Michael Langham and the Stratford Shakespeare Seminars
|Stratford Shakespeare Seminars' 1961 cover page|
In 1960, Michael Langham, the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, proposed the idea of an academic symposium that would be held during the theatre season. Involved would be academics, university professors, critics, actors, directors, producers, teachers, and most importantly to Langham, the growing number of everyday Canadians that were coming to the Stratford Festival and donating “their holidays to Shakespeare” (Stratford Papers on Shakespeare 1960, xi), often seeing a week worth of plays. Langham hoped that this would enable a discourse on Shakespeare from a diverse group of people where the only thing guaranteed was “an interest in Shakespeare” (Stratford Papers on Shakespeare 1961, xi)
Starting in 1960 and running until 1969 the annual Shakespeare Seminar was held in the Festival Theatre and was accompanied by theatre tours, actor panels, formal discussion groups, and banquets. The Universities of Canada and the Stratford Festival jointly sponsored the seminars. Throughout these seminars, speeches and essays were presented by a myriad of people from diverse professions and educational backgrounds. Speakers included renowned University of Toronto Professor Northrop Frye, composer John Cook, prominent theatrical giant J. Mavor Moore and the Director of the Canada Council of the Arts, Dr. A.W Trueman. Many British scholars, established gentlemen in the traditional school of Shakespeare, presented at these seminars. But, through the years the growing number of Canadian presenters and their penchant for contemporary interpretative subject matter became the majority. This shift in thinking came to be representative of Canadian theatrical culture generally as it began to move past established colonial influences and ideals, to a more nationalistic and uniquely Canadian perspective. This can be noted in Stratford’s staging of the “Eskimo” King Lear in 1961, and the Canadian Players, an offshoot of the Stratford Festival, performing their first Canadian production in 1964.
The essays presented were published in subsequent books, but editor, participant and McMaster University professor, B.W. Jackson laments that the most “exciting, and valuable” portions of the seminars was also the most “ephemeral” (Stratford Papers on Shakespeare 1962, viii). The squabbles between actor and academic, the enthusiastic exchange regarding the role of Othello between two audience members, the interactive discussions by Stratford actors in the symposium are not available in the books. Nonetheless, the underlying mood of co-operation, a fresh and modernistic approach to Shakespeare, and a dedication to learning are very apparent. The spectrum of essays in these books is immense and of significance to the advancement of knowledge and the infusion of new ideas and theories surrounding Shakespeare from a distinctly Canadian perspective. In many ways, these books and colloquia contributed to founding a Canadian school of Shakespeare studies, characterized by close readings from a colonial perspective, a focus on adaptation and intercultural Shakespeare, and the use of new media.
The topics in these books range from new methods of staging, musical compositions, Shakespeare’s intentionality to costuming and analytical breakdowns of individual plays. B.W. Jackson states in his introduction to the 1962 publication that “it can be anyone’s business to clarify, to illuminate, to provide a catalyst for enjoyment” referring to the wide range of people present (Stratford Papers on Shakespeare 1962, ix). It is this accessible and pragmatic approach to Shakespeare and his unique role at the Stratford Festival that created a more general discourse on Shakespeare in Canada. Beyond having an impact on a large group of people through the seminars and the books, the seminars coincided with a period in Canadian history that ushered in experimental and adaptive theories regarding Shakespeare.
Northrop Frye states in his essay Proposal of a Toast that “we can only think within the limits of ideas and concepts that have been worked out by our great writers. We can understand one another only within the limits of the social vision of our great writers. And there is, of course, no greater writer than Shakespeare” (Stratford Papers on Shakespeare 1961, 196). Here, Frye implicitly acknowledges that there is a rich possibility for interpretation, adaptation, and knowledge within the sphere of texts, social formations, and media associated with Shakespeare––in a way, then, Shakespeare sets the limit-horizon for what is thinkable, a key predicate for the notion of a festival, like Stratford, based on an ongoing reinterpretation of the Bard’s works.
Danielle Van Wagner (with Daniel Fischlin)
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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project . University of Guelph. 2004.