Reading a Work in its Materiality:
C. L. R. James’ Toussaint L’Ouverture / The Black Jacobins
This seminar paperas part of a broader project of theorizing the materiality of language, literature, reading,…is a consideration of a particular literary work in its materiality. Specifically, the paper reads C. L. R. James’ play The Black Jacobins, an earlier version of which was staged in 1938 as an intervention in the debates around the Ethiopian crisis. That first version of the play, under the title Toussaint L’Ouverture, was performed in London in 1938 with Paul Robeson in the title role. The revised and re-titled version is included in The C. L. R. James Reader, published in 1992. I am interested in explaining the play’s materiality. I believe that this is neither merely a matter of the experiential impact of that particular run of performances by a Black actor legendary for his stage presence and powerful voice, nor a matter of the use of the various theatrical devices to achieve particular effects. These matters will be discussed, but as I regard materiality to be a matter of the material relations, this paper’s reading of the play will emphasize the social relations of labor, both those depicted in the play and those which conditioned its very production as a cultural work. My two-fold aim in this paper, then, in reading the play in its context, is to critically discuss what it means to read a work (that is, a text, a play, a performance, a discursive intervention, a cultural production,…) and its context materially, and thus to begin to develop an effective theory of materiality and reading.
The paper begins with a definition of the context of the play, taking into account that to define “context” is already to read. This is true of all reading, of course, but as I try to show, such context-reading is necessary for developing a coherent and reliable understanding both of the text which is read and of the context in which reading has emerged as a social possibility. The question of the emergence of the historical context of reading (that is, of education, literacy, printing,…) is important to consider in postcolonial studies, as it has always been a field for reading and theorizing the relationships among various forms of discourse. For example, the difference(s) between orality and literacy, or speech and writing, are familiar and important points of discussion and debate in postcolonial studies specifically and in cultural and literary studies generally. After providing historical context and reading the play in some of its detail, I will address these points of discussion as a means for clarifying further what reading materially means and why it is important.
Anna Grimshaw, editor of The C. L. R. James Reader, a project on which she consulted with James, writes that Toussaint L’Ouverture was staged at London’s Westminster Theatre as “an intervention in the debates surrounding the Ethiopian crisis” (5). What was the nature of this crisis?
The crisis had to do with the Italian annexation of Ethiopia (or Abyssinia) in 1936. W. E. B. DuBois characterizes the relevant events in his historical work The World and Africa:
When the British seized Egypt to secure the Suez Canal they occupied the Sudan ; they had designs on Ethiopia, but hesitated to follow up their victory over the Emperor Theodore. When the Sudan revolted, the British egged on Italy to annex the highlands of Ethiopia.
Italy tried this but was soundly beaten by Menelek at Adowa on March 2, 1906 . The allies promised Italy to give her Ethiopia after the First World War, but failed to do so. Italy, affronted, attacked Ethiopia in 1935. The League of Nations failed to restrain her and Britain and France refused Ethiopia arms. Italy annexed Ethiopia, with Churchill’s approval. The Emperor, Haile Selassie, took refuge in England. (268-269)
The crisis, which like all crises is a manifestation of contradiction, is succinctly expressed by DuBois in these last two sentences, which portray England as both the supporter of the Italian annexation of Ethiopia and the refuge of its emperor-in-exile. How can one country, England, or indeed the League of Nations to which all nations involved belong, be on both sides of the issue? Here, then, is the contradiction, which is ultimately a contradiction at the heart of the modern nation in class society and indeed in the colonial relations which have developed as modern class society has developed. England supported the colonization and modernization of Ethiopia as long as it did not pose a threat to its own colonial interests in the area (such as Sudan, Kenya, Somalia,…); however, England had an interest in maintaining good relations with Ethiopia through its leader and thus provided refuge. Further, what goes for England at this point largely goes for the League of Nations as well. As both DuBois, writing just after the war, and James, writing just before it, state, the League is little more than a front for the British imperialist class.
