Tryst and Snout (2007)
James Gordon has been involved in Canadian show business for the last twenty-five years. As the founder of Canadian folk group, Tamarack, a solo artist and as a member of a duo or trio, Gordon has released over thirty albums, and written film scores, musicals, folk operas, and composed for symphony orchestras. He appeared regularly on the CBC radio programs, Ontario Morning and Basic Black. His chosen style of folk music reflects his interest in Canadian heritage and culture, and displays his passion for telling the stories of what’s around him. His song ‘Frobisher Bay’ was named ‘favorite Canadian song’ in the roots category by CBC radio. Reviews of Gordon’s have revealed him as a “remarkable Canadian performer” who “tells the stories of ordinary people and ordinary towns” (Reviews). His recent musicals, Hardscrabble Road, and Two Steps and a Glass of Water affirmed his interests in community activism and the challenges facing people with mental health issues.
James Gordon’s musical adaptation of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Tryst and Snout, debuted on April 17-19 at the River Run Centre in Guelph, Ontario, as a part of the Shakespeare-Made in Canada Festival. This work “puts the “hill” in “Billy” Shakespeare’s beloved comedy” (The New Quarterly Online- Events), and uses an ensemble band with a composite of bluegrass, folk, and country musical flavours. The cast included a veritable who’s who of the Canadian folk scene, including Sam Turton, Marion Linton, and Jude Vadala. The musical adaptation uses an extraordinary 30 new songs to retell the story of the play via a parody of hillbilly culture––at once working with familiar stereotypes of backwardness and lack of sophistication while at the same time showing how absurd such generalizations are given the skill with which the adaptation frames its protagonists as witty and entertaining performers. Additionally, the performance of the first run of Tryst and Snout (a take-off on the title of the famous song by Phil Medley and Bert Russell, “Twist and Shout”) featured two sets of “father and son” performers: Sam and Jesse Turton and James and Geordie Gordon.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular works and is a popular and beloved vehicle for adaptations that riff on everything from the metamorphoses Bottom undergoes through to the conflict between urban and rural values embodied in the play. The CASP archives have over twenty-five adaptations of the play done in Canada, many of which have a large musical component: instances of these include Jim Bett’s On A Summer’s Night; Leith Clarke’s A Midsummer Night’s Fever; and David Howse’s A Mardi Gras Night’s Dream. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is especially prone to musical and dance adaptations, as Shakespeare’s original play evidences a fanciful, comic, inter-dimensionality that is uncommon in his other plays. Additionally, using country, bluegrass and Spaghetti Western modes to adapt Shakespeare is becoming popular, with examples like Shakespeare for Fun and Profit (or it sure beats Farming), Cruel Tears, Rodeo and Julie-ed, and Miles Potter’s rendition of The Taming of the Shrew. The reason for this is that the power politics, the treatment of women, and the caricatures of the poor, to name only a few of the common themes Shakespeare addresses in the play, “make sense to today’s audience” (The Taming of the Shrew), especially when situated in relation to familiar stereotypes of so called backward, right-wing “rednecks,” white trash, hillbillies, crackers, and the like.
|Tryst and Snout production|
Much like Shakespeare’s original work, Gordon’s adaptation contrasts comment on theatrical high tradition (and the spoofing thereof) with the disjunction between high “city” culture (Theseus and Hippolyta) and low “forest” culture (Quince, Bottom, Snug, Snout). Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play and the ridiculous theatrics of the much-parodied Pyramus and Thisbe scene reflect common discursive tropes found in Elizabethan theatre, which took place in contexts in which censorship, class struggle, and the need to please the aristocracy were familiar, if not often at odds, themes. Correspondingly, Gordon’s adaptation cannily weaves issues of class struggle into his work using hillbilly song culture as the nexus in which to take on the topic.
This thematic becomes apparent in the opening scene, where notions of class struggle are often foregrounded by the actions and songs of the Hempen Homespun boys, a ragtag group of hillbillies whose leader, Peter Quince, suggests they perform “a little musical theatre” as an “angle, something a little different” to stave off the lean times of the depression era (Playscript 4). The band is initially uncertain, questioning “I’m wonderin’ if there’d be much demand for this type of high-toned entertainment in these parts,” or whether they “lack the expertise to pull off” such an “artistic endeavor” (Playscript 4). This early scene is situated in the band’s practice space decorated with “improvised ‘hillbilly’ furniture, chairs, benches, laundry hanging behind them” (Playscript 2), which sets the scene as a way of playing with expectations around what constitutes low “hillbilly” culture.
The comparison between cultures is focused in the song, Hempen Homespun Theme, which overtly satirizes theatrical tradition, including the role of the lower class as both performers and audience members.
You’ll often find us plopped in plays to lighten up the plot
Especially in the Tragedies when things get over-wrought
We’re not essential to the story but we’re proud to be
Quite useful as a filler when they’re changing scenery
We’re mostly here for you folks in the cheap seats to enjoy!
