Notes From Canada :
What Is A Classic? And Why? And When?
Patricia Keeney and Don Rubin
Comment un théâtre dont le mandat repose sur les œuvres de George Bernard Shaw explique-t-il qu’une saison puisse aussi comprendre une pièce nerveuse et « post-raciale » comme Top Dog/Underdog de Suzan Lori-Parks ? Et comment un théâtre classique consacré aux traditions shakespeariennes peut-il aussi afficher Le Retour de Harold Pinter et Hosanna de Michel Tremblay, pièce politiquement provocante des années 1970 sur un travesti québécois, sans parler d’une reprise de Jésus-Christ Superstar ? Or, c’est précisément ce que les deux vaisseaux amiraux du théâtre canadien – soit le Festival de Stratford et le Festival Shaw – ont fait au cours de leur saison de 2011, redéfinissant du coup le concept de « classique », non seulement pour eux-mêmes mais peut-être pour d’autres théâtres « classiques » dans le monde. Dans cet article, les critiques canadiens Patricia Keeney et Don Rubin traitent de ce qui constitue un classique et de la réussite de ces classiques redéfinis dans de grands théâtres canadiens.
How does a theatre whose mandate is rooted in the works of George Bernard Shaw rationalize a season that also includes Suzan Lori-Parks’ edgy, “post-race” Top Dog/Underdog? How does a classical theatre dedicated to the Shakespeare canon include Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming and Michael Tremblay’s Hosanna, a politically provocative play from the 1970s about a Quebec drag queen, not to mention a production of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar? Canada’s two flagship theatres – The Stratford and Shaw Festivals – did exactly that in their 2011 season, thereby redefining the notion of ‘classic’ not only for themselves but perhaps for other “classic” theatres around the world. In the following essay, Canadian critics Patricia Keeney and Don Rubin ponder the notion of just what constitutes a classic and how well these redefined classics actually fared on these major Canadian stages.
What is a classic? And why? And when?
Crucial questions for critics and certainly for Canada’s two largest and most highly subsidized theatres, both devoted – at least in name – to producing the works of Shakespeare (the Stratford Festival) and Shaw (The Shaw Festival). Now in their second half-century of production and certainly the gold standard of Canadian (dare one say North American) theatrical quality, both these companies have come to a curious decision point about how to deal with their respective mandates.
Stratford has run through the Shakespeare canon at least twice (including Two Noble Kinsmen and The Sonnets). Shaw still has some minor GBS material left undone and, given the amount he actually wrote, that is probably a good thing. But in an age when a play only a decade or two old is already being termed a “classic,” how can these companies maintain fresh points of view while serving up plays that may have long ago passed their “best-by” dates. That is to say, the number of relevant core works by Shakespeare and Shaw seems to be shrinking as we move into the second decade of the 21st century.
At Shaw, the trend now is to do not just plays by GBS and his contemporaries (long the guideline) but also to do contemporary plays that reflect the “advanced social ideas” by Shaw at his best. As if to underscore the point (and the changes to come in future years) the Shaw Festival this year offered a fascinating weekend seminar called “The Speed of Ideas” headlined by two ostensibly contemporary American Shavians – Tony Kushner (author of Angels in America) and Suzan-Lori Parks, the ultra-hip black dramatist whose play Topdog/Underdog was also on view at the Festival’s Studio Theatre. At the end of the 2011 season, audiences were told that future seasons might find GBS moved off the Festival’s main stage entirely. In other words, there will always be a Shaw or two at the Shaw Festival but we may actually have to look a bit to find him.
Is Suzan-Loris Parks a modern Shavian? A future classic? Or perhaps even a right-now classic?
No doubt the bottom line for the Shaw people is the writer’s position as a social satirist, a widely inclusive genre. Parks’ earlier The American Play was certainly a ground-breaking critique of Afro-American life in which a black man in white-face with a false beard sits in an arcade as Lincoln while casual mall patrons pay to shoot him dead. Parks described the set of the earlier American Play as “a great hole. In the middle of nowhere. An exact replica of the great Hole of History.” Cultural and historical literacy, symbolic acrobatics and highly intelligent outrage contribute to both the stylistic complexity and to the social immediacy of her work.
