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The Fair Grit; or The Advantages of Coalition. A Farce (1876)

Nicholas Flood Davin

Nicholas Flood Davin

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Nicolas Flood Davin (1843-1901) was an Irish (County Limerick) immigrant to the Canadian West in the latter half of the nineteenth century. A London-trained lawyer (Middle Temple, 1865-68) who also worked as a journalist (he covered the Franco-Prussian war for both the Irish Times and the London Standard), Davin, like so many other English immigrants, arrived in Canada in 1872 shortly after Confederation and ten years later settled in Saskatchewan. There he pursued a career as both a journalist (founder of the Regina Leader in 1883) and a federal politician (Conservative MP for Assiniboia West, 1887-1900). In addition to being a literary nationalist (and the first person to have a literary work published in the North-West Territories), a supporter of woman's rights (in 1895 his motion to enfranchise women was defeated in the Canadian House of Commons), a wily (Conservative) journalist at the center of a remarkable historical incident involving Louis Riel's (http://www.shsb.mb.ca/Riel/indexenglish.htm) last interview––Riel being the Métis leader of the short-lived 1885 Rebellion, tried and executed for treason in Regina, Davin's home town, on November 16, 1885.

Since first publication of this information in 2004 CASP has been in correspondence with Ed Hird, whose great-grandmother Mary McLean (see picture below) worked as a reporter for Davin  at the Regina Leader and was sympathetic to Riel's cause. According to Hird, "Davin carried on the British tradition of not listing as a byline the names of the reporters who write for the Regina Leader. This was helpful for my great-grandmother Mary in protecting her from arrest by the RCMP when she snuck in disguised as a Roman Catholic priest confessor to obtain an interview with Louis Riel. Mary McLean quotes Davin [as saying] … 'An interview must be had with Riel if you must outwit the whole police force of the North-West.' Because Davin protected her anonymity, some writers like C.B. Koester have popularized the myth that Davin … disguised himself as that priest … I spent a week with my late Uncle Don Allen who carefully explained to me about his grandmother's interview with Louis Riel. 'When I first saw you [at] the trial, I loved you' was said by Riel to Mary McLean, not to the man [Davin] calling for his hanging." For the complete account of this incident in Mr. Hird's own words, please click here.

. Mary McLean, reporter for the Regina Leader

(For an interesting portrait of Riel figured as Shakespeare's Caliban by the contemporary Métis artist David Garneau, click here; see also www.uptownmag.com/archive/arts/03sept11.htm. Please also consult the infamous last interview with Riel, entitled "His Parting Messages to Mankind.") Davin was also an alcoholic who had a complicated (read "scandalous") personal life with Katherine (Kate) Simpson-Hayes, a journalist and mother of two who bore him two children over ten years, both of whom were given away for adoption against Davin's wishes.

In 1884, Davin published Eos––A Prairie Dream, a collection of poems, "Canadian in inspiration," to which he wrote a preface expressing his confidence in the future of Canada's literary achievements and the self-aggrandizing claim that he wrote the poems to "strike a true and high note in Canadian politics and literature." The latter comment typifies Davin's view that politics pervades all aspects of life and that literature and politics could not be dissociated.

Davin also authored the invidious (and confidential) Davin Report of 1879, a study of the way in which Americans socialized young Natives in residential schools ( see http://www.turtleisland.org/resources/resources001.htm and http://www.irsr-rqpi.gc.ca/english/) . The study paved the way for Canada's scandalously racist policies towards Native youth and their mistreatment in the Canadian Residential School system, which effectively destroyed familial relations by virtually kidnapping children to be socialized into so-called civil society, a policy that led to generations of cultural damage to First Nations peoples throughout Canada. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister awarded Davin the commission to write the report after Davin was defeated as a Conservative candidate.

The report, archived in its entirety in the CASP Essays and Documents section, takes note of the American policy of "aggressive civilization" towards its indigenous populations, a policy implemented by the hypocritically named "Peace Commission" (after a law passed by Congress in 1869), which sought to abolish "tribal relation[s]" and to do away with communal lands while consolidating Native populations "on few reservations." Davin's racism is abundantly clear in the following extract from the report:

"The experience of the United States is the same as our own as far as the adult Indian is concerned. Little can be done with him. He can be taught to do a little at farming, and at stock-raising, and to dress in a more civilized manner, but that is all. The child, again, who goes to a day school learns little, and what little he learns is soon forgotten, while his tastes are fashioned at home, and his inherited aversion to toil is in no way combated."

