From Plantation to Paradise?
Cultural Politics and Musical Theatre in French Slave Colonies, 1764–1789
Published by: Michigan State University Press
Imprint: Michigan State University Press
In 1764 the first printing press was established in the French Caribbean colonies, launching the official documentation of operas and plays performed there, and marking the inauguration of the first theatre in the colonies. A rigorous study of pre–French Revolution performance practices in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Powers’s book examines the elaborate system of social casting in these colonies; the environments in which nonwhite artists emerged; and both negative and positive contributions of the Catholic Church and the military to operas and concerts produced in the colonies. The author also explores the level of participation of nonwhites in these productions, as well as theatre architecture, décor, repertoire, seating arrangements, and types of audiences. The status of nonwhite artists in colonial society; the range of operas in which they performed; their accomplishments, praise, criticism; and the use of créole texts and white actors/singers à visage noirs (with blackened faces) present a clear picture of French operatic culture in these colonies. Approaching the French Revolution, the study concludes with an examination of the ways in which colonial opera was affected by slave uprisings, the French Revolution, the emergence of “patriotic theatres,” and their role in fostering support for the king, as well as the impact on subsequent operas produced in the colonies and in the United States.
An important and exciting new work, David Powers’s From Plantation to Paradise? engages the nexus between art and society, documenting not only the elaborately staged, eighteenth-century performances of French opera in the Caribbean colonies but also the participation of enslaved and freed blacks as musicians (singers and instrumentalists) in this repertoire–even as the operatic texts supported colonialism and racial stereotypes. Through her entwined examinations of the music education offered by Jesuit missionaries to the enslaved, the importance of ceremonial music within the racially segregated military units of whites and free coloreds in the maintenance of colonial authority, and the lavish productions of French operas that embodied the accepted racial and social hierarchies, Powers makes signifi cant contributions to African-Caribbean studies, French colonial history, and French baroque opera.
—Ellen T. Harris, Class of 1949 Professor Emeritus, Music and Theater Arts, MIT