The Haitian Chronicles.
Doug Ward began his career as a writer. It is his profession and his vocation. Over the years he has written essays, done reportage (especially sports) and of course playwriting. So in spite of everything else he has done in theatre from Administration to acting and directing he always identifies himself as a writer first. For about 20 years or more (From around 1975 to 1996) he has devoted his literary efforts to The Haitian Chronicles, an ambitious trilogy of plays dramatizing g the turbulent history of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) from a variety of perspectives.
In one of our many talks I brought the subject up. This is what he had to say.
GE: How did the idea of writing the Haitian Chronicles take root?
DTW: It started with Michael Schultz asking me if I knew anything about the Haitian revolution. I said yes I did. Then he told me he was interested in directing a play dealing with the subject but was only interested if I would write it. I told him that a number of plays on the subject including The Emperor of Haiti by Langston Hughes already existed. I think that Michael was attracted to dealing with the material because of the dominant mulatto involvement within the history. I told Michael that I wasn’t over enthusiastic about dealing with it in a dramatic form but in deference to his interest I would consider it. He then gave me several books that he had read on the subject. Now I knew before studying the material that I didn’t want to write conventional play dealing on the individual personalities with psychological conclusions and things like that.
GE: So you had decided to write the play.
DTW: No, but what I’m saying is if I did decide then that’s how I didn’t want to approach it. I’m saying that if I couldn’t find a way to incorporate the complex socio-economic – political dimensions of the revolution I wasn’t interested. I mean fuckit Gus, plays, a few good ones, had already existed about the situation and history. So why repeat what had already been done?
GE: When was this?
DTW: Somewhere in the early 70s. I don’t remember the exact year. This was the time when my family and I started spending our summers in Martha’s Vineyard in Cape Cod. So with Michael’s books in tow and several other books I could find on the subject I headed for the island to find out if I was interested in proceeding any further. And over the course of several summers I amassed copious notes to the point of almost becoming an expert on the revolution and its dominant influence, the French Revolution. And after processing all that material, the pros and cons and the various points of views from which they were written one book stood out. The Black Jacobins by CLR James. The book is a masterpiece. It is a brilliantly insightful and magnificently written Marxist/Trotkyyist narrative and analysis of that epochal event. And with the excitement provided by the James book and a sudden inspiration- like revelation about the form I needed to depict the revolutionary period, I was hooked. That would become my next writing project. So after three summers of research and absorption I went to my typewriter to grapple with the problem of organizing and presenting the material in dramatic form. Then over the course of three summers and whatever time I could snatch in-between my NEC duties I completed the first in what I now knew would have to be a trilogy of plays: The Rise of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Because of the style I devised for the play which was epic in scope incorporating various other dramatic devices I began to realize that this was no ordinary play. And I suspect that Michael, the one who originally introduced me to the idea, while greatly impressed wasn’t particularly overjoyed by what I had written. I don’t think it was what he expected. But I was satisfied in realizing my own intentions and was content that the work existed even though even at that early stage I knew that the fact of it being produced was remote.
DTW: Because of the size and sheer scope of it, Gus. That one play alone was just goddamned massive and would require I just don’t know how much money and resources to produce. So I had no illusions about it. No, none at all… Then after a five year respite during which some major changes took place in my personal life I resumed work on the trilogy. I wrote the second play The Fall of Toussaint L’Ouverture retaining the epic style of the first but focusing more closely on the individual characters and scenes and expanding the function of the Greek- like Women’s Chorus. Three to four years later I finished this second play with the same observation that it was too difficult to be produced. But that didn’t matter. Once again I was elated that I had managed to so much of this ambitious project. I mean Gus, that between these two plays you had what amounted to ten hours of theatre already.
GE: So what did you intend to do with them?
DTW: I figured that when I was finished with the whole thing that perhaps I could get them published in book form. But you have to realize that the whole trilogy wasn’t completed as of yet. Then I ran into something I hadn’t anticipated.
GE: What was that?
DTW: I began to realize that creatively I had exhausted the epic form with the two plays and I was now stymied. My idea of covering the Revolution through examining the reigns of its three major figures was now in jeopardy for one simple reason. I was creatively blocked. So much so that I was tempted to settle for what I had already done. I mean hell; those two works and the research that went into them could ordinarily serve as many a writer’s lifetime output. So I stopped. My hiatus lasted for almost another five years until suddenly I woke up one day and in a flash the solution came to me. In order to move on I realized that I had to do a 360 degree turn as regards to form. That Dessalines, the third figure in this epic had to be dramatized presenting his historical narrative completely alone. In other words a one-person play expressed solely from his own viewpoint. His unique voice merging dramatically with my own. So, besides discovering a relevant form for the third play I could create and write in the voice and skin of the revolutionary character I identified with the most. After that the writing went relatively fast on that play which is called Dessalines. When I finished it I had achieved what I had previously calculated as my goal, a trilogy. But then realized that I had not covered Christophe’s reign. So I embarked on extending the project to a quartet of plays.
GE: Four,my goodness!
DTW: Not to worry, it didn’t happen. In the midst of what I felt to be some excellent writing I soon came to realize that thematically I had said it all. And that to continue, no matter the quality of the new content, it would nevertheless amount to mere repetition of thematic conclusions. Besides which the business of Christophe’s emperorship had been dramatized adequately and more in other works even though they are seldom seen or produced. So I was satisfied to end my work with the three completed plays standing alone.
GE: So what’s the status of the plays now?
DTW: They exist on paper in manuscript form. There was an effort some years ago by the members of the ANEC (Alumni of the Negro Ensemble Company) to raise money for a large scale reading but nothing came of it. Then a University Press considered publishing it but that too never panned out. So it’s just sitting here in my files. But you of course know about the video/DVD version of the last play (Dessalines) that I plan to do sometime in the near future. I’ve acted the role and will do it again in the media version. But that so far is the story of the trilogy.