A Shakespeare Congress

Global gathering celebrates the Bard

Published: Sep 24 2022, 01:01:am

Friday, August 13, 1971.
With 500 delegates from 30 nations attending, the history-making first World Shakespeare Congress begins here next week [Aug. 20. 1971]. Scholars, critics and dramatists hope to engender a network of international academic co-operation and understanding. The Bard really does live — and, for a week at least, his residence will be Burnaby Mountain instead of Stratford-on-Avon . . .

*    *    *
"I have had a dream, past the wit
of man to say what dream it was."

    — A Midsummer Night's Dream

THE SWEET AIR OF INSPIRATION has touched the top of Burnaby Mountain. Among those who have breathed most deeply are two Shakespeareans, British director Peter Hall and American scholar Rudolph Habenicht.
    Hall is the theatrical producer-turned-filmmaker who decided that the futuristic-looking Simon Fraser University most perfectly fits his image of Huxley's Brave New World.
    The director, whose film credits include a recent version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, is currently developing a script from the Aldous Huxley novel. The classic science-fiction story is scheduled to go before the cameras next May [1972] with location work at SFU.
    Habenicht is the academic bibliographer-turned-administrator who decided, with equal determination, that the hilltop college was the only place to hold the history-making first World Shakespeare Congress.
    The professor, who is winding up a six-year stint as editor of the American Shakespeare Association's annual World Bibliography, began to dream of such a gathering in the wake of 1964's quatercentenary celebrations. Then he saw SFU.
    "My first visit to Burnaby Mountain was in the evening and, when I saw the sunset and the magnificent architecture and the mountains close by, I thought: 'What a marvellous site for the Congress!"
    For Habenicht, it was "like a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream." Today, nearly five years later, the scene is about to be played out. A week Saturday, as late afternoon shadows slant sharply across the campus, a fanfare will sound.
    The work of the planners, whose numbers included critic Kenneth Tynan, stage directors Michael Langham and the late Tyrone Guthrie, film directors Grigori Kozintsev and Sam Wanamaker, actor Sir John Gielgud and academic H. Marshall McLuhan, is done.
    On the mountain, amidst flags and banners honouring the memory of the first Elizabethan age, Lieut.-Gov. John Nicholson will declare the week-long Congress open.
    Its delegates, 500 of them from 30 nations, include many of the world's foremost Shakespearean scholars, critics and dramatists. Its ultimate purpose is to weave, from the timeless strands of Shakespearean studies, a model network of international academic cooperation and understanding.
    More immediately it will, in Habenicht's words, "think about the problems that no one ever faced before," the physical problems posed by the worldwide study of Shakespeare in the electronic age. At issue is the monumental explosion of interest and information that seemed to emerge full-blown in 1964, the 400th anniversary of the Bard's birth.
    The explosion was mirrored in the learned journals. In 1963, the World Bibliography recorded 900 items of Shakespeareana published. The total leapt to 3,000 during the quatercentenary and levelled off at 1,800 the following year.
    Two significant trends have begun to emerge. First, the Bibliography was recording more and more PhD dissertations in Shakespeare studies. That, Habenicht says, meant that more and more future contributions to the journals would be on Shakespearean subjects.
    The second was the sudden new visibility given to the international Shakespeare  community. It, too, was growing. Currently the Bibliography has correspondents in 35 countries. Only four — Canada, Britain, Australia and the U.S.A. — claim English as a native tongue.
    The problem became one of completeness. Habenicht's World Bibliography, published since 1950 as an annual supplement to the Shakespeare Quarterly, is only one of many.
    "It's ludicrous not to be working all together," he says. "But now we're going to get together and iron this out."
    Set to do the ironing are six investigative committees, each consisting of a chairman and at least four top-ranking experts in the areas under discussion. Each committee has been in communication over the last few years, developing final reports for presentation to the Congress.
    Under the gavel are the problems of the one big bibliography and of translations, the challenge of new research methods and of computer technology, and the development of an exhaustive dictionary of Shakespeare's English and of more effective international cooperation.
    Like royal commissions, the investigative committees will hold open sessions and invite the participation of Congressional delegates in their deliberations. The Congress will end with a plenary meeting that will make their reports on the bulk of its business.
    Despite its serious aims, the Congress is designed to keep business in the background. "It's a dramatic event," says Habenicht. "After all, it's based on the life and works of the greatest dramatist who ever lived. Shakespeare is theatre.
    "Actually we followed three guidelines in planning this Congress. From the start it had to be dramatic; comprehensive, both with regard to Shakespeare and his world and Shakespeare and our world; and, finally, it had to be international.''
    Accordingly, delegates will be treated to a full program of films, concerts and stage productions designed to show the ways in which Shakespeare  is part of culture's creative whole.
    They will also be able to find out what's new. Nearly 40 scholarly papers, each one written especially for the Congress, will be read and discussed. "But the Congress is not just reading papers," says Habenicht. "That's old hat. It must be theatre."
    To provide dramatic impact, the presentations have been divided into eight "acts." Beginning with papers on the physical plant that was Elizabethan theatre and the physical text that was truly Shakespeare, the "acts" build logically, one upon the other.
    The object is to build a comprehensive picture of Shakespeare across the ages. The final "act" will look at 20th century stage and film productions.
    Each "act" is geared for its own internal drama and consists of three "scenes." The first two are the presentation of papers by their authors. The third is a panel discussion in which at least four other highly opinionated experts offer some of their ideas on the issues raised.
    "For a lot of delegates, it will be the first time they've seen the people that we've all read and taught for years," says Habenicht.
    The Congress came about as a result of co-operation between SFU and the University of British Columbia. Delegates are being housed at UBC's Totem Park Conference Centre, and events are being held on both campuses.
    Costing more than $100,000 to produce, it has drawn financial support from private individuals, foundations, business, industry, the banking community, 12 Canadian universities and the Canada Council.
    The first World Shakespeare Congress promises to be one of the most exciting academic events ever held in Western Canada. And, for director Rudolph Habenicht, it, holds yet another kind of promise .
    "It will be a symbol of peaceful working together in a common effort. We are a United Nations, and this is a demonstration of the international cooperation that has been created by the one author who reaches into every language known to man.
    "Shakespeare draws people together and, in this, Canada is reaching out to all the world. This is what the Congress has done."
    Perhaps next week, the inspiring breezes atop Burnaby Mountain will pause long enough to touch still others.
“O brave new world,
That has such people in't!"

