I have had a long-time love affair with the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. It began when I was a student at the Elmira and District Secondary School, less than an hour’s drive away. Every winter, the Grade 12 and 13 English classes would study the Shakespeare plays that were to be produced in Stratford the following season, and in April we would be bussed in to see an afternoon dress rehearsal. It quite literally brought the study of Shakespeare to life. I still have the slim house programs from my two visits in the 1970s – complete with full-page cigarette ads.
Over the years, whenever I returned to Elmira to visit my folks in the summer, I would try to get to the theatre for another dose of Shakespeare. After I quit practising law in Edmonton, I felt it was time to come home. My parents were getting elderly, and for decades I had been missing out on family celebrations. But I wasn’t ready to retire completely, so in 2013 I bought a bed-and-breakfast in Stratford. My plan was to host theatre guests from May to October and spend the winter months doing my own reading and writing – and improving my chess game.
It didn’t quite work out the way I had planned. The B&B I bought needed a lot of tender loving care, so most of my time and energy in the off-seasons have been spent doing renovations. My reading, writing, and chess fell by the wayside. But I was able to spend time every week with my parents before they passed on, so no regrets. The timing was fortunate.
Cultural institution: Theatre-goers line up for Stratford’s founding opening performance, Richard III, in 1953 and below an early-era performance of The
Gondeliers. (Below image credit: Albert Crookshank)
For my first few years in Stratford, I tried to get to every play that was produced in the three main theatres – a total of nine or ten shows per season, of which three or four were by the Bard of Avon. This enabled me to discuss the plays with my guests around the breakfast table and to recommend my favourites of the season. Except for the occasional perplexing directorial decision, the productions were consistently of the highest calibre: great acting, singing, dancing; excellent staging, lighting, sound.
So it was no wonder for me that in the decades since its founding in 1953 the Stratford Festival had become a national cultural institution. Amidst vast herds of cultural mediocrity and marginalia that barely lurched along despite massive infusions of public cash, Stratford delivered quality and enjoyment funded almost entirely by ticket sales and generous private donations. And its oeuvre wasn’t monotonously highbrow, either, with the Festival staging performances of everything from Peter Pan, delighting families, to the The Rocky Horror Show, swelling ticket sales.
Even when a traditional play was transported to a different time and place, the director and actors remained faithful to the text and the alteration generally worked. For example, the 2013 version of The Merchant of Venice was set in pre-World-War-II Germany, which enhanced exploration of the play’s anti-Semitic theme. In 2014, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed as an orgy of gay and lesbian romance – rather too camp for my tastes, but admittedly consistent with the play’s central message that love is a kind of madness.
The author looked forward nearly his whole life to every new Stratford Festival season. A production of Romeo and Juliet (above) and (below) The Merchant of
Venice in 2013. (Image credits: David Hou)
But something has changed in the past five years which has made the theatre experience much less enjoyable for me. The production values remain as high as ever, but the awokening of the theatre company has become unbearable. I suppose it was bound to happen. Political correctness drove me out of academia around the turn of the century; and rampant bias against fathers, as I chronicled in my book Ideology and Dysfunction in Family Law, made the practise of family law depressing for me in the 2000s. It was only a matter of time before corrosive identity politics invaded the most culturally conservative institutions. And what could be more culturally conservative than that quintessential dead white European male, Shakespeare?
The change was almost imperceptible at first: women were cast to play the parts of secondary or tertiary male characters. This had no impact on plot development – it was, strictly speaking, pointless – although it could cause momentary confusion when an obviously female actor was referred to by Shakespeare’s masculine pronoun. The misgendering could throw off those like me who aren’t fluent in Shakespearean English for two or three plot twists.
Later, I observed that pairs of minor characters – such as two soldiers posted at the night watch – would be portrayed as gay. Again, this alteration had no impact on plot or character development; it seemed to be nothing more than an attempt by the theatre to fill a 10 percent quota of non-cis-gendered characters each season.
Not 100 percent highbrow: Peter Pan (at left) in 2010 delighted families and (right) The Rocky Horror Show
sold a lot of tickets in 2018.
