A Review of Welwyn Wilton Katz’s Come Like Shadows (Coteau Books, 1993)
By Derek Newman-Stille
As someone who has done stage acting, Welwyn Wilton Katz’ Come Like Shadows spoke to my experience of the stage, and added a little bit of magic in addition to the already potent magic of the theatre itself. Set at the Stratford Festival during a production of Macbeth, Come Like Shadows evokes the play between the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’, bringing home the point to the reader that ‘truth’, ‘history’, and ‘knowledge’ are all as constructed as the stage – just sets and trappings of performance.
In theatre, naming the Scottish Play, or the Thane is taboo. Macbeth is seen as a cursed play, and speaking the name “Macbeth” in a theatre outside of the production itself is believed to bring disaster on any production. When the Stratford Festival decides to stage ‘the Scottish Play’, disaster happens – a series of unfortunate events involving the death of actors, stage fires, and general tragedies both on and offstage. Actors and performance are brought into a historical assemblage, players in a curse that was created when the historical figure of Macbeth decided to interrupt a pagan ceremony by three ‘witches’ who sought to regain their youth by entering into a mirror. When Macbeth intentionally changes their spell for youth, replacing the spell’s words “Two into one. Find through this glass a future for thy past that the name of the Goddess be remembered” into “Two into one. Find through this glass a past for thy future that the name of Macbeth be remembered” and both he and the eldest of the witches, the Hag, are pulled into the mirror and projected into the future, stuck in the glass.
The Hag, now a manifestation of rage spends centuries torturing Macbeth in the mirror, locking the two into an eternal combat. When she discovers that a bard by the name of William Shakespeare is trying to honour the memory of the Thane with a play, she changes his words, making Macbeth into a villain so that rather than fame, Macbeth’s name becomes associated with infamy. She inscribes words of magic into the play to attract her sisters, the Maiden and Mother, with the hope that the other two witches might be able to free her from the mirror. From that moment onward, the play becomes a nexus of strange, magical events.
Kincardine (Kinny) O’Neill, named after a small Scottish town that her father once visited, wants to become an actress. When she finds out that she has an internship with the Stratford Festival, she jumps at the opportunity, particularly since her mother’s friend Jeneva is directing Macbeth this year… only to become horrified when Jeneva decides to use the text of Macbeth to launch her own attack on French Canadians (whose rights Kinny had been defending). Canadian identity, Kinny’s own coming of age, and the path of history intersect in the performance, evoking the power of performance for speaking about issues of identity nationally, personally, and historically.
Kinny meets Lucas, born French Canadian but having adopted a completely American identity for himself out of embarrassment at his French heritage and due to teasing from American children who see him as a humourous Other.
When shopping for props for the performance, Kinny and Lucas find a mirror at a local antique store that draws both of their attention. The mirror shows the two of them the past and Macbeth’s encounter with the witches. It offers Kinny power and magic, and offers Lucas a glimpse of the historical figure of Macbeth that he wishes to one day play. Both become obsessed with the mirror – Kinny out of fear of what it could offer her, and Lucas out of obsession with the ‘truth’ behind Macbeth. Both are horrified at Jeneva’s appropriation of the play for her own purposes and the distortions that she brings to the performance in order to further her own ends rather than discover some fundamental truths in the act of performing. For both youths, theatre should be an act of self-discovery, but theatre is also a place of appearances, of distortions.
The Maiden and Mother involve themselves in the play, manipulating the performance itself as well as the fates of those involved, making the world a stage for their own desires. Like the mirror itself, the play becomes a reflection not of truth but of their desires and the desires of those who gaze into it, drawing them into webs of control. Past and present, truth and falseness, reality and lies all become implicated and interwoven in the play and issues of identity are challenged and complicated. Whenever characters try to change the path of their destinies, they are brought further under the control of the three weavers of fate, losing their free will during every attempt they make to express it. Like Macbeth himself, characters are trapped into pre-ordained actions and roles, deprived of agency before Fate’s power. Like a pre-written performance, everyone is assigned to their roles, acting out their lives under the influence of a director.
Katz brings the essence of Shakespeare’s play into a modern Canadian environment and a coming of age story, exploring the way that identity becomes subsumed by choices and the perception that there is a lack of choice. Like the clashing of Scottish and English interests in the play, she writes about a time when Franco-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians battled about notions of identity and the place of French Canada within an overwhelming Anglo majority. Like Macbeth, Kinny and Lucas feel that they are trapped into hopeless fate, their identities subsumed by a fate that they see as larger than themselves. Like the Scottish Play, notions of sacrifice and suffering end up being for nothing, never allowing freedom from the restraints placed on the characters.
Katz recognises that acting can be a form of possession and that actors can lose themselves in their roles, in the performative act. It is only through the performance that Kinny and Lucas can see themselves as they perform aspects of the Other. They come of age through the act of suffering, through the act of loss and the heightened awareness that, like those of Macbeth, sometimes the best of intentions can lead to the most harm.
To find out more about the work of Welwyn Wilton Katz, you can visit her website at http://www.booksbywelwyn.ca/ .