Merrill Denison Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Merrill Denison not only contributed to the emergence of indigenous Canadian drama for the stage but also was involved in the establishment of radio as a medium for drama. On the invitation of the radio department of the Canadian National Railways, Denison wrote a series of radio dramas based on incidents from Canadian history, which were broadcast as the Romance of Canada series in the winter of 1930-1931. He produced a similar series for American radio, entitled Great Moments in History, broadcast during 1932 and 1933. He continued to write original radio dramas and adaptations until 1944. Denison’s historical writing also took the form of company biographies, histories of large corporations that were more than mere self-serving eulogies or lists of directors. The first of these was Harvest Triumphant (1948), about Massey-Harris Company, the farm equipment manufacturer. He also wrote about Canada’s largest brewery in The Barley and the Stream: The Molson Story (1955) and about the Royal Bank, in Canada’s First Bank: A History of the Bank of Montreal (1966-1967). Denison’s major prose works are Boobs in the Woods (1927), a series of comic anecdotes about tourists and residents of the backwoods of Ontario, and Klondike Mike (1943), a biography of the Yukon Gold Rush prospector Michael Ambrose Mahoney. Both books have been praised as essentially accurate accounts freed from the restrictions of factual documentation. Denison also regularly contributed both fiction and nonfiction to newspapers and magazines. His collected papers are housed at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Merrill Denison was the first and most successful of a group of writers in the 1920’s who sought a truly indigenous Canadian dramatic literature. He has been called Canada’s first nationalist dramatist and the founder of modern Canadian drama. This reputation is based on four short comedies and one full-length drama. When these plays were first presented to the public, critics agreed that Denison showed great promise. Edith Isaacs, editor of Theatre Arts Monthly, in reviewing the publication of The Unheroic North, a collection of Denison’s plays, called him a Canadian Eugene O’Neill. Ironically, this praise appeared at the same time Denison was turning his back on the theater and beginning his exploration of radio as a forum for his writing. It was not until 1971, on the fiftieth anniversary of the production of Brothers in Arms, that the Canadian literary community attested unequivocally Denison’s contribution to the evolutionary growth of Canadian literature. Also, it was not until 1974, one year before his death, that his best play, Marsh Hay, received a public performance. Given the small quantity of his contributions to theater and the admittedly flawed nature of his dramatic writing, how can it be that Denison holds such a significant position in the history of Canadian drama?

The answer to that question lies only partly in the barren nature of Canadian dramatic literature before the 1960’s. W. S. Milne, in reviewing The Unheroic...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Fink, Howard. “Beyond Naturalism: Tyrone Guthrie’s Radio Theatre and the Stage Production of Shakespeare.” Theatre History in Canada/Histoire du Théâtre au Canada 2 (Spring, 1981): 19-32. Denison wrote scripts for Tyrone Guthrie when he came to Canada in 1931 to produce radio plays. Guthrie returned to Canada in 1952 to found the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Fink traces the influence of Denison and radio on Guthrie’s staging of Shakespeare’s plays.

Guthrie, Tyrone. A Life in the Theatre. London: Hamilton, 1961. Guthrie’s autobiographical reminiscences cover his time with Denison producing the radio series Romance of Canada in the early 1930’s. Denison wrote all the scripts for that series, and Guthrie remembers that the playwright gradually grew exhausted and drained of new ideas.

Savigny, Mary. Bon Echo: The Denison Years. Toronto: Natural Heritage, 1997. A historical examination of Denison, his mother, and Bon Echo, the backwoods area that was at the heart of Denison’s plays. Includes bibliography and index.

Wagner, Anton. Introduction to Canada’s Lost Plays. Vol. 3 in The Developing Mosaic: English-Canadian Drama to Mid-Century, edited by Anton Wagner. Toronto: Canadian Theatre Review Publications, 1980. Wagner describes the Canadian theatrical scene in the early twentieth century and Denison’s place in it. He says that Denison could have been the Eugene O’Neill of Canada except that he was not connected to a theater troupe, so many of his plays were not produced. This volume contains Denison’s play The Weather Breeder.