The Black Jacobins (1967) overview
The Trinidadian socialist, historian and journalist C L R James first tackled the subject of the Haitian Revolution on stage.
In 1934 he wrote a play about the life of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture – subtitled The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. It was performed at the Westminster Theatre in London in 1936, the production starring Paul Robeson, the Black American civil rights campaigner and one of the most famous actors of his day, as the former slave who embraced the French Revolution's ideals of liberty and equality and united the Haitian people against French colonial power.
James would continue to explore the subject in his classic study of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938. In this book he further explored the life and leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, as well as the wider historical and social context of the Revolution.
In the 1960s James would revise his earlier stage play with the help of Dexter Lyndersay. It was staged at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, where Lyndersay worked at the time. James called this new version The Black Jacobins, and it has since been performed around the world. When director Yvonne Brewster launched the Talawa Theatre Company in the 1980s – now one of the UK’s most high-profile Black-led theatre companies – her staging of The Black Jacobins was the company’s inaugural production. It was staged at London’s Riverside Studios in 1986 and starred Norman Beaton in the role of L’Ouverture.
James used theatre as an arena in which to explore political ideas through human character. He was deeply interested in the work of Shakespeare and thought of L'Ouverture as a classic tragic character. He believed that ‘political ideas must be expressed through living people with all their passions, loves, hates, jealousies’.
The original text of his play Toussaint Louverture was thought lost, but it was rediscovered in 2005. It is a mistake to think of this first play as just a precursor to The Black Jacobins, writes Laurent Dubois in the foreword to the republished play text: ‘Written in a different register, and to different ends, it nevertheless captures the density and drama of the Haitian Revolution’.