A Feminist Rewriting of Kleist? Öziri’and Nübling’s Die Verlobung in St. Domingo – Ein Widerspruch

Priscilla Layne*

Abstract

In his novella Die Verlobung in St. Domingo (1811), Heinrich von Kleist depicted the Haitian revolution within a highly racialized framework of white innocence and Black vengeance. With his rewriting of this narrative in Die Verlobung in St. Domingo—Ein Widerspruch (2019), rather than condemning the Black people rebelling, Necati Öziri emphasizes the violence they are responding to. Öziri also shifts the play’s focus from a tragic love affair to a mother-daughter relationship between. In this paper, I apply a feminist, postcolonial reading to Öziri’s play, to explore all of the ways he is writing back against Kleist, including by embracing ambiguity.

Keywords: Postcolonialism, Haitian revolution, violence, feminism, postmigrant, racism

In his novella Die Verlobung in St. Domingo (The Betrothal in St. Domingo,1811), German Romantic author Heinrich von Kleist attempted to bring the Haitian Revolution to Europe’s shores via literary representation. His protagonist, the Swiss character Gustav, is desperately trying to help himself and his family leave the island in the wake of the slave revolt. While on the run, Gustav seeks shelter at a home that is inhabited by the mixed-race woman Toni and her mother Babekan, who happens to be the romantic partner of Congo Huango, who is leading the rebellion and seeking revenge against the former slave masters. Babekan has been using Toni to lure white men to their deaths via a false sense of security. Until now, Toni has not questioned her mother’s tactics. But she falls in love with Gustav and wants to save his life, so they can marry and live in Europe. Despite his strong feelings for Toni, Gustav is suspicious of her, because even with her very light complexion, he questions whether she can ever really be loyal to him and betray her Black brethren. Ultimately, his paranoia causes Gustav to shoot Toni to death, as he mistakes her attempt to save him as an attempt to deliver him to his potential executioners. Once Gustav realizes his mistake, he shoots himself as well, and when Gustav’s uncle reaches Switzerland, he creates a memorial in their honor beneath a tree in his garden.

Bildnis Heinrich von Kleist, 1801, Zeichnung, Dresden, Sammlung Otto Krug. Public domain. Photo: Web/Wikipedia

On the one hand, Kleist’s narrative interrogates the legacy of a French Revolution that declared liberty for some but not all. On the other hand, he posed his questions within a highly racialized framework, where those who are dark-skinned are brutally violent, whites like the Gustav can see themselves as “innocent” and biracial characters like Toni are doomed to a tragic life (and death) because they cannot fully be contained within racial categories. With what has been described as an Überschreibung (overwriting) of Kleist’s narrative, in Die Verlobung in St. Domingo – Ein Widerspruch (The Betrothal in St. Domingo—A Contradiction, 2019), Turkish German playwright Necati Öziri interrogates Kleist by asking what the Blacks’ perspective might have been. Öziri uses the style and themes of postmigrant theatre to liberate Kleist’s Black characters from his white supremacist racial framework.

By writing from this perspective, rather than condemning the Black people who rebel, Öziri emphasizes what they are responding to, which includes the violent potential of whites. As Simone De Beauvoir argues, “the oppressed has only one solution: to deny the harmony of that mankind from which an attempt is made to exclude him, to prove that he is a man and that he is free by revolting against the tyrants” (89). Furthermore, Öziri shifts the play’s focus from the tragic love story between Toni and Gustav to the mother-daughter relationship between Babekan and Toni. In Kleist, ambiguity and uncertainty are dangerous, best represented by Toni, which is why she must die.

In this paper, I will apply a feminist, postcolonial reading to Öziri’s play to explore all of the ways he is writing back against Kleist, including by embracing ambiguity. By drawing on Simone De Beauvoir’s understanding of the ethics of ambiguity, I will discuss why Öziri’s play is useful for exploring questions around agency, violence and feminism in representations of revolutionary violence. In my analysis, I will sometimes differentiate between Öziri’s text and Sebastian Nübling’s staging because they occupy different positionalities and I cannot always be certain whether choices made for the performance were influenced by Öziri or whether they are due to Nübling’s interpretation of Öziri’s text.

Resisting Realism

The performance I will analyze was filmed at the Maxim Gorki theatre in Berlin. The Gorki features a racially and ethnically diverse ensemble cast that includes both native speakers and non-native speakers of German; thus, staging the play there allowed director Nübling to practice a kind of blind casting—actors aren’t assigned roles because of physical similarity to characters and because the ensemble is so diverse, this allows for actors of Color to play roles that traditionally had only been played by white actors. Nübling utilizes this diverse cast to challenge Western views of the Haitian revolution, inject Öziri’s narrative with African diasporic aesthetics and redefine the importance of “ambiguity” for Kleist’s narrative.

One of the most important strategies Nübling uses to decenter a single, dominant and white perspective of the Haitian revolution is to, instead, allow for several different characters to narrate what is happening. Furthermore, the character of Toni is played by two actresses, who, at first, are clearly identified because of the different colored clothing: one (Kenda Hmeidan) starts in an orange velour, short-sleeved romper, with the sleeves cut at an angle; the other (played by Çiğdem Teke) wears a buttoned-down shirt and pants in different green shades.

Typical of postmigrant theatre, there are several moments in the play when the actors break the fourth wall and blur the lines between the reality of the play and real life. This helps emphasize that the themes presented in the play—racism, freedom, exploitation—are not just bygone political issues but are still relevant. And the audience is meant to critically reflect on what they are seeing, hopefully being motivated to make changes in their own lives, not just rethink their understanding of this history. For example, Öziri purposefully uses ambiguous language to make it difficult for us to immediately identify the time of the setting. Are we in the here and now or in eighteenth-century Haiti? After taking the stage in her orange velour costume, Toni describes a political time of revolution and political change:

Die Gesellschaften um uns herum verändern sich, überall, in Europa und auch hier. Der Hass organisiert sich. Das Vertrauen in die politischen Entscheidungsträger schwindet. Alle sehnen sich nach Versöhnung, nach Alltag und Normalität, nach einer Vision für dieses noch junge Jahrhundert. Alle wollen Wissen: Was kommt nach dem Protest?

