Were one to judge novelist John Irving’s new book by its cover, it would seem to have little to do with theatre. Perhaps best known for The World According to Garp, Irving’s latest book, In One Person, concerns a bisexual whose coming of age begins in the repressed 1950s. Yet the novel begins with an epigraph from Richard II (“Thus play I in one person many people / and none contented”), moves on to a deft exploration of Ibsen’s women, pauses to poke fun at amateur theatre and then bases an entire plot thread around a production of The Tempest. “What I really think,” the director tells the main character, “is that gender mattered a whole lot less to Shakespeare then it seems to matter to us.”
The director is pretty wise about most things in the book, but I’d argue that on this particular point he generally misses the mark. Gender mattered a lot to Shakespeare – this, along with sexual politics, is one of his most pervasive themes. As we sit on the eve of another summer of Shakespeares on the stage, in the park and by the sea, we find that the vast majority of our summer fare will be the very plays where Shakespeare’s sexual politics take centre stage.
Two productions of As You Like It (with the cross-dressing Rosalind and Celia) will parade through parks thanks to the Victoria Shakespeare Society and Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan; over in Stratford, the cross-dressing Imogen is already appearing in a new production of Cymbeline. Edmonton’s Freewill Shakespeare Festival is producing The Tempest, with its would-be rapist Caliban and his antithesis, Ariel – a character whose gender John Irving describes as mutable.
The mutability of gender will also be featured in Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex (Tableau d'Hote, Montreal), which delves into the reality of Shakespeare’s own troupe, where boys play girls who dress as boys and are seduced by men. Gender becomes equally mutable in the pixies and fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will be appearing in Toronto (Dream in High Park), Prescott (St Lawrence Shakespeare Festival) and St. John’s (Shakespeare by the Sea, Newfoundland).
We shouldn’t forget that Midsummer is the play where a girl falls in love with a man who has a donkey’s head – one can only imagine what conservatives would make of that marriage if it ever showed up in a Canadian church.
Then there’s the sexual politics of infidelity.
And while we’re discussing politically charged marriages, I should mention that both Halifax and Vancouver will present The Merry Wives of Windsor, whose comedic climax features two men being fooled into eloping with a pair of boys in drag. Marital politics are also the focus of two productions of Taming of the Shrew which, despite its sexist plot, continues to make annual appearances. This year you can catch it in Vancouver (Bard on the Beach) or Montreal (Repercussion Theatre).
Then there’s the sexual politics of infidelity. In Cymbeline, young Posthumous is fooled into thinking Imogen has been unfaithful, a plot point repeated to more comic effect in Much Ado About Nothing (Stratford, Victoria Shakespeare Society). Such misunderstanding leads to a decidedly less comic effect in Othello (St Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, starring fellow Montrealer and personal friend Quincy Armorer).
Canadians will also be seeing a handful of histories and tragedies - Henry V (Stratford, Shakespeare in the Ruins), Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare by the Sea, Halifax) and that Scottish play (Montreal Shakespeare Company, Bard on the Beach). But even these can’t truly avoid Shakespeare’s favourite theme – the lead characters in the Scottish play are another study in marital relations (the homicidal kind) while the plot of Titus Andronicus hinges on the rape and torture of Lavinia.
Shakespeare’s work continues to offer both warnings and suggestions...
Even Henry V ends with a scene in which a princess is pimped by her father to ensure peace – it remains to be seen whether productions keep the dialogue where Henry and the Duke of Burgundy discuss how best to break open her “virgin crimson of modesty”.
Shakespeare’s concern with the comic and violent aspects of gender politics is part of what has kept his work relevant for four hundred years. He does with theatre what John Irving does in his books: uses epic narratives to explore difficult social issues that others would rather not discuss. Today, as presidents speak out in favour of gay marriage and backbenchers try to reignite the abortion debate, Shakespeare’s work continues to offer both warnings and suggestions on how to navigate our social storms.