The crisis over Ethiopia was in part a crisis over what sort of nation Ethiopia was going to bea free and independent nation or a nation subject to external ruleand in part a crisis over what sort of world would be created in the middle of the 20th Century. Haile Selassie’s 1936 speech to the League of Nations set this out as a binary choice: either “collective security or international lawlessness” (“Ethiopia”). As the actions of Mussolini, emboldened by Hitler’s own unchallenged actions in Europe, represent “international lawlessness,” and as “collective security” is a supposed goal of those who would abide by international law, this comment seems to be right on the mark. However, as James points out in his 1936 essay “Abyssinia and the Imperialists,” this is a false choice within the global relations of imperialism, because the imperialists rewrite or skirt the law at will when it is in their interests to do so and they are interested in “collective security” only as an ideological illusion that masks “the incredible savagery and duplicity of European imperialism in its quest for markets and raw materials” (Grimshaw 63). James recognizes that this quest is never-ending. For him, the resolution of the crisis is not more of the same so-called “assistance to a weaker nation” (qtd. in Grimshaw 64). To the contrary,
The only thing to save Abyssinia is the efforts of the Abyssinians themselves and action by the great masses of Negroes and sympathetic whites and Indians all over the world, by demonstrations, public meetings, resolutions, financial assistance to Abyssinia, strikes against the export of all materials to Italy, refusal to unload Italian ships etc. (66)
That is, in the context of imperialism, what the people of Abyssinia/Ethiopia must do is act in their own interests and not in the interests of the imperialists. This is so because the crisis is at root a crisis of the conditions of life. Are the lives of Ethiopians going to be determined by Italian or British or other imperialists and their agents, or are Ethiopians going to determine their own lives by struggling against imperialism and establishing conditions of lifethat is, conditions of laborwhich are also the conditions of freedom in community? The only thing, as James puts it, is action to end imperialism. This is the conclusion James draws, a conclusion based on his study and knowledge of the historical events he dramatizes in his play Toussaint L’Ouverture / The Black Jacobins: the slave revolts in San Domingo and the Haitian war for independence.
In discussing the slave revolts in The World and Africa, DuBois emphasizes that “It was this revolt more than any other single thing that spelled doom not only of the African slave trade but of slavery in America as the basis of an industrial system” (65-66). James’ interest in these events of the 1790s and early 1800 has to do with the way in which they show slaves to be agents of history, rather than mere subjects of others’ actions who had to be “liberated.” The slaves who actively made revolution “owed much of their success to the fact that they had been disciplined, united and organized by the very mechanism of factory production” (James xvii). That is, the very institutions by which slaves were exploited for colonial gain were also the means by which slaves were enabled to revolt. James is interested in how a mass of slaves, in these conditions, can also produce leaders who will can shape the mass into a collective capable not only of making revolution but also of forming a society, a country, a nation.
Further, James is interested in the lessons to be learned from the successes and failure of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the first leader of the ex-slaves, who is ultimately superceded by Dessaline, whose view of the relationship of Haiti to France, or of the ex-slave to the former master, is crucially different. L’Ouverture’s believes that France, in the spirit of Libert! Egaliti! Fraterniti!, has brought about the end of slavery and thus that France intends that the ex-slaves should be free and equal brothers with the French. As such, rather than independence, what the Haitian people need is “the help that only France can give” (Grimshaw 101). Dessaline believes no such thing, as he knows that the French did not end slavery, but rather that the slaves in freeing themselves are in the process of making the end of the institution of slavery, and thus what the Haitian people need, what their very actions in struggling to end their enslavement show they need, is independence, the severing of all ties with their former masters, by every means available. This opposition of views is the key aspect of the intervention that James stages in London in 1938.
At this point, I would like to begin to read the play in some of its details in this context for reading. To be clear, I regard the context of the play to be not merely the particular time and place in which it is written, read, or performed; rather the context is the historical and historically developing context that joins colonialism with imperialism. The context, in short, is the development of class-divided social relations of production on a global scale. That is, the material context for reading this and other works is colonialism/imperialism as the means by which the emerging ruling class in the countries of Europe further established its dominance in the metropole by extending its reach globally, but it is also the means by which those who are ruledthe working class, the exploited and oppressedacquire the conditions and conditioning necessary for historical agency in their own interests.
Among the aspects of the play that are useful to discuss in this context are the following: first, the stage directions regarding the use of the upstage area to suggest a crowd or mass; second, the play’s brief but layered Prologue, which establishes the social relations of the colonial society in which the slaves make their revolt, and sketches in miniature the opposition between Dessaline and Toussaint L’Ouverture as leaders; and third, the dramatization through character of the opposing positions on what the Haitian people need.
