Cliff Cardinal’s Shakespearean musings

I’ve just been to “a Radical Retelling” of As You Like it by Cree actor and playwright Cliff Cardinal at Crow’s Theatre.   A story about someone banished into the forest after his property is stolen from him by his brother seems apt for adaptation by an Indigenous playwright.  

Cliff Cardinal (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Cardinal’s work chases me back to other theories, recalling other approaches to Shakespeare and adaptation.

I see two theorists in natural opposition as east and west.

Maeterlinck and Meagher are opposites. Meagher breaks down the mechanics of how the personages would have been put on the stage of Shakespeare’s time in Shakespeare’s Shakespeare. It’s a book with a focus on dramaturgy, the works in context. He identifies the possible doublings in a play, for example The Fool and Cordelia in King Lear.  I would never have known about this intriguing study had I not had the good fortune to hear Meagher in a classroom here in Toronto.  If not Meagher, there are others one could read, taking comparable positions.

The opposite to Meagher’s pragmatism is Maurice Maeterlinck, the creator of The Intruder and Pelléas et Mélisande.  His dramaturgy is the other extreme from live performance itself, having expressed his discomfort with the body of the actor, saying “The day we see Hamlet die in the theatre, something of him dies for us. He is dethroned by the spectre of an actor, and we shall never be able to keep the usurper out of our dreams.”.  He would prefer to read a play than to see it. No wonder his works are so abstract, that he is a prototypical symbolist, avoiding theatricality like some kind of plague. Some of his plays had a quality identified as “monological”, where multiple characters might exchange words, while seeming to be communicating as though their thoughts came from the same head.

Okay, so I’ve described a polarity that’s my east and west, my left & right if you prefer, imagining four directions as we see in the spirit wheel.  These two are the concrete bodies onstage, vs the imagined bodies in our heads as we read. The other two polarities I picture for Shakespeare (or any other author) have more to do with the question of the author’s meaning or intention. Now before you all start giggling at the idea that anyone can know intention, I merely raise that topic because some delve into such questions, while others would declare them irrelevant: suggesting another polarity.   

The theorist whose analyses of Shakespeare (who he is, what he’s after, how to understand his work) have hit me most profoundly is Sky Gilbert in his study Shakespeare Beyond Science.   He’s far from alone of course. As I mentioned in my review of Sky’s book last autumn, there are more books about Shakespeare than anyone in history, except for Jesus and Napoleon. Never mind all these books and their explanations, I’ve only invoked them as the opposite direction to Cliff Cardinal and others in his camp…

Let me mention another theorist, though, while speaking of Cliff.  One of the strangest, dumbest, funniest moments in my academic career came when I presented a paper while sitting beside Linda Hutcheon, a humble scholar who was very gentle while more or less explaining why I was full of crap to a seminar room full of colleagues.  I blush at the recollection.  I was talking in my over-eager way about adaptation while looking at the whole question of how closely adaptations steer to their original, using the vague term “fidelity” while seeking something almost mathematical in its reductive precision. Linda very gently asked me why I thought an adaptation needed to be faithful at all. It was polite, but my jaw dropped at the question, at the possibility (ha…. or certainty?) that I was the old-fogey conservative in the room.

Whoops. And her question could very easily be a kind of footnote to Cliff’s bold work.

I suppose I came at it leading with my musical background, numbly aware (if that isn’t a complete oxymoron), that sometimes music is radically altered in its treatment, no longer something we’d call an “interpretation” but now having become through a series of changes (insertions, deletions, shifts of emphasis) a new text and such a new text as to require a shift in the attribution of authorship.

I think it’s a different question with Shakespeare than with a more recent author such as Maeterlinck.  Shakespeare himself was regularly appropriating stories from other sources for his plays, in a time when plays were not yet published the way they are now: with declarations of copyright.  Maeterlinck’s death is sufficiently distant to make his work public domain, but except for his early creations are largely forgotten now.  It’s exciting to adapt and change something people know and recognize, not nearly so exciting when we don’t know the thing being adapted.  Linda Hutcheon made a wonderful analogy for the excitement of adaptation, reminding us of the palimpsest, an old manuscript where something has been written over top.  If the old thing showing through the layers is unknown to us? the adaptation won’t have the same torque, won’t even be intelligible as adaptation, because we won’t recognize the part that’s from the earlier thing, mixed with the new thing overlaid.

When does it stop being Shakespeare, and become for example, Cardinal? I was thinking of this earlier today while playing a couple of of Busoni’s Bach transcriptions, pieces that are barely Bach once Busoni gets his big hands on the ideas.

But Bach is still visible through Busoni’s overlay. What if we can’t easily discern the original in the adapted version?

That’s the challenge of any adaptation and is surely part of the fun.   

In the spirit of being spoiler-free, I’m avoiding saying too much about Cliff’s choices. I recommend his radical retelling at Crow’s Theatre, running until October 24th.   

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