The Beginnings to 1900
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, however, Dennis’s work appears to have had no discernible effect in the stimulation of playwriting in the country. In fact, for more than 150 years no play or dramatist of note appeared.
In the nineteenth century, in contrast, plays seemed to be as common as volumes of poems. Despite their number, however, only a few Canadian plays of the nineteenth century had any lasting interest or true merit. Many were closet dramas; some were intended for theater production but were neither staged nor published; a few enjoyed brief runs. In the tradition of the era, many plays incorporated songs for diversion; most contained political subject matter or allusions—often local or regional—that restricted their interest. Such is The Female Consistory of Brockville (pb. 1856), by the pseudonymous Caroli Candidus; the play centers on the efforts of the female members of a Presbyterian congregation to bring about the dismissal of their pastor. Another is Nicholas Flood Davin’s The Fair Grit (pr. 1876), built around the dilemma of lovers thwarted by the political affiliations of their parents. Somewhat more imaginative is Thomas Bush’s Santiago (pr. 1866), which explores the evil that pervades a South American country and in the process uses songs, Elizabethan and biblical language, grand melodrama, divine intervention, and exotic scenes and characters. Clearly, it is more a potpourri than a play.
Of a somewhat different character is W. H. Fuller’s H.M.S. Parliament , popular immediately upon its performance in 1880 and for many years...
(The entire section is 4,536 words.)