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Spotlight

Canadian Aboriginal Adaptations of Shakespeare

"I think of the role of the writer as very much that of a healer … That's the way I look at my writing."
Tomson Highway

Just as there is no such thing as one Canadian theatre, Native theatre cannot be limited to its political or ethnographic dimensions alone. And if many fall into the trap of blending all of the Native assemblies into one homogeneous group, the approaches explored by its artists since its emergence towards the end of the 1960s are a testament to Native theatre’s richness and diversity, from one end of the country to the other.

Although Native peoples have long been featured in their own dramas, notably in western films, they have generally been excluded from the stage. For decades, political and religious powers enforced assimilation with broad strokes; there was nothing to favour the emergence of Cree, Iroquois, or Inuit dramaturgy. This “colonialization,” as well as its effect on the identities of these peoples, has inspired a great number of shows — attempts to rebuild a denigrated, diminished culture. From "Native Theatre : Affirmation and Creation" by André Lavoie (translated by Andrée McNamara Tait)

 

Yvette Nolan

Yvette Nolan, co-author of Shakedown
Shakespeare
with Philip Adams and
The Death of a Chief
with Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon

Welcome to our Canadian Aboriginal Adaptations of Shakespeare Spotlight, the first Spotlight featured on the CASP website. Here you will find information on aboriginal adaptations of Shakespeare and aboriginal-themed adaptations we have located. Further, you will find several links pages devoted to various aspects of aboriginal theatrical practice in Canada, including, for instance, links to important centres devoted to developing aboriginal theatre, like Native Earth Performing Arts, a production company in Toronto, Ontario, founded in 1982 by Denis Lacroix and Bunny Sicard.

CASP notes that aboriginal adaptations of Shakespeare are not limited to Canada. At the 21st Hawaii International Film Festival in Honolulu (November 2003), for instance, The Maori Merchant of Venice (director Don C. Selwyn and producer Ruth Kaupua), won the Blockbuster Audience Award for Best Feature Film. The film makes use of Maori actors speaking in their own language. And Richard Madelaine and John Golder have argued that in the case of Australia:

"Aboriginal Australians have good reasons to be suspicious of the 'ideological work' Shakespeare can be 'made to perform'. On Saturday 27 August 1864, four of the so-called 'last few' Tasmanian Aborigines were taken to the second Hobart performance of Charles Dillon's Hamlet at the Theatre Royal. If we couple this fact, recently uncovered by Rose Gaby, with the likelihood that a volume of Shakespeare's works travelled on board the Endeavour on Cook's first voyage, we may be tempted to argue that the Bard, as icon of the supreme literary achievement of a superior civilisation, has been pressed into the service of a rapacious form of colonisation.

Yet the modes of appropriation are multifarious, and in more recent times, Aboriginal actors have found their own uses for Shakespeare. Kelton Pell, Stephen Albert and John Moore played in Twelfth Night (Black Swan, 1991), Gary Cooper was a member of the Bell Company in 1993 and 1994, and Kevin Smith played Caliban in Neil Armfield's post-colonial reading of The Tempest (Belvoir Street, 1994), more recently, Deborah Mailman played Cordelia in Barrie Kosky's Lear (Bell Company, 1998) and Rosalind in Armfield's As You Like It (Belvoir Street, 1999). But the first (and, we believe, to date the only) all-indigenous production of a Shakespeare play was No‘l Tovey's A Midsummer Night's Dream, offered as part of Sydney's Festival of the Dreaming in 1997" (see "Australianness in Shakespeare Production").

These examples set the stage for comparable examples of interpretive gestures that gather round how Shakespeare is represented in relation to aboriginal culture(s) in Canada. This Spotlight features an interview with Daniel David Moses, an interview with Yvette Nolan, and various other materials (visual, documentary, and so forth) from our archives that show the extent to which Shakespearean theatre and aboriginal culture intersect. Aboriginal adaptations included here demonstrate some of the ways in which First Nations cultures have recycled and used Shakespeare in response to colonialism, racism, and historical contingencies that continue to shape their experience of the world.