We don’t talk all fancy like the lead characters do
We’re just simple hillbillies like you! (Playscript 11)
|Tryst and Snout production|
The band in the play is obviously aware of the social standing of their patrons, Theseus and Hippolyta, the owner of the Athens Coal Company, and his beautiful bride to be (Playscript 7). It is the band’s wish to appeal to the “nouveau riche” (Playscript 12) with a higher standard of music that draws them into the plot and allows Titania to see Bottom under Oberon’s powerful love spell.
Gordon’s witty use of the Hempen Homespun boys as figures who act within both dimensions of the production––Quince’s play-within-a-play adaptation of Shakespeare for a wedding, and the actual play on stage––allow him to utilize spoken stage directions and interactions with the audience to voice further critiques of theatrical conventions and orthodoxies. The adaptation’s class critique is made poignantly clear, from both a class and theatrical perspective, in the song It’s an Unfair World.
It falls to the less fortunate classes
To have to entertain the masses
To act like total asses …
We’re just comic-relief
Cause nothing’s funnier than poverty!
It’s at the root of all comedy!
Just you watch.. At the end of this play..
Everybody ends up OK
But you’re lucky if you even get paid,
If you’re comic relief.
They don’t let us mingle with the upper crust
And I ask you does that seem just? (Playscript 21-22)
Bottom and Starveling question Quince’s motivation in writing the song, pondering if it is “overtly political” or “thumbing our noses at the guys who hired us”. Snout ends the argument by stating “well, the Machinery of wealth IS greased with the blood of the workers.” This quote by Karl Marx not only situates the general contexts for how the play adapts class struggle and critical commentary into its comic re-telling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Playscript 21-22), almost as if to suggest that the play is prototypically Marxian in its original Shakespearean orientation. Theseus, a business owner, employs most of the workers in the area and pays for an extravagant wedding (and the services of the Hempen Homespun Band) with the profits of the Athens Coal Company.
The plight of lower class labourers is made obvious by the scene in which Oberon’s bar appears––“a rough-looking place,” known to get busy on payday, with many offhanded comments regarding prostitution and home made moonshine (Playscript 2). Unlike the troublesome, yet innocent fairies of Shakespeare’s work, Oberon and Titania are established as archetypes of a bar owner, and a brothel madam, who despite their lower class status are superior to the patrons of their establishment. Oberon is given an ultimatum by Titania; “until you change YOUR ways. You ain’t gettin’ any” (Playscript 14). He employs the use of Robin Goodfella a rambling “voodoo man,” and his powerful “love potion #9.1” to teach Titania a lesson (Playscript 12):
She’ll fall in love with the first thing she sees.
Make it some total ass,
Someone from the lower class…
And she’ll soon come crawlin’ back to me! (Playscript 15)
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The upper class characters are largely uninvolved in the production of Gordon’s adaptation, which fixates on the rural hillbillies cum musicians who are engaged in retelling the Shakespeare original in their own unique voices. When Theseus and Hippolyta arrive back on stage near the end of the second act, Snout asks, “Where have they been for the whole play?” For which Ellie May states “the upper classes don’t really like to mix with us commoners when it comes to these baser forms of artistic expression” (Playscript 39). Ellie’s comment definitively privileges so called “baser forms” of artistic expression even when performing the epitome of “high” literary culture via Shakespearean adaptation. What is fascinating is how this overturning of privilege is given voice by the disenfranchised who, it turns out, have a great deal to say about entertainment, class conflict, and social justice in Gordon’s adaptation.
The spoofing of highbrow theatrical culture is sharpened by the activist backgrounds of the cast and the play’s creator. Gordon’s prior musical theatre work, Hardscrabble Road, used political satire and dramatic commentary to tell the tale of a group of homeless people in a Canadian city (Hardscrabble Road), thus conveying the negative impact of globalization on the poor. Gordon’s role as an effective community activist (his founding of the Wellington Water Watchers, his involvement with the Guelph Civic League) and artist no doubt played a crucial role in the reconfiguring of Shakespeare’s play into witty social critique. Likewise. Sam Turton, artist and community activist and one of the stars of Gordon’s adaptation, strives to create positive change via his music, having released songs and CDs with overt political and environmental messages. Many of the performers in Gordon’s adaptation have taken a significant interest in the role of community, and in how consumerism and the onslaught of globalization run counter to the kinds of musical and community values that Gordon’s adaptation strives to re-fashion.
Tryst and Snout ends with the cast singing Puck’s epilogue, presented in the original words of Shakespeare. This epilogue, in both Shakespeare and Gordon’s adaptation, makes a comment on the ephemeral nature of theatre and gently mocks the idea of censorship and the approval of aristocratic audiences, proposing if the audience has found the production wanting that it was “no more yielding but a dream” (Playscript 46). Even as this comment resolves the play, Gordon’s adaptive gestures throughout the play insure that the “dream” has at least laid bare the nature of class-consciousness and how it can be used to undermine stereotypes of high and low culture that are so embedded in traditionalist notions of Shakespearean theatre and performance.
Danielle Van Wagner
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