Re-interpreting the Haitian Revolution
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
June 27, 2004
The celebrated and the troubled, the triumphant and the tragic were all highlighted in two events last week: a significant revision of Derek Walcott's play, Haitian Earth and a conference on the acclaimed and besieged Republic of Haiti. The performance of the Nobel Laureate's tragic drama was in fact the closing ceremony of The Haitian Bicentenary Conference staged by the Faculty of Humanities and education at the UWI St Augustine campus in Trinidad. During this event several writers, critics, historians, academics and analysts were in-tensely engaged in 'Reinter-preting the Haitian Revolution and its Cultural Aftershocks 1804-2004.'
It was a very fitting way for the campus to pay tribute to UWI Vice-chancellor Rex Nettleford, who is soon to retire, and the 200th anniversary of the Haitian Revolution. It featured the work of two very distinguished writers, Walcott and French Caribbean novelist Edwidge Danticat, who were to give readings and commentaries. This mixture of academic analysis and art was most appropriate because of Nettleford's great achievements as a distinguished professor and an artist. He is a leading cultural theorist in the Caribbean and one of the region's most outstanding practitioners in the theatre as a dancer, choreographer and director.
Walcott's theatre was also fitting tribute because of Haiti itself, which has attracted other writers as a subject of tragic study. The story of Saint Domingue and its great revolutionary hero Toussaint the liberator, as well as modern Haiti, its recent history and the beleaguered Jean Bertrand Aristide continue to be fascinating. But more than that, the country's cultural and political history has made it into an intriguing cultural environment in terms of its art, its African retentions, traditional sub-culture, religion, ritual, music and dance. All of these inform Walcott's Haitian Earth.
It was an unusual closing ceremony because the formal final session of an academic conference usually takes the form of speeches. In this case it was theatre, but particularly appropriate because it happened to pull together in a piece of art a significant proportion of the conference proceedings. Although written before the most recent chapters in Haiti's chequered political history, including the Aristide episode, the historical play makes a statement about the country as it has now become. Despite its eighteenth-century setting, dramatizing the events of the revolution, its closing episodes in particular, are a virtual tragic outcry against the long series of atrocities committed against the nation, its people and its earth. This includes its period as a French colony of slaves as well as its 200 years as an independent nation from 1804 to 2004.
In accordance with the conference themes, Walcott began by dramatizing excerpts from Aime Cesaire's Cahier D'Un Retour Au Pays Natal (Notebook of a return to my native country). He moved from this directly into the start of his own play without a sufficiently obvious break, which caused some degree of confusion and allowed some aspects of the play to fall below expectations. Walcott is too astute an artist and too meticulous a director (often oppressively so) not to have done that deliberately. He evidently saw the inseparable link between Cesaire and what he dramatizes in Haitian Earth to the point where he used the same set, styling, rhythms, music, costuming and cast. But the Cesaire sequences were so rich in Patois (French Creole) and the Haitian ritual that one was somewhat unfairly led to miss them in the play. Walcott's interest in language moved differently in what is essentially a play in English with intermittent utterances in Patois to help atmosphere, cultural fix and character. There were marked, lengthy speeches in English. Yet, what is more serious criticism is that, having succeeded in setting up this confluence, the director caused those who did not already know the play, and even some who did, not to know when the play began.
This almost threw away a very important statement about the cycle of events or cycle of tragedy that is Haiti's history. Haitian Earth begins with a visually effective and moving symbolic sequence representing the death of Toussaint in exile. The same is repeated in the play's closing moments and the point is made dramatically that his betrayal and removal from Haiti marks the end of the genuine revolution, the self-crowning of a monarch and the beginning of an unending string of despots. It depicts a cycle in which revolutions turn upon themselves with the former militant leaders replacing and becoming the eurocentric oppressors they have removed. This is also relevant to the cycle of events from 1804 to contemporary Haiti in 2004.