Irena Makaryk comments, for example, that

"The Tempest has been particularly amenable to post-colonial stage interpretations, well before such interpretations became popular among scholars. The Tamahnous Theatre Workshop produced The Tempest at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1974, directed by John Gray. In 1992, in British Columbia, the Bard on the Beach festival staged The Tempest with a Northwest Canadian theme, in which Ariel was played as Nanabush (an aboriginal trickster figure).

Other First Nations Shakespeare includes a Winnipeg group called Shakespeare in the Red, founded by First Nations actor Michael Lawrenchuk and British director Libby Mason in 1996. The group tours with predominantly Native productions of Shakespeare to theatres, schools, and community venues; and carries out workshops and other professional training for professional and semi-professional actors. They have experienced enthusiastic response from audiences to To Thine Own Self Be True (an amalgam of scenes from various Shakespearean plays and sonnets, accompanied by Native instrumental and vocal music). Herb Weil (University of Manitoba), who has provided this information, wrote of the “both jarring and beautiful” power of especially the passages on dispossession and alienation. [2]" ( Shakespeare in Canada).

Aboriginal adaptations of Shakespeare force a rethinking of notions of national boundaries that are frequently transgressed by language groupings. The Tlingit language, for instance, is spoken by coastal Tlingit (as in Alaska) and inland Tlingit, including the Yukon and B.C. And since national borders are less relevant to First Nations identity, the Tlingit version of Macbeth shown in the short clip below has considerable Canadian relevance not only as a marker of how First Nations identity transcends national bborders but also as a marker of how Shakespeare can be used in innovative ways to address issues of cultural preservation of  languages and customs under threat.

 

Aboriginal theatre has, with rare exceptions, like Ric Knowles's and Monique Mojica's anthology of aboriginal theatre in Canada, Staging Coyote's Dream: An Anthology of First Nations Drama in English (Playwright's Canada Press), traditionally been under-represented and unstudied in Canada. Here, we seek to present some of the ways that Shakespeare has been used, interpreted, and redeveloped by Canada’s First Nations communities. And, too, we wish to show how First Nations communities have been represented by settler cultures in a range of Shakespearean contexts. In so doing we recognize that these sorts of adaptations of a major theatrical influence form only one small part of a vast array of theatrical activities associated with aboriginal communities across the country.

Moreover, aboriginal writers do not always align themselves with Shakespeare's place in the canon, the following comments by Tomson Highway being somewhat indicative: "as a result of the birth of native literature … [students] actually have something to read besides Charles Dickens, and William Faulkner, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare," says Highway. "They have native authors––they have their own Shakespeares, Austens, and Brontës" (Colleen Simard. "Roads less traveled: From playwright to children's author, Tomson Highway's talent follows new paths"). Highway's comments point to the importance of literature in shaping identity and, in the case of aboriginal communities, rediscovering identity that has been fractured or distorted. Highway's removal to the infamous residential school system in Canada at the age of 6 (one created by someone who was associated with the values of Shakespearean culture and literacy through adaptation, Nicholas Flood Davin) was part and parcel of the attempt to "re-educate" aboriginals in the name of destroying their cultural heritage. The CASP Spotlight shows how Shakespeare has been used as part of that process, but also how aboriginal writers have overwritten Shakespeare in their own image as part of a strategy of literary and theatrical healing that Highway refers to in the epigraph to this section. For an excellent example of how healing, theatre, and native culture are interconnected click here.