Öziri 3[1]

There is a reason why these remarks resonate with both our present and the Haitian and French Revolutions. In all three contexts, political unrest was on the horizon because the people lacking power no longer trusted in their rulers and they questioned whether they simply had to accept the world as it was or could possibly change the world to reflect what they desired. It is this equivalence between the Haitian and the French Revolutions that Haitian leaders tried to underscore in order to stress that while the French argued for liberty for all, they conveniently forgot the enslaved in their colonies. Thus, the Haitian Revolution was merely a case of enslaved people demanding the same rights and respect that allegedly counted for all human beings. In fact, this rhetoric around who counts as human is what helps us locate Öziri’s text in the past. Reflecting on who does and doesn’t count as human is a task attributed to Bréda, a character whom Öziri has modeled on revolutionary Haitian General François Dominique Toussaint (1743–1803). When the actor who plays Bréda (Falilou Seck) first takes the stage, he states, “ich stehe hier auch und vor allem, weil es mir als der Mensch, der ich geworden bin, persönlich wichtig ist” (3).[2] Thus, he is aware that he did not always count as “human,” and importantly for him, becoming human is tied to a desire to liberate all not just a select few, as was the case of the European bourgeois revolutions.[3]

Bréda’s prologue, with which Öziri begins his play, is his first drastic departure from Kleist’s text. A typical realist novella, Kleist’s Verlobung begins with an omniscient narrator informing us of the setting of the conflict. What stands out about Kleist’s narrator is that he is decidedly unsympathetic to the enslaved Black people on the island. He states: “Zu Port au Prince, auf dem französischen Anteil der Insel St. Domingo, lebte, zu Anfange dieses Jahrhunderts, als die Schwarzen die Weißen ermordeten, auf der Pflanzung des Herrn Guillaume von Villeneuve, ein fürchterlicher alter N****, namens Congo Hoango” (Projekt Gutenberg).[4]

Trailer. Die Verlobung in St. Domingo – Ein Widerspruch (The Betrothal in St. Domingo—A Contradiction. Gorki Theatre, 2019)

At the beginning of Öziri’s play, not only does he allow the character Bréda to speak in the script, but rather than having Seck, who consistently plays Bréda throughout the play, speak the script’s first monologue, Nübling has Hmeidan perform this monologue in her bright-orange clothing. This sets up a common technique, having multiple actors speak for one character or doubling characters, with either two actors performing the same part on stage or doubling a character using a live actor on stage and a pre-recorded shadow of the actor projected onto a screen. These directorial decisions echo Öziri’s script because they propose that characters may have competing motivations and intentions, and they challenge any presumption that a social or political group, like the revolting formerly enslaved, is monolithic. Instead, a constant theme throughout the play is that while individual characters may disagree or act according to differing principles, they must find unity in order to successfully fight against white supremacy. This understanding of the struggle within a movement for freedom is part of why de Beauvoir embraces ambiguity. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, she states it is not uncommon for a revolutionary to face uncertainty and “this uncertainty should not keep him from pursuing his goals; but it requires that one concern oneself with finding a balance between the goal and its means” (159–60). And arguably, Öziri and Nübling convey this ethics of ambiguity by presenting us with multiple characters who may be on the same side of the revolution, but who may not always agree with each other on how to act.

At the start of the play, Toni/Bréda (played by Hmeidan) identifies themselves as “oberste Befehlshaber des Generals der Revolutionsarmee” (“supreme commander of the general of the revolutionary army”), a reference to Toussaint, and their location as Fort Dauphin, which was the site of several battles: first, between the French and the Spanish; then, between the French and the British, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Coupeau 16–27). Toni/Bréda’s announcement declaring their newly won freedom works both as a critique of white liberals during the eighteenth century, who denied Blacks their freedom, and as a critique of the mostly white, bourgeois audience of German theatregoers, who have been socialized according to this liberal tradition. Toni/Bréda states:

Ich weiß es ganz besonders zu schätzen, dass auch einige ehemalige Kolonialherren und Plantagenbesitzer hier sind. Ich weiß, dass viele unter Ihnen den Kampf der Schwarzen für die Freiheit und die Unabhängigkeit insgeheim oder öffentlich unterstützt haben, dass viele der weißen ihre Sklaven so gut behandelt haben, wie es ihrer Ansicht nach ging, dass viele von ihnen glühende Anhänger der Republik oder sogar Mitglied der Pariser “Freunde der Schwarzen” sind und dass viele die Ideale der Revolution – hier wie auch in Frankreich – höher als ihr eigenes Leben stellen, allen voran die Gleichheit und Freiheit aller Menschen.

4[5]

Thus, Toni/Bréda appeals to the whites’ morality, while acknowledging their fears.

One of the characters utmost demonized in Kleist’s text is Congo Huango, one of the Black leaders of the revolt, and arguably based on Toussaint. Toussaint was the son of a “chieftain in Africa, [who] was captured in war, sold as a slave and made the journey [to Haiti] in a slave-ship” (James 19). What made the historical Toussaint’s experience different from most enslaved Black people in Haiti was that his father was bought by a colonist who recognized he was educated and “allowed him a certain liberty on the plantation and the use of five slaves to cultivate a plot of land. He became a Catholic, married a woman” and had eight children, Toussaint being the eldest (19). By creating the figure Congo Huango, instead of utilizing Toussaint, Kleist has free reign over the character, allowing the author to turn him into a reservoir for all of white people’s fears about Black men. We hear very little from Congo Huango, only that he owns the house in which Toni and Babekan reside and that Toni is used to lure whites to reside there so that Congo Huango can seek revenge against them when he arrives. For most of the narrative, Congo Huango isn’t actually present; he only appears towards the end of the novella. However, he is described early on as someone who “am hellen Tage die in ihren Niederlassungen verschanzten Pflanzer selbst an[fiel], und ließ alles, was er darin vorfand, über die Klinge springen. Ja, er forderte, in seiner unmenschlichen Rachsucht” (Gutenberg).[6] We never hear motivations for his actions. On the contrary, this prologue only outlines what the enslaved Black Haitians sought from their revolt.