Like Shaw, Parks is clever enough to almost risk missing the human foibles of her characters, so busy are they exemplifying, in the case of Top Dog/Underdog, their “post-race” conditions. The term is both apt and useful, being one that concentrates on the particular sub-culture of the individual rather than the collective, so that, in terms of race relations, “the logic of the individual” lets “the logic of the system” off the hook. Given the complexities of our contemporary existence, the culture of the individual (or the couple, or the family or any small living unit of cooperation) is perhaps the truest way can talk about society at-large. Shaw knew that.
In TopDog, she ties brother to brother – here called Lincoln and Booth – in a seedy downtown rooming house where they live and work out their lives together. Younger brother Booth is essentially a petty thief and self-deluding lover boy, while Lincoln is a former street hustler and now every shopping mall’s favourite fake Lincoln. In what can best be described as a series of jazz riffs, Parks – with a poet’s ear for black language – takes us through the highly charged tedium of their days and nights. They bicker over Chinese takeout food, about a lack of running water, non-working toilets. They keep stumbling over the job that allows Lincoln’s mind to be set free but which plunges both of them further into the desperate humiliation he is constantly masking. Tightly wound and energetically acted, director Phillip Akin’s production meets the “modern classic” relevance of this exceedingly contemporary work.
Is this the Shaw Festival’s future? Certainly audiences (primarily white and primarily over 50) did not (based on one after-show question and answer session) experience any disconnect between Parks and J.M. Barrie (whose The Admirable Crichton was also on view) or Shaw himself. Perhaps the throughline really is social criticism and humour, a fertile soil from which future classics can continue to grow here.
Or is the Shaw Festival’s future to be found in continuing to try and make classics out of such dated and polemical plays as the master’s own 1931 On the Rocks. In this case, the Festival went to a hot young Canadian dramatist – Michael Healey, author of the widely produced Drawer Boy – to adapt this rather dubious piece of Shaviana. Healey turned the two acts around, changed a gender or two, mixed in some race but still couldn’t make this farcical harangue of a play come alive.
Roiling with righteous indignation, reforming zeal and lambasting mockery, On the Rocks (inspired by Shaw’s visit to Communist Russia) is rooted in 1930s British economic and social life including unemployment and extremes of poverty. Positions are defined here instead of characters as a newly enlightened PM proposes a radically socialist platform to cure the woes of his country. If he can’t get it through parliament, he will bypass the democratic process entirely because people don’t govern efficiently in a democracy.
Although the arguments are lively, they are also, at least for western audiences, outdated. We’ve all heard these political debates before, watched them play out around the world with varying degrees of success and failure, and then become part of political and intellectual history. The problem is that here they only masquerade as drama. In this piece, like too much non-vintage Shaw, we are given the playwright as platform orator and political analyst more than dramatist. Essentially agitprop, the play – if it has to be done – should go where it is instantly relevant. It doesn’t need a contemporary trim, but a complete dramatic overhaul, a makeover. Frame it perhaps in the current politics of the Arab Spring. Re-evaluate and even re-classify it.
Also on at Shaw was Heartbreak House, a play whose farcical elements beg to be submerged by deeper meanings that threaten to inundate. This year’s production barely got them wet. We need to see the passengers of Heartbreak House – that titanic shudder of a dying empire – walking the plank over treacherous seas of romantic dream in gales of comedic exaggeration. There is certainly more inchoate complexity in Heartbreak’s doom-laden and improbable people than this badly listing version reveals, a complexity that ranks it (along with, say, Major Barbara and Man and Superman) as a true Shavian classic. The question remains how to make Shaw relevant to us as other than quaint entertainment and theatrical history these days? How do we do it without damaging his dramatic fabric? Are some plays in the Shaw canon perhaps more suited to classic status – bold reinterpretation – than others?
Even this year’s production of Candida wavered badly. Candida’s overweening maternal instincts that turn the men in her life to coddled toys cry out for Freudian interpretation from characters who should realize the demeaning roles in which their family comedy traps them, while playing these parts to the hilt. Or, one wants a force of nature Candida, a mother goddess woman in whom all other female roles – including that of temptress – are subsumed, not a tutting, strutting fussy Candida thoroughly constricted by the corset of Victorian mores in which she’s so tightly laced.
