Margaret Atwood and Shakespeare: The Trumpets of Summer (1964)
|Margaret Atwood (1964)|
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939, and grew up in Northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree in English from Victoria College at the University of Toronto. It was here that Atwood first became involved with the Canadian literary scene with the Acta Victoriana; writing articles and spoofing high brow culture and noted academics both under her own name, and in collaboration with contemporary Dennis Lee under the pen name “Shakesbeat Latweed”––a moniker with obvious Shakespearean significance. One of CASP’s earliest Shakespearean adaptations, “The Locals,” was published in Acta Victoriana in 1882 and Acta Victoriana, which was established in 1878 at Victoria College, was to become the longest-running student publication in Canada. So Atwood, from early on in her career, was associated with things Shakespearean, if only as a function of the legacy left her by practices of Canadian institutions where Shakespeare circulated as intellectual currency. Ironically, a CBC news story from 1998, highlighted how in France Atwood had joined the ranks of Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More as required reading in the French curriculum for students wishing to teach high school or university level English (“Atwood joins Shakespeare as must reads in France”).
Atwood attended graduate studies at Radcliffe, a noted woman’s college, which became a part of Harvard University the year Atwood attended in 1962. While studying in the United States Atwood fostered and developed an interest in Canadian culture, upon realizing how little Americans knew about Canada. Upon returning to Toronto in 1963, she became aware of the importance in establishing a collaborative Canadian literary community. Atwood would advance this goal in 1970, when she joined the board of Anansi Press (with Dennis Lee and Dave Godfrey), which was devoted to publishing works by Canadians. Additionally Atwood would pen Survival in 1972, which the CBC called the “most startling book ever written about Canadian Literature” (CBC Broadcast 1974). Atwood has since cultivated a national and international reputation as a novelist, outspoken feminist, poet, critic and satirist. Her most famous works include: The Robber Bride, Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Edible Woman.
In 1964, noted Canadian composer John Beckwith was offered a commission by the CBC for the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. Beckwith accepted under the somewhat ironic condition that the text was not required to be by Shakespeare. Instead he hoped to create a choral based on the “Canadian experience of Shakespeare” (Beckwith Liner Notes), which he viewed as unique and ever expanding, especially considering the growing reputation of the Stratford Festival. Beckwith had previously collaborated with poet and fellow University of Toronto professor Jay Macpherson and he approached her about this commission. Macpherson assisted Beckwith in clarifying his ideas regarding Shakespeare in Canada, and recommended former student, Margaret Atwood, a relatively unknown graduate student to work as the librettist.
Planning sessions between Atwood and Beckwith generated several possible topics, which included a child’s introduction to Shakespeare, the growing academic dispute over Shakespeare’s authorship, the process of a Stratford production as “experienced both by audiences and by the players,” and expanding upon the familiar in Shakespeare’s work (Liner Notes). Under Atwood’s literary vision ––she was then teaching at the University of British Columbia––these topics evolved into a thirty-minute choral suite, which explored varying perceptions of Shakespeare, theatre by Canadians, and Canada more generally. This included a sophisticated and multi-faceted text that combined popular and well-known Shakespearean lines, such as “all the world’s a stage” and “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” with a comprehensive spectrum of Canadian theatrical experiences. The conjunction of literary and musical talents produced a unique and thoroughly Canadian musical adaptation, which was centered on a contemporary sense of Canadian-ness, rather than the difficult and more distant texts of the Bard. The piece, entitled The Trumpets of Summer, was first performed in 1964.
Margaret Atwood’s completed libretto “explores various responses to Shakespeare” (Cooke, Natalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography, 126). One of the most powerful themes embedded in the piece is the teaching of Shakespeare in the Canadian educational system and the evolution of academic pedantry focused on Shakespeare, a topic that had long (since the nineteenth-century) been part of how Canadians interacted with the Bard. The piece is separated into six individual songs, each of which focuses on themes loosely based on the initial ideas brainstormed by Beckwith and Atwood.
