Orlando Martins, who played the role of Boukman. Black amateur actors—including other veterans of Stevedore, such as John Ahuma, Rufus E. Fennell, and Charles Johnson—were included, while the remaining cast was recruited through the Stage Society itself, many of whom were experienced professional actors or rising stars such as Harry Andrews.

The play was staged at the 730- seat Westminster Theatre, on the fringes of London’s West End in Palace Street. The owner of the Westminster Theatre during this period was A. B. Horne, and it was managed by Anmer Hall. Michael Sidnell notes that Hall learnt that “Sunday performances were a way of getting a hearing for new or neglected plays without going to great expense.” With its quite liberal management, it is not surprising that the Westminster Theatre was a home for the radical Group Theatre, and James’s Toussaint Louverture had followed a series of plays by “the Auden Group,” most notably Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog beneath the Skin. The famous theatre critic Herbert Farjeon noted at the end of the 1930s that “the Westminster Theatre has probably housed during the present decade a higher percentage of interesting plays than any other theatre north of the Thames.” In 1955, the Westminster Theatre produced an all- African play, Freedom, which toured Europe and was filmed in Nigeria in 1956 with a cast of thousands.

Those wishing to see the performance had to pay at least one guinea, the basic annual membership subscription to the Stage Society. As well as the Sunday evening performance on 15 March, there was a matinee the next day, and for this final performance James himself was called upon to step in for Rufus E. Fennell, the actor playing the “small part” of Macoya. “I was in it by accident. . . . I wanted to sit in the back and watch the play . . . not to be mixed up in it. But I dressed myself up and played it.” Overall, though the production went well, James would always remember it was Paul Robeson who stole the show.” As James, interviewed in November 1983, recalled, “The moment he came onto the stage, the whole damn thing changed. It’s not a question of acting . . . the physique and the voice, the spirit behind him—you could see it when he was on stage.”

Reviews were said to be mixed (twould be interesting to know on what grounds – the explicit radical, anti-racist, and anti-imperial message may have coloured the artistic opinions of white reviewers), but by all accounts Robeson’s performance was typically outstanding. The first performance received an ovation. Broadway made noises of interest, and a couple of critics suggested the play would adapt well to screen, though in the end neither a Broadway run or a film materialised.

James was, according to Christian Høgsbjerg, (who discovered the manuscript in the papers of the former trotskyist Jock Haston, a sometime comrade of James in 2005), “acutely conscious of the need to challenge the mythological British nationalist narrative of abolition, one that glorified the role played by British parliamentarians such as Wilberforce. Indeed, in the original version of the playscript C.L.R. James mentioned Wilberforce himself in passing, but then later in a handwritten revision… decided to remove the explicit mention of the abolitionist Tory MP… to help bring home the essential truth about abolition — that it was the enslaved who abolished slavery themselves — to a British audience who would almost certainly be hearing such a truth for the first time.”

The play mingled elements of classic theatre (eg the use of the rebellious slave army as a kind of chorus, in the ancient Greek tradition) – though radically subverted “the final scene of revolutionary history sees what James would in 1963 describe as “the entry of the chorus, of the ex- slaves themselves, as the arbiters of their own fate,” making for an ending to a drama that no Greek tragedian or even someone with the far- reaching imagination of Shakespeare could have envisaged” – with modern alternative theatrical ideas and ideals. The mix of music dance and drama evokes the latest methods in European theatre, like the work of Brecht, while also deliberately echoing African culture.

James portrayal of Toussaint is of a tragic hero, as a revolutionary leader who ends his days in prison, having failed in the end to follow through the struggle to complete independence for Haiti (a task his lieutenants were left to finish), and paid the price for it. Having not begun the slave revolt, but emerged from it and been shaped by it, he became its outstanding strategist and thinker, but didn’t have enough faith in the black rebels’ ability to make their own future. Believing they should make a semi-colonial peace with revolutionary France, in the end he contrasted this with too much faith in the European enlightenment, and was betrayed, captured and imprisoned by the French republic. James was again bringing past, present and theory together in his raw discussion of the ideas of revolutionary leadership, charismatic thinkers and hero-figures, and the ability of the oppressed to shape their own destiny: vital questions then, as in the 1790s, as now…