The Admirable Crichton by J.M.Barrie did not fare any better as a supposed classic. Or is this latter play just another museum piece? The Festival version wants the play to laugh and sing and dance, make you feel as though you have walked into a Disney film where the quaint questions of master/servant and the rigid class system of another era are served up with feel good flapper music, desert island dreams and cute animal narrators.
In program notes, director Morris Panych (also a major Canadian playwright) asks us to look back from our lives of equal opportunity to a period of socially embedded inequality. But the social satire no longer holds and Crichton is done as “an absurd comedy” rather than as a fantasy with a social edge. Anyone who knows Barrie’s children’s classic Peter Pan knows how psychologically charged that fantasy can be and how, in the way Barrie kept changing endings and revising his own scripts, he was profoundly influenced by the illusory nature of life both on and offstage and by the mutability of the human personality. Barrie’s work – especially The Admirable Crichton – invites a full-frontal post-modern interpretation. What it gets here is one that is statically retro and depressingly self-conscious.
Drama at Inish – this year’s example of a ‘re-discovered classic’ – was written by Irish playwright Lennox Robinson (1886-1958) and is itself indeed all about staging classic plays in a light-hearted world. Described by Shaw’s Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell as a type of “gentle comic meta-theatre that promotes the cause of Art” the play depicts a small repertory company trying to survive in an Irish seaside town with heavyweight plays by the likes of Ibsen and Chekhov, a situation that unsettles a local population bred on radically lighter fare. And so angst is injected into the comfortably bourgeois community of Inish.
Drama at Inish may speak to the power of theatre but it does so through period comedy that doesn’t travel easily to us now. There is too great a gap between modern audiences and these nineteenth century parochial folk. They are merely curiosities that one peers down on from a cultural distance. If contemporary audiences are to wrestle with the place of the provocative in everyday life, it needs to do so through the revolutionary nineteenth century dramatists themselves or their modern equivalents (the authentic creators of classic dramas) and not through parodies of them as is Inish.
One such modern classic is certainly Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As produced at Shaw it is a lightning strike of character clash and it dazzles. Williams himself has said that “the theatre is a place where one has time for the problems of people to whom one would show the door if they came to one’s office for a job.” A poet of dramatic emotions, his plays always try to catch “that true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.” The inhabitants of Williams’ world are driven by nobility and dreams, as director Elia Kazan once said, hung along a live wire between “the mind’s despair and the heart’s hope.”
Williams was almost as prolix as GBS himself in his stage directions. For Cat, he specified “a quality of tender light on weathered wood” and a room that evoked “some ghosts.” Designer Sue LePage took these suggestions to heart in the Shaw production, creating long planked walls and endless shutters, lit to caramel by late afternoon sun in the high-ceilinged bedroom opening humidly onto a wrap-around balcony. This is the stage, ‘deeply scarred by time, weather’ and emotional extremity upon which life and death will dance and fight. We find out who the ghosts are as the play proceeds.
Kenneth Tynan once called Cat a birthday party about death. It is certainly that. The Shaw production quivers with the neurotic ambivalence of Cat memorably in a late scene that skulks around the play’s sordid theme of mendacity, like the careful feline of its title, alternately hissing and tentative. Maggie has just told Big Daddy the lie that she and Brick are pregnant. Always attracted to the sleek, fiery quality of her spunk and strained ambition, he stops the show with the lascivious movement of his hand fondling her breasts and wandering slowly down to her crotch, Big Mama and the whole damaged family watching, as he utters the words: “This girl has life in her body, that’s no lie.” This play, understood, maintains the genuine energy of a true classic.
The Stratford Festival, on the other hand, managed their classical mandate somewhat differently although, to make ends meet, they are now regularly doing “classic” musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and zipped up musicalized productions of plays such as Twelfth Night (in which John Lennon makes several amusing appearances). Add in a first-rate production of Pinter’s modern classic The Homecoming and a gender bending Richard III and you have the word “classic” truly examined, interpreted and thoroughly re-assessed.