The prologue explores audiences’ perceptions of a Stratford performance and clearly addresses the importance of the Stratford Festival as the most prominent vehicle of theatrical culture in Canada at the time. The main perspective is of a middle-class audience member, a group that is often not considered in theatrical reception theory. While the audience grasps the importance behind Shakespeare and the Stratford Festival, they sit questioning in their chairs before the performance:
waiting for something to happen, not quite knowing
Just why we came;
was it to see
An unreal man, saying
words words words
that we can’t understand…
Or was it to see the people
sitting around us in their chairs …
The lines reflect, somewhat ironically, on Stratford finding its place in Canadian culture: Atwood clearly references the general sense of uncertainty around the function of Stratford as a place of cultural “unrealness” but also as a place where social function trumps art (i.e., the audience attends Stratford to see and be seen in that society, not necessarily to hear words they cannot understand). In the early years of the Festival the middle class was a significant part of the audience––many came for the performances, while others came for the experience of being part of a “little world” (Prologue 1) that reflected on the origins of the Festival in Canadian high culture associated with the Family Compact. Atwood’s comments get at the very heart of issues round accessibility and class structure and the relationship of these to Canada’s national theatre: what exactly motivates people to attend theatrical performances in such a venue––art or society or a combination of both?
Atwood’s chapter on the “Highschool Play” explores theatrical experiences and their relation to education. Atwood takes the point of view of a group of teenagers sitting in the audience, sarcastic and heckling. Yet she also shows the educational and cultural benefits of the theatre for school-age children.
First the Principal makes a speech
Saying how much old Shakespeare
Has to teach;
We wish he would stop
He keeps on talking …
The song outlines the different levels of the performance, the often poor acting and low budget that are signs of a traveling troupe––and the awe of seeing fellow class mates on stage.
Look! There’s Antony
He’s been drinking, you can tell …
But here’s the best part
The part we all came to see:
The kids from the Drama Club
Who are allowed to be
In the play … (Highschool Play)
The final section in the song is the most poignant regarding Shakespeare in a classroom setting. Despite the often-low production values of high school plays, the classroom is the venue in which most students first experience theatre. And live theatre in this sort of a venue is invaluable in bringing to life the often hard-to-read curriculum of Shakespeare in the classroom.
The classroom teachers
Herds us out into the hall
Saying wasn’t it nice
But we are smiling
Behind out faces, thinking
How in spite of it all
One man could build
Countries of Words
Make men out of sentences.
Atwood’s portrayal of the theatrical education of school children is a rare illustration of adaptation at work in describing the actual experience of the theatre for youth, a kind of meta-theatrical commentary that move s the experience of Shakespeare from the professional stage into other venues where other forms of meaning get made. Adaptation in this mode involves using Shakespeare as a locus for commentary on the very materiality of differing modes of cultural production in Canada related to Shakespeare.
The Trumpets of Summer, the name chosen by Atwood to reference a Canadian rather than a Shakespearean trope, intends to evoke the “brass fanfares used as intermission signals at the Festival Theatre in Stratford” (liner notes), premiered in November, 1964 in Montreal. The first presentation of the choral was recorded solely for CBC radio and was directed by George Little, with the Montreal Bach Choir and Le Petit Ensemble. The speaker’s role was performed by Powys Thomas, a Stratford veteran and co-founder of the National Theatre School. The production was performed four more times throughout the 1960s, the final performance in 1969 when it was recorded under the direction of Elmer Iseler with the Festival Singers of Canada. It has rarely been performed since then, as Beckwith states in correspondence “it’s quite difficult, and not in the bland vein favored nowadays” (CASP correspondence).
Additionally, Atwood, apart from a small note on her resume, has requested that the libretto “never appear in any collection of her writings” (Robin Elliot, Margaret Atwood and Music, 6). The reasons for this request are unknown. Nonetheless, the commission given to Atwood early on in her career acted as a bridge to many of the themes related to Canadian national identity she would work on and become renowned for later in her career. Her ability and interest in combining a strongly ironized and critical sense of Canadian national “character,” especially her interest in Canadian literary culture, with a multi-faceted and exceptionally narrated piece is a notable precedent to her future work, dramatic and otherwise. The Trumpets of Summer blends a number of disparate points of view: a critique of the often convoluted theorizing of academics on Shakespeare with the uniquely perceived Canadian experience of Shakespeare; the lavish Stratford Festival and a “rather seedy” high school performance complete with the grumblings of students as they first interact with the words of the Bard. It is Atwood’s particular talent in combining both academic and colloquial discourse, and in creating a challenging and condensed text with multiple voices and narratives, that makes this adaptation a distinctive text that situates Shakespeare in a uniquely Canadian context.
Danielle Van Wagner (with Daniel Fischlin)
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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004. <http://www.canadianshakespeares.ca>.