Staging Inherited Stories

Reviewed by Alexandra Kovacs

In Political Adaptation in Canadian Theatre, Kailin Wright develops a theoretical framework to identify the strategies, functions, and impacts of political adaptation in Canadian theatre, a form of expression that Wright positions as a “leading mode of storytelling and self-definition in Canada” (3). This book addresses work by a range of playwrights and one collective (Marc Lescarbot, Optative Theatrical Laboratories, Margaret Clarke, Djanet Sears, Margaret Atwood, Erin Shields, Monique Mojica, and Daniel David Moses) who politicize inherited source material through a process of disidentification—“the strategy of simultaneously identifying with and against a dominant ideology in order to change it from within.” By constructing an engaging “theoretical architecture” (38) that braids together theories of identification (specifically the work of José Esteban Muñoz, Judith Butler, and Michel Pêcheux) with theatre, adaptation, and Canadian studies, the book isolates eight strategies operating across these performances to offer both a lens through which to analyze and a toolkit from which to create political adaptations. Researchers, artists, teachers, and students who wish to study and/or produce theatre that intervenes with “inherited narratives and existing cultural hierarchies” (13) will benefit from this publication that supplements a growing body of scholarship in theatre studies—such as the Palgrave Macmillan Adaptation in Theatre and Performance series edited by Vicky Angelaki and Kara Reilly—that engages with the appropriative dynamics of contemporary theatre practices.

Across four chapters, Wright pairs sets of allied political adaptations and analyzes them through the framework of disidentification to “define” and “provide terminology” for assessing “the relationship between adapted and adaptive narratives” (7). In the process, the author expands upon Linda Hutcheon’s celebrated horizontal continuum of adaptations to produce a grid that accounts for the complexity and multi-dimensionality of adaptation in the context of theatrical practice. In chapter one, Wright focuses on the adaptative approaches at play in Marc Lescarbot’s Le Théâtre de Neptune en la Nouvelle-France (1606) acknowledged as “the first documented play in what is now called Canada” which is itself an adaptation of the European oceanic masque and French réception (40). Wright’s analysis of Lescarbot’s work is combined with a discussion of Optative Theatrical Laboratories’ Sinking Neptune, produced four hundred years after Lescarbot’s performance, that works to “destabilize Le Théâtre de Neptune’s narrative of French authority” (52). Placing these two performances in conversation is a valuable contribution in itself; though scholars Jerry Wasserman and Alan Filewod offer insightful critical readings for each of these works, presently no single source brings these performances and their histories into dialogue. With analytical perceptiveness, Wright argues that although these plays are “oppositional” in their politics, they employ “shared strategies” of adaptation (44)—in both their creation process and dramaturgical didacticism—that “complicate[…] the binary between categories of postcolonial and colonial drama” (57). As such, this chapter is a useful resource for inclusion in courses that seek to problematize the historiography of theatre’s beginnings in North America while introducing students to the politics of theatrical commemoration’s dramaturgies.

A rather jarring leap in chronological and structural logic follows, as the focus of the remaining chapters concern political adaptations and their audiences in Canadian theatre from the 1990s to the present. In chapter two of the book, Margaret Clarke’s Gertrude and Ophelia (a 1992 adaptation of Hamlet) and Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet (a 1997 reworking of Othello), are together addressed to “showcase the radical potential of disidentification with dominant sources” (60). This chapter’s discussion of two adaptations of Shakespeare is unanticipated as the introduction of the book suggests the aim is to “expand[] the scope of source material” beyond Shakespeare and “represent . . . [a] significant range” in Canadian theatre’s adaptations (4). Nonetheless, Wright’s close reading of both these dramatic texts and their production contexts builds on and expands existing consideration of these plays, adding nuance to Ric Knowles’ observation, in his 2017 book Performing the Intercultural City, of the “subtlety, complexity, and variety” of multicultural theatre’s use of “strategic reappropriation” (36, 32). Wright teases out that very intricacy by highlighting the ways in which both plays stage failures of identification and counter-identification to reach a “third position” of disidentification that more than just distorts but also transforms the source material.

