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Current Issue: #223 Agency & Affect (Winter 2014)

Canadian Literature's Issue 223 (Winter 2014), Agency & Affect, is now available. The issue features articles by Ranbir K. Banwait, Paul Huebener, Lisa Marchi, Veronica Austen, and Andrea Beverley, as well as an interview with Laurence Hill by Kerry Lappin-Fortin, along with new Canadian poetry and book reviews.

Designing History

  • Aviva Ravel (Author)
    Canadian Mosaic II. Simon and Pierre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Ann Saddlemyer (Author) and Richard Plant (Author)
    Later Stages: Essays in Ontario Theatre from the First World War to the 1970s. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Kym Bird

Later Stages is a scholarly reconstruction of theatrical activity in Ontario that was ten years in the making and the long-anticipated companion to Early Stages. In what functions as a postscript to the work, Heather McCallum’s "Resources for Theatre History" states, "there is a very great need for well-researched, published accounts of Canadian theatre history to satisfy and stimulate further the growing interest in this aspect of our cultural life." Hie monumental contribution made by this text and the copious notes which accompany it go a long way toward doing just that. Like its predecessor, it is the first detailed overview of theatre in its period and although, as its editors admit, much remains to be done in the way of integrating into this narrative the theatre of non-English, immigrant communities—the tendency to write an all-white, all-male history is perhaps most obvious in Alexander Leggatt’s chapter on "Plays and Playwrights" where women and minority contributions to the stage are relegated to a few final paragaraphs—Later Stages lays very significant groundwork.

In an age that is dominated by theories and theorizing, one is left with the impression that the authors of Later Stages would like to be regarded as pure empiricists and storytellers, eschewing interested critical approaches that result from such theories, and in their place offering facts—dates, times, places, and practioners—of theatre activity. As Richard Plant and Ann Saddlemyer see it, the pattern which draws these essays together is the image of a wheel, representing "continuity and change, constancy and fluidity" in the reconstruction of theatrical history which has finally come to embrace a past if not forgotten, at least displaced.

The story implicit in this text is of an art form dependent on European models that becomes genuinely indigenous. Robert Scott’s opening chapter on "Professional Performers and Companies" traces the heyday and decline of British and American touring shows as they give way to a national, patriotic theatre during the Great War, the appropriation of live theatrical space by movies, and the demise of resident stock companies. David Gardener follows some of the same theatrical trails, but his generic focus on "variety" goes much beyond the traditional boundaries of theatrical history to include neglected and popular tiicatrical forms: circus, medicine and minstrel shows, vaudeville, cabaret, and pageants, many of which were performed and produced by Canadians. Ross Stuart suggests that the domestic summer theatres of the Muskokas and the Straw Hat Players were quashed by the British-inspired Shakespeare and Shaw festivals, only to be revitalized in the 60s and 70s with the founding of many non-profit theatres including the all-Canadian Blyth Festival. In partnership with wife Ann, Stuart’s overview of university theatre describes an English tradition of campus theatricals transformed by the likes of Vincent Massey, Dora Mavor Moore, Robert Gill, Robertson Davies, and Herman Voaden, whose interest in homegrown plays came to define early and mid-century theatre. Martha Mann and Rex Southgate begin their chapter on "amateur theatre" with the abundance of early-century groups that used the stage to raise money. The 1920s saw the development of the Little Theatre movement, the Worker’s Theatre, and its successor the Theatre of Action; the greatest stimulus to an indigenous amateur theatre of course was the Dominion Drama Festival. In Eric Binnie’s discussion of theatrical design, European scenery gave way to Canadian representations such as those done for Hart House by the Group of Seven and, later, the locally inspired stage compositions of Stratford, Shaw, St. Lawrence and National Arts Centre artists, which attracted international attention. Even in the arena of theatrical criticism, Anthony Stephenson describes a discourse that was largely in the hands of transplanted Brits and Americans, prior to the rise of dedicated periodicals in the 1960s and 1970s.

If the nascent transition from colonial to post-colonial theatre implicit in this narrative omits the cultural contributions of the multicultural minority and the tensions between this minority and the dominant "Anglo" majority, it is these histories, in various provinces, that are represented in Aviva Ravel’s second collection of six contemporary plays Canadian Mosaic II. Appropriately, the volume opens with a play about one of Canada’s most pressing colonial struggles, that between the French and the English. Marie-Lynn Hammond’s Beautiful Deeds I De Beaux Gestes is a wonderfully musical piece whose oscillation between the monologues of two grandmothers reveals less their cultural differences than their similarities of gender, generation and geography. The optimism of Hammond’s piece is offset by several other plays that express the underside of tensions between the "Anglo" and the "other": various forms of racism, cultural confusion, betrayal, illegitimacy, displacement, and economic deprivation. Mary Chan’s Mom, Dad, I’m Living With a White Girl stages the complex of issues that adhere to the second-generation Canadian. An alternative world constructed out of western stereotypes of the Chinese as a "yellow peril" who plot to take over the planet reverses the real-world racism of Mark’s traditional Chinese parents who cannot accept the influences of "white culture" or his "white" girl friend (a designation that masks her Dutch roots). Aviva Ravel’s own Gently Down the Stream is a theatrical two-hander in which a pair of old Jewish men on a park bench recount the story of their immigration and poverty as they sit powerless to aid the dead man shot before them. The absurdity of the situation makes a severe comment indeed on a society whose lack of human compassion has alienated the men and immobilized them with fear. Ray Towle’s realist play The Golden Door represents a family under siege during the Japanese internment. The confiscation of their property, the gestapo-style raid on their house, and subsequent deportation stages the brutal institutionalization of a long-standing anti-Japanese sentiment in Canada. Through the first-generation son we experience the tangle of emotions suffered by Canadians betrayed by their state and turned into "enemy aliens."

Like the Sun by Veralyn Warkentin and Dirk Mdean’s The House on Hermitage Road remind us that significant aspects of Canada’s past reside elsewhere. The first of these, a frame play, sees a young girl writing a school project on the Irish famine and presenting it to her grandmother, who in turn tells the anecdotal tales that corroborate the project and transport us into that desperate time when her own grandmother left Ireland, her husband and girls, to save her dying son. Mclean’s radio play uses a narrator to situate the drama of his cleft childhood in 1960s Port of Spain when his mother departs to begin a more auspicious life abroad. The situations which initiate immigration are entirely different, but both plays depict the pain of separation, divided families, lost opportunities, sickness, anxiety, loneliness and death that have characterized so many, similar partings and have become the yoke of the great displacement that characterizes our multifarious pasts.

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MLA: Bird, Kym. Designing History. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 3 Sept. 2015.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 170 - 172)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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