Raising a banner of unity

Shakespeare a geopolitical necessity

Published: Sep 24 2022, 01:01:am

Monday, 23 August, 1971

IT WAS HAMLET WHO said: "If it be now, 'tis not to come: if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all."
    Saturday afternoon [Aug. 21, 1971], Simon Fraser University was ready. The first World Shakespeare Congress was no longer "to come."
    After five years of planning and three of preparation, the players were on their marks. On the mall, beneath the flags of their 30 nations, the nearly 500 members of the Congress shared the electricity of the moment. The muffled drumming of rain on the plexiglass high above them heightened the illusion of a moment frozen in time.
    Then the fanfare. Under the baton of Congress musical director Hugh McLean, Bruce Dunn, Kenneth Hopkins, Sharmon King, Ted Lazenby and Marilynn Turner, a five-piece brass ensemble, sounded a four-centuries-old call for attention.
    John Nicholson, B.C.’s lieutenant-governor and a clown in a long-ago campus production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, caught the feeling of that moment later in his brief opening address. "This history-making first World Shakespeare Congress really does mark an epic in the history of drama and the world."
    The drama inherent in the congress itself was set forth in the words of welcome offered by hosts, sponsors and representative guests during the opening ceremonies held in the SFU Theatre.
    SFU president Kenneth Strand said the sitting of the Congress — “a new and exciting concept" — was appropriate. Not only was it opening in a new university, one that was also the home of the Shakespeare Quarterly's annual World Bibliography, but in a new theatre.
    Lieutenant-Governor Nicholson took up the theme, recalling his own "satisfaction and pleasure in (once) taking part in a Shakespearean pageant."
    It fell to the Queen's representative, flanked by a brace of Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen in their parade dress scarlet tunics, to officially open the Congress.
    Said the lieutenant-governor: "With pride and a feeling of enthusiastic participation, it is my privilege to declare the first World Shakespeare Congress open — let us enjoy it together."
    Speaking  for the Canada Council, Marcia McLung explained the role of federal aid to the arts and reminded the delegates to "above all, enjoy your stay in Canada."
    The purpose and promise of the Congress was outlined eloquently in the speeches of the Shakespeareans themselves. Two major dramas will be presented during the next week and, hopefully, major links forged between disparate elements in the Shakespearean community.
    Mrs. Donald Hyde, president of the 3,000-member Shakespeare Association of America, sketched in the background history with pointed wit. The first gathering of Bard buffs was held just 200 years ago, she said. Naturally enough, it was in Shakespeare's own Stratford.
    Its real purpose was not to honour the playwright, but to open a town hall. The festivities were run by theatre people up from London, and it was more a carnival than a congress.
    The first serious scholars' conference wasn't held until almost a century later, in Germany.
    The theme was taken up by Rudolf Stamm of Switzerland’s Basel University. Dr. Stamm noted that there are "two Shakespeare associations in the German-speaking world."
    Defending the study of Shakespeare in a geopolitical world, Dr. Stamm said that "Shakespeare's plays give us something urgently required at the present moment — the fear of ourselves."
    In alluding to the divisions in the German-speaking world, Dr. Stamm brought to the fore one of the most urgent purposes of the Congress: the development of international academic cooperation that can rise above political differences.
    Within the theatre the Congress's Tudor rose banners hung on all the walls. Designed by Vancouver art student Stewart Hamilton, they are the delegates' flag for the coming week.
    Even on the mall, though, the display of national flags was hopeful. The Germanys, East and West, are beside one another, as are those of the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. (“Alphabetical order," shrugged Temple Maynard, Congress planning committee co-ordinator.)
    Another gap the Congress hopes to bridge is the functional one. T.J. Spencer, director of Stratford, England's Shakespeare Institute, took a devil's advocate position in the long-standing confrontation between the scholars and the stage-craftsmen.
    "Fifty per cent of all Shakespearean criticism is pure twaddle," he admitted.  "The trouble is, we're not sure which 50 per cent."
    "Despite all these difficulties," said Dimitri Malavetas, a director of the National Theatre of Greece, "Shakespeare has survived for 400 years." The Congress, he said, will show that "the people of the theatre feel the need for close co-operation with the scholars."
    He expressed the feeling of all the delegates when he concluded that "our great asset (is) our common and great love for Shakespeare."
    Congress director Rudolph Habenicht outlined the plan of the Congress and agreed that love was, indeed, "the one word . . . to sum up our reasons for holding a World Shakespeare Congress."
    The last speaker, Dr. Habenicht took the opportunity to offer "my deep and most affectionate gratitude” to his corps of student volunteers, "It is they who ultimately have made it possible to carry out this experiment.
    "And it is these young people who will inherit what we say and do here. Therefore it is to the young people of the world that I should like to dedicate this Congress."
    As the delegates left the theatre to make their way to the opening banquet, the rain that had filled the sky for the past three days was gone. The sun, now beginning to set, had finally broken through.
    And there, east of Burnaby Mountain, stretching in a glorious, unbroken line from horizon to horizon, was a rainbow.

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

Afterword: It was hard not to feel an electric thrill during the opening ceremonies for the first World Shakespeare Congress. Yes, there was rain. (In 1997, X-Files star David Duchovny famously joked that “Vancouver is a very nice place, if you like 400 inches of rainfall . . . a day.”) And yes, it ended with a glorious rainbow.
    As Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine grinds into its eighth month, I also remember the international tensions that were hinted at in the above report. The year 1971 was about midway through the Cold War that Winston Churchill declared upon the Soviet Union in his 1946 “iron curtain” speech. The scholars and academics gathered on Burnaby Mountain all had memories of 1962’s Cuban missile crisis, and John Kennedy's assassination in 1963. The Vietnam War might have been winding down — it officially ended in 1975 — but Germany was still divided into East and West (and would be until 1990).
    In 1954, the ever-quotable Churchill said that “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war," an opinion with which the WSC members demonstrably agreed. To be fair, though, they probably would have expressed it in the words of Caesar, from the fourth act of Antony and Cleopatra: “The time of universal peace is near.” Cue the rainbow.

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.