In contrast to Kleist, Öziri is clearly giving us a point of view from the subaltern. One indication of that is his use of the term Schwarz (Black). In the prologue, Toni/Bréda states, “die Zukunft und der Ausweg aus diesen unruhigen Zeiten [stellt] ein Schwarzes Loch im Universum [dar]” (3). Translated into English, this statement would simply read “the future and the way out of these troubled times represents a black hole in the universe.” Typically, one would understand this to mean that because we don’t know how we will get out of these troubled times, the way is unknown to us, and that is why it is represented by a black hole. However, if one looks more carefully at the German text, Öziri capitalizes Black, a reference to its meaning as a political identification for Black people. Thus, what this character is also saying is 1) that Black people hold the key to escaping these troubling times and 2) Black people are associated with the future and the unknown in a positive manner. Thus, part of why Öziri’s intervention is so important is he is creating a positive representation of Black people, depicting them as political agents of change and agents of the future.

In a later scene, Toni (played by Teke) specifically calls out the importance of representation by stating:

Natürlich ist dieser Krieg, wie jeder Krieg, auch ein Krieg um Worte, und natürlich könnte man anstatt ‘ermordeten’ auch sagen:
‘als die Schwarzen die weißen töteten’
oder
‘als die versklavte Bevölkerung sich ihrer Ketten entriss‘
oder
‘als die noch schlafende Menschheit endlich erwachte.’
Ich habe aber nichts übrig für Revolutionsromantik.

9[7]

With these lines, Toni explicitly refers again to the very first sentence of Kleist’s novella. Kleist’s beginning clearly aligns his narrator with the whites who, regardless of their brutal behavior in the past, do not deserve to be “murdered” by Blacks. Toni calls this thinking into question, asking us to consider if, in fact, any means are necessary when people are fighting for their liberation. And such thinking aligns Toni with the kind of ethically ambiguous subject whom de Beauvoir lauds. As de Beauvoir stresses, we must “challenge every condemnation as well as every a prion justification of the violence practiced with a view to a valid end” (160). This does not mean that every act of violence in the name of the revolution is justified; but it is the process of questioning these acts of violence that separate the “man of good” from the tyrant (144).

As Öziri is not concerned with maintaining a separate world between the stage and the audience, he utilizes several alienation techniques and even “realization techniques,” which include letting the actors’ real selves occasionally blend with the role, something that has been common in postmigrant theatre. For example, the person who plays Babekan is Afro-Palestinian actress Maryam Abu Khaled, a regular member of the Gorki ensemble. As Babekan, Khaled occasionally speaks Arabic and English, and this is not to allege that Babekan would have known these languages, but rather it is a strategy of resisting realism, which allows Khaled’s Black diasporic identities and her experience with anti-Black racism in Europe and the Middle East, to blend with Babekan’s experiences.[8]

Diasporic Aesthetics

The first visible example of Nübling’s incorporation of African diasporic culture is in the form of the carnival. The performance begins with Hmeidan taking the stage in orange, wearing what appears to be a festive outfit reminiscent of a Caribbean carnival. In addition to her orange romper, she also wears an orange belt with gold fixtures around her waist. And the centerpiece of her outfit is a headdress with large elaborate feathers in orange and pink tones.

Fig. 1. Hmeidan as Bréda/Toni reciting the opening monologue

Her outfit is made complete with gold, glittery makeup around her eyes and goal jewelry (figure 1). This outfit is reminiscent of something one would find during carnival, in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and other Caribbean islands formerly colonized by Catholic, European powers. It also recalls the popular jazz revue performances during the 1920s. The American jazz culture that conquered Europe was influenced by Caribbean culture in sound and dress (Putnam). Thus, Nübling’s choice of costume creates a constellation between the Caribbean carnival and European colonial metropolises. Carnival culture was born from blending African and European elements, and it emerged from resistance, from:

the Yoruba people [who] were taken from Nigeria and the last to arrive on the islands. Their strong culture dominated the Caribbean Africans, and they were able to practice their religion by pretending they were praying to Catholic saints. This allowed their culture to continue despite oppression: this new culture combined European practices with West African traditions.

History of the Caribbean Carnival

This carnival reference is reinforced by the actress’s movements; she occasionally sways with her arms, dancing to the play’s motif played on keyboard that accompanies most of the action on stage. After taking the stage, she positions herself center stage, facing the audience, with a screen illuminated orange behind her in orange and proceeds to thank them.

The carnival theme is further reinforced during Toni/Bréda’s monologue. When Toni/Bréda declares “the future and the way out of these troubled times represents a black hole in the universe,” after framing the actress in a full shot, the camera then zooms out to reveal (figure 2) that four additional people have taken the stage, stage left, and are standing in the shadows at the same depth as between the orange screen and Toni/Bréda.

Fig. 2. Four dancers join Toni/Bréda stage left

They are arranged in a distinct pattern—one person, Maryam Abu Khaled (who plays Babekan), in front, followed by two people flanking her slightly behind (Çigdem Teke and Falilou Seck), and a fourth person, Dominic Hartmann (Gustav), positioned further back, between the previous two. One could describe their moves as “acting in concert,” a phrase that Michael Dowdy takes from Hannah Arendt to describe how music performances can be “interactive spaces of collective identity and coordinated political practice” (75). These four shimmy and dance stage left, approaching the front of the stage. The appearance of these four additional characters/dancers perhaps makes an argument about Black futurity and collectivity. Are they the unknown future that will take us out of these troubling times, which Toni/Bréda has just announced? It is significant that they are all dressed uniquely: Babekan wears a blue, feathered jacket, gray tight-fitting pants and a blue velour skirt; while Bréda, to her left behind her, wears tall black boots, gold and black pants and a two-toned shirt (gold in back and black in front) with gold shimmery tassels hanging down from his neck; the dancer to Babekan’s right, Teke as Toni, is dressed in all green; and the dancer in the back, Gustav, wears a floor-length, red, glittery dress. Since we don’t yet know their individual characters, or that Hartmann will be Gustav, the group appears only as a collective. And yet, the lack of uniformity among these dancers, in their clothing, racial/ethnic and gender identities, conveys a sense of diversity among the subaltern and a willingness to embrace difference. When Toni/Bréda announces they are crafting “eine Vision für eine Gemeinschaft . . . , die das Vergangene und die Gegenwart hinter sich lässt”[9] (3), the dancers join her, slightly behind, but still stage left. They only stop dancing when she states the bitter truth that whites on the island didn’t want to hear: “Hier habt ihr im Garten gesessen und euren Kaffee mit ein paar Löffeln Zucker getrunken . . . Aber hinter jedem Stuhl an dieser Tafel stand den ganzen Abend ein anderer Mensch, der euch nachschenken musste, ohne zu fragen” (4).[10] With this statement, the dancers stand still, with their backs facing the audience, and they look over their right shoulders as if their gaze represents all the enslaved Blacks not allowed the opportunity to return whites’ gazes. The speaker continues, that was the time before the war, and now things are different. With this declaration, the dancers resume their movements and now slowly back away, leaving the stage just as they once came. They return, however, when the speaker declares, “Ab morgen wird die Zeit des Friedens anbrechen. Dieses Land ist schon bald die erste befreite Kolonie, der erste unabhängige Staat, der sich aus eigener Kraft vom Joch der Sklaverei befreit hat. Morgen wird gefeiert” (4).[11] When she repeats the last line, “Morgen wird gefeiert,”[12] two of the dancers (Teke as Toni and Seck as Bréda) walk stage right and sit down at two keyboards playing electronic music. Meanwhile, Babekan takes center stage and Toni/Bréda leaves. Rather than using numbers to indicate a change in scene, as Babekan takes the stage dressed in blue, the screen behind her shifts colors from orange to blue until the screen is entirely blue, indicating the arrival of a new age.