In keeping with the idea that “Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint” (James xix), James opens with the following notes:
The stage is divided into four areas. There is a main central area, two smaller areasone on each side, and a large area upstage for crowds, banner-bearers, etc. The upstage area is outdoors. In the Prologue it is used for the slaves in silhouette. In the Play it is possible that the crowds may assemble at the back and be spoken to from the back of the main central area. Crowds say little but their presence is felt powerfully at all critical moments. This is the key point of the play and comments cannot, must not, be written. It must be felt, dramatically, and be projected as essential to action in the downstage areas. (Grimshaw 68).
The crowd can not, must not, comment, according to these notes; however, the crowd exists as a presence, especially at critical moments, and this felt presence is essential to the action of individuals, the actions of leaders. James emphasizes this as “the key point of the play,” and indeed, as his editor notes, through the play James “hoped to make his audience aware that the colonial populations were not dependent upon leadership from Europe in their struggle for freedom, that they already had a revolutionary tradition of their own” (5). Further, in this struggle, those who emerge as leaders of their people only lead inasmuch as they also speak for the people. The dramatization of this dynamic remains one of the most interesting aspects of the play: how to suggest this presence of the people which is essential to portray in order to convey to the audience the meaning of the actions of the individual characters.
The Prologue makes the most effective use of the crowd. The Prologue consists of a series of very brief scenes, or vignettes, very effectively illustrating the relations of colonial masters and their slaves framed by a set of silhouettes or shadow-scenes upstage which depict the slaves in action, accompanied by drums and song. Here is the sequence, in abbreviated form:
1. Five silhouetted slaves, chained at the waist, mime digging with spades and sing in what appears to be an African tongue. Drumming is heard. An overseer cracks the whip; they go silent and freeze. Blackout. Drums continue, then stop for the brief barber scene.
2. Slaves mime digging with pickaxes, singing in English “White manvow to destroy / Take his riches away. / Kill them / Every one” (69). At the crack of the whip, they stop singing and freeze as before. Blackout. Drums continue, then stop for the chicken thief scene.
3. Slaves pass heavy boulders along the line, humming the same song slowly. At the crack of the whip, they freeze, bent low by their burden. Blackout and drums as before. Entertainer scene, then hotel scene, then forest scene (with Dessaline).
4. At the end of the forest scene, in which a speaker who has related to the gathered slaves, no longer in silhouette, news of slave revolts in Guadaloupe and Martinique is shot, the slaves scatter. Dessaline bends over the body, then stands to shout with raised fist: “We will kill them all. Every one” (71). Blackout and silence.
5. With no slaves visible, Toussaint reads in his armchair and exchanges a few words with his wife about leadership. He reads: “A courageous chief only is wanted” (71). Blackout, then Act I, scene 1.
The sequence of the slaves working and singing in silhouette, three times freezing, then emerging as more than shadows into the brief forest scene, and then leaving the stage before Toussaint appears, works quite well as a tableau of the conditions of life in slavery and a narrative of the emergence of two kinds of potential leader. Dessaline takes up the words of the slaves’ song as a battle cry, while Toussaint muses over words in a book.
Already in the Prologue, the whole of the dramatic action is laid out, and the play can commence with even those in the audience who have not studied the slave revolts having now a sense of where the play is going.
The play dramatizes the events of 1791 to 1803 with clarity and efficiency, while giving characters significant monologues and dialogues to clarify the views that James wants the audience to consider. Toussaint speaks many times through the first two-thirds of the play, eloquently making the case for creating a free, equal, and brotherly relationship with France. This is in fact the sort of view that James seeks to intervene in. As Governor, Toussaint is critiqued for this view by Moise, a General who faces execution for betrayal. Moise states, “ until you cut yourself off from all the symbols of colonialism and slavery and be truly independent, you will remain just an old man with a dream of an impossible fraternity.” James’ stage directions indicate that these lines stun Toussaint and that Dessaline looks at Toussaint “as if seeing him for the first time” (96). After Toussaint’s fall from power, a fall brought on finally by the error of not listening to those calling for independence, Dessaline, who takes up the position of Emperor of Haiti and vows to kill those who had enslaved his people, ends the play with a return to Moise’s final words and Toussaint’s inability to accept them. Then, uneasily, he calls for music for dancing, as the representative of “British trading interests” waits on one side and the ex-slave and General Henri Christophe waits on the other. These two figures, as well as the drums of the crowd outside, give an indication of the future that awaits the “free” and “independent” imperial state of Haiti, and a set of relationsthat of the private interest which seeks to control resources and labor, which is opposed by the people’s interest which struggles for self-determinationwhich also condition every state in the metropole and the colonies and characterize the Ethiopian crisis.
