Postcolonial tragedy in the 1960s

When George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy was published in 1961, it was meant to complete a fifty-year Messianic project and bury Greek tragedy for good.  The project originated in the period around the First World War when German-speaking Jews (Freud, Cohen, Simmel, Lukács, Mannheim, Scheler, Rosenzweig, Shestov, Bloch, Benjamin, Cassirer, and later Arendt, Weil, and Goldmann) often negotiated their cultural orientation by questioning tragic thought and theater.  However, instead of dying, tragedy in the 1960s found new life in several parts of the globe in terms of both translations/productions and original works. 

A particularly interesting example was the interest in a tragic Haiti during that decade.  The failure of postcolonial self-determination that started in the 1960s was dramatized in tragedies of autonomy that focused paradigmatically on Haiti, such as Monsieur Toussaint (1961) by Edouard Glissant, Toussaint (1961) by Lorraine Hansberry, Drums and Colors (1961) by Derek Walcott, La Tragedia del Rey Christophe (1961) by Enrique Buenaventura, The Tragedy of King Christophe (1963) by Aimé Césaire, Les Briseurs de chaînes (1961) by Claude Vixamar, Emperor of Haiti (1963, final version) by Langston Hughes, Boukman, ou Le rejeté des enfers (1963) by René Philoctète, and The Black Jakobins (1967, revision of the 1936 play Toussaint Louverture) by C. L. R. James.

By the time Raymond Williams’s Modern Tragedy was published in 1966, there had been an entire constellation of works exploring postcolonial tragedy.  To the Haitian plays above we may add other plays such as The Screens (1961) by Jean Genet, 1865 Ballad for a Revolution (1965) by Sylvia Wynter, and Kongi’s Harvest (1966) by Wole Soyinka; novels such as Explosion in a Cathedral (1962) by Alejo Carpenter; poems such as Rights of Passage (1967) by Edward Kamau Brathwaite; and major studies such as The Wretched of the Earth (1961) by Frantz Fanon and The Black Jakobins (1963, revised edition) by C.L.R. James.

As Jeremy Matthew Glick put it: “Tragedy as the literary form par excellence for staging the dialectic of freedom and necessity is configured theoretically from a Black radical position as the interplay between democracy, self-determination, and revolution” (The Black Radical Tragic:  Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution, 2016, p. 3).

10 September 2022

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