A third diasporic aesthetic incorporated in the play is Nübling’s subversive use of silhouettes. Once Toni/Bréda has finished the prologue and the play shifts to the main narrative—Gustav’s arrival on Toni and Babekan’s doorstep—in order to introduce this new phase of the play, the lights are turned off, the screen is illuminated white and figures and props appear on the other side as silhouettes. The first character to appear is Babekan, represented by a woman, wearing a long dress with her hair tied up in a bun. She sits at a table with two coffee cups. Because she is sitting on the other side of the screen, she appears as a silhouette, invoking the practice of silhouette profiles, an artform originating in the eighteenth century, which became a popular way for loved ones among middle-class families to be remembered, prior to the emergence of photography. But these silhouettes were limited to the intimate circle of white families and not the enslaved Black people who served them. This practice of making silhouettes has since been famously reappropriated by African American visual artist Kara Walker. In her silhouettes, Walker has racialized Black figures appear in places one might not expect them, sometimes appearing grotesque and threatening. They reflect a darker side of American history that is otherwise unspoken. Thus, by incorporating the aesthetic of the silhouette in his staging, Nübling suggests that in this Critique, we will get a perspective that was lacking in Kleist’s novella. Furthermore, his use of these silhouettes may also draw on the Turkish shadow play, itself a mode of political critique. Shadow plays (Karagöz) were frequently used “as a vehicle for political comment, even as agit-prop” (And 75). In this way, Nübling allows African diasporic and Turkish diasporic artwork to “touch tales,” a phrase Leslie Adelson uses to describe texts that defy categorization because they address transnational histories, languages and media in unpredictable ways.

The final way Nübling uses Black diasporic aesthetics as a part of Öziri’s critique of Kleist is at the very end of the play when in the darkened theatre, the actors disappear behind illuminated, grotesque masks—reminiscent of African mask culture (figure 3).

Fig. 3. The illuminated masks worn by the actors at the end of the play

In the darkness, they announce the play’s title and director, followed by cackling laughter.

Centering the Narrative on Black Women

A core conflict in Kleist’s Betrothal is Toni’s racial identity and her alleged conflicted loyalties. Toni is described as a “quadroon”: the daughter of a biracial woman (Babekan) and a white Frenchman, with whom Babekan had an affair in Paris.[13] Toni is depicted as the quintessential “tragic mulatto” type. Her complexion is light enough that she could pass as white, and we are to believe that it is this whiteness that lures Gustav to trust her and causes him to fall in love with her, as he sees his deceased white fiancé reflected in her disposition. Thus, on the one hand, Toni is tempted by the prospect of living life as a white woman: escaping the island with Gustav, marrying him and living free in Europe. On the other hand, she has responsibilities to her mother and stepfather (Congo Huango), who believe her Black identity should make her an ally in their fight against their former white masters.

In Nübling’s staging, Toni’s warring identities and desires are realized by two actresses playing Toni; this decision also helps stress her duplicitous nature according to Kleist’s depiction. When we are first introduced to Toni following the opening monologue, she is played by Çiǧdem Teke. Dressed in green pants and button-down shirt, this Toni appears androgynous, a choice that counteracts Kleist’s hypersexualization of Toni as the “tragic mulatto.” Once Gustav enters the house, Toni (Teke) exchanges roles with the other Toni (Hmeidan), who has now put on an orange, quite feminine dress to play the role of the one used to lure white men to their deaths. Throughout Öziri’s script, Toni also verbalizes the struggle within her. In Kleist’s story, we are led to believe that Toni ultimately chooses whiteness. She betrays her mother and Congo Hoango by siding with Gustav and, at one point, declaring: “ich bin eine Weiße, und dem Jüngling, den ihr gefangen haltet, verlobt” (“I am a white girl and betrothed to this young man who you are holding prisoner”) (Kleist 264). She ultimately dies, because, as a “tragic mulatto,” her biracial identity can find no home in a world ruled by racial categories. Gustav falsely believes she has betrayed him and shoots her dead.

Öziri shifts the narrative’s focus away from romantic relationships and, instead, emphasizes the kinship between Toni and her mother. It is Toni who introduces us to Babekan. While we see Babekan’s silhouette on the screen, sitting at a table with two coffee cups, Toni dressed all in green sits at a keyboard, stage right, and facing the audience. Toni states while gesturing to the silhouette behind her:

Das: ist meine Mama. Und mich interessiert:
Warum
sitzt diese Frau
mitten in dieser Nacht
alleine im Dunkeln
vor zwei Tassen Kaffee?
Vielleicht
tut sie, was sich auch für eine Revolutionärin gehört am angeblich letzten Abend der Revolution: Sie kann nicht schlafen.[14]

With that, Toni emphasizes not only that women are revolutionaries too, but that women’s revolutionary work sometimes looks differently than what we expect from men. While Bréda is out fighting, Babekan is taking care of things at home, but her domestic labor still supports his political goals. But there was also a time when Babekan committed acts of violence as well. Toni informs us how she can see visions of her mother: “meine Mutter, wie sie dem alten Villeneuve nachts mit einer Nagelschere die Halsschlagadern nachzeichnet und sich dann der Revolution anschließt” (23).[15] By highlighting both that Babekan is capable of violent acts and that these violent acts are justified because she is fighting for her freedom, Öziri gives the Black characters the humanity which Kleist denied them. The white abolitionists of Kleist’s day may have insisted that Blacks were human beings and that they shouldn’t be enslaved, but they rarely saw Black people as being equal to whites (Archer-Straw 28). And they tended to imagine a Black subject who would merely be grateful for freedom and not seek vengeance for their enslavement.

