Behind the Book with Jennifer Drouin
Jennifer Drouin is the author of Shakespeare in Quebec: Nation, Gender, and Adaptation. In Shakespeare in Québec, Jennifer Drouin analyses representations of nation and gender in Shakespearean adaptations written in Québec since the Quiet Revolution.
How did you become involved in your area of research?
This research topic was a way for me to combine my two strongest passions, Shakespeare studies and Québec studies. I’m an anglophone, but I did my undergraduate studies entirely in French at an Acadian university where most of my professors were Québécois. I quickly fell in love with Québécois culture, which was a new and exciting revelation once I had learned enough French to understand it. I now consider Québec my home, yet I’ve never forgotten my roots in Nova Scotia where Shakespeare was very important to me growing up in a Loyalist town with deep colonial ties to British culture. My scholarly trajectory has alternated back-and-forth between English and French. One summer I was browsing in a friend’s used bookstore on rue Hart in Trois-Rivières (“bouquiner,” a word I like as much as the activity itself), and I stumbled across an original edition of Robert Gurik’s Hamlet, prince du Québec, and, voilà, le tour était joué! With this research, I wanted to bridge the “two solitudes” by bringing an analysis of Québécois plays in French to an anglophone audience. I’m fascinated by the Québécois nationalist movement and its long, rich history, but I’d always been interested in feminism, gender, and sexuality studies too, so rather than focus on only nation or only gender in the plays I decided to look at both and the relationship between the two.
What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?
I wish scholars would take care with the word “adaptation,” which people tend to throw around a lot as a catch-all term, often without defining it. I proposed my own theory of adaptation in the book because over the past decade or so adaptation studies has taken off, especially with the increasing interest in postcolonial and global Shakespeares, but that has meant that we have more scholars using the term in different ways. I don’t expect everyone to adopt my definitions, but I would like to see others take care to define how they use the term and hopefully adopt my proposal to use qualifying adjectives to distinguish between different media and genres. Stage plays and cinematic adaptations are very different cultural products, and there are multiple types of stage adaptation that need qualification before we can compare them to each other in productive ways.
What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?
The sheer magnitude of Québécois adaptations of Shakespeare is startling. I started this project with just one play, Gurik’s Hamlet, prince du Québec, and then I discovered Michel Garneau and a few other authors, then I saw the production of Henry. Octobre. 1970., and by the time I finished the book I had uncovered 37 adaptations, and that’s not counting the many direct translations, stage productions, titular allusions, and cinematic adaptations that I excluded from the book. It is surprising to discover that Shakespeare is a more popular author in Québec than Molière, at least when it comes to rewriting these canonical authors to suit contemporary social and political agendas.
Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?
I travel every summer, which is truly a pleasure. Since I’m currently a professor at the University of Alabama, I return home to Montréal for three and a half months when classes are not in session. Most of the adapted plays I wrote about can be found in the archives of the Centre des auteurs dramatiques which is now in the Old Port area downtown, I conducted a lot of research at McGill’s library, and a good chunk of this book was written at Café Expressions on Avenue Mont-Royal where I was a regular fixture. Obviously, it helps to be immersed in Québécois culture when writing about it, so just hearing people talking on the streets, songs on the radio, and watching television or films when I wasn’t writing provided inspiration and sometimes helped make ideas click. I also travel regularly to national and international conferences to present this work, and as a result of a conference I attended in France I was invited to be a visiting professor for a month last year at Université du Havre and to present my work in Montpellier. It’s exciting to see how Québécois Shakespeares are received in France and to discern the linguistic and cultural similarities and differences between Québec and France.
What are your current/future projects?
My work on this book has not ended but rather has dovetailed into Shakespeare au/in Québec (SQ), which is a bilingual, open-access digital humanities project dedicated to producing a critical anthology and interactive database. Of the 37 adaptations mentioned in the book, 25 are not in print and are currently inaccessible to scholars, teachers, theatre practitioners, and the general public. Of the 12 plays that are in print, none exists in a critical edition. SQ will mark up the play texts in TEI-compliant XML and create two sets of pop-up bubble annotations; the first set cross-references the French plays with the Shakespearean source text in English while the second set explains all the historical and political allusions one would traditionally annotate in the footnotes of a print edition. The SQ site will also have a searchable database of each play’s theatre history and production details, as well as multimedia image, audio, and video files; a bibliography of secondary sources on these plays, including production reviews; academic essays providing critical analyses of the plays; interviews with playwrights; writings on the literary and political history of Québec; and information about non-adaptations (such as direct translations, innovative stage productions, and titular allusions) and cinematic adaptations.
What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
As an academic, I rarely get to read for pleasure; most of the time, I read for work. However, I have been trying to recapture the joy of reading that first made me want to study literature in the first place, so I’m catching up on classics of contemporary Canadian and Québécois literature. I recently read Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees (1996), which takes place in Nova Scotia where I grew up. Set at the turn of the 20th century, this novel portrays, sadly, all too accurately the secrecy, racism, abuse, and homophobia typical of small town life, which still exists today in some rural communities. This book blew me away and I wish I had read it sooner. Now I’m reading Michel Tremblay’s novel La Nuit des princes charmants (1995), which I picked up last summer at a Fierté littéraire Q&A session Tremblay did as part of Montréal’s Pride week. One of the many things I love about Québec is that as a small nation its cultural stars are often very down-to-earth and accessible to the general public, unlike, say, Hollywood. In the US, politicians try to craft an image as someone with whom an ordinary Joe could have a beer, but that’s just spin. In Québec, one really can chat one-on-one with a famous author of Michel Tremblay’s calibre, a filmmaker, a television star, or a politician.
What is your favourite book?
Shakespeareans often get asked what their favourite play is. For the depth of the writing and emotional impact, King Lear is my favourite, and I teach a course on sources and adaptations of King Lear that starts with Geoffrey of Monmouth and covers several theatrical adaptations, including Jean-Pierre Ronfard’s Lear which I discuss in my book, as well as Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres and several cinematic productions and adaptations. King Lear is so rich that it’s not surprising that it’s one of Shakespeare’s most frequently adapted plays. My other favourite play, The Two Noble Kinsmen which Shakespeare co-wrote with John Fletcher, is less well-known. I like it because it’s Shakespeare’s queerest play, full of both male and female homoeroticism, and because it’s interesting to see how Shakespeare and Fletcher adapted the story from Boccaccio’s Teseida and Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. We tend to think of Shakespeare as a creative genius, but we tend to forget that he was the ultimate adapter whose plays are rewritten from prior source texts.
In non-Shakespearean literature, I have fond memories of reading children’s editions of Dickens when I was a kid, as well as Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, so I was thrilled to visit the Château d’If off the coast of Marseille when I was in France last year, but if I had to pick a single favourite it would be Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall. A Shakespeare conference in Australia a few years ago provided the opportunity to realize a childhood dream and stop off in Tahiti where I got to taste breadfruit, the impetus for Fletcher Christian and William Bligh’s excursion. Dickens, Dumas, and the Bounty remain favourites because they were windows into historic, foreign worlds peopled with compelling characters; they inspired me to travel as an adult because they captured my imagination as a child and moved and transported me, as great literature should.
If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?
I would be a lawyer or a politician or ideally both. While I was writing a substantial portion of this book, I did a lot of volunteer political work on the side and I felt pulled between the two career paths. I would like to write laws that shape society, help people, and make the world a better place, especially for those who are disenfranchised or marginalized.