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The Death of a Chief: watching for adaptation; or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bard.

This article is the record of a talk that was less about Shakespeare than about the uses to which Shakespeare can be put. It was written for the "Watching Ourselves Watching Shakespeare" conference, a public event organized around three productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), who were in residence in the Fall of 2006 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. One of the RSC productions was Julius Caesar, another was The Tempest. The latter set the play in an unnamed arctic location peopled by generic Native, or First Nations people and spirits. The masque was a vaguely Native dance/ceremony, perhaps adapted from a northern Cree or Ojibway culture in what is now Canada, though the connections were very loose. Ariel as a harpy emerged incongruously as a Northwest Coast Thunderbird figure from the belly of an eviscerated, geographically removed walrus. Prospero's magic robe sported a huge shamanistic hood, the invention of the designer, with no specific indigenous referent that I could identify. The show was lovely, but was also an appalling misappropriation, decontextualization, commodification, and eroticization of Native legends and images, many of them sacred.

In contrast to this, I spoke at the conference about what I had learned about my own practices of watching Shakespeare, as a post-colonialist critic, from seeing the workshop of an actual First Nations adaptation of Julius Caesar. I spoke about a production that was still, and, significantly, may always be, in process, and has so far had three public workshop presentations, though there are now plans for a full production in 2008 at Canada's National Arts Centre in Ottawa. (1)


The caricature of Shakespeareans at the theatre, popular among actors, is that they attend for the purpose of having their own interpretations of the text confirmed. This may have been true in the days of new criticism. A common defense is that no, we go to see the text newly illuminated, to discover new, "legitimate" readings of what's "in" the text through a new line reading, imaginative design, inventive blocking, or the strategic reappearance of a familiar costume, prop or set piece redeployed. This may have been true in that last outpost of new criticism, the canonical "Shakespeare revolution" scholarship on "Shakespeare in Performance." A more satisfactory defense, in my view, is that we go the theatre to watch a theatre company, at a particular historical and cultural moment, and using all of the representational technologies of theatrical production and performance (broadly understood), to engage with a rich representational history that includes all of the uses to which "Shakespeare" and the particular script in question, have been put. And I suspect that it is the richness of that history and its resonances with contemporary culture that makes "going to Shakespeare" different from almost any other kind of going to theatre. This final defense may have been true in the days of new historicism, and I'd like to think that it's still true, and that it's this third activity that I myself engage in. But I'm not sure in any simple sense that this is any longer the whole story.

The Death of a Chief

My first focused ruminations on this topic emerged in September 2005 as I watched an early workshop performance of a new play, a gender-bending First Nations adaptation of Julius Caesar called The Death of a Chief, under development at Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada's largest Aboriginal theatre company. The workshop, held at the unlikely venue of "Weesageechak Begins to Dance," the annual new play development Festival of Toronto's Native Earth Performing Arts, was in the early stages of collective creation. The Shakespearean script was undergoing adaptation by the all-Native acting company under the guidance of mixed-race Algonquin director, playwright and dramaturg, Yvette Nolan, the Managing Artistic Director of the company, and non-Native Shakespearean Voice teacher, Kennedy Catherine McKinnon.

I attended the workshop with all my postcolonial antennae poised. I anticipated a re-visioning, a show that "talked back" to Shakespeare as one of the major instruments of colonization. The fact that the play was Julius Caesar rather than the more familiar postcolonialist targets for adaptation--The Tempest, Othello, or even A Midsummer Nights Dream, with its Indian boy--made it all the more intriguing.

