Editorial: Travesty, Treachery, and Bree(a)ching
by Aaron Franks
Diversity + narrative = already in trouble…
Charlotte Charke of the early to mid-eighteenth century; William Shakespeare of the late sixteenth to early seventeenth—it would have been a trick for this issue to include a performer, impresario, or other “pervert” from that middle span of 1615 to 1715 (maybe of British provenance for symmetry, but, if not, we’d say it’s “comparative”). The dearth of options outside the Anglo-European sphere from the written record of that period would certainly be a factor. The Two Row and Dish with One Spoon wampum belts, beaded and woven in the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe lands Jill Carter writes from in this issue, came later: a lost opportunity for temporal Aristotelian dramatic unity at alt.theatre. Unwieldy cultural diversity.
Once more into the breach: Choosing
The choice of meaning in the world today is here between
the two sides of the wall. The wall is inside each one of us.
Whatever our circumstances, we can choose within ourselves
which side of the wall we are attuned to. It is not a wall
between good and evil. Both exist on both sides. The choice is
between self-respect and self-chaos.
– Berger Hold Everything Dear 94
If you are picking up alt.theatre for the first time, you might be quite aware of the subtitle: “cultural diversity and the stage.” Perhaps that descriptor is what pricked your interest. If you are a returning, maybe even a long-time, reader or one of our wide community of writers, contributors, colleagues, and critics, you probably just think of us as “alt.” As the latest editor-in-chief (hello and welcome to Volume 15), I’m conscious of how best to … represent? While I’m a geek for a good clause after the colon (thank you, critical social sciences training), I also appreciate the satisfying mental “snick” of straight-up alt. And it’s not just differing tastes, meaty vs. snappy. I wonder more than ever about the work behind the word “cultural”: about what we’re saying as a publication when we specify our interest in cultural diversity; what readers or creative “passers-by” may be hearing in that phrase; and how alt is then slotted into the peculiar Canadian artscape. We clearly don’t mean cultural in the sense of cultural activities – i.e., music, literature, dance, things that “cultural” agencies fund. And while it might come a bit closer, I don’t think, at least, that we can mean culture in the prescribed ethno-heritage sense either. At its most reductive, such a census-friendly and state-approved construct of culture takes us and drops us off at Heritage Days (grilled meat stands and traditional dance on the main stage at noon).
“Nothing is more important to me than the Nation-to-Nation relationship…”
We Are the Halluci Nation
– John Trudell, Northern Voice,
and A Tribe Called Red, 2016
Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain
and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal
What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?
– Captain MacMorris, Henry V
Alt’s subtitle wants to be—needs to be—more. There are many ways we can serve our readers and communities; so, as but one person on this team, I don’t want to overreach, and I certainly don’t want to overdetermine, through an editorial, the experience of sifting through an issue of alt. But before I bury my own lead in a slurry of apolo-qualifiers, I want to suggest a viewpoint on positionality and boundaries —and choosing with consequence— through the lens of N/nation. National narratives appear, in diverse combinations, obliquely or directly, in all the feature articles in this issue. Certainly we see them in Jill Carter’s exploration of the conditions that shape (largely settler) land acknowledgements of First People’s territories as potential embodied diplomacies or rationalized discursive aggressions. In a more diffuse way, Heather Ladd contextualizes the work and world of Charlotte Charke in England, a territory with outsized national imaginaries and even more outsized impacts in the world of theatre. Rachel Offer’s interview with filmmaker Mona Zaidi on her award-winning film Richard III: Unto the Kingdom of Perpetual Night addresses: the explicitly transnational remit of the award (named “Crossing Borders”); various “national postures” in relation to Shakespeare’s work over the centuries; and the film’s imagery of borders and migration. The awards competition was even adjudicated by an English “national icon”: Sir Kenneth Branagh (I’m sure seeing that in Offer’s article nudged my subconscious, which was already preoccupied with the N/national, toward Henry V). Rounding off the issue, Lib Spry’s review of Mady Schutzman’s encounters with Augusto Boal’s work (The Radical Doubt) hints at the ways Boal’s seminal notions of applied theatre crossed national borders and took on various national contextual “flavours” as per the contours of his own exile and travels and the global circuits of academic-performance practice.
How can N/nationhood (and membership) be engaged as another intersectional axis? Is there something like peoplehood, or Nation, outwith race and culture? My knowledge of myself as Métis informs this lens.
