- Co-opting Haitian History in Martinican Theatre
Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, leading Martinican authors and playwrights assume a great responsibility. This mission, as elaborated upon by Edouard Glissant and Aimé Césaire, is the creation of a Martinican collective consciousness that will allow this population to “move beyond” or to “come to terms with itself.”1 Moreover, the establishment of a national theatre, which effectively brings people together, making a seemingly cohesive group, is synonymous with the shaping of a nation. As Glissant states in his Caribbean Discourse, “When a nation is taking shape, it develops a theatrical form that ‘duplicates’ its history (gives it significance) and provides an inventory” (196). Theatre is the place where a largely “deported” and creolized people forcibly “cut off from [their] true world” can craft a history (202). Moreover, “There is no nation without a theater,” writes Glissant, “and no theater is possible without a national consciousness.”2 From all this we can safely deduce that, at least in part, “the creation of a national identity is an artistic process.”3
Apart from their divergent movements, Antillanité (Caribbeaness) and Negritude, Edouard Glissant and Aimé Césaire appear to assign an equal amount of importance to theatre in the construction of social cohesion. Although the group consciousness that Glissant seeks to engender is at first national, it is Caribbean at base. Césaire, on the other hand, is concerned with the promotion and solidarity of black identity and consciousness. Despite these discrepancies, the similarity in their approach to theater is undeniable. Sophie Hawkes argues, “Through the vehicle of tragedy, Césaire attempts two goals: to present the metaphysical, spiritual and political problems of black people in a form that conveys both grandeur and dignity, and to present both the ideals and pitfalls that must accompany any psychic or social rebirth.”4 Césaire himself states, “Effectivement, je donne ma préférence à la forme théâtrale; je crois que les événements extérieurs y sont pour quelque chose… En particulier, avec l’accès à l’indépendance des pays africains, nous sommes dans le moment de la responsabilité. Les noirs désormais doivent faire leur histoire…”5 When he [End Page 184] spoke these words it is clear that he saw black people at a crucial moment in history where they needed to come together, to create a unified identity. He speaks of responsibility and perceives theatre as a means of arousing both political and cultural consciousness, envisioned from a sociological perspective. He clarifies this, saying, “Quand je considère le problème du sous-développement, il me semble que le salut des pays sous-développés ne sera assuré que lorsque ses habitants auront dépassé leur stade actuel de manqué de conscience. Par conséquent, mon théâtre, dans cette optique de développement, doit jouer un rôle social.”6
Clearly, theatre in Martinique has been entrusted with the task of creating a collective consciousness through the construction or the enunciation of a common past. This is indeed what theatre in these two areas has generally done, that is, written or elaborated on historical events. This “théâtre historique antillais,” a term coined by Bridget Jones and defined by Stéphanie Bérard in Théâtre des Antilles is “un théâtre qui répond à une pulsion profonde, celle d’utiliser l’extériorisation d’événements passés afin de corriger les versions imposées, voire faussées, de la narration officielle.”7 It is a theatre that never simply re-enacts a historical moment. Time as well as action is rarely linear. The place where the action unravels is rarely contained in one feasible location, let alone one comprised solely of the living. In other words, the neo-classical conventions of the three unities of time, place and action are far from respected here. Yet, historical events are primary elements presented and examined in these plays. While events that took place locally in Martinique do serve as content for the plays, it is clear that many playwrights have looked beyond their particular island frontiers to the events that occurred in...