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Internet Shakespeare Editions

Shakespeare in Quebec (1)

Shakespeare in Québec -- page 2

Passing the Shakespeare test

The 1940s saw the founding of several professional theatre companies, and with them a proliferation of plays by Shakespeare. There were eleven productions of Shakespeare in French in Québec between 1945 and 1970. Among them, L'Équipe, (1942-48), presented in 1945 an ambitious outdoor production of Un songe d'une nuit d'été [A Midsummer Night's Dream] in the Jardins de l'Ermitage in Montreal; the Compagnons (1937-52, turned professional in 1948), staged Le soir des rois [Twelfth Night] with set and costume designs by the internationally known Québec artist Alfred Pellan in 1946, and Roméo et Juliette in 1950; and the Théâtre-Club (1953-64) staged another Twelfth Night (as La nuit des rois) in 1956. The two companies of the postwar period that have survived to the present day were a bit slower off the mark, but the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (founded 195l) presented Richard II in 1962, and the Théâtre du Rideau Vert (founded 1948) presented Le songe d'une nuit d'été in 1965. Since then both companies have produced Shakespeare with increasing frequency, and Shakespeare has become an increasingly visible part of each season's programming. In contrast to the eleven productions between 1945 and 1970, the equivalent period between 1971 and 1996 saw thirty-eight. Or to break Shakespeare production down in decades, David's Théâtrographie records (excluding adaptations) 2 productions of Shakespeare in the 1940s, 3 in the 1950s, 5 in the 1960s, 7 in the 1970s, 13 in the 1980s, and 16 in the 1990s to 1998 (to which should be added a seventeenth, in 1999).

Needless to say, the model for these Shakespeare productions came from abroad, since many of the first generation of theatre practitioners were indebted to Europe for their training. Some, for example, had worked as members of the Compagnons de Saint-Laurent under Father Émile Legault, for whom Jacques Copeau and his disciples had been both models and mentors. Others were European in their origins or education. Among the directors Robert Speaight (Roméo et Juliette, 1950) was British, Jan Doat (La nuit des rois, 1956) was French, and Paul Hébert (La mégère apprivoisée [The Taming of the Shrew], 1956), had resided in London and studied at the Old Vic School under the French Michel Saint-Denis who was subsequently to found the National Theatre School of Canada.

Thus in producing Shakespeare, the nascent québécois theatre was demonstrating its capacity to participate in a European tradition. For that reason one sign of its success was taken to be its approval rating outside of Québec. [5] Both the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and the Théâtre du Rideau Vert toured successfully to Europe, and the TNM was well received in 1956 and 1958 at the fledgling Stratford Festival in Ontario as well. Charles Bolster has seen the staging of Shakespeare as an important step in the professionalization of qu­ébécois theatre. For Bolster the performance of Shakespeare by professionals in French is a sign of the creative maturity of Québec theatre artists. In a postcolonial context, one way of showing one has grown up culturally is by passing the Shakespeare test.

In this first phase of professional Shakespeare production, the Shakespeare produced was the Shakespeare who had come to embody a universalized and essentialized human nature. By providing a model of human behaviour, Shakespeare and other canonical authors of the grand répertoire not only epitomized European definitions of high art but also imparted to theatre an educational function. According to the tenth anniversary program of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, performing such plays was the work of "a theatre that works towards the intellectual and moral development of society" (qtd. in Sabourin I:24).

Thus the Shakespeare performed in Québec up to 1968 (and in many cases thereafter) was a universal playwright whose work crossed temporal and national borders and spoke equally to people everywhere. Individual productions might in their setting or allusions localize the play in Québec. For example, the text of a 1951 Radio Canada broadcast of The Taming of the Shrew introduced puns designed to appeal to a local audience, and the Player in the Induction who became Petruchio and was played by the actor Jean Gascon was referred to as "Gaskun." Similarly, the world of the 1973 Théâtre du Trident production of Shrew was the local tavern (Bolster, "Shakespeare in," 51-52, Bélair). But the assumption was that the plays could survive such transplantation because the human nature Shakespeare represented was the same all over.

However, even in the early professional francophone productions there were signs that Shakespeare did not always take pride of place. The 1946 production of Le soir des rois [Twelfth Night], for example, was celebrated not for its reading of Shakespeare which, to all evidence, was quite conventional, but for the audacious set and costume designs of québécois painter Alfred Pellan which tended to upstage the production and compete with the actors in offering an interpretation of the text. [6] (Go to a fuller discussion of this production.)


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[5] Québec in the 1940s and '50s was still subject to what was experienced as the oppressive domination of the Catholic Church and the government of premier Maurice Duplessis. However, during this time artists such as Alfred Pellan and those of the Refus Global opened their doors to the fresh air of a no-longer-new European modernism. [Back]

[6] Indeed, when Pellan's designs were reused in another production in 1968, the result was described as a battle between Pellan and Shakespeare which Shakespeare lost (Lefebvre 27). [Back]