The Rise and Fall of a Black King: AimÃ© CÃ©saire’s La TragÃ©die du Roi Christophe
La TragÃ©die du Roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christophe) is a play by the Martinican poet and politician AimÃ© CÃ©saire, published in 1963 and premiered in 1964. It dramatizes the life and death of Henri Christophe, a former slave who became the first king of independent Haiti in the early 19th century.
The play explores the themes of decolonization, nation-building, leadership, and power, as well as the historical and cultural connections between Africa and the Caribbean. CÃ©saire draws on his own experience as a leader of the nÃ©gritude movement and a supporter of African independence movements to portray Christophe as a visionary but flawed ruler who tries to create a modern and prosperous black nation out of the ruins of colonial oppression.
The play is divided into three parts: The Republic, The Kingdom, and The Citadel. In the first part, Christophe is elected president of Haiti after the assassination of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the emperor who led the Haitian Revolution against France. Christophe faces opposition from Alexandre PÃ©tion, a mulatto leader who advocates for a more democratic and egalitarian system. Christophe decides to break away from PÃ©tion and establish his own kingdom in the north of the island.
In the second part, Christophe crowns himself as King Henri I and builds a lavish court with a European-style nobility. He also launches ambitious projects to develop the economy, education, and culture of his realm. However, he becomes increasingly authoritarian and tyrannical, imposing harsh labor conditions on his subjects and suppressing any dissent. He alienates his allies, his family, and his people, who eventually rebel against him.
In the third part, Christophe retreats to his fortress, La FerriÃ¨re, where he suffers from a stroke that paralyzes him. He is abandoned by most of his followers and besieged by his enemies. He reflects on his achievements and failures, his dreams and regrets, his hopes and fears. He finally commits suicide by shooting himself with a silver bullet.
La TragÃ©die du Roi Christophe is considered one of CÃ©saire’s masterpieces and one of the most important works of francophone theater. It has been translated into several languages and performed in many countries. It has also inspired other artists, such as the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who created a series of paintings based on the play in 1983.
The play also examines the complex and contradictory relationship between Haiti and its former colonizer, France. Christophe is torn between rejecting and imitating the French culture and civilization. He tries to assert his sovereignty and dignity by refusing to pay the indemnity that France demanded from Haiti in exchange for recognizing its independence. He also rejects the intervention of foreign agents, such as the Spanish priest Juan de Dios Gonzales, who tries to convert him to Catholicism, or the French envoy Franco de Medina, who offers him a deal with King Louis XVIII. However, he also adopts some of the symbols and practices of the French monarchy, such as the crown, the coat of arms, the titles of nobility, and the etiquette of the court. He even hires a French doctor, Steward, to treat his illness. He expresses admiration for French writers, such as Corneille and Racine, and quotes them in his speeches. For example, he says: \”Je suis le maÃ®tre de mon sort / Et je n’ai point d’autre loi que ma volontÃ©\” (p. 67), echoing Corneille’s Horace.
The play also explores the role of art and culture in the construction of a national identity. Christophe is aware of the importance of creating a new culture that reflects the history and aspirations of his people. He supports the development of education, literature, music, and architecture in his kingdom. He commissions a poet, Chanlatte, to write an epic poem about his life and achievements. He also builds a magnificent citadel on top of a mountain, as a symbol of his power and glory. However, he also faces criticism and resistance from some of his subjects, who question his aesthetic choices and his cultural policies. For example, he is accused of neglecting the African roots of his people and favoring a European style of art. He is also challenged by a young engineer, Martial Bess, who proposes a more modern and functional design for the citadel. Christophe rejects his proposal and says: \”Je veux une citadelle qui soit un cri / Un cri de pierre / Un cri de pierre qui dise Ã la face du monde / Que nous sommes un peuple / Un peuple debout / Un peuple qui n’a pas peur / Un peuple qui n’oublie pas\” (p. 95).
The play also depicts the psychological and moral dilemmas that Christophe faces as a leader. He is haunted by doubts and regrets about his actions and decisions. He wonders if he has betrayed his ideals and his people by becoming a tyrant. He suffers from loneliness and isolation, as he loses the trust and affection of his wife, his friends, and his followers. He also struggles with his physical and mental health, as he is afflicted by a stroke that paralyzes him and makes him lose his speech. He questions his legacy and his place in history. He asks himself: \”Qu’ai-je fait de mon peuple ? / Qu’ai-je fait de moi-mÃªme ? / Qu’ai-je fait de mon rÃªve ?\” (p. 123). He also wonders: \”Qui se souviendra de moi ? / Qui dira ma grandeur et ma dÃ©tresse ? / Qui dira mon amour et ma haine ? / Qui dira ma gloire et ma faute ?\” (p. 125).