— The Tempest

Included along with the above feature previewing 1971’s first World Shakespeare Congress were five boxes containing information on specific Congress highlights:

THE LILT OF SHAKESPEARE'S language may be music enough for the confirmed Bard buff, but even antic Hamlet knew that there was more to life than "words, words, words."
    For World Shakespeare Congress delegates keen to broaden their appreciation of the playwright's own age, organist Hugh McLean, professor of music at UBC, has arranged a series of luncheon concerts featuring the Vancouver Consort.
    Their six half-hour performances will spotlight, on subsequent days, the music of the Low Countries, of France, of Iberia and the New World, of Italy, of Germany and of England, all selections drawn from the century 1530 to 1630.
    Set on a somewhat broader base are the three evening concerts. Each will be repeated twice. Among the featured stars are Belgian mezzo-soprano Christine Van Acker, lutenist Michel Podolski, the Hugh McLean Consort, the Hortulani Musicae and the SFU Madrigal Singers.
    Two of the evening performances will concentrate on the Elizabethan age, but the third will deal with Shakespeare's influence on contemporary music. Highlight of the program will be the world premiere of Elliot Viesgarber's as-yet unnamed music for Japanese sonnets.
    Viesgarber, an expert on Japanese instruments, composed in the Japanese manner a new work based on four of Shakespeare's sonnets. The new work may prove most appropriate. According to congress director Rudie Habenicht, 10 per cent of Congress delegates are coming from Japan.

HAMLET, THE MALADJUSTED PRINCE of Denmark, is given star billing, but luckless King Lear may just steal the show.
    Although the melancholy Dane is featured in seven of the 10 movies that make up the World Shakespeare Congress film program, only Lear can generate the lustre of a major premiere. Made last year [1970] by Soviet film director Grigori Kozintsev, this Russian-language King Lear will make its North American debut at the Congress.
    Several years ago, Kozintsev drew prolonged applause from Western film critics with his brilliantly stark Hamlet. A delegate to the Congress, he will be presenting a paper on Hamlet and Lear, Stage and Film.
    Aside from that, the film program, arranged by Vancouver Film Society president Pearl Williams, might well have been called “The Many Faces of Hamlet.”
    Reaching back into the silent era, Mrs. Williams has managed to find a genuine Danish Hamlet, one that features actress Asta Nielsen in the title role. More recent versions include Sir Laurence Olivier's Oedipal interpretation and Nicol Williamson's strident student rebel.
    Short subjects feature the Dane again. Tests stars John Barrymore testing in the part for a film that was never made: Enter Hamlet and Hamlet are a pair of animated featurettes.
        Two additional features round out the program. Throne of Blood, starring Toshiro Mifune, is Akira Kurosawa's Japanese adaptation of Macbeth. A Midsummer Night's Dream, combining Shakespeare, Mendelssohn and Max Reinhardt, is culture done in the blockbuster tradition of the old Hollywood studios. Made in 1935, it was a landmark in screen fantasy. Included in the cast were James Cagney, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown, Victor Jory, Mickey Rooney and, in her screen debut, Olivia De Havilland.

