The Poem in Performance

One of the most notable points about The Plains of Abraham is that it is epic in performance. When presented to an audience, this epic is no more a text than a play is a script. The poem's structure, language, meter, and content have all been carefully selected to engage the audience in the tale as it is being told.

Nevertheless, preparation and even composition are secondary to performance. Why the term "performance"? The word is appropriate in more than one way. On the one hand, The Plains of Abraham is like one-man theatre, with the rhapsode (epic performer) impersonating various characters and speaking for them in the first person. So "performance" fits there. On the other hand, about half of the poem is direct narrative, with the rhapsode describing events as they unfold. Here it is the past itself which is reactivated, brought back (briefly) from oblivion; history becomes the act of the performer. So "performance" also suits the deed of commemoration.


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Like soccer, performative epic doesn't require a lot of equipment; since the audience doesn't even have to buy a book, it is almost economical. The rhapsode (the ancient Greek term for an epic poet) generally wears nice but not-too-funky clothes, shaves, deodorizes, and wields a rhabdos. The rhabdos is the only piece of equipment used in the show.

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What is a rhabdos? The Greek word means "staff" or "wand," and was taken (probably not correctly) in antiquity to be a derivitive of rhapto, "to stitch or weave" (whence "rhapsode," "song-stitcher"). You can see rhabdoi in the vase picture on the left, wielded by rhapsodes. Apparently rhapsodes always performed holding these sticks. The Plains of Abraham version graces this website (the stick to the left of the menu at top-right); like the rhabdoi in the vase picture, it is about four feet tall, reaching above the performer's waist-level.

The Plains of Abraham was initially performed without a rhabdos, for example on Rhapsodic Tour 2000. As with many ancient elements in the poem, however, the subsequent inclusion of a rhabdos was not a nostalgic move. Rather, it became apparent that gesturing with both hands looked and felt too histrionic. What to do? Obviously one can't keep a hand in one's pocket, or hitched to one's belt, for an hour. To the rescue: the rhabdos, ideal for securing one hand while the other is busy gesturing. Sometimes it can be useful as a "prop": Wolfe, for example, habitually carried a cane in battle, and so the impersonation of Wolfe benefits from having a "cane" on hand.


The "instruments" of performative epic are naturally the performer's voice and gestures, appealing to the ear and the eye of the spectator.

In terms of voice, The Plains of Abraham takes advantage of two styles of intonation. First, there is the ordinary tone of regular speech, pronounced as distinctly and naturally as possible. This first style is used for the "acting out" of speeches by the characters in the poem. Second, there is a slightly artificial style of intonation, in which six syllables in the sixteen-syllable line are given greater clarity and weight (they were formerly "sung," i.e. almost chanted, but this was felt to be distracting). This second style serves to establish the remoteness of the events described by mildly hypnotizing the audience (see the remarks on this in the meter section of the page describing the poem itself). It is used for the narrative segments of the poem, with the exception of the similes, which take the ordinary tone of voice usually reserved for characters' speeches. The purpose of distinguishing mimetic speech from narration through tonal style is to make it easy for the audience to perceive when the performer is acting as the narrator and when he is impersonating a character. Likewise, the similes are distinguished from regular narration by their being delivered in an ordinary tone of voice in order to mark them off as special asides by the performer.


In terms of gesture, there are again two factors: firstly, the rhabdos (held in the left hand), and, secondly, the right hand (left free to gesture). With respect to the rhabdos, just as "narrator" and "character" segments are distinguished by style of intonation, so too the rhabdos generally remains fixed when the "narrator" is narrating, and is put aside when a "character" speaks. For the similes, the rhabdos is lowered to the horizontal, signaling the interruption of narrative, though it remains in the performer's hands. The three formats are illustrated below: the rhabdos is upright for narration (left), held horizontally for similes (centre), and put aside for the impersonation of character (right).

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With respect to the gesture of the right arm and right hand, generally a movement from right to left or left to right follows the unfolding of the line, with the odd flourish or gesture of lament along the way; the complete effect amounts to a sort of super-restrained dance to the rhythm of the verse.