The element of the presentation was also a reminder that Walcott was not working with new material since other writers had covered this history before. In fact, his tribute to Cesaire might have been an acknowledgement of this since Cesaire wrote the play La Tragedie Du Roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christophe). A number of papers in the conference treated CLR James's Black Jacobins, another very famous play on the subject. Walcott himself had experimented with these themes before through Henri Christophe, one of his earliest plays, and Drums and Colours, written for the opening of the Port-of-Spain based Parliament of the West Indian Federation. As he did with other subjects and forms, he continued his tendency to revisit and revise plays and treatments until he is satisfied with the finished work. Haitian Earth is the result of his long engagement with the revolution in Saint Domingue.
It looks into the series of revolts, giving dramatic snippets of some of the scenes going back to the years preceding Toussaint's accession from a coachman who loved to read to national leadership, without dwelling on them at any length or in detail. But it took a little while for the play to settle down and for the plot development to become clear. This happened around the point at which Christophe, who was a waiter and Dessalines, who was a runaway slave became generals in Toussaint's new army. It was a significant turn in the drama because it established a new more organized, more disciplined, enlightened and humane dispensation as Toussaint took over the revolution after Boukman and an anarchic riot of slaughter and mayhem.
This is the image of a charismatic, intellectual Toussaint (Arthur Jacobs) that Walcott develops to the point where "this gilded African" became an adversary that worried Napoleon (Keith Ward). It also established the order and vision in his dispensation which was to be contrasted by the change to terror and treachery that immediately accompanied the rise of despots like Emperor Jean Jacques Dessalines I (Gandolph St Clair) and King Henri Christophe (Marvin George).
While it was perhaps inevitable that Walcott would present much material already dealt with by James, Walcott would have needed more than the slight difference in emphasis in Toussaint's portrayal to make this play his own. In Haitian Earth he was equal to the task. Vintage Walcott or not, this drama is the work of a genius. Its tour de force is the introduction of the profound element of 'the Haitian Earth' and the way it is carried by a sub-plot that refused to remain subterranean, but became the artistic triumph of the piece. CLR James's proletarian preoccupations in Black Jacobins was partly carried through the choric interventions of a small army of menials, but Walcott raised peasants and farmers who worked the earth to maintain it and make it productive to majestic levels.
There are several images/ metaphors and references to the earth and to Haiti as a living land which cannot be continually plundered and laid waste by war. The dramatist crowns this factor by the creation of two major characters, the peasant farmer Pompey (Augustine Compton) and the mulatto named Yette (Natalie La Porte) who became his 'wife.' Walcott gives them tragic heroic stature. More than that, Yette is Haiti. Her own life is symbolic of the history of Haiti. When we meet her she is a whore whose clients are white military officers (in some ways she is the Marie-Louise studied by James in Black Jacobins). After the revolution she tries to switch to being a peasant working the land and fails. Despite Pompey's help, love and inspiration, she returns to her earlier trade because she could not change her life-style. But Pompey in his role as curator of the Haitian earth never gives up and continues to make that earth independent and productive. When he succeeds in bringing Yette back from prostitution to the farm he is doing the same to Haiti. The country, as the half-breed woman, is prostituted by the European powers and has no positive identity. When Emperor Dessalines rapes Yette, it is the rape of Haiti, by black despotic leaders taking the place of white colonials.
It is Pompey the curator of the earth who perseveres through ravaging war who rescues her from plunder and gives her an identity. It is in this domain that Yette as Haiti becomes independent and is responsible for three of the play's most powerful moments.
She leads the chorus of mourning which contrasts ironically with the confetti and empty applause at the coronation of Dessalines.
The mood created by Walcott's production at this point was for the death, not the independence of the Republic.
She fights against the crowning of Christophe with the traditional Haitian weapon of voodoo, again leading the chorus "no more kings!" When Christophe orders her execution, her death ends the play as the tragedy of Haiti, killed off and condemned to martyrdom by its own tyrannical political leaders. Walcott performed Haitian Earth in the round with the sparseness of set, dependence on mime, image and symbol demanded by theatre in the round.
The actors and musicians performed effectively to those demands.
It was sensual, rhythmic and informed by music, dance and movement with a great deal of artistic improvisation and asked much of the tolerance and imagination of the audience, in like fashion to Elizabethan theatre. But it was a style bearing the stamp of Walcott, a theatre that he has made his own.