The show opened promisingly, with a ritualistic procession and First Nations "Honor Song" by the large company of performers from a variety of Nations. Neither text nor "character," in the traditional Western sense, was in sight. Gradually, however, it became apparent that what we were watching was a sophisticated kind of First-Nations, "shamanistic" (Nolan, "The Death" 3) dumb-show, what Yvette Nolan calls "a distillation of the whole play, a bit like a prologue that tells you the whole play in a physical motion" (see figure 1). The sequence had emerged from negotiations in rehearsal among the diverse Aboriginal cast, each member attempting to find connections between the play and her or his own traditional culture. "Naturally," according to Nolan, "people began to sing and drum, because that's what always happens, and so the piece became scored by the company. The seven-minute opening ... brings all of those elements into it--those traditional elements. We created our own ritual," she says (Personal interview). Like many First Nations productions in Toronto, this workshop was in part about building, and negotiating, a kind of pan-Indian, diasporic First Nations community in the city. Nolan is acutely conscious that Toronto's Native community is engaged in the ongoing act of performatively (re)inventing itself:
   the Mississauga of New Credit--that's sort of the local
   Indians--aren't even here anymore, and they're certainly not part
   of the Native Earth community. We're the Indian diaspora--we're
   Cree from Manitoba, and Haida from way out west, and Salish, and
   Mi'kmaq, and we're from everywhere. There are lots of Ojibway from
   around this area, but we are very much a pan-Indian organization.
   (Personal Interview)

This "Indian diaspora," however, is a perversely reversed version of the dispersion from a fixed homeland experienced by most diasporic communities. Nolan continues:
   Many of us didn't necessarily belong to a certain place. We
   belonged to big swaths of ground that we traveled on. And as
   contact happened, as settlers arrived, we were forced into smaller
   and smaller spaces. So ironically, our diaspora moves in the
   opposite direction--it is to the urban centres because of the
   terrible spaces that we were put in. The diaspora for us is from
   traditional huge lands to tiny little urban spaces that are
   completely, as in this place [Toronto's distillery district, where
   I interviewed her], dead land, covered up with concrete, dead water
   at the base of the city. Toxic. Smoggy. No animals. So it's
   interesting that our diaspora is a closing in, rather than a
   spreading out. (Personal Interview)


Asked if she is consciously bringing the very different communities that constitute Toronto's "Indian diaspora" together, performatively constituting it as a single community, Nolan responds,
   I'm always conscious of it, because whenever we do anything, we
   have to start with some kind of ceremony. So we're always inventing
   ceremonies. Pan-Indian ceremonies, right? When we have an elder,
   it's generally not an elder from this neck of the woods; it's
   whoever's elder is around. And certainly, as we, as Native people,
   try to rebuild a bridge between ourselves and our histories, pasts,
   cultures, we're reclaiming stuff that is not ours. Nations that
   have never done sweat lodges and sundances are doing sweat lodges
   and sundances, and we see tipis in places where there are no tipis
   and have never been tipis, there have been lodges. So it's all
   gotten a bit pan-Indian, for better or for worse. (Personal

Nolan is concerned about the loss of cultural specificity and the disconnect from specific traditions that this involves, particularly when the mix of Nations and cultures within the theatre community necessitates casting shows from across, and sometimes even outside of, First Nations and Aboriginal communities. But she is also concerned with the question of by whom and in whose interest tradition is controlled--and only partly because of the ways in which insistence on the purity and authenticity of tradition, as of blood or Native status, can be wielded outside the community to the detriment of peoples who have been forcibly disconnected from their histories. She is also concerned about control of tradition within aboriginal and First Nations communities, and it is in this regard that both the process and politics of The Death of a Chief are crucial:
   I have political problems with what tradition has been reclaimed
   and by whom, because one of the things that I found as an
   Aboriginal woman is that people who are claiming to be empowered to
   reclaim the traditions very often are men, and the traditions they
   reclaim very often exclude women, or put them in subservient
   positions. So it's the same old fight on many levels ... It's due
   to five hundred years of contact. It's due to our dysfunction
   as--it's due to the fact that it's taken seven generations to heal.
   So I'm very wary of who gets to say what tradition is. But when you
   put people in a room together, you end up with a discussion of what
   those traditions are, and who they've learned them from, and that's
   what they bring into the room. It's interesting when we work on a
   project like The Death of a Chief, which has, at any given time,
   between eight and fifteen Aboriginal artists in the room ... All of
   those people bring all of their traditions to the room and then we
   have a negotiation, and we agree on the things that we can agree
   on, and it works just like it says in the stories that it works, in
   that we sit and discuss it until we figure out what everyone can
   live with. (Personal Interview).

