- The Black Radical Tragic: Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution by Jeremy Matthew Glick
In his first book, Jeremy Matthew Glick provides a powerful meditation on dramatic, aesthetic interpretations of the Haitian Revolution in the theatrical productions of the twentieth century. Glick moves nimbly from texts by Eugene O’Neill, Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Well, C. L. R. James, Edouard Glissant, Jean Genet, and Lorraine Hansberry, taking into consideration the manner in which each author not only invokes the historic event that was the overthrow of the French Empire on the island of Hispaniola but also offers their own renderings of radicalism. For him, these plays are a “theater of ideas” (3), ones in which we see consistently contemplations on the relationship between an individual and the masses he attempts to lead. These dramas are the heart of what he theorizes as the Black Radical Tragic, a “literary form” that “offers an aesthetic and critical lens to understand how genre choice, strategies of staging, and questions of mediation are keys for both theatrical and historical imaginings of the Haitian past and its relationship to a transformative future” (6).
The bulk of the study (the second and third chapters) concentrates on C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins in all of its iterations: its 1936 dramatic form, originally titled Toussaint Louverture and the 1967 revisions, as well as the historical text published in 1938, titled The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, with its own 1963 revisions. Glick compares James’s 1967 revisions to Edouard Glissant’s 1961 Monsieur Toussaint: A Play, revealing how, for James, an individual’s insurgent actions must necessarily be in keeping with the desires of the collective he leads. Glick goes on to demonstrate in the following chapter how James underscores the necessary dialectical relationship between the masses and the individual leader in his historical study, and how tragedy is found in the collapse of that interaction.
Glick’s attention to the work of Lorraine Hansberry was particularly illuminating; there, in his fourth chapter, he highlights the characteristic intersectionality of her oeuvre, as she puts race, class, and gender into play with questions of freedom and democracy. He first examines her play Les Blancs (produced on Broadway in 1970), a response to Jean Genet’s Les Negres (1958); one that puts in sharp relief questions of homespace for [End Page 109] its African intellectual protagonist who lives in Europe at a time of continental uprising. Glick next focuses on the first scene of what was intended to be a full-length opera, Toussaint, her Haitian Revolution work.
The Black Radical Tragic is at times a demanding read, particularly for readers who may not be as thoroughly familiar with Bertolt Brecht, Marxist theory or, most importantly, with the multifaceted history of Black radical thought in the English-speaking Western hemisphere. Even taking into consideration previous acquaintance with these themes, this is a deep and comprehensive study, one that shifts from meditations on Paul Robeson as Toussaint to the influence of a Rodin sculpture on James; from the incorporation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in James’s play to a reminder of the historical context of its composition, the 1935 Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Glick’s knowledge of these areas is substantial and the sheer breadth of his references is notable as they lead the reader to further develop trains of thought that he leaves open for further analysis. While his own interpretations of these plays are convincing, he inspires the reader to reconsider these writings for themselves. It is a significant contribution not only to literary studies but also to an interdisciplinary field of study that concentrates on the Haitian Revolution and its continuing reverberations more than two centuries after its inauguration. [End Page 110]