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The God of Gods (1919)

Carroll Aikins
Carroll Aikins

Carroll Aikins

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Carroll Aikins (1888-1967) was born in Stanstead, Quebec, into a well connected family. His maternal grandfather was the Hon. C. C. Colby, Member of Parliament for Stanstead from 1867 to 1891, and president of the Privy Council under Sir John A. Macdonald (Hoffman "Carroll Aikins and the Home Theatre" 51). His paternal grandfather, James Cox Aikins, served as Secretary of State (1869-73, 1878-80) in Sir John A's cabinet before becoming Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba from 1882 to 1888 (51). Aikins' father, John Somerset Aikins, was a successful businessman, and a member in the Manitoba House of Assembly between 1879 and 1883 (O'Neill 66). He went to private school in Winnipeg, and spent a year at McGill University, but when doctors suspected he had tuberculosis he embarked on a European study tour, where he saw the work of Edward Gordon Craig (1892-1966), Jacques Copeau (1879-1949), and Adolphe Appia (1862-1928). He may also have seen productions of Shakespeare by Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) and Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), as well as important productions by English repertory theatres (Hoffman "Aikins, Carroll" 8). In 1912, Aikins married Katherine Foster, daughter of the American Consul-General in Ottawa (Hoffman "Carroll Aikins and the Home Theatre" 51).

Aikins was connected through class and family to an upper-class group that was adapting Shakespeare in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century. Aikins' uncle was Charles W. Colby, a professor of Canadian History at McGill. Colby would have known Charles Moyse, professor of History and English Literature at McGill, who published Shakspere's Skull and Falstaff's Nose in 1889, and Andrew Macphail, McGill's first professor of the history of medicine, who published The Land in 1914. As a Member of Parliament himself, Nicholas Flood Davin, who published The Fair Grit in 1876, would have known both Aikins grandfathers, and perhaps his father. These relationships clearly indicate the ways in which Shakespearean adaptations in Canada in this period were associated with certain class and educational privileges (if not a reinforcement of these).

In 1919-20, Aikins built the Home Theatre, an art theatre inspired by the Little Theatre Movement in the U.S., on his 100-acre fruit-ranch near Naramata, British Columbia, named after the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. The building

was a combination fruit-storage area on the ground level and theatre above. The theatre (40' by 80') was wooden, with a steeply pitched roof, large dormers, and over the stage a raised fly space with dressing rooms; it seated 100 on sloping wooden pews, with a stage at floor level backed by a plaster 'sky dome' and a foyer and scene shop along the sides. (Hoffman "Aikins, Carroll" 8) [indent]

The theatre was officially opened November 3, 1920, by Prime Minister Arthur Meighen (1874-1960). It was to house the Canadian Players, whose members were drawn from across the country. They received room and board at cost, or by picking apples in the mornings, and were given lessons in acting, dance, design, and playwriting by Carroll and Katherine, and others recruited from the Neighborhood Playhouse (Tippett 20). In the program produced for the theatre's opening, Aikins explains his project:

We feel that we have reached that point in our history where we may look for a Canadian literature to record Canadian achievement; and it is in that faith that we have built this theatre for the giving of Canadian plays by Canadian actors. We hope that it will be used by the young actor as a training-ground for his abilities, and by the young poet as a testing-ground for his work; and we have great pleasure in offering it to them, for the service of beauty and for a true expression of the Canadian spirit. (qtd. from Hoffman "Carroll Aikins and the Home Theatre" 56) [indent]

Aikins wanted to "purify the theatre of its box-office nature" by making Home Theatre non-profit (53), but, ironically, his theatre in Paradise had to close after only two years in operation when the prices of apples 'fell' in 1922. After the fruit market collapse, Aikins moved to Toronto. He became director of Hart House Theatre from 1927 to 1929.

The God of Gods was produced twice at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre: a two-week run in November 1919, and another five days in April 1920, designed by Barry Jackson. The play was produced in Canada at Hart House Theatre in 1922, and again in England in 1931, at the Everyman Theatre in London. Billed in Birmingham as "An American-Indian Play", English reviewers liked the play, "praising it as a 'rare artistic delicacy', with special commendations for the acting, the lighting, the 'quaint and weird' tribal music, and the script, which was felt . to be 'good, original work [that] deserves a wider popularity'" (Hoffman "Carroll Aikins and the Home Theatre" 55).

The play is a loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that uses 'native' motifs. Suiva, a tribal girl is in love with Yellow Snake, a singer, but Mablo, the fat son of Amburi, Chief of the Seven Feathers, also wants Suiva "for his woman." To keep Suiva and Yellow Snake apart, Mablo bribes Waning Moon, the high priestess, to choose Suiva as the next priestess. When Yellow Snake is seen at the ceremony making Suiva the new priestess, Amburi tells Mablo to kill Yellow Snake, which he does by shooting him in the back with an arrow. The body of Yellow Snake is brought to Suiva as a sacrifice for the "God of Gods." When she recognizes his body she leaps to her death.