One important aspect of the classic question connects to the strong case made by critic Richard Schechner for what he calls the possibility of detaching “role-characteristics” from “actor-characteristics” on the assumption that any skilled performer can theoretically play “class, gender, race, body type.” Schechner admits that gender may be the most resistant to open casting, so deeply encoded is it in most cultures. If so, Stratford actress Seana McKenna, proves the theory playing the character of Richard III in Stratford’s 2011 production directed by her husband, Miles Potter. McKenna says she began rehearsals without make-up and wearing trousers so that she could more convincingly ‘masculinize’ herself. For McKenna, Richard is “pretending to be many things he’s not. I’ve just added another layer.”
McKenna’s Richard is all performance and tricky language. Hence, more emphatically male interpretations of the part – dark and brooding – may predispose us to a Richard that pulls away from the crackling malevolence that McKenna’s mercurial interpretation brings. She prances, slides and somersaults through Richard’s many plots like a trapeze artist. This Richard may be slight of build and light of voice but he is ugly, short, balding, drably clad, his stringy hair hanging limp with the sweat of malevolence.
When he confesses how amazed he is that he is now seducing Anne, whose husband he so recently killed (“was ever a woman in this humour woo’d?/ Was ever a woman in this humour won?”), when he expresses shock that she responds (“Upon my life, she finds – although I cannot – / Myself to be a proper man,”) we can’t take our eyes off him, nor shut our ears to him.
In McKenna’s performance, the heft of the hunchback can be felt in the wiliness with which he schemes, his delicious surprise at some new twist, his perverse delight in sharing it with us, the ironic way he sees the mean world into which he was born and his supremely inventive, exhaustively manic compulsion to crawl all the bloody way up to a throne he will be unable to maintain. So here we have a western classic, successfully re-genderized.
For Stratford’s Twelfth Night, the theatre’s Artistic Director Des McAnuff offers a pitch-perfect combination of a skewed and illusory Illyria mixed into a feverish modern musical. Two miniatures set the tone: an Elvis-style white guitar stage left and a grand Elizabethan sailing vessel stage right. Both indicate the range of mania and masking in this super skillful production of deception and disguise. The play’s delightful poetry also inspires a full flowering of musical modes throughout as past meets present, as classic meets contemporary, from cool jazz riffs to Beatles’ keyboard moments – a John Lennon clone in immaculate white and round sunglasses tickling the ivories. As successfully as the Greeks, McAnuff infuses the drama with music.
Contemporary touches work wonderfully. Brian Dennehy’s Sir Toby Belch enters thwacking a golf ball while the disguised twin Viola bats a softball. All this while intricacies of plot unfold. At the bar later, Feste launches into a folksy “Come and kiss me sweet and twenty” that crescendos in a manic rock moment to “Prithee hold thy peace.” Shortly after, the sublimely silly knight Aguecheek pukes into a sink as the doorbell rings signaling another entrance by Lennon, now delivering pizza.
Another classic – Moliere’s commentary on critics and criticism, The Misanthrope – is here turned into a debate on quality, judgement, taste and behaviour. These are real questions in a post-modern world where evaluation of any kind is too easily dismissed as politically incorrect because it’s bound to offend someone. But that’s the idea isn’t it, offense in the service of improvement?
Interestingly, it is the language of Richard Wilbur’s 1954 English translation which becomes the most important actor on the stage, alive with wit, cut and thrust. “Trust the words,” says Wilbur “to convey the point and persons of the comedy.” Stratford’s production does that, bon mots dropping into the subtle net of rhyming couplets as naturally as winter pears off a tree. This is our own world of celebrity, shredded effectively and at an acceptable remove.
It must also be said that other Misanthropes have also thrived utilizing contemporary adaptations, including one production whose characters sported cell phones and laptops. No doubt the next one will feature I-Pads and hand-held televisions. But Wilbur’s English translation is truly for the ages, articulating elegantly the stability of the old-fashioned world desired by Alceste and perhaps many of us, not the insecure one of a seventeenth century aristocratic salon nor our own skittishly mobile mode of being.
