Monday, 6 May 2013

Book Review: Toussaint Louverture by C.L.R. James

From LSHG Newsletter # 49 (May 2013)
Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history; A Play in Three Acts
by C.L.R. James
Edited and introduced by Christian Høgsbjerg with a foreword by Laurent Dubois
Duke University Press 2013 240pp
ISBN 978-0822353140

How do you dramatise one of the most dramatic events in human history? The events in Saint Domingue between 1791-1804 were a lot more than a slave revolt and no less than a full blown revolution.
This is a revolution that blew apart the intellectual and economic foundations of theAtlantic slave trade/slavery,establishing the first black republic in the Western hemisphere. How do youcondense this kaleidoscope ofevents so rich in outstanding characters into 3 acts? How does one give literary life to characters that, though they really existed, seem mythical in their capacity to make history incircumstances definitely not of their choosing? This is the task CLR James set himself in writing and staging his play Toussaint Louverture in London in 1936.
James’ outstanding history of Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938, is of course far better known.  However, it is clear from reading this 1936 play that it helped to suffuse The Black Jacobins with the literary aroma that seems to drench whole passages in it. This play was performed by the foremost actor of his day in the lead role, Paul Robeson.
The worry is that with a plays like this is that the dialogue can be as wooden as the beams the actors walk upon as ‘making the political’ trumps drama. However, as I read the play I marvelled at just how well it manages to tell both a dramatic and touching story.
Using the dramatic medium James shows the Haitian masses at their fighting finest; cleverly inserts the actual minutes of the 1794 French convention meeting that abolished slavery; shows the genius of Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines, and others in action; and how social conflicts can seemingly look like individual conflicts and vice versa. 
James’ Toussaint Louverture is not a great play on paper but is a brilliant play nevertheless. However, this is not where the brilliance of this particular book ends. For its editor, Christian Høgsbjerg, has done us all a great service by the materials he has collected that accompany the play in the book. We are given a fantastic insight into the highly compressed, explosive circumstances surrounding the creation of this play.
He explains how James arrives in England in 1932, literary accomplishments under his belt, but being confronted by the great depression, the rise of Hitler, the invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy, the Spanish civil war, and growing independence movements in Africa and the Caribbean. We have a sense that though this play is about the struggles of the 1790s it was itself a weapon aimed in the struggles of the 1930s.
One need only read the table of contents to see that you have much more than a play here. It includes reviews and other critical information that deepens your appreciation of the play. This is an example how a chance discovery of a lost manuscript can be turned into something that opens the door to a relevant world.
This play is a must-read for anyone who has read and loved The Black Jacobins as you can see much of the lyricism of that great work prefigured in its lines.
Tragically, it has not been performed for over 20 years. As this play will probably be restaged soon it would be good idea to read it now.
We all owe much to the expert salvage operation Christian Høgsbjerg has performed here.  As long as the world wilts with oppression, is awash with crisis, and punctuated by resistance this play, its subject matter, and now this book, will have to be read, watched and pondered on over and over again.
Gaverne Bennett

Edited to add:
Monday 24 June
Roundtable discussion on 'CLR James: From Toussaint Louverture to Beyond a Boundary'
with Tayo Aluko (writer, performer and producer, Call Mr Robeson), Luke Daniels (President, Caribbean Labour Solidarity), Keith Flett and Christian Høgsbjerg.
Chair: Marika Sherwood (a friend of CLR James's and author of World War II: Colonies and Colonials)
6pm, Room G34 South Block, Institute of Historical Research, London, WC1. Free, all welcome.
Organised by the London Socialist Historians Group and the Black and Asian Studies Association

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