You might wonder how the audience could determine that minor characters, faithfully uttering the lines written by Shakespeare, were gay. The answer is that they were portrayed as gay in the most flamboyantly stereotypical manner: flouncing around on stage with limp wrists and lisps, patting each other on the bottom. I marvelled at how the theatre could get away with these portrayals year after year without bringing a human rights complaint down upon their heads. So 1980s!
The pointless gender-bending culminated in the 2018 production of The Tempest, wherein the great Martha Henry took on the role of Prospero. Now, don’t get me wrong: Henry can command the stage like no other. But there is something strangely unconvincing about an 80-year-old woman having a 15-year-old daughter, no matter how good the acting.
These are relatively minor quibbles. The greater disillusionment comes from everything the plays are increasingly wrapped in and accompanied by. What is true of sports and sex is true also of theatre: people like to talk about it even more than they like to engage in it. The theatres in Stratford have cashed in on this preference by expanding their house programs to include commentary on the plays by directors and outside academics. They have expanded their program of “Forum” events, where professors and public intellectuals give literary criticism and lectures on topics related to the themes of the year’s plays. This is where Stratford’s awokening reaches its apex of condescension and preaching.
Stereotyping and gender-fluid casting: Qasim Khan (left) plays a twin and (middle) Sébastien Heins a female courtesan in 2018’s The Comedy of Errors. At right,
Martha Henry playing a wise-old man in The Tempest the same season. (Left and middle image credit: Cylla von Tiedemann)
Starting around the time of the 2016 American election, seemingly every production had to be interpreted as a commentary on some aspect of the Donald Trump candidacy for President, no matter how strained the connection might be. Mostly it was partisan, superficial, obvious and tiresome. From there, the theatre rapidly devolved into an uncritical platform for every “progressive” cause that came along. Virtue signalling along all of the accepted vectors has become the order of the day. Sometimes, it insults the intelligence. Rarely do these forays get Shakespeare – or the other playwrights – correct.
You can’t attend a performance anymore without first being hectored by a shopworn recording that acknowledges the Huron-Wendat, the Haudenosaunee and the Anishinaabe as the original stewards of the land on which the theatres are built. The Festival Theatre’s Executive Director has stated in the local newspaper that “land acknowledgements” are a traditional practise at Indigenous formal gatherings, justifying constant replication in the spirit of being “welcoming” and “inclusive.” Never mind that standard historical works concluded that the dense forests in this area were never occupied territories before Europeans cleared the trees and plowed the fields. There is no evidence they were even Indigenous hunting grounds.
More important, it is difficult to see how today’s remnants of the Huron-Wendat would feel welcomed by a recognition of Haudenosaunee presence in the territory, having been massacred and driven out of southwestern Ontario by them in the 1600s. Nor is it likely that the Haudenosaunee traditionally practised land acknowledgements in favour of the Huron-Wendat who preceded them. The Anishinaabe felt no need to consult with or acknowledge the claims of either people before signing treaties acknowledging British title to the land that was to become Perth County in the early 1800s.
Still, in the spirit of reconciliation, everyone must now do their part by pretending to pay homage to what the Romantics termed the “Noble Savage” and about whom today’s bien pensants evidently feel similar sentiments. This irritates at least some theatre-goers, one of whom was churlish enough to point out the Executive Director’s ahistorical absurdity in a letter to the local newspaper.
Environmentalism and anti-capitalism made their inevitable intrusions upon Stratford as well, being crammed down theatre-goers’ throats with the 2017 production of The Madwoman of Chaillot. This is a 1943 French comedy by Jean Giraudoux set in the Paris district between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. The bien pensants commenting on this play presented it as an Avatar-like battle between good and evil – in this case, the benighted residents of Chaillot against the rich foreign developers who wanted to destroy Paris by drilling for oil. This misses the plot entirely.
Giraudoux opens the play with a pair of con artists at a café gloating over the success of their last scam and plotting their next. They hit upon the idea of hiring a corrupt geologist to produce a phony report claiming there is oil beneath Paris that can be profitably extracted. They’ll use this report to get investors to pour money into a fake exploration and production company, then run off with the money before any exploration is done and their scam is revealed. They are foiled by the madwoman of Chaillot, who uses their own deception against them. She lures the con artists into the catacombs beneath her mansion by planting oil-soaked rags down there – then slams a door closed behind them and seals them in their fate.
