Sullivan on Braun (2019)

Braun, Juliane. Creole Drama: Theatre and Society in Antebellum New Orleans. U of Virginia P, 2019, pp. xviii + 260, ISBN 978-0-8139-4233-9

Juliane Braun’s Creole Drama reminds us that French culture and language thrived in Louisiana for two centuries even though efforts to undermine them began the moment France transferred the territory to Spain. Pressure mounted in 1765, when a delegation of French Louisianians travelled to Versailles to beg the king to keep the colony under French control. Because Louis XV denied their request, some of these delegates would rebel against Spanish rule back in New Orleans in 1768. Executed when their revolt failed, these patriots became the legendary Martyrs that generations of French Louisianians looked to for inspiration. Nineteenth-century dramatists subsequently depicted them as heroes who fought for the “cultural integrity of the French-speaking population” (63). Braun’s study, which analyzes these Martyr plays and draws on native francophone drama in New Orleans, is a groundbreaking one.

Braun deftly documents the rise and fall of francophone theaters in New Orleans in chapter one, beginning with the first playhouse founded by two Parisian men in the French Quarter in 1792, and ending with the Civil War. With eight playhouses in Saint-Domingue, two each in Guadeloupe and Martinique, robust theatrical communities thrived in the French Antilles until they “suspended operations” as “repercussions of the 1789 French Revolution reverberated across the Atlantic” (15-16). Braun locates New Orleans francophone theater within the “circum-Atlantic” world, particularly in the early 1800s. That is when the events of the Haitian revolution displaced quadroon actresses, dancers, opera singers, and playwrights, causing them to migrate from Saint-Domingue to New Orleans

In chapter two, Braun establishes theater as a central battleground for two groups vying for cultural hegemony: francophone Creole sophisticates and Anglo-American innovators. As the former looked to Paris as a model of enlightenment and artistic excellence, assuming Old World superiority in their continued ties to France, the latter strove to establish anglophone theatrical eminence. Braun contends that three dramatizations of French rebellion against Spanish rule in 1768 represent the ideology of each group. Anglophone journalist Thomas Wharton Collens’s The Martyr Patriots (1836) frames “Louisiana’s future within the contours of the United States” and recounts the drama by privileging “an Anglo-American viewpoint” (55). In contrast, francophone playwright Auguste Lussan’s Les Martyrs de la Louisiane (1839) “celebrated French Louisiana’s glorious past while also proposing a way forward for a francophone community faced with growing anglophone dominance” (59). Braun’s reading of Louis Placide Canonge’s France et Espagne (1850) as offering the francophones a way to resist Americanization is a bit contradictory, since she concludes that the play ultimately “denounces the apparent indifference of the French-speaking population towards the preservation of their language and culture” (65).

Chapter three focuses on the New Orleanian free people of color and their love of theater. They flourished intellectually, economically, culturally, and politically until the mid 1840s, when American administrators passed “increasingly restrictive legislation” curtailing their rights in order to “impose on Louisiana the racial hierarchy that reigned elsewhere in the United States” (74). When Creoles of color were blocked from their “accustomed seats in the second tier” at the Théâtre d’Orléans in 1837, they established their own in the Faubourg Marigny (81). Plays imported from France, when staged before the free Black audience, became “invested with a discourse about community, subjugation, and resistance” (85). Marriage plays such as Beaumarchais’s Barbier de Séville (1775) and Scribe’s Le Mariage de raison (1826) served as “ideal vehicles to implicitly comment on and critique plaçage arrangements,” a controversial practice in which free women of color entered quasi-legitimate marriages with wealthy white men (87). Stage productions of Voltaire’s Zaïre (1732) and Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le Prophète (1741) served as cautionary tales for free Creoles of color; rather than looking to a single leader to free them from their “liminal condition,” they should pursue liberation through “collective effort” (99).

Chapter four examines the tension between French Louisianians struggling to negotiate their Creole identities and their longing to fit in with the rest of America. With the impending US-Mexican War and the ever-increasing pressure to prove themselves as loyal American citizens, French Creoles grappled with questions of how to retain their French roots, given the pressures of the nativist movement. Unfortunately, justifying their allegiance to the United States also entailed embracing the Anglo-American ideal of “white racial purity” (112). As a result, French white Louisianians shut out the francophone people of color by fashioning the “Creole myth,” which Braun defines as “the strategic redefinition of the term ‘Creole’ to designate only white descendants of the original French and Spanish settlers of Louisiana” (112). One play rejects this redefinition while another dodges the question of racial diversity altogether. In the first instance, Braun reads Lussan’s La Famille créole (1837) as a drama establishing Louisiana as a New World utopia that welcomes francophones of all colors as well as recently arrived immigrants. She reads Canonge’s theatrical adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1846) as a reworking of the French author’s bestseller that served to unite Louisiana’s francophone and anglophone residents on the eve of the US-Mexican War.

Diminished freedoms, racial prejudice, and discrimination impelled many francophone intellectuals of color to seek exile in Paris, where they enjoyed social freedom, better educational and artistic opportunities, and literary success. 

Chapter five spotlights writer Victor Séjour, Louisiana’s most successful émigré in Paris. After he arrived in Paris in 1836, he joined the Société des hommes de couleur in their fight “against slavery, oppression, and discrimination” (143). He won success with “Le Mulâtre” (1837), a short story Braun calls “one of the earliest and most radical critiques of slavery.” (151). The story argues that the failure to abolish the tyrannical system could result in more tragic revolutionary violence and death (151). Braun informs us that Séjour would never replicate such a direct attack on slavery since none of his twenty-two plays staged in Paris addressed the subject. She interprets his gradual embrace of “conservative abolitionism” as stemming from his “privileged position at the court of Napoléon III” (159). 

Braun’s innovative and well-written study concludes with a call for more work on francophone theater in Louisiana to be completed where hers leaves off, namely the second half of the nineteenth century. Her closing pages offer intriguing pistes for advanced graduate students and researchers in search of new scholarly vistas.