- The Black Radical Tragic: Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution by Jeremy Matthew Glick
When was—or is?—the Haitian Revolution? The deliberately complex temporal engagements of Jeremy Matthew Glick's The Black Radical Tragic: Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution are signaled on its cover, which notes the book's inclusion in NYU Press's "America and the Long 19th Century" series. It was—is—a very long 19th century indeed, one that, in Glick's hands, incorporates 20th-century aesthetic reverberations of a late 18th- and early 19th-century uprising that upended an imperial and colonial project begun centuries prior. Though driven by political urgency in the face of "current neoliberal coordinates" and antiblack racism, The Black Radical Tragic anchors its investigations in the 20th-century philosophical and theatrical traditions of black radicalism and Haitian revolutionary drama (5). As such, it joins contemporary works by scholars such as Fred Moten, Robin D.G. Kelley, David Scott, and Sylvia Wynter in thinking through the relationship between black aesthetics and black politics.
Glick privileges dramatic representations for a number of reasons. Showing his indebtedness to Bertolt Brecht throughout, Glick notes that "[d]rama is particularly suited to capture dialectical thoughts in action because one can literally see the moves" (221). The temporal slipperiness of the stage is also a draw. These stagings of the Haitian revolution—what Glick describes as a Marxian "poetry of the past"—are always coded with multiple temporalities representing a past revolution, reflecting on a current political problem, and "aim[ing] toward an undetermined radical futurity" (26). Finally, performance is an especially useful medium for such a study, Glick argues, because "dramatic plays [are] principally concerned with positioning, prioritizing, and orchestrating masses onstage, as well as calibrating a weighted interdependence between individual and group," a central problem in revolutionary thought and praxis (81).
It is this tension between leader and masses—protagonist and chorus—that characterizes Glick's model of the Black Radical Tragic, "a form that engages questions of radical leadership" (185). Punning on the surname of Toussaint Louverture, Glick summons a cast of historical interlocutors in an "Overture" that follows his introduction. In this opening, which he describes as "a political primer" (22), Glick proceeds by way of "a series of dialectical couplings" (28)—the most fruitful of which is a pairing of the Welsh literary critic Raymond Williams and the Trinidadian historian and playwright C.L.R. James, both of whom thought deeply about the vexed relationship between tragic aesthetics and revolutionary praxis.
It is the thought and theatre of James that is at the center of Glick's study. Though best known for his pioneering history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938, James preceded this work of history with his 1934 play Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. The play, which has received renewed attention since the 2005 discovery and 2013 publication of its long-lost script by James scholar Christian Høgsbjerg, famously starred Paul Robeson in the lead role in its 1936 London premiere. James significantly revised—and retitled—the play in the 1960s, and it is this play, also titled The Black Jacobins, that is Glick's central focus for much of chapters 2 and 3, and is at the core—physically and intellectually—of The Black Radical Tragic.
Glick superbly illuminates James's knowledge of and interest in theatre history and dramatic literature, foregrounding James's affection for both Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, his study of Athenian democracy and the role of tragedy therein, and his direct engagements with Aristotle's Poetics. Glick reads Toussaint Louverture's retitling—from that of a proper name [End Page 178] to that of a designated mass—as, in part, a response to Robeson's forceful, charismatic performance in the title role of the London production. The revised version, Glick argues, productively "undermines the main actor's virtuosity by staging...