Reading Maryse Conde's theatre.
It is easy to distinguish the first two texts under scrutiny from the other two. Dieu nous l'a donne and Mort d'Oluwemi d'Ajurnako represent Conde's most engage and full-fledged efforts to use the dramatic form in order to engage the broadest possible audience by means of unmediated oral communication. In the late 1960s, says Conde, "I thought drama was the best form through which to address the people" (Interview Notes). Her youthful interest in the dramatic form came to fruition largely because she was married to a Guinean actor of the Griots troupe in Paris. Mamadou Conde had played the role of Archibald in Roger Blin's landmark creation of Genet's Les Negres (October 1959). Some twenty years after the first plays - with several essays and novels to her record - Conde wrote Pension Les Alizes - with only two characters and a single set - for her friend Sonia Lee, actress and stage director. This play falls into the category of minimal or "poor" theatre (such as Becket's theatre or Sartre's Huis Clos). By contrast, the Regional Council of Guadeloupe commissioned An Tan Revolisyion to celebrate the bicentennial; Conde presumably did not have to worry about production or financial considerations. Thus, the first two plays reflect Condes own commitment to reach Black francophone audiences and to share her vision of the problematics of revolution and the necessity to re-evaluate and historicize tradition. But they already and decidedly constituted a feminine discourse - they asserted love values in the face of complex, often narcissistic political entanglements - a feminine vision which seems to have gone unnoticed when not misunderstood or radically misinterpreted. She conceived of the two later plays for vastly diverging reasons. However, revolution - bringing it about, conceiving of it, claiming its necessity, or surviving it - remains the fundamental concern of all four plays. In addition, this "revolution" calls for evolution in the relation between the genders. Conde poses this question more explicitly in the second, the "African" play (Mort d'Oluwemi d'Akumajo), and the third (Pension Les Alizes); but gender, and the feminine conception of the couple, were already treated in Dieu nous l'a donne, her first produced and published text for the stage.
Perhaps Dieu nous l'a donne should at first be read ignoring the foreword and preface, although they bear the respected signatures of Guy Tirolien and Lilyan Kesteloot. The former translates his admittedly impressionistic reactions to the text into a startling verdict: "the fundamental misogyny of the author." His very own imagery, however, evokes the "islands' destiny without grandeur - females [femelles] with their vices and warts, with their bastardly well-thinking progeny emasculated by three centuries of imposed concubinage. . ." (7). Kesteloot's incisive, essential preface does not reflect, for obvious reasons, the confusion betrayed by Tirolien. The well-known Belgian Africanist critic is partial to the protagonist Dieudonne, reductive and judgmental for all other characters, especially the women. Kesteloot overlooks details, particularly Dieudonne's explicit callousness in soliciting sexual favors, or in using Gastonia for social and political purposes. But the even less desirable effect of the preface is to make explicit what Conde's text deliberately left open, which is one of the strengths of the play: who kills Dieudonne, and does the witch-doctor Mendela actually perpetrate incest? With these reservations, obviously the foreword and preface need to be read, for they certainly underscore the author's deep political pessimism at the time she wrote the play, in the aftermath, let us recall, of the events of 1967 in Guadeloupe which had taken 47 lives.(2)
The play was created in the mid-1970s in Martinique, at the Fort-de-France theatre festival directed by Yvan Labejoff, with the Haitian actress, Toto Bissainthe as Gastonia. The plot was conceived around the role of Mendela for the Gambian actor James Campbell (Interview Notes). Dieudonne comes back to an unspecified island and the village of Grand Arise (sic), a blurring signal for the Desirade, one of Guadeloupe's satellite islands of which Conde wrote: "a lingering joke wants to turn Desirade, in the event of independance, into the jail where they would keep under house arrest writers, intellectuals, artists and other 'deviants' who had gone awry from the official political course."(3) Born to a destitute prostitute, Dieudonne has earned a medical degree in Paris with great hardship. He survived in particular by nursing an invalid, and obviously lacking a nurse's training, he is still deeply scarred by the experience of excrement on his hands. The plot could provide an excellent example for an introduction to the structural analysis of theatre and the actancial model after Greimas and Ubersfeld.(5) It has a full but limited set of characters: the opponent, who seems at first his chief ally, is the witch-doctor/healer Mendela who has killed his wife and who bears an inordinate love for his pretty daughter Maeva; the French chief of police; a go-between; and Gastonia, a woman of experience and of less than conservative morals. This is an existentialist play for the Caribbean, without the existentialist rhetoric: one can think of Sartre's Les Mains sales or of Camus' Caligula for the problematics of revolutionary action and the meaning of happiness, for the ethics of demagogy, and especially for the hero's arrogance - or callous honesty with women.