The play’s central comedic irony is that, far from protecting Paris from oil development, the madwoman unwittingly saves rich investors from being fleeced. She and her cohorts are not typical progressive heroes in another respect as well. They are xenophobes, probably anti-Semites. Part of their opposition to the oil development is that the people behind it are of a “different race,” they are “unrecognizable.” Given the long association of Jews with financiers in Europe, and the fact that Giraudoux was linked to France’s Second World War Vichy government, it has been plausibly suggested that starving the conmen in the dungeon is a metaphor for exterminating the Jews. No hint of this interpretation of the play was evident at Stratford, however; progressives like their heroes to be pure.
But let’s return to what is central to the Stratford Festival: Shakespeare. Among the clearest examples of the theatre’s awokening are the Director’s Notes to last year’s production of Othello. The director informs us that the action in Othello is driven by “hate, intolerance, and fear of the other,” and secondarily by Iago’s “self-loathing” and “misogyny.” He dedicates his production to “the victims of Christchurch, New Zealand,” suggesting that racial and religious intolerance, specifically anti-Muslim intolerance, is uppermost. At one of the Forum lectures, an English professor reinforced the notion that this is a theme by noting that the play refers continually to Othello with the dehumanizing epithet “the Moor.”
This is a terrible misreading.
One striking feature of Othello is that race and religion play only an incidental, background part. There is scant evidence that even Shakespeare’s greatest villain was a racist. In his soliloquys, which reveal his true motivations, Iago does not entertain racially disparaging thoughts about Othello. He uses racially charged language only when attempting to bait Roderigo (Desdemona’s suitor) and Brabantio (Desdemona’s father) into loathing Othello, to get their emotions running hot.
Othello is loved and admired by every other character in the play. A Venetian Senator calls him “valiant Moor.” The Duke tells Brabantio, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” Cassio states that the Christian Cypriots “approve the Moor,” and Othello says he has “found great love amongst them.” Even Othello’s bride refers to him, in his presence, as “the Moor” – clearly not intending it as derogatory.
Then and now: A classic performance of Othello (above) and (below) Stratford’s post-modern take, with religious intolerance and “fear of the other” driving the
play’s characters and explaining its meaning.
Given the cultural context in which it was written, Othello is remarkable for its lack of racism – dare one say it, even its anti-racism. Brabantio does not object to Desdemona choosing to wed Othello because he is black. Brabantio objects, initially, only because Iago told him that Othello had “poisoned” her to overcome her better judgment. After Desdemona explains how she fell in love with Othello, the Duke says, “I think this tale would win my daughter, too.” Brabantio is mollified.
It is equally obvious that religious intolerance does not drive the action. After all, Othello is a Christian. This is explicitly revealed by Iago when he tells Cassio that Desdemona has so much power of persuasion over Othello that she could get him to “renounce his baptism.” Presumably the Moor was born a Muslim; but we are told he was captured, sold into slavery, and then worked his way up to becoming a General of the Venetian military on the basis of his daring exploits. At some point in this journey, he obviously converted to Christianity.
Indeed, had Othello not converted, it is beyond doubtful that the Venetian Senators would trust him to lead their army into battle against the “Ottomites,” who were Muslim. Nor would it have been possible for Desdemona to find a Catholic priest willing to
Wokeness takes over Stratford: Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino (left) and (right) Othello Director Nigel Shawn Williams.
marry her to the Moor at the spur of the moment – interfaith marriages being taboo. Since Othello was Christian, religious intolerance simply could play no role in motivating Iago. Anyway, Iago doesn’t have a religious bone in his body; why would Othello’s religion motivate him to revenge?
Nor is there evidence Iago “feared” Othello as “the other.” Iago feared nobody; he had a tremendous confidence in his own abilities, which were indeed prodigious. In his soliloquys, Iago mentions two reasons for hating Othello. First, Iago was disturbed by “rumours abroad, that ’twixt my sheets he has done my office.” Second, and much more importantly for plot development, Iago resented that Othello had promoted Cassio to the position of his lieutenant instead of him. To understand Iago – and therefore the play – we need to understand how he would have perceived being passed over.
