Black Gower

One of the most dominant images in Gower studies captures the poet in the midst of aiming an arrow at a target of the world. Wearing a long blue tunic, a brown, cone-shaped hat, with three arrows at his waist, Gower appears to be in the prime of his life: he stands ramrod straight, gazing intently at his target while holding his cocked bow with a steady hand. Taken from the Cotton Tiberius MS, this is the image that stands in stark contrast to the recumbent poet lying in effigy at Southwark Cathedral, his head resting on his three books, his hands pointed upward in solemn prayer.

When Gower appears over a century later in the role of storyteller in Shakespeare’s (and Wilkins’) Pericles, Prince of Tyre, another set of images begin to emerge. Selected to guide an audience through the protagonist’s “painefull” adventures in a story adapted from Gower’s own “Apollonius of Tyre,” the poet stands “as a living agent of the play’s performance [who]exhibits a playful concern with the unstable, vulnerable, and unreservedly performative nature of authorship itself” (Jones 2009). Having been reincarnated and bequeathed a fresh voice, Gower becomes a cipher of change, a revitalized fulcrum between the past and the present, between life and death, between one culture and another. Over time and successive adaptations of the play, his image as a poet aiming at the world or interred in a cathedral down the road from the Globe is transformed by actors whose interpretations of his role as Chorus figure reach beyond static images of archer and effigy to create a more dynamic persona, one who rises from the ashes to sing his song, as the opening of Pericles proclaims: “To sing a song that old was sung,/ From ashes, ancient Gower is come,/ Assuming man’s infirmities,/ To glad your ear and please your eyes.” (lines 1-4)

That Gower has been played to audiences in venues around the globe by non-Anglo performers literally breathes life into the part. The production at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn in 2016 featuring Raphael Nash Thompson, for instance, represents a new approach to the “ancient song” when the actor infuses the characters and the tale he tells with an exuberance that conveys both the joy of storytelling and the mood-altering effects of music. Directed by Trevor Nunn, this ensemble play captured the imagination to be sure, but it was Thompson’s execution of both the singing and the speaking parts, his expansive gestures, and authoritative presence that, by all accounts, lifted the spirits of the audience.Thompson’s interpretation of the role conveyed the musicality of the play as well as the cadences of Gower’s poetry.

 

Such a transformative¬† performance is not unprecedented in theater history, of course. In Kathryn Hunter’s 2005 production at the Globe when Gower’s role was played by Patrice Naiambana as a “chatty, ad-libbing, ululating West African storyteller,” the audience was fully engaged, especially when Naiambana hoisted a few of its members on stage to participate in the action (Bassett 2005). Critics had mixed feelings about the actor’s interpretation: those more accustomed to a staid, conservative portrayal of the poet “attacked the performer and his willingness to extemporize as a boisterous attempt to conceal apologetically what was perceived to be essentially a ‘dull’ play” (Jones 2009). Other critics praised the actor for offering an innovative interpretation of the part that, like Thompson’s years later, would prove exhilarating. Then again, perhaps it was Edric Connor, the first black actor to play the role who set the precedent for such lively, song-filled renditions. In Tony Richardson’s 1958 production the renowned Trinidadian vocalist “played Gower as a calypso singer, singing his story to a group of sailors” (Jones 2009) in a performance that transported the 1950s audience from their theater seats to a turbulent life on the sea. Not only can Connor be credited with ushering in a newly revitalized Gower, but he can also be acknowledged for introducing the traditional songs that quite likely inspired a fellow Trinidadian to follow suit. Like Connor before him, Rudolph Walker sang Gower’s poetry in Caribbean style, this time in David Thacker’s 1990 production at The Pit. Differentiating his interpretation from his predecessor’s, however, Walker emphasized the literary tradition of the story “by clutching a book” and remaining on stage “to remind the audience of his role as storyteller”(Jones 2009). According to one critic, “Walker’s easygoing, corduroy-suited Gower waved last-minute arrivals to their seats before beginning his story. . . [b]ecause of course it is Gower who makes credible that incredible story; it is his authority, confidence, and repeated assurances as to its veracity, with gestures toward the large tome he holds as he tells and shows, that makes it come true before our eyes and ears” (Whitworth 1989). Despite differences in their interpretations, Connor’s and Walker’s performances transposed a story punctuated by harp-playing and the music of the spheres into a tale revivified by calypso rhythms.

In yet another adaptation, this one entitled Children of the Sea, Rawiri Paratene, a native New Zealander, tells Pericles’ adventure from another part of the world, this time not to a group of sailors as in the Connor production, but rather to real-life Sri Lankan children orphaned by a tsunami. When Paratene’s Gower makes his first appearance in a “mist of red smoke” to “sing a song that old was sung,” and begins to point out parallels between Pericles’ challenges at sea and children who had faced similar perils suddenly correspondences between the play and the world begin to emerge (Love 2007). This production, according to one critic, “had current events in mind, Katrina and the Tsunami that hit South Asia in 2004” (Dachel 2006).

Adapting a play to speak to contemporary concerns, as theater has done since its ancient beginnings, is discernible to be sure, but made all-the-more meaningful by the performers who take on the role of Gower. When these actors reinvigorate his voice and express exuberance in the telling of his tale, their performances change perceptions of a poet frozen in the posture of an archer or lying in effigy in a premodern cathedral. When the role is played by non-Anglo actors who sing Gower’s ancient song in another style, the magic of the theater comes alive. At the same time, however, they remind their audiences of a history fraught with tension. Responding to the selection of Patrice Naiambana for the role, for instance, Joanne Tompkins observes that “[t]his was not an example of ‘colour-blind’ casting,” but “rather, this Gower actively reinforced his background and what Europe’s historical engagement with Africa has wrought”(Tompkins 2016). The same may be said for actors of color who talk back to the historical past when they reanimate the voice of a fourteenth-century Anglo poet. Through theatrical imagination and a penchant for forging allusions to present-day events these actors, in their innovations, reconfigure temporality, ethnicity, and cultural difference. The Gowers noted here—Thompson, Naiambana, Connor, Walker, and Paratene—sing a song that reminds audiences even now that imperialist regimes and unexpected natural disasters have the potential to destroy the future. At the same time, these singers of Gower’s song make the envisioning of a future possible, at least for the duration of a play.

Let me end with this: Like actors, academics have a role to play in affecting lasting change whether in our discipline or in the world, through our words, our actions, and our responses to others. As noted on the Medievalists of Color website, we not only “play key roles in the field’s past, present, and future,” but we have the means by which to transform the landscape of that field’s study. For Gower as well as those who have adapted his character and his story, music and poetry have the capacity to unify in ways that would otherwise be impossible to imagine.

https://medievalistsofcolor.com/statements/on-race-and-medieval

References

Jones, Kelly. “‘The Quick and the Dead’: Performing the Poet Gower in Pericles,” in Shakespeare in the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings, ed. Martha Driver and Sid Ray (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009), 201-14.

Bassett, Kate. Review: “Pericles, Shakespeare’s Globe, London,” 11 June 2005.

Love, Genevieve. “Tsunami in the Royal Botanic Garden: Pericles and Children of the Sea on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe,” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation, 2.2 (2007): 1-11.

Dachel, Kimberly. “Review of Pericles, Prince of Tyre and Children of the Sea,Theatre Journal 8.3 (2006): 495-98.

Tompkins, Jane. Theatre’s Heterotopias: Performance and the Cultural Politics of Space (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 26.

Whitworth, Charles. W. Review of Pericles, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/018476789003119