Davin was clearly a "character" active in the life of the nineteenth-century Canadian West and someone described as "a partisan of the independent mind" (C. B. Koester): he went on to publish The Irishman in Canada (1877) and to serve, in 1881-82 as Secretary to the Royal Commission on the Canadian Pacific Railway (see http://www.cprheritage.com/) and as Secretary to the Chinese Commission (1884-85; see http://www.vpl.vancouver.bc.ca/branches/LibrarySquare/his/StudyGuides/chinese_history.html).  The well-known and prolific Saskatchewan playwright, Ken Mitchell has written a play about his life, Davin: The Politician, first produced at the Globe Theatre in 1978 and directed by Myra Benson.

The Fair Grit; or The Advantages of Coalition. A Farce is a hybrid adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that makes use of federalist, nineteenth-century Canadian historical and political contexts to launch an incisive attack on political duplicity and corruption. Brownson Banbury St. Clair, described in the dramatis personae of the play as a "relic of the Family Compact" (and thus a Tory or Conservative; see http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/2/18/h18-2971-e.html) has a son, George who has been educated abroad. Upon his return to Canada he fall sin love with Angelina McPeterson, daughter of Alexander McPeterson and a Grit (Liberal) Senator. Parental resistance to the union (read "coalition") ensues until St. Clair and McPeterson senior cynically take political advantage of the situation.

The play wastes no time in scoring its points about how politics are conducted in Canada and many of its comments resonate in an eerily familiar fashion with contemporary, twenty-first century laments about the state of political life in Canada. George St. Clair, a few lines into the play, for instance, asks of Angelina: "But, surely, politics do not embitter social intercourse[?]" To which Angelina replies, at some length: "They [politics] pervade all life. We carry the war along the whole line. If a member of our party [the Grits] 'jibs' in the least, my father [the Grit Senator] gets word from headquarters to frown, and he tells us all to frown, and we do our best to send the offender to Coventry. A hungry Tory would not touch a joint cooked on Grit principles. We eat off party plate and wash our hands in basins of faction" (5-6). The comments underscore the partisan politics that split along party lines and the extent to which lower level political functionaries have little freedom in relation to their political masters, a situation that still characterizes parliamentary politics in Canada, with party whips retaining firm control over backbenchers' freedom to express dissent within the party.

The play is rife with contemporary insights and bons mots. Ronald, a cynical friend of George's, for example, describes the state of contemporary politics in Canada in the following scathing manner: "[Politics in Canada] is a rivalry in indecent hypocrisy in which practice and profession are more than usually apart. They out-vie each other first in professions of purity, and then out-do each other, as far as it is possible, in acts of corruption. It is a buncombe struggle––a battle of quacks. Each has his sham nostrum, his delusive specific, and the poor country is the patient whom the betraying drug of the blatant and brawling Pharmacopola leaves worse than he was. In Opposition all is virtue; in power all the reverse" (9). Such a critique might well be mounted of contemporary politics in Canada and often is.

The play's use of the Shakespearean source serves not only to use a familiar thematic in a new context, thus heightening the affective power of the plot but also allowing for Davin's considerable rhetorical skills to be shown off as the play unfolds. Interestingly, the play notes the power of the media in influencing the political and social life of the country, thus recognizing, with a certain degree of critical sophistication, the impact of the media on political life generally. The play ends with the conversion of George into a Grit and the Editor of the Smasher, a Grit newspaper, telling George, in a last satirical comment, that "Now that you are in our party, remember that you have no business to think for yourself. We'll do all that for you" (35). The tragic force of Romeo and Juliet thus transmutes into the satirical political commentary that Davin provides.

The play's last pages point to the suicide motif in Romeo and Juliet but also uncannily anticipate Davin's own suicide in late October 1901––the character Old St. Clair states that he wishes he knew of a way "of lessening the humbug in the world" (33) and Ronald cynically replies "Commit suicide." A Shakespearean epilogue in rhymed iambic pentameter and spoken by Angelina closes the play with the sentiment that "The sad suspicion will force itself unbidden / That by both parties country's overridden" (35). The latter comment seems to confirm Davin's position that the Family Compact and cultural hegemony in Canada are profoundly intertwined and not reduceable to simplistic two-party differences. Davin's curious blend of Shakespearean plot and rhetoric, media culture, and unrelenting criticism of Canadian political culture, all written with due attention to immigrant issues, show the extent to which Canadian theatrical adaptations of Shakespeare in the nineteenth century provide an excellent source for understanding the historical roots and resonances of a culture in which politics and the arts remain firmly tied to each other.

Daniel Fischlin

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Link to Spotlight: Nicholas Flood Davin

Link to "The Davin Report: Shakespeare and Canada’s Manifest Destiny" by Sorouja Moll
Download Davin's interview with Riel, entitled "His Parting Messages to Mankind."


 

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