In the case of The Death of a Chief, the company started, within the context of repeated re-readings of Julius Caesar, with discussions of the indigenous traditions, rituals, guidelines, and principles that were lost with colonization, and that Native communities are trying to reclaim. They then examined how political and spiritual leaders, particularly men within those communities, had seized control of those traditions, Caesar-like, often to the exclusion or detriment of women within what had often been matriarchal cultures--in order to solidify their own positions. The company used the Shakespearean text, then, to examine, through a kind of authorizing displacement, the place of betrayal, personal ambition, and the abuse of power within First Nations communities, where the links between their project and Shakespeare's play about the roots of European history, were most deeply felt.
   At the end of the [first] day, everybody cried. At the end of the
   week everyone [was] exhausted because we worked through these ideas
   and we realize[d] we ha[d] no idea how to make things better. So we
   [kept] going further back, further back, and further back and in
   this case we went back to the Great Law [The Great Law of Peace,
   the founding constitution of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy,
   based on the principles of Righteousness, Health, and Power]
   (Yarrow) (3). We went back to even older traditions trying to find
   some way through to make our leaders more accountable to the
   people. And we don't know what the answer to that is ... And I guess
   that's why this story [Julius Caesar] is so fascinating to us
   because if we can work it out in this play then maybe we can work
   it out in our lives too. ("The Death" 4, my emphasis).

This early work began to circle around a single phrase from the play, "abuse of greatness is, when it disjoynes/Remorse from power" (2.1.18), a line seen to be representative of what happens, in Native and--crucially in terms of distancing the real and immediate pain of exposing fissures internal to the Native community--many other communities, once power is achieved:
   Our spiritual leaders start oppressing women or excluding women or
   abusing people who have less power than them and they've disjoyned
   remorse from power. That's just on the personal spiritual level.
   Then we move up to the Band politics level where we have a million
   examples of Chiefs--people who get elected Chief and then suddenly,
   at some point in the process, they begin to use the money for
   themselves. The money that's come into the community. They get big
   bonuses and other people don't or their friends get things and
   other people don't and that disjoins remorse from power and they
   have to be turned out. And when we move up to the [national]
   Assembly of First Nations level and we've got Chiefs who, at one
   point, were all men, when the Charlottetown Accord happened [in
   Canada], turning around and telling the women ...: "Okay, you just
   shut up and vote for this Accord." ... Well the women were in no
   way going to trust the Assembly of First Nations that was made up
   of all male Chiefs because that ... disjoynes remorse from power.
   ("The Death")

Once the action moved beyond the opening seven-minute movement sequence, this line served as a recurrent, choral refrain, and it also shaped the radical selection of text, which fundamentally moved from 1.2 through to 3.1, with, in the initial stage of workshopping, no newly written material introduced.

The revisionism of the text was, in some senses, extensive. The prologue used no text, but mimed the action of the first half of the play, Caesar's procession to the forum, his murder, Antony's lament over the corpse, plus plot elements that Shakespeare and history had neglected--such as the return of Caesar's body to Calphurnia. The prologue complete, the major textual innovation was to open at 1.2.81 (Brutus's line to Cassius, "what means this shouting"--shouting emerging from the final chant of the prologue's Honor song) and to limit the scenes played to selections from 1.2, 2.1, 2.2, 3.1, and 3.2, ending neither with Caesar's death nor with the orations of Brutus and Antony, but with Antony's earlier "O pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth" speech over Caesar's corpse, transposed from 3.1.257-278 to follow the orations and conclude the show with Antony's prophecy about letting slip the dogs of war. The first and second halves of 1.2 were intercut, split-screen style, so that Cassius courted Brutus on one side of the stage while Caesar commented to Marc Antony on Cassius' "lean and hungry look" on the other (see figure 2). The end of 2.1 (lines 232-770) was similarly intercut with 2.2--Brutus' domestic scene with Portia played against Caesar's with Calphurnia, while the conspirators chanted chorally, "it must be by his death," echoing Brutus's early speech from 2.1, which was performed immediately before Portia's entrance. 1.3 and all of the first half of 2.1 except for that speech--that is, the sequences involving Cicero and all those involving the conspirators--were cut, as were Brutus's exchanges with Lucius.


