Toussaint Louverture by C.L.R. James

As a scholar concerned with the life and work of C.L.R. James, I have worked in collaboration with Professor Robert A. Hill, the literary executor of the C.L.R. James Estate, to prepare a special edition of James’s previously long-presumed-lost 1934 play on the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history for its first ever publication.  James’s Toussaint Louverture stands as the literary companion volume to his masterful classic 1938 history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. The play was published for the first time in Spring 2013 with Duke University Press, launching an important new ‘C.L.R. James Archives’ series. James’s Toussaint Louverture, which was staged in 1936 at London’s Westminster Theatre with Paul Robeson in the title role, was the first time black professional actors had starred on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright, and the only time Robeson starred in a play by a writer of African descent. The play stands as one of the most remarkable plays written about the Haitian Revolution, and the 1936 production was a pioneering moment in the rich but often hidden history of African theatre, Caribbean theatre and black theatre in Britain. This special edition includes the programme, photographs, and reviews from the 1936 production, a contextual introduction and editorial notes on the play, and selected essays and letters by James and others, and launches the new C.L.R. James Archives series with Duke University Press.


“The text of this nearly forgotten drama, succinctly introduced to today’s readers with a valuable set of accompanying essays, is an invaluable contribution to Pan-African studies and our understanding of ‘the Black Plato’ as a remarkably talented playwright. C. L. R. James readers, and not only those of The Black Jacobins, will rejoice.”
Paul Buhle, authorized biographer, author of C. L. R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary
“Long legendary throughout the diaspora, the first version of C. L. R. James’s play about Toussaint Louverture finally emerges from the archives. This play is the production that united James with his friend Paul Robeson on the London stage. It was an extraordinary event at the time—witness the contemporary reviews added to this publication—and it is no less extraordinary today. In addition to reviews, this edition also reprints valuable early statements from James and Robeson. It is a singular, one might even say Olympian, volume with much to teach us all.”
Aldon Lynn Nielsen, author of C. L. R. James: A Critical Introduction and Integral Music: Languages of African American Innovation
“The most famous account of the Haitian Revolution is, of course, CLR James’s 1938 history The Black Jacobins. But before he composed his dramatic history of revolution, James rendered the revolution as historical drama. His play was written in 1934, staged in 1936 at London’s Westminister Theatre – with Paul Robeson starring – and lost until a draft was rediscovered in 2005…
The Public Archive,‘Radical Black Reading / Reading Haiti 2012
[T]horoughly researched and intelligently prepared….Toussaint Louverture is easily one of the two or three most important publications of C.L.R. James’s work in decades… now that the playscript is in print, it seems time for someone to rise to the challenge of putting it on the boards, or on the screen”

Scott McLemee, ‘Revolution on Stage’, Inside Higher Ed

”One need only read the table of contents to see that you have much more than a play here. It includes reviews and other critical information that deepens your appreciation of the play. This is an example how a chance discovery of a lost manuscript can be turned into something that opens the door to a relevant world. This play is a must-read for anyone who has read and loved The Black Jacobins as you can see much of the lyricism of that great work prefigured in its lines … As long as the world wilts with oppression, is awash with crisis, and punctuated by resistance this play, its subject matter, and now this book, will have to be read, watched and pondered on over and over again.”
Gaverne Bennett, London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter

”James manages to tell the whole story of the struggle in all its twists and turns as Louverture steps his way through all the imperial trip wires until the fatal error where he trusts too much in French civilisation. It focuses on dialogue between a small number of people on stage. As a play, the offstage revolutionary upheaval has to be described, not witnessed. Reading the script, the possibility of it being the bedrock of a screen adaptation is enticing. Louverture’s story on the big screen, showing the heroism of the Haitian masses, would be a brilliant corrective to the Barack Obama-driven, post-racism narrative.”
Barry Miles, ‘Toussaint Louverture brought to life in play, book’, Green Left Weekly