It is open to question whether Maeva is actually the daughter of Mendela, since this Caribbean Othello killed his wife at the time of the child's birth. Now comes Dieudonne who has conceived a plan whereby he will use Mendela's prestige among the peasants to stage an alliance with occult forces in order to start networking towards revolution. Unfortunately, young Maeva quickly falls in love with the young man. She dreams of returning to the pink house where her parents used to live a genteel life and of discovering her mother's burial place. She states that she could be "redeemed" by a union with Dieudonne, possibly an allusion to the incest the whole town has tagged on the sorcerer but more likely a reference to the stigma of being an outcast as a murderer's daughter. Mendela has pledged to take his daughter to town when she turns sixteen, and he depicts to her all the things and pleasures he will provide. In short, Maeva's dreams of genteel living in town, following her mother's example, are clearly incompatible with Dieudonne's political agenda. Gastonia, the spurned woman who is also a smart courtesan risen from the gutter and loyal to her community (she declines to serve as stool pigeon for the hero), is callously insulted. When dumped, she fans Mendela's jealousy over the girl, and the two doctors' alliance collapses. It is likely, but again not explicit, especially not to a live audience as distinct from a reader, that the healer is the one who sacrifices Dieudonne and returns his blood to the earth.
This drama has strong potential for spectacular productions, as does Mort d'Oluwemi d'Akumajo. Both involve alternating daytime and nighttime scenes, including dreams, in huts and forest settings. They require but minimal props and modest casts yet offer energetic dialogues, rebellious female characters, and substantial evocations of African ceremonies or voodoo rituals. These visual qualities can be dramatized effectively through filmed sequences projected on gauze screens as in Youssef Chahine's lush revival of Caligula (1991-92) at the Comedie Francaise. As Conde noted, "It's very complicated to do theatre in Guadeloupe. . . . Theatre must be perfect. . . . Whoever says 'theatre' says 'money'" (Interview Notes).
If Dieudonne is a callous lover and a pure revolutionary, Oluwemi is at first a callous monarch and a pure reactionary. He represents the weight of tradition, a value that is still very central to African cultures (as illustrated in Aminata Sow Fall's novels, for example). Maryse Conde wrote Mort d'Oluwemi d'Ajumako after her years in Ghana (1964-68), and it was inspired by an actual incident in modern Nigerian history: a tribal king, expected by tradition to commit suicide, refused to do so, locked himself up, was taken ill, and died a more "natural" death (Interview Notes). Daniel Ousemi and the National Theatre first staged the play in Gabon (c. 1974). It was also performed at the Blaise Diagne Cultural Center and subsequently at the Daniel Sorano National Theatre in Dakar that same year. It was resumed in the early 1980s in Paris by the Cameroonian Bekate, with support from the French Ministry of Culture (Interview Notes).
The plot line could be designated as "a change of heart" and involves this time the successful friendship which develops between a "stranger" and the runaway king. Oluwemi is determined to save his life and hide in the big capital city, living off the royal treasure he has spirited away after sacrificing a willing slave instead of himself. Coming from a long line of gruesome tyrants, he is a despot of the sort patriarchal tradition will produce if unrestrained. He deeply resents his son Ange who lives up to his given name and rather masochistically insists on being loyal to him except with regards to young Sefira. This "very young girl" returns Ange's love, but she has become his father's latest wife and has had to run away with him. Depending on his son's wits and goodwill for his own survival, the king repeatedly attacks his virility, which in fact seems to be the only form of power Ange is prone to exert.