There was nothing particularly startling about either the cutting or the intercutting within these scenes--nothing, that is, that might not appear in a fairly heavily cut production at the RSC or at any North American Shakespeare festival--but the weight given to the women characters (in terms of the percentage of the material used) was unusual for a production of the determinedly masculinist Julius Caesar, as was the casting of women, the formidable Monique Mojica and Jani Lauzon (both of whom have experience with Shakespeare, the former as Ariel and the latter, notably, as Shylock (2)), to play Caesar and Antony respectively, while Cassius was also played by a woman, Michelle St. John, Mojica's and Lauzon's colleague in Toronto's Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble. Brutus was played by a man in the first two workshop presentations, and a woman in the third. Portia was played by a woman, Cheri Maracle, in every incarnation of the workshop to date. The Native feminist analysis that Nolan had suggested in her interviews was also underscored in the second workshop of the show by having Lauzon's Marc Antony emblematically braid the long hair of Mojica's Caesar in 1.2:
   [F]or us in the Aboriginal community, braiding is body mind and
   spirit body mind and spirit body mind and spirit that's what we are
   doing when we braid; that's why we braid sweetgrass; that's why we
   braid our hair; it's to be whole and holistic ... So for Jani
   [Antony], to be braiding Monique's [Caesar's] hair is like pulling
   her together, into a whole being, into a whole, sound being, which
   is what Caesar needs ... balance. ("The Death" 5)

Nolan also refers to the company's work with the text as braiding--the intercutting, the split-screen work, the rearrangements--pulling the divergent elements together into a specifically First Nations structural wholeness (Post-workshop).

But the connections to contemporary First Nations and Aboriginal communities were made in the same ways that most contemporary productions "reinvent" Shakespeare: seeing parallels between the "dysfunctional" communities of ancient Rome and contemporary society--in this case First Nations Canada (Nolan, "The Death")--between their different crises of leadership, succession, dissension, and so on. As Nolan says, "the narrative resonates in the Native community because it's all about Band politics; it's all about electing a leader and then overthrowing the same leader when he gets too big for his britches" ("The Death" 2). Indeed, Nolan sounds very like most unreconstructed contemporary directors of "mainstream" Shakespeare when she talks about what she, echoing many, calls his "universality":
   There's no getting away from the influence of Shakespeare, at all,
   ever. Anywhere. You know the Sistine Chapel, where God and Adam's
   fingers are touching, that feels to me like it's not really
   Adam--that's Shakespeare. It feels to me that everything is in
   Shakespeare and nobody else has paralleled that in the English
   language ... He's everywhere. Every community, every cultural group
   has been able to find their own experience reflected in
   Shakespeare, even though he wrote in English. ("The Death" 2)

Elsewhere Nolan talks about Shakespeare as one of the (transcultural) "elders," passing wisdom along to her community, among others (Personal Interview).

The cumulative effect of the work that has been done so far on The Death of a Chief, then, has been a curious (and somehow familiar) blend of reverence and radical revisioning, not least of which has to do with the complexity of the decision to end the show with Antony's "O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth" speech, and to cut the entire second half of the play. Nolan explains:
   Cathy and I--well, I especially--don't care much for the fourth and
   fifth acts of the play because it feels like there's nothing new in
   there for me. We all know how it's going to go. It's an interesting
   thing because of the cyclical nature of Indian storytelling; we
   don't actually need to do the full cyclical thing that happens in
   Julius Caesar. ("The Death" 4)

The effect of closing with Antony's moving eulogy, however, taken together with the casting, the intimate braiding scene between him/her and Caesar, and the sympathetic focus on Calphurnia, seems to have been to restructure the play as the more or less unequivocal "Tragedy of Julius Caesar" that Shakespeare failed, or chose not to write (in spite of the play's folio title). At first glance, at least, and from my position as a non-Native "Shakespearean," the effect seemed to be to undo Shakespeare's own (generic) revisionism, and return the play to the prototypical tragedy that our high-school English teachers (at least in Canada) kept trying to make it out to be, in spite of the fact that it was unclear who the tragic hero actually was.