Iago was Othello’s “ancient,” a trusted personal assistant with a nonetheless relatively low military status. He had served Othello faithfully and was now at an age when, if he didn’t get a promotion soon, he would remain stuck in the role. Iago desperately wanted the promotion that Cassio was awarded. Indeed, Iago arguably deserved it: his impressive ability to read the personality of others, to discern at a glance their strengths and weaknesses, and to quickly develop plans to exploit them speak to his strategic brilliance and knowledge of the ways of the world. Iago might be the most intelligent character in the entire Shakespearean opus.
By contrast, Cassio is a mere “arithmetician” – a book-learned aristocrat who had done little in the military to deserve the high position of lieutenant. Cassio was parachuted into the position largely on account of his station at birth. The injustice of the promotion is what grates on Iago. It is a grotesque misreading of Othello to suggest Iago is consumed by “self-hatred.” Rather, Iago suffers from wounded pride. He hates Cassio for usurping his position, and he hates Othello for being too blinded by partiality for the Venetian trappings of status to assess the case on its merits.
The lesson an audience is supposed to take away from Othello is that nothing good comes when decisions are based on birthright – or skin colour, religion, language, or other factors unrelated to merit. The meritorious resent it, and those lacking it are prone to messing everything up. Rewarding merit is part of the early-modern social revolution that Shakespeare was a part of advancing, along with marriage based on romantic love rather than on joining families to concentrate wealth, power and social standing.
Antoni Cimolino, the Artistic Director at Stratford, has not learned the proper lesson of Othello. At a recent “virtual townhall” meeting in the wake of Stratford’s devastating cancellation of its entire 2020 season, he promised to triple-down for the (hoped-for) 2021 theatre season on hiring cast members based on factors unrelated to merit. The theatre is now in the business of promoting woke, intersectional identity politics. More plays and more parts in plays are to be created for indigenous and LGBTQ+ actors, and for people of colour. Promoting a scripted diversity is more important than promoting theatrical values, because “social justice” overrides every other consideration these days. Nothing good will come of this, if Shakespeare is correct.
Not content to get the racial and religious aspects of Othello completely wrong, director Nigel Shawn Williams also felt obliged to misconstrue its sexual dynamics. As he wrote in his Director’s Notes (published in the printed House Program handed out to theatre-goers):
“We once again witness, with tragic consequences, how men can so easily hold on to a corrosive and insidious patriarchal system that works on fear and saves them from ridicule, rather than to trust and seek the source of real truth: women. Men in this patriarchal trap would rather kill than be ridiculed. How weak are we?…How much longer can we sustain this weakness? If we allowed a spirit, a life force, such as Desdemona’s to flourish in our midst, how much better our existence might be.”
At least this passage demonstrates that the director is familiar with self-loathing. To people such as him, maleness is apparently an illness and a weakness that must be overcome through supplication before “women” – which is to say, privileged, sheltered, innocent, white, European 15-year-old girls like Desdemona. The problem is that the world can be ugly at times; it takes a certain measure of strength and impulsiveness to protect innocent loved ones from the point of an Ottomite sword. Desdemona, I dare say, appreciated Othello’s manly virtues and the protection and privilege they afforded her: that’s her “real truth.” But beware, Shakespeare seems to be telling us: anything powerful enough to protect you and provide for all your wishes is also powerful enough to suffocate and kill you. This is true not only of powerful people, but of powerful governments and religions, too.
Perhaps the unfortunate turn toward preaching the progressive Gospel is merely a desperate attempt to “make Shakespeare relevant” to the contemporary audience. When I studied Shakespeare in high school, I learned that his appeal persists through the centuries and across all languages and cultures because he deals in human universals. He explores elements of human nature that transcend time and place: contentment and ambition, admiration and jealousy, love and hate, heroism and cowardice, meritocracy versus prejudice, deception and self-deception. Shakespeare remains relevant and will be eternally so because human nature doesn’t change with time or as technology and culture undergo radical change. Any postmodern attempt to make Shakespeare “relevant” and bend its messages to the progressive agenda is therefore bound to misunderstand him and his importance to the development of Western culture.
I suspect that the commentary in the house programs of the current generation of plays will age about as well as the cigarette ads in the house programs of my youth.
Grant A. Brown has a DPhil from Oxford University and an LL.B. from the University of Alberta, taught applied ethics and political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, practised family law, and currently runs a B&B in Stratford, Ontario.