More on Creole Drama

The battle for cultural survival united francophone Louisianians despite their racial and ethnic differences. Between 1764 and 1848, French-speaking immigrants from Canada, France, Saint-Domingue, and Cuba joined the established creole population and competed with them for political, economic, and cultural influence. Two immigrants from Saint-Domingue, Louis Tabary and John Davis, founded and sustained the Théâtre d’Orléans, New Orleans’s most important French playhouse. With the opening of the Théâtre Marigny and the Théâtre de la Renaissance the Crescent City’s free black community established its own theatrical tradition. A fierce competition for audiences, actors, and resources ensued, and local playwrights, too, vied for opportunities to have their works performed at these venues. Creole Drama tells the story of these francophone theatre enthusiasts, for whom the theatre quickly became much more than simply an entertaining pastime. I investigate how well known French Louisianians, such as the exiled free black dramatist Victor Séjour, as well as less familiar figures including Louis-Placide Canonge, Auguste Lussan, and P.E. Perénnes, discussed the place of a linguistic minority in the early United States. Through this investigation, Creole Drama explores the ways in which theatre and drama shaped debates about racial affiliation, ethnic identity, and transnational belonging in antebellum New Orleans.

After the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans became the US’s second-largest immigration port, and the city received a constant flow of newcomers from France, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Italy and Britain. Migrants from the northern parts of the United States, Saint-Domingue, Cuba, and Latin America also made their home in the city and turned New Orleans into a place that displayed an astonishing ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity. Analyzing the social and cultural make-up of the city and its connections to Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Northern US states, recent scholarship no longer conceptualizes New Orleans as an exotic town at the periphery of the United States, exceptional in its development and foreign in its outlook, but instead defines the city as a key locale in alternative geographies such as the French Atlantic, the circum-Caribbean, the American Mediterranean, or the American hemisphere.

Founded by two French immigrants in 1792, when Louisiana was administered not by France, but by the Spanish Crown, New Orleans’s first playhouse almost immediately became a bone of contention between the Spanish Governor and his predominantly francophone subjects. Despite these initial difficulties and the growing Americanization of New Orleans in the nineteenth-century the francophone theatre in the Crescent City proved surprisingly long-lived. For more than a hundred years, it provided a steady focal point for people from all social and ethnic walks of life. The francophone playhouses constituted social centers, helped manage the city’s heterogeneous population, functioned as showcases for local dramatic literature, and generated money that contributed significantly to the economy of New Orleans. However, the theatres also represented sites of struggle over cultural sovereignty, ethnic identity, and national belonging. Creole Drama examines how Louisiana’s French-speaking community defined, defended and disseminated its French identity while simultaneously negotiating its place in the American nation, the circum-Atlantic world, and the American hemisphere.

My first chapter offers an institutional history of the francophone theatre in New Orleans and explores its role in the city’s political and social fabric. By investigating how immigrants from France and refugees from the Haitian Revolution shaped the French-language theatre in New Orleans I reveal how processes of circum-Atlantic cultural exchange led to the formation of a francophone theatrical culture that blended Old and New World influences. These processes of creolization, I want to suggest, initially produced a theatre culture that was able to thrive despite Spanish anti-theatre legislation and American competition. The struggle of the city’s francophone theatres only began when its directors renounced creolization and their theatres’ Caribbean roots in favor of bilateral transatlantic exchanges with France.

Turning to an analysis of Louisiana’s dramatic literature, chapter two examines the local battles for political and cultural sovereignty. The rivalry between the older creole population and the Anglo-American newcomers not only manifested itself in the streets of New Orleans, on the pages of the local newspapers, and in heated debates in the city council, but also occurred in the city’s many playhouses. Focusing on Auguste Lussan’s Les Martyrs de la Louisiane (1839) and Louis Placide Canonge’s France et Espagne ou La Louisiane en 1768 et 1769 (1850), I analyze how these two dramatists recast the 1768 rebellion of French Louisianians against the Spanish colonial administration in order to comment on the marginalization of the francophone community in the first half of the nineteenth century. By juxtaposing their plays with Thomas Wharton Collens’s The Martyr Patriots (1836), an English-language piece on the same subject, I tease out how ethnic rivalries and the discussion over the creation of a literature native to Louisiana seeped into the writing of all three dramatists.

In my third chapter I investigate the theatrical tradition of New Orleans’s free people of color and its engagement with other communities in the American hemisphere. I argue that, although the free black tradition emerged out of discontent with white theatre policies, the city’s two black theatres imagined themselves as sites of racial reconciliation. Through an analysis of seven of the most popular plays performed at these theatres, I show that the city’s black playhouses composed their repertoire in a way that responded to issues specifically relevant to the free black community: plaçage, Haiti, and Latin American emigration.

Chapter four returns to questions of creolization and Americanization and explores the different ways in which the members of New Orleans’s French-speaking population attempted to formulate their own claim to an American national identity. I contend that in order to be able to participate in political processes, French Louisianians increasingly rejected their French heritage and championed American ideals and institutions. In La Famille créole (1837) Auguste Lussan foregrounded the specific qualities people born outside of the perimeters of the United States could contribute to the American nation, and Louis-Placide Canonge’s version of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1846) revealed how this playwright sought to educate other francophone Louisianians in American patriotism as the country was preparing for war with Mexico.

Finally, chapter five moves across the Atlantic to the free black community in Paris, offering one example of how Louisiana creole identity was negotiated from abroad. In the metropolitan capital Victor Séjour, a free man of color from New Orleans, had become one of the most celebrated dramatists of his day. Through his short story “Le Mulâtre” (1837) and his drame Le Martyre du coeur (1859), Séjour commented on the political situation of his native and adopted countries and intervened in current debates about slave emancipation and the status of free people of color in the Atlantic world. Analyzing Séjour’s works, this chapter not only reveals the international and multilingual reach of the anti-slavery campaign, but also provides a transatlantic perspective on the disintegration of the American nation on the eve of the Civil War.

Devoting a chapter each to circum-Atlantic, local, hemispheric, national, and transatlantic relations, Creole Drama engages the different scales of transnationalism. By focusing on multiple overlapping geographies Creole Drama is able to address the range and diversity of Louisiana’s transnational connections and thus responds to critics who charge that the analytical category of transnationalism is too broad and leads us to lose sight of local conditions and national formations. Ultimately, this investigation of the francophone theatre of New Orleans from various transnational perspectives reveals the vitality and versatility of the francophone theatrical production in Louisiana and emphasizes its relevance for the larger trajectory of nineteenth-century American identity. By recovering the archive of the francophone drama of Louisiana, Creole Drama intervenes in conventional narratives of American literary history that focus predominantly on English-language texts, while also casting a new light on processes of cultural exchange, struggles over political agency, and changing power relations. It is my hope that Creole Drama can describe how local formations generate and powerfully inflect national as well as transnational outlooks while also pointing to new and promising avenues for future inquiry in the field of early American theatre and drama.