The play presents the rather classic conflict of the young couple and an intractable hostile elder, and the equally classic father-son clash, but not in psychological terms. However, the prime concern of the author is political ethics: the king's honor, his inner conflict about his betrayal of the people, the problems of tradition and ethnic identity as opposed to the melting-pot process of large cities in modern Africa. The king will not leave his ancestors' ground which ends at the river. Across the river lives a "cousin" tribe which - by all accounts - would welcome him and treat him as kin. His older son, now the new king, has suggested this mild form of exile to him. But Oluwemi prefers losing himself in the big city, or so he thinks at first. Then an experienced, enigmatic, disenchanted and alcoholic "stranger" enters the picture and decides to help the ex-king and the young lovers as well. Conde manages the resolution of the situation through a series of setbacks and incidents: loss of the boat they must use to go to the capital city, construction of a raft, a serious wound incurred by the king, shooting of a guard (off-stage) by Sefira, and so on.
Because of his wound, the king's physical superiority is suspended, which changes the power balance. He can analyze better the consequences of his recent decisions, and, mostly, he begins to experience guilt. His faithless, sensuous, and free-minded young wife wastes no opportunity to point out to him his faults: selfishness, unfairness, and ungratefulness. Sefira's character is not well developed, but she voices rebellion, the anger of the little people and slaves. Her voice is also that of the shrew trapped in polygamous situations. Being of the lowest caste, she accepted to be bartered to the king so her parents and siblings could stop eating from the king's garbage. Similarly, she was about to be raped under Ange's eyes when she seized the chance to shoot her aggressor. Like Emma in Pension Les Alizes and Gastonia in Dieu nous l'a donne, Sefira is a passionate, resilient, and resourceful woman. Her unmitigated criticisms of Oluwemi are compounded by the picture the stranger paints of the king's lackluster future in the city. The fallen hero finally quietly decides to go upriver, that is, home, where he belongs and will be buried an honorable man.
Betrayal, and a change of heart, with true love upsetting the protagonist's plans for himself - these are also major plot elements of Conde's third dramatic text. A woman's play for a woman's performance, a modest stage (a single room in an apartment house in Paris), Pension Les Alizes is also a critique of collaboration (in the second Duvalier regime or any comparable regime). It provides social commentary on class, gender, and cultural identity. Class difference is a frequent motif in Conde's plays. The character of Emma is probably named in reference to the premium placed on love by (most) women and by Madame Bovary in particular. It is also, as linguistic chance has it, a given name that echoes mothering in Indo-European languages and rings of "Aimee" (Emma's desire) and "aimant" (her occupation). Emma is a beautiful middle-aged woman, of modest but proper origins. She is well-connected and comfortable. Because of the hardships of a student's life in France and the ease to come by money with her body, Emma settled for a career as an (inevitably) exotic dancer, rather than pursue the medical career she had set out for. A strong and smart woman, the character reads like a fully developed version of Gastonia in Dieu nous l'a donne. Emma illustrates even better than Colette's Lea in Cheri the rich cohort of noble-hearted courtesans on which so much male power has thrived through history. Ismael, whose adopted name probably refers to the internecine passions of Black Moslems, is a bleak version of Dieudonne, a flawed revolutionary hero. If Conde was not tender towards women in her first work (Heremakhonon might have predisposed Guy Tirolien to his misreading of Dieu nous l'a donne), she definitely loses what tenderness she might have felt for flamboyant revolutionary heroes such as Ismael. While Emma may be interpreted only as a pre-feminist, Conde's text deflates the concept of the hero. In fact, Ismael misrepresents himself, lies with perfect ease, and immediately "sizes up" his hostess as an aging, love-hungry, disposable female. He embodies the offspring of the ruling class: user of people, and primarily of women, since they are much safer to (ab)use; and, Ismael practices Dieudonne's clear-minded sexual politics: "You have to know whom to screw" (Dieu nous l'a donne 42).