Perhaps the season’s highlight at Stratford was coming to truly understand how much of a modern classic Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming really is and how staggering its power lines which zing like lighting through this magnificently horrible family, buzzing them like electrical shock so that they are hurt, even deformed but outwardly unchanged. This is a family not merely dysfunctional but emotionally deprived, hollowed out, depraved. Truly a play in which, as critic Michael Billington has written, we find “the absence of a conventional moral framework.” Is it that which most alarms us? A perfect vehicle for Greek tragedy, The Homecoming is nevertheless not tragedy. Nor is it, despite many rueful laughs in Stratford’s cannily paced production, comedy. It is pure Pinter and it may be the masterpiece in which this playwright most fully defines his own unique genre, his own version of what classic really is.
Pinter’s text is a perfect mix of colloquial and banal, most recognizable as his “musical score,” (in the words of director Jennifer Tarver), that drops into moments of profundity, sending up little fizzing flames that barely muffle the roar of primal hungers. We are equally affected by a person sitting in a chair or not sitting in a chair: a person seducing someone with a glass of water, or pricking academic pretense with the crossing of a leg, ‘a tucking up into bed’ nursery rhyme that comforts with dark sexuality. Pinter takes working class domestic drama, winds it up tight and lets the tension ooze out in a quixotic mixture of bare-faced, blatant rapacity and naïve gentility.
The central question in any production of this play is how to interpret Ruth. How to make her transition from saint to sinner believable. Pinter provides the ammunition that the actor and director must follow: what she says and, perhaps more crucially, what she doesn’t say; how she moves about the room encroaching ever more imperiously upon male territory, the way in which she, sitting smugly at play’s end on the throne of power, creates a take it or leave it contract for working conditions as the family’s classy mother and part-time whore.
Whether a feminist manifesto or a dramatist’s deus ex machina, Ruth embodies some core truth that keeps us coming back. Perhaps the mystery of this coup de theatre is the real genius of The Homecoming and it may even be the fire at the heart of any genuine classic. Whatever it is, the play remains a mystery, gnawing away at a level deeper than reason.
A final word here on the idea of a Canadian classic. The work in this instance is Michel Tremblay’s 1970s hit, Hosanna, produced this year at Stratford’s tiny Studio Theatre. A play that is itself rooted in disguise, denial and bad taste, the Stratford production plays it as tightly stretched drama shot through, like rotting silk. A dark sheen creeps everywhere: in shadowy mirrors and around fusty costumes; in an awful erotic painting on the wall; in blinking neon lights just outside the room. The theatrical journey between The Homecoming and Hosanna – both played in the same theatre – seems only to involve a single step, from London’s north end to Montreal’s east end.
Yet there are real differences. Though these may be the same dispossessed people, rudely lost and crudely looking for love, Pinter’s people move in a nasty threatening world of understatement and undertone – full of significant tiny actions and fraught dramatic moments. Tremblay’s, on the other hand, are watching themselves in mirrors, effectively serving as both actor and audience.
It is hard not to compare the original 1974 Tarragon production starring Richard Monette (later Stratford’s artistic director) with a modern restaging. Monette’s manically driven performance in the title role brought to genuine life an outrageous drag queen dressed to imitate Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra in the classic Hollywood film. His was a performance of brittle glittering pathos, a rage of heartache and hunger. Unfortunately, this Hosannah has none of the fury that Monette brought to the role, trading laughs for a sad, one-dimensional sense of languish.
Even without the politics and the Quebecois dialect that fuelled the original production, a new production of this play needs to find its essential theatricality and the levels of illusion that define it. It is as much about performance as Richard III. To present it as sociology is to miss the power of subculture and the play’s ironic commentary on fantasy and delusion. Clearly, different classics need different treatments. Although this play about identities courts a universal theme, it needs to be connected more closely to its original context or it simply runs the risk of remaining a curious period piece, a sad declassifying of a classic.
In the end then, a real question still remains for those of us – directors and critics especially – who are professionally concerned about such things as canon and authenticity and authorial voice. How can classically-mandated theatres around the world keep inventing new ways of seeing, being and becoming? Where is the line to be drawn between museum and myopic post-modernism? Canada’s two flagship companies seem to be looking both ways at the moment, unsure of their most artistically effective and economically viable directions. They are at a crossroads and the way they take will determine both their futures and our notions of classical theatre.
 Patricia Keeney is a Canadian theatre critic and author of nine volumes of poetry and one novel. Don Rubin is founding Editor of the quarterly journal Canadian Theatre Review and Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. They both teach at Toronto’s York University.