At the time of viewing the first incarnation of the workshop, then, I found it all somewhat disappointing, but as I reconstruct the production here I find it increasingly interesting, more complex than I had first thought, and my disappointment begins to feel more like my own problem than a problem with the workshop itself. On reflection, I suspect that my disappointment derived from, and illuminated, some of the issues we gathered at the "Watching Ourselves Watching Shakespeare" conference to talk about. I suspect, that is, that my disappointment had to do, not with the production's failure to affirm my interpretations of the play, nor with any failure to introduce exciting new readings, nor even with any failure to make the history of Shakespearean reproduction resonate with contemporary (First Nations) cultures. It had to do, I think, with the fact that I had come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. My own tendency to focus, post-new-historically and post-colonially, on "Shakespeare" as agent of the colonial project--and my consequent interest in adaptations as deconstructions, disarticulations, and revisionings--had blinded me to the potential practical use of Shakespeare for First Nations communities-in-the(re)making, in terms at once of asserting access to "his" cultural authority (including the training in Shakespeare that Kennedy Catherine MacKinnon provided for Aboriginal actors during the workshops, crucial to Nolan's project), and of analyzing, through Shakespeare, the post-contact poison that has infected Native communities, particularly in relationship to the fight for self-government, since the beginnings of the colonial project--even though that project was also effected, in part, through strategic deployments of Shakespeare.

Because in fact Yvette Nolan doesn't just claim that Shakespeare is universal, she lays claim, for herself and her community, to that universality: she claims the right of disenfranchised, colonized people to the authority and "universality" that "Shakespeare" represents in contemporary Western culture: "we both [herself and Kennedy Catherine MacKinnon] believe that he talks about things that reflect in almost everybody's communities," she argues, " and that everyone should be able to say those words if they feel like #. He coined so many words that are in the English language and so many phrases. We all go around quoting him, fighting him all the time without knowing it. That's a pretty hefty influence on language. And language is power" ("The Death" 2, my emphases).

The experience of watching and wondering about this production made me think about my own practice, as a theatre-goer, of watching "Shakespeare"--whether adapted or represented as straightforward theatrical "realizations" or even interpretations of what's "in" the script (a representation that usually strikes me as a way of naturalizing, or claiming authority for, the kinds of veiled adaptation that contemporary theatrical production always and necessarily is). I realized that I don't watch for Shakespeare, at Native Earth, Stratford Ontario, or the RSC. I come to bury Shakespeare, not to praise him: I watch for adaptations, disarticulations, and deconstructions: stagings that confront and challenge "received" Shakespeare, however accurate or inaccurate that may or may not be to presumed Shakespearean "intentions." (This may be why I tend to prefer professed Shakespearean adaptations, or [with a nod to Dennis Kennedy] Shakespeare in translation, over most professedly "straight" productions that overtly claim the authorization of "faithfulness" to "Shakespeare," usually for a mono-cultural dominant that claims authority over how "he" should be done.) But a production, and particularly an adaptation-in-progress, by a minoritized or colonized group is different, and has made me think, and view, differently. My initial reactions to The Death of a Chief as somehow too faithful to the canonized and colonizing "Bard" have made me wonder about whether I've been operating on a kind of reductive binary, watching for disruptive adaptations, and failing perhaps to see the complexities with which all production, translation, and adaptation contend when at once claiming access to Shakespearean "authority" (wresting it from the control of the colonizer) and contesting some of the colonizing uses to which that authority has been put. What my initial disappointment in the workshop signals, perhaps, is my own culturally specific expectations as a non-Native "Shakespearean" failing to take into account the also culturally specific, pragmatic uses that can be made of Shakespeare for training, and for deflecting some of the pain of exposing fissures within the Native community in front of white people: it's simply easier (and less painful) to use Shakespeare's airing of some of the dirty laundry of European history than directly to expose the dirty laundry of one's own community, still fractured and in the process of recovering from the effects of colonization.