The story of Haiti’s successful slave revolt is inspiring at any time, but in the 1930s, with almost all of Africa still under the colonial control of white European powers, putting on the play in the heart of what was then the most powerful empire of all was a bold move. The context of the times is crucial – fascism, based securely in the idea of racial hierarchies and white superiority, was rising; Italy had Just invaded Ethiopia (James was also a founder of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then called, and the parallels of Haiti with Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion were obvious and stark); but also political opposition and revolt against the colonial powers across Africa was beginning to coalesce. This could not ever be seen only as a play about incidents from the past; it was also a clarion call for massive social change from below for in the present and the future. It’s worth noting that the audience very likely included a range of vital figures in the future development of black self-determination across three (if not more) continents, with Pan-African figures as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Eric Williams being part of James’ immediate circle.

As Christian Hogsbjerg points out, the staging of the play also illustrates “the radical counterculture that has always existed in the “dark heart” of the British Empire”, and forms a brief bright illustration of the black radical traditions, leftwing ferment and literary bohemianism which all met and flowered so productively in both James and Robeson. James’ background in the Caribbean added a specific motivation for telling Toussaint’s story (which he had been researching for several years, spurred on by inadequate and racist accounts of Haiti and dismissals of black people as inferior to whites). If the project was “fundamentally inspired by James earlier environment, the colonial Caribbean society in which he was born and grew to intellectual maturity,” (Hogsbjerg) it also reflected how James had evolved politically since he left the West Indies – moving from “a continuing identification with imperial Britain” to a Pan-Africanist viewpoint and then on to Marxism.

But Christian Hogsbjerg also discusses how the staging of the play itself, not just the subject matter, formed both a break and a link with theatre traditions. A link to black West Indian theatre: “Although James’s play has been celebrated as a pioneering production in the history of black British theatre, and an important moment in the history of African and Caribbean theatre, Toussaint Louverture also stands as an outstanding contribution to what the late Trinidadian dramatist and scholar Errol Hill once described as “the revolutionary tradition in black drama,” a “tradition of writing and producing plays that deal directly with black liberation.” This revolutionary tradition dates at least as far back as the Haitian

Revolution itself, for after Toussaint seized the power to rule as black Consul in Saint- Domingue, James noted in The Black Jacobins that “the theatres began to play again, and some of the Negro players showed a remarkable talent.”

But also a defiant two fingers to the racially dubious portrayals of black people on the British stage – of ‘nigger minstrels’, or credulous childlike figures needing a white authority figure.

Interestingly, nearly 30 years later, James also adapted his account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, into a play:

“James felt the victory of many national liberation movements internationally in the postwar world meant that, as he later recalled, “the idea I was expressing should be differently expressed . . . writing about the struggle for independence in 1956 or 1960 was very different from what it was in 1936.” As James told Reinhard Sander, “After twenty- five years the colonial revolution had made great strides so about that time I began to rewrite it [the play] in view of the new historical happenings.” The play version of The Black Jacobins was first performed at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1967, directed by Lyndersay amid the tumult of civil war to an enthusiastic reception. It has since been staged numerous times, and this later script has necessarily formed the basis of scholarly discussion of “James’s play.” The later play essentially followed the same chronological structure as Toussaint Louverture. There is the same humour, the lively music, drumming ebbing and flowing into the action, and there are still moments of rare dramatic power. Yet by the 1960s James had experienced for himself, in Trinidad with Eric Williams and in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, both the excitement and the disappointment generated by movements for colonial liberation in the Caribbean and in Africa. If Toussaint Louverture was about the vindication of national liberation struggles written in the age of colonialism, in The Black Jacobins James and Lyndersay explored what lessons the Haitian Revolution might hold for national liberation struggles in the age of decolonisation.”

Christian Hobsbjerg’s book, which includes the full script of the play, the programme, photographs, and reviews from the 1936 production, a contextual introduction and editorial notes on the play, and selected essays and letters by James and others, is published by Duke University Press. Tis a bit expensive however… 

Have a look at Hogsbjerg’s blog

And you can watch an abridged performance of the play put on by Bowdoin College (Maine, USA) students in November 2014.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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