Thus, fully acknowledging a Black person’s humanity also means accepting that they might respond to past violence with violence of their own. As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, if vengeance is inevitable, it would be because of “the intransigence and ignorance of the white world” (105). Furthermore, it is a “vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police for or army,” for it is a “historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, ‘Whatever goes up must come down’” (105). Frantz Fanon made similar points about decolonization and the inevitability of violence in The Wretched of the Earth: “The muscles of the colonized are always tensed. It is not that he is anxious or terrorized, but he is always ready to change his role as game for that of hunter. The colonized subject is a persecuted man who is forever dreaming of becoming the persecutor” (16).

Not only does Öziri emphasize that Babekan is a political subject, but he also gives her a more elaborate backstory than she is allowed in Kleist’s narrative. As I mentioned before, in Kleist’s Betrothal all we know about Babekan is that she is biracial and she had an affair with a Frenchman, who then refused to acknowledge Toni as his daughter. It is not explicitly stated that he is white, but this can be assumed as Kleist used racialized language to explicitly describe any non-white characters. Thus, Babekan is presented as a scorned lover, who, like her daughter, fell victim to the racial categories of the day. In Öziri’s play, however, Babekan reveals an entirely different backstory. And this story of Toni’s conception becomes a key reason why mother and daughter have such a different relationship with violence. In Kleist’s narrative, the narrator offers no reason for why Babekan is more violent and vengeful than her daughter. One is left to draw the conclusion that, based on racist understandings of the time, Babekan is Blacker than her daughter and, therefore, more brutal and hateful towards whites. Babekan has no qualms about delivering Gustav to Congo Huango to be killed, while her daughter who has a more beautiful “white soul,” is conflicted over their deception (Köhler 40).

In Öziri’s play, we learn that what has contributed to Babekan’s willingness to fight is that, like many enslaved Black women of this time, she was a victim of sexual assault—raped by Toni’s father. This is why, according to Babekan, fleeing the revolutionary violence for Paris is not the answer to their dilemma. It was in Paris, after all, that Toni’s father forced himself on her. And when she went before the court to plead her case, they didn’t believe her:

Und weiter im Gerichtssaal: der Schweiß auf der rosa Schweinefresse des Richters, die glüht vor Hitze, der ich alles im Detail erzählen muss, wieder und wieder ,ja, ich war freiwillig in dem Haus, aber das wollte ich trotzdem nicht’ Der Schweiß in den Handinnenflächen deines Vaters, der unter Eid schwört, dass du sein Kind nicht sein kannst, der Schweiß auf der Stirn vom Villeneuve, als er fertig ist mit 60 Peitschen für meine Falschaussage.

39[16]

Babekan tells Toni this story, in part, to explain the trauma that forces her to sit up every night. It is this trauma that makes her want to fight back against oppression, sexism and racism. She also tells this story and emphasizes to Toni that her father was Black and not white, to acknowledge that the sexist violence of white supremacy can come from anyone who is a part of the system. But Babekan does not want revenge against her rapist. Instead, she focuses her anger against the racist and sexist system that enabled his behavior, represented by the white judge. She states:

Es stimmt. Manchmal hör ich ihn, nachts, wenn ich schlafe, seine endlosen Reden, aus allen Wänden, sein Kaffeegeruch überall. Und dann stehe ich auf, gehe in die Küche und mache zwei Tassen Kaffee, beide mit viel Zucker, beide für mich… Es geht nicht um deinen Vater. Es geht um den Richter. Mit jedem weiteren Mann töte ich jemanden, der über mich urteilen will. Und über dich, Toni. Für dich, Toni. Damit du heute auf deine Privilegien reinfallen kannst. Damit du morgen die Freiheit hast, mich zu verurteilen.

41[17]

With her final remark, Babekan invokes the ambiguity of violence by acknowledging that the methods she has chosen to work towards freedom maybe be justified for her, but Toni may not agree. As de Beauvoir proclaimed, the ability to constantly question what actions are justified is what separates the oppressed from the oppressors.

Critical Whiteness

As opposed to the “neutral” white man, Gustav is a much more threatening figure in Öziri’s play. In Kleist’s narrative, Gustav is portrayed as an innocent man caught up in the conflict. He is neither guilty of abusing slaves, nor is he guilty of fighting for the French. He is simply trying to help his family—his aunt, uncle and cousins—reach the safety of a ship so that they can leave the island. In Kleist’s Betrothal, Gustav is depicted as being on the defensive from the very beginning. When he reaches Babekan and Toni’s residence, he cannot see clearly who is at the door. And in a war between racialized groups seeing race correctly can mean the difference between life or death. In Öziri’s play, however, Gustav is immediately marked as the dangerous party.When he first arrives at their house, he is brandishing a weapon with which he threatens Toni. He continues to threaten Toni and her mother with it, even after they’ve let him inside the house. When we get a close-up of Babekan and Gustav on either side of the door, we see right away that he has a gun and he is threatening Babekan with it, even if he isn’t saying that. In his words we just hear about the women and children who will starve if they don’t get help. This shows Gustav’s duplicity, further stressed by how Toni occasionally calls him “Heinrich,” a remark that invokes Kleist and suggests that Gustav’s words stem from Kleist’s white colonial fantasy. Thus, while Kleist’s text focused on Toni’s potential duplicity, Öziri’s calls out Gustav for being duplicitous and makes a joke about the interchangeability of white men.

This makes the violent behavior of the whites more explicit. Thus, we can conclude that the Blacks’ violence is in response to the violent actions of the whites. When Babekan first notices Gustav outside, she tells Toni:

BABEKAN Jemand steht vor der Tür.
TONI Ein Mann?
BABEKAN Ein weißer.
TONI Ganz weiß?
BABEKAN Ich weiß nicht. 
TONI Alleine?
BABEKAN Ein weißer kommt nie alleine.

