Internet Shakespeare Editions

Shakespeare in Québec -- page 3

Shakespeare and the Québec Nation

While the perceived stability and universality of "Shakespeare" was a precondition of its desirability, the very same qualities made of Shakespeare an emblem of intolerable oppression. For Québec sovereignists of the 1960s and '70s, the imposition of a culture made elsewhere inhibited the development of an "authentic" national culture. In the words of Claude Levac in 1969:

When Québec playwrights will have found an armature, a theatrical structure that is our very own and the equal of our collective dorsal spine, we will not only have found an authentic dramaturgy which is our own, but also a country. (Loranger and Levac 16)

In consequence, the participation of nationalist québécois playwrights in the mocking of literary fathers and the establishment with which they are associated -- what Helen Tiffin has called the "canonical counter-discourse" of postcolonial cultures, was central to the development of Québec theatre in the 1960s and '70s. A play like the Cid maghané by Réjean Ducharme in 1967, for example, set out, as the québécois colloquialism maghané in the title suggests, to "wreck" the play by Corneille. Similarly, in 1969 a group called the Théâtre du Meme Nom [Theatre of the Same Name], whose acronym (TMN) was deliberately designed to invoke and mock the more famous and "respectable" Théâtre du Nouveau Monde [TNM], in Les Enfants de Chénier dans un autre grand spectacle d'adieu [The Children of Chénier in Another Great Spectacle of Farewell] represented the battle between literary tradition and innovation. The play staged the metaphor of a boxing match in which the "Local Amateurs" literally defeated the "Champions of France" (such standard authors of the Comédie Française as Claudel, Corneille, Marivaux, Molière and Racine, as well as Euripides and Shakespeare) (Godin and Mailhot 134).

The turn to Shakespeare in this context had a double significance. On the one hand it was a turn away from the perceived cultural imperialism of France, especially in matters of language, culture and education. But Shakespeare too was associated with imported culture, and specifically with a British and anglo-Canadian economic and political as well as cultural domination. Hence Shakespeare was both appropriated as a way of turning away from the intrusiveness of French culture, and desecrated as a way of refuting the power of the English.

Robert Gurik's Hamlet, prince du Québec (1968), for example, was a prophetic response to events surrounding the 1967 centennial of Canadian confederation. In Gurik's hands Shakespeare's Hamlet became a political allegory in the service of a sovereignist political agenda, and the characters of Shakespeare's play represented the major players of federal/ provincial politics. All of the characters, with the exception of Hamlet, wore masks that were caricatures of the political figures they represented. [Link to photo if permission.] As glossed by Gurik, "Hamlet is Québec with all of its hesitations, with its thirst for action and for liberty, constricted by one hundred years of inaction." King Claudius represented l'Anglophonie, "which holds the reins of economic and political power" and Queen Gertrude the Church, "forever willing to compromise" (21). Other equivalences were wickedly precise: Polonius was Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson; his son Laertes was prime minister-in-waiting (as it turned out) Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and Ophelia was then-Québec premier Jean Lesage. Horatio was René Lévesque, leader of the soon-to-be-born separatist Parti Québécois and future premier of Québec, and the ghost of Hamlet's father was Charles de Gaulle, whose (in)famous pronouncement of "Vive le Québec libre" ["Long live a free Québec"] from the balcony of Montreal's city hall a few months earlier had electrified federalists and separatists alike. Gurik did not use Québec to illuminate Shakespeare, but Shakespeare to provide a trenchant anatomy of his Québec.

If Gurik's Québec was struggling to be born, the kingdom represented in Jean-Pierre Ronfard's Lear of 1977, was in its death throes. The play was framed by two attendants called "Shakespeares," dressed in doublet and hose, who spoke the occasional Shakespearean line and were largely irrelevant. Ronfard's Lear inhabited a grotesque and carnivalized world papered with old newspapers in which the chief activities were eating, sex and defecation. His crown was a baseball cap, his throne a wooden coca-cola case, and the "kingdom" he divided was a pizza. [Link to photo(s) if permission.] He was the spoiled, abusive and self-indulgent father of the hard-as-nails businesswoman Josette, the nymphomaniac Violette, and the silenced Laurette, and his rival was the bastard Hector. Lear was a play about incest, legitimacy, and the failure of language. It was a scatological romp in which Shakespeare as well as Lear was uncrowned.

While the "universal" Shakespeare continued to be performed, Shakespeare became part of the vocabulary of the independence movement in Québec. Hamlet's "to be or not to be" was cited by Pierre Vallières in his classic liberation text White Niggers of America (1968, 1969), and Michèle Lalonde in her poem "Speak white" (1979) associated the "sweet language" of Shakespeare with political and economic exploitation and linguistic oppression. In Jean-Claude Germain's Rodéo et Juliette (1970), a play about cultural identity which is described as a "western québécois et musical," Shakespearean allusion in the title and elsewhere suggests that Shakespeare is a force to be encountered and overcome. Even where the intention seems not to have been explicitly political, as in the case of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde production in its 1971-72 season of Jules César, the company's third Shakespeare since 1968, political connections were difficult to avoid. Unlike in 1962, when the company had performed Richard II, also a play about political assassination, it would have been hard not to make the connection to the October Crisis of 1970 in which a British economic attaché had been kidnapped and a Québec minister had been murdered by members of the terrorist FLQ.

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