Restaging the Death of Patrice Lumumba

The merits of restaging 'Une Saison au Congo,' Aimé Césaire's history of the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, in London, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.

A still of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lumumba in Aime Cesaire's 'A Season in the Congo,' The Young Vic, 2013.

In the central public park of Fort-de-France, capital of Martinique, stands a statue of Empress Joséphine, who grew up on a sugar plantation to the south of the island. Her stone head has been hacked off, in a fit of counter-historical wish fulfillment, and red paint has been thrown over her chest. History, which collects the scattered limbs of the dead and tries to press them into some semblance of life, is itself subject to mutilation, and that mutilation – like the headless statue –  becomes part of history.

Une Saison au Congo, Aimé Césaire’s history of the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected leader of the Congo, has been retranslated and staged at the Young Vic theatre in London by film director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) and lead by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). The production opened last week to a slew of positive reviews (including on this blog, here) and the run is already selling out. But has the new version resurrected or dismembered the original?

Quentin Letts’ one-star review of the play in the historically racist Daily Mail newspaper – ‘A rather simplistic play reduced to silliness’ – should leave us in no doubt that this play remains radical and necessary. It is customary for that newspaper, between its blanket coverage of misogyny and gossip, to champion ‘civilization’ (its favourite parochialisms) against the threat of ‘barbarism’ (immigration etc.), and Letts’ review accidentally illuminates a tension at the heart of Cesaire’s play.

Written five years after the murder of Lumumba in 1961, Une Saison au Congo marks a radical identification between the Congolese politician and the Martiniquois writer. Césaire, a poet of experimental and political gifts, teacher of Frantz Fanon and mentor of Edouard Glissant, was an active public figure in Martinique, as mayor of Fort-de-France between 1945 and 2001 and deputy to the French National Assembly. As a post-colonial leader and radical thinker, he was influenced by Russian socialism, and in this respect he was similar to, and sympathetic with, Lumumba’s considered political alliance with the USSR. Césaire’s support for Russia, however, had waned after the suppression of the Hungarian uprisings in 1956, and he announced his break with the French Communist Party in his Lettre à Maurice Thorez. Still, Une Saison au Congo presents Lumumba as a sophisticated and considered political thinker.

This new production of A Season in the Congo presents what is civilisation (and its opposites) as an important question for international politicians and people in a theatre. Civilization is a word abused by puppet-politicians in Mother Belgium, justifying their opposition to democracy in their former colony; it is, however, the values of civilization whose transformation into hypocritical slogans guarantee this play’s descent into tragedy. Lumumba, presuming to act for the country who elected him, to speak to the world about Africa and in solidarity with those other nations struggling for self-representation, promotes an internationalism which contrasts with the tribalism of some of his countrymen and the statism of General Mobutu, who replaced Lumumba’s brief democracy with three decades of authoritarian rule.

The end of the play is unsurprising to anyone familiar with this history: Joe Wright’s production transforms the last scene into a choreographed last supper for Lumumba, not where he eats but where he is eaten. Césaire’s play leaves us radically unclear if Lumumba represents the crucified hope of a democratic politics in a Congo unified against neo-colonial interventions or an early symptom of the conflict which persists in the region.

Césaire’s play educated its original audience about what had been happening in Congo only five years before; when this production ends, however, the distance between the events of the play and the current political climate in the DRC is overwhelming. Joe Wright’s production does not renew the play’s relation to history for a twenty-first century audience. It could have done this simply by including evidence not available to Césaire in 1966, which establishes the complicity of the CIA and MI6 in Lumumba’s murder (more on that here).

If there are troubling continuities between the events at the end of the play and the ongoing conflict in states of the DRC, these remain for us to discover. Two years ago, there were energetic protests outside 10 Downing Street by the local Congolese population, outraged at the elections in the DRC. They were calling on the UK government to take a principled stance against a government doing little to prevent the global corporations plundering Congo’s mineral wealth. These memories should confirm the enduring relevance of this play’s moral complexities for an English audience.

Harry Stopes’ review on this blog quoted Brecht: “Our audience must experience not only the ways to free Prometheus, but be schooled in the very desire to free him.” Brecht might have been thinking of Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound, a commentary on human emancipation which Karl Marx read every year (more on that in Owen Holland’s essay here). Césaire, like Aeschylus, does not set out how to free Prometheus but offers a document of his suffering; it is in despair that we learn our desire for him to have been freed. Prometheus’ death is repeatable and pre-historical, Lumumba’s death was caused by conditions which still exist, this history should be studied and its continuation protested against, and while that remains true this play should be seen by everyone.

Quentin Letts spoils the end of the play with a confession of his own tedium:

The final touch: a windbag witch doctor who keeps jibbering away in some African tongue. I hope it is not giving away too much if I say that he is shot at the end. BANG! It was the one moment in a long, boring night that I felt like cheering.

This celebration of the death of a character who has represented the traditional beliefs of those living under colonialism, is consistent with the gross cynicism of the Daily Mail. I was surprised, the night I attended the play, that the audience were also quick to cheer the end. Consulting the original French play-text reveals that this new translation has deleted a final scene in which Mobutu orders his soldiers to fire on a crowd supporting Lumuba. It is a conclusion which makes it impossible for the audience to applaud.

Once this production has ended, why is it that the audience are already on their feet, clapping so enthusiastically, whooping and crying out? It almost sounds as if they are acclaiming General Mobutu’s final speech, which concludes with maximum hypocrisy, that the most beautiful boulevards of their cities will be renamed Lumumba, whose death he has just orchestrated. Have the audience failed to understand the force of the play? It sounds like they are clapping to honour Lumumba’s death. Or are they just celebrating a powerful lead performance by a celebrity actor? Other plays command silence in the audience, after a serious conclusion, but why not here? Has the radical pedagogy of Césaire’s play fallen on deaf ears?

The quickness of the audience to make this noise signals the weakness of the production, applause as a triumph of custom: the production failed in this most important element if its audience could emerge already cheerfully returned to the mundane, rather than wandering out of the theatre troubled by the world reflected in this history, to walk home speechless through the hot night.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.