11–12[18]

This excerpt reveals several important considerations for understanding how race functions in the setting and in the play. First, for Babekan, from a Black woman’s perspective, a man is a Black man. White men are not “universal” in this world, from the perspective of Black people; thus; Babekan explicitly states that Gustav is white. Sharon Dodua Otoo has previously remarked that in German literature, historically, white characters have been unmarked as their presence is accepted as a given, as normal (Otoo 81–82). Therefore, in contrast, the presence of a Black person or any Person of Color is seen as remarkable and possibly abnormal. By always commenting on a character’s whiteness, Öziri like Otoo decenters white experience and, by contrast, makes Black characters and People of Color the norm, therefore reimagining a future Germany in which whiteness is no longer seen as the standard. Secondly, whiteness, just like Blackness, exists on a spectrum. As race is a social construct, there are many shades between ganz weiß (completely white) and non-white; thus, it is not always easy to discern a person’s race. And finally, Babekan’s comment that “White men never come alone” is a commentary about empire and colonial violence. Babekan also remarks about the hubris, on Gustav’s part, to knock on a stranger’s door and immediately expect to be helped. She states: “Wer mitten in dieser Nacht an eine fremde Tür klopft, hat ernste Probleme oder keine Manieren. Natürlich ist er weiß” (12).[19] Thus, Babekan’s statement names the audacity of Gustav’s behavior and all the things he expects due to white privilege.

Part of how Öziri turns this into a feminist narrative is creating a stronger alliance between Toni and her mother. After Gustav arrives, they often respond to him in unison and the actresses mimic each other’s gestures on stage, including in one scene where Babekan and Toni appear to act out a fantasy of stabbing Gustav to death (figure 4).

Fig. 4. Toni and Babekan act out a fantasy of murdering Gustav

Such behavior indicates the characters are unified against whites, including against Gustav. The fact that Gustav suggests it is dangerous for Toni and Babekan to be alone in the house during the uprising shows that his understanding of femininity is based on a white ideal, and he cannot see the political, revolutionary potential of these Black women.

Another important departure from Kleist is that instead of letting Gustav tell his story about how he is on the run with his Swiss family, Toni summarizes the details while he feigns speech in front of the screen. The effect is, once again, decentering whiteness and ridiculing parts of his story. Furthermore, when we get more detail about Gustav’s past and what happened to his white fiancé—details that are intended to create sympathy in Kleist’s text—the way this information is presented to us in Öziri’s play eliminates any chance for sympathizing with Gustav. According to Kleist’s text, Gustav’s fiancé was executed by his political rivals when they couldn’t find him. But rather than Gustav admitting this to Toni himself, Gustav is hesitant to explain this, and Toni must actually feed him some of his lines in order to prompt him to speak. This performance conveys that Gustav is a coward, not just because he is apolitical and because he didn’t intervene to save his fiancé’s life, but also because he can’t find the courage to admit these facts to Toni. While in the script the following text is only attributed to Gustav, during the performance one of the actresses playing Toni (played by Hmeidan in an orange dress and wearing a military jacket over it) has to “feed” the underlined lines to him, to prompt him to speak.

Gustav Ich, betrunken in einer Kneipe in Paris. Pöbele gegen die Revolution. Konnte nie was mit Politik. Irgendwer – wahrscheinlich der Barkeeper, wahrscheinlich füllt er mich extra ab, wahrscheinlich gehört er selbst zum Terror-Tribunal – irgendwer verrät mich. Am nächsten Morgen: der Mob vor meiner Tür. Ich, versteckt in einem Keller von Freunden. Und weil sie mich nicht finden, wird sie [his fiancé] mitgenommen…Mitgenommen und gefoltert und verhört und – . . .

29[20]

In another departure from Kleist, in Öziri’s version, Toni wants to leave the island with Gustav, not in order to be white, but to escape the war and find safety. She states: “Ich werde dir und deiner Familie helfen…Du bringst mich dafür von dieser Insel . . . Du hast mir einen Heiratsantrag gemacht, und ich hab ja gesagt, weil: Wer will nicht in die Schweiz? Was denkst du, Heinrich?” (30).[21] Toni emphasizes the transactional nature of their relationship, dispelling the romance of Kleist’s story: “Ich bin dein, du bist mein – Ticket” (30).[22] She also insists they take her mother as well, “Nehmen wir [sie] mit. Keine Sorge. Sobald wir auf dem Schiff sind, sehen wir uns nie wieder. Deal?” (30).[23]  Thus, while Kleist’s Toni was ready to betray her mother in order to be accepted as white, this version of the character would rather choose a life with her mother instead.

Conclusion

In Betrothal in St. Domingo,Kleist attempts to balance his sympathy for enslaved Blacks who have been subjected to a racist system and his horror at the prospect of Black revenge. Several racial tropes of the day are present in the narrative, from the “tragic mulatto” Toni to the innocent whiteness of Gustav. In Kleist’s narrative, empathy is only really possible for white characters. The formerly enslaved—Congo Huango and Babekan—seek to kill each white person they encounter. Meanwhile, because Gustav’s uncle, Herr Strömli, is capable of empathizing with Congo Huango as a father, he chooses not to kill the latter’s sons, despite their involvement in luring whites into a violent trap. Meanwhile, Toni, as a “tragic mulatto,” is torn between the two sides. She has until now been allegiant to her Black relatives, but she yearns to be recognized as white and, towards the end of the narrative, attempts to switch sides to align herself with Gustav’s family.

Öziri’s re-writing applies a feminist approach to the story that frees Toni of her desire for whiteness (and therefore, her desire for Gustav) and also refuses to pass moral judgment on the Blacks’ violent struggle for liberation. Instead of empathy being a trait only accessible to whites, empathy is what allows the Black characters to unite. Meanwhile, white characters like Gustav are revealed to be incapable of truly empathizing with Blacks because of their sense of moral superiority. With this change, Öziri indicts the hypocritical morality of white abolitionists of the time, who may have condemned slavery but were incapable of recognizing the full humanity of Blacks.

