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French Forum 28.1 (2003) 77-90
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Le Docteur noir:
A French Romantic Drama in Blackface
Barbara T. Cooper
In recent years, studies of black and Orientalist characters in nineteenth-century French prose fiction and poetry have proliferated. 1 Scholarly attention to theatrical works featuring people of color, while growing, has developed far more slowly. 2 This disparity may be explained, to some extent, by the non-canonical status of the majority of those playwrights whose texts include non-white characters and by the conventional nature of their pieces, most of which were written for the popular theaters located on the Boulevards of Paris. Yet given the resurgence of interest in French melodrama over the past twenty-five years, such an explanation is not entirely satisfactory. 3 My purpose here, however, is not so much to explain why there have been relatively few scholarly analyses of non-European figures in nineteenth-century French drama as it is to add to existing studies on the subject. To that end, I propose to undertake an examination of Le Docteur noir, a Romantic (melo)drama by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Philippe Dumanoir that opened a successful run at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin on 30 July 1846 and was soon consecrated by the creation of a parody entitled Le Docteur blanc, ou Pierrot dans les colonies at the Théâtre des Funambules (12 Oct. 1846). 4
I have chosen to investigate this particular work for two reasons. First, as I hope to demonstrate, the central figure in this play, a mulatto and former slave known as the black doctor, is a character whose status and fate are not unlike those of more familiar dramatic protagonists such as Hernani, Antony, Chatterton, and Ruy Blas. 5 To the extent that this is true, race can thus be read as another of the signs of marginality—along with political opposition, social illegitimacy, and economic exclusion—that often define and determine the destiny of the French Romantic hero. Second, and concomitant to this, Le Docteur noir, set [End Page 77] in the years just before and during the French Revolution, appears to have social and political implications that go beyond the themes of racism and slavery in a colonial setting (the île Bourbon, today known as La Réunion) to touch upon matters of class and power in metropolitan France. Specifically, and no doubt more dangerously for the era when it was first performed, the play seems to suggest that the status of the lower classes in France is in some ways analogous to that of blacks in the French colonies.
Before we can begin to examine the cultural and ideological import of Anicet-Bourgeois's and Dumanoir's play, however, a summary of the work's plot is necessary. Like Hernani, the political outlaw; Antony, the bastard; and Chatterton, the impoverished poet, Fabien, the black doctor, is marginalized by society. 6 Although he alone has been successful in treating victims of a deadly epidemic that has ravaged the île Bourbon, Fabien must struggle for recognition and respect in a (colonial) world that refuses to acknowledge his personal merit and to discount race. Even when Pauline de la Reynerie, the daughter of his late, erstwhile master, contracts the dreaded, unnamed disease that has heretofore spared her family's plantation, the mulatto must first combat her mother's deep-seated racial prejudice before he can attempt to save the young woman's life. Yet save her he does, not only from her illness but also from the grief that further compromises her health when she is told that her mother has drowned at sea while on a journey to the French court at Versailles. Once Pauline's recovery is assured, however, Fabien leaves the Reynerie's plantation to wander the isolated parts of the island in a state of melancholy and despair. In love with Pauline, he cannot imagine a cure for his own "malady" nor foresee a circumstance that would lead the young woman to consent to marriage. Jealousy and indignation eventually prompt him...