Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'Excuse Me While I Turn This Upside-Down': Three Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'Excuse Me While I Turn This Upside-Down': Three Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare

Article excerpt

By examining three recent theatrical adaptations of Shakespeare by three Canadian authors (Ann-Marie MacDonald, Margaret Clarke and Djanet Sears), this article discusses the ways in which the plays re-write and re-appropriate Shakespeare for contemporary postcolonial North America, in defiance of the conservative Bard constructed by Ontario's Stratford Festival. This article demonstrates how, despite their superficial differences in focus, all three plays share a concern with interrogating the complexities of class, sexuality and politics, and explore themes - victimhood and survival - that are often portrayed as central to much Canadian literature.

Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada. (Attributed to Voltaire.)

I don't know how far it may be possible to interpret a classical play in a distinctly Canadian way. (Tyrone Guthrie, 1954, quoted in Knowles 2004: 54.)

THE ABOVE QUOTATIONS serve as ideal starting points for an article on Shakespearean adaptation in Canada, as they exemplify the overriding attitudes and problems encountered in any discussion of such adaptations. The first, apocryphal, quotation is interesting for its combination of various implied prejudices:1 there are perceived colonial stereotypes, with the implication that Canada (along with London) has no culture, and also that Canada has no literary tradition and is obliged to slavishly follow Britain in its adherence to the Bard. Guthrie's comment is perhaps more directly relevant to this article's focus in its questioning of how, and whether, Canadians can 'own' Shakespeare, or whether his works must always be an instrument of colonial dominance. In recent years, critical discussions of the role of Shakespeare within Canadian culture have increased, although much postcolonial critique of Shakespearean theatre tends to focus on South Africa and India rather than settler nations such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.2 This article will focus on how three plays by female playwrights (Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) (1990) by Ann-Marie MacDonald, Harlem Duet (1997) by Djanet Sears and Margaret Clarke's Gertrude and Ophelia (1997)) use Shakespeare's texts to examine the role of women within academia, theatre and Shakespeare's plays, and through such examinations interrogate the complexities of race, class, sexuality and politics. These plays, very different in style, offer complex and often contradictory perspectives on the ideologies associated with Shakespeare.

The presence of Shakespeare in Canadian theatres dates back to 1768, when a small theatrical company from England arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia for a ten-week season. During the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, professional Shakespearean touring productions were mostly limited to the eastern provinces and Atlantic seaboard; the plays performed included Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Garrick's version of The Taming of the Shrew, Catherine and Petruchio. Between 1860 and 1920, the central and western regions started to see more Shakespeare productions due to the expansion of the railway network, which made cities like Winnipeg, Toronto and Victoria more accessible to touring players (Morrison 2002: 240-5). As Michael Morrison observes, in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, Shakespeare in Canada was mainly an extension of the US touring circuit, although it did attract major players like Edmund Kean, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Donald Wolfit (Morrison 2002: 246).

It was not until the establishment of the Shakespeare festival at Stratford, Ontario in 1953 that Shakespeare became an integral part of the Canadian cultural landscape. There had been an increasing focus on the desirability of distinctly Canadian plays and theatres since the 1890s, but it was the Massey Commission's Report in 1951 that crystallised the growing postwar determination that Canada should develop an internationally recognised culture (Groome 2002: 103). …

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