by Frances Edstrom
Full disclosure: I am a member of the board of directors of the Great River Shakespeare Festival. I love the plays and events put on by GRSF, and I applaud the efforts of the Festival and other festivals, events and museums to draw people to Winona.
The word “phobia” has worked its way into the vernacular to mean much less an irrational fear, as it is used in clinical psychology, and more something we don’t like or approve.
On this opinion page today is a letter from Richie Swanson on the general topic of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, in which he rails against the use of the word “phobic” by the GRSF’s General Manager, whom he does not name, but whose name is Lee Gundersheimer. Gundersheimer was reacting to a Frozen River Film Festival presentation of a film on Shakespeare, and its efforts to explain to us that the Bard’s message is universal.
Most of us were first introduced to Shakespeare in high school, when we were probably made to read “Romeo and Juliet,” because it is about young people and educators think kids will like it. If it isn’t presented skillfully by the teacher, a healthy reaction by many kids is, “What the heck is this guy talking about?”
Unfortunately in our country, after high school, literature, drama, art, and music don’t come to us, we have to seek them out, and many of us had such a bad experience in school we just don’t have the will to do so.
Bottom line: there are a lot of people who will tell you, “I don’t like Shakespeare.”
I’m not here to convince you to like Shakespeare, but I can promise you that if you see it performed at GRSF, without ruffles and tights and English accents, you will enjoy it.
I do want to clear up some questions raised by Swanson’s letter, however.
He implies that GRSF is funded by the city of Winona. It is not. It is funded solely through a few private and public grants that are open to arts organizations, and mostly through donations from generous people from the Winona area.
He says Shakespeare plays are “all-male, all-white, all-British, and one-author-only-center-stage in source.” GRSF is not all-male, all-white, all-British, and produces plays that are not by Shakespeare. This year, GRSF is doing a Tom Stoppard play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” in addition to “Hamlet,” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Swanson also writes, “Consider the Winona story celebrated by the male European sculpture in Windom Park.” The Wenonah statue in Windom was sculpted by Isabel Moore Kimball, commissioned by W.J. Landon in memory of his wife, Ida Cone Landon. The model for the sculpture’s facial features was an Abenaki woman, Beulah Tahamont. The sculpture, the centerpiece of a fountain, includes the pelicans and turtles that make it a fountain.
The final charge levied against Swanson is that, “There are many inaccuracies in the written accounts of the Dakota people… GRSF has sent Winona’s culture reeling backward in this regard.
This means, I think, that Swanson thinks that by preserving European roots and culture, it is impossible to accept the validity of other cultures. I do not agree. We can learn from all cultures, including the Dakota and the English. Even Shakespeare borrowed heavily from other writers in languages other than English, and the early Greeks and Romans. Perhaps had he had access to written Dakota legends, he would have borrowed from Wenonah and Wapasha, as well.