The reader looking for unpredictable plots and refined psychology will appreciate this play, because Ismael finally redeems himself, at least in Emma's eyes, and the point of view of this splendid woman is hard to keep at bay. For all practical purposes Ismael had turned out a traitor, a coward at best, unwittingly but clearly responsible for the deaths of an entire crew of conspirators against Baby Doc's regime. The final twist in this firmly-handled psychological drama I shall not share with my reader. A cynic will see it as a simple matter of money, but it is a strong, satisfying, positive, and credible resolution. In the sub-genre of "poor" theatre, as psychological drama subsumed as political drama, and, for those who need it, as a lesson in Caribbean politics, Pension Les Alizes is an excellent, highly readable and playable piece for two actors. Despite first impressions, the impact is not the love-story: obviously Emma and Ismael are not a viable couple, although the fantasy of "going home on a man's arm" cruelly haunts Emma. But she knows better than Emma Bovary. The underlying question of this play is, what does it take to bring about constructive socio-political change? I think Conde offers an answer: Perhaps a man who gives love a chance is already a useful revolutionary.
"It was a truly popular success. Two thousand people made their way to the Fleur d'Epee Fort. The show was filmed by the Regional Council who sponsored it."(5) An Tan Revolisyion; Elle court, elle court la Liberte, or more accurately "a play about 1789 in Guadeloupe," was commissioned by the Regional Council and Felix Proto, late in 1988. It premiered on November 11, 1989, at the Fleur d'Epee Fort in Pointe-a Pitre (Interview Notes). The Bakanal troupe participated in the creation of An Tan Revolisyion, and their director Jose Jernidier assisted Sonia Lee. Written in Berkeley after extensive study of Guadeloupean and Haitian historians on the period, it was a special experience for Conde, who later touched up the text to suit certain actors. Some opted to speak their lines in Creole, and the only specification Conde included in the printed text is that the narrator must use French only (Interview Notes).
An Tan Revolisyion represents Conde's multifarious approach to dramatic creation: didactic, appreciative, creocentric and nuanced, narrative and historically incisive. By "creocentric" I simply mean that which gives precedence to the Creole or Caribbean experience and identity. What else but historical fairness (that is, intelligent contextualization) could be the purpose of telling (reminding but mostly teaching) her audience that French society in 1789 counted 350,000 aristocrats, 120,000 clergymen, and 25 million other persons? Conde then gives the figures for Guadeloupe at the time, also compiled according to a tripartite scale: 13,969 whites, 3,125 free men of color, and 82,978 enslaved Africans. What is not clear in these figures is the gender partition: the overall figure quoted by Conde of 109,639 inhabitants for Guadeloupe yields a residue. It signals the existence of a fourth group whose legal status is not clear: neither "proprietors" nor "free men of color," but certainly including slaves of lesser value. The unknown quantum could well be that of the females.
At the outset, Conde puts the play under the hallmark of Theatre du Soleil's 1970 famed creation: 1789. Her text can be appreciated as a formidable lesson in the history of Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue/Haiti between 1789 and 1802. The acclaimed 1789 included a brief sequence on the question of slavery. Anticipating on the 16 Pluviose An II (February 4, 1794) decree on the Abolition of Slavery, the Theatre du Soleil's 1789 had dramatized in a three-minute scene the "misunderstanding." The political conundrum on property, and the ambiguous role played by the free men of color were symbolized in 1789 by Mile Adelaide, a leisurely mulatta. Along with a few punctual reminiscences of 1789, Conde directly quotes the opening of one of the most memorable scenes of 1789, the explosion of joyful hope among peasants when hearing about the King's call for Notebooks of Grievances: their elation collapses into despair when they realize they cannot express themselves in writing. The set for Conde's play is also inspired from the Theatre du Soleil's assortment of platforms, walkways, and stairs, but in An Tan Revolisyion there are two rather than three platforms. The one to the right of the performing area seems to have been systematically used for scenes taking place in France, or associated with political power and the upper classes (only sketchy stage directions are included in the printed version).
