Indigenizing King Lear
Michael K. Johnson, University of Maine, Farmington
Staged with an all‑aboriginal cast, the 2012 production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear at Canada’s National Arts Centre creatively reimagined the play in a frontier New World setting. Directed by Peter Hinton, and starring August Schellenberg (Mohawk) as Lear, the production placed Shakespeare’s drama in seventeenth‑century Canada, amongst a group of Algonquin people on the outer edge of European colonialism and cultural contact.1 The idea for this resetting of the play originated with August Schellenberg—some 45 years ago—who thought that Lear would be particularly adaptable to an indigenous / First Nations setting.2 That it took nearly half a century to realize that vision says much about the difficulty of getting mainstream audiences and theater companies to consider the inclusion of indigenous peoples in cultural activities outside of often stereotyped and limited representational roles. By placing an all‑aboriginal cast on stage at the National Arts Centre in the capital city of Ottawa, this unique production of King Lear intervened in a cultural discourse that has marginalized and excluded indigenous voices from the national arts scene.
An aboriginal King Lear set in North America in the era of contact also complicates our understanding of how to classify a “western” text (and how to decide who counts—Shakespeare?—as a western writer). As Amy T. Hamilton and Tom J. Hillard point out in “Before the West Was West: Rethinking the Temporal Borders of Western American Literature,” the issue of how to define a specifically western literature—“questions of where and when to locate the American West and whose voices count as authentically western”—has been a troubling issue for scholars from the very moment of the emergence of western studies, apparent in the contradictory definitions of western literature offered by different articles in the first issue of Western American Literature and in the Western Literature Association’s own constitution.3 Hamilton and Hillard suggest the importance of a temporal understanding of region, as what we call “the West” has shifted continually. “What happens,” they ask, “when we follow ‘the West’ both eastward and back in time?”4 If we understand the west in relation to the movement of European settlement westward, the “when” of this production of King Lear clearly places it to the west of such settlement in a time before national borders such as Canada and America were instituted, and in what would later become a borderlands space for Algonquin peoples whose territories would be divided by those borders. The when and where of this King Lear places it even further west than the frontier, which remains to the east of where the characters in the play are situated. Part of what makes this production of King Lear “western” is the effect that frontier—that contact zone of encounter between different cultures—has on the action of the play, an effect that the production cleverly suggests through performance and costuming.
Discussing King Lear as a western text raises the question: is William Shakespeare a western writer? This is not to suggest that Billy (the Kid) Shakespeare physically participated in cattle drives or staked a mining claim. However, Shakespearean performance, as Eric Brown points out, was a distinctive and pervasive feature of westward expansion, as indicated by the prevalence of U.S. place names such as Shakespeare, New Mexico, the Ophelia Mine (Colorado), and the Shakespeare Saloon (operating in nineteenth‑century Central City, Colorado).5 Although “the popularity of Shakespeare in the boomtowns and mining camps of the Old West has not received a great deal of attention,” Shakespearean performance was popular throughout the U.S. west of Brown’s study.6 “The great Shakespearean actors of the day,” Brown observes, “could make ten times the money out West that they could in the East, and even barnstorming troupes were welcomed by the populace.”7 The actual presence of Shakespearean performance in the west was visible enough to make its way into fictional representations of western and frontier life (e.g., the actors/con‑men the Duke and the Dauphin in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Owen Wister’s Virginian listening attentively to Molly’s recitation of Shakespeare’s plays, multiple scenes in western films depicting Shakespeare performances in saloons).
If Shakespeare himself was not a western writer, his plays have been particularly amenable to being adapted to western settings, as Brown demonstrates through his discussion of the Shakespearean elements of My Darling Clementine (1946; Hamlet), Get Mean (1976; Richard III), Tombstone (1993; Henry V), and Yellow Sky (1948; The Tempest). To that list, we might add John Wayne’s McLintock (1963; The Taming of the Shrew) and the 2002 television production, The King of Texas, which reimagines King Lear as a cattle baron. King Lear, Brown observes, “has been an especially popular Westernized play,” with allusions to it apparent in Broken Lance (1954), The Man from Laramie (1955), and “perhaps” A River Runs Through It (1992).8 Craig Johnson’s recent A Serpent’s Tooth (2013), part of his popular series of contemporary westerns about Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, not only borrows a quotation from Lear for its title but also makes multiple allusions to the play.
All this is to say that King Lear is a dramatic text that is particularly open to interpretations that place it in a western or frontier context. Casting the play with First Nations actors and actresses—many of whom are familiar to contemporary audiences through film and television series with specifically western (and often Old West) settings—adds another layer of allusion to that western context. Among more recent roles, August Schellenberg appeared as Sitting Bull in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007) and as Powhatan in The New World (2005). In addition to Schellenberg, the play also featured: Tantoo Cardinal (Métis/Cree), perhaps best known as Victor’s mother in Smoke Signals, as Lear’s daughter Regan; Monique Mojica (Guna and Rappahannock), who played Thomas Build‑the‑Fire’s grandmother in Smoke Signals, as Lear’s daughter Goneril; Lorne Cardinal (Cree), known for his roles in the television series Corner Gas and Arctic Air (set in the Northwest Territories), as the Duke of Albany; Billy Merasty (Cree), who played Young Man Afraid in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, as the Earl of Gloucester. Additionally, there were several other standout performers in the production: Jani Lauzon (Métis), who doubled as Cordelia and the Fool; Kevin Loring (N’lakap’mux) as Edmund; and Gordon Patrick White (Mi’kmaq) as Edgar. Though the audience might recognize some actors in the play from western screen performances, the most relevant context for understanding the 2012 Ottawa production of King Lear is not the genre western but the First Nations setting of the play, one that shifts the perspective on the frontier encounter away from the European experience to an aboriginal one.