Image credit Kirsten McTernan(4 / 5)
“When each of you in this room were born, there were 6,000 languages spoken on the planet. Now, a language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities”.
So says my friend Wade Davis in a TED speech in Monterey in 2003.
This premise is largely what drives the excellent Theatr Gwalia’s “Inheriting Gods” that has now finished its short run at Chapter in Cardiff.
Writer C.M. Stephens links the Wampanoag language to the Welsh by interacting a Valleys tourist Rhiannon, and an indigenous descendant, English name Shaw, within a Cape Cod setting. Once they sort out their national identity, they find that they have an awful lot in common. In finding out about each other’s language and culture, they reach a state of transcendence where they discover their own.
Playwright C. M. Stephens
Both my paternal and maternal lines originate in Somerset. My Barrington line found themselves in Brecon in the 1870’s and remained for the next one hundred and twenty five years. Why Brecon? Well my great great grandmother, was a typical female Welsh export at this time, a servant in Weston Super Mare. She came from Llanspyddid outside Brecon and this obviously prompted their emigration. My mother’s family landed up in Cardiff in the 1890’s.
Inevitably, both families married Welsh folk so I have the usual Davies, Williams and Powell lines on my family tree. When examining the 1901 Census, my great grandfather, James Davies is recorded as a Welsh speaker., but like so many families, this was not passed down to his children. Brecon, being located close to the English border is not a particularly Welsh speaking town and despite learning the language in school for many years without distinction, I now know only a basic number of Welsh words, but am unable to string sentences together. This mirrors Rhiannon in the story.
Shaw a descendant of the indigenous people has been Americanised. Cape Cod, where most of the action takes place has a large Wampanoag settlement at Mashpee. Other reservations are found on Martha’s Vineyard. In fact, each year, a powwow takes place, a weekend of dancing, drumming and musical performances celebrating the People of the First Light. This year, the three day festival starts on 6th July. I guess it is the Wampanoag equivalent of our Eisteddfod.
The Wampanoag language is unusual in that it was, at one time extinct, but has been revived since the 1990’s. Even more so than Welsh, it struggles to survive being immersed within the English speaking communities. Also, like Welsh, it has its own varied culture and way of life.
The play touches upon many subjects besides language loss. The Wampanoag were the people who greeted the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock on November 11th 1620. Ms Medway-Stephens makes the point that I used to debate with my Chinese students in their American Literature class when studying William Bradford’s controversial contemporary account. The point being that each year American’s celebrate the fact that the good earth provides nourishment on Thanksgiving Day, whilst simultaneously and mostly unintentionally, wiping the faces of the indigenous people’s whose land they stole in the same soil.
Of course there is a common denominator in that both races were exploited by the dreaded English, another point the writer is anxious to make. To be fair to our neighbours over the other side of Offa’s Dyke, it as not only the English who colonised America, as the ill-fated Darien Scheme instigated by the King of Scotland clearly shows. I’m sure us Welsh did our bit – well Patagonia springs to mind.
The name Rhiannon, the Horse Goddess of that great work of Welsh literature, the Mabinogion is also brought into the narrative. There is also much attention paid to Shaw’s anglicised name.
Then there are the Welsh politicians who went on hunger strike to successfully plead the case of having a Welsh language television station.
The burning question to be addressed may be an uncomfortable one for us Anglo-Welsh. That is, how Welsh can you actually be without speaking the language of your nation; without reading its literary heritage in its mother-tongue; without singing the beautiful songs that have been passed down over the ages?
If there is a more important Welsh play in the English language written in this or any other year, I would very much like to see it.
My only criticism is that I feel it is under-developed as it stands. Lasting only sixty five minutes, the issues and others not mentioned here, don’t get sufficient time to be explored fully. I recall seeing Robert Lepage’s seminal play, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota” in both it’s workshop production and its triumphant seven and a half hour epic presentation at the National Theatre a couple of years later. I can see “Inheriting Gods” developing in a similar way. By having twenty to thirty minute vignettes exploring the issues referred to for both the Welsh and Wampanoag themes bound together by the central premise.
The two characters played by Saran Morgan and Charlie Jobe are both likeable. Scenes are divided by videos and photographs of both Cape Cod and Wales. Accompanied by an assortment of songs in both English and Welsh, I think this worked really well. The set seems to be some kind of stockade, although it may represent the reservation or even the traditional architecture of Wampanoag huts.
The play has now ended its short run, but I hope to see it re-emerge, perhaps somewhere along the lines I have suggested here.
Finally, to slightly change one of the central anthropological questions, what it is to be human and alive. Carmen Medway-Stephens poses the question, what it is to be Welsh and alive.
More information about the Wampanoag People
culturalsurvival.org-Awakening a Sleeping Language on Cape Cod The Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project