The role of the narrator is paramount, and not comparable to its counterpart in 1789. Very wisely, since the audience could not possibly be predicted (the play was performed only twice), Conde opted for a linking commentary between the various episodes and scenes. The play is divided into three well-balanced periods or parts: 1789, 1792, and 1802. Thus, it covers the entire revolutionary period from May 1789 to the kidnapping of Toussaint l'Ouverture by Bonaparte, the proclamation of Haiti's independance by Dessalines (1804), and the restoration of slavery in Guadeloupe. The narrator serves as news commentator as well as historical interpreter and spiritual guardian. He is present - though not spot-lit - at all times, and he speaks for the ancestors. This scenographic strategy has a special meaning and aura in the Caribbean context. As can be analyzed in most Caribbean works, and specifically in Conde's, traditional religion (a broad range of voodoo beliefs and practices) is presented empathetically in her texts. This includes her praise of witchcraft in La parole des femmes, her endearing creation of the character of Tituba, and as we saw earlier, the strategic use of witchcraft in Dieu nous l'a donne and of ritual in Mort d'Oluwemi. Traditional African and Caribbean beliefs involve direct communication with the ancestors - they are hardly exceptional in that respect - and thus the "character" of the narrator in An Tan Revolisyion is a particularly successful renewal of a standard, usually awkward, theatrical device. To underscore the spiritual significance of the narrator, one character, the Maroon, actually admonishes women mourning after a bloody shooting in 1789 on a plantation: "Don't you cry! They are not dead. Can't you see they are not dead? Their spirits have joined us up in the hills. . . . Jean-Louis is not dead. He is up there. He turned into a royal mapu, a malimbe, a mountain-acomat protecting us in its shade."(6)
In keeping with written history, the women have a very discreet role in this play. They are present in scenes involving the populace and there are a few family scenes, but there is no substantial female role: a pregnant Solitude is briefly shown, and a group of women dressed in white (were they made up in black and white?) appears as a scenographic leitmotif in each of the three parts of An Tan Revolisyion to honor the dead.
As one could expect from an accomplished story-teller and novelist who has relentlessly spun the untold tales of Caribbean people, true or true-to-life, for nearly two decades, this is a very rich and dense play. It has exceptional pedagogical potential for classes in acting, in theatre history, and in the history of the French Revolution from the (obscured) Black Caribbean point of view, including the specifics of Guadeloupean history for that period. Needless to say, the text invites parallels with contemporary histories of repression, whether in Haiti or in other Caribbean islands and in Guadeloupe in particular. The characters of Victor Hughes and that of Toussaint are both shown corroded by power through allusions to both Duvalier regimes. Composed of a wide variety of scenes and incidents, the text lends itself to short, selected dramatic readings as well as to miming and to actual acting. The geography of the island, its main social and physical features, is discreetly embedded in the text. The complexities of Guadeloupean society in the period treated, with the life-like confusion between power and hierarchy, between armed groups, maroons, free mulattoes, Republican Blacks, and French royalists (protected and used by the English), are deployed with accuracy and linguistic efficacy. The fundamental paradox of freedom from bondage and the need to work is deftly presented. The language suits the parts. It is occasionally used for caricature (of France-French) as in the scene when Victor Hughes so solemnly declares the abolition of slavery that the people do not get the message (20), or for guarded pathos, as in the narrator's magnificent brief complaint on 1802, when Haiti is born amidst devastation while slavery is restored in Guadeloupe:
The sound and the fury of this year 1802 are deafening. Let them celebrate, if they have something to celebrate. Let them release 1789 balloons in a tricolored sky. As for us here, all there is left to do once again is to honor our dead.
I am tired.
I would like to return to my mother's womb and squat in there like a male-crab at the bottom of its hole in the ground. I would like to close my eyes and my ears and not hear the sounds of our world any longer. I would like to die a second time.
