The former French colony of Saint-Domingue (in present-day Haiti) was one of the most brutal – as well as one of the most lucrative – Caribbean slave colonies. Saint-Domingue was also home to the most extensive public theatre tradition in the eighteenth-century Caribbean. Despite the excellent work of a small number of researchers, theatre in Saint-Domingue remains relatively little-known today. Without overlooking the extraordinary violence and cruelty of contemporary Saint-Dominguan society, this website and database seek to make known the rich and varied culture of public theatre as documented in the local newspapers between 1764 (when local print production began) and 1791 (the beginning of the slave revolts that would lead to the Haitian Revolution), and to promote further research in this area. Between these dates, a series of local newspapers announced upcoming theatrical performances in several towns in Saint-Domingue, notably in Cap-Français (now Cap-Haïtien) and Port-au-Prince. In the absence of any surviving theatre registers or account books, these newspaper announcements represent the most complete source of information on public theatre in Saint-Domingue.
Most of that information comes from two newspapers (and their variants): the Affiches américaines and its sister publication, the Supplément aux Affiches américaines, which are available for consultation online at the Digital Library of the Caribbean and via the University of Florida’s digital collections. Some additional newspapers are drawn on in relation to the beginning and especially the end of the period when, in the revolutionary era, a series of new publications emerged. These additional sources were consulted online (at the Internet Archive) or on microfilm at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris. Occasional passing references to theatrical performances in other contemporary documents such as letters and memoirs have not been incorporated into the database.
Newspapers published in Saint-Domingue document upcoming theatrical performances of over 700 different named works, some of them entirely spoken, some of them musical. The majority of these works were brought over directly from France, sometimes only a few months after their première in Paris or elsewhere. In addition, a small but significant number of works listed are by authors living in Saint-Domingue, of whom the most prominent is a man named “Clément”, whose full identity remains unknown. One of the most fascinating and original features of theatre production in Saint-Domingue is the Creole parody, which takes a French work as its inspiration but changes the location to contemporary Saint-Domingue, features black characters and includes an early form of Haitian Creole in its dialogue. Clément’s Thérèse et Jeannot is the one example of the genre known to be extant.
Performances in the public theatres of Saint-Domingue were given before a mixed but segregated audience featuring a disproportionately small (but increasing) number of free people of colour. Although enslaved people are thought to have been formally excluded from the theatre audience, we know of some enslaved and formerly enslaved musicians who sometimes played in the orchestra; moreover, it is likely that enslaved people accompanied their masters to the playhouse, even if they did not stay for the whole event. Although the stage was predominantly white, we are able to name two solo performers of colour, and contemporary sources suggest that there are more to uncover.
A typical theatrical event in Saint-Domingue featured two named works and often some additional dance or music, sometimes followed by fireworks and/or a ball. Here we document all performances for which we have announcements involving named dramatic works; we also note the inclusion of additional music and dance, fireworks and balls on the record cards for each day. (Entertainments, such as standalone firework displays or concerts, that do not include any named dramatic works are excluded.) It is important to stress that what is documented in the local press may represent only a small percentage of what was actually performed in Saint-Domingue, since it would appear that many regular subscription performances were not advertised individually (if at all) in the newspapers. A disproportionate number of the performances documented here are benefit performances, put on by enterprising individuals for their own benefit and at their own expense. We cannot be sure to what extent benefit performances are broadly representative of the regular subscription performances whose details have been lost. Nonetheless, what we are able to document does give a strong sense of the richness and variety of public theatre production in colonial Saint-Domingue. It opens up the history of colonial-era theatre and helps to create space within that history for a burgeoning Creole (i.e. local) theatre tradition. Users of the site will find further information about all aspects of theatre in Saint-Domingue in the works listed in the Bibliography.