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From Plantation to Paradise?

Cultural Politics and Musical Theatre in French Slave Colonies, 1764–1789

David M. Powers

Publication Year: 2014

In 1764 the first printing press was established in the French Caribbean colonies, launching the official documentation of operas and plays performed there, and marking the inauguration of the first theatre in the colonies. A rigorous study of pre–French Revolution performance practices in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Powers’s book examines the elaborate system of social casting in these colonies; the environments in which nonwhite artists emerged; and both negative and positive contributions of the Catholic Church and the military to operas and concerts produced in the colonies. The author also explores the level of participation of nonwhites in these productions, as well as theatre architecture, décor, repertoire, seating arrangements, and types of audiences. The status of nonwhite artists in colonial society; the range of operas in which they performed; their accomplishments, praise, criticism; and the use of créole texts and white actors/singers à visage noirs (with blackened faces) present a clear picture of French operatic culture in these colonies. Approaching the French Revolution, the study concludes with an examination of the ways in which colonial opera was affected by slave uprisings, the French Revolution, the emergence of “patriotic theatres,” and their role in fostering support for the king, as well as the impact on subsequent operas produced in the colonies and in the United States.

Published by: Michigan State University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

Paradise? In all colonial theatres, an upper section, Paradis pour les gens de couleur (“Paradise for Colored People”), was reserved for a select portion of the free nonwhite population who seemed to have been absorbed into French culture.1 To receive permission to attend the theatre was regarded as a very high privilege for any nonwhite...

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pp. xv-xvi

The journey of research for the present study was far-reaching, leading me down an ever-winding path, and I am extremely grateful for the support of several individuals and institutions during this long voyage. I am especially indebted to three music scholars who gave me their unwavering support, constantly and...

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pp. 1-24

Is it possible that the color barrier in opera was broken over two centuries ago—and in a slave colony? The concept is quite amazing, for how and why did such a phenomenon occur in a place in which the institution of slavery was such a thriving enterprise? To what extent did the politics of a European empire impact the...

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Chapter 1. Establishment of Colonial Hierarchy

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pp. 25-46

The history of music in European colonial systems provides us with much valuable information about peoples of these territories. However, we know very little to date about how European colonial powers used their own performing-art forms (opera, court ballet, theatre, and symphony) within the colonies to...

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Chapter 2. Politics and Power

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pp. 47-64

The power of the French colonial empire can be broken down into three categories—religious, military, and political. Each category had its own musical repertoire that, in turn, reflected the three goals of the cultural political campaign—to maintain the peace, to ensure absolute respect for the social hierarchy, and to...

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Chapter 3. Colonial Society at the Theatre

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pp. 65-84

French composers, writers, and patrons of the arts frequently discussed and wrote numerous essays and treatises on the calming influence of music on the soul. They defined their music as delicate, refined, and culturally uplifting— attributes that, they deemed, had an extremely positive influence on the listener. Official....

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Chapter 4. Introducing the Stars

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pp. 85-92

As discussed above, slaves were very useful in strengthening the economy of colonial society by filling various occupations. They were also well prepared for performing in concerts and operas, for they had been thoroughly trained in the galant dances of the French court and had learned a variety of musical techniques from

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Chapter 5. Breaking through the Barrier

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pp. 93-104

Throughout the early stages of theatre development in Port-au-Prince, performances continued with some irregularity, primarily due to several changes in directorship. However, conditions changed dramatically under the stewardship of François Saint-Martin, an actor, singer, and entrepreneur. He was appointed director of the...

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Chapter 6. The Escape from Reality Continues

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pp. 105-112

In the two decades preceding the French Revolution, colonial authorities continued to search for ways to ensure that citizens “taste the fruits of peace” similar to that enjoyed by those living in France, as espoused by the regent of France at the beginning of the eighteenth century. They recognized that encouraging and...

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Chapter 7. Finale: The Beginning of the End

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pp. 113-122

Throughout the 1780s, that glorious decade of colonial theatre, interest in black creole culture increased dramatically. The creole patois—with its strong ties to African culture—was prominently featured in theatres throughout Saint- Domingue. Equally significant, the increasing popularity of creole productions occurred...

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pp. 123-126

Paradise? That cruelly provocative institution was dismantled, mentally as well as physically, by the same group of people for which it was created. It engendered hostilities between all sectors of the population. In Cap Français, mothers, négresses libres (free black women), were pitted against their daughters when they...

Appendix 1. Glossary

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pp. 127-132

Appendix 2. “La Fauvette” (The Warbler)

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pp. 133-146

Appendix 3. Moreau: Effects of Miscegenation

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pp. 147-148

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Appendix 4. Descriptions of Colonial Theatres

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pp. 149-156

On représenta Dimanche dernier pour la premiere fois à la Salle de Spectacle nouvellement construite. Cette Salle, de 120 pieds de longueur sur 40 de largeur, remplit à bien des égards l’idée que l’on peut se former d’une Salle de Spectacle bien entendue. Elle est partagée en trois parties égales: le Th éâtre, le Parterre, y compris l’Orchestre; l’Amphithéâtre & les derrieres...

Appendix 5. Premieres of Plays by Molière and Voltaire

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pp. 157-160

Appendix 6. Discography

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pp. 161-164

Appendix 7. Colonial Productions with Sub-Saharan African Elements

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pp. 165-192


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pp. 193-226


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pp. 227-252


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pp. 253-256

E-ISBN-13: 9781609174101
E-ISBN-10: 1609174100
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611861204
Print-ISBN-10: 1611861209

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: 1st

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Theater and society -- France -- History -- 18th century.
  • Theater and society -- West Indies, French -- History -- 18th century.
  • Musical theater -- West Indies, French -- History -- 18th century.
  • West Indies, French -- Social life and customs -- 18th century.
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