It is important to remember that aboriginal cultures in the Americas had a longstanding aesthetic practice of ceremony and ritual that were mimetic, performative, and frequently served a spiritual purpose. As L. W. Conolly notes:

"Native and Inuit ceremonials and rituals evidenced a highly sophisticated sense of mimetic art, and occupied a central place in the social and religious activities of their peoples ... Masks, costumes and properties were used to enhance dialogue, song and chants in performances designed to benefit the community by influencing such crucial matters as the weather, the hunt, or spiritual and physical well-being. Great ritual dramas (such as those of the British Columbia Kwakiutl people) sometimes took the form of a long cycle encompassing some 4 to 5 months of performance. Subsequent development of drama in Canada, however, was shaped by European rather than by indigenous traditions." (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

King Lear
David Gardner's King Lear (1961)

In Brébeuf’s Ghost (1996), Daniel David Moses draws on Macbeth to tell the story of two Jesuit priests tortured and killed by Iroquois invaders in 1649. Shakedown Shakespeare (1997), by Yvette Nolan and Philip Adams, introduces Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet to young audiences in a fast and funny way. Also, testing the very limits of what can be defined as adaptation, is New World Brave (2000), by the De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group, who altered ever-so-slightly the line “brave new world” from The Tempest (5.1.186) for the title of their multidisciplinary collective creation, which addresses First Nations realities in innovative ways. Does such an alteration, which plays upon the resonances of such a well-known line, effectively set the limits for what might be considered an adaptation of Shakespeare?

Daniel David Moses
Daniel David Moses

We have also included texts where Shakespeare is implicated in the portrayal of First Nations peoples as inferior or ridiculous. We do this out of no disrespect for these peoples––or of Shakespeare. This sort of racism has deep cultural roots in Canada’s colonial history and we are concerned to show how these roots extend into a variety of texts that associate Shakespeare with aboriginal cultures.

The anonymous author of Ottawah, the Last Chief of the Red Indians of Newfoundland (1848), for instance, represents the Beothuks as primitives who need the help of a white man. In Ottawah, a text that makes use of significant Shakespearean referents, the genocide that wiped out the Beothuks is blamed on the Micmacs rather than on the European settlers. This text and others made available through the Spotlight document how Shakespearean discourses have played a role in shaping stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Through the information found in this section of the site CASP remembers that "Felipe Waman Puma, an Inca contemporary of Shakespeare's called the postconquest world in which he lived and wrote mundo al revés, 'a world in reverse.' For him and his people, the invasion of America turned the world upside down" (Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: The "New World" Through Indian Eyes. Toronto: Penguin, 1993, 8). The information CASP has gathered here marks some of the ways in which Shakespearean theatre has played a role in contributing to that reversal and in writing back against the "world upside down."

Table of Contents:

             Adaptations by Aboriginal Playwrights:

  • Play List
    The Play List includes adaptations by aboriginal playwrights and "aboriginal-themed" adaptations by non-aboriginal playwrights.


    Interviews:

  • Graham Greene Interview
    In a 2007 interview with Jian Gomeshi, on the CBC radio program Q, prominent First Nations actor, Graham Greene, discusses his role of Shylock in the Stratford Festival's
    production of the Merchant of Venice. This controversial role, which has become a stigma of racial discourse prompts Greene to discuss aboriginality, racism and how this
    Shakespeare role holds poignant connections regarding aboriginal relations in Canada.
  • An Interview with Daniel David Moses
    Moses discusses Brébeuf's Ghost and the influence of Shakespeare on aboriginal theatre in Canada.

  • An Interview with Yvette Nolan
    Nolan discusses the process of adapting Shakespeare in relation to Shakedown Shakespeare.

  • An Interview with Yvette Nolan about The Death of a Chief
    CASP interviewed Nolan a second time in 2006 to discuss the workshop productions and development of her adaptation of Julius Caesar with co-adaptor Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon.


    Documents:

  • "MANTOW – MANTOWKASOWIN – ART" by playwright/director Yves Sioui Durand of Ondinnok. A compelling statement on the importance of various cultural activities, including theatre, as part of empowering aboriginal peoples generally.
    " Today, we Aboriginals must question ourselves. Do we want cultures based solely on lifestyles that are facing extinction and that continue to be firmly manifested in tourist souvenirs and common forms of identifying imagery, or do we want to rebuild living cultures based on values that can be passed on? If we are to do that, we need artists! We need cinema, theatre, dance, visual arts and literature so that we can examine our traditions and etch them into the conscience of future generations."