Proof of how Öziri liberates Toni from her “tragic mulatto” trope is the resolution of his versus Kleist’s narrative. Kleist’s narrative ends with Gustav’s uncle, Herr Strömli, escaping Haiti after Gustav has taken his own life once he realizes his mistake in shooting Toni. Once Herr Strömli has returned to Switzerland, his act of thanks to Gustav and Toni for saving his life is to create a memorial in their honor: “in der Gegend des Rigi, an; und noch im Jahr 1807 war unter den Büschen seines Gartens das Denkmal zu sehen, das er Gustav, seinem Vetter, und der Verlobten desselben, der treuen Toni, hatte setzen lassen.”[24] In contrast, in Öziri’s play, we never find out what happens to Gustav. On multiple occasions, Toni outlines how things could go, depending on whether she chooses to betray Babekan and Bréda or not:

TONI Und stopp. Sein Blick, mein Blick. Und Schuss. Bréda schießt mir zwischen die Augen. Okay, keine kluge Lösung. Also zurück. Zurück auf Anfang, zurück zum Beginn dieses Jahrhunderts, zurück nach Port-Au-Prince, zurück zur Tochter einer ehemaligen Sklavin, die einen Ausweg aus der Geschichte sucht. Und dann: noch mal! Neue Variante: Diesmal sitzt Gustav hinter der Tür, geweckt, gewarnt und bewaffnet von mir. Und los! . . . Und wieder Schuss und meine Mutter daneben. Auch nicht besser. Und noch mal! Schnell! Zurück auf Anfang. Und los!

44–45[25]

Frustrated, Toni cannot find an end to the narrative that allows her and her mother to live and allows them to use Gustav to escape the island. At one point, she seeks refuge in a cave, so as not to have to take part in the violence. But her alter-ego chastises her (visible in figure 5):

Du bist nicht die Erste, die sich in dieser Höhle verstecken will. Millionen waren schon vor dir hier. Alle hielten sich für die Ersten. Propheten, Erfinder, Künstler, Revoluzzer. Sie wollen immer etwas Neues ins Leben dieses Planeten rufen. Aber sie sind nicht die Ersten. Sie sind bloß Anfänger. Blutige Anfänger – von blutigen Anfängen.
In dieser Höhle landen sie irgendwann. Mit ihren Liedern oder ihren Fahnen oder ihrem
Gott oder ihren Büchern oder ihren Feinden. Aber immer: mit ihrer Angst. Irgendwer singt und tötet da draußen, irgendwer schreit und stirbt hier drin.

42[26]
Fig 5. Toni (Hmeidan) chastises Toni (Teke) for hiding in the cave when others are dying

But we never get a definitive answer; we don’t know what Toni chooses. Perhaps this is because she has an impossible choice: between flight from violence, which might mean death for Bréda or Babekan, or continuing to fight, which might mean her eventual death. Perhaps we can’t know what Toni chooses, because as a subaltern character—a formerly enslaved woman—she doesn’t really have much of a choice. And thus, the play instead ends with Bréda who addresses the audience:

Wir wissen, wer du bist. Wir kennen dich.
Dein Name ist Angst. Dass wir euch antun, was ihr uns antut. Dass
wir nicht so anders sind, wie eure Bücher behaupten. Tief in eurer
Brust sitzt die Angst vor euch selbst wie ein Brunnen. Und wie
Wasser findet sie ihren Weg, bis ihr darin ertrinkt.
Zwei Dinge waren wir für euch: gefährlich, aber unterlegen. Jetzt
nur noch eins: gefährlich. Ihr habt eine Spirale der Gewalt in Gang
gesetzt – nicht ich. Ich war nicht Schwarz, bevor ihr mich auf diese
Insel geschleppt habt. weiße und andere – das war eure Erfindung,
und jetzt, da euch das Wasser bis zum Hals steht, wisst ihr nichts
mehr davon. Alt und dement. Die Anderen überleben jetzt ihre
Erfinder.

48[27]

What Bréda makes clear here is that the actions of the formerly enslaved are justified because they are fighting against an unjust system. This is about an institution, a structure. Not about individuals. Thus, it ultimately doesn’t matter what happens to Gustav, or Toni or Babekan, because what matters is the collective. Which is perhaps why Öziri’s play ends with that chorus of illuminated, grotesque masks, which in the darkness speak the desires of the enslaved into existence: seven articles dictating freedom and justice. Their final lines are “Diese Verfassung ist nicht das Ergebnis einer höheren Vernunft, auch nicht das Ergebnis unseres Kampfes, sie ist gar kein Ergebnis, höchstens der Anfang” (54).[28] First of all, these words are an indictment of the project of European enlightenment: a project that was often only concerned with freedom for some. The Black rebels in Haiti don’t need the acknowledgment of reason to justify their fight. They reject Humanism’s rhetoric in favor of finding a language for freedom that includes all. Secondly, the final sentence is a gesture towards futurity with two implications. It acknowledges that Haiti’s revolution, though necessary for the eventual abolishment of slavery worldwide, was still followed by centuries of unjust treatment at the hands of France and other Western powers that have kept the island impoverished ever since. It is, however, also an acknowledgement that each act of rebellion is necessary to achieve the ultimate goal of liberation for all. Öziri’s rewriting of Betrothal ultimately gives us a chorus of different perspectives. Toni doesn’t want to use violence, Babekan and Bréda see violence as a necessity, but ultimately the individuals don’t matter, they dance in step together, acting in concert and that is necessary to bring about change.


Endnotes

[1] “The societies around us are changing, everywhere, in Europe and also here. Hatred organizes itself. Trust in political decision-makers is waning. Everyone longs for reconciliation, for everyday life and normality, for a vision for this still young century. Everyone wants to know: What comes after the protest?”

[2] “I’m standing here also and above all because it’s important to me personally as the person I’ve become.”

[3] In Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that classical liberalism was “the philosophy of a nascent class [the bourgeoisie] that as an aspiring ruling class expressed its needs (political as well as economic) as general societal goals. But the bourgeois goals were not extended to the populace in their own midst until the twentieth century. Moreover, the liberal project was never inclusive of the countries that Spain, Portugal, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, and later on, Germany used as outposts for raw materials and racialized workers (e.g., slaves). Although contemporary commentators debate the merits of liberal humanism as it pertains to current debates about race-based policies, muticulturalism, and ‘equality of results,’ many seem oblivious to the fact that ‘European humanism (and liberalism) usually meant that only Europeans were human’” (55).