In chapter three, Wright returns to the book’s stated purpose to expand the range beyond adaptations of Shakespeare by addressing the use of chorus in both Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2007) and Erin Shields’ If We Were Birds (2008)—both feminist political adaptations of Greek mythology. The notion of disidentification is extended to the site of spectatorship in this chapter. Wright draws on Jürgen Habermas’ and Michael Warner’s theories alongside Muñoz’s work to explore how the chorus functions in these performances as a counterpublic that, when engaged with a public audience, produces a “dispublic” (34). Wright defines the dispublic both a “resistive audience” that “participate[s] in dominant society while working on and against its popular mythologies” and as a “socially conscious, mainstream audience” (133, 113). Wright here emphasizes the political potential of immersive dramaturgies to “transform” the audience experience. While drawing on quantitative data related to the audience demographics of these productions enriches the chapter’s claims, the focus on reception leaves unexplored a further consideration of how these productions disidentify the traditions of Greek theatre that they appropriate.

The book’s final chapter further applies disidentification as a strategy that achieves the “transformative” potential of political adaptation—offering an alternative to appropriation and assimilation. Wright here argues that the dramaturgies at play within Monique Mojica’s Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots (1990) and Daniel David Moses’ Almighty Voice and His Wife (1991) “reveal the potential of political adaptations to transform the source material without reinforcing its cultural significance or validity” (144). The pairing and comparative analysis is impactful in light of Daniel David Moses’ own acknowledgement that “the mainstream is still focused on guys” while Mojica is “the woman who made a splash” within the “first generation of Indigenous playwrights” (qtd. in Smith 88-89). Wright argues that both these works “adapt colonial myths without foregrounding the colonizer and reinscribing a colonial narrative” (141) demonstrating a process of adaptation that is not hierarchical but cyclical. This is achieved by the intertextuality of repeated “I am” declarations that appear across these works as a model of “disidentifactory dynamics.” Wright extends beyond Butler’s and J. L. Austin’s theories of performativity, heavily relied on in previous chapters, to include Chadwick Allen’s consideration of intertextuality in Indigenous literatures, demonstrating a recognition of what Jesse Rae Archibald Baker, Kathleen Irwin, and Moira Day assert as “the ethical problem of using Western theoretical approaches to interpret Indigenous literatures—in essence, another form of colonialism” (xix). However, further engaging Indigenous scholars in this chapter would deepen a consideration of how these playwrights “decolonize” their source material and problematize their categorization as examples of “Canadian theatre.” These are works now recognized as a “new canon” (Greyeyes 16) and a critical part of an Indigenous “body of work” (Nolan and Stanley with Payette). That said, the focused consideration on how the performances of identity expressed in the plays is complicated through the production elements of set, costume, props, and make-up (specifically the use of whiteface within Almighty Voice that “calls attention to the artificiality and transparency of race change” [Wright 164]), strengthens Wright’s honouring of Mojica’s and Moses’ work “to change the cultural value and relevancy of enduring source material” (180).

Political Adaptation in Canadian Theatre carefully places key works in Canadian theatre and Indigenous performance on Turtle Island in conversation with current scholarship focused on approaches to adaptation, beyond Shakespeare. It also offers an engaging theoretical framework—helpfully visualized as a grid that appears in both the introduction and conclusion—and an expansive methodology for analysis that can be applied to study other political adaptations by contemporary Canadian and Indigenous theatre artists such as Tara Beagan (Miss Julie: Sheh’mah), Sarena Parmar (The Orchard [After Chekhov]), Yvette Nolan (The Birds), Jason Patrick Rothery (Inside the Seed), and Wendy Lill (Messenger). These examples further illustrate Wright’s thesis that a defining feature of Canadian theatre production is the “dramatists’ propensities for telling borrowed stories” (9). Most importantly, the book provides an important resource for artists and students who will continue to politicize narratives inherited from the past in order to change the future.

Works Cited

Archibald-Barber, Jesse Rae, et al. “Introduction: Perspectives on Current Practice.” Performing Turtle Island: Indigenous Theatre on the World Stage, edited by Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber et al., U of Regina P, 2019, pp. xiii-xxxvii.

Greyeyes, Michael. “Inside the Machine: Indigeneity, Subversion, and the Academy.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 26, no. 4, 2014, pp. 1-18.

Knowles, Ric. Performing the Intercultural City. U of Michigan P, 2017.

Nolan, Yvette and Sarah Garton Stanley. The Summit: Meditations on an Indigenous Body of Work. Report from the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, National Arts Centre, Banff Centre. Apr. 2014. Accessed 7 Dec. 2020.

Smith, Annie and Daniel David Moses. “Conversation with Daniel David Moses, August 2016.” Performing Turtle Island: Indigenous Theatre on the World Stage, edited by Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber et al., U of Regina P, 2019, pp. 73-112.

This review “Staging Inherited Stories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 9 Apr. 2021. Web.

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