The origin of the Métis:1 Take one—ish a bastard
When the Europeans first came in contact with the Indians of Canada, it was always as a group of European sailors meeting a mixed male and female population. Sailors, separated from women during a long ocean voyage, formed alliances with native women as rapidly as possible. Sometimes marriages were quickly arranged; sometimes women were bought; sometimes they were kidnapped; but whatever the method, women were obtained. A standard answer of the Métis people to those curious as to when the Métis originated has been: “Nine months after the first White man set foot in Canada.” It is an historically correct answer. (Sealey and Lussier 1)
This is the first paragraph of a 45-year-old book called The Métis: Canada’s Forgotten People. That it’s so euphemistic makes it feel, to me, even cruder. The point might have been better made upfront— “we have been a fucked people; we were fucked into existence.” The references to both marriages and kidnapping bring Sarah Waiswisz’s 2016 play (and 2017 alt article) Monstrous to mind. Like/unlike me, Waiswisz is mixed, and we are both—albeit in very different ways—in complex relation to different N/national projects:
[T]he title [Monstrous] evokes how I always felt about myself, especially when I was younger: that I was a mixed-race monster. . . in contrast to the “beautiful multicultural exoticism” that our society supposedly believes in. Mixed-race identity is, I think, a final frontier of discomfort in race relations, because it is the result of either unequal sexual relations, often rape, or harmonious mixed-race love—and both of these concepts can be scary and uncomfortable to contend with. (21)
The Métis Nation: Take two—ish a rascal
Sex, class, skin, land, and labour: “the choice is between self-respect and self-chaos” (Berger 94). Métis scholar Chris Andersen challenges a hyper-racialized construct of Métis and the fetishization of race categories as axes of peoplehood. In “Métis”: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood, Andersen pushes back at the way the word Métis has been conflated with “mixed” or, more dryly, “hybrid.” His most compelling point is that people can articulate differences and solidarities based on a desire to live and self-govern differently. In the case of the Métis Nation, Indigenous (what are now constitutionally referred to as “Indians”) and European (generally French and Irish, Scottish or English) peoples certainly mixed (miscegenated). But their peoplehood and coalescence into the Métis Nation emerged from organizing, governing, and supporting themselves differently from either the influx of white settlers being hustled in by the Canadian state or the tribal societies of the Cree, Salteaux, Sioux, and other Nations in the territories of what is now Western Ontario through East/Central Alberta, with the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers at their heart.
What does this have to do with culture? And why am I still fussing over our subtitle “cultural diversity and the stage”? Andersen’s appeal that we think of culture, peoplehood, and Nations differently highlights the trap that concerns me:
While all political claims are cultural in the sense that they are embedded in specific meanings and social contexts, in settler nation-states not all cultural claims are political . . . Indeed, modern nation-states and their institutions . . . often frame issues in terms of culture precisely to avoid discussions about their political basis.
Hence…presenting the case for Indigenous nationhood in terms of cultural difference…never simply distinguishes it from that of settler-nationhood; it also subordinates it. (100–101)
After knitting together a number of thinkers’ ideas around Indigenous “culture”—Daniel Heath Justice’s and Kristina Fagan’s criticisms of “voyeuristic “and “quaint” approaches, respectively, and Craig Womack’s and Claude Denis’ appeal to actual “separateness” over mere “difference” —Andersen punctuates the concept: “Whether or not we operate in ways that appear similar to settler self-understandings is—or at least should be—beside the point” (101).
In other words, our unique bearing in the world, our distinctive sense of integrity, is not contingent on being a colourful tile (or pixel) in the cultural mosaic. We can confound description invisibly, make different demands (and offers), and not explain.
Treason against A-Lie-Nation:2 A final stretched allegory
When does a bree(a)ch yawn open into travesty? When does criticism become resistance, even become treacherous in the precipitous sense of treasonous, not just “difficult” (or, at the anodyne, academic end of spectrum, “problematic”)? In “Monologue for a Drag King Performance Adapted from a Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, written by Herself (1755),” Heather Ladd explains how Charke (1713–1760) began her career with “breeches” performances and graduated to “travesty roles.” A bree(a)ches role features the naughty spectacle of a female playing a female character who, in the course of the action, puts on male clothes as a means of getting something or just getting by. To get geo-political, it is a tactical manoeuvre, even diplomatic.
It becomes “travesty” when a female plays a male character—“as a male,” in male clothing and comportment (whether Charke’s off-stage penchant for dressing as a man counts as bree(a)ch or travesty, I don’t know). In geo-political terms, which might mirror a more subjective, personal politics of space and boundary, such a travesty is an incursion: A treacherous breaking of boundaries.
Andersen, Chris. “Métis”: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014.
Berger, John. Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007.
Sealey, D. Bruce, and Antoine. S. Lussier. The Métis: Canada’s Forgotten People. Winnipeg: Métis Federation Press, 1975.
Waiswisz, Sarah. “Monstrous.” alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage 13:3 (2017), 20–30
1. This is the title of the first chapter of the book by Sealey and Lussier
2. The title and lyric of a song from A Tribe Called Red’s 2016 album We Are The Halluci Nation, featuring Santee Sioux/Indigenous Mexican poet and activist John Trudell.