- Jerry Wasserman (Author)
Spectacle of Empire: Marc Lescarbot's Theatre of Neptune in New France. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alan Filewod
Rarely read, less rarely taught and unperformed for four centuries, Marc Lescarbot’s Theatre of Neptune in New France has always been a problem for historians of theatre in the Canadas. As Jerry Wasserman outlines in this very useful teaching edition, which includes a historical essay, Lescarbot’s original text, two translations and ancillary matter, The Theatre of Neptune has occupied an ambivalent terrain. It may not have been the first European theatrical performance in the Americas (such genealogical attempts at fixity implode along contested boundaries of “theatrical,” “performance” and “European”) but it seems to be the earliest textual transcription of a theatrical event. As such it has been claimed by several disciplinary formations as a point of origin: as a founding text variously of Canadian theatre, Canadian literature, Québécois literature and even American theatre.
Theatre historians know quite a bit about the single performance of The Theatre of Neptune, but that knowledge is skewed, because the only real source is the author’s own recollection. That means that despite the accumulations of tradition and iconography, we know very little about what actually happened on that November day 400 years ago. In his critical essay, Wasserman offers an engaging and supple overview of the historical variations of the play as a cultural event. He offers a comprehensive summary of the known facts and an excellent overview of the critical literature.
Wasserman is a distinguished anthologist of Canadian theatre whose two-volume collection of modern Canadian plays effectively defines the canonical boundaries of the academic discipline. He is also a major voice in the field of Canadian theatre history. This present book is the product of the anthologist rather than the historian. It does not seek to offer new research into the field, but instead brings together, for the first time, a basic package that will enable teachers and researchers to resituate the play in the canon. The two translations (by Harriet Taber Richardson in 1927 and Eugene Benson and Renate Benson in 1982), are sufficiently different to be useful examples of the politics of translation, and the contextual information on masques, pageants and entries will locate the theatrical traditions of Lescarbot’s form. The inclusion of The Masque of Blackness seems more of a convenience than a scholarly necessity, but the juxtaposition of the two texts enables a discussion of the historical procedures of racial masquerade and surrogation. This is a subject that Wasserman acknowledges but does not engage.
No discussion of The Theatre of Neptune can avoid the central problem that this masque was an operation of colonialism through spectacle, enacted though the surrogative bodies of Frenchmen masquerading as Indigenous peoples, who offer the new world to the French king in perfectly framed alexandrines. Wasserman does not avoid this discussion, but does take a mediating position against those (like myself) who have argued that the play was a racist masquerade that deployed spectacle to transform wilderness into empire. In his analysis, Lescarbot emerges as a French humanist whose representations of the Mi’kmaq peoples were “genuinely civil, or at least less toxic than most.” Unlike previous writers (like myself) he contextualizes the Mi’kmaq “sauvages” in the play in the larger field of Lescarbot’s writings, which he describes as “an extraordinary exercise in comparative ethnography.” In this, Wasserman finds levels of complexity that have not been addressed by previous scholarship.
That The Theatre of Neptune still resonates through our cultural imaginary can be seen in various efforts (including reenactments, artistic renditions and citations, such as Halifax’s Neptune Theatre) to mark it as an icon of nationhood. As Wasserman shows in his discussion of the carnivalesque attempt by the radical Optative Theatrical Laboratories to obstruct plans to reenact The Theatre of Neptune on site to commemorate its quadricentennial in November 2006, such citations still incite controversy. The rush to publish this text as a “400th Anniversary Edition” (to quote the cover copy) may explain why Wasserman did not include Optative’s deconstructive script, Sinking Neptune, in this volume. It would have been the ideal conclusion to this important and timely edition.
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MLA: Filewod, Alan. Colonial Spectacle. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 190 - 191)
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