Linda Hutcheon, in her 2006 book, A Theory of Adaptation, points out that the word "adaptation" indicates both a process and a product, both something you do and the result of that doing (22). Yvette Nolan has insisted that what Native Earth presents as The Death of a Chief is an ongoing workshop, not a "production" (and her manner suggests that the process itself is the point--that it is entirely possible and acceptable that no marketable final product will emerge)

But perhaps this is part of what I'm looking for when I watch any "Shakespeare" in the theatre, from the RSC to Native Earth: an in-progress product, adaptation (in both senses) that is part of an ongoing negotiation with a history of representations that is at once rich, contestable, powerful, and in process: adaptation that doesn't simply affirm, contest, claim or reject the "Shakespearean," but that also and primarily enters into, and aspires to gain equal access to, Shakespearean author-ity.

My hope is that thinking through Death of a Chief has helped me to move on to a different kind of watching. In attending any production, adaptation, or translation, I still watch a theatre company at a particular historical moment, using all the representational technologies of theatrical production, engage with the rich representational history of "Shakespeare." But I also now watch for the particular, complex, pragmatic and processual uses to which working with Shakespeare can be put for a particular community. This involves not simply applying a generalized postcolonial wash, but beginning to understand specific cultural needs and dynamics distinct to a particular community at a particular moment. The Death of a Chief, as a process, has been using Shakespeare to help its community explore real pain over real betrayals within that community, as well as the real pain of exposing those betrayals publicly. But it has also used the process of working with Shakespeare as itself a real negotiation, and one that constitutes part of the healing: "if we can work it out in this play," as Nolan says, "then maybe we can work it out in our lives too."

Works Cited

"Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, The." iroqcon.htm. Consulted 23 June 2007.

Death of a Chief, The. Workshop presentations by Native Earth Performing Arts. Dir. Kennedy Catherine McKinnon and Yvette Nolan. Perf. Monique Mojica and Jani Lauzon. Native Earth Performing Arts. Dancemakers Studio, Toronto, Sept. 2005; Robert Gill Theatre, University of Toronto. Feb. 2006; MacDonald Stewart Art Gallery, Guelph, ON. Oct. 2006.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Nolan, Yvette. Death of a Chief: An Interview with Yvette Nolan. Interview with Sorouja Moll Native Earth Performing Arts Office, Distillery District, Toronto. 12 March 2006. <>. Accessed 7 July 2006.

Nolan, Yvette. Personal Interview. 29 June 2006.

Nolan, Yvette. Personal Interview. Post-Workshop Discussion. 25 October 2006.

Yarrow, David. "The Great Law of Peace." Consulted 23 June 2007.


University of Guelph


(1) The workshops were at Native Earth Performing Arts (Toronto), September, 2005; at the Robert Gill Theatre, University of Toronto in February 2006; and at the MacDonald Stewart Gallery in Guelph, Ontario, in October, 2006. I am focusing initially on my first response to the first public presentation, in September 2005. I want to thank Yvette Nolan, Artistic Director of Native Earth, and the rest of the company, for talking with me, and for giving me permission to take photographs at the Guelph presentation and to reproduce some of them, together with excerpts from our conversations, here.

(2) Mojica played Ariel in Skylight Theatre's production of The Tempest directed by Lewis Baumander in Summer 1987 and 1989 in Earl Bales Park, Toronto; Lauzon played Shylock in a Shakespaeare in the Rough production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Sanjay Talwar at Toronto's Withrow Park in July 2005.

(3) For the full text see "The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations."
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Author:Knowles, Ric
Publication:Shakespeare Bulletin
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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