Canadian Drama Analysis

The Beginnings to 1900

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Historically, the dominant metaphor in the study of Canadian literature has been Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality,” which he described as an unthinking herd mind that resulted in the suppression of individualism and the maintenance of the cultural status quo. Canadian drama has been particularly vulnerable to this criticism: Its themes for too long concentrated on the struggle of the settler with an intimidating and almost overwhelming natural environment (including the Native peoples) and the struggle of the individual against the formidable powers of conformity or cultural imperialism. Furthermore, Canadian dramatists have often observed the methods of established, mainline American and European playwrights, rather than those of the avant-garde. The explanation for this situation might be found in a pervasive sense of cultural colonialism, the feeling that the theater—whether in text or in performance—is fundamentally an art form that has been developed elsewhere (New York, Paris, London) and is only to be imitated in Canada.

It is generally believed that the earliest stage piece produced in Canada (then New France) was Le Théâtre de Neptune en la Nouvelle France (pr. 1606; The Theater of Neptune, 1927), which was written by Marc Lescarbot to celebrate the return to Port Royal, Nova Scotia, of Sieur de Poutrincourt from a journey of exploration. Unfortunately, this pioneering work seems not to have created any demand for theater, because thirty years passed before there was mention of another play—Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid (pr., pb. 1637; The Cid, 1637). In 1694, an episcopal decree suspended performances of Molière’s Tartuffe: Ou, L’Imposteur (pr. 1664, rev. pr. 1667; Tartuffe, 1732) in Quebec, and both the drama and theater in French Canada remained moribund until the late nineteenth century.

By contrast, the British Canadian authorities encouraged the theater, both literary (Elizabethan and contemporary eighteenth century authors) and popular (farces, topical sketches, and pantomimes). Moreover, long before English-language plays were written in Canada, the country was the subject of Liberty Asserted (pr. 1704), a tragedy by the British literary critic John Dennis. In his play, Dennis treats the French-Iroquois wars, the beneficence of the English, and the consequences of conquest, miscegenation, and cultural pluralism. Notwithstanding his identification of several issues of lasting concern in Canada,...

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1900 to 1967

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The founding of the Hart House Theatre in 1919 brought attention to the plays of Merrill Denison and gave a boost to English-language Canadian playwriting, for a little theater in Toronto and another in Montreal (the Community Players) seemed to offer vastly improved chances of production in major urban centers. These theaters, however, and with them the Drama League Theatre in Ottawa, could not make an exclusive commitment to Canadian drama and remain solvent. Besides, the plays that were written in the 1920’s and 1930’s were mainly one-act pieces, light and “popular” in the pejorative sense; some, such as Marjorie Pickthall’s The Woodcarver’s Wife (pb. 1922), reverted to an earlier mode of verse drama, dealt with tragic love feuds, and used overblown diction.

In some ways an iconoclast, Denison nevertheless made a name for himself with short, ironic plays that explored the accepted mythology of the heroic Northland, national patriotism and sovereignty, and Puritan industry and frugality. His most popular plays were collected in 1923 as The Unheroic North. One of them, Marsh Hay, has been compared in its intensity of mood with Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms (pr. 1924). It depicts the moral decadence of Canada’s isolated communities and questions the premise that the urban environment is the least congenial to nobility, neighborliness, and morality. Within a decade, Denison left Canada for the United States, however, and the stimulus that he helped provide was soon lost, though plays in this realm continued to be written, staged, and published.

Among other plays of the 1920’s, Mazo De la Roche’s four slight comedies, published as Low Life and Other Plays in 1929, reveal a proclivity for farce; Duncan Campbell Scott’s Pierre (pr. 1923), a domestic tragedy set in Quebec, deals with a prodigal’s return and departure with the family savings, even as he is being extolled by his mother; and L. A. MacKay’s The Freedom of Jean Guichet (pr. 1925), offers a melodramatic mélange of characters and themes. In the following decade, Alice Chadwicke gained momentary fame with her 1937 adaptation of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908). All now seem dated and of little permanent cultural value.

Of the more than four hundred plays written between the world wars, fewer than half were ever staged, and of these, perhaps no more than half were ever published in any format. According to Terence Goldie’s analysis of this great mass of theatrical material, the primary thematic interests are the terrain, politics, history, and religious concerns of Canada. Melodrama and comedies prevail, and they are superficially about contemporary society—particularly about the difficulties of romantic affection—but the playwrights devote most of their energies to the manipulation of dramatic devices rather than to the exploration and elucidation of their subjects and themes. Those who seem to have the greatest potential and proficiency concentrate on characteristically Canadian materials. The plays that deal with the terrain are superior to those that deal with politics, and these, in turn, seem superior to the remainder. Because more than four hundred plays were written during these two decades, there is adequate evidence of writers’ interest in dramatic composition and theatrical...