“This script is from a bygone age; its value lies not only in its importance as a document of theater history but also as a crucial addition to the canon of works about the Caribbean. This work would be difficult to stage these days (it boasts an especially large cast), but it should not be ignored by groups that can marshal the resources. Historians of the Caribbean will find it essential.”
Larry Schwartz, Library Journal (Starred Review))

“Highly recommended.”
A.J. Guillaume Jr, Choice

“This present volume . . . contains the play itself among an array of fascinating accompanying texts. These include an enlightening introduction by Høgsbjerg, a series of notices and reviews of the performances, which featured the most renowned black actor of his generation, Paul Robeson, as the Haitian revolutionary leader, plus other writings by James, Robeson and George Padmore, which pitch the play within its vital contemporary context: all in all, a profoundly engaging, original and epochal document.”
Chris Searle, Race and Class

“Why should we pay attention to this long-lost and largely forgotten play? We should do so because it is among the first efforts of one of history’s great anti-colonial voices, wrestling with the distinctive aesthetic quandaries of form and performance, to show that freedom from imperialism is just a phrase if it does not entail direct democracy and universal rights. James was nothing if not ambitious.”
Robert Spencer, Journal of Postcolonial Writing

“[T]he many people interested in James, and the many admirers in particular of his The Black Jacobins, will welcome this first publication of his 1934 play. It includes Christian Hogsbjerg’s well researched introduction and annotations, and several other pieces related to the play which form the appendix to this volume.”
Bridget Brereton, Trinidad Express, 30 July 2014.

In Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history, James’ earliest efforts to commemorate the great revolutionary leader who “made” the Haitian slave revolt are enlivened by reviews of the original 1936 production, as well as selected essays and correspondence from the time …Hogsbjerg supplies the archival and contextual tools, but leaves the task of comparing the play to the book to the reader. Toussaint Louverture includes not only the notices, programme and reviews of the production, but also an appendix with short works by James and Robeson that show how this production served as an important outlet for their cultural and political interests. Readers will have a much better sense of why each of these men committed to this project
Leslie James, author of George Padmore and Decolonization from Below, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 16, 2 (Summer 2015). 

Publication of Toussaint Louverture is such a resource for all readers.
There could be no better work with which to launch the important new C.L.R.
James Archives Series, edited by Robert A. Hill for Duke University Press.
Certainly, Toussaint Louverture fulfils the series aim of “[recovering] and
[reproducing] for a contemporary audience the works of one of the great
intellectual figures of the twentieth century.” Høgsbjerg’s substantial
introduction to the play edition reveals the “rich texture” of the original play, thoroughly grounding it in its many contexts.
Rachel Douglas, ‘Dramatic Beginnings of The Black Jacobins’, Anthurium, 13, no. 1 (2016)

I view James’s play as an expertly executed meditation on the intersections of statecraft (abolitionist black nation building) and stagecraft (the dialectics of arranging individuals and masses onstage). The volume’s array of materials includes a facsimile of the original playbill, a substantial collection of theatre notices and reviews of the original London production, germane James and Robeson essays, and correspondence (including a fascinating query from pan-Africanist George Padmore to Alain Locke requesting help to produce and publicize James’s play), as well as magisterial prefatory essays by Høgsbjerg and Laurent Dubois, eminent historian of the Haitian Revolution.
Jeremy Matthew Glick, author of The Black Radical Tragic: Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution, Theatre Research International, 41, 3 (2017).

Edited to add: See this discussion of the play in sx salon 16 (May 2014)

Edited to also add: Watch this remarkable 2014 production of an abridged version of the play by History students at Bowdoin College

You can see a video of a book launch I did in Leeds in October 2013 at the West Indian Centre for the play in conjunction with the Ford-Maguire Society here:


One response to “Toussaint Louverture by C.L.R. James

  1. Pingback: Today in London’s theatrical history: Paul Robeson stars as black revolutionary Toussaint Louverture in CLR James play, 1936 | past tense

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