  • Nicholas Flood Davin
    Davin, who wrote the Shakespearean adaptation The Fair Grit, was linked to two important events in Canadian aboriginal history. He wrote the "Davin Report," a study of the way in which Americans socialized young Natives in residential schools, which led to the establishment of the residential school system that had such a devastating effect on aboriginal culture in Canada. He also disguised himself as a priest and, pretending to deliver the last rites, got the last interview with Louis Riel before his execution. CASP is pleased to make this rare and disturbing document available online for the first time.

  • “The Davin Report: Shakespeare and Canada’s Manifest Destiny” by Sorouja Moll.
    This paper sets out to overturn the settled and pristine landscapes managed and organized around Canadian nationalism by revisiting the history of Nicholas Flood Davin (1843-1901) and his literary, social, and political life that used “noble inspirations,” such as Shakespeare, to settle territories. Moll’s paper investigates Davin’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet called The Fair Grit along with his other poetic, journalistic and political writing.

  • Ottawah, the Last Chief of the Red Indians of Newfoundland (1848), Author Unknown.
    Ottawah is a romantic novel that uses the structure of The Tempest to begin a story explaining the genocide of the Beothuks. Set in the early seventeenth century, an old European and his daughter are the sole survivors of an "Indian" massacre of their Newfoundland settlement who live in a sacred grove on the mountain where the Beothuks worship.

  • True Stories of New England Captives: Carried to Canada During the Old French and Indian Wars (1897), by C. Alice Baker. In the first chapter, Baker recounts a description the kidnapping of a group of Aboriginals near the mouth of the Penobscot River by George Weymouth in 1605. She writes: "Mr. Higginson tells us that Weymouth's Indians were the objects of great wonder in England, and crowds of people followed them in the streets. It is thought that Shakespeare referred to them in The Tempest a few years later" (12).


    Multimedia:

  • The Death of a Chief by Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon and Yvette Nolan
    CASP has archived multimedia from the 2006 workshop production of The Death of a Chief which was presented as part of FOOT 2006, The Festival of Original Theatre: Performing Adaptations .

  • "Riel/Caliban" Painting by David Garneau.
    This painting from Garneau's Cowboys and Indians (and Metis?) exhibition links Louis Riel with Caliban, illustrating the similarity between Shakespeare's literary imaginary and Canadian historical reality.

  • "Edmund Kean Reciting Before the Hurons" by Joseph Légaré.
    In 1826, the British Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean performed in Canada. At the end of his run in Quebec City, Kean met with four Huron chiefs: he gave each of them a medal and in return he was received into the Huron tribe under the name of Adanieouidet (or Alanienouidet). This painting illustrates that meeting.

  • Historica First Nations Minutes: Inukshuk; Louis Riel; Peacemaker; Sitting Bull.


    Other Resources:

  • Bibliography
    This bibliography lists works on aboriginal theatre and Shakespeare in Canada.

  • Aboriginal Theatre Links
    This page lists websites (and some related links) for Canadian aboriginal theatre companies that have been compiled by CASP.

  • Aboriginal Education and Academic Resource Links
    This page lists websites for aboriginal schools and other scholarly sources that have been compiled by CASP.



Disclaimer: This site has been designed with only non-commercial, academic uses in mind. Although every effort has been made to secure permission for materials uploaded on the CASP site, in some circumstances we have been unable to locate copyright holders. Links may be made to our site but under no conditions are the texts and images to be copied and mounted onto another site server. Researchers using the site should accredit it following standard MLA guidelines on how to do so. Correct citation of information from the site is as follows:

Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004. <http://www.canadianshakespeares.ca>.

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