In this paper, I have been trying to show that to read this play in its materiality is to read it in terms of the labor relations that condition it as a work. There are, of course, other ways to discuss the “materiality” of a work, and here I briefly entertain a few of those encountered in some of our reading on the postcolonial. I should note that these views are not special to postcolonial studies but in fact emerge as alternatives, if not oppositions, to the way of reading advocated here.
Among these are a few notions of “materiality” of bodily or physical presence, as well as that of the immediacy of speech. For some, the materiality of James’ play is a matter of physical bodies moving in space; that is, drama as embodiment or dance. The “material” impact on the audience member is both a matter of the perception of familiar and unfamiliar bodies interacting on stage, as well as the sighting of famous bodies and “other” bodies. In the case of Paul Robeson’s appearance on stage, his material presence as a very well-known Black actor adds the heft of fame and racial difference to the performance. This notion of “materiality” as physical presence is a way to account for aesthetic or intersubjective experience, but this leads only to immanent readings and not to the sort of intervention in reading which James seeks in his work. Regarding the immediacy of speech as opposed to the mediations of writing as a form of “materiality,” this too is a way to try to account for a sense of “presence” or “absence,” in this case the presence of meaning in hearing a voice as opposed to the absence or indeterminate meaning of silent words on a page. Helen Gilbert writes that “ drama has long enacted the intertextuality of oral and written forms,” and that it did so “well before” the poststructuralist and semiotic interventions of Derrida and Barthes, among others (Tiffin and Lawson 99). Nonetheless, the distinction between speech, including the performance of written speech in plays, and writing, continues to be made. For instance, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, in “Nation Language,” addresses the importance of the “noise” of speech, “the sound and the song” that are part of “the total expression” of speech, but are largely missing from writing (Ashcroft et al. 312).
Brathwaite sees speech and, more to the point, oral tradition, as having a fuller “materiality” than do writing, reading, and the tradition of literature, which rely on technology, not simply the body and the community. As opposed to the social interaction of the speaker and the audience, who influence the oral work by responding, Brathwaite regards reading to be “an isolated, individualistic expression” (312). However, this is an understanding of reading which focuses on an appearance and not the reality of reading. Reading is social, that is to say, material; it depends on the development of literacy, education, printing, publishing and distribution of books, and it depends on a set of labor relations including the labor involved in printing and educating people, for example, as well as the break from labor, the leisure or the time to study, for reading. Reading’s materiality is in the social relations that make reading possible; it is not simply a matter of an experience or an appearance, but rather exactly that which seems to disappear in the act of reading. Reading James’ play in a book and attending a performance of it are in many ways different experiences; however, materiality is not the experience but rather the material relations that produce and condition that experience, the relations that both enable and limit it.
To effectively read the play in its materiality, as I have been arguing, is to read it not simply as an intersubjective, aesthetic, or intertextual event, but rather as a representation of the actual material relations which are both the limits and the conditions of possibilitythe material contextof the representation itself, that is, the labor relations that not only determine the direction and shape of history but the character of the representations of that history.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
DuBois, W. E. Burghardt. The World and Africa. Enlarged edition. New York: International Publishers, 1996 (1965).
“Ethiopia.” Country Studies. Library of Congress. 1991. ;http://memory.loc.gov;. 4 December 2003.
Grimshaw, Anna, ed. The C. L. R. James Reader. Oxford UK and Cambridge US: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.
James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins:Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Penguin, 2001 (1938).
Tiffin, Chris and Alan Lawson. De-scribing Empire: Post-colonialism and Textuality. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.