July 18, 2008

King Lear with Eskimos

Forum--Canada's Eskimo 'Lear'In 1961, David Gardner was asked to direct King Lear for the Canadian Players. He discusses his Eskimo concept for the production. A shortened version of this paper was delivered at the American Society for Theatre Research on 22 November 1985.

I was lying in the sun, visiting with friends on an island in Georgian Bay, when I hit upon the idea of a Native Peoples Lear, either Amerindian or Eskimo; a non-Christian semi-oriental culture introduced to America across the Bering land-bridge and reaching back centuries before the coming of the Europeans, perhaps as far back as the stone age. I settled quite quickly on an arctic Lear situated on top of the world, Eskimo rather than Indian, because of an extra sense of bleak removal and heightened universality. Above the tree line, in the far north, the shapes were more organic, more abstract, an endless horizon shaped by the wind. As Gloucester says 'for many miles about / there's not a bush' (II, iv, 299-300). And the key-word that echoes throughout King Lear is 'nothing'.
Gardner discusses the problems in making an Eskimo King Lear. Then he tells how it played:There is no doubt that the production itself created controversy and attracted unexpected attention. Certainly, it played to sell-out crowds across North America, and on December 1, 1961 was reported to have enjoyed at least one cheering, standing ovation in Hanover, New Hampshire. In the English press there are certain weekly and/or monthly theatre periodicals that explore the intentions behind an unusual interpretation and analyze its success or failure. Regrettably, in North America, the Eskimo Lear did not receive this kind of critical analysis. However, while the overnight newspaper reviews tend to treat theatre productions primarily as news events, each of the dozen or so reviews that I have been able to assemble, express fairly strong reactions to the performances and to the arctic setting. On the balance it is clear that the majority of reviewers essentially resisted the Eskimo concept while at the same time admiring the production itself. '"King Lear" Entrances Despite Setting Change' was the way one Canton, Ohio critic headed his critique.An incisive review in The Hamilton Spectator:With slight amplification in cast and scenery, this production is worthy of Stratford at its best [Stratford had not yet produced its first Lear] ... As is so often the case in modern productions of Shakespeare, a gimmick has been considered necessary to provide a fresh approach ... Lear and the other players wear the furs of Eskimos and other northern dwellers. The scenery includes tents and a fishing net. The crude weapons carried include harpoon-like spears. For sound effects there are howling of dogs and weird, tribal music. The impression, as it is intended to be, is primitive and pagan, and lends strength to the violence of emotion which marks this play. On the other hand, it cannot help but draw undue attention to background and costumes at times. The contrast between the beauty and flow of Shakespeare's language and the rough appearance of the speakers is marked. It is impossible, too, without rewriting Shakespeare, and renaming characters, to get away from such familiar references as the British counties which give their names to some of the players--Kent, Gloucester and Cornwall. All these are liable to conjure up conflicting pictures in the minds of the audience ... Fortunately, one is able after a time to get used to the background sufficiently to let the majesty of the poet's words and the skill of the actors monopolize the attention.Perhaps not surprisingly, Gardner deems his production a success:In retrospect, I think our attempt to find an original cross-cultural springboard for Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece succeeded. For us, it gave the production a sharper artistic focus. We were encouraged to stretch for the haunting extremes within the play: its primitive, animalistic savagery at one end of the scale, and its achingly lonely monumentality on the other.

It was not just another production of King Lear dressed in a safe and borrowed tradition. There were risks involved for players and audience alike. For Canadians, at the time, it meant for a moment that we had made one of the great plays in the classic repertoire our own. There was a thrill to that and I think something almost metaphoric in the choice of setting. We live along a northern frontier. Winter exposure can mean death or madness. As members of a small, proud nation, Canadians (like King Lear) have tasted the threat of being shoved aside, exiled and forgotten. We know, too, a lot about the selfish cruelty of small-mindedness.
Comment:  Here's a Web page with illustrations of Gardner's King Lear. For more on the subject, see Eskimos:  The Ultimate Aborigines and Native Plays and Other Stage Shows.


Anonymous said...

last I heard "Eskimo" is a derogatory work for Innuit, which is completely disrespectful to our ndn brothers and sisters up north.

I have no doubt you are already aware of this and have ample euro-centric rationalizations to smearing the word "Eskimo" up and down your pages...even though it points to the fact you are a part of the groups you critizice thus.

I suggest you cease throwing the word "Eskimo" around and give credience to the proper name, which is Innuit.

Rob said...

First, it's "Inuit," not "Innuit." So much for your expertise on the matter.

Second, the Inuit aren't Indians or "ndns." They're Alaskan Natives, a related but separate category.

Third, my wording reflects what's in the original article. If David Gardner called his production an "Eskimo King Lear," it's not my place to correct his characterization.

Fourth, you have no idea what I've "smeared up and down my pages." In fact, I use "Eskimo" and "Inuit" roughly the way I use "teepee" and "tipi"--to indicate the Anglo and Native versions of a concept.

Fifth, I don't believe Eskimos and Inuit are the same thing. "Eskimo" is an umbrella term that may include the Inuit and others.

Here's a posting on the subject:


Qitsualik:  Is it 'Eskimo' or 'Inuit?'

The confusion derives from this sticky fact: Inuit are not Eskimos, and Eskimos are not Inuit.

[G]enerally, one can get away with using "Inuit" as a kind of umbrella term for eastern Mongolic peoples.

The umbrella term for the far west, Alaska, is "Eskimo." Alaskans do not seem to mind its usage these days, simply because it provides a handy general term.

Rob said...

Based on Qitsualik's article, I have to assume Gardner meant what he said when he wrote "Eskimo," not "Inuit." Again, they aren't the same thing.

By the way, I'm sure you have ample Native-centric rationalizations for smearing my postings frequently. Care to tell us what they are?

I suggest you cease throwing your opinions around until you've researched them as well as I have. Then I won't have to correct you so often.