Alas, I must take you to the end of this backward journey through time. Even if it fills my mouth with blood, if my eyes dissolve into water, I have no choice but go to the end with you. (37, italics in original)
It is tempting to hear the author's voice in this exceptional, doleful sally. Conde specified that the actors' performance in the third part and tragic conclusion must be very "dry." The narrator even tries to provide comic relief of sorts: with "dry" humor, he confides that his childhood dream was to become another Victor Hugo, and he seduces part of the audience into his dream (after all, yes, great poets have proved responsible politicians; but then, I might remark, everyone knows Aime Cesaire's story about the Martinican poet who bragged about writing French poetry free from any trace of [his] color). So, it seems that Conde's lesson is that identifying with a national poet (French or other) is indeed fraught with obscure motivations, or so a reader wonders, but the spectator might well fall into the trap. The narrator, it turns out, has been testing his audience: he suddenly reveals that he has made a false confidence (we know he embodies the spirit-voice of the people): he actually died before Hugo became a poet. Thus we are led to understand that he was part of the failed revolution (and speaks as its spirit). Finally, he confides to be called "Zephyr," a very common first name in Guadeloupe, and also the word for the most pleasing breath of air in the French language.
What is good theatre? (What is good poetry?) I have been equally thrilled by Ionesco's La Soif et la Faim (Comedie Francaise, 1965) and Duras' Les Eaux et Forets (Lucernaire, 1984), by Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Genet's Les Paravents, by Hernani at TNP/Chaillot and Rachilde's La Tour d'amour at L'Essaion. Good theatre is good performance, whether tete-a-tete minimal theatre or grandiose production, soliloquy or polyphony, and "it must be perfect" (Interview Notes) for sure. That's why good theatre can happen on the private stage of the mind's eye and ear: Maryse Conde's dramatic texts provide engaging reading. Several of them can inspire spectacular productions. The only one I have had the chance to see performed to-date is Comedie d'amour.(7) This is perhaps her most engage and courageous script: it is, theatrically, her more modest work for the stage. It is also, unequivocally, a feminist play, a play for the little people and for the women. It was conceived for and directed towards the average Caribbean person of today, but it is easy to adapt for a Japanese or a Malawi or a Belleville-Parisian audience. It underscores the new consciousness of young people whose parents constitute a baffling but not terribly interesting mystery. Mostly, it dramatizes the clash and the demise of two conceptions of femininity: the "strong woman," too young as yet to cave under her archetypal man, and "the eternal feminine," forever looking for Prince Charming as well as Mother. The range of Conde's dramatic works constitutes a valuable and pedagogically useful "double" for her narrative work, dealing with Caribbean politics, with the problematics of the African heritage, with the couple, and with basic, Caribbean daily life.
1. Dieu nous l'a donne (Paris: Pierre Jean Oswald, 1972); Mort d'Oluwemi d'Ajumako (Paris: Pierre Jean Oswald, 1973); Pension Les Alizes (Paris: Mercure de France, 1988); and An Tan Revolisyion (s.l.: Consell Regional de la Guadeloupe, c. 1991). Maryse Conde and I discussed her dramatic works in Paris, on July 6, 1992. I have freely incorporated my notes from that interview in the present article, but this factual information does not constitute the gist of this article. All quotations are my translations from the French. All references in the text to these notes are cited parenthetically as "Interview Notes."
2. Cf. La Vie Scelerate (Paris: Seghers, 1987), 199.
3. See "La Desirade"; in Maryse Conde (texte) and Jean Du Boisberranger (photographies), La Guadeloupe (Paris: HOA-QUI Editions, 1988).
4. See Anne Ubersfeld, Life le theatre (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1978).
5. From Maryse Conde, undated private correspondence (in French) to this writer, postmarked August 21, 1990.
6. Possibly the sterculia caribaea for the mapu, and the sloanea for the "acomat," these being among the very tall Caribbean mountain trees. Cf. Jacques Fournet, Fleurs et Plantes des Antilles (Singapore: Editions du Pacifique, 1976).
7. After this article was written, I was fortunate enough to see an outstanding production at Ubu Repertory Theater of Pension les Alizes: The Tropical Breeze Hotel (translated by Barbara Brewster Lewis and Catherine Temerson) with Jane White and Patrick Rameau, in February 1995.
CHRISTIANE P. MAKWARD teaches at Pennsylvania State University, where she offers courses in French literature and criticism. She has published extensively on French feminist theory and Francophone women writers.
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|Title Annotation:||Maryse Conde: A Special Issue|
|Author:||Makward, Christiane P.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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