[4] “On Monsieur Guillaume de Villeneuve’s plantation at Port-au-Prince in the French sector of the island of Santo Domingo there lived at the beginning of this century, at the time when the blacks were murdering the whites, a terrible old negro called Congo Hoango” (Kleist 231).

[5] “I especially appreciate that some former colonists and plantation owners are also here. I know that many of you have surreptitiously or openly supported the Black struggle for freedom and independence, that many of the whites have treated their slaves as well as you thought they should, that many of you are ardent supporters of the Republic or are even members of the Parisian ‘Friends of the Blacks’ and that many—here as well as in France—value the ideals of the revolution above their own lives, above all the equality and freedom of all people.”

[6] “sometimes . . . would attack in broad daylight the settlements in which the planters had barricaded themselves, and would put every human being he found inside to the sword. Such indeed was his inhuman thirst for revenge” (Kleist 232).

[7] “Of course, like every war, this war is also a war of words, and of course one could also say instead of ‘murdered’: / ‘when the blacks killed the whites’ / or /  ‘when the enslaved populace broke their chains’/or/‘when humanity, still asleep, finally awoke.’ / But I have nothing left for revolutionary romanticism.”

[8] Abu Khaled spoke about anti-Black racism among Arabs recently on Instagram; see here.

[9] “a vision for a community that transcends the past and the present.”

[10] “Here you sat in the garden and drank your coffee with a few spoonfuls of sugar . . . But behind every chair at this table there was another person all evening who had to refill your glass without asking.”

[11] “Tomorrow will be the time of peace. This country will soon become the first liberated colony, the first independent state to free itself from the yoke of slavery by its own efforts. There will be celebrations tomorrow.”

[12] “Tomorrow we will celebrate.”

[13] In the nineteenth century, a “quadroon” was defined as a person with “one-fourth black blood” (Schwarz).

[14] “That is my mom. And what I’m interested in is:
why
does this woman sit
in the middle of this night
alone in the dark
with two cups of coffee?
Maybe
she does what a revolutionary should do on the supposedly last evening of the revolution: she can’t sleep.”

[15] “my mother, cutting old man Villeneuve’s carotid arteries with nail scissors at night and then joining the revolution.”

[16] “And then in the courtroom: the sweat on the pink pig face of the judge, glowing with heat, I have to tell everything in detail, again and again, ‘yes, I was in the house voluntarily, but this I still didn’t want to.’ The sweat on the palms your father, who swears under oath that you will not be his child the sweat on Villeneuve’s forehead when he’s done with 60 whips for my false testimony.”

[17] “It is true. Sometimes I hear him, at night when I sleep, his endless
talking from all walls, his coffee smell everywhere. And then
I get up, go to the kitchen and make two cups of coffee,
both with lots of sugar, both for me . . . It’s not about your father. It’s about the judge. With every additional man I kill, I kill someone who
wants to judge me. And judge you, Toni. For you, Toni. So that today, you
can make use of your privileges. So that tomorrow, you have the freedom to judge me.”

[18] “BABEKAN Someone is at the door.
TONI A man?
BABEKAN A white one.
TONI All white?
BABEKAN I don’t know.
TONI Alone?
BABEKAN A white man never comes alone.”

[19] “If you knock on someone else’s door in the middle of the night, you either have serious problems or no manners. Of course he’s white.”

[20] “Me, drunk in a bar in Paris. Criticizing the revolution. Never wanted anything to do with politics. Someone—probably the bartender, he probably gets me extra drunk, he’s probably part of the terror tribunal himself—someone betrays me. The next morning: the mob at my door. Me hiding in a friend’s basement. And because they don’t find me, she [his fiance] is taken away . . . Taken away and tortured and interrogated and”

[21] “I’ll help you and your family . . . You’ll get me off this island for that . . . You proposed to me and I said yes, because: Who doesn’t want to go to Switzerland? What do you think, Henry?”

[22] “I’m yours, and you’re my ticket.”

[23] “Let’s take [her] with. Don’t worry. As soon as we’re on the ship, you’ll never see us again. Deal?”

[24] “There Herr Strömli settled, using the rest of his small fortune to buy a house near the Rigi; and in the year 1807, among the bushes of his garden, one could still see the monument he had erected to the memory of his cousin Gustav, and to the faithful Toni, Gustav’s bride” (269).

[25] “TONI And stop. His look, my look. And shot. Bréda shoots me between the eyes. Okay, not a smart solution. So back. Back to the beginning, back to the beginning of this century, back to Port-Au-Prince, back to the daughter of a former slave looking for a way out of history. And then: again! New variant: This time Gustav is sitting behind the door, awakened, warned and armed by me. And off we go! . . .  And another shot and my mother next to it. Not better either. And again! Quickly! Back to the beginning. And off!”

[26] “You’re not the first to want to hide in this cave. Millions have been here before you. Everyone thought they were the first. Prophets, inventors, artists, revolutionaries. They always want to bring something new into the life of this planet. But they are not the first. You are just a beginner. Bloody beginners – from bloody beginnings. They end up in this cave at some point. With their songs or their flags or their God or their books or their enemies. But always: with her fear. Somebody sings and kills out there, somebody screams and dies in here.”

[27] “We know who you are. We know you
your name is fear. That we do to you what you do to us. That
we are not as different as your books claim. Deep inside your chest
fear sits like a fountain. And just like water,
it will find its way until you drown in it.
We were two things to you: dangerous, but inferior. Now
only one thing: dangerous. You have started a spiral of violence
set—not me. I wasn’t Black before you guys brought me to this
towed island. Whites and others – that was your invention,
and now that you’re up to your neck in water, you know nothing
more of that. Old and demented. The Others now outlive their
inventor.”

[28] “This constitution is not the result of higher reason, nor the result of our struggle, it is not a result at all, at most it is the beginning.”

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*Priscilla Layne is an Associate Professor of German and Adjunct Associate Professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She published the book White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture (2018) as well as essays on Turkish German culture, translation, punk and film. She is currently finishing a manuscript on Afro German Afrofuturism and a critical guide to Rainer Maria Fassbinder’s film The Marriage of Maria Braun.

Copyright © 2023 Priscilla Layne
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