Writing at the end of World War I, Aikins transfers his exploration of contemporary state abuses of power and propaganda, and the war's tragic slaughter of young men, onto Native American society. Shakespeare pursued an analogous agenda in The Merchant of Venice, where he uses the figure Shylock in medieval Venice to discuss contemporary issues surrounding money-lending in England. (For more on Shakespeare's use of Shylock, please see the National Film Board of Canada's documentary Shylock.) Through official ceremonies resembling Christian antiphonies, the tribe is kept in fear and tribute:

Waning Moon: [L]et him fear the God. The God is great.
Worshippers: He giveth us full bellies.
Waning Moon: The God is good to them that love his priestess. (47)

The tribal power structure is maintained by manufacturing fear of "the God." When Suiva becomes the new priestess, Waning Moon explains to her the tribe's system of power:

Waning Moon: Amburi fears the God as a blind man fears thunder. No matter what you tell him, he'll believe it. He's the best friend we have. He keeps the tribe in order. For fear of him they dare not slight the God. But he's a just man.   It's all one to him, the priestess and the people. It's the God he fears. So, if you speak from God to make a law, you'd better mind it, for if you break it, and he catches you, he'll kill you quickly as he would a squirrel.
Suiva: Then it's the Chief who punishes the priestess?
Waning Moon [slightly tipsy]: The God, the Chief, the priestess, how do I know? We're so mixed up together, who can tell? (52)

Amburi has Yellow Snake murdered for offending the God, and the body is brought before Suiva, the new priestess, as a sacrifice. Her ceremonial offering speech reads like a memorial to a fallen soldier:

You were a fighter but you'll fight no more. You were a hunter but you'll fight no more. You were a singer but you'll sing no more. You were a dancer but you'll dance no more. You were a lover but you'll love no more. You'll toss no more your dark hair to the sky! (63)

In 1919, 1920, and 1922, this speech would have sounded all too familiar to English and Canadian audiences, who were still mourning the thousands of casualties of the First World War. The themes of tragic loss and waste made Romeo and Juliet the perfect play to adapt after "the war to end all wars."

When Suiva discovers that the sacrificial body is Yellow Snake she desecrates the image of the God, before leaping to her death:

Suiva: The God won't hurt you. [She picks up the wine cup.] Look! [She dashes the wine in the face of the image.] His name is fear! [She drops the cup.] Now kill me!
The Worshippers [recoiling]: Profane!
Suiva: This is not God. The God is dead. You killed him. He walked among you but you did not know him. He was God.
The Worshippers: Profane! Profane!
Suiva: He was the singer of the joy of life. His name was love. You killed him. He was God. (66) [indent]

Compare the above speech with Frederick Nietzsche's famous pronouncement in The Gay Science (1882):

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives - who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worth of it? There has never been a greater deed - and whoever shall be born after us, for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto. (section 125) [indent]

Suiva's last speech humanizes Nietzsche's aphorism. Suiva's god was her lover who was murdered by the tribe's corrupt leaders. The play can thus be read as a social critique of contemporary power structures, or as an allegory for the war, where young men died for the outdated beliefs of old men.

How, then, do we reconcile the progressive social commentary with the play's racist language (Kotwi, Suiva's mother is described as a "fat squaw" [3]), historical inaccuracies (wealth is determined by head of cattle, but cows were brought to the Americas by the Europeans), and bizarre faux-native dialogue ("How should we eat if the fire died?" [5])? And what do we make of the fact that many contemporary commentaries, and some later ones, saw the play simply as a representation of Native American culture? Ernest A. Bendell, who read the play and recommended it for a license to the Lord Chamberlain writes: "In setting and in dialogue the Play is vaguely picturesque and quite inoffensive in its rather incomprehensible illustrations of the barbaric tenets and rites of an Indian faith" (qtd. from O'Neill 76). After seeing the 1919 show, a reviewer for the Birmingham Post and Journal states, "There is nothing in The God of Gods which cannot be believed-it might have happened, and if it happened it must have happened in this way" (qtd. from Brigg 33).

Gordon Lester

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Brigg, Peter. "The God of Gods premiere: Birmingham, 1919." Canadian Drama 3 (1977): 23-36.

Hoffman, James. "Aikins, Carroll." The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre. Ed. Eugene Benson and L.W. Conolly. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989. 8-9.

Hoffman, James. "Carroll Aikins and the Home Theatre." Theatre History in Canada 7.1 (spring 1986): 50-70.

O'Neill, Patrick. "Carroll Aikins's Experiments in Playwriting." B.C. Studies 137 (Spring 2003): 65-91.

Tippett, Maria. Making Culture: English-Canadian Institutions and the Arts before the Massey Commission. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990.


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