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une tempête

24 november 2018

Une tempête is of course "a" Tempest, not The Tempest. Aimé Césaire wasn't translating Shakespeare's play, but offering a possible sideshadowing of its action and its language. Conceived for "un théâtre nègre," for black theater groups, Une tempête foregrounds issues of race and colonization.

If Une tempête has a weakness, it's perhaps that it doesn't go far enough. A good bit of the action is still Shakespeare's, including the title weather event, the harpy's banquet, the scheming of Antonio and Sebastian, the optimism of Gonzalo, and the drunken antics of Stephano and Trinculo. Césaire imagined that the actors in Une tempête would wear masks – and most of those masks would be white, and most of the dialogue spoken by characters wearing white masks. In a play boldly designed to give black characters voices, though, it can still seem as though the white people get most of the lines.

Césaire specified that three characters be played as distinctly black, in contrast to Prospero and his kin. His Ariel is a mulatto, his Caliban black – and Césaire livens up the insipid masque that Prospero puts on for the betrothed Ferdinand and Miranda by having a loud black devil-god named Eshu crash the proceedings. The key scene in the play thus becomes the opening of Act II. After a first act that sticks close to Shakespeare, Césaire imagines a much different conversation between Ariel and Caliban than anything in The Tempest. Like Shakespeare, he conceives of both Ariel and Caliban as slaves; but in Shakespeare the two bondsmen are at odds with each other, filled with mutual contempt. In Césaire, Ariel tells Caliban "Je sais que tu ne m'estimes guère" – I know you don't think much of me – but "après tout nous sommes frères" (35): we're brothers, after all. Both want freedom above all else. But Ariel is convinced that he can achieve freedom by reforming Prospero, making the colonial master into an enlightened proponent of human rights. Caliban is unconvinced. Prospero will never change, he insists. The only thing that Prospero understands is force, and thus Caliban must resist him with force: though paradoxically, Prospero will be unbeatable for the foreseeable future, and Caliban's armed resistance is thus pretty quixotic.

With these ideological keynotes, the play goes on fairly faithful to Shakespeare for quite some time, until the ending. In The Tempest, Prospero heads back to Italy with his kids and his former enemies, anticipating a dull magicless retirement in the brave new world. In Une tempête, Prospero can't bring himself to leave his island. For one thing, that would mean abandoning the place to the rebels, or rather rebel, the exultant Caliban. But it's not just about testing for dominance. Prospero, in Césaire, can't unhook himself from the notion that he has given order and, really, life itself, to his colony. "Sans moi cette île est muette" (90), he claims: without me, this island has no voice. (Shakespeare's Caliban knew different; his isle was full of noises.)

Césaire's play thus ends with Prospero and Caliban locked in their perpetual struggle; but this time one can't be so confident that Prospero will always have the upper hand. Meanwhile, Ariel fears that he will not know what to do with his long-promised freedom. As his earlier remarks have shown, Ariel has too long been depended for his very meaning on a power dynamic that is unraveling now that the colonial master has been unseated.

Thought-provoking stuff, yet as I've said, much of Une tempête is a relatively straight-up transcription of Shakespeare. Yet perhaps it's wrong to see that as a flaw. By tweaking the central dynamics among Caliban, Ariel, and Prospero, Césaire enables the audience to enjoy the good parts of Shakespeare's play, but to enjoy them in a disquieting new light. One imagines Une tempête, in the hands of a strong company, as a more powerful evening in the theater than many a production of The Tempest.

Césaire, Aimé. Une tempête. 1969. Paris: Seuil, 1997.