IF ITS TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATIONS are any indication, the World Shakespeare Congress may lead to a rewiring of academe's ivory tower image.
    One proposal before the Congress would send computers all over the world off on a Bard binge. The Bibliographical Automated Retrival Device (BARD), created by SFU's Computer Centre, will make possible the continuous storage and exchange of information among Shakespeareans in every corner of the globe.
     Even without BARD, little of what goes on during the Congress will be lost to posterity. If legal complications can be ironed out, the entire Congress may live again and again on video tape. Plans call for all the major gatherings, presentations, panels and committee sessions to be recorded.

THE QUESTION MIGHT HAVE been which of Shakespeare's 37 plays should be staged at the first World Shakespeare Congress? The answer, apparently, was none.
    Although four events are being held in connection with the congress, not one qualifies as full-blooded Bard. Like the concerts, the theatrics are designed to show Shakespeare's age and influence, rather than his actual work.
    Coming from the University of Calgary is Ben Jonson's comedic morality play Every Man in His Humour.
    More in the modern manner is UBC's production of Charles Marowitz's Hamlet Collage, a sort of Hamlet happening. The production is likely to raise the question of directorial interpretation, and the Congress takes it up in a two-part theatre colloquium.
    Using as his vehicle two scenes from Troilus and Cressida, Basle University's Rudolf Stamm will demonstrate the problems involved in adapting Shakespeare so as to set forth modern political or philosophical points of view.
    The event that may top them all for dramatic invention isn't part of the formal theatrical program. It is a 10-member symposium set up to discuss Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare. Ever since psychiatrist Ernest Jones published his eminently readable Hamlet and Oedipus, conventional Shakespeareans have attempted to close ranks against such analysis.

The public is invited to the following:
Sunday, Aug. 22 [1971]
Films — A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and John Barrymore's Hamlet Test (1933). SFU Theatre.
Monday, Aug. 23
On stage — Hamlet Collage. Frederic Wood Theatre, UBC.
Concert — Choral and instrumental music featuring the SFU Madrigal Singers and the Hortulani Musicae. SFU Theatre.
Tuesday, Aug. 24
Concert — Shakespeare in contemporary music, featuring the Hugh McLean Consort. SFU Theatre.
Wednesday, Aug. 25
Films — A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and John Barrymore's Hamlet Test (1933).  The Auditorium, UBC.
Thursday, Aug. 26
Film — Hamlet (1964). Soviet version directed by Grigori Kozintsev. SFU Theatre.
Friday, Aug. 27
On stage — Ben Jonson's Everyman in His Humour (1598). Frederic Wood Theatre, UBC.
Concert — Music of Shakespeare's England, featuring the Hugh McLean Consort. SFU Theatre.
    All of these events begin at 8 p.m. General admission to the films is $1. General admission to concerts and stage events is $2. Student admission is $1 to all events. Tickets are available at the door.

The above is a restored version of a Province Spotlight Magazine feature by Michael Walsh originally published in 1971. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Director Peter Hall, mentioned in the first paragraph of the above feature, did not return to Burnaby Mountain in 1972. His feature film adaptation of Brave New World joined the long list of ambitious movie projects announced only to be abandoned in light of changing realities in the lives of the artists involved.
     Recalling the first World Shakespeare Congress some fifty years along, I’m struck by how profoundly our media landscape has changed. I was hired by The Province in 1969, at a time when that daily considered itself a local paper, even though it was owned by a national chain. For the most part, it covered what went on in its community, reflecting then-managing editor Merv Moore’s belief that it was Vancouver’s “newspaper of record.” Early in 1971, I remember my entertainment department colleague Paul Raugust reporting daily on the qualifying matches for the World Chess Championships being held at the University of B.C. Graduate Centre.
     My coverage of the Congress kept me busy for the better part of three weeks, beginning with the preview feature reproduced above. In all I wrote 10 pieces, coverage that included seven daily dispatches and three Spotlight Magazine features. At the time, I felt privileged to have been a witness to such an historic event. Today, I feel grateful to have been part of a time when newspapers mattered.  

Congressional record:  Reeling Back’s WSC archive consists of a Preview feature followed by my Opening report, a Tuesday report, a Wednesday report, a Thursday report, a Friday report, a First Folio feature about a family with links to both Shakespeare and Vancouver, a Saturday report, a Closing report, and my Summary feature.