This is a draft typescript of The Black Jacobins, C L R James’s 1967 play about the Haitian Revolution. One of several unpublished versions of the script which are known to exist, it includes an unpublished and unperformed epilogue.It also contains additions and revisions in the handwriting of C L R James’s assistant, activist and writer Clem Maharaj. While James is best known as a historian, journalist and political activist, he wrote two plays and a novel during his lifetime.
In the 1930s James composed his first play about the Haitian Revolution, titled Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History (written in 1934, first performed in 1936). Although many commentators have referred to Toussaint Louverture (1936) and The Black Jacobins (1967) as essentially the same play, James has indicated that they are two different works. The Black Jacobins is also the title of James’s famous history of the Haitian Revolution, published in 1938 and revised in 1963.
Why did C L R James write The Black Jacobins play?
In retelling the history of the Haitian Revolution in his 1967 play, James’s aim was to foreground the role played by enslaved people, popular alternative leaders and lower-ranking soldiers, shifting the focus away from the prominent leaders Toussaint, Christophe and Dessalines.
James had already pioneered this ‘history from below’ approach in his 1938 history, and the play develops these ideas, drawing on political theories he developed in the US in the 1940s and 1950s as a member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency (a radical Marxist faction). A key aspect of James’s political theory was the importance of self-organisation and the mobilisation of ‘the masses’ from below. He rejected the concept of vanguardism, whereby professional revolutionaries form an organisation (e.g. the Bolshevik Party in Russia) to mobilise and lead the working-class masses to revolution.
Drama, therefore, provided James with a liberating alternative to the more formal processes of academic history writing, and an opportunity to develop alternative protagonists, such as Moïse, about whom scant information is available in archival records.
How did James represent ‘the masses’ in his play?
In the play, James uses crowd scenes to represent Haiti’s wider population of formerly enslaved people. Stage directions emphasise their importance as heroic agents of revolution:
Crowds say little but their presence is felt powerfully at all critical moments. This is the key point of the play… It must be felt, dramatically, and be projected as essential to action in the downstage areas. (p. 1)
The crowd in The Black Jacobins functions as a kind of dissenting chorus whose role is to challenge their leaders and answer back. Towards the end of the play crowd scenes are used to highlight the divisions between official generals and the masses of formerly enslaved people, showing the differences in their political goals. This is made clear in the scene where alternative leader, Samedi Smith, ‘a black peasant … barefooted and in rags’ (p. 30), is forced by Dessalines to stop the crowd singing their revolutionary anthem, ‘To the attack Grenadier’ (pp. 32–33).
What happens in the epilogue?
The epilogue included in this script (pp. 44–46) was cut by director Dexter Lyndersay ahead of the play’s premiere by the Arts Theatre Group at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1967. It has remained unpublished and unperformed.
In it, James brings the setting up to ‘the present day’ in a hotel room ‘somewhere in an undeveloped country’, following a conference. Three characters – named as Speakers A, B and C, and who are recognisable as the actors who played Toussaint, Christophe and Dessalines – represent the new political elite. In a startling exchange they expose the reality of their neo-colonial world, in which ‘independence’ has become an empty word.
A radio broadcast of a rousing speech by Speaker D (who can be seen offstage, his face turned away) calls on ‘fellow workers, comrades, and friends’ to fight for democracy. As his speech is cut off by ‘tremendous applause’, his true identity as popular leader Moïse is revealed when he turns his face and shows the black eye patch over his sacrificed eye, a symbol of revolutionary struggle.
 Rachel Douglas, ‘Making Drama out of the Haitian Revolution from Below’, in The Black Jacobins Reader (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2017), p. 292.
 Douglas, 'Making Drama', pp. 278–79.
 Douglas, 'Making Drama', p. 279.
 Douglas, 'Making Drama', p. 281.
- Full title:
- Typescript of The Black Jacobins play by C L R James, 1967, with notes and revisions and an unpublished epilogue
- Typescript / Manuscript / Draft
- C L R James
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- Held by
- British Library
- MS 10310
- Article by:
- Yvonne Brewster
- Authors, artists and activists
The Black Jacobins, by Trinidadian historian C L R James, tells the story of the Haitian Revolution. Director Yvonne Brewster recalls how her groundbreaking production of the play in 1986 contributed to the development of black British theatre.
- Article by:
- Rachel Douglas
- Authors, artists and activists
Rachel Douglas traces the evolution of C L R James’s ground breaking work on the Haitian Revolution, which developed in the form of articles, a published history and stage plays.
- Article by:
- Natasha Bonnelame
- Exploring identity, Theatre practitioners and genres, 20th-century theatre
Postwar migration to Britain from Africa and the Caribbean led to the development of black British theatre in the 1950s. Natasha Bonnelame introduces several of the most important black playwrights of the period, including Errol John and Wole Soyinka and describes the contexts in which their plays were staged.