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From 1967 On

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Canada celebrated its centennial year in 1967, the one-hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Dominion of Canada. Buoyed by an effervescence of nationalistic sentiment as well as major increases in funding by governmental cultural agencies, artists in every field experienced an unprecedented demand for—as well as interest in—their work. In drama as elsewhere, 1967 is considered a watershed year that marks the emergence of a distinctly Canadian identity.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, small theater companies such as Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre Lab, Toronto Free Theatre, and Tarragon Theatre made Toronto a hotbed of dramatic production. St. John’s, Newfoundland, spawned the Mummers Troupe and Codco; in the west, Saskatoon’s Twenty-Fifth Street Theatre, Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects, and Edmonton’s Theatre Network were also lively centers featuring new Canadian plays and productions. The much improved theatrical climate saw the emergence of many young and talented playwrights in the years that followed, with women and multicultural writers playing a much more important part than had previously been the case.

This period also saw the emergence of Quebec’s most prominent contemporary dramatist, Michel Tremblay, whose first play, the streetwise tale of Montreal slum life Les Belles-surs (pr. 1968; English translation, 1973), was a popular as well as critical success. Many further dramas of note, including Hosanna (pr. 1973; English translation, 1974), Les Anciennes Odeurs (pr. 1981; Remember Me, 1984), Albertine en cinq temps (pr. 1985; Albertine in Five Times, 1986), and Encore une fois, si vous le permettez (pr. 1998; For the Pleasure of Seeing You Again, 1998), followed. Tremblay’s work has received many international productions, and he is arguably Canada’s best-known, as well as most prodigiously talented, writer for the stage.

Quebec’s Robert Lepage has also made his mark on the international scene as a playwright, producer, actor, and, especially in the 1990’s, film director. His first play, Circulations (pr. 1984; circulations), was primarily written in French but aroused controversy in Quebec because it made substantial use of English in recounting a young woman’s travels through the northeastern United States. To his credit, Lepage has continued to insist that his art requires a multilingual as well as multidisciplinary presentation. Aigulles et l’opium (pr. 1992; Needles and Opium, 1992), which dealt with the attraction that drugs hold for some creative artists, Le Polygraphe (pr. 1987; The Polygraph, 1997), a Hitchcock-like thriller about a murderer who cannot remember his crime, and Les Sept Branches de la rivière Ota (pr. 1996; The Seven Branches of the River Ota, 1996), a spectacular seven-hour homage to the destruction of Hiroshima that has had several United States and European productions, stand out among his many notable accomplishments.

Although English Canada has not produced anyone of either Tremblay’s or Lepage’s stature, its post-1967 theater scene has been an active and productive one. For the first time in the history of the country’s drama, women playwrights were as prominent as their male counterparts: Carol Bolt, Margaret Hollingsworth, Sharon Pollock, and Judith Thompson all embarked on successful careers, and male playwrights such as George F. Walker, David Fennario, Michael Cook, and John Krizanc also made particularly strong impressions during this period.

Bolt scored two early successes with plays that made interesting use of the Canadian past. Gabe (pr. 1973) took the revisionist view that Louis Riel’s struggle for his people’s rights meant little to contemporary Metis youth; Red Emma (pr. 1974) re-created the life of the American anarchist Emma Goldman in fashioning a drama about the relationship between feminism and radical politics. The thriller One Night Stand (pr. 1977), in which a lonely young woman is terrorized by a psychotic drifter, was given a prime-time television production by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and has become one of the country’s most popular plays. Bolt spent most of her subsequent career working with younger dramatists before she passed away in 2000.

Walker has created a notable body of work in which grotesque, surreal, and absurd elements have come to predominate. Earlier plays...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ball, John, and Richard Plant. Bibliography of Theatre History in Canada: The Beginnings Through 1984. Toronto, Ont.: ECW Press, 1993. An exhaustive bibliography of noted playwrights and movements of Canadian theater.

Benson, Eugene, and L. W. Conolly, eds. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre. Toronto, Ont.: Oxford University Press, 1989. This authoritative, accurate, and on the whole indispensable guide is the outstanding work of general reference in the field.

Brask, Per, ed. Contemporary Issues in Canadian Drama. Winnipeg, Man.: Blizzard, 1995. Each of the book’s fifteen essays concentrates on a specific aspect of recent developments in theater, and together they succeed in presenting a remarkably complete overview of their subject.

Rubin, Don, ed. Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings. Toronto, Ont.: Copp Clark, 1996. This most recent, and most useful, collection of original source materials covers developments from the early 1800’s to the 1990’s.

Rudakoff, Judith, and Rita Much. Fair Play: Twelve Women Speak. Toronto, Ont.: Simon & Pierre, 1990. Carol Bolt, Margaret Hollingsworth, and Sharon Pollock are among the dramatists interviewed, while play excerpts, biographies, and bibliographies are also included.

Usmiani, Renate. Second Stage: The Alternative Theatre Movement in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. Usmiani’s once-controversial thesis that 1970’s experimental theater set the tone for subsequent Canadian drama is now the standard view, and her book also abounds with insightful analyses of important productions.

Wagner, A., ed. Establishing Our Boundaries: English-Canadian Theatre Criticism. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1999. A collection of scholarly essays on the country’s drama critics that ranges from 